"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Educational selection in an age of meritocracy

This one's over at the Sharpener.

People losing their damn minds #16

Commenting on Tommy Sheridan's open letter to the SSP, Dave Part writes, "If I lived in Scotland, I would be a member of the Scottish Socialist Party."

Hmmm, if he lived in Scotland, he'd probably change his mind because there is no doubt that at least one of them, and probably several of them, have done gone and lost their damn minds.

First up is Sheridan himself. Now, I know we've all got a soft spot for our Tommy. He was good on the poll tax, good also on warrant sales, and he always sports a fetching tan, even at Christmas. But dammit all people, he's losing his mind.

You can't tell me he hasn't - I saw him doing it on telly last night.

On being asked why he was washing SSP undies in public, Tommy said in effect that the membership had the right to know that the leadership had lost their damn minds. Specifically he elaborated on his earlier remark about the SSP becoming a "gender-obsessed discussion group." He cited the example of the Cumnock branch of the party who were not allowed to send a delegation to the party conference because SSP rules state that these have to be 50:50 gender-balanced. Cumnock didn't have any female delegates to send.

Now, I assume this is true - in which case the SSP has obviously lost its collective damn mind.

But surely going on national TV and telling the world that the party is basically being run by a cabal of deranged harpies is in itself a bit mental? Perhaps he's working on the principle that there's no such thing as bad publicity but I've a feeling the next Scottish Parliament elections will tell a different story.

Who to believe? If Tommy has been completely honest about everything, we have it on the very best authority that the SSP has misplaced its communal marble collection - and this includes him, if he thinks having a public bun-fight is a sensible way to deal with this situation.

Yet without passing on hearsay, and certainly not wanting to pretend that I know more than I do, I think some of Tommy's starstruck groupies might want to consider the possibility that Sheridan has perhaps been a little economical with the truth? Or maybe exaggerating a little?

I don't know if he has been but surely to goodness this is at least possible and certainly more plausible than the notion that Tommy's been nobbled because half a dozen trot MSPs represented some kind of "threat to the British state"? It's a collective damn mind losing incident, I tell you.

Sheridan and party convener Colin Fox: Unable to agree on the damn mind losing incident.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Daily Mail in crap scandal scandal

Honestly! It calls itself a rabid right-wing scandal sheet and the best it can come up with is some lame story, replete with zoom-lens piccies, of John Prescott playing croquet.

No call-girls, cocaine, or strange sexual proclivities exposed. Nothing - not a damn thing. I mean, it's not as if we don't know our John isn't capable of better - and this is the best they could dig up? Very disappointing performance all round, if you ask me.

They claim the real scandal has to do with the fact that Mr Prescott as Deputy Prime Minister should have been "concentrating on matters of state".

I suppose if watching a bulldog trying to overcome constipation is your bag, this is the very thing you'd want John Prescott to be doing.

But frankly that's a bit odd and I think the Mail should have been rather more pleased that he wasn't "concentrating on matters of state". Weirdos.

Lecturers back boycott of Israeli academics

From the Guardian:
"Britain's largest lecturers' union yesterday voted in favour of a boycott of Israeli lecturers and academic institutions who do not publicly dissociate themselves from Israel's "apartheid policies"."
Collective guilt is assumed, the boycott is collective punishment. The only way you can escape this is if you pass an ideology test - and pass it publicly.

Sort of Cultural Revolution-lite for the decaffeinated generation, which reminds me: do you think they'll be demanding Chinese academics expiate the collective guilt of their government's crimes through the public confessional?

Neither do I.

There are two walls under construction: one across occupied lands, another across unoccupied minds.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Scottish Socialist Party at war

From the Scotsman:
"The Scottish Socialist Party descended into open warfare last night when Tommy Sheridan, the former leader, accused a "cabal" of spreading lies to discredit him.

Mr Sheridan sent an open letter to all SSP members claiming that senior figures in the party, including MSPs, had spread malicious rumours about him, including allegations that he was a drug dealer, that he trafficked women from eastern Europe and that he used prostitutes.

The Glasgow MSP warned that the SSP was in danger of becoming a "gender-obsessed discussion group" rather than a "class-based socialist party"."
When the News of the World allegations broke originally, I wondered why Tommy's comrades weren't standing behind him in his defamation action against the paper.

Then I heard a few rumours myself, which are not for repeating. Nothing quite as lurid as these, I hasten to add, but I think Sheridan's rantings about a 'cabal' should be taken with a pinch of salt.

I dare say there'll be personal jealousies and ideological differences behind this as well - they are the comrades, after all, and fratricide is what the comrades do best.

But a fair proportion of the animosity towards Sheridan has to do with the fact that the anonymous "senior figures in the party" are a little miffed that he is by default drawing the party into his legal action, which they believe he can't win.

Anyway, what I was wondering was: is the SSP technically big enough to have a cabal?

Pet annoyances #2


You just can't reason with four-year olds so was unavoidably involved in rodent-minding duties at the weekend.

Only on a very limited basis, but this was still too close for comfort; the wee bastard bit me. The hamster, that is.

Had to show him who's boss, remind him who it is that's top of the food chain here.

Here's the recipe:

Rodent fajitas

Ingredients

Rodent - 1
Onion - 1 large
Peppers - 2
Coriander - 1 bunch
Four Tortillas - 3
Lime - 1
Garlic - 1 clove
Tequila - 2 bottles

Method

Flatten rodent with meat-tenderizer, cut it into thin strips, then flambee in tequila. Slice the onions and peppers and add to the rodent. Add the garlic, coriander, a squirt of lime and another generous splash of tequila. Stir in and then leave to simmer for a couple of minutes. Serve in the tortillas with salsa, salad, and soured cream - washed down with the other bottle of tequila. Lunchy.

World Cup competition


























Spot the England fan. Tough this one, I know.



Update: Ok, ok - so there's no groovy pics of gorgeous Scottish fans. That's because we don't have any.

One of our more attractive supporters

Friday, May 26, 2006

People losing their damn minds #15

As if we didn't know already, Gorgeous Boy rides the outer-reaches of insanity once again. I'm not thinking so much of his recent rantings about the assassination of Blair being justified. This, proving too much even for the StWC, is surely just the latest grotesque manifestation of his unquenchable thirst for publicity. There is, as David T suggests, something pornographic about the antics of this shameless self-publicist and like a pornographer, he has to produce ever more lurid and explicit works to retain the attention of his groupies who consume this filth.

Rather, I was thinking of his recent embrace of Fidel Castro. Lost his damn mind, without a doubt - and it isn't just me that thinks so. Here's one from the Stumbling one's archives:
"A prominent politician yesterday told the world that he was suffering from a psychological illness. George Galloway claims - according to top political correspondent Davina McCall - that the greatest man he's ever met is Fidel Castro.

Now let's ponder this. As an MP, Galloway will have met tens of thousands of people: war heroes, fighters of oppression around the world, voluntary workers, teachers, doctors, intellectuals. And, greater than any of these, he claims, is a petty tyrant. Worse, a petty tyrant who seems to have learnt nothing since the early 1960s.

What sort of person thinks that greatness consists in oppressing one's fellow humans, and in imposing one's ego onto them, rather than in trying to understand the world, or to make small improvements to one's little platoon?
The Independent records the point where pornography meets madness:
"Mr Galloway shocked panellists on a live television discussion show in Havana by emerging on set mid-transmission to offer passionate support for Castro. Looking approvingly into each others' eyes, the pair embraced."
Truly sick-making. Assassinating Galloway wouldn't be justified but surely we still have some laws that are supposed to uphold standards of taste and decency? Children might be watching, after all.


Galloway: Lost his damn mind and ugly. On so many different levels.

Update: Hak Mao has a piccy of the touching scene. Strong stomach needed.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Silly quiz

On which country you really should be living in.

I should be here, apparently. I'm ok with that, although I don't recognise the reasons:
"You love your scones and tea, and reading soppy romance novels."
Please be assured that while I'm obviously not without my faults and vices, I would never indulge in such perverted behaviour.

Two in a row

From Chris Dillow. The first is on Aaronovitch's progressives vs reactionaries piece saying the same sort of thing I was trying to - the key difference being his actually makes sense:
"Aaro's belief that 'progressive' is a clear and obvious good thing suggests the legacy of historical determinism runs deep. And to old Tankies, morality consisted in being on the right side of history."
Yep, there's plenty of ex-Marxists around but fewer there be that manage to ditch the determinist streak altogether, perhaps motivated by the fear the zeitgeist will leave them behind? Martin Jacques is another one of these who immediately springs to mind. What I wonder is why do there seem to be so many of them working in journalism?

