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

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Fiscal conservatism

Mr E links this. I have to confess, I thought it was very funny too:
"[Brown] could make the Brittan argument (about gov debt) loud and clear, but he doesn't, probably because he is a natural fiscal conservative."
I think it would be fair to say that if Brown is a fiscal conservative, he certainly has had a rather eccentric way of showing it, to say no more than that.

Dear Agony Aunt...

My son is going through adolescence. Symptoms include: a reluctance to get out of his bed in the morning; girlfriend problems; the development of a slight attitude (disinterest in what you're saying is dismissed with a "whatever"); listening to loud rock music...

Now all of these are unremarkable in themselves and nothing I haven't seen a thousand times in my professional capacity. Rather, what is concerning me is he's only seven. I mean - and I swear this is true - it's more than a little disconcerting when the fruit of your loins declares at this tender age that the following charming ditty from Buck Cherry is his favourite song...



It's the radio edit - but still. I'm worried that his teachers one day might ask him to sing his favoutite song and I'll receive the attention of the social work department.

I've also turned into my father much earlier than expected - pulling him up, for example, for using the glottal stop. "Haven't they taught you the letter 'T' at school then? They have? So why don't you use it then?" Oh me, oh my - what is I gonna do? I'm kinda hoping this microwave existence I seem to be experiencing means he'll be ready to go out and earn a living and support me in the dribbling years when he's about, ooh, fifteen?

Why has social mobility declined?

Well, obviously it's the fault of teachers, according to evil Tory scumbags:
"Then earnest bureaucrats and ministers do worthy studies and conclude that people from less advantaged backgrounds have low aspirations for themselves and their children, and these low aspirations are a key (perhaps the key) factor holding them back. Well, go figure, guys and gals! You find a lot of vulnerable people and you preach to them that the world is unjust and they have no chance and then they end up with low aspirations. Whose fault do you suppose that might be??"
Preach? No, no, no, you vile complacent turd - I don't preach, I teach. I teach a subject to pupils who then take exams. Some do well and some not so well. Then they leave and take their chances in the real world where people's expectations are shaped by actual experience. "Whose fault do you suppose that might be?" This would be your fault - you and your friends, you nasty excuse for a human being.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Victorian kitsch revival

In the shape of 'Homecoming 2009' is on the noo apparently. I'm gutted that I can't be in the city of my birth to see the place festooned with tartan and made soggy with false-memory nostalgia.

This sort of shit strikes me as a little like religion: as the authentic unselfconscious attachment to custom fades, the psuedo-ritual becomes celebrated with ever increasing vim and gusto. Take this as an example of the goddamn thing I'm talking about:
"Although there had been a decline in the popularity of traditional Scottish games and heritage on home soil, the opposite is true abroad. North America alone has 100,000 clan members and holds 300 Highland Games each year."
Yup - because there tends to be an inverse relationship between sentimentality about Scotland and the phoney cultural events constructed in the Victorian era and one's proximity to the actual place. In the Scotsman, Alan Bain argues that "Scots groups worldwide need to unify". Because only be collective action can we match the mawkish sentimentality for the 'old country' that the Irish Diaspora has achieved.

It's one of the great things about having a blog - venting your spleen about this sort of shit. I fucking hate this Celtic myth-making crud that makes a fetish out of suffering with completely ignorant arseholes indulging in the most nauseating sentimentality about a country they wouldn't dream of actually living in. Like Sean fucking Connery, for example. They make me want to vomit. If you disagree, please feel free to leave a comment below. I will then either delete your comment or edit it for my amusement. Because this is, as I mentioned earlier, one of the joys of blogging.

Talking about voting systems and other wastes of people's time

Why, as Neal Lawson implicitly concedes, is discussion of voting systems the reserve of political anoraks? Not that people are disinterested in politics - although generally they are - but simply because voting systems don't do what their advocates claim for them. They only make a difference at the margins of our representative democracies - so the need for the anorak, or the pillow, arises from the discussion of arcane mechanisms that make virtually no difference at all to the way people live their lives.

