Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Trying to hold back the rage

Our Maddy of the Sorrows:
"Meanwhile, among British Muslims it is commonplace to draw analogies with the rise of anti-semitism in Germany in the 30s: how cultural racism legitimises persecution and, ultimately, violence. Even the idea that there is no community with a more vested interest in promoting Holocaust education than Muslims is spreading - what happened in Europe in the 40s could happen again, and they will be the victims this time. This kind of apocalyptic gloom is interspersed with fantasies of flight - where shall we move to?"
It isn't just commonplace amongst British Muslims - the moonbat left in this country and the Ba'athist regime in Syria appear to share this analysis. Our Maddy goes on to explain why It's All Your Fault. Really hate to intrude on this angst-fest but can I ask a couple of historical questions that might be salient? Was Julius Streicher forced to relinquish his editorial position? Did the National Socialist regime publicly regret the publication of anti-Semitic cartoons? Where were the demonstrations calling for the enemies of Judaism to be beheaded? Where are the equivalent of the Nuremburg Laws in Europe today? Banning of headscarves? Don't make me vomit. Actually, there's really only one question I want to ask: why aren't people ashamed to make this comparison?

Which brings me to Michael Burleigh's piece in the Telegraph last week. Norman Geras' treatment of it is here and I don't have much to add except to emphasise the feeling that there's something profoundly pernicious in this notion of a 'Holocaust industry'. The implication is this is a focus that is being deliberately, and unjustifiably, manufactured. But there's a contradiction at the heart of this effort to diminish, sorry, contexualise the Holocaust: it is not denied, merely insisted that it was not unique, indeed some go as far as to suggest it wasn't even unusual; there were many 'holocausts', and 'genocides' are ten-a-penny these days. The effect is to make the memory of the real Holocaust lighter than air, when it should still be heavy - but is the unseemly and frankly sickening clamour to share in the language of the Shoah not indicative of how very unusual, evil, unique it was?

Monday, February 27, 2006

Marriage, intelligence and insanity

Chris Dillow, surely one of the most original bloggers around, has an interesting piece drawn from the Sunday Times, which purports to show (pdf) that the IQ of men at age 11 positively correlates with the probability of marriage in later life.

Being accustomed to thinking of insanity being positively related to marriage, I was initially sceptical - until I remembered reading somewhere that mental illness and intelligence were positively correlated too.

Can't say I recognised much from my own experience from the research - one notable omission was any mention of divorce and remarriage in this study - so here's some unscientific, positively subjective observations of my own:

If you have been married for over ten years, and especially if you've produced sproglets who have avoided prison, I have no hesitation in declaring you a genius, a genuine virtuoso of human relationships. How you've managed to survive without either killing your spouse or killing yourself is beyond me and I tip my hat to you.

Yet the study said nothing of divorce. How intelligent is it to do it once, fail and come back for more? For instance, one woman told me she'd been married seven times: "Does that sound a lot?", she asked. "It is a lot", I replied. A bit rude I dare say, but in the back of my mind was the thought: "After about number three or four, didn't it occur to you that this wasn't your thang?" I shouldn't mock; I'd even be prepared to give it a second shot. How intelligent is that? By past form, I'd have to say - not very.

Regardless of intelligence, birth-weight, height and social class, I fear our friends who have focused on economics at a vunerable age have a huge disadvantage. "We assume people are rational". Oh do you really? Now, I have to ask you, what chance of traversing the minefield of human relationships does anyone have with that kind of attitude?

Galloway: the madness continues

It's getting a bit like Elephant Man or something; it's probably wrong to stare but a sort of horrified fascination compels you. His latest recorded outburst of insanity is unworthy of rational disagreement but I was thinking about one of his vintage lunacies the other day, for some reason.

Remember when he spoke of Saddam having a "Zen-like calm"? I was thinking about how unstreetwise this shows the 'streetfighter' to be. I've met a few people who have this 'Zen-like calm' in Glasgow. It's always been a chilling experience because the calm stems from the fact that they're complete and utter fucking psychos: they have this eerie stillness because they know their willingness to use extreme violence outstrips their opponents to such a degree as to render them insignificant and therefore harmless. They're not so calm in the small hours when the demons come, but that's another story.

It's a commonplace observation here in the second city of the Empire, and was captured well in this otherwise only fair book by William McIlvanney (ach, buy a copy why don't you? It's only a penny.) It seems 'Zen-like' simply because the almost imperceptible indicators of social awkwardness, apprehension, feeling for one's status within the group that most people give off are completely absent with these.

You'd think Galloway would know this having been an MP for Glasgow for so long. But he wasn't born here, he's no streetfighter and he sure ain't no Glasgow-boy. The man's a pussy - that's a fact.

On the psycho theme, I'm beginning to wonder what the point of the trials of people like Saddam Hussein and Milosevic is. Don't they just show this kind are absolutely incapable of functioning in any social environment where they don't get to be little gods? That might be worthwhile in itself, were it not for the fact that some people just don't seem to be able to recognise what they are seeing.

Something no one cares about

Can be found here.

Why is that?

Via: Simply Jews

Saddam 'calls off hunger strike'

From the beeb:
"Saddam Hussein has ended an 11-day hunger strike for "health reasons", his chief lawyer has said.

Khalil al-Dulaimi said his client had lost 4-5kg (9-11lbs), but that his morale was high."

Translation: fuck this marytrdom shit; get me a cheeseburger.

Political system faces 'meltdown'

From the beeb:
"Britain's political system is in danger of "meltdown" if major changes are not made, an independent report says.

The Power Inquiry, chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy, says voters feel they have little influence over decisions affecting their lives.

The inquiry's Power to the People report calls for a shift in control from ministers to parliament, and from central to local government.

State funding of political parties and a voting age of 16 are also suggested."
Hmmm, now shifting power from the executive to Parliament and from central to local government are like motherhood and apple-pie: who would disagree? But whether it would have the regenerating effect that the report implies, I'm sceptical.

The report argues that people turn out to events like Live8 and antiwar marches and so on because there is some sort of untapped desire to participate in politics that the party system isn't harnessing. But this doesn't explain why all forms of civic participation are declining: membership and participation in friendly societies, clubs, churches, charities, and trade unions are also in decline, yet every time there's a demonstration, it seems new records are broken.

It can't be the case that all civic institutions have somehow ceased to function properly - and some of the measures often cited as increasing participation have already been tried in Scotland and they don't work. Power has been devolved from Westminster to Holyrood, which is elected on PR. The result? Turnout is lower than in Westminster elections. Rather those political scientists who have observed this across the board decline in participation often argue that it is the rise in individualism that has done for trade unions, political parties and so on.

The increase in participation in single-issue causes should be understood in this context: many people feel unable to associate themselves with the political programme of a party but do feel able to march on a single-issue campaign because apart from agreeing with the objective, no further compromise is necessary.

Which is not to say that some of the measures outlined in the report wouldn't be welcome - they are sensible and democratic - but can we nail this ridiculous idea that the voting age should be reduced to sixteen? All the evidence suggests that the younger you are, the less likely you are to participate in elections so enfranchising sixteen and seventeen-year olds would be likely to reduce average turnout.

And although you might reasonably think I would say this, I really don't agree with those who claim participation in the antiwar marches is indicative of political maturity. A whole lot of kids at my school bunked-off to go on the march the day the war started. But how many could have found Iraq on a map? Or told you what countries share a border with Iraq? (My own unscientific straw-poll conducted at the time would suggest precisely none.)

One of the deep-thinkers who absented himself from classes that day informed me that in his considered opinion he didn't think, "There should be a war", on the grounds that "it's pure gay".

Now while I'm happy to concede that there were a couple of good arguments against the invasion of Iraq, I have to insist you accept that it being "pure gay" was not one of them.

Why did they bunk off? Because they could, that's why.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Pro-animal testing demonstration

This was in support for a new research laboratory in Oxford that will use animal testing. Two Oxford academics have risked the wrath of the animal rights extremists by publicly backing the project.

You can find a picture of the demo here - along with an article by Niki Shisler.

Way to go people! I'm sick to death of these gerbil-loving, life-denying, ALF freaks.

Beckham left baffled by Brooklyn's homework


And he suspects that rising standards are the problem:
"'Their homework is so hard these days,' he told The Mail on Sunday's Live magazine.
He also cited different teaching methods in his analysis:

"It's totally done differently to what I was teached when I was at school, and you know, I was like, 'Oh my God, I can't do this'."