The second has to do with managerialism and its distinction from technocracy. Clearly, since the latter is usually taken to denote some level of competence, New Labour belongs firmly in the managerialist camp. Chris argues the disposition of managerialists to manipulate images and symbols explains their fixation with spin and presentation. This, in turn, explains one of the features of this government's conduct that is so infuriating; their preference for passing new laws rather than enforcing the existing ones:
"New Labour uses laws not to change reality, as a technocrat would, but as symbols, to show who's in charge."
Managerialism is described as a 'faith', which is surely right. What I wonder, though, is why the faithful seemingly haven't had more secular dark nights of the soul before now? Why is it managerialists don't learn from history? It would, presumably, be in their rational self-interest to do so since they could avoid the present vote-losing shambles in the Home Office. The answer to this is either a) they know properly technocratic decision-making doesn't win enough votes or b) the failure to consider this is part and parcel of managerialism being a faith. Either way, it's fairly depressing.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Rights: the human, the civil and those on stilts

Ronald Dworkin has a piece in the Guardian arguing that the present debate over where the balance between 'human rights' and 'security' should lie is inherently dangerous as it undermines the very concept of the former.

It's one of these arguments that is, in so far as one accepts the definitions, so self-evidently true as to be essentially tautological: of course there can be no 'balance' between human rights and other considerations because these rights are by definition inviolable, and defending them should pay no heed to the consequences of presrving them.

While I believe in the existence of such rights, I don't think people like Dworkin do much to help their cause. One of the reasons here is because he doesn't attempt to provide any arguments to support the existence of such rights, preferring instead simply to dismiss any arguments against these - or rather their supposed legal incarnation in the form of the Human Rights Act - as 'absurd'. Yet if the utilitarian argument is so self-evidently absurd, why does he rely on this to support his case? For be in no doubt, this is precisely what he does:
"Of course it is terrible when deluded terrorists or criminals on probation kill innocent people. But the increased risk that each of us runs is marginal when we insist on enforcing human rights rather than abandoning them just because they have proved inconvenient. It is one of Britain's most honoured traditions to accept the marginally increased risk as the price of respect for individual human dignity. That is what self-respect requires. It is dangerous gibberish to say that the public has a right to as much security as it can have; no one has a right to security purchased through injustice." [emphasis added]
Notice the recourse to distinctly non-liberal categories of justification for a supposedly liberal position: tradition and utility. If he had depended on the former, he'd be on firmer ground - but if he did this, he would have to concede that the rights he is assuming are 'human' are more properly understood as being civil. People like Dworkin think this notion is dangerous because it allows for the idea that rights cannot be enjoyed by all people everywhere and this, in turn, would allow us to retreat and descend into moral relativism. I agree with this to a point but at some level something has to be conceded to the Benthamite case, which is - although from very different political perspectives - essentially the same as that taken by Burke and Marx: what matters about rights is the extent to which they are enjoyed and experienced. This is Betham's 'positive' rights - those actually enforced by law. In the absence of this, what's the point of talking about their existence? They are abstract, immaterial, "nonsense on stilts".

The reply to this is the notion of human rights as a form of moral argument, a rule of human conduct - a recognition that all human beings are equal in the sense of owning their humanity and this carries some obligation on the rest of humanity to acknowledge this. This is the concept of human rights I share: we condemn torture and indefinite detention without trial because the former negates the individual's humanity, the latter is a form of slavery - both are essentially types of spiritual murder. This should not happen at any time anywhere, without exceptions, regardless of the consequences - beause to do so, to approve of others doing so, represents a slide into barbarism and into a place where the normal affections of humanity have been seared over with the iron of urgent expediency.

Here I would agree with Dworkin but this very concept is degraded when rights that are properly understood as being civil - as belonging to a specific civitas - are counted as being human. Here human rights inflation damages the cause. I won't attempt to draw up an exhaustive list but real human rights should be restricted to those that don't depend on a certain level of economic development or a certain form of human organisation. Contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to paid holidays, the right to join a trade union, the right to a formal education, don't exist independently of a certain level of economic development and a particular form of social organisation. There are no human rights of receipt, only those of non-interference - and these even depend on the existence of a state that has the ability to interfere in the first place.

But assuming they do, why is this thought to be a so much weaker defence to make? We have the moral framework that says as a matter of rights human beings should not be treated in certain ways. But we also have a history and a tradition that says British subjects should not be treated in certain ways too, and these properly understood are more extensive than the narrow range of rights that could realistically be described as 'human'.

Why is an appeal to tradition so much less persuasive for Dworkin, especially since he himself implicitly depends on such arguments? Probably because it's too Burkean. But that's rather the problem: Burke, along with Bentham and Marx, raise questions that Dworkin conspicuously fails to answer. He is therefore, here at least, an unsuccessful advocate of a case that can and should be defended.

'Beauty and the beat'

Zoe Williams argues that it is impossible for beautiful music to be written by people who are 'morally ugly'.

There aren't enough words to express how nonsensical this piece is, so best just to use one: Wagner.

Update: Our George has more.

Maddy's mood music

Our Madds, from comment is free:
"It's a rare moment when the BBC Ten O'Clock News has me punching the air with delight..."
Rare for her, whereas for me this has never happened. I might 'punch the air' with schadenfreude, but that's another story. Anyway, what delighted Maddy was Cameron's recent blether about finding the right life/work balance. She suggests, not implausibly, that this is why support for the Tories is rising amongst female voters.

Accepting that the young pretenders warm words are just that, she nevertheless welcomes them because at least it puts the issue on the agenda. I'm slightly horrified because I find myself agreeing with her. Chris Dillow points out that Cameron's speech raised issues that go too deep for a Conservative government to even consider addressing but still, even as mood music it beats Gordon Brown's gloomy presbyterian numbers hands down.

My problem - in addition to being genetically lazy - is that I did my honours dissertation on Weber's Protestant Ethic thesis. This had the effect of completely purging even the faint residue of any such ethic from my inner-being. As long as the life/work balance involves any of the latter at all, the universe is out of kilter as far as I'm concerned.

More from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious

Today it's education and the effect of single-sex classes. From the Scotsman:
"THE use of single-sex classes to improve the attainment of boy pupils can lead to rising indiscipline, according to research.

Academics at Strathclyde and Glasgow universities found boys-only classes sometimes "exacerbated behaviour problems, heightening laddish behaviour".
Where would we be without these academics to explain the world to us? These purveyors of 'research' then have the audacity to blame us for this state of affairs.
"The research, which was commissioned by the Scottish Executive, accuses secondary schools of not doing enough to narrow the attainment gap between boys and girls.

Last year's exam results showed that girls were getting better grades than boys in the key subjects of English and maths."
I mean if we're going to have this culture where schools become effectively rights-vindication centres, it's hardly our fault if the average man-child tracksuit exercises his right to be a complete dead-weight loss to society, is it? For raising attainment, we need the equipment, dammit - cattle prods, riot shields, tear gas and, of course, the death penalty.

Meanwhile the man whose bright idea it was to promote single-sex classes in the first place now has, we learn, a 'twenty-year plan' for education in Scotland.

Hmph! Stalin's added up to less.

Jack McConnell: used to be a maths teacher. Disturbing, isn't it?

Poll blues for Labour

The Guardian reports that the Tories have a four point lead in the opinion polls. Labour have lost their lead on key issues such as education, health, crime and asylum. Labour remains ahead on the economy however - traditionally seen as being crucial.

This is worrying for Labour and worrying particularly for Gordon Brown. While he is ahead of Blair on issues such as trust, Labour voters still think Blair has a wider appeal. This could translate into a loss of support for Labour if Brown became leader.

Some Labour MPs, and particularly Labour traditionalists, are making the same mistake that the Tories made under Major - mistaking their own party for the electorate. On top of that, there appears to be some evidence that the MPs are misreading their own party.

As I've said before, just don't sense the Force is with Gordy. Politicalbetting.com has more on the Brown issue.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Progressives and reactionaries

David Aaronovitch has a piece in today's Times arguing that the real political choice is between 'progressives' and 'reactionaries' and that since these cut across party lines, this choice is more complicated than it once was:

"For years, of course, these allegiances have been breaking up, but the essential divide has been thought to remain. It's there in the common-place that Tony Blair is right-wing for a Labour man, or that David Cameron is left-wing for a Tory. But the truth has been dawning on many of us for some time now that this way of dividing the political world is an anachronism. It no longer fits the facts. When I look at the candidates for Parliament in my own constituency, the Labourness, Libdemness or Toryness of them no longer seems to be the main question. What I want to know is whether they are a progressive or a reactionary."
Further on in the piece he outlines what this means for him when confronted with our party system as it is today:

"I could vote for David Cameron, but I couldn't vote for David Davis or Ken Clarke. I could vote for Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, but I couldn't vote for Frank Dobson or Clare Short. I could vote for Vincent Cable or David Laws, but I couldn't vote for Jenny Tonge or Phil Willis."
What he appears to be arguing is that while this choice may confront the 'progressive' voter with some complexities, the manner in which he has framed the essential political division of our day isn't: there are 'progressives' and there are 'reactionaries'; 'progressives' are the right choice because 'progress' is a Good Thing - end of story.

