Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Insanity and other Christmas traditions

I do like all those wee familiar features that make up a traditional Christmas - turkey, stuffing, pressies - and the usual subjects complaining about it, either because it's too religious, it's not religious enough, or that it exists at all.

Jack McConnell joined the usual throng in complaining about the de-Christianizing of Christmas:
"First Minister Jack McConnell has said public bodies must not break "the link between Christianity and Christmas".
He spoke after it was reported that a hospital had banned the distribution of a Christmas CD over concerns it could cause offence to non-Christians.

Bosses at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh said the CDs were being distributed after carol services.

Mr McConnell said trying to ignore the core message of Christmas was "political correctness gone mad".
D'ya think McConnell really said 'political correctness gone mad' or that the journalist knocked off early and went to the pub? Jack, cliches; journalists, drink: 50-50 probability, I reckon.

Christmas just isn't Christian enough for, er, Christians - and not without reason, it's just that they're suffering under the illusion that the church ever completely succeeded in colonising the seasonal saturnalia.

In contrast, the atheist puritans, even the perfunctory religious content in Christmas is altogether too much. Christopher Hitchens' 'bah-humbug' Slate piece has been linked on a couple of sites, either approvingly or without comment. Is it just me that thinks it's a bit unhinged? For example:
"This was a useful demonstration of what I have always hated about the month of December: the atmosphere of a one-party state. On all media and in all newspapers, endless invocations of the same repetitive theme. In all public places, from train stations to department stores, an insistent din of identical propaganda and identical music."
From here he goes on to talk about the seasonal consumer frenzy in the same context as North Korea and stuff. A compulsory day off from being bad-tempered? How totalitarian.

For Johann Hari in contrast, Mammon's takeover of Christmas - along with the seasonal 'propaganda' is an excellent development:
"How much better for Christmas to be a celebration of Mammon - an orgy of buying things for your friends and family - than for it to be a religious dirge devoted to Christian fictions."
It's a strong field in which to compete but this wins the prize for the most insane thing I've read about Christmas this year. Take this for example:
"The Archbishops pine for the days when Christmas was a celebration of the birth of a quasi-mystical figure, a man whose hallucinatory teachings - remember his command to follow "every jot and tittle" of the Old Testament, beheading gays and stoning prostitutes included? - have been a gift to bigots and theocrats for millennia. So quick, get to HMV, toss your nativity props onto the bonfire as you go, and deck the halls with holly in joy at the commercial conquest of Christ's birth."
I know what you're thinking - I couldn't find the bit in the Gospels where Jesus caves Mary Magdalene's head in with a half-brick either.

Utter madness of course - but that's a seasonal tradition too. Christmas has always been about alleviating the sense of entrapment in the dark tunnel that is a nothern European winter, a perfectly reasonable thing to want to do - yet it can bring trouble because, as the sanest commentator I've read on the subject puts it, sometimes this time of year just gives you too much information.

Seasonal insanity can affect us all but spare a thought for the ideologues and the religious who clearly have a tougher time of it, the poor dears.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

EU states fail to meet emission targets

From the Scotsman:
"MANY of the European nations responsible for coercing the United States to remain committed to combating climate change are named and shamed today as major polluters of the environment.

A remarkable report has discovered Britain stands almost alone among 15 EU nations in making strides towards honouring Kyoto commitments to cut greenhouse gases."
Heh heh - who was it that said hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue?

Friday, December 23, 2005

On hangover cures

I like science when it tells me good stuff, like it's good for your health to drink. But when they start saying there's no reliable hangover cure, I denounce them as liars.

Based, I can assure you, on extensive personal research - I can tell you three tried and tested ways to avoid, or at least minimise, a hangover. (Seriously - all of these work; listen to my words and live).
1) This is one I learned from my father. If you aren't too past it, re-hydrate before you crash out for the night. About four large glasses of water should do the trick. Sure, you'll wake up with a bursting bladder - but that's more easily relieved than a bursting head.

2) Drink things that are clear. Vodka rather than whisky or brandy; white wine instead of red; lager instead of real ale. Worst hangover of my life: an evening on Newcastle Brown and Jack Daniels. Not the most alcohol I've ever drunk and certainly not the drunkest I've ever been, just the worst hangover. Second worst hangover: red wine and brandy. I rest my case.

3) If you were so pissed, you collapsed before you could drink water and you failed to heed my wisdom on what you should be drinking, get some Irn Bru down you.

Bet this one wasn't included in the nerdy trial they conducted. Consider a couple of facts. Scotland is still, I believe, the only country on the face of the planet where Coca-Cola is not the leading soft drink. Consider also that our other national drink goes down a storm in Russia. Now think what you know about the attitude to drinking in both these chilly European countries and join the dots...

Boys and girls, friends and comrades - why listen to the ill-researched findings of some 'team of experts'? When it comes to hangovers, better to avail yourself of the wisdom of ages and of nations...

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Comfort and Joy

Karen Armstrong really needs to lighten up:
"We could also say that the nativity is a myth. That does not mean that it is not true. A myth can be defined as something that, in some sense, happened once, but that also happens all the time. Myth reveals the underlying and timeless significance of an event. It is also a programme for action. The gospels are not accurate biographies of Jesus; like any religious text, they tell the reader how to behave. Unless a myth is put into practice, we do not grasp its full import."
She then goes on about how 'ironic' the commercialisation of Christmas is because it's all about self-sacrifice blah de blah. Yes, well, like Karen, I've read the book, been to the lectures, got the T-shirt. I like her take on the visit from the Three Kings:
"Throughout his gospel, Matthew argues that Jesus came not only for the Jewish people but also for the Gentiles. He therefore makes the three wise men from the east the first people to recognise and pay homage to him."
Yep, and using the power of New Testament exegesis can I bring you an important detail Ms Armstrong omitted? The baby Jesus got pressies!!!!! Yea! I'm taking Ms Armstrong's advice - I intend to "grasp the import of the myth" by making this aspect of the myth real, man.

It can be a difficult time of year - it often magnifies trouble and strife in families and for not a few, it's the loneliest time of year. Remember them but let us also remember it is our duty to celebrate, enjoy and indulge where we can. Because whether religious or secular, all the puritans: don't they just hate that?

Have a good one...

Is alcohol good for you?

In my case, I doubt it but with the seasonal saturnalia fast approaching, I'm clutching at straws. Here's one from the Guardian about Richard Doll the doctor who helped establish a link between smoking and lung cancer. His research into the health implications of alcohol consumption yielded some unexpected results:
"By 2004, he had acquired data on more than 12,000 men, 7,000 of whom had died. There was a clear link between alcohol and health: doctors who drank alcohol lived longer. Their chances of dying in any given year was about 20% less than their teetotal classmates. Doll suspected that there might have been a statistical error: he wondered if the results could have been twisted by high death rates among the ex-drinkers who may have quit after alcoholism or ill health. He went over the results a second time, this time comparing all the doctors who had ever regularly drunk alcohol with those who had never touched the stuff. The difference came out smaller, but the teetotallers still came off worse. Doctors drinking a unit of alcohol a day lived longest, but even those drinking an average of 40 units each week - the equivalent of 20 pints of beer - still lived longer than those who never drank at all."
A little of what you fancy does you good, in other words. Eat, drink and be merry - just try not to be too British about it. The last line is priceless:
"I heard Doll present his findings. Someone asked him if alcohol could somehow be reformulated as a pill. Puzzlement was clear in his reply. 'Why would you want to do that?'"
A Merry Christmas to one and all.