It's easy to slag Beckham, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth doing... No, it's easy to slag Beckham but I've always thought it's a bit unfair. I mean, so what if he's a bit of a thicko? No one expects Richard Dawkins to be able to take free-kicks, do they?

I also suspect it's bad for education because it just draws attention to the fact that you can earn oodles of cash, get the girl etc without being able to string two coherent sentences together. It may be the exception rather than the rule but you try explaining that to a class of fourteen-year olds.

Officer wanted McKie "paid-off"

According to the Sunday Herald:
"THE police officer in charge of the Marion Ross murder investigation wanted Shirley McKie paid off and "gagged" by the Scottish Executive...

Documents seen by the Sunday Herald show that detective superintendent Stephen Heath raised in January the prospect of ministers giving McKie 'sufficient compensation' to stop her legal case going ahead and placing a 'gagging order' on her."
This is on top of the revelation a few days ago that convicted murderer Patrick Docherty had claimed responsibility for the killing. The Herald's correspondent writes that the documents "provide the first insight into the desperation that exists in the police for the controversy to be settled and buried."

I was going to say that it's unlikely that the Executive's strategy of putting its fingers in their ears and going, "La, la, la - we can't hear you" will work - but now I'm not sure. Never underestimate the ability of our political class to close ranks and pretend something isn't happening. The Lord Advocate said:
"It does not follow that because Ms McKie was acquitted that those who gave evidence against her must be guilty of perjury."
Well, no - not necessarily but if they didn't perjure themselves, the explanation of how they arrived at their conclusions in the Marion Ross case is still outstanding and if Cathy Jamieson was serious when she said, "I am determined that Scotland's fingerprint service should be recognised as world class", she should realise that this confusion and whiff of conspiracy is likely to thwart any ambitions she may have for the international reputation of Scottish criminal justice.

Faith schools ‘insane’, says Catholic writer

From the Sunday Herald:
"Award-winning Scottish screenwriter Paul Laverty, whose credits include Carla’s Song and My Name Is Joe, has called separate faith schools 'insane'.

Laverty, himself a Catholic, delivered his stinging criticism last week in a message to the audience of a special screening of his controversial 2004 film Ae Fond Kiss, screened as part of a week of diversity events at the University of Glasgow.

"My question is very simple. Should priests and bishops have so much influence in a school supported 100% by the taxpayer? And, by implication, should religious figures of any denomination have so much influence in any school?."

Laverty told his own story of separate education in Wigtown in the 1960s. "The population wasn’t big enough to support two schools," he said. "This problem was solved by placing all the Catholic children inside one classroom with one Catholic teacher, inside the bigger 'Protestant' school. We even had separate playtimes.

"'Us' and 'them' was ingrained in our consciousness from day one. This is insane, especially when funded by the state … if it seems mad in a tiny village, how much more so in a sectarian city?” Laverty called for children of all faiths to be educated together."
Peter Kearney, spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland, did not find the argument persuasive:
"There is a sectarian problem in Scotland, but it is facile to lay the blame for that at the doors of Scotland’s schools."
Yeah, the fact that you can meet people in the 21st century who didn't interact with anyone from across the confessional divide until they were sixteen has had absolutely no effect on Scotland's sectarian problem. Paul Laverty asked:
"We have more than enough division to heal without creating more. Is joint playtime, irrespective of creed or colour, really beyond us?"
We live in a country where the teachers in 'shared campuses' in North Lanarkshire want toilets for staff to be divided on religious grounds so I'm afraid it probably is.

The Da Vinci case: literature on trial

From the Observer:
"Nothing less than the future of Western literature is at stake in the High Court tomorrow. Or so the publisher of The Da Vinci Code, the money-spinning blockbuster by Dan Brown, is expected to argue in a ground-breaking trial.

Brown, whose tale of clerical conspiracy and murder has become the bestselling hardback adult novel of all time, is accused of plundering his plot from a non-fiction work called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail

Historians Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, who co-wrote the book with Henry Lincoln, claim that Brown plagiarised 'the whole jigsaw puzzle' of their decade's worth of research - that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had a child, founding a bloodline that was protected by the Knights Templar."
Which is not to say that The Da Vinci Code is great literature, only that if this action is successful, it would have much wider implications than those for Dan Brown and Random House. As the lawyers for Dan Brown are expected to point out, all of Shakespeare's plays - with the exception of A Midsummer's Night Dream - have been based on stories lifted from other stories and historically, literature has borrowed generously from history, myth and legend to form the backbone of a story.

I hope Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh lose. Their crappy conspiracy tale gained more attention than it deserved at the time Holy Blood, Holy Grail was published and now it has, with all the new publicity, experienced something of a renaissance - selling a further two million copies. The irony, as the article points out, is that by bringing the case at all, they are effectively admitting that their book is not history, since an authentic historical discovery can't be copyrighted. Rationally you might expect this understanding could damage the sales of their book - but it hasn't, so they should consider themselves fortunate and not be so bloody greedy.

The words you use most

On your blog can be seen wallpaper-style if you follow the link I found here.

I'd have to say though that I'd advise you not to, especially if you've had a couple of drinks; I clicked the wrong button and I think I've ordered a T-shirt, or possibly a Volvo, by mistake.

Anyway, here's what it came up with from mine.

What's Aaronovitch doing on it, I want to know? I've only mentioned him about twice...

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Happiness

From the Scotsman:
"Their overwhelming size and power advantage suggests England need only turn up at Murrayfield this evening. The bookmakers agree, with one installing the Auld Enemy as 7-1 on favourites to claim their sixth successive Calcutta Cup victory."
Ha!

Thursday, February 23, 2006

People losing their damn minds #9

If the reports from Mark Bolland are true, our Chuck has clearly plunged into the deep-end and lost his goddam mind.

I'm a republican in theory but have long suspected that if we Brits ever ditched the monarchy, we'd end up with Richard Branson or some other twat as President and we'd all complain about it, failing to realise that this is because we have been confronted with the fruit of our own stupidity as a country.

But Chuckles has this habit of making you cast your reservations aside. You're the heir to the throne, with nothing to do except to wait to take up the only job by virtue of your birth that you are qualified for.

You'd think that in this excrutiating waiting that makes you jealous of Gordon Brown you might make use of your copious free time to brush up on what is expected of a constitutional monarch - maybe read Bagehot or something. Not Charles apparently. On being told that his public meanderings into the world of organic farming had implications for the government's policy in relation to the EU, Charles was supposed to have said, "So?"

And what about that painfully bad interview he did with Jonathon Dimbleby where he said his divorce from Diana wasn't anyone else's business? Er, you're the heir to the throne and the titular head of the Church of England so I'm afraid it really is other people's business. If you think this is ridiculous, I'd agree - so why don't you abdicate? Better that than losing your damn mind imagining you're a 'political dissident'.

What use are these 'aides to the Royals' anyway? Never mind the Royal Yacht Britannia - how much do these idiots cost the British tax-payer? Why all the fuss about a goddam boat? At least it works, which is more than can be said for all of these 'Royal advisors'. They're not much use if they can't impress the point on our Charles that any attempt to combine the roles of 'political dissident' and heir to the British throne is surely a sign that you've went done gone lost your damn mind.

Fukuyama on neoconservatism

Francis Fukuyama writes in the Guardian that, "Neoconservatism has evolved into something I can no longer support". Despite accusations to the contrary, I don't believe in neoconservatism so I have no interest in defending it and Fukuyama's piece contains some commonplace criticism of neoconnery that I'd imagine no-one who isn't Irving Kristol would disagree with. And apart from those who have proved themselves unable to discern a difference between neoconservatism and Kissinger realpolitik, most people would agree that a return to an isolationist version of the latter would be on balance undesirable.

But in general, it's a rather confused piece that makes points that are either ahistorical and/or don't make any sense. For instance, he argues that the understanding of the lack of democracy to be a 'root cause' of terrorism led to a fatal misunderstanding of the insurgency in Iraq:
"First, it seems to have created an expectation that all totalitarian regimes were hollow and would crumble with a small push from outside. This helps explain the Bush administration's failure to plan adequately for the insurgency that emerged."
No sensible person now disputes that the Bush Administration's postwar strategy has been characterised by gross incompetence rooted in a fundamental planning failure, but how Fukuyama links this to their understanding of 'totalitarian regimes' is beyond me. If anything, the opposite was the case: the expectation that the Ba'athist 'totalitarian regime' was 'hollow' was more accurate than anyone anticipated. People seem to have forgotten that Saddam's regime caved-in faster than the Taliban, simply for want of anyone to fight for it. Fukuyama seems to be linking the insurgency with some kind of identification with the previous 'totalitarian' order whereas surely the very strength of it is testimony to the truth of the analysis that supporting secular tyrants to contain political Islam is counter-productive.