This observation is prompted by the news that Brown is apparently giving serious consideration to a referendum on voting reform to coincide with the next General Election. Neal Lawson thinks this would be a good idea for many reasons, one of these being that it would wrong-foot the Tories:
"But if they plump for a referendum, it's unlikely to be a principled decision. [Only unlikely? - Ed] Gordon Brown may be many things, but he is no pluralist. He trusts nothing but his own judgment. But he knows a good wedge issue with the Tories when he sees one and wedges don't come more wedge-shaped than voting reform. So a referendum won't signal that he's seen the democratic light, but the realisation that it causes David Cameron one almighty political headache."
I would have to disagree. The reason that electoral reform is decidedly unwedge-shaped and unlikely to cause David Cameron an "almighty political headache" is that most people are not interested in it. And the reason for this - forgive me for repeating myself here - is that it is not that interesting, on account of the fact that it doesn't do what its advocates claim for it. I could point out that Italy has PR and expect to be able to leave it at that but experience of reading liberal broadsheets and blogs would suggest that this, inexplicably, isn't enough. Despite copious evidence from all other European states and even within the UK in a small province in the north of Britain called Scotland, advocates of voting reform seem to expect nothing short of the complete rejuvenation of our political system, if only the virtues of STV, AMS or AV plus were allowed to work their magic on the body politic. Here's our Neal again...
"First, the state is no longer a machine that can be controlled from the centre. We the people have to be part of the process of identifying the problem and delivering the solution. Reform has to be done with us and not just to us. Second, with FPTP, only the votes of a few swing voters in a few swing seats count. As few as 100,000 rather fickle punters decide each election. What is more, the media barons like Rupert Murdoch who are perceived to hold sway over them call all the political shots. This leads to the third problem: democracy is only meaningful if it allows competing visions of the good society to do battle. FPTP doesn't allow any such competition as the main parties huddle on the centre ground.

Only a proportional voting system breaks all this up. And through it, democracy becomes an end in itself; valued not because it delivers state power, but because it empowers all of us to take back control over our lives. We become powerful citizens who can change anything and not just individual consumers searching for the good life on the shelves of the shops. We can't stop climate change on our own, the slide to greater inequality or rein in the power of financialised capitalism. We have to do it together. Democracy is the architecture of change. "The remedy for the ill of democracy," said Thomas Jefferson, "is more democracy."
Surely it can't have escaped Neal Lawson's attention that a media baron, elected under PR, is running Italy at the moment? What evidence is there that PR leads to decentralisation and the flowering of democracy? If anything it does the opposite, often giving as it does more power to the party machines. If it gives people a sense of control over their lives, they are distinctly apathetic about it, as the turnout for elections in Scotland for the Edinburgh Parliament have shown. One reason for apathy is, I would suggest, that people have a reasonable sense of where power lies. This is why, for example, that the turnout in local elections in the UK is so dismally low. Regardless of the mechanism used to elect them, British local government has to be just about the weakest in the developed world.

The other has to do with the nature of the choice people are confronted with. Do you want Thatcher in a kilt or Thatcher in a bigger kilt? Last time by a narrow margin Scots voted for the Thatcher in a bigger kilt - who then proposed, with a local income tax that had the slight drawback of not being a local income tax at all, to effectively abolish local democracy. Devolution only goes so far for Alex Salmond and the SNP, y'see. That they failed with this ridiculous and undemocratic idea - as they have with some of the more ambitious hare-brained ideas they've proposed - is undoubtedly a benign feature of our proportional voting system. Their minority status has resulted in a situation where most of their flagships are sinking into the Leith, leaving them with little else to focus on except bridge tolls, state-sponsored kitsch and fucking up the education system. Better than one or two possible alternatives one can imagine no doubt - but my point is, this hardly represents the revitalisation of democracy that PR advocates claim for their hobby-horse. Neal Lawson quotes Jefferson, who said: "The remedy for the ill of democracy is more democracy." Uh huh? But voting reform doesn't necessarily represent more democracy - only a slight change to the rules under which those entrenched interests compete in our representative democracy. This is why most people aren't that interested in it - and are right not to be that interested in it.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Silly test time

According to this, I'm 53% Calvinist.
"You are somewhat of a Calvinist. Some of your points of view make you look like a Calvinist. However, you live your life in a lighter way than Calvinists do, which allows you to enjoy it more."
Pfff - I'm Scottish, and only 53%? That makes me a crazed hedonist by this country's standards.