Aerosols now cool

Apparently, according to the Guardian:
"Because (aerosol) particles are so light, they remain aloft for long periods, where they cool the Earth by reflecting radiation from the sun back out to space. Higher levels of aerosols lead to the formation of brighter clouds made up of smaller water droplets, which reflect still more of the sun's warming radiation. Cutting down on aerosols by improving air quality means that the Earth will in future be less shielded against the sun's rays.

Writing in the journal Nature today, scientists at the Meteorological Office and the US government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report that climate models used to predict future global warming have badly underestimated the cooling effect of aerosols."
It's all so confusing; I wish they'd make up their minds...

Now Executive warns: no smoking at home

From the Scotsman:
"THE public are to be told not to smoke in their own homes as part of plans to protect public sector workers from the effect of passive smoking.

The move is the latest part of the Scottish Executive's ban on smoking in public places, which will come into force on 26 March next year.

Ministers have told councils, health boards and social work departments that they should compile a "smokers' map" of Scotland, focusing on those who regularly receive visits from officials and carers. This would identify individual households where a smoker is resident.
It goes on to say that these households will receive a letter instructing them not to smoke one hour before said 'official' arrives. You know, the ones the Executive are sending out in the new year to check you've brushed your teeth.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Interesting times in Latin America

From the beeb:
"With the full official results not due for some days, it became apparent early on that Evo Morales had won a convincing victory and will next month become Bolivia's first indigenous president."
Yuppie coke-heads in the US must be feeling ambivalent about the election of this left-wing former leader of the coca growers' union. They better face up to the fact that the narcotics trade is more beneficial to the Bolivian economy than NAFTA and that it is American domestic consumption that is the driving force here, rather than pretending this is an evil that is being unwillingly inflicted on them.

I'd have to say, apart from any other consideration, I find the impact that any change in government has on the US and European drugs markets about the weakest, most self-indulgent basis on which to criticise a regime. Like people who cite increased opium production as a reason for not overthrowing the Taleban.

As if the need to avoid putting our domestic drug users in temptation's way trumps democracy. Get over yourself.

'Intelligent design' teaching ban

From the beeb:
"A court in the US has ruled against the teaching of "intelligent design" alongside Darwin's theory of evolution.

A group of parents in the Pennsylvania town of Dover had taken the school board to court for demanding biology classes not teach evolution as fact.

The authorities wanted to introduce the idea that Earth's life was too complicated to have evolved on its own.

Judge John Jones ruled the school board had violated the constitutional ban on teaching religion in public schools.

The 11 parents who brought the case argued that teaching intelligent design (ID) was effectively teaching creationism, which is banned."
It is, so good for them. The odious Pat Robertson, chief village idiot of the tele-evangelist right in the US, reckoned their calls to the Almighty would go unanswered in the event of some catastrophe because of this.

I'm agnostic myself, but if god exists, he's much more tolerant than I am; if I were him, I'd have reduced Pat Robertson to a greasy stain with a thunderbolt years ago, vicious moron that he is.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

White Paper wedgie

Jackie Ashley argues that the Cameron effect, combined with Blair's insistence on pressing ahead with school reform, is putting intolerable stress on the Parliamentary Labour Party, which can only be cured by his departure:
"Blair is going, and cabinet discipline is beginning to slacken, as John Prescott demonstrated yesterday with a rare but deadly blast against the prime minister's education reforms. The Tories will make things as uncomfortable for Blair as possible, by embracing him and shaking their heads sadly at any concession he makes to the rest of the Labour party. The longer he remains, the easier it is to drive a wedge through the cabinet."
If it is true, and it seems likely, that Blair has gone into messianic mode over this, it is a reckless move that will probably end his political career - regardless of whether the bill passes or not. This feels like a confrontation too far and like a number of the fights Blair picks with his own party, an unnecessary one. A defeat of the Bill wouldn't be required to finish Blair, or even if the Bill passed only with the support of the Tories. I would have thought even a demonstration that the Education White Paper is more popular with the Conservatives than with Labour MPs in the division lobbies would be enough to fatally wound Blair.

Jackie Ashley's argument is easily the best from the Guardian's 'Blair should go' camp because in this the risk of serious internal damage to the Labour Party is great. Only dropping these reforms completely or diluting them beyond recognition can avert this and if Blair insists on pushing ahead with them and making his personal authority synonymous with supporting him in this, well, hell mend him.

It's strategically wrong to press ahead with this Education Bill, both for Blair and the Labour Party, even if it were a good idea. But it isn't - in as far as anyone can make any sense of what's being proposed. A pointless fight to introduce re-heated ideas that failed under the Tories - a heart-breaking waste of time, not least because long after we've all forgot what effect this all had on the careers of the key protagonists in this mini-drama, there will be legislation on the statute books that is bound to be a complete dog's breakfast, given the haste and the sloppy thinking involved. And it's this that will determine the future shape of our education system - until the next lot decide it's time for another educational Great Leap Forward.

Kennedy under fire

According to the Scotsman, Charlie Kennedy has responded to his critics by pledging to "drink less and fight on".

If I were him, I'd fight less and drink on. This strategy has the advantage of being achievable, as well as more sensible - especially at this time of year.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The problem with phobias

Peter Tatchell, writing in the Guardian today, has another one for us - "heterophobia":
"The homophobia of the ban on same-sex marriage is now compounded by the heterophobia of the ban on opposite-sex civil partnerships. It's official: one law for heterosexuals and another for lesbians and gays. Since when have two wrongs made a right?"
If memory serves, the practice of putting 'phobia' at the end of words to denote something considered a prejudice was first used by the gay rights movement. Given that homosexuals were and are used to having their sexual disposition described as pathologies of various kinds, I can hardly say I blame them for coining this very simple but effective linguistic technique. But as understandable as this might be, I thought then and still think now that the use of 'phobia' is both often inaccurate in the context in which it's used, and an attempt to close down debate and disagreement because it implicitly imputes to the 'phobe' some sort of mild mental disorder.

I say often inaccurate because negative prejudices of various kinds obviously do have a large element of fear at their base but the problem is the 'phobic' epithet limits it to that, making any further discussion virtually impossible. The fact that 'phobias' have increased exponentially in recent years makes this both more annoying and more of a problem.

Annoying (to me, anyway) in much the same way 'gate' is routinely put at the end of any kind of corruption story, regardless of how trivial. The generation that is capable of having a 'Taxigate' (it was a 'crisis' and it 'deepened' and stuff - surprised you missed it), also suffers from 'homophobia', now 'heterophobia', 'Scotophobia' (I saw Brian Wilson try this once - bizarre), 'Islamophobia', and 'Judeophobia'.

And a problem today given the increased importance of religion and religious ideas in public discourse. The idea of a prejudice as a kind of belief about, or disposition towards someone based on ignorance of the facts and/or a lack of rational reasons isn't enough in this context. The scripturalist Christian or Muslim who believes that homosexuality is wrong would be usually understood as suffering from a prejudice in the sense described above. The problem is, they would understand those of us who disagree with them in exactly the same way - it is we who lack the facts, specifically the facts about declared will of God as found in the Bible or the Koran or whatever.