Fukuyama is far too dismissive of political democracy and its historical importance in bring political stability to peoples and nations - strange given that he fundamentally retains the view that the world on balance benefits from the presence of the American model - which is nothing if not democratic.

The other thing I don't get in this piece is what "realistic Wilsonianism" is supposed to be about. What would make "Wilsonianism" more "realistic" for Fukuyama? A willingness to use guns, one suspects. But what was it about the historic Wilsonianism without guns that makes him think this is some model we can work with? Has he heard of a place called Yugoslavia? (Wilson: Yeah I know I said 'national self-determination for all' but this is getting silly.) Or of a palace in Versailles? Or a thing called the League of Nations? Surely Wilson's mistake was to work on the assumption that human beings aren't mental? Does 'realistic Wilsonianism' look back and imagine the terms of the peace with Germany being enforced when they occupied the Rhineland rather than waiting until they got to Poland? And if so, Fukuyama's argument would be that many of the present problems could have been avoided had Saddam been confronted sooner, after the invasion of Kuwait, or when the UN was expelled?

But I don't think this is what he means. Rather is not the idea that American engagement in the world is a positive thing but let's get real about this democracy business? But haven't you gone full-circle and come over a bit Kissinger-lite there? But it is the Guardian, after all.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

HMIE report: Scotland's schools must do better

From the Herald:
"WEAK leadership in a significant minority of nurseries, schools and colleges is blighting the life chances of thousands of pupils, according to the most comprehensive analysis ever carried out into Scotland's education.

Schools inspectors have highlighted management as the one crucial area for improvement which could drive up standards."
Translation: Even Her Majesty's Inspectorate, an other-worldly outfit if ever there was one, can't avoid the bleeding obvious for ever and they too have now managed to grasp what has been repeated endlessly to the point where you think you're going to scream at the heart-breaking futility of it all : the people running the show are, to put it delicately, a 'significant weakness' - largely on account of the fact that they've lost their damn minds. Sort of people who are capable of saying, when you recount the day's latest mayhem to them, "Have you tried a seating plan?"

How do management get so spaced-out, you may ask? Because they become people who have classes described to them; they generally avoid wherever possible the vulgar activity of actually teaching them. Ronnie Smith of the EiS thought the report reasonably well-balanced and added:
"Some headteachers focus more on the bureaucracy, administration and management and not enough on the teaching and learning and that's something which many teachers would acknowledge is the case.

"Rather than act as some sort of arm's-length sergeant-major, headteachers need to get back to what they used to be - their job title designates them first and foremost as teachers."
The problem is going back to what 'their job title designates them' would be too traumatic for the band of PR junkies that 'run' our schools. For the days when management thought the activity of being a teacher was anything less than a menial task have faded to a folk memory of times past when schools were thought to be places of learning.

Amongst the problems highlighted by the report where while most pupils actually fared reasonably well by international comparisons, a significant minority (practically one in five) received sub-standard education as a result of losing the 'postcode lottery'.

Allow me to explain how this works in our country: if you happen to be born, through no fault of your own, into a postcode area beginning with 'G', the chances are you're fucked. If you understand that losers of this postcode lottery run the risk of having this blogger teaching their children, you begin to understand the scale of the problem:
"However, inspectors revealed a postcode lottery in the quality of teaching with a "considerable variation" in the performance of education authorities and individual schools.

The Herald has highlighted the fact that only nine of Scotland's 52,000 teachers had been sacked for incompetence in the last five years."
Indeed - yet there's a Catch-22 situation here: insanity tends to impair your professional competence, I think most people would agree - but the spread of knowledge in this information age has resulted in a greater public understanding that a career in teaching and good mental health are mutually exclusive. Such is the unbridled lunacy that was the McCrone deal, even advertisements for the top jobs are bereft of candidates, in want of people who are willing to be associated with this educational calamity.

Consider the facts: as a Head Teacher you could expect to earn in excess of 60k depending on the size of the school; you never have to be confronted with thirty members of the tracksuited-fraternity at five-to-nine on a Monday morning, if you don't want to; and most days you go home at 3.30 if not earlier - always assuming you're not at an important meeting discussing what you're going to do at the other meetings you're scheduled to have to talk about the new 'learning community' that doesn't exist anywhere except in your fevered imagination and in the inflation of your bank balance. Yet applications for headteacher posts have fallen by 50%.

The solution is three-fold:
1) More money for positions where presently the loss of sanity inherent in job outweighs financial incentives. And/or...

2) Given that application of point 1 could bankrupt the nation, make system less insane, thereby attracting more rational and by extension we hope, more competent individuals.

3) Introduce the death-penalty for people who use expressions like 'proactive', who talk about teachers being 'facilitators' or tells you a pupil has a 'specific learning difficulty' but don't tell you what it is - either because they think this is has the status of an Official Secret or more plausibly, because they haven't even the vaguest idea what they're talking about. (People who talk about things being 'horizontal' and 'vertical' - but they're not joiners or architects - should be treated with suspicion too. Maybe execution's a bit much here - a simple flogging would do here, I think.)
Point 3 a bit harsh? Ah, but how can you have a revolution without executions?

McKie questions go to parliament

The Shirley McKie fingerprint case is becoming increasingly difficult for the Scottish Executive to ignore:

"The lord advocate and the justice minister are expected to make statements to the Scottish Parliament on the Shirley McKie fingerprint case.

Calls for a public inquiry into the treatment of Ms McKie have grown since her £750,000 compensation award."
The last sentence is something of an understatement; the demand for a public enquiry is the most universal and non-partisan as I can remember seeing anywhere at anytime.

Some details of this case became clearer (to me, anyway - most people following the case were already aware of this) following the report on Newsnight Scotland that the SCRO admitted privately some six years ago that the internet version of the print that had erroneously connected Shirley McKie to the crime scene where Marion Ross was murdered was indeed the same one that some 170-odd fingerprint experts used to confirm Shirley McKie innocent of perjury. Yet more recently, it had been implied that the internet version of the print was unreliable, or at least its veracity couldn't be confirmed.

The crux of the matter is that it is simply not good enough for the Executive to say an "honest mistake" was made; what is required is some kind of explanation of how the SCRO arrived at their original conclusion. And beyond this, the point where the impression of dishonesty can be shrugged-off has long since past - not least because of the bizarre intervention by the Lord Advocate appearing to suggest that fingerprint analysis was more art than science.

This case has implications for the reputation of Scottish criminal justice and the international community of fingerprint analysis. The FBI intervened in the debate to express concern that this uncertainty could jeopardise the trial of the Lockerbie bombers - which is being conducted under Scots law. Meanwhile, the killer of Marion Ross is still at large.

Update: Memos expose doubts and division of print experts in McKie case - from the Scotsman.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

UN condemns German school system

Following an eight-day inspection, the German school system has been sharply criticised by Vernor Munoz, a UN special rapporteur:
"Vernor Munoz said the system was excluding children from poor families and immigrant backgrounds from the chance of a good education."
The criticisms focused on their selection system, which begins at 10. From here, students either go to grammar school or vocational school. I was interested in this because knowing next to nothing about the German system, hitherto I'd thought of it vaguely as an example of the economic history cliche about British education as compared to that on the continent. According to this well-worn theme, the British - partly as a product of our peculiar path to industrialization - don't take vocational education seriously enough and are outclassed by countries like Germany who do.

This may well still be the case, since coming out poorly in international comparisons, as Germany has recently, does not mean it is performing worse than the British system. Education Minister Annette Shavan responded by saying there were a lot of good points to Germany's education system and added:
"What are you hassling us for? Take a look at the British system, why don't you - it's really crap. Now clear off before I give you a slap."
Ok, she didn't really.

Academics fight rise of creationism at universities

The Guardian reports on this worrying trend - long established in the United States and increasingly a problem here - where growing numbers of students appear to believe that the Creationism/Evolution debate is in some way undecided:
"A growing number of science students on British campuses and in sixth form colleges are challenging the theory of evolution and arguing that Darwin was wrong. Some are being failed in university exams because they quote sayings from the Bible or Qur'an as scientific fact and at one sixth form college in London most biology students are now thought to be creationists.