I know what he's getting at and agree with some of what he said but fundamentally I don't think it clarifies matters much because these concepts are more problematic than he supposes. Leaving aside the questions as to why there are only progressives and reactionaries and no conservatives, why is it automatically assumed that 'progress' per se is a good thing? I suspect because the concept of a reactionary has usually had connotations of not only 'keeping things as they are' but wanting to 'turn the clock back', which is held to be impossible and therefore fundamentally irrational. But herein lies one of the problems I've always had with this notion of 'progress'. It's too deterministic for implicit in the idea is the belief that history is 'going somewhere', that this is inevitable and cannot be resisted.

That 'progress' is held to be inevitable shouldn't perturb those of us who are of a, um, progressive disposition when we hear what David Aaronovitch understands by this:

"We tend to believe in interdependence, and that what happens on the other side of the globe is our affair. We tend to believe in the open exchange of capital, ideas and people. We tend to believe - as India proves - that liberal democracy is not some kind of Western model that cannot be exported, but the best way of allowing human beings a say in their own government. We tend to believe in progress towards a fulfilling and equal existence for men and women, without arbitrary barriers. We tend to believe that scientific and technical progress can usually be harnessed for the benefit of humankind."
We also tend to believe in motherhood and apple pie. But it's when this is broken down to specifics, one encounters a few problems:

"Do I want a Labour MP who argues that there should be no private money involved in health provision and that the structure of the NHS should be the same in 2008 as it was in 1948? That there should be only one type of school? That the greatest enemy to mankind is the United States of America?"
Or rather it's really one problem - all the examples Aaronovitch uses have to do with the surprisingly resilient fashion for what one might describe as 'neoliberalism' and here, because one is swimming against the tide of History, resistance is useless. It's akin to Blair's 'Forces of Conservatism' speech - an insidious speech that sent a chill down my spine. The Forces of Conservatism are responsible for all the misery in the world, Blair intoned - they are those who shot Martin Luther King, killed Bambi's mum and goodness knows what else. It's a simplifying ideology that lumps people together as either belonging to the Future (good) or belonging to the Past (bad). Is there no room for people to take different views on all of these things Aaronovitch lumps together for different reasons? Do I think that the greatest enemy of mankind is America? Of course not but why is that placed next to a neoliberal agenda in public services? Can we not think the NHS needs reformed but without lining the pockets of contractors? Does David Aaronovitch think we have at present "only one type of school?" The translation of the above is obviously "support Blair's market reforms in education or you're, like, so yesterday man". Can I not think, as I do, that Mr Aaronovitch knows nothing about education, how it works, what needs to be done to improve it without being a 'reactionary' who obviously hates America and irrationally opposes globalisation?

Moreover, when does a conservative become a reactionary? For Aaronovitch it is those who want to go back to the postwar settlement and set it in stone. But what about his position? 'Flexible labour markets' are the thing. This means, essentially, less rights for workers so that they can be sacked more easily. Ok, how flexible? Because we could go back to the 19th century and have almost completely 'flexible' markets - no health and saftey, no sick pay, no maternity leave, no union recognition. But then isn't that reactionary? You see the problem. Aaronovitch is confusing mechanisms and institutions with principles. Traditional leftists were and are wedded to the comprehensive system because they were under the impression that it was a mechanism for producing social equality. But does the realisation that it doesn't do this very well mean you have to support market-based reforms because otherwise you'll be labeled a reactionary, even though you think they'll simply make matters worse? For the Blairs and the Aaronovitchs I think it does. Very well then, I'm a reactionary - on this issue as with a few others.

Why couldn't David Aaronovitch have simply said, socialism is no more, now there's only liberals and conservatives? There's nothing new about that. So you find liberals and conservatives in all different parties? There's nothing new about that either.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Duff and Euston

David Duff has a couple of posts up about the Euston Manifesto here and here. Maybe I should follow his example and break up this response up because the first thing one can say about his criticisms is they are considerably more rational and thoughtful than much of what has been coming out of the so-called left* and as such they deserve a proper response.

The first point to take issue with is the idea that the Manifesto represents a private squabble between Respect/SWP and 'NuLabour'. I'll confine myself to the observation that one of the purposes of the Manifesto is to counter a view that we believe to be held in circles that extend some way beyond these political equivalents of the Jehovah's Witnesses. This is certainly my understanding of the situation and, moreover, I say this as someone who is no great fan of the neoliberal 'modernisation' agenda that is New Labour.

The more substantive point he raises is the idea that the Manifesto commits the signer to advocating 'regime-change' across the board because unless one accepts a certain degree of realpolitik, this is the implication of supporting regime-change in Afghanistan and Iraq. I assume he is referring here to point 10, which states a belief in a 'new internationalism'. Here David repeats the idea that the signatories to the Manifesto all supported the invasion of Iraq, which they did not.

This stems, perhaps, from his misunderstanding of the concept of 'regime-change'. It is an interesting mistake because it inadvertently highlights one of the key divergences from genuinely conservative - as opposed to neoconservative - political thought. For the former, order is the first virtue of the state and the inherent scepticism from which this position flows is likely to be highly dubious about any changes to a situation where political order is held to exist. It's worth remarking at this stage the extent to which this essentially conservative idea was co-opted by those claiming to belong to the left.

But for the broad church of the centre-left, when confronted with dictatorships, 'regime-change' has always been part of its political standpoint. However - and this cannot be stressed enough - this unequivocally does not mean that support for an invasion necessarily follows from this. This is why the 'Eustonites', as David calls us, have amongst our members people who did not support the invasion of Iraq. 'Regime-change' simply does not equal 'invasion' and those who have argued since 2003 that this concept is a euphemism for military intervention are simply unfamiliar with some of the basic terminology of comparative politics. For example, I've recently argued that while regime-change in Iran would be highly desirable - I would be unable to support any American attempt to impose this with military force.

The Manifesto does stand for internationalism, which by definition rejects the notion that the 'sovereignty' of the nation-state is absolutely sacrosanct but that is a different matter. Here also we could note the essentially conservative arguments put forward by some of the antiwar left. While it is we who are accused variously of 'my country right or wrong' jingoism, or most absurdly of supporting 'ethnic nationalism', it is surely those who believe that the 'resistance' in Iraq are entitled to use 'any means necessary' who have made the integrity of the nation-state the supreme value - the altar on which all other considerations can be sacrificed?

On David's question as to whether democracy is always preferable to tyranny, I'll follow his example and leave this for another day.

*So far the prize for the most insane I've seen goes to someone calling themselves 'Brendan' in HP's comments who argued that the Euston Manifesto is a conspiracy to keep Blair in power long enough for him to bomb Iran.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

TV annoyances

Apparently the new series of Big Brother has attracted record ratings:
"The latest series of Big Brother attracted its biggest opening night audience, according to unofficial overnight figures.
The Channel 4 reality show drew a peak audience of 8.1 million viewers as the new crop of housemates were unveiled."
I confess to being one of these 8.1 million - the reason being a former pupil at the school I used to teach in is on it. He's the really screechy, annoying one with the Glasgow accent.

Way before my time, thank goodness - but I'm reliably informed he was like that as a pupil.

Having him in your class - how annoying would that be?

Nails scraping across a blackboard annoying, I'd imagine. He makes the other contestants look unannoying by comparison.

But they're not. For instance, one of them went into the 'Big Brother' room or whatever it's called and started going on about how terrible it was that the house couldn't accommodate the obviously arduous business of her waterproof mascara removal - in distressed tones that would have been appropriate if she'd just discovered Big Brother had strangled and dismembered her cat or something.

It is sometimes suggested that Big Brother is indicative of how nice and tolerant today's youth are. I think this is true - they are certainly nicer and more tolerant than me. If I were in the Big Brother house and there was, say, a chainsaw lying about - there'd be a bloodbath, let me tell you.