And it's no use saying religion has no rational foundation and therefore anything flowing from is is likewise irrational because it ignores both the large degree of irrationality involved in the ends people choose for themselves, and even where one end can be declared more or less completely irrational, the ends by which one gets there can nevertheless be rational. If fundamentalist Christians, for example, understands their right-standing with God to be dependent in part on cleaving to the doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible, it makes sense for them to take on board the conservative view of sexual relationships that one finds within its texts. The fact that the end he has chosen isn't rational to most isn't the point; it is not tolerable in a liberal polity to insist that everyone should be prepared to dismantle their own belief system in order to accommodate what is considered rational.

However, neither is it reasonable to attribute rational criticism of a belief system to prejudice. Polly Toynbee made an impressive showing in some event called 'Islamophobe of the Year Awards' for, I'd imagine, a number of her columns that have been very critical of Islam. 'Islamophobe' implies that one is hostile to Islam in particular and that one's opposition is based on prejudice and fear. Now, the first one is unfair because Ms Toynbee's hostility to religion and the religious has always struck me as a rather equal opportunities affair - as her recent rantings about the Narnia film demonstrate. While I too am strongly secular, I don't agree with her harsh line on religion but I would not be engaging with the argument to put this down to prejudice on her part. Not that she's above imputing irrationality to those who disagree with her views on marriage, children and the family - and that's rather the point: has political discourse got to the stage where the one who makes the most convincing 'phobia' argument wins?

Peter Tatchell effectively accuses anyone who disagrees with his view of marriage of suffering from a phobia; those ultra-conservative Muslims who take the view that his sexual disposition is an abomination for which he should be physically punished complain that Tatchell in taking exception to their spiritual characterisation of him, is 'Islamophobic' for doing so.

Oh, and better mention that some fundamentalist Christians and ultra-orthodox Jews share the views of some Muslims on this, in case I'm accused of being Islamophobic.

And I should point out that I don't agree with them about this - wouldn't want to be seen as a homophobe.

It's all getting a bit silly, in other words. Although the great 'phobia' inflation does represent a real general increase in the level of fear - of having a conversation as much as anything else. What's that all about?

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Guardian's purple haze

From the Guardian:
"Opponents of the war in Iraq may be irritated at the triumphal notes emanating from Washington and London after Thursday's peaceful election. George Bush - who mentioned the word "victory" no less than 15 times in a recent speech - called the event "historic". Tony Blair went for "extraordinary and inspiring". The adjectives are not incorrect. But they need context - and a health warning. If the estimated 70% turnout and the mass participation of the Sunni minority can help construct a stable and workable political system it will be more by good luck and the resilience of ordinary Iraqis than the good judgment of the governments which went to war in 2003."
I'll resist the temptation to mock because at least the editorial recognises the further routinisation of politics in Iraq that this election represents as a positive development - not a universally shared opinion amongst some opponents of the war, I would guess.

Australian disorder

Dunno much about Australia so I've read with interest the varying analyses going around in the wake of the Australian beach riots. But Germaine Greer's explanation seems a bit crap to me:
"Australia is as racist as Britain, no more, no less. Australian racism derives from the same bottomless source as British racism - from universal ignorance and working-class frustration, reinforced by an unshakeable conviction of British superiority over all other nations on earth, especially the swarthy ones. If Australia had been colonised by any other nation but the British, it would be less racist. As it is, it is dying hard."
Words like 'Boers', 'South Africa', 'Belgian' and 'Congo' immediately spring to mind. Try again...

Friday, December 16, 2005

Iraq elections

In the middle of Christmas preparation insanity so little time for anything except to note the excellent turnout - estimated at around 70%, with unexpectedly strong showings even in places like Fallujah and Ramadi.

It's at these times I'm simply too embarrassed to tell you what the average turnout is for elections to the Scottish Parliament.

Any pseuphologist will tell you that turnout matters; it's an indicator of enthusiasm or at least of participation in a process people believe to be meaningful.

Don't expect the cynics to agree on the positive nature of this. They used to think low turnout was indicative of a legitimacy problem, when a majority of Sunnis boycotted the last election, for example - but not any more. High turnout, low turnout - why bother with analysis when you've got the Americans to blame for any conceivable combination of circumstances?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

On anti-semitism - Christian, Islamic and secular

Jonathan Freedland writes a righteous piece in today's Guardian on anti-semitism in which he presents, what are for me at least, two incontrovertible facts that anyone hoping to get their head around this present situation absolutely must understand. These are:
1) Anti-semitism has taken root in the Arab world in particular, and is on the increase practically everywhere else in the world.

2) This is basically a European, Christian import, which extends even to recycling the same old propaganda such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
By any conceivable objective measurement, the first point is true to the point which those who disagree are either simply ignorantly out of touch with the world in which they live or are 'in denial' for political reasons. Anti-semitic violence, against persons and property - including graveyards and synagogues - has demonstrably increased in recent years in practically every country in the world, but in particular Europe, as have public anti-semitic pronouncements, opinions, websites and literature of every kind. Recently, the most obvious, extreme example was that from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of a sovereign nation with nuclear ambitions expressing the opinion that Israel should be obliterated from the face of the planet and that the Holocaust was a piece of historical fiction. He was oblivious to the irony - understandable, because this is irony of the very darkest kind.

I sincerely believe this to be undeniable. Those younger who disagree, I understand; they don't remember that it wasn't always thus: those my age and older who say this isn't happening, I simply don't understand; have they no memories?

But Freedland's second point is, if anything, more crucial; this is a European, Christian import:
"This represents a menace to Jews, of course, but also a tragedy for Muslims. Theirs is a tradition that historically valued learning, and when an ignoramus like Ahmadinejad denies the overwhelming weight of historical evidence he makes a mockery of that tradition. In a period Jews still look back on as a golden age, Muslims were the people of scholarship, of science, of tolerance and coexistence - a contrast with the Crusader barbarians. Yet now many lap up the myths and lies that were once fed to the peasants of Europe, lies which endured through to the last century - and which led all the way to Treblinka."
There's a rather airbrushed version of the 'golden age' where Muslims and Jews all sat holding hands and celebrating the gorgeous mosaic of their diversity as 'People of the Book'. The historical reality is that those Jews that remained in the Middle East never really enjoyed either legal or social equality with the majority Muslim populations in whose countries they settled but the central point is absolutely true: their experience really was golden compared to the discrimination, revilement, pogroms and persecutions that Jews were subjected to by the self-professed followers of Yeshua Ben-Joseph the crucified King of the Jews.

While it's easy to understand why some scholars think the New Testament in general, and the Gospels in particular, to be intrinsically anti-semitic, I don't believe this to be correct. All it's authors, with the exception of Luke - who may well have been either a 'fellow traveller' or a convert to Judaism - were Jewish and I think various texts would be interpreted differently, had history not taken the course it had. But it's relatively unimportant because it is history that interests me more than theology; it is how these texts have been understood historically by various religious-political institutions that is crucial. From at least 300 AD, various theologians - serving as chief ideologues to imperial power - have espoused the view that Jews are especially wicked, for not only are they adherents to a now false religion - they are guilty in a unique way, guilty of 'Deicide' - the murder of God, a grotesque interpretation (in my view) of passages from the Synoptic Gospels, especially that of St. Matthew.

Everyone knows this led to the medieval pogroms and persecutions in Christian Europe - the 'blood libel', the tales of Jews poisoning wells, and all the rest. Catholic medieval Europe, specifically England, pioneered the yellow star of David. But are people quite so aware that protestantism didn't escape the stain? I despise John Calvin for being the hard-hearted, inflexible, intolerant, tyrannical, theocratic bigot he was - not least for the misery and disfigurement that his ideas have brought to the Scottish psyche. Yet no historian can completely close their eyes to those aspects of modernity his ideas wrought, that we recognise today - the individualism, the elimination of magic, a certain disposition towards equality, and the emancipation of the Jews.