Earlier this month Muslim medical students in London distributed leaflets that dismissed Darwin's theories as false. Evangelical Christian students are also increasingly vocal in challenging the notion of evolution."
It seems it's a rather more urgent problem than people imagine. One sixth-form biology teacher suggests that we could soon have a situation where a majority of the next generation of medical and science students could well be creationists:
"'The vast majority of my students now believe in creationism,' she said, 'and these are thinking young people who are able and articulate and not at the dim end at all. They have extensive booklets on creationism which they put in my pigeon-hole ... it's a bit like the southern states of America.' Many of them came from Muslim, Pentecostal or Baptist family backgrounds, she said, and were intending to become pharmacists, doctors, geneticists and neuro-scientists."
The need to challenge psuedo-science has been well-made by people like Richard Dawkins and Steve Jones. But another line of attack would be to challenge the dodgy theology behind Creationism because attempts to fit the creation story in Genesis to scientific data are bad exegesis, as well as being bad science.

For instance, attempts to adapt the obvious age of the earth with the six day creation story by arguing it doesn't necessarily mean literal days doesn't wash because there is absolutely nothing in Genesis to suggest these were not literal days - and indeed no-one thought of arguing otherwise before Darwin came along.

And cleaving to the literal account simply flies in the face of what we already know about the age of the earth. Some have attempted to get around this by arguing that a miraculous creation would have the appearance of age, even though it was completed in six days. But leaving aside the obvious problem of evidence for this (i.e. there isn't any), this also surely creates a theological problem by effectively involving the Creator in an act of deception?

Finally, there's a point so obvious that I've often wondered why more people don't make it: there is not one but two creation accounts* in the book of Genesis and since they don't agree**, the law of non-contradiction - essential to any coherent thought - means that they can't both be right.

*(Genesis Ch 1, vs 1-31 and Ch 2, vs 4-22)

** First account: water covers the earth, is gathered into one place, then vegetation, then animals, finally man. Second account: earth is dry, then streams come up from the earth, then man is created, then vegetation and animals.

Form critics usually argue the accounts were written by two different people; the latter, as well as differing over the details, shows a very anthropormorphic view of God, which is completely absent from the first account. Fundamentalists should bear in mind that the editors of the Bible were not stupid and would have been aware that these accounts don't agree. But it obviously didn't bother them, which would tend to suggest that their attitude to the texts they were dealing with was somewhat different to that of the average fundamentalist - who is always and everywhere a very modern creature. In case anyone thinks I'm having a go at the Bible to the exclusion of the Koran, it should be pointed out that the discipline of form criticism does not exist in Islamic scholarship.

Moss goes from rehab clinic to Britain's most stylish woman

So saith the Scotsman:
"SIX months ago, her career was deemed to be in tatters after she was filmed apparently snorting cocaine in a recording studio.

But in yet another chapter of her dramatic fall and rise, the catwalk queen Kate Moss has been voted the most stylish British woman of all time."
It's not 'dramatic' at all. Part of the reason for this is because she was filmed "apparently snorting cocaine in a recording studio" - that's rather the problem with it.

There is no message about drugs in the make-believe world of Kate Moss. Better warnings are found in the experiences of people who fuck up their lives with class A drugs and junkie boyfriends and end up with their kids being taken into care rather than their 'struggles' being recounted on the pages of celebrity gossip magazines. But by definition you don't hear about them too often.

Watching America

German, French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Farsi and Hebrew - just a few languages I don't speak. Handy therefore to have a site that translates news related to America from around the world into English - which is the purpose of WatchingAmerica.com. Take a look - a useful resource, I think you'll agree.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Holocaust denier Irving is jailed

From the beeb:
"British historian David Irving has been found guilty in Vienna of denying the Holocaust and sentenced to three years in prison.
He had pleaded guilty to the charge, based on a speech and interview he gave in Austria in 1989."
Irving was using no understatement when he said, "I made a mistake when I said there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz," and "I'm not an expert on the Holocaust." He'll get no argument from me about that - only the accusation that he was fishing for a lighter sentence. His claim that it was only when he read the Eichmann papers that he changed his mind should surely be rejected on the grounds that no-one can be that stupid and ignorant?

He's an odious shit obviously and a proven anti-Semite and Holocaust denier. I've used this case before to make the case for free-speech and I haven't changed my mind. I don't really have anything new to add except to re-emphasize defending the principle of free-speech should not be confused with approval for the content of the speech, a point that has been increasingly difficult to get across these days.

That Holocaust denial is illegal in a number of European countries, but that blasphemy against Islam is not, has been used as an example of the West's hypocrisy over the cartoons issue by quite a few people, not least by the current President of Iran. And the fact that Iran is one of a number of countries in the region that routinely carry anti-Semitic filth in their media has also been used as an example of hypocrisy by quite a few people, including myself.

Charges of hypocrisy, inconsistency and double-standards abound and while I would personally recommend a strong and evenly-applied free-speech position as a way out of the mess people have got themselves into recently, it isn't essential. Instead, from those who quite clearly do not believe in free-speech we should expect a little more consistency in their authoritarianism. Should not demands that Europe pass laws proscribing blasphemy be accompanied with those insisting that Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic 'satire' be banned in Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the rest? And an acknowledgement of the existence of the old one would be welcome from those who are seeing the "new" anti-Semitism everywhere - as would be some kind of recognition that Holocaust denial is obscene to a degree that these Danish cartoons were not. And if you disagree with the understanding outlined in that last sentence, also understand that I'm not the one insisting that laws be changed or that newspapers censor themselves in order to enforce my view of the matter.

What excuse can they give?

Asks Nick Cohen of those who only practice risk-free desecration:
"Even on a wet Thursday lunchtime, there were plenty of sightseers from the metropolitan intelligentsia enjoying [Gilbert and George's Sonofagod Pictures: Was Jesus Heterosexual?' exhibition] rather than mourning the passing of their world. In prose that might embarrass an estate agent, novelist Michael Bracewell told them in the catalogue that Gilbert and George were engaged 'in rebellion, an assault on the laws and institutions of superstition and religious belief'.

Burbling critics agreed. Gilbert and George still get a 'frisson of excitement' by including 'f-words, turds, semen, their own pallid bodies and other affronts to bourgeois sensibilities' in their work, wrote a journalist with the impeccably bourgeois name of Cassandra Jardine in the Daily Telegraph. 'Is it the perfect Christmas card to send George Bush at Easter? Yeah, yeah,' added groovy Waldemar Januszczak of the Sunday Times."
His contempt is evident. It's a feeling I share, I'm afraid. Those who imagined they were doing the Enlightenment a favour when they ridiculed what other religions hold to be sacred have shown themselves to be less than fearless iconoclasts, to be polite about it.

The attempt by some on the left to collapse the concept of blasphemy into one of racist stereotypes is no doubt well-meaning but misguided. Placards complaining of the latter were conspicuous by their absence at the peaceful demonstrations on London; those complaining of the former, ubiquitous.

Meanwhile, the rage at the publication of the cartoons continues to find some strange targets.

Of the original question - they have none, for there is none.

A black mark against Scottish justice

Made by a fingerprint - or a fingerprint case, I should say. The provincial story of a Scottish police officer Shirley McKie, who was falsely accused of lying over fingerprint evidence, has thrown the international world of fingerprint analysis into disarray and discredits both the Scottish Executive and the Scottish legal system:
"Scotland's fingerprinting agency has become a worldwide embarrassment, according to an expert.

Forensic scientist Allan Bayle was speaking before the launch of a new website supporting the former police officer, Shirley McKie.

She is suing the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Criminal Records Office after being wrongly accused of leaving her fingerprint at a murder scene.

Ms McKie and her father have campaigned for reform of the fingerprint system.

She was cleared of lying on oath in 1999 after insisting that a fingerprint found at the scene of the murder of a Kilmarnock woman was not hers."
What the implications for the world of fingerprint analysis is I don't quite understand but from what I can follow, it's the SCRO's failure to disclose how it arrived at its conclusions in this case that is casting a shadow over the whole world of fingerprint analysis.

Jack McConnell's insistence that 'an honest mistake has been made' and that 'this has been accepted by all sides' hasn't pleased very many people - largely on account of the fact that it is patently untrue. Shirley McKie's father isn't at all satisfied, and neither is the SCRO for that matter.