Now that would be entertainment.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Pro-secular Turkish protests

Following the murder of a secular judge mentioned in the post below, there have been large demonstrations in Turkey:
"More than 25,000 people marched in defence of secularism in mainly Muslim Turkey yesterday, shocked after the killing of a leading judge by a gunman said to be driven by religious fervour.
Angry crowds outside the Ankara mosque where the funeral of slain judge Mustafa Ozbilgin was being held pushed government ministers on their way inside, and outside the country's top administrative court bystanders booed the foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, and called for the government's resignation.

Four more people were detained in connection with the killing on Wednesday, when a lawyer stormed into a chamber of the top court, shooting Mr Ozbilgin dead and injuring four others while shouting that he was a soldier of Allah.
The attack raised tensions between the secular establishment and the religious-minded government and sparked an outpouring of nationalist sentiment across the Turkish capital.

Judges led thousands of people to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's mausoleum to pay homage to the republic's founder and mark their support for secularism."
Read the rest here.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Iran and the coming apocalypse

There's a depressing story in today's Guardian concerning a Turkish judge who has been shot dead by a lawyer. The provocation was the recent judgment where four judges upheld the decision not to promote an elementary schoolteacher because she wore a headscarf outside of work. Depressing in and of itself but also because even where there is democracy, violent Islamism flourishes and the sort of clumsy secularist triumphalism exercised by the Turkish state and more recently by France seems to damage the otherwise beneficial effect one might expect secular political democracy to have in taking the sting out of theocratic-fascist movimentos.

If you're asking what this has to do with Iran, I don't blame you but bear with me. A paper by Halil Ibrahim Yenigun, a graduate student in the University of Virginia tackles the topic if Islamism in modern Turkey, its relationship to nationalism and attempts to answer the question as to why political Islam has been so resilient. Whether his answers are satisfactory or not, I'll leave the reader to judge but I do think he makes a couple of sound observations. One is the fact that violent Islamism, in Turkey as elsewhere, cannot be explained away by shoe-horning it into a vulgar Marxist framework and claiming terrorism is solely a function of either poverty or thwarted professional ambition amongst the middle classes (see p. 41).

The other, which will raise an eyebrow or two but which I think is correct, is that political Islam is seen as an example of this-worldy success:
"When the villager of Makal tells the Kemalist teacher, "It is the other world we really need. You are concerned with this world, with its non-sense and its modern ideas. It's all humbug!" he expressed his confidence in his religion and revealed his other-worldly orientation. In this sense, Islam can not be said to have lost its status as the path towards the eternal salvation among his periphery/outsider believers. Makal's villager only cared about the hereafter, but when the Iranian Revolution took place and Afghani jihad began in 1979 in a massive resistance to the Soviets, Islam also emerged as a source of the worldly-political success for Muslims. This factor goes largely unnoticed in the literature, while almost all of the Islamists mention this in explaining the rise of Islamism."
We all know where the Afghani jihad led. You might think with the Taleban inviting its own destruction, and with the spectacle of a relieved population dancing for joy at its downfall, that the Afghani jihad would no longer serve as an example of this-worldly success. But you'd be wrong. It should be obvious by now that theocracy finds its most ardent supporters amongst those who have never experienced it and who tend to collapse the actual conditions within countries into international abstractions where the Elect are in cosmic battle with the Great Satan. Regime-change in Afghanistan in this narrative represented a blow against the righteous by demonic forces.

For this reason also, we cannot expect the utter bankruptcy of the Iranian theocracy and its complete failure to address the problems of a sophisticated and complex society to represent what it should - a this-worldly failure. And the normal disposition of the millenially-minded to see peoples and nations as types and shadows is exacerbated in this present nuclear stand-off between Iran and the United States.

There could scarcely be a better illustration of how counter-productive the US policy of shoring up secular dictators in the region has proved than the Iranian revolution of 1979. Yet there could scarcely be a better illustration of how utterly useless and oppressive theocracy is - were it to collapse internally under the weight of its own corruption. This forms part of the reason why I've always thought, and still think now, that an attempt by the United States to impose regime-change with external force would be such a mistake. It is important to see behind Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disgraceful comments about the Holocaust and his outrageous but empty threats to "wipe Israel from the map" the attempt by a regime, in the classic authoritarian fashion, to distract from its internal problems. As Kaveh Ehsani put it:
"The domestic balance of power was tipped after the parliamentary elections of 2004 and the presidential election of June 2005, when Iran's military-conservative forces gained ascendancy over all branches of the state for the first time since 1979. But the significance of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory is often missed: he was not elected on a platform favouring an ideological confrontation with the west, but rather on promises to fight corruption and improve the lot of unemployed and impoverished Iranians.

It is precisely the structural incapacity of Ahmadinejad's administration to deliver on these promises that explains its demagogic, confrontational tone over the nuclear issue."
One could add that as well as having a regime incapable of delivering change, it has to contend with a population who, having already experienced theocracy, is less likely to frame their dissatisfaction with the status quo religiously than anyone else in the region, with the possible exception of the Kurds.

This position was formed prior to the present crisis with regards the development of uranium enrichment by the Tehran regime, which leaves the question: can this be sustained? I'd argue it can, or rather it has to be. Washington is giving the impression that patience is inappropriate in the present circumstances but when one considers the alternatives, it is difficult to see how they would achieve their desired outcomes. As Trita Parsi points out, the United States has gone from having what seemed to all intents and purposes no policy on Iran to having two - non-proliferation and regime-change. While both are obviously desirable, he argues that they are contradictory and that in any event, the present strategy is unlikely to achieve either: the policy of regime-change has resulted in a strict non-diplomatic stance in relation to Tehran and this, in turn, has reinforced the regime's desire to obtain nuclear technology as a means of regime preservation.

Washington's position here has lead many to assume that a military strike on Iran is inevitable. One of the striking things about this 'debate' is the extent to which various commentators have felt themselves moved to indulge in a little soothsaying. Timothy Garton-Ash has a little science-fiction number outlining the catastrophe that would unfold following a military strike on Iran. Paul Rodgers, clearly a betting man, has suggested October of this year as the date for the coming apocalypse. This forms part of a more comprehensive prophetic vision where the possible consequences of military action against Iran are explored in more detail. Meanwhile, it was Seymour Hersh that raised the possibility that the Bush Administration were considering the use of nuclear weapons against Iran's nuclear facilities.

This last notion reflects, perhaps, the understanding that in reality the range of options open to Washington are extremely limited. No-one seriously believes - or perhaps I should say, no serious person believes - that the Americans have either the will or the ability to launch a full-scale invasion and occupation of Iran, overstretched as they are in Afghanistan and Iraq. With regards a conventional strike on Iran's nuclear installations - the most likely military senario - most appear to agree that for it to be effective, it would have to go way beyond that carried out by the Israelis on the Osiraq installation in Iraq in 1981. Perhaps learning from this experience, the Iranian regime has its nuclear programme dispersed and hidden deep underground. Any conventional strike, most seem to agree, would involve hitting dozens, if not hundreds of targets. There would be those targetting the facilities themselves but also in all probability these would be accompanied by strikes against the Iranian regime's conventional forces that might be used in retalitation, either against American forces in Iraq or against Israel - along with actions designed to kill as many specialist personnel as possible. While the doomsayers might want to reflect that their previous predictions of spreading regional conflict have proved in the case of Iraq to belong to the school of Cassandra, it is surely right to assume such an action would be highly destabilising to say the least? Scarcely a risk worth taking since it would in all probability, as Christopher Hitchens says, merely serve to "restate the problem in a different form".

It is this absence of viable options that one presumes has lead people to assume the worst when the Bush Administration apparently refused to rule out the prospect of a nuclear strike. Obviously this would be, as Jack Straw was reported as saying, 'completely nuts'. That Blair was careful to describe this as 'absurd' - but not to rule out a conventional strike - has lead the conspiracy theorists to assume the latter is inevitable. But one is left wondering how plausible any of this - whether Bush and Blair have gone all 'messianic' or not. Is the American military-industrial bureaucracy really ready to let off nuclear weapons near all that oil, right next door to thousands of American servicemen? I doubt it. On the conventional front, and the supposed quest for 'legacy' that is supposed to be driving Bush and Blair notwithstanding, how plausible is it that either of these men, if they were inclined to do so, could get such a prospect verified by their respective legislatures? With regards the United States, I would be reluctant to prophesy with any certainty; in the British case, less so - but in both of them a commonly overlooked fact is that the permission of Congress and Parliament are essential. With regards the former, this has been long established. Nixon argued, not implausibly, that this was unconstitutional - but it is the situation nevertheless. Regarding the latter, a little remarked upon fact of the invasion of Iraq was that it did establish a precedent of Parliamentary consent in going to war - a fact of no small significance in our unwritten and uncodified constitutional tradition. Whether either of these heads of the Executive could gain this in their present condition, even assuming they wanted it, is by no means certain, to say the least.