Not so with Martin Luther. Initially well-disposed towards the Jews, he thought they - now that the Bible had been rediscovered - would convert to his new protestant version of Christianity. Later he became frustrated with the reluctance of Germen Jews to respond and increasingly bitter (and drunk, apparently) in old age, one of the last tracts he ever wrote was entitled, "Against Jews and their lies".

That fascists in Europe picked up this tradition is not in doubt. The Nazis gave it a biological twist. For all it's obscenity, traditional Christian anti-semitism was less extreme because it saw assimilation and conversion as the answer; for the Nazis, this was the problem. In the pursuit of the solution they joined a twisted road with many footprints that lead to Auschwitz.

Which brings us to President Ahmadinejad's remarks. I get a bit annoyed at some of the amateur scriptural exegesis that goes on in the blogosphere, with texts from either the Koran or the Bible quoted completely out of context with no consideration given to either their 'Sitz im Leben' or the historical context in which they've been interpreted or the social institutions that have mediated them. Anti-semitism is not intrinsic to Islam so there's no point in taking the recent statements of these conspicuously modern ultra-religious fanatics on the subject as being somehow representative of this tradition because they are not. It is, as Freedland says, a European, nationalistic, pseudo-scientific concept that has been imported into the Middle East. As I've said before, we used to call it fascism - and fascism is what we should call it now.

Educashun: I want some answers, dammit!

'Sok, it's not another rant about how crap my job is; my New Year's resolution, which I'll start early, is to not do that anymore. Rather I'm interested in the right-wing solutions to our present educational malaise that are advocated by a surprisingly high number of bloggers and commentators and what reasons they have for believing they would be a success.

The most extreme option would be to privatise the lot, as you'll see advocated periodically on this site. I've asked for a real world example of a country that has provided a universal education system purely on private enterprise but it's only a rhetorical question; everyone knows there isn't one. So we have to imagine what this would be like and in doing so, ask the following questions. Is there any reason to assume a completely private education system would not look like the health care market in the United States - a nation divided between those who can't afford health or dental insurance and those who can afford cosmetic surgery - for their pets? And if so, is this considered desirable, or even tolerable? And if not, why not?

The more moderate approach is to offer more consumer choice, through a range of different mechanisms - vouchers being a favoured option here. I have to ask first of all, where's the choice? Assuming everyone will get the same number of vouchers and that practically everyone will want to get their children into the best performing school in any given area, the best schools will have excess demand for places. They'll need to be rationed somehow. The market does this via the price mechanism - would this be done with school places via some form of top-up? How does this extend choice to the poorest? They'll be in the same position as before. Or will they use some other criteria, such as religion, as they do at the moment? They could use the criterion of ability, something to which I'll return but I think the point should be made that choice already exists in the system, and I think it's results have been rather mixed, to say the least.

For example, as I understand it, in Scotland we have a more flexible 'placings request' system than in England. Here requests to place one's child in a school other than the one in your catchment area are normally granted. People do vote with their feet and schools do decline as a result. Now in the free-market model, the 'successful' school absorbs the intake of the 'failing' school and hey presto! - everyone gets to soak in the waterfall of sound management that brought success in the first place.

Let me counter this with what I call the 'reality model', based on actual experience: shite school closes and merges with marginally less shite school, only to discover that those running the slightly less shite school don't really know what they're doing and that this produces one monumental pile-of-shite school, it's complete shiteyness demonstrated with plummeting results, deteriorating discipline, increased staff absence and turnover, and regular visits from the local constabulary. Been there - seen that. Tell me why this wouldn't happen come the choice-revolution, only on a much larger scale?

Has choice been good for London? There's so much more of it down there: a bewildering choice between co-ed comprehensives, 'city academies', Catholic schools, Anglican schools, rather less Muslim and Jewish schools - but there's room for a Seventh Day Adventist school - and then there's the private sector, which has, I understand, a take up of about 20% - about three times the level of Scotland. Is London's education system better than Scotland's? I think not: ours may be pants but yours/theirs is big nylon pants as far as I can see.

Then there's the possibility of rationing places according to ability - which would be the grammar school option. Since we've had them in the past, still have them in some parts of the country, and is the norm (so I'm lead to believe anyway) in Northern Ireland, this is the least radical option. It's also the fairest, since it's the only one of the three that, obstensibly at least, does not have wealth as the sole determining factor in entrance criteria. I'm much more open-minded on this one for that reason but since presumably entrance would be by competitive exam, is it really fair to determine the child's future on one test, taken at one stage in their development? And with today's wealth, can it seriously be suggested that the wealthy wouldn't have a build-in advantage with access to private tutors and so on?

And I can't help feeling that so many of these sorts of debates are driven by those who automatically assume their child, of course, would pass any 11-plus type exam. But what if they didn't? Then they'd have to concern themselves with what the bottom end of society has to contend with and the cry, "We need four secondary moderns in every town", isn't one you often hear, is it?

Has Polly Toynbee gone all post-modern and ironic?

In a piece entitled "Message to Labour: no need to panic over Cameron" in the Guardian, Polly Toynbee writes:
"People worry how this puritanical and somewhat dour chancellor can stand up against the ebullient, debonair young prince. But age and style have nothing to do with it. It is the brightness and the content of their policies that matters. Cameron has made it necessary for Labour to move on progressively. Now Brown needs to storm the citadel with the shock of the new."
Gordon Brown and 'shock of the new' - in the same sentence. I'm not reassured, Pol.

She's right to say that it doesn't all depend on age and style - consistently underestimating their opponents is usually a big factor in the centre-left getting humped in elections - ask Senator Kerry.

On a related point, I see the Lib Dems aren't too happy with their leader. I'm not sure why but I'd imagine it's got something to do with the fact that he's a bit of a diddy. The problem for the Lib Dems is even if Kennedy wasn't a diddy, they're left with the perennial problem of what they are for, exactly? Despite having more seats than at any time since the 1920s, the Liberal vote is soft. If Cameron continues with the touchy-feely inclusive stuff, the Tories will win back those Liberal voters that were always really Tories but just didn't like the reactionary campaigns run by Hague and IDS. This in turn is bound to lose them former Labour voters who were turned off by Blair and/or Iraq or detention without trial or whatever.

Bit early at predictions and I'm crap at them anyway, but I reckon the Liberals are in for the big squeeze while we see a more traditional two-party ding-dong in the various local and by-elections taking place before the next general election.

Ok, so it's not exactly Nostradamus...

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Santa too scary for children, says government

From the Scotsman:
"THE highlight of any Christmas party for generations of children has been the moment when the lights dim, voices hush and the sound of sleigh bells signals the imminent arrival of Santa Claus.

But that magic moment has come under threat from government advisers who have told teachers that children should be protected from the "terrifying" appearance of Santa at school Christmas parties."
Mr F. Christmas in a heated exchange with Education Department officials on Newsnight said: "This government too scary for Santa".

Update: Missed the bit at the bottom - the Department of Education's advice on having a 'Green Christmas':
"CHILDREN should give 'experiences' instead of Christmas presents and stop sending cards to cut waste, according to government advice.

Teachers should encourage children to send electronic cards and to decorate reusable plastic trees, the advice from the Department for Education's Teachernet website said."
Experiences. It said children should give experiences.