Every concerned party - and these extend way beyond Scotland - wants an enquiry into this matter before further damage is done to the reputation of the Scottish legal system and the standards of Scottish forensic criminal investigation. Everyone except the Executive - including the Lord Advocate, rather blurring more than is traditional the constitutional space between the judiciary and the executive. In an extraordinary intervention, he dismissed calls for an enquiry with the most dismissive and frankly bizarre remarks about this branch of forensics:
"On Friday, the Lord Advocate said 'there have always been, and there remain, conflicting expert views on the issue of identification of the relevant fingerprints'. He had concluded in 2001, after Tayside Police reported, 'that the conflict in expert evidence was such that there could be no question of criminal proceedings'.

McKie's supporters said his comments meant fingerprint evidence could never again be relied upon in a Scottish court. Iain McKie, Shirley's father and also a former police officer, said: 'The Lord Advocate is ... saying it is perfectly reasonable to have a difference of opinion between experts, with one saying it is an identification and another saying it is not - and that they can equally be correct. This means there is nothing to stop every person in Scotland convicted on fingerprint evidence from appealing on the basis that the fingerprint evidence used against them was only an opinion."
The facts of this case are beyond my competence but if either the Executive or the Lord Advocate were trying to dispel the sense of a systematic cover-up, they've got a pretty eccentric way of going about it.

It's an embarrassment of the highest order; one that the Scottish Executive surely can't evade indefinitely. Not my favourite politician but credit is due to Alex Neil of the SNP for his insistence that the Executive give an account of themselves in this matter. Can we get the lid lifted on the culture of complacency, nepotism and corruption that is the Scottish political scene? Because it's been a long time coming. Monklands yielded not a damn thing, yet everyone knew. We need attention from outside. Scots tend not to get as misty-eyed about the Labour party or local government as the English, in my experience. There are excellent reasons for this.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Back in the USSR

If you're old enough, you'll remember the various explanations as to why the Soviet Union caved-in that followed in the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

For Eric Hobsbawm, it's crucial failure to apply technical innovation properly to the business of production.

Not unrelatedly, there was the Hayek-type idea that GOSPLAN was incapable by its very nature of having the knowledge required to allocate goods and services efficiently.

Various people pointed to the inability of the Soviet state to eliminate the allegiances of nationality and religion.

An interesting variation on this theme came from the late Ernest Gellner who argued not that the Soviet Union had eliminated the sacred but had, on the contrary, sacralised the mundane to an unbearable degree.

Then there was the question of pre-Soviet Russian history casting a shadow with it's tradition of absolutism and lack of any democratic experience to consider.

One could go on but thankfully we don't need to waste our time considering any of them because Neil Clark has the definitive answer:
"The problem with European communism was not that it was unsuccessful, but that it was too successful."
The scales have fallen from my eyes.

(Hat tip: Harry's Place)

Martin Jacques on 'Eurocentrism'

In the Guardian today, Martin Jacques - in his treatment of the Danish cartoons - reaches new levels of generalisation and economic determinism - which is no mean feat, if you're familiar with Mr Jacques' output. Not only should 'Europe' be treated as one country today, Jacques applies this to the past as well:
"Europe has never had to worry too much about context or effect because for around 200 years it dominated and colonised most of the world. Such was Europe's omnipotence that it never needed to take into account the sensibilities, beliefs and attitudes of those that it colonised, however sacred and sensitive they might have been. On the contrary, European countries imposed their rulers, religion, beliefs, language, racial hierarchy and customs on those to whom they were entirely alien. There is a profound hypocrisy - and deep historical ignorance - when Europeans complain about the problems posed by the ethnic and religious minorities in their midst, for that is exactly what European colonial rule meant for peoples around the world. With one crucial difference, of course: the white minorities ruled the roost, whereas Europe's new ethnic minorities are marginalised, excluded and castigated, as recent events have shown."
You read correctly; Jacques actually has the brass-neck to upbraid 'Europeans' for their 'historical ignorance'. Let's try and work out the connection between a history of colonialism and the publication of the cartoons, shall we? The country with the deepest history of colonialism is of course Britain. We didn't publish the cartoons. The French, Germans and Dutch published the cartoons and have a history of colonialism, this is true - but Jacques' analysis seems a bit tough on the Belgians, who seem to have spent rather a lot of their history being invaded - usually by Germans. And this may simply reflect gaps in my education but I don't recall either Denmark or Switzerland being particularly heavily-involved in the scramble for Africa. And while one has realised it's considered poor taste to raise the matter, there's the fact that the cartoons were published in Egypt too. I could be wrong but I'm sure the last time I looked at an atlas, Egypt wasn't in Europe.

Perhaps Mr Jacques is working on a revisionist history of Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. I'll look forward to that. In the meantime, to his question...
"Is the argument over the Danish cartoons really reducible to a matter of free speech?"
...we will continue to answer in the affirmative.

Comprehensives 'not helping working classes'

If comprehensives improved social mobility, one place you'd expect to see the benefits would be Scotland because unlike England, we have no grammar schools at all up here. However, according to a report published by Professor Lindsay Paterson and Dr Cristina Iannelli of Edinburgh University's education department, abolishing grammar schools in Scotland had "no impact" on helping people move between social classes.

But their findings don't seem to support the return of grammar schools - rather, it argues that too much emphasis is put on education as an engine of social mobility.
"'If education could have an independent effect [on increasing social mobility], then Scotland should show it - but it does not,' the report said. 'The similarity of social mobility experience to England and Wales shows that wider social and economic reforms are more important.'

Professor Paterson said there was a danger that politicians were heaping too much responsibility on schools to remedy society's problems.

He said: 'Fiddling around with education systems does not in itself make much difference to people's social mobility chances. We tend to lump everything on to schools and want them to solve everything from drugs to health and relationships, but they're not that powerful.'"
Indeed they are not - and if comprehensives haven't done working class kids many favours, neither has this emphasis on the extrinsic social benefits of education. It may come across as pretty simple-minded but it's occurred to me before that one of the reasons for the declining social mobility between classes must be due at least to some extent to the fact that the social ladder is so much longer than it used to be.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

UN calls for Guantanamo closure

As it should be, for the very institution breaches all known conventions of human rights and the treatment of prisoners. A brutal utilitarian reasoning combined with convoluted legal arguments has surely at the very least created an atmosphere where those responsible for the inhuman treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib felt they were acting in accordance with the wishes of their superiors.

The utilitarian argument for torture should never have been accepted in the first place. The 'ticking-bomb' senario is just an up-dated version of the perennial justification used by torturers through the ages: that it serves some greater good, that it is necessary in order to fulfill a higher purpose. An argument that should have been rejected on the basis of the inviolability of human rights, not on the basis of attempts to disprove the utilitarian calculation - but it has to be stressed that this case repeats the lesson of history: torture invariably fails the utilitarian test too. Disclosures of 'ticking-bombs' have been conspicuous by their absence; we only have images that sicken the soul of anyone who has kept in touch with their humanity.

Those responsible for this policy should have been afraid to believe they knew better than the wisdom of ages and of nations, especially when they themselves belong to a nation that once had the wisdom to enshrine the prohibition of torture in its constitution. Closing Guantanamo always was a moral imperative - and surely no-one can now doubt that it is also a political, utilitarian imperative?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

More liberty nibbled away

Westminster has decided to follow the Scottish Parliament and ban smoking in all public spaces on the usual grounds - the people who brought you longer opening hours and more casinos know what's best for you. They know what's best for them too, but it's different from you - that's why the Houses of Parliament are to be exempt. (Incapable of embarrassment, obviously.) And so we become steadily more American, with it's sharper division between what is legally permitted in private and what is tolerated in public spaces. British liberty, with it's greater public tolerance, was preferable - but it's ebbing away under a government that prefers social moralism to moral socialism.

Perhaps one shouldn't complain too much because this is, it seems, with the consent of the people. Last night, Newsnight referred to an opinion poll, which showed a majority favoured banning smoking in private homes if there are children present or if the smoker is a pregnant woman. If you belong to that majority, you're very scary.

Meanwhile, up here the destruction of traditional pub culture is a few steps ahead. Our smoking ban starts on the 28th of March and Glasgow City Council plans to ban glasses in pubs from January next year - and Edinburgh is planning to do the same. Also, Glasgow City intends to ban the sale of glass bottles from late night off-sales. Great impression to give the tourists, eh? Come to Glasgow, city of culture where you can't smoke and we can't trust the locals with glasses in public. What's next - plastic cutlery in restaurants?