Yet were they against all odds to gain it, I would still oppose it. One is inclined to agree with Hitchens when he says that the Iranian regime, corrupt and degraded though it is, cannot be considered insanely self-destructive in the way Saddam Hussein was, or North Korea's Kim Il Jong is. They have an obvious interest in gaining nuclear weapons as a mechanism for regime preservation but are not demented enough not to realise that their use would inevitably invite their own annihilation.

That this position is obviously less dangerous than the alternative is something of which I am by no means certain. And it's this lack of certainty that stands in contrast to the comment and opinion coming from the other side of the debate. The confidence with which they prophesy is a remarkable phenomenon. One might have thought we could wait to see if any such military confrontation takes place, and then to await the response from those of us who might be loosely termed the 'Euston left' before responding themselves. But clearly they are impatient - certain of the outcome, and certain too of our response. Jamie K, for example, had this to say:
"[F]ew over here will actually come out and support a first strike on Iran. They'll just accuse people who actively oppose it of not taking the problem seriously. If it takes place, they'll say it had to happen because people who opposed it didn't take the problem seriously."
Regarding the the idea "it had to happen", I trust it's clear that some of us are not of this view; with the second point, I'll join with him and predict that should this take place, such an accusation is indeed very likely. In fact, I'll make it myself because one thing that is clear already is that 'they' do not take this 'problem' seriously at all. The only danger inherent in the situation for 'them' is found in any possible response from the United States. Were it not for this, they are extraordinarily sanguine about the whole matter. Iran is not going to nuke Israel but this doesn't mean a nuclear Iran is nothing to worry about. One concern that I have scarcely seen referred to anywhere, but which I presume is a concern to the Bush Administration, is the prospect of nuclear arms race in the region. Should Iran develop nuclear weapons, others would surely want to follow suit. Key amongst them would be Saudi Arabia. Assuming as I do that one of the motivations behind the invasion of Iraq was the instability of the House of Saud, how much more dangerous would the region be with the bells of nuclear technology added on? This is of apparently no concern to these - the only source of danger appears to lie in the attentions, and intentions, of the American empire. Yet I've argued that here, the course of action it will choose is by no means certain, while the worst-case senario I anticipate with dread. But I question whether dread is the feeling that motivates the B-list prophets of the eschaton. One senses rather the joy they experience in engaging with imaginary and demonized opponents. The certainty, the secret enthusiasm for believing the worst; it is because those who pursue the millennium have a part of their souls that welcome the apocalypse. They may not say so, perhaps they can't even admit it to themselves, but they do nonetheless. Because they can't help themselves, because it is the inescapable condition of those who belong to the Elect.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Teaching to the test

From the beeb:
"Too many schools are "teaching to the test" in mathematics, stifling genuinely stimulating thinking about the subject, a report suggests.
Education watchdog Ofsted looked at 26 schools, sixth forms and other colleges in England and found that about half of lessons failed in this regard."
Amongst the problems here, according to the Ofsted report, is a shortage of subject specialists, which left some groups taught by people not qualified in mathematics.

First there's the question of why England has a situation where subjects are being taught by people who have no academic qualification to do so? This is not the case in Scotland where a teacher's qualification has to be verified by the GTC before you can teach the subject. There are no unqualified maths teachers here simply because you cannot teach in a Scottish school unless you have studied mathematics at university.

However, while probably desirable from an educational point of view, if England were to adopt this system, it would do nothing to overcome the shortage - quite the opposite. This touches on the debate concerning this government's largesse towards the public sector and the question as to where, exactly, has all the money gone? Because it doesn't seem to have produced much in the way of improved performance in either health or education. If you accept the logic of the market - which this government at least professes to do - the conclusion you'd have to draw is that mathematics graduates are not being offered enough in the way of wages and conditions to attract them to the teaching profession.

Before you laugh incredulously, allow me to explain: we have a 'mixed economy', if I may use that old term, and this does not mean that the state and the private sector operate in two completely different spheres, as some seem to imagine. Rather, the government 'pre-empts' the market by collecting taxes and then uses these to compete in the market for scarce resources. The logic of this, which few politicians (any?) seem to accept, is that you have to match the wages and conditions offered in the private sector to mathematics graduates if you are to attract them into teaching.

Here, obviously, the existence of alternatives is a crucial variable. As a social science graduate with no discernible skills, living in a city where opportunities are much more limited than in London, I am almost certainly over-paid for what I do. But this clearly does not apply to a mathematics graduate living in London. They can actually do stuff that might be relevant to the business of producing goods and services, they have many more opportunities, and the education sector is trying to attract their labour with poorer wages and conditions than I enjoy. As well as being paid less, the English teacher has no agreement on minimum class contact time in the week, along with larger classes, greater indiscipline, and more bureaucracy to contend with. Why put up with this shit when you could get a job where you might actually earn enough to purchase somewhere to live that is bigger than a rabbit-hutch? English maths graduates have clearly been asking themselves the same question, which is why - I'm lead to believe - the average maths graduate lasts one year on average if they are teaching in inner-London schools.

That greater public spending has gone largely on merely retaining staff, and that it hasn't even managed to do that properly, is a fact that few politicians will accept. The other has to do with this notion of 'teaching to the test'. Teachers do this simply because there are too many tests. The obsession with quantitative measures of performance, introduced under the Thatcher years and re-enforced with a vengeance under Major, has done a great deal of harm to education in this country. The logic behind the league tables and all this 'key-stage' nonsense the English system does makes a superficial sense: the system is supposed to produce students educated in maths - and league tables are supposed to verify this is being done properly. But given that jobs are lost and schools can sink or swim on the basis of this information, schools and teachers have an obvious incentive to 'teach to the test'. This is an effect the present regime has quite independently from whether enough appropriately qualified personnel can be found to fill the posts in English secondary schools.

You're left wondering why there seemed to be no-one in the Thatcher governments, or in Major's, and now with this one, that understood some basic principles of sociology. Max Weber is on hand to explain the problem here. Ends, which he was sceptical as to whether you could say the given ones are more rational than the alternatives, nevertheless can be pursued by means that one can say are more or less rational. However, a tendency he identified in practically everything he wrote, whether it be about the 'Protestant Ethic' or his ideas concerning bureaucracy, is that means are inclined to become ends in themselves. This is surely what has happened in education? It is perfectly reasonable to attempt to verify whether educational services are being delivered properly but the sheer weight, and quantity, of quantitative methods used for doing so has produced this situation where students experience 'teaching to the test'. There's little point in Ofsted complaining about this because the system they administer, which was championed by the pupil-shagging Chris Woodhead, is designed to produce this. Blair and his groupies don't get this, so one would expect that this will continue until somebody twigs where the problem lies.

I'm not confident that this will happen any time soon: we're all neo-liberals these days; the problem is, neo-liberals have nothing sensible to say on the subject of education.

The Browned-off version

Keep getting the feeling the Force is definitely not with our Gordy - although I wouldn't necessarily go as far as Mike Smithson, who has a piece boldy entitled, "Why Gordon will never be leader":
"My reading of Brown is that he would find it hard dealing with a contested election when he would have to ask people for their votes. It is not easy trying to envisage Brown as the supplicant. After more than a decade expecting the mantle just to be handed over the reality of fighting a serious contest would be very challenging. Johnson, or somebody like him, could give him a run for his money."
Indeed. I can't imagine the man who would be King adapting very well to the business of ingratiating himself to people and grubbing around for votes.

The other thing I wonder is, aren't there any MPs - and not just Blairites - that are getting a bit pissed-off with Brown's assumption that the next leadership election will simply be a coronation? I know I would be.

And, assuming he does become leader, isn't there the possibility of the IDS factor coming into play? I don't mean Brown lacks authority in the way IDS did but in this respect: Ian Duncan Smith enraged many Tories with his demands for loyalty during his short reign. Enraged because he had hardly showed Major any during Maastricht. Obviously Brown isn't a serial backbench rebel obsessed with Europe but isn't there a possibility that Brown's calls for unity - which he will surely have to make - will grate with quite a few MPs? Because he has behaved rather badly, I think.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Drugs minister 'smoked marijuana'

From the beeb:
"The new minister for drugs policy has admitted smoking cannabis.
[He] said he had had "one or two puffs of marijuana" while a student but had not enjoyed the experience and decided not to repeat it.

The Home Office minister, who was handed his role in this month's Cabinet reshuffle, denied taking harder drugs.