It's enough to make you an anarchist, or a Restorationist, or something, anything...

Monday, December 12, 2005

A couple of silly tests

I did this one that I found at Norm's. It told me I had "scored high on masculinity and low on femininity. You have a traditionally masculine personality." On the politics one, I was quite high on 'economic liberalism' (whatever that means in America, I'm never quite sure) and higher still on 'social liberalism' so I would best be described as a socialist.

These tests are obviously culturally specific since up here I can pass myself off as a sensitive new man type and I've preferred 'liberal' or 'social democrat' for some years now. From this I have drawn the inescapable scientific conclusion that the American male of my age is on average significantly more likely to be:
a) right-wing and

b) a big girl's blouse.
Surely no one can dispute social research of such intellectual and methodical rigour?

Third of MPs privately schooled

From the beeb:
"A report by the Sutton Trust charity says politicians' educational profiles do not match those of society at large."
Is it just me that would be really worried if they did?

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Against conspiracy theories

"The conspiracy theory of society comes from not believing in God and then asking, 'What is in his place?'" - Karl Popper.

Conspiracy theorists are often perceived, not least in their own self-image, as sceptical, if not cynical, figures - questioning everything, believing in nothing. I'd argue the opposite: the conspiracy theorist, far from engaging in a critical, sceptical intellectual venture, has moved from the realm of rationality to one of faith - a step one has to take simply because conspiracy theories are intrinsically implausible. For whether they are applied by the weak to the proud and the powerful or vice versa, conspiracy theories always and everywhere impute powers to the protagonists that they do not, and cannot, possess. This is not to say conspiracies don't and haven't existed, merely to insist that the ability to maintain secrecy is in inverse proportion to the size of the particular plot that it's claimed has been uncovered. Or to put it more simply - a plot which involved so few people that secrecy can be maintained has little chance of success; one that does would involve so many people that secrecy would be impossible.

I'd rather insist on this point rather than engage with any individual conspiracy theory because one wonders if by doing the latter, one isn't yielding too much of the Humean ground on which the conspiracy theory sceptic should stand: for those of us who are of a genuinely sceptical disposition, we should not feel obliged to counter arguments based on co-incidence, absence of evidence to the contrary, and conjecture - the burden lies with them to provide evidence and rational argument for what is on the face of it literally unbelievable.

People believe in conspiracy theories, not based on evidence, but because they want to believe in them, not always an impulse easy to understand because practically all of them are rather gloomy, pessimistic, if not apocalyptic. Popper was near the mark but perhaps one could say the conspiracy theory of society comes from not believing in the devil and then asking what is in his place because the unseen powers for the conspiracy theorist is always malevolent. It raises the question, what does the believer gain from it?

One is a sense of righteousness. The conspiracy theory, I've often thought, is a species of gossip in that the those who spread it, and those who enjoy it, assume a certain moral, and sometimes intellectual and social superiority. In other words, if you are asked sotto voce if you've heard what the lady at No. 42 has been doing, you can bet you aren't about to be told of her clandestine charity work - and it'll be told in a "I know something you don't" kind of way.

Conspiracy theories are like this writ large, I think. The problem is on this scale, the subject is not merely the person who has in some way deviated from the accepted values of the community but the very incarnation of society's, civilisation's, even humanity's ruin. They are attractive in times of uncertainty, instability and suffering because they offer an explanation of tragic events that impute to the believer righteousness because the wickedness has been personified and externalised.

It's maybe because the explanation as to why bad things happen is just too mundane for some people. Why was John F Kennedy, this President who was the repository of so much goodwill, cut off in his prime? Those who insisted that there must have been a conspiracy never seemed to consider the possibility that maybe what was remarkable was that in an open country awash with weaponry like the United States, the assassination of a President isn't something that happens more frequently. But why accept this when you can convince yourself that had JFK remained alive, the whole trauma of Vietnam could have been avoided, as Oliver Stone did? The parallels between then and now, with the various 9/11 conspiracy theories should be obvious.

If theories of this nature are implausible when applied to those with power - the 'industrial-military' complex, the White House, the Pentagon - how much more so when they are applied to those whose numbers are small and lack power? Here conspiracy theories often attach themselves to minorities who arouse suspicion because of their exclusivity, secrecy or 'otherness' and religious groups have always and everywhere been the target for these because of a perceived division of loyalty. This can be seen in what might be described the grandfather of conspiracy theories, the antisemitic "Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion". Purported to be a blueprint for world domination by international Jewry this forgery was distributed by the Okhrana, used at the time to distract from the internal problems in Tsarist Russia and resurrected after 1917 by Romanov supporters to discredit the Bolsheviks.

It's early discreditation, revealed as a forgery lifted from a German or French (depending on what account you read) hasn't affected it's longevity: it was used, of course, by the Nazis and then was imported to the Middle East where it has appeared as an authentic exhibit in the Alexandria museum and has been serialised on Syrian TV.

So while I found Yusuf Smith's question on the Sharpener as to whether Islamophobia hadn't acquired some features of European anti-semitism an interesting one, I think a bit of historical proportion is called for as well as to remember that the Jewish conspiracy conceived of in the 'Protocols' is still a very current and sinister myth that has more adherents world wide than any other currently doing the rounds. Having said that, I'm not sure he's entirely wrong in thinking the supposed discovery of a 'Project' to establish a European caliphate, or "Eurabia", falls into the classic conspiracy theory by the way it imputes to a small number or people malevolent powers they cannot possibly possess. I was astonished to read Melanie Phillips describe the task of translating this document that's supposed to contain a blueprint for an infiltration with the aim of "thus beginning the slow destruction of our institutions, of our structures" as "heroic" because it struck me as being rather a waste of time. She writes that, "One must bear in mind the possibility that 'The Project' is an elaborate hoax" - but the question of the document's authenticity is practically irrelevant as Daniel from Crooked Timber points out, given that the supposed 'Project' is utterly impossible anyway.

If it is being argued that a few millenarian moonbats without much in the way of power or wealth have despite their small numbers the ability to take over and destroy our very civilisation, and not just themselves, random civilians and property, this is false for the same reason all conspiracy theories are false; if it is being argued that the threat lies rather in the fact that this nefarious scheme is understood to be indicative and typical of the religious group from which these profess to belong, I think one should pause at the start of this rather dangerous road and ask yourself whether there isn't a part of you that wants to believe this?

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Paint the windows black

From the Scotsman:
"MORE than 34 assaults on teachers and other school staff take place in Scotland's classrooms every day of the academic year, an investigation by The Scotsman has revealed.

Figures obtained from the majority of Scotland's local authorities show that there were more than 6,500 physical and verbal attacks on teaching and non-teaching staff in 2004-5 - an increase of 5.5 per cent on the year before.

Last night, academics, union leaders and opposition politicians said ministers must do more to combat the rising tide of pupil violence in the classroom."
This information isn't centrally recorded, the Scotsman had to contact each council individually...
"Peter Peacock, the education minister, caused controversy two years ago when he announced that the Scottish Executive would no longer be publishing the council figures because he believed the data was unreliable. Critics accused him of attempting to conceal the true extent of the problem."
Surely not? Some councils argued that the figures were distorted because verbal assaults were included in the data. My own view is that the figures are distorted by the failure to record some incidents at all. As Pat O'Donnell of the NASUWT pointed out:
"It is a real problem and there is an upward trend," he said. "Some local authorities still discourage teachers from filling in the violent-incident report form, so it's probably under-reported."
Not just local authorities - the senior management of schools, keen to avoid any bad publicity, also do this. I know for a fact that this incident has still not been recorded and this one only was because the victim took matters into his own hands and contacted the police himself.