I liked the line, "You live your life in a lighter way than Calvinists do..." Doesn't everyone?

Monday, July 13, 2009

On faith and action

I was going to fisk this piece by Karen Armstrong but realised after the first paragraph that, so rich it is in falsehood and misrepresentation, I would be here all night. Norm has some pertinent observations here but I'd like to make a suggestion: not only is Karen Armstrong talking nonsense, because of her background she must know she's talking nonsense - but is hoping that the rest of us don't notice.

Allow me to explain. She posits as two opposites logos and mythos - Greeks words that represent two ways of apprehending truths about life, the universe and everything. Her suggestion is that religion, specifically Christianity, took a wrong turn in the 17th century and responded to the Descartes revolution by responding in a similarly logos, by which she takes to mean rationalist, scientific, sort of way:
"But during the modern period, scientific logos became so successful that myth was discredited, the logos of scientific rationalism became the only valid path to truth, and Newton and Descartes claimed it was possible to prove God's existence, something earlier Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians had vigorously denied. Christians bought into the scientific theology, and some embarked on the doomed venture of turning their faith's mythos into logos."
I wouldn't blame you for glazing over at this point but let me summarise for you: faith is about mythos, the notion that it's about logos is a modern aberration. Again in case we were in any doubt:
"In the past, people understood it was unwise to confuse mythos with logos, but today we read the mythoi of scripture with an unparalleled literalism, and in "creation science" we have bad science and inept religion. The question is: how can we extricate ourselves from the religious cul-de-sac we entered about 300 years ago?"
The preamble to John's Gospel tells us that, "The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us". The Greek word for 'Word' here is logos. Perhaps with my rationalist mind, I've failed to interpret this incarnation of the logos in the appropriate mythoi sort of way. But there's an alternative explanation. The writer of John's gospel was pretty big on logos and belief and truth and that sort of thing. Here he didn't disagree much with St. Paul who had a fairly big input into the body of writings we now call the New Testament. I appreciate scholars disagree on the dating of these documents but I think most would date them as just a tad older than 300 years. I'm thinking Karen Armstrong, what with her having gone to nun-school and all, knows this - along with the meaning of key Greek words in the New Testament - perfectly well but wrote this article in the hope that no-one else would. Either that or she's just an ignoramus.

Tough on bullshit, tough on the causes of bullshit

Keir Bloomer - one of the few in Scotland's educational establishment who has a respectable record of actually talking sense from time to time - is tough on bullshit. Most recently, he described the forthcoming Curriculum for Excrement Excellence, due to be introduced in Scotland's schools in 2010, as 'not good enough'. He was particularly scathing about the literacy section:
"The document described literacy as "the set of skills which allows an individual to engage fully in society and in learning, through the different forms of language, and the range of texts, which society values and finds useful". He said: "No it's not. It's about how to read and write. This sort of crap does not take us any further forward.""
Indeed it does not. But while my heart rejoiceth to read in print what the rest of us all think anyway, I reckon Keir is not tough enough on the causes of bullshit. We are all amused, but more often infuriated, by the apparent inability of central and local government - along with their minions in the quangocracy - to never use one word when ten will do - but too infrequently is the question asked: why?

The answer is a text-book example of one of Chris Dillow's perennial themes. Working in education throws this into the starkest light imaginable. What is the function of language? To communicate, to impart knowledge and understanding. And what is the function of education-speak? Clearly not this but something else. Jargon is not language that describes a technical process but something that is akin to the codes, rituals and secrecy used by the medieval guilds - a mechanism to preserve status and wage differentials within a profession. Hierarchy, in other words.