He made his admission on a visit to Coventry as part of a nationwide tour to see how the government's drug strategy is affecting communities.

He told the Coventry Evening Telegraph: "When I was a student, I took one or two puffs of marijuana but that was it. I think it was once or twice."

Here's a piccy of the 'drugs minister'. He's called Mr Coaker. No, really. The line under the photo on the beeb website is, "Mr Coaker says he did not enjoy smoking marijuana".

Because the absence of enjoyment is absolutely crucial.

This is what I love about blogging. You don't have to make anything up at all.

Civil service head backs peerages for party donors

Sir Gus O'Donnell:
"It seems to me perfectly reasonable to have someone, if education is to be a big issue, that they are someone who is an expert on education and can make a contribution."
Because as everyone knows, church groups and wealthy businesses are generally run by people who are "experts on education" - whether they've actually coughed up the cash or not.


Gus O'Donnell: well-known expert in what constitutes an 'expert on education'.

Poor areas give poor chances

From the Scotsman:
"The figures compiled by the Scottish Executive show the total percentage of pupils leaving school with no qualifications fell from 5 to 4 per cent in 2003-4 and has remained at this level since.

But in Glasgow City the figure is twice as high, with one in ten children leaving school with no qualifications last year.

Across the city there are huge differences between affluent and deprived areas. For example in Strathkelvin and Bearsden, just 2 per cent of children left school with no qualifications last year, compared to 14 per cent in nearby Glasgow Anniesland. In Glasgow Maryhill the figure peaked at 20 per cent in 2001-2 but has now halved to 10 per cent."
I just love the explanations that are offered here:
"Paul Martin, the Labour MSP for Glasgow Springburn, defended the pupils in his constituency who leave school without any qualifications.

He said many of the pupils are at a disadvantage because they cannot afford extra tuition and other perks.

He suggested children in a deprived area should be offered after-school help, access to a telephone helpline and online assistance."
If he believes the disparity is due to extra tuition in "leafy suburb" schools, he's capable of believing anything. My own suggestion would be to send kids in deprived areas to schools that aren't completely mental - quite sure that would go some way to addressing the problem.

Now, anyone who works in these places knows the bullshitters are an obstacle to progress here - so I've been trying to think of some practical reforms. So far I've come up with the idea of drawing lots instead of interviews for selecting headteachers. Get a bunch of people with similar qualifications and experience - put the names into a hat and this, surely, would at least increase the chances of eliminating some of the management-speak morons who are 'relishing the challenge' of rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic?

Or they could be elected? Why not? You think this is silly but turning our education system into a supermarket is a "really good idea", do you?

Dublin!!!!???

Did this "what European city do you belong in?" thingy and the answer is Dublin!

"You Belong in Dublin. Friendly and down to earth, you want to enjoy Europe without snobbery or pretensions.

You're the perfect person to go wild on a pub crawl... or enjoy a quiet bike ride through the old part of town."

Bike-rides indeed! In another city with a stupid smoking ban? Something far wrong here...

(Via: Norm)

New inquiry into Scottish 'tsars'

From the Scotsman:
"AN INVESTIGATION is to be launched into the increasing number of powerful and costly "tsars" being appointed in Scotland, The Scotsman has learned.

Ministers are determined to tackle the burgeoning numbers of tsars, inspectors and ombudsmen amid concerns over their influence and spiralling costs."
One example of the factors contributing to 'spiralling costs' would be the fact that the Children's Tsar, Kathleen Marshall, had not limits set on what she could spend. The suggested solution? A "tsar's tsar" to tackle the problem of all these tsars. No, really:
"(T)he investigation, to be headed up by what has been described as a "tsar tsar", has been condemned by opposition politicians as a "cosmetic exercise", which comes amid Executive plans to create five more tsars."
For instance, McConnell is set to appoint a new human rights tsar - thereby reinforcing the impression that maths teachers tend not to have a particularly well-developed sense of irony.

Do you think it'll take the appointment of a tsar's tsar's tsar before someone twigs that this is getting a bit silly?

Not being a minimal statist, I'm normally inclined to defend public spending - but they don't half make it difficult sometimes. Another absurdity I heard just the other day from a friend who teaches in a Catholic secondary in Glasgow is that all teachers in the denominational sector can get a day off to attend a workshop on the topic of 'decoding' the Da Vinci Code. Apparently this is in case the ideas in the book are passed on to pupils as if they were fact, thereby damaging Catholic education.

If you're surprised that Glasgow City Council thinks it is appropriate to provide remedial education for Catholic teachers with learning difficulties at the council tax-payer's expense, you really shouldn't be.

Update: I trust the above will go at least some way to answering Chris Dillow's query, "Is extra public spending unproductive in Scotland?" Just a tad. Still, at least it undermines to some extent the national stereotype of the parsimonious Scot; our Executive spends money like a drunken sailor who's just won at the bookies.

Monday, May 15, 2006

British values classes considered

From the beeb:
"The government is to review whether "core British values" should become a compulsory part of the curriculum for 11 to 16-year-olds in England.

In response to last year's London bombings, ministers want to adapt the current citizenship classes in an attempt to make society more unified."
Hmph - doesn't the fact that 'British' values are only going to be taught in English schools rather illustrate the problem with this sort of thing? I think I'm probably in a minority up here but I feel myself to be both Scottish and British and don't particularly care for this idea that one's identity is some kind of zero-sum game - as is implicit in these stupid opinion polls that ask you if you feel more Scottish rather than British. I mean, what are you supposed to say - I feel 13% more Scottish today, thank you for asking?

Apart from anything else, part of my own notion of Britishness is that we're not like the French or the Americans: it is perhaps regrettable that we missed the window for an Enlightenment revolution in the 18th century but we did so we obviously can't by definition do bombastic republican pride like they do and it would be frankly embarrassing for us to ape this. What could be more British than to say for us, "it's just not the done thing"?

Also the justification behind it - the idea that this will go some way to preventing the radicalisation of Muslim youth - sounds to me like yet another social problem that education will be expected to cure. We already carry the burden of enough problems we're powerless to solve, thank you very much.

There's also the problem of what everyone will be expected to agree on. Allow me to illustrate with a trivial example: it is supposed to be indicative of 'anti-English racism' that many Scots will support any team against England, so to demonstrate we don't all have large (cooked in animal fat and garnished with deep-fried Mars bar) chips on our shoulders, we're supposed to cheer on Ingerland in the World Cup. (This is what Gordy plans to do, after all.)

Well, I'm sorry - I reckon this is just Tebbit's "cricket test" warmed up for a new generation and I'm not doing it. Being half-Scottish, quarter English and quarter Welsh, I'm the very incarnation of the union. Most of my living relatives are English. My mother's English, for goodness sake. You'd be hard-pressed to find a less anti-English Scot than me.

But if you're English and reading this - I hope you get humped severely in the World Cup. There's a simple explanation. I'd be happy for you to win if I thought there was the least possibility of you doing so gracefully - but there really isn't. If you win anything - be it a war or football - you go on and on and fucking on about it, like, forever. You won the World Cup in 1966 and have been banging on about it ever since. I was born in 1966 - so there has never been a point in my life when I haven't ran the risk of some English twat going on about winning the World Cup - as if it was their doing or something. Should you win this time, I would have to resign myself to the fact that in all probability not only would my entire existence on this earth will be dominated by this shit - it would continue long after I'm dead and buried. And this simply won't do.

So I deeply and sincerely hope you reach the final.

And then lose.

To Germans.

So there.

Skinner and Baddiel - deeply evil.

English blow to Brown's PM hopes

The 'English blow' refers to a BBC poll that found increasing numbers of English voters don't think a Scottish MP should be Prime Minister:
"GORDON Brown's hopes of winning the next election as Labour leader suffered a setback yesterday when a new poll showed a strong English backlash against the idea of a Scottish Prime Minister.

The BBC poll found that most voters in England believe Scottish MPs should be barred from becoming Prime Minister, with the highest level of antagonism in the south-east of England.

The Chancellor is expected to take over from Tony Blair in the next 18 months, with the latest estimates forecasting a handover at the start of next year's summer recess.

That would give Mr Brown about a year to stamp his authority on the government and the Labour Party before the next general election.

But the BBC poll, conducted by ICM, suggests that Mr Brown will fail to win the election because of an anti-Scottish backlash in England.

Across the UK, 52 per cent of respondents said it was wrong for an MP north of the Border to become Prime Minister now Scotland has its own parliament.

Forty-five per cent said they did not mind a Scottish MP becoming Prime Minister, with 3 per cent undecided. The percentage of those objecting to the idea of a Scottish Prime Minister was 55 per cent for England and 59 per cent in the south-east, and 20 per cent in Scotland."