In this it's the Tories and the SNP who are fighting the teacher's corner, the Lab/Lib coalition don't seem to want to know. As Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, the education spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives, said:
"It is clear why ministers were so keen to scrap the publication of these statistics. We need to give headteachers the power to exclude violent and disruptive pupils, but no matter how much evidence stacks up in favour of this view, the Executive seems determined to ignore it."
The Executive's approach to education in this country reminds me of a joke from the Soviet Union I once heard. Lenin, Stalin and Breshnev are on a train that is late departing from the station and shows no sign of doing so in the near future. Lenin calls for the guard who is very apologetic.

"Re-educate those responsible", barks Lenin.

The guard goes away, comes back and says, "Those responsible have been re-educated, Comrade Lenin, but the train still isn't moving".

Stalin says, "Shoot the driver and the engineers".

The guard goes away and comes back and announces, "The driver and the engineers have been executed, Comrade Stalin, but the train still isn't moving.

Breshnev says, "Paint the windows black and tell everyone we're moving".

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Three bits of good news

The House of Lords have ruled that evidence obtained by torture is inadmissible as evidence in a British court:
"Secret evidence that might have been obtained by torture cannot be used against terror suspects in UK courts, the law lords have ruled.
The decision means the cases of eight detainees facing deportation are expected to be reconsidered by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission."
The decision was unanimous. One member of the panel, Lord Carswell said:
"The duty not to countenance the use of torture by admission of evidence in judicial proceedings must be regarded as paramount and to allow its admission would shock the conscience, abuse or degrade the proceedings and involve the state in moral defilement."
Amen. Also on the use of torture, the Scotsman has news of a U-turn by Condoleezza Rice:
"THE United States performed a U-turn over the treatment of prisoners abroad yesterday when the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, ruled out the use of torture.

She said no US personnel could use cruel or degrading practices at home or abroad - contradicting a previous policy, which held that a ban on such treatment did not apply to Americans working overseas.

The old rules meant CIA employees could use methods abroad that would not be allowed in the US. But yesterday Ms Rice said that, as a matter of policy, the United Nations Convention against Torture "extends to US personnel wherever they are, whether they are in the US or outside the US".

Ms Rice's comments came amid increasing European anger over CIA flights of terrorist prisoners to secret jails where it is alleged they have been tortured. There has been criticism over techniques such as "waterboarding", in which detainees are strapped to a plank and dumped in water. As many as 400 CIA planes carrying detainees have passed through 18 UK airports in a process known as "extraordinary rendition"."
Note the phrase 'old rules'. The practice of outscoring torture was not an invention of the Bush Administration but that's no excuse for extending the slide into barbarism. I'm sceptical but I hope she means it - I don't want to live in a country whose airports play host to the CIA's stinking torture flights just because some public school boy who obviously bunked off too many history classes thinks "the rules of the game have changed".

And finally on a more trivial note - speaking of public school boys in charge of politcal parties, Third Avenue brings us the heartening news that the election of David Cameron has pissed Melanie Phillips off no end:
"So stand by for (almost) all-women Tory candidates' short-lists, and almost certainly support for the whole multicultural, libertine, victim culture lifestyle - and who knows, maybe a dash of exciting, trendy drug legalisation too, just to be in touch with 'Britain as it now is'."
Being in touch with Britain as it is now, as regular readers of Ms Phillips know, is a profoundly grubby and distasteful thing to even consider. Multiculturalism and drug legalisation is one thing but all women short-lists? The horror of it all Mel, the sheer horror.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Cameron the neocon?

Jonathan Freedland has a piece in today's Guardian where he argues that for all the talk of "compassionate conservatism" Cameron, like Bush, is surrounded by neocon advisors and allies such as Ed Vaizey and Michael Gove. The comparison is, although not quite right, an interesting one because it isn't that Freedland is wrong about Cameron necessarily. He outlines a number of the measures that Cameron has voted against, such as increased spending on health and education, extended maternity leave, and the right for employees with young and disabled children to request flexible working and so on. He also points out that Cameron has mooted the idea of a flat tax, as practiced in a number of post-Soviet countries in Eastern Europe. In general, Cameron has spoken of a need for 'more capitalism', as if those who favoured this had been somehow on the defensive for the last 25 years. Freedland's suggestion is a bit like Polly Toynbee's yesterday:
"Brown signalled it yesterday: it is that Cameron is a rightwing wolf in compassionate sheep's clothing. He is the same old Tory, just rebranded and with a full head of hair."
My own view is that it would be more risky than one might think to follow the Freedland-Toynbee advice. For one thing, I doubt very much whether the electorate as a whole is anything like as impressed with Gordon Brown and his achievements as they are. And I'm also not sure that "he's just the same old Tory" line will work with Cameron because it is a little too simplistic. They have confused social liberalism with welfare, thereby understating, if not completely ignoring, the cultural shift that Cameron represents. Blimpish thought I was relying on a stereotyped view of the Tory party by taking this view. While I'd have to admit that this might well be so since I actually don't know any Tories (or I may do, but am unaware of it - people tend not to admit to that sort of thing up here), I really don't think that someone who skirted around a question over whether he had ever taken class A drugs at university would have been able to become Tory leader a few years ago - or someone who argues that gay couples should be able to adopt in certain circumstances.

Freedland is right to say touchy-feely rhetoric about social inclusion means nothing if you're going to preside over a regime that slashes welfare for single-mothers or whatever but the point is that under previous Tory administrations, it was arguably the other way around and not very many people seemed to notice. I was a welfare rights advisor when Thatcher was in power and it was then that social security was reformed to include a single-parents allowance in Income Support applicable amounts and unlike with the Blair regime, they were not compelled to seek work or training to be eligible for these. The hard-faced Victorian rhetoric, in other words, didn't always match the reality, whereas it was that nice John Major, aided and abetted by the affable Ken Clarke that the Guardian inexplicably seemed to like so much that saw quite stringent restrictions to welfare, particularly to unemployment benefits.

In other words, people tend not to pay anything like as much attention to fiscal policy as Mr Freedland and Ms Toynbee suggest and it is the case of the former that illustrates the point because when it comes to Bush, it is he that hasn't been paying attention. Bush has been, of course, very right wing in his social policy but I consider it hugely significant that much of the criticism of this has focused on the President's evangelical faith and the implications that has had vis-a-vis abortion, the issue of gay marriage, the involvement of faith organisations in inner-city projects and so on.

But if you look as his fiscal policy, the picture is more complicated. Under his Presidency, federal education spending has been increased, as has spending on Medicare - to the extent that it represents the biggest expansion of any federal programme since the New Deal. Other aspects such as tax cuts for the rich and the proposed attempt to privatize pensions are more traditionally right wing but taxes certainly have not been increased to pay for all this, resulting in what the Economist described as the fastest fiscal deterioration in US economic history. Irresponsible perhaps, by other interpretations quite Keynesian given that it was done during an economic slowdown. Whatever else he might be, Bush is no 'fiscal conservative'.

Contrast and compare with Clinton: touchy-feely liberalism in the American sense, and on the right side of the 'culture wars', yet he dismantled a major plank of the New Deal by pushing responsibility for welfare back onto the states and was in his approach to deficit reduction a real 'fiscal conservative', unlike Bush or Reagan. Who noticed? Not that many people, which is why there's nothing in Freedland's piece that would change my view that Labour should be worried about Cameron.