Therefore, while mocking the bullshit, while undoubtedly therapeutic for all of us in this job, doesn't really address the issue: managerial bullshit has increased exponentially in recent years simply because management has increased so much. What's annoying me here is that seldom the real culprit is blamed. Not the mythical oxymoronic creature - the 'trendy teacher' - that the Tories would have us believe have blighted education in Britain in modern times. Rather it is them and the culture of centralisation they introduced. (In the spirit of non-partisanship, I would cheerfully confess that New Labour has done precisely nothing to reverse this culture of micro-management.) Now, does anyone seriously imagine that the Tories have learned the error of their ways? The evidence we have available so far would suggest not. Here's a piece from the Torygraph, for example, with the pearls of educational wisdom that flow from the 'cerebral' Michael Gove:
"And he thinks children should sit in traditional rows, rather than freeform classrooms. "The regimental format is not backward-looking, many of these schools succeed by using tried and tested methods.""
Now it so happens I prefer to arrange my classroom in this 'regimental' way myself but too few people consider the implications of this kind of shit. You want an example of micro-management? The probable future minister of education thinks it's appropriate to dispense advice about how teachers arrange the fucking furniture in their classrooms? This makes him not part of the solution but rather part of the managerialist problem.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The sacred, the profane and the public sphere #1

I'd hoped to collapse a whole lot of thoughts about this into a single post but in the course of doing a little background reading into the issue of religion and the public sphere I got a little distracted by something which I'd intended to use only as a passing example - which is that of the proposed ban on the burka in France.

To begin with, the fragrant Agnès Poirier points to the dichotomy between the French and the British political culture and argues that such a debate could never take place in Britain. She's right about this and for the right reasons - although her take on the differences between the historical experiences of France and Britain is a little shaky. This can be seen in the way in which she conflates republicanism and secularism. Citizens of a country with Cromwell in their history tend not to, or at least shouldn't, make the same mistake.

Anyway, Oliver Kamm in a short article in favour of such a ban quotes both her and Christopher Hitchens approvingly. Norm, however, takes issue with what he considers to be an illiberal measure. All this left me with a curious feeling: I agreed with Norm's conclusion along with the reasoning that lead him there, yet I found myself much more in agreement with the spirit of what Oliver Kamm, Christopher Hitchens and Agnès Poirier have written on this subject because whether by default or design I think they do more justice to the historical context. This, I would argue, teaches us something fairly straightforward: for liberty to flourish, religion and the public demonstrations thereof, have to be circumscribed.

It does not follow that a ban on the burka is either expedient or necessary but in the discussion of this issue the trajectory that human liberty has taken, along with the agency that has secured this, could do with being appreciated more fully. By way of explanation as to what on earth I'm talking about, can I refer you to a rather depressing piece from Laurie Pennie? On this subject, with what one can only assume she imagines to be sarcasm, she writes the following:
"It's always a nice surprise to see a government trying to stick up for women."
To which one feels obliged to respond thus: it could only come as a surprise, nice or otherwise, to someone who is woefully ignorant of the role that the modern state has played in securing rights for women in the last couple of hundred years or so.

An understanding of this should serve as a counter-balance both to those who can't tell the difference between communism and fascism, as well as those 'libertarians' who believe the modern state must of necessity always be the greatest threat to liberty. For the latter, that they don't find many women in their ranks is no co-incidence - this for reasons I would have thought were obvious. Not so, though, for the ahistorical generation, which leads me back to Ms Pennie:
"It is patriarchy rather than religion that oppresses women across the world, whether it wears the face of an Imam, an abusive partner or a government minister."
Note the jutxa-position here: patriarchy rather than religion. But they can't be separated - at least not the monotheistic salvation religions - which is why her second combination doesn't make any sense. Nothing to choose between the cleric, the husband and the state? At the risk of making broad-brush generalisations, I would insist that the lessons of history would suggest otherwise. The uncomfortable truth is that wherever regimes that are secular have triumphed, even those deemed to be 'totalitarian', this has almost always been accompanied by significant advances in the position of women in society.

None of this should be taken to be an argument supporting a ban on burkas or anything like it. I intend to argue, on the contrary, that the public space should be as lenient as possible towards modes of behaviour that people might find either intolerable because they are profane or unacceptable because they are seen as demonstrating a piety that is insufferably anachronistic - but this will have to wait for now...