The attitude of the government in relation to these petty liberties is all part of the New Labour philosophy - to have more laws is better than enforcing the ones we have already, pace Charles Clarke's assertion that 'glorification' legislation would have enabled the prosecution of the placard-holders threatening to hack people's heads off, already a crime without having to link this to terrorism in any way. And it's here the larger liberties are withering on the vine for want of people to defend them, for want of people who understand that the strength of British liberty was that the law set a floor, not a ceiling, for human behaviour.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Brown wants more school cadet forces

From the Scotsman:
"PRIVATE firms should help state schools pay to set up their own military cadet forces, Gordon Brown said yesterday.

Continuing to extend his reach across the full range of government business, the Chancellor called for state schools across the UK to establish branches of the Combined Cadet Force, which gives pupils a chance to learn from the disciplines and training of the armed forces.

Mr Brown made his suggestion in a wider speech on security and community relations, part of what many view as an attempt to broaden his appeal in a stage-managed process that will see him replace Tony Blair as Prime Minister as early as next year.

At present, most of the 42,000 cadets in forces based in schools are in private-sector education, something the Chancellor wants to change.

'To involve young people more in celebrating the contribution of our armed forces, I would like to pilot an expansion of our cadet forces, especially in state schools,' Mr Brown said in a speech in London."
Hmmm, five-mile runs at ungodly hours of the morning in the freezing cold and lots of press-ups sounds like a plan to me but can anyone let me what actually happens in school cadet forces? If it involves teaching adolescents how to shoot guns and kill people with their bare hands and stuff, I'm not sure that would be wise.

Prime Ministers and Parliaments

Having two of each in this country is getting a bit messy, slightly strange and is surely unsustainable for any length of time.

The two Prime Ministers bit is the one in most urgent need of attention. Her Majesty's Government appears to have carried the day on the ID cards bill. A speech given by the Home Secterary, Deputy Prime Minister, PM No 2 linking ID cards to the fight against terrorism was used to bolster the case in the absence of PM No 1. It's all a bit odd. The long-running saga of the Blair-Brown fight which has for years now featured two grown men who couldn't agree about a matter as basic as who should actually be Prime Minister - which always struck me as being a bit dysfunctional, to say the least. But now they seem to have settled this matter, it's distinctly weird. Brown has been given leeway to speak on matters out of his brief and he has used the opportunity to not only re-inforce the Blair line on ID cards - he seems to be wearing some of Blair's clothes in a quite literal fashion. (Couldn't find a photo, I'm afraid but he's been to the same shop as Blair and got pink glossy ties, the white shirts and a suit that doesn't look like he slept in it or anything. Honestly - I saw him on the telly.)

This can't go on for eighteen months, as Blair seems to think it will, can it? As either of the Davids Steel and Owen can testify, political double-acts have a unique capacity for looking really quite silly, and in the short time this one's been with us, it clearly has the potential to be very silly indeed. On top of that, and apart from the fact that this hardly follows constitutional convention, some on the left are already having a go at Gordon Brown for the way he's doing the job he hasn't quite got yet. There was even a rumour of a stalking horse running against Brown, in which case we are to be treated once again to the spectacle of Labour's left being reminded that their principle function in political life is to be attacked by the leadership. Deja vu all over again.

Anyway, up here where we already have Brown rule by proxy via the Scottish Executive, it's getting into a bit of a mess. Some in the Scottish Labour party, already antipathetic towards being in coalition with the Lib Dems are absolutely seething after their surprise victory in the Dumfermline and West Fife by-election.
"The latest onslaught on the coalition was triggered by the LibDems' attack on the Scottish Executive's record during the by-election campaign. Labour was particularly incensed by the focus on the Forth road bridge tolls and the downgrading of the Queen Margaret Hospital: both are responsibilities of the executive on which LibDem ministers have key roles, and were part of the decision-making process."
The Liberals have a reputation for running unscrupulous hypocritical campaigns at the local level - and this one did nothing to counter that, to put it mildly. Liberals in Scotland frequently cite their wonderful, beneficient performance in the coalition government during elections campaigns for either Holyrood or Westminster. But in this case, they used the performance of the Scottish Executive against the Labour candidate - doubly hypocritical when you consider that the minister responsible for the bridge toll they made such a fuss about is a Liberal Democrat.

Jimmy Hood, the MP for Lanark and Hamilton East MP, claimed there was now a majority in favour of breaking with the Lib Dems and forming a minority administration, which would be hardly surprising. There's a strong feeling that the recent improvement in the Lib Dems' fortunes north of the border is due in no small part to their habit of boasting of their successes in coalition government but being very reluctant to be associated with any of its failings. But that Rennie and the rest of the Liberal campaign were able to get away with this is surely down in part to a genuine confusion in our present constitutional settlement with regards to the role of MPs and MSPs? Rennie was elected promising to solve problems that are the responsibility of the Liberals in Hollyrood as well as Labour and over which he will have absolutely no power over as a member of the Westminster Parliament - and it tends to raise again the question of what Scottish MPs in Westminster are actually for? They don't seem to have much to do - except be lobby-fodder to pass controversial legislation that won't affect their constituents, only those in England and Wales.

There's trouble ahead if they don't sort this out. There's too many Scottish MPs anyway and should Brown have to depend on them in government too often - or indeed for a working majority - the present arrangement is unlikely to stand the strain. There's some merit in the idea that Scottish MPs should agree not to vote on exclusively English matters, otherwise an unstable situation will make the calls for further constitutional change irresistable.

And it's the unstable relationship at the heart of our government that makes me wonder if Brown will ever get to the stage of having a majority of his own, rather than inheriting Blair's. The longer Brown acts as PM No 2, the more likely he is to be associated with the whiff of decay that surrounds this government and the more explicitly he steps outside his sphere of ministerial responsibility, the more he will be identified with policies that are unpopular with the party.

There's this nagging feeling with Brown, and you suspect sometimes he glimpses it too - that his star may have passed. Not an entirely rational position because polling evidence would tend to suggest that a Brown-led Labour party would defeat a Cameron-led Conservative party in a General Election. But when you get various 'friends-of-Gordon' in the Labour party and the press telling you that he's misunderstood, he's really a warm, jolly sort, it reminds me that the same sort of things were said about Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. Not a good omen.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Brown denies 'dual premiership'

From the beeb:
"Chancellor Gordon Brown has said there is no "deal" going on between himself and the prime minister over running the country between them.
[...]
"Tony Blair makes the decisions as prime minister ... I get on with my job as chancellor," he added."
Uh huh? And since when did the Chancellor's job involve covering the Home Secretary's remit?

Update: Seems it was Charles Clarke who was the source of the 'dual premiership' line. Figures.

Scotland's smoking ban gets even more bizarre

From the Scotsman:
"In another bizarre exception to Scotland's smoking legislation, The Scotsman has learned that police vehicles will not be designated as public places and, therefore, will be exempt. Driving instructors who use their own cars will also be allowed to smoke in front of students.

The revelations are expected to add to mounting confusion over the Scottish Executive bar on smoking in enclosed public places from 26 March.

Earlier this week, The Scotsman exposed a string of apparent anomalies in the legislation. While smoking will be banned indoors on Caledonian Mac-Brayne ferries to the islands, it will be allowed on the Rosyth to Zeebrugge ferry; while company cars will be exempt, vans and tractors will not be."
Think I've got it: tractors are a 'public place'; police cars are not. The solution as I see it is to get yourself jailed for smoking in a public place - then at least you'll be able to finish your fag in the car.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Lib Dems storm to election victory over Labour

From the Scotsman:
"THE Liberal Democrats swept to a dramatic victory in the Dunfermline and West Fife early this morning, condemning Labour to its worst by-election defeat in Scotland for 18 years.

Willie Rennie, the triumphant new MP, overturned a massive 11,500 Labour majority, recording a swing of 16 per cent to the Liberal Democrats and, in doing so, dealt a devastating blow to Gordon Brown's political credibility.

The Chancellor had led this Labour campaign, spending many days in the constituency and dictating the party's approach. Mr Brown, who lives in the constituency, was desperate to show he could deliver election victories on his own doorstep, and his failure to do so will reverberate around the Labour Party."
A staggering result by any definition. It is indeed a kick in the gonads for Gordy, what with this being his home-turf and all. The article speculates that people are fed up with Labour taking them for granted for so long. I don't know what evidence they have for this but if true, it would be a remarkable change in Scottish politics. I think it would be fair to say the Labour party in Central and Lowlands Scotland take voters for granted in much the same way the Democrats take African-American votes as given, so if it was the case Scots have got fed up with this, it would be a welcome change.