And I worry about the Labour party if they imagine that the electorate is as fond of Gordon Brown as so many of them seem to be. Simon Jenkins' article in the same paper today was much better than Freedland's, although I'm open to the criticism that I would say that since he's making similar points:
"Brown and Cameron will offer a fascinating encounter. They are chalk and cheese, blandness and bile, candy and acid. Brown is the old politics, long protected by Blair's coating. He is all facts and figures, human nature wrapped up in a comprehensive spending review. Cameron is youthful. His politics are digital, offering pathways to the subconscious that Brown has yet to discover. By 2007 he will have had two years of experience in the job over Brown.

Thatcher in 1979 smashed the Labour party and thus made Blair electable. She still approves of him. Blair then smashed the Tory party. Something tells me he would not mind if he had made Cameron electable, a bizarre political compliment returned. British politics is longeur subject to periodic explosion. An explosion may be at hand."
Labour malcontents should be wary and remember the just because Blair says something, that doesn't mean it isn't true: never ever underestimate the Tory party.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Cameronian wins the crown

Or the poisoned chalice, depending on your point of view. I'm depressed - it must be some kind of milestone when not only policemen start looking younger but when the Conservative Party go and elect a leader who is actually younger than you.

But if I were a Conservative, I'd be feeling rather chipper this evening because from the field of available candidates, Cameron was undoubtedly the best choice. Before even considering whether he is equal to the task, it's worth considering what Cameron and his election represents for the Tories.

For one, it would tend to indicate that they have at least started to kick the dangerous habit political parties so often fall into of mistaking their own party activists for the electorate. A mistake because the 'grassroots' in any political party are almost always more ideological and partisan than the ordinary moderately politically interested voter and quite often, to be frank, a good deal more unpleasant, in my experience.

What could illustrate this point better than looking at the leaders the Tories have come up with since they foolishly embraced party democracy? Howard doesn't really count because his was a coronation as an act of desperation, and Hague only half-counts because it was he who invented the silly rules in the first place. Rather it is IDS who was the Tory 'people's choice' par excellence, chosen largely for his ideological purity and his 'heroic' rebellion against the Major regime during the passage of the Maastricht Treaty, the rank and file having deluding themselves that his obsession with the machinations of the EU was as important to floating voters as it was to them. That Labour has had if anything a longer record of this sort of destructive wishful thinking is a point to which I'll return and I'll leave this one with the observation that the Davis camp's criticism of Cameron as another Blair was misplaced: this is exactly what the Conservatives need because what Blair showed was that an ugly party needs a leader that seems nicer than they are, better-looking if possible and not quite one of them. I think the more perceptive amongst the Tories have learned this lesson. If you want a comparison, it's a lesson that the US Democrats remembered when they chose Clinton and then rapidly forgot when they opted for Al Gore and then John Kerry.

Whether Cameron is equal to the task or not should not distract attention from what his election means for the Tories. They've decided they want to be elected again, a step of no small importance. To criticise his lack of policies misses the cultural significance: enough Conservatives seem to have realised that while promising to punish those in society you consider deviant may well make the party conference moist, it doesn't wash well with the overwhelming majority of the electorate who know single-parents for the most part suffer rather than luxuriate and who probably either know personally or who have met people who use illegal narcotics but for the most part manage to avoid becoming crazed junkies or crack-whores.

Speaking of drugs, one wonders if the the Tory faithful hadn't in the past been ingesting rather a lot of them if they imagined that figures like Hague and IDS would return them to power. With Cameron they seem to have understood the importance of charisma. Anne Perkins has a rather sharp piece on this in the Guardian. She argues, rightly in my view, that when people argue that Attlee would have never survived the modern media age, they are perhaps overlooking the way in which this quiet, understated politician personified the mood of the times. She makes the shrewd observation that while Tony Benn could (and still does) bang on about people not considering the 'ishoos', this ignores the fact that the very issues he was concerned about only got the publicity they did because Benn was something of a personality on his own right.

And what she has to say about Blair deserves the attention of those Labour party supporters, members and MPs who imagine that it is he who is the sole source of their problems: the likes of the embittered Glenda Jackson et al are merely repeating the same mistake they have made in the past when they thought Foot-Hattersley was a winning ticket if they are deluded enough to think it is they and their preoccupations that are more appealing to the electorate than what is presently on offer. The criticism that New Labour has squandered two massive Commons majorities is entirely valid but one should make it in the knowledge that they wouldn't have been there to squander in the first place, had it not been for Blair.

It's important because the Labour Party is entering a dangerous phase. The Iron Chancellor is as Prime Minister likely to inherit an economic situation that should be all too familiar to the Labour party. Despite the rhetoric, Brown has been in some ways like just like every other Labour Chancellor: he has ended up spending a lot, and borrowing a lot because he didn't think he could afford to be honest about the tax increases that he either knew must have been necessary, as his opposite number George Osborne suggested - or he didn't anticipate them, which would tend to cast doubts on his competence.

The reality of the situation is that Brown inherited a relatively benign set of economic circumstances from the Major years; a fairly hefty increase in taxation from Norman Lamont which curbed excessive consumer demand plus the ejection of Sterling from the ERM that ushered in a period of cheap money - a good combination for British exports. He probably deserves credit for not buggering it up completely, no mean feat for a British Chancellor, but he is bound to inherit as PM an economy where people feel the shoe pinching more than they have done for several years.

This is where I think Polly Toynbee was wrong in her article in the Guardian today. She argues that "tax and spend is popular" but I don't think the electorate is quite so keen on it as she is when it becomes rather more experientially apparent to the average voter than it would be to her that Prudence has been spending rather more than he has been taxing. In this context, it's not difficult to imagine Brown looking rather too old, grumpy and Calvinist compared to the fresh-faced Mr Cameron. If no serious economic alternative is being offered, why have capitalism with frowns when you can have it with smiles? Insubstantial? Deliberately so.

And for the background, those of us who don't care to see another Tory administration in this country should never forget the Labour party's capacity to seriously injure itself whilst navel-gazing. Polly Toynbee writes that "Labour has nothing to fear but its own demons". As if that wasn't rather their problem in the first place.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Show me the money

I was reminded by this of an obvious but infrequently remarked apon point about terrorist atrocities and it's that they cost money. The answer to the question, why is it - if suicide bombing is a function of poverty - that we are not over-run by African terrorists is this: apart from anything else, they can't afford it. The whole business is rather expensive, what with the training, the forged documents and the air-miles that people who think it's a good idea to blow themselves up tend to cover in any given 'martyrdom operation'.

Bit like the motivation of the various countires prior to the invasion of Iraq: apparently only the United States has any economic interests to defend in the region; the French and the Russians in contrast, if you read the Guardian, were acting out of a matter of principle. It would be shallow cynicism to suggest that the fact these countries were Saddam's biggest trading partners in Europe had anything to do with the position they took.

I'm an economic historian, so I can do "it's the economy stupid" with the best of them (yes dear, it is all about oil - just not in quite the way you think) but can we do it consistently please?

Thousands march for Hong Kong democracy

From the beeb:
"Tens of thousands of people have taken part in a march in Hong Kong to demand a fully democratic political system.
Trade unions, activists and civic groups joined ordinary citizens, some carrying banners denouncing China.

They snaked round streets lined with sky-scrapers towards government offices chanting "now or never" and "do you want a clown or a chief executive?".