Monday, July 06, 2009

Makes you wonder what hope there is for the Middle East...

When we still have this kind of shit going on in the comfortable West...

There was more of the fuckers than normal this year for some reason.

Ian Wilson, Grand Master of the Orange Order said,
"There is no place in our celebration for public drinking, abusive behaviour or offensive chants."
Really? Because I became aware of the Billy Boys. I knew them by their noise. This was on account of the fact that they were singing a charming little ditty about Fenian blood or something. I can't speak for my Fenian friends but personally I found it quite offensive.



Aesthetically displeasing marching people: the zeitgeist has dispensed with your services, kindly leave the world stage...

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Understanding anti-Semitism

"Is it possible to 'understand' the rise in 'anti-Semitism'?", asks Ben White? The inverted commas are his - and one is tempted to fall into the default sarcastic teacher mode and ask, "What's 'with' them, exactly?" - but I don't want to do that. This isn't going to turn into a semantic argument about what people mean when they say 'understand' or 'understandable' because blogosphere experience would suggest that this is more than pointless - as this offering, for example, undoubtedly is.

Instead I'd say this: the answer to Ben White's question is of course it's possible to 'understand' anti-Semitism - intellectually rather than empathetically - but it helps if you aren't a complete ignoramus. Here I'm thinking those of us who are rather concerned about this issue should rely less on the techniques of literary criticism and semantics. Because there is evidence, both historical and contemporary, that can be brought to bear here.

How do we know that contemporary anti-Semitism cannot be reduced to the behaviour of the state of Israel? One reason is simply because it predated it - the themes, the narrative, the material - by some time. Even White feels obliged to acknowledge this:
"Thirdly, European culture has a history of anti-Semitism (as it has also been guilty of racism to other peoples) that has been, and probably still is, embedded in collective consciousness. Its roots can be traced, at least to some extent, to the shameful teachings of many in the Church."
Mr White has a nice touch for understatement, I think you'll agree? How 'many in the Church'? Fairly comprehensive for most of the time, I'll think you'll find. Orthodox, you could even say. To what extent? I think most historians would file that under 'fairly large'... On reflection, perhaps the semantics thing is unavoidable. But this shouldn't distract us from what we already know or, in the case of the rest, what they should know.

This most ancient of prejudices has persistent themes, as most people are aware - but we should also be aware that its resilience has partly to do with its adaptability. So, for example, with the Christian anti-Semites - conversion was the solution. This through fire if necessary, as we saw with the Inquisition.

As European clerical tyranny began to exhaust its rage and fury, the milder conversion of assimilation became the preferred cure for the Jewish problem. But with the rise of fascism and the new pseudo-science of biological racism, European anti-Semitism takes a new malevolent twist: assimilation (which always had its limits) becomes the problem rather than the cure.

It is in this kind of context that the whole Israel thing should be understood, which brings me back to White's dismal piece. Chief amongst the causes of anti-Semitism for him?
"One is the state of Israel..."
The problem with the Jews is that they have a state that behaves badly? But it used to be that they didn't have a state that was the problem - that they were a wandering people that lacked a feeling for Blood and Soil - rootless, cosmopolitan, disloyal.

It has been frequently suggested that pointing out any of this - or indeed referring to anti-Semitism in any capacity whatsoever - is a 'red herring' designed to distract from Israel's occupation. I feel I must demur and insist that one thing is not another thing. I'd be interested to know, for example, what it is about Israel's behaviour that leads 31% of Europeans [pdf - p. 16] to believe that Jews had at least something to do with the present economic troubles? Or one could ask what it is about Israel that has provoked some 23% of Europeans to believe that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ? No doubt we should look forward to some argument suggesting that this isn't anti-Semitism because there is no evidence to suggest Europeans any longer have any hang-ups about the whole Deicide thing?