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Women and toilet seats: the truth uncovered

What kind of man am I? A New Man, New Lad, Metrosexual, Ubersexual, Retrosexual? How does one cope with today's female fashion and still retain one's feminist credentials - if indeed it is possible for a man to claim to be a feminist at all? If like Philip Norman in today's Sunday Times you spend any time worrying about this sort of thing, I don't understand you at all but I feel very badly for you. I suspect the cure might be as simple as moving away from London.

Another thing I don't understand is how it is possible to go through life and not figure out what it is with women and toilet seats. Philip Norman doesn't get this either:
"Once, Britain's national sex stereotype joke was about women drivers. Now it's about men and toilet seats . . . I don't know what it is about a raised toilet seat that causes women such unfathomable horror. Female children are somehow programmed in the womb to go almost mad with despair and disgust when they see a toilet seat left in the upright position.

The more extreme branches of feminism used to regard every man as a potential rapist; now every man is regarded as a potential toilet seat offender. I would point out that raising a toilet seat is infinitely more mannerly and considerate than not doing so. It was the great Jonathan Miller who once said that the old train loo sign 'Gentlemen lift the seat' was not an instruction so much as a moral judgment."
Poor thing - so for his sake, and for any other men who inexplicably don't get this, harken unto my words and ye shall learn. It is still the done thing to lift the toilet seat for the simple reason that women don't like sitting on them after you've pissed all over it. This much, surely, should be obvious? But it is also the done thing to put it back down. It's this essential ingredient to modern toilet etiquette that provokes the howls of anguished incomprehension from the confused modern male and I don't understand why because the answer is blindingly obvious: women don't like touching toilet seats - period.* So you leave it down in order that they can avoid doing so. It's that simple.

How can men not know this? Are they unaware of just how many women either never use public conveniences or only use them with a protective layer of bogroll on the seat before they sit down? Not a few even use them without making any form of bodily contact with the crapper at all. (It's called 'straddling': this calls for balance and a certain level of physical fitness and should not be attempted without consulting your GP first.)

And haven't they noticed the way the clean bathroom imperative gains an almost religious intensity whenever you have guests coming round? You thought you were having people round for drinks or dinner or whatever, only to discover you are in fact receiving toilet-inspectors into your home who are intending to take swabs from your bathroom and then send them away for analysis. If even a microscopic trace of what the toilet is actually designed to receive is found, you will be forever shamed and in all probability you'd have to move house, get new friends etc. Hence the need to annihilate with fragrant yet deadly bleaching agents any germs that might have the temerity to even think about breeding in your toilet.

So leave the toilet-seat down. You could, I suppose, try pointing out that this is both irrational and unfair to us, since it means the touching of the toilet-seat thing becomes the sole prerogative of men but this is a pointless, self-defeating argument: by insisting that this toilet-seat aversion is irrational, you thereby undermine any reasons you might offer for not touching it.

You no longer have the excuse of not understanding why: it is quite simply the Duty of Man to leave the toilet-seat down under all circumstances and that is that. Complaining about it is utterly futile.

*I fully accept this could be construed as being stereotypical but it is meant as a generalisation: there may well be women that do like touching toilet-seats, perhaps even savour the experience, but I've never met any and don't know anyone who has.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

An obligation to respect?

Is it just part of the essential pattern of small compromises that all human beings must make to live in this world of ours that is behind the feeling that one has an obligation to moderate one's behaviour to accomodate the religious sensibilities of others? Or in doing so, does one end up effectively colluding with injustice? Brian Whitaker asks this question in relation to the subjugation of women in Saudi Arabia:
"Generally, I take the view that travellers should adapt as far as possible to local practices: when in Riyadh do as the Riyadhis do. Not that I'm always comfortable about it, though. Sitting in the men-only section of a Saudi cafe or restaurant, I sometimes wonder how it differs from the whites-only places they used to have in South Africa, and how I would have felt about being there."
I wouldn't presume to tell Mr Whitaker or anyone else how they should behave in such a situation but I do think he'd find the questions he asks himself easier to answer if he eliminated a central falsehood from his reasoning, which is the notion that one has a duty to respect the beliefs of others. It's a commonly-held view and flows from a misunderstanding of what the 'right' to believe whatever one chooses means for the rest of us:
"My own starting point on this is that we must respect the beliefs of others. Everyone has a right to their beliefs. If they believe that the earth is flat they are entitled to think so and, if they wish, to try to persuade me that it's true. Equally, I have the right to argue that they're wrong. If neither of us can convince the other, though, we have to leave it at that without resorting to the methods of the Spanish inquisition."
People do indeed have the 'right to their beliefs' but it does not follow that everyone else has an obligation to respect those beliefs. Such an obligation would be impossible to carry; some beliefs are more respectable than others and some are not worthy of respect at all. This much should be obvious but more than that, the notion that because something is believed, it is intrinsically more worthy of our respect than something held with uncertainty, is logically untenable and socially dangerous. I don't recognise, for example, the belief that a single book is the ultimate, exhaustive source for human conduct at all times, everywhere as being worthy of respect - especially when it is espoused by people who have not read the aforementioned book all the way through themselves.

Rather, the obligation that arises from another's right to freedom of religion is simply that of recognising beliefs occupy a space in the human soul where we would all demand privacy because it is the space in which we all try to touch the eternal. But acknowledging this is little more than a matter of decorum - it does not extend to an obligation to respect what others do with this privacy, and still less when this ceases to become a private matter to being one of social expectation and public policy. Fundamentally, Brian Whitaker is describing a society where the emancipation of women simply hasn't happened. The fact that many people believe this situation is in conformity with God's will creates no obligation on my part to respect this or accomodate it in any way.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Reid: Bombers never blamed Iraq

From the beeb:
"Home Secretary John Reid has rejected suggestions London bomber Sidique Khan blamed his actions on the Iraq war.

Mr Reid was asked if ministers wished to avoid a public inquiry because they feared it would fuel a debate about Iraq being a motive of the bombers.

He said Iraq had not been mentioned in the bombers' wills or testaments."
So if they had, the views of people willing to immolate themselves and innocent commuters, and who are prepared to make their own children orphans, would in some way be worthy of consideration?

Their views on Iraq are about as interesting to me as a graverobber's opinion on animal welfare.

Which is to say, not at all.

Ruth Kelly and equality

"Ruth Kelly should go". This is, apparently, the view of all right-thinking people. No it doesn't have anything to do with how she's conducted herself in her new job; she's failed the ideology test, y'see. Plus she's in Opus Dei, so that won't do.

It takes a special kind of chutzpah to express this view in a post entitled "Judge not, that ye be not judged."

Stonewall seem unpeturbed by Kelly's appointment, so they've failed the ideology test too. Brett Lock writes,
"I am absolutely furious with Stonewall!"
Oh, are you? Are you really? That'll be what the exclamation mark is for then.

Some of the militantly 'tolerant' are often strangely intolerant, don'tcha find?

Update: See also Chris Dillow, Tim Worstall and Mr Eugenides on this subject.

MSP calls for forced birth control for addicts

It's moral panic time, courtesy of Duncan McNeil MSP:
"CONTRACEPTIVES should be added to methadone to stop drug addicts from having children, an MSP said yesterday.

Duncan McNeil, Labour MSP for Greenock and Inverclyde, said there was a real problem of drug addicts having children and the Executive should look at adding some sort of oral contraception to the heroin substitute which is prescribed to thousands of addicts.

Mr McNeil did not say whether the contraceptive-laced methadone should be compulsory, but he argued that most addicts could probably be persuaded of the merits of the scheme.

The Labour MSP was speaking in the Scottish Parliament on the Executive's plans to make it easier for children to be taken away from drug-addicted parents."
The Executive has rejected his plan on the grounds that it is fairly silly but Duncan McNeil is adamant that Something Must be Done:
"He said the authorities had to look for solutions. "I don't think we can be afraid to be radical," he said.

"People in that situation, living in a chaotic lifestyle, are in no fit state to start a family."
Stop the undeserving poor from breeding: a sort of radical Victorianism, you could say. Sensible solutions like making sure heroin addicts drink the methadone at the chemist wouldn't be 'radical' enough, obviously.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Attorney General calls for Guantanamo to close

From the Scotsman:
"LORD Goldsmith, the Attorney General, has issued the government's strongest condemnation yet of Guantanamo Bay, calling for its immediate closure.

The prison camp was branded a symbol of injustice, by Britain's most senior law officer in a speech to lawyers and security experts last night.