The party contest is different up here. The Tories are nowhere and while it's always a mistake to write them off, they do look a bit like an ex-party up here, with or without David Cameron. Instead, opposition has tended to be nationalist and the interesting thing about this result is that it confirms the general picture emerging from opinion polls that voters are finding the SNP to be a bit crap these days. Their problem is that they essentially have only one tune - that Scotland's ills are a product of the union. Given the performance of the Scottish Parliament, the idea that everything would be better if only 'we' ran things 'ourselves' is stretching credulity more than it used to. The SSP, always essentially a pressure group rather than a serious political party are going nowhere fast, RESPECT doesn't exist up here, which is a blessing - leaving only the Liberals as a credible opposition. Except for the fact that they're in coalition with Labour in Holyrood, and in reality responsible for many of the policies that the voters in Dumfermline and West Fife were pissed-off about. What's needed is for the Liberals and Labour to fall out in Holyrood to make things really interesting in this most dreary of political cultures.

Meanwhile, it's yet another piece of evidence that would suggest that Brown is - assuming he would go on to win a General Election - going to find his room to manoeuvre rather circumscribed by a majority that is tighter than the one Blair has just now.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Cartoon debate officially over

For me, anyway. There's now no response one can make to anything without putting 'Egypt' in the sentence. For instance:
"British imams have demanded changes in the law and a strengthening of the Press Complaints Commission code to outlaw any possible publication of the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in the UK."
What, in Egypt? No, here apparently. Or to this other piece from the PA via the Guardian:
"Muslim scholars holding emergency talks called for a change in the law to stop insulting pictures of the Prophet Muhammad being published."
What, in Egypt? Er, no - here. And again:
"He said there had not been such an insult to Islam since Salman Rushdie published his book, the Satanic Verses."
There was also a strikingly similar one about five months ago in Egypt.
"It is as if the media around the world just don't get it, the publication of an image of the Prophet Muhammad in itself is a deep insult."
Indeed - and I think we can now all agree that one place they certainly don't get it is Egypt.

See what I mean? We're done with this lunacy.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

More cartoon lunacy

It turns out that the Danish cartoons had been published in October 2005 - in an Egyptian newspaper.

You can see a scan of the original here.

(Hat Tip: Laban Tall)

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

On anti-Semitism and other profanities

The sacred and the profane

While probably undesirable from a mental health point of view, talking about the Danish cartoon furore is unavoidable since it is salient to the subject of this post. Undesirable because I don't think I can ever recall any public controversy where quite so many people were using arguments that don't make any sense, and quite so many people that could do with calming down a bit, a lot. And undesirable perhaps because one fears merely adding to the insanity - because calm is not how I feel about all this. But it is unavoidable...

In his comments in the Guardian on this issue, Roger Scruton came over as someone who was both calm and his arguments actually made some sense, a rare thing in this debate. Consistently on this kind of issue, Scruton has always argued, despite being an atheist* himself, that the right to profane what others hold to be sacred simply doesn't exist. The disadvantage from my point of view with Roger Scruton is that his position on this, while coherently expressed, reflects his fundamental disposition as a philosopher that believes in neither liberty nor equality. I've argued before that while I think the existence of the sacred in all human societies is a strength of the conservative argument that should be taken more seriously than it is, fundamentally a liberal democracy cannot function without allowing for the possibility that what one considers sacred will be profaned.

Which is not to say that this is a duty. The distinction between a right and an obligation has been well-made but some people appear to have still got the two a bit mixed-up. I defend the right of all the European newspapers that published these cartoons to do so. I would also defend the right of a British newspaper to do so without fear of intimidation or injury. Nevertheless, there was no free-speech obligation to publish them. The prohibition of iconography is something that Islam shares with Judaism and ascetic Protestantism, and has nothing much to do with 'fundamentalism'. While one cannot in a free society limit the possibility that anyone should do this, it would be preferable if there were a good reason for doing so. And given the one at the centre of the controversy used profanity to falsely identify of over thirteen-hundred years of religious tradition with terrorists movements that wear the cloak of antiquity but have always looked suspiciously modern to me, the whole enterprise was scarcely worthwhile, to say the least.

Moreover, before we get too carried away like Voltaire after a couple of lines of coke, we should pause and remember that in insisting that the sacred can't be protected from free speech, we are arguing for something that should be; it cannot be considered a defence of either the past nor the present- not in English law. The right to profane the sacred has never been absolute in this country - we have blasphemy laws, and indecency laws that have been used by local governments to censor material on religious grounds. When the Life of Brian came out, Glasgow City council banned cinemas from showing it within the city limits and I recall my parents having to travel to Bearsden to watch it.

A bit of perspective needed, I think - but that's about all I'm prepared to concede to the outrage at these cartoons. I don't like the weird idea that it is somehow one's civic duty to offend the religious as an end in itself, and one would hope that people would remember their duties as neighbours as well as their rights as citizens. But no society can legally proscribe the profanation of the sacred and call itself completely free. The blasphemy laws are wrong, Glasgow City council was wrong to ban the Life of Brian, this notion of making 'incitement to religious hatred' and 'glorification of terrorism' crimes is a load of illiberal nonsense - as is the unspeakable drivel being talked by some journalists on this issue.

Free speech - giving due deference to context and the duties of civility - and understood properly as the freedom to publish ideas, however disagreeable or even abhorrent, is absolute and indivisible and where it is limited, this represents a loss of freedom. I commend this liberal creed to you, I really do - because some of those postulating various alternatives whilst clinging desperately to their liberal credentials are getting themselves into a bit of a state. For instance, take a look at the dreadful mess Simon Jenkins has made of himself, intellectually that is. He's been to the mountain top, and has come out with this:

"Civilisation is the story of humans sacrificing freedom so as to live together in harmony. We do not need Hobbes to tell us that absolute freedom is for newborn savages. All else is compromise."

He's so profound, isn't he? He who usually likes to recommend De Tocquville rather than Hobbes, but doesn't do so on this occasion for obvious reasons, and criticises anyone supporting any other form of restriction on free speech as 'craven anti-libertarians' who are undermining the ancient British liberty to say what you think is true. Who's craven now? I'd refer you to the bit where he tries to convince us that less liberty really means more but it's like watching a car-crash - you really shouldn't make a spectacle out of someone else's suffering. Why anyone would presume to issue political reading lists in a national newspaper while simultaneously showing no sign of having either read or understood people like Orwell or Isaiah Berlin is beyond me. He was also a strong supporter of the Millennium Dome. Enough said.

I could take the line coming out of the Guardian, as well as the other august defenders of our liberty, a bit more seriously if hitherto they had shown any disposition towards respecting the sacred. But they have not. As Laban Tall rightly points out, on the contrary they have in the past gloried in their right to profane what other religious minorities in this country hold sacred. Wherefore, the only possible justification for printing these cartoons in the British press has evaporated - for publication now can no longer serve to rescue their reputation; they have already proved themselves long ago to be gutless hypocrites and unreliable allies in the cause of liberty.

Do Simon Jenkins and the rest have even a crepuscular idea of what avoiding profanation at all costs would mean for intellectual life in this country and the world, has already meant for intellectual life in this country and the world? It's not just a matter of being civil and avoiding deliberate offence. What is to be avoided on those criteria would be, already is, intolerable. The murderous outrage of the protestors shouldn't be understood as a 'response to racist stereotypes' by a hurt and disadvantaged minority community. It was not this but the blasphemy that is the issue. If you disagree, how do you explain the fact that some protestors chose to express their outrage at having their religion identified with terrorism by threatening to blow people up? And was this not a desecration to those who lost loved ones on the 7th of July?

I regret that these stupid cartoons have become the focus because people should be more aware about what the proscription of the profane has already meant for serious intellectual endeavours. Despite forbidding iconography, the Koran in Islam as an object effectively enjoys the status of a sacrament. This filters into the world of scholarship. Exegesis and systematic theology are permitted but the practice of form criticism as has been applied to the Bible for around a hundred years essentially doesn't exist. Because to question the sources that contributed to the book we can read translated for us today would be to desecrate the sacred. So no-one does it and an entire field of intellectual enquiry is thus closed. It's not happening now, it's already happened.