But we needn't persist with this line because one of the interesting things thrown up by the survey linked above is that most Europeans do not share the comfortable delusion that the rise in anti-Jewish feeling can be reduced to attitudes towards Israel (see p. 26). Is this indicative of a better understanding of both the present situation and of history than amongst those who feel - how to put it delicately? - rather relaxed about the contemporary anti-imperialist gloss that is being given to old-fashioned Jew-hatred? If so, I find that unsurprising.

People losing their damn minds #23

According to the Torygraph one firm in Newcastle has taken the whole 'dress-down Friday' thing a little too far:
"David Taylor, a business psychologist, told workers at design and marketing onebestway, in Newcastle upon Tyne, that a Naked Friday idea would boost their team spirit.

He was called in to help the firm after six staff members were forced into taking redundancies at the start of the credit crunch."
Has he lost his damn mind? I'd say no - he's obviously a genius if he can persuade people that what is needed to boost morale is not something totally passe like more money or something boring like health coverage or a goddamn pension plan. That would be so 1990s. Instead, why not turn up to work in the buff?

No, no - those who have clearly went and lost their goddamn minds are those who responded, "Hey - that sounds like a plan", and then go and fucking do it!

If you read the whole thing, a Miss Jackson enthused about the experience retrospectively:
"It was emotional but we found we were much more able to talk to each other honestly – and have been since."
Uh huh? You couldn't just go to the pub and get drunk after work like everyone else? The whole story's about some bizarre place where hippy bullshit meets capitalism and comes up with something really fucked up. I may do something serious about this one day but for now I'll leave you with more of Miss Jackson's wisdom:
"We're all beautiful, whether we've got big bodies or small ones."
I would have thought that reason and experience would be enough for anyone to dismiss this statement out of hand. But just in case, there's some photographic evidence too.



The mentally-ill at work: "Do you like my fruit bowl?" To be candid, I find it a little unsettling...

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

MOTs for teachers

Yet another reason why I'm glad I don't teach in England:
"The government yesterday unveiled plans to roll out a licensing system, similar to that in place for doctors and solicitors, under which all teachers will be assessed regularly by their headteachers and face being barred from schools if they are not performing well enough."
I doubt there is but just in case there are any teachers suffering from the illusion that their profession is something akin to the legal or medical: take a look at your wage slip.

It goes without saying that they haven't thought this one through. I doubt it'll run for the following reason: at some point it's going to dawn on headteachers that this teacher assessment will involve them going into classrooms on a regular basis while there are still children in them. Anyone who thinks this is going to happen doesn't know anything about how the modern school operates. Prediction: government and unions will come to some shit compromise that involves more power to middle management since 'school leaders' will be too busy spreading their managerial expertise like a prize stallion spreads his semen to do anything as mundane as actually stepping foot inside a classroom.

Unsurprisingly, given his track-record, Conor Ryan thinks it's a good idea:
"It makes sense to ensure teachers' skills are up-to-date, though it will be important that the focus is on what matters to good teaching, and not on simply reinforcing passing fads."
By suggesting it could do anything other than reinforce passing fads, Conor Ryan forfeits any serious claim to our attention. Actually we need to amend that: it will obviously do this and strengthen the cult of the manager - the latter here is regrettably anything but a passing fad.

Disappointingly, David "I'm a school governor" Aaronovitch deprived me of some amusement because he failed to take up this MOT thing directly - but he's still on not bad comedic form when he asks the question, "Who said school targets don’t work?" Um, well - quite a lot of us have been saying it for some time, David. I appreciate we're just 'producer interests' talking so not worth paying attention to - but there was this Cambridge University review thingy - the most thorough review for 40 fucking years - that came to pretty much the same conclusion. But why bother with that when you can wheel out some anecdote about Jim Callaghan in the 1970s?

I could point out that tank-boy then goes on to conflate the National Curriculum with targets - obviously related but not the same goddamn thing - but I don't have anymore time for remedial education. How about MOTs for pompous windbags pontificating on the subject of education instead?

Update: Francis Gilbert on the subject:
"I bet the brown-nosers will love the idea of introducing teachers' licences: they'll thrive on the paperwork and back-covering. But most good teachers know that the idea is asinine. The only people who need their licence revoked are the jokers running our schools."
Quite.
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