His intervention is set to embarrass the Bush administration in the United States, which has rejected calls for the closure of the American jail on Cuban soil as it breaches international law. "The existence of Guantanamo Bay remains unacceptable," Lord Goldsmith told a security conference at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

"It is time, in my view, that it should close. Not only would it, in my personal opinion, be right to close Guantanamo as a matter of principle, I believe it would also help to remove what has become a symbol to many - right or wrong - of injustice.

"The tradition of the United States as a beacon of freedom, liberty and of justice deserves the removal of this symbol.""
Deserves, certainly; you could say, demands.

Fukuyama: political cults and the "End of History"

With History having inconveniently failed to arrive at the eschaton, Francis Fukuyama has been updating his original thesis in this piece for OpenDemocracy. Have to say some of it was surprisingly good and I largely agreed with his take on Islam and democratization:
"That the problem stems from Islam itself as a religion seems to me extremely unlikely. All of the world's major religious systems are highly complex. Christianity was once (and not that long ago) used to justify slavery and hierarchy; now we see it as supportive of modern democracy. Religious doctrines are subject to political interpretation from one generation to the next. This is no less true of Islam than of Christianity."
I would agree with this and add that in addition to complexity and interpretation, the social context in which a religious tradition is mediated is absolutely crucial. Fukuyama appears certain that democracy is essentially secularised Christianity - citing notions of universality and equality as crucial to its development. But I'd argue that one of the reasons for the development of democracy was not necessarily Christianity itself but the post-Reformation conflict between various confessional divisions. This, while highly destructive initially, served as a sort of precursor to the notion of a plural society. Prior to that, Christianity was just as inclined to theocratic forms of government - and by no means free from it after the Reformation - as Islam.

It's important because while religions are rarely internally liberal, the existence of religiosity per se shouldn't be understood as a barrier to democratization. The failure to grasp this can result in a rather Jacobin approach to this whole area: de-coupling religion from the state to some degree is absolutely essential for the development of political democracy but this process does not require, as some have suggested, the elimination of religion itself - still less the elimination of one particular religion. For while Fukuyama may be in no doubt that democracy is essentially a form of secularised Christianity, it is worth recalling that it wasn't so long ago that people used to argue that Roman Catholicism was such a significant 'barrier to democratization'.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Monday, May 08, 2006

Bad appointment

General Michael Hayden as the new director of the CIA:
"A number of lawmakers, including some from President George W Bush's Republican party, have voiced concern about Gen Hayden being a general with close ties to the military and his role in an eavesdropping programme criticised by both Democrats and Republicans as a violation of civil rights.

As head of the NSA - the American electronic eavesdropping organisation - the 61-year-old oversaw the programme, which allows for the monitoring of international calls and e-mails of terrorist suspects inside the US without a warrant."
He wasn't President Bush's first choice - allegedly he was disappointed when his advisors informed him that Attila the Hun was unavailable and had been for the last fifteen hundred years or so.

You hardly expect the Director of the CIA to be a chilled-out dude that you could share a hand-rolled cigarette with but honestly! The last line in the beeb profile of Hayden is priceless:
"He is said to love Shakespeare."
Because that makes all the difference...

The stupidest gift ever

Back in the days when he used to be funny, the Bin Yin used to be quite partial to a wee drink or ten. Then he met Pamela Stephenson when she too was funny and romance blossomed. This motivated our Bill to chuck the drinking.

I'm sure there's a connection between this and him becoming less funny but fair play to him; I wouldn't want him to have died making us laughing or anything. But I could really do without this California confessional mode he's adopted in recent years. Today in the Scotsman, for example, he talks about how he 'fell off the wagon'. The trigger? Get this:
"Connolly told how he nearly plunged back into the drunkenness that had plagued his early life by celebrating a year on the wagon with a gift from his wife Pamela Stevenson.

"I stopped for a year and she gave me a bottle of champagne and I was one glass into it and thought: this is a mistake, I was enjoying not drinking," he said."
Yer man manages to stop drinking. You're so proud of him you think, "I know - I'll get him a wee pressie. Now - what to get?" A thought-process that begins perfectly reasonably somehow arrives at, "A bottle of champagne - the very thing for a recovering alcoholic!"

This is why the aforementioned bottle of champagne should in my view win 1st prize in the imaginary competition for the stupidest gift ever.

The other problem I have with this story is that it happened 21 goddam years ago! Hardly news, is it?

Sorry, I'll write something sensible soon, I promise. Cream-crackered the noo, so am ur.

Billy Connolly: "Ayyyyye, it was brrrillliant. Ah remember when this was all shipyards. That was the way of Glasgow then. We used tae..." Ah, shut the fuck up, will ya?

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Reshuffle update

This pertains to the news that Douglas Alexander has been promoted to the Cabinet in Blair's latest massacre reshuffle. Elected as the MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South when he was still a foetus, at 14 Douglas is the world's youngest ever transport minister.

The Sunday Herald piece says he is "said to enjoy a healthy rivalry with his MSP sister Wendy". Well, I don't think it's 'healthy' at all; something fishy is going on. Wendy used to hold the oxymoronically-titled job of Enterprise Minister in the Scottish Parliament and you used to see her on telly quite a lot. But since her brother's star has risen, she's nowhere to be seen.

Add to this circumstantial evidence the fact that no-one has ever seen them in the same room together, the astonishing truth that I can reveal to you now is that 'Douglas' and 'Wendy' are one and the same person.

'Douglas' Alexander


'Wendy' Alexander - really 'Douglas' after a good kip and a bit of slap put on to cover the wrinkles.

Nothing as crude as our Douglas wearing a skirt and donning a wig - 'Weglous', as he/she was named by the scientists responsible, was the result of a bizarre genetic experiment conducted in Lanarkshire in the late sixties.

It is this that also accounts for 'Douglas's' youthful appearance.

Strange but true.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Reflections on the elections

Not from me but two other bloggers making observations that, to me anyway, point to the same conclusion - that the next General Election will be a straight fight between Labour and Conservatives, with the Liberals showing themselves to be the party whose star has passed.

Sunny points out that the Tories performed "the least disappointingly out of everyone" - of no insignificance in this weird age where European elections seem to produce only losers, and that this is perhaps best represented by the Tories' victory in Ealing.

Lenin, with a phrase that rang true, described the 'Cameron effect' as "obviously working with a certain kind of middle class conservative who might previously have been embarrassed by the Tory right's xenophobia."

This I think has certainly been the pattern in Scotland: the Liberal Democrats have up here benefited from the votes of people who are to all intents and purposes conservatives but are turned off with Tory rhetoric about too much overcrowding and immigration - on the simple grounds that up here no-one seriously believes that we are either overcrowded or have too many immigrants.

While these themes obviously resonate more south of the border, it remains the case that the Lib Dems, as well as receiving votes from opponents of the Iraq war, also picked up a fair number of liberal conservatives put off by the 'Blood and Soil-lite' vibe of the Hague years. Superficial he may be, but Cameron does not alienate this significant constituency where the followers of Tebbit clearly did.

People losing their damn minds #14

From the Scotsman:
"A WOMAN set to become the UK's oldest mother yesterday defended her decision to have a baby at the age of 63, saying it was not taken lightly.

Child psychiatrist Dr Patricia Rashbrook is now seven months pregnant after a £7,000 course of IVF treatment."
You meet the odd child psychologists in my line of work and often they are a) fairly nuts b) don't have children.* So part of me perversely welcomes the news that I know of at least one that is going to have offspring of their own. But still - 63? That's pretty nuts; I reckon I'm really too old for this game - and despite appearances, I'm a couple of decades or so short of 63. The good doctor and her partner have responded to the 'storm of criticism' thus:
"Dr Rashbrook and second husband John Farrant, 61, yesterday said they had fully considered the current and future wellbeing of their child."
When the child is 14, she'll be 77: 'fully considered'? Hmmm. But the damn mind losing incident is more the fertility specialist that made this possible:
"The couple sought the help of maverick fertility doctor Severino Antinori in Rome, who then sent them to Russia to use a donor egg to conceive.

Speaking from his clinic, the professor, who has also said he wants to create the world's first human clone, said the patient's age was "completely irrelevant".
Not just irrelevant but completely irrelevant...
"I specialise in helping couples have children who can't and if I can bring them happiness, where is the harm?" he said."
Ah, but where to begin? It's enough to bring out your inner-Catholic. And as someone raised by atheists, and protestant atheists at that, I shouldn't even have an inner-Catholic.

*Ok, I've only met about three of four. Not necessarily a representative sample obviously but none of them had children and at least two of them were completely mental.

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