Anti-semitism, old and new

Recognising the furious offence taken at the profanity of the Danish cartoons in various parts of the Arab world would be easier to sympathise with were it not for the fact that their own media is filled on a regular basis with the most obscene and offensive anti-semitic propaganda. In Syria, for example, where angry protestors felt moved to torch the embassy of a nation that had the audacity to have a free press, images like the ones shown below can be regularly seen in the media.

Depressing to think that there's some people who claim to belong to the left that would fail to recognise this as anti-Semitism, on account of the fact that they seem to share the basic analysis of the artist.


This one's less ambivalent. For the post-religiously literate generation: the snake represents Satan, ok? I think that qualifies as 'demonization'.

The essential element of all conspiracy theories, the idea of a small and malevolent group controlling history to a degree that would require super-normal powers, has as it's prototype the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The document itself, as well as pictorial representations of the ideas contained in it, have a currency that is well-established in the Middle East.



This depicts the idea that Jewish control of history extends even to the extent of how it is recorded in the United States.

These are some of the more mild samples on offer but with most of them, the message is the same. Reducing this to some kind of regrettable but understandable expression of anger at the policies of Israel and America's support for them ignores the fact that in the Middle East, anti-Zionist and explicitly anti-Semitic propaganda routinely espouses the (to me, anyway) very far from 'understandable' belief that Israel has a malevolent control over world events that no reasonable person could consider a country of its size capable of wielding, even with American support.

Yet to even raise this obviously ubiquitous use of anti-Semitic propaganda by this clutch of authoritarian regimes and murderous millenial theocratic movements is to invite an accusation of bad faith from the hard-left, and not only them; the assumption that the only possible reason one could have for drawing attention to this is to act as an apologist for Israel is automatic.

But their attempt to share the rage of the Elect over the profanity of the Danish cartoons has left them undone because they have no appreciation of the sacred. This leaves them making specious arguments professing to believe in free speech but in reality trying to accommodate the politics of the taboo with some spurious utilitarian notion of the harm incurred by having one's religion mocked - this being proportionately more grevious depending on how much money you have, of course. Start from here and things can go very badly wrong. You start hallucinating that the publication of these cartoons represents a frightful spectre haunting Europe - the 'new anti-Semitism' where Muslims are the new Jews that are being maligned with a positively National Socialist ferocity in Europe's media. Apart from the rather distasteful attempt to claim the mantle of a couple of thousand years of anti-Semitism by lazily identifying Islam's adherents as 'Semites', now that they've discovered the hurt that desecration can cause, only ignorance or willful blindness can now allow people to treat anti-Semitism as if it were unimportant.

Anyone who sees this obscenity as an unacceptable yet unalarming 'reaction to Israeli policy', as somehow less serious than a handful of cartoons has completely lost their way, and not just politically. Finding the 'new anti-Semitism' of Europe in Islamophobia is utterly facile. The kind of people who are forever announcing the arrival of something 'new' have frequently to be reminded that the old version of their comparison is still around, and this is no exception; the original is still with us. Suggesting that it may be found within some aspects of the increasingly shrill and hyperbolic condemnation of Israel are usually greeted with angry denials and accusations that the charge is being used to distract attention from the reality in the Occupied Territories. This is no longer good enough for me. The argument that everything Israel is held responsible for, is thought capable of influencing and controlling, can be explained in terms of its treatment of the Palestinians bears all the hallmarks of the old conspiracy theories about Jews controlling world events in a malign and clandestine manner.

The anti-Semitism is here, hiding in the super-abundance, filling up the gap between criticism of the state of Israel that is entirely justified and condemnation that is hysterical. If it isn't, why does it look so much like it?

Amongst the similarities between the most strident forms of anti-Zionism and traditional anti-Semitism is that it uses arguments that don't make any sense. Take the notion of "Zionist influence on the media", sometimes presented by the more distempered as Zionist control. The realities of the Israeli occupation are constantly covered-up, minimised and side-lined in the press, we are being continually being told - sometimes by the same people who simultaneously dismiss the rise in anti-Semitic attacks as a response to negative media coverage of Israel's conduct. It doesn't make any sense. Indeed, one could make the opposite case - isn't there something disproportionate in the attention given to Israel-Palestine compared to the paucity of coverage that was given to the genocide in Darfur, for example?

In reality, it's from the supposedly Zionist-friendly media we read much of this stuff about the super-normal malevolence of the Israelis. For instance, therein you can learn about the impressive foreknowledge of the agents of Israel concerning just about any terrorist atrocity committed anywhere in the world. Neil McKay, super-sleuth for the Scottish Sunday Herald, wrote an article raising the possibility that Mossad knew about 9/11 but deliberately sacrificed the twin towers for their own nefarious geo-political schemes:

"But did Israel know in advance that the Twin Towers would be hit and the world plunged into a war without end; a war which would give Israel the power to strike its enemies almost without limit? That's a conspiracy theory too far, perhaps. But the unpleasant feeling that, in this age of spin and secrets, we do not know the full and unadulterated truth won't go away. Maybe we can guess, but it's for the history books to discover and decide."
Translation: there's no evidence for any of this. Personally, I think more people might want to pay a bit more attention to the history books that have already been written. Then maybe the 'unpleasant feeling' would be more of a queasy sense that all this sounds a bit too familiar. The Israelis apparently also knew about 7/7 and the Jordanian atrocity and were able to remove themselves from harm's way. This extraordinary gift of foreknowledge is naturally assumed to be accompanied by a profound malevolence - they save themselves whilst others are killed so to further their own purposes. To date there has been no explanation forthcoming as to how Israel, with such superhuman gifts in military intelligence, could have possibly failed to prevent the couple of thousand or so attacks against them in 2005. Do their powers only work when they're abroad or something?

I'm not talking about criticism of Israel, I'm talking about the way that when De Menezez was shot and killed by British police, so many found the sinister cause behind this in the fact that they had sought the advice and training of their Israeli counterparts. That there was really no-one more suitable to be giving this advice didn't seem to register. It turns out that the police were not, in fact, following the Israeli guidelines, but not quite so many people seemed to notice that.

I'm not even talking about the comparison with South Africa under apartheid. I think the comparison is wrong but I'm not going to argue the case because even if one were to accept the comparison, it wouldn't alter the point - nothing to do with this can explain this pathological fear of Israel having such far-reaching, catastrophic effects on the rest of the world. I doubt very much the view of Israel expressed by Clare Short is unique to her:
"I am supporting the World Premiere of the cantata for Rachel Corrie because there has been the usual campaign to silence even a cantata to commemorate a young woman who gave her life in order to stand for justice. I also believe that US backing for Israeli policies of expansion of the Israeli state and oppression of the Palestinian people is the major cause of bitter division and violence in the world. Best wishes. Clare Short MP"
Not a cause, the cause. Is this how people used to talk about South Africa? No, they did not. Having been blamed for the outbreak of World War I, the defeat of Germany, the Treaty of Versailles, the Weimar Republic (failure of), the Great Depression and the outbreak of World War II, it should go without saying that the Jews could scarcely avoid being blamed for the next, and possibly last, installment of global mayhem.

Here anti-Semitic propaganda in the Arab world and also amongst the far-right in the United States has relied on the familiar recurring theme of the Jewish tail wagging the American dog. The suggestion that talking about 'cabals' directing US foreign policy might run the risk of sounding uncomfortably close to this narrative was rejected by Tam Dalyell on the grounds that no-one who's children have worked on a Kibbutz could possibly be anti-Semitic.

There's a focus here, an attributation of malignant clandestine power that cannot be justified rationally in terms of anger about Israel. If it isn't anti-Semitism, it represents at best an ignorance of and indifference to the manner in which this most enduring of hatreds has functioned historically. The idea that profanity is a less significant injury if you are rich or powerful can only come from someone with no understanding of the meaning of desecration. Were it better understood, I think there would be less of this rather disturbing indifference to modes of political discourse that so clearly owe their origins to the long and ignoble traditions of European anti-Semitism.

Some on the left see in the Danish cartoons a 'new anti-Semitism', something akin to the experience of Europe's Jewry in interwar Europe - but breezily dismiss Holocaust denial and talk of wiping Israel off the map as mere "rhetoric".

I can't make any sense of this - guess I'm just not leftwing enough.

*Correction: Rodger Scruton used to be an atheist but has now returned to Anglicanism. Thanks.

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