Campaigners say they want the Chinese autonomous territory's next leader to be elected by universal suffrage."
Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and China: can I suggest as a strategy that you find some way to involve the Israelis or the Americans? Otherwise I regret to inform you that no-one is going to give a shit.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Phonics and stuff

There's a piece over at the Jarndyce Blog about the Government's plans to re-introduce the 'synthetic-phonics' method of teaching children to read. Well, that was the method by witch I was taut to reed and right and it surved me veri well indead I think.

Anyway, I've also discovered that apparently the fact that this hadn't been the practice in primary schools in England and Wales was used by free-marketeers as justification of their bizarre notion that education should be privatized. It's only since I've started blogging that I've come across this eccentric idea and I'm wondering where it comes from because this certainly was not Adam Smith's view and I'd thought all but the most loopy 'anarcho-capitalist' types still resisted the widely-accepted view that there are a variety of 'public goods' that the market is incapable of providing. I really think the economic argument falls into, "No, really - the earth's round" category so I won't bother going into it except to point out that no industrialised country has depended on the free-market a universal compulsory education system.

The enthusiasm for the free-market appears to be based on the idea that it would release schools from the 'micro-management' of the classroom by central government. Well, I'm glad that they've seen the errors of their ways because it was Thatcher, followed by Major, who centralised education in this country to an unprecedented degree with the national curriculum and its accompanying 'death by assessment' approach to education. And one could point out that not only is privitisation not the only way autonomy can be passed back to schools, it would not in any event guarantee this autonomy, given that they are subject to the same curriculum and exam system as everyone else.

Finally, I'm not one of those who thinks that state schools are as good as private ones; for the most part they are not, and the reason is really jolly simple: private schools are selective, end of story. The uniform, the 'ethos', the smaller classes, the 'traditional' methods all put together aren't anything like as significant as this simple fact. Parents who have forked out such large sums of dosh aren't for the most part going to put up with their offspring wasting time and disrupting the education of others and if they do, the school always has the option of telling them to bugger-off.

Whereas we in the state-sector have the policy of 'social-inclusion' where one could be forgiven for thinking that the only criterion under which a pupil can be permanently excluded is if Her Majesty's Prison Service absolutely insists.

In the unlikely event that any teacher from the private sector is reading this and is thinking, "Oh no darling - it's the callibre of the teachers in the private sector", I hereby challenge them to a duel behind the Cathedral at six. Weapons are to be hammers and empty bottles of Buckfast.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Fascists and free speech

Those of us who cleave to the classical liberal defence of free speech probably should show greater awareness that historically this right has always been more qualified than is often supposed. No civil society has ever understood the concept to mean the absolute freedom to say anything, anywhere, to anyone at anytime. Generally the context has been considered decisive - or to put it another way, liberal democracies have generally not recognised the right to cry 'fire' in a crowded theatre.

Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of restrictions to speech in order to prevent direct harm to individuals and groups is found in the way that all civil societies have some kind of prohibition against slander, defamation, misrepresentation, or as the English legal system has it, libel - a point to which I'll return.

Beyond ideas of direct harm, which also of course includes incitement to criminal activity of various kinds, another category of free speech restrictions has often been applied to activities that profane those values that societies consider to beyond negotiation. This can be understood as involving a more abstract form of avoiding harm to the social order but I also think it should be recognised that it has traditionally involved a non-utilitarian prohibition of censoring what is considered obscene, whether any such expression can be shown to cause direct harm or not. While the range of activities that fall foul of this category tend to be much smaller in liberal democracies, traces of the traditional desire to preserve the sacred from being profaned can still be seen.

I was thinking that both of these elements are behind the various laws proscribing Holocaust denial such as they are practiced in various European countries. Drawing from their respective histories, the idea of preventing harm to the individuals and groups most likely to suffer from the dissemination of racially-motivated fabrications of history is bound to be a very important consideration.

It is in this sort of situation that those of us who would describe ourselves as liberals should probably acknowledge that the Platonic argument is stronger than is usually admitted: what if what is known to be true loses out in a social contest with falsehood when it is possible for the latter to triumph, not on the strength of the available evidence or moral argument but by appealing to the lowest common denominator and with the degree of cunning employed in the propagation of lies and fabrications? Or more specifically, what if Europe with respect to the Holocaust was to find itself in the position of the United States where a significant and growing proportion of the population has been misled into believing the contest between a creationist interpretation of Genesis and the theory of evolution is in someway an unresolved issue amongst scientists?

Beyond this there is, surely, something of the prohibition of the obscene behind these laws? I've argued that no human society has ever completely forgone this perogative and no one should be in any doubt that Holocaust denial is indeed an obscenity.

Therefore to maintain the liberal position with respect to David Irving the British Holocaust denier who is currently facing the prospect of imprisonment in Austria, isn't as obvious or as straightforward to me is it seems to be for many liberals. But I do, nevertheless, maintain it.

But in doing so, one should be careful never to yield to the fallacy that because these types of cases are about free-speech and its limits, the people involved carry even the faintest hint of embodying that principle themselves. We must never forget that fascists by their very nature claim a freedom for themselves that they never extend to others, and David Irving is no exception to this rule. This piece of Nazi detritus has attempted to use libel legislation to silence those who have simply asserted what he is - a Holocaust denier whose disgrace as a historian extends way beyond the point where it can be considered purely a question of professional integrity.

Yet this forms part of the argument in favour of the traditional liberal view. Apart from a point one could make about libel laws, which can be used by more powerful and wealthy figures to close down criticism of their activities, is not the kind of mistake outlined above not more likely to occur wherever the widespread contempt and revulsion felt for people if Irving's ilk is codified in law and carries a custodial sentence? Or to put it another way, I share the commonplace liberal view that it is unwise to give these enemies of the open society the opportunity to present themselves as martyrs for free speech by dignifying their putrid lies with the status of a trial.

This is related to the Platonic point mentioned above. In this case, one cannot object to it on the basis of epistemological scepticism since the basic facts of the Holocaust have been established with historical data that is conclusive as it is copious. Instead, it is what I understand to be crucial to JS Mill's defence of free speech that I find persuasive: even when the truth of something can be known, there is more danger inherent in circumscribing the propagation of falsehood because thereby you risk established facts degenerating to the status of dogma. And truth presented as dogma, aligned as it must be to necessarily flawed human institutions, can then become more vunerable for the want of people of good will who haven't become unaccustomed to defending what can be known in a rational manner. Arguably this is a potentially dangerous position made all the more insecure when you've awarded your irrational opponent the status of victim.

Beyond this, attempts to regulate the expression of ideas - regardless of how repugnant - represents a step towards the marriage of cognitive infallibility and state power, historically a union that has never served the cause of human liberty very well. I would reiterate that this is not in my view because truths cannot be known - but rather that to enforce conformity to this carries the risk that the state could become a species of the very thing it sought to avoid by cirumscribing free speech in the first place.

On the idea of the obscene I have less to say except that I take the view that this sort of restriction should be kept to an absolute minimum. Particularly where it is concerned with the use and abuse of history, I think it unwise. Notions of the obscene carry with it shadows of the sacred and while I think it is naive to imagine our secular societies have completely dispensed with this or even that this would be entirely desirable, it is part of the vocation of the historian to do so in order that difficult pursuit of rational objectivity is not to become obscured with the mists of legend and myth-making.

So while it is by no means unproblematic, it is better, and safer, in my view to stick to the classic liberal position: because civil society is not an enterprise association, its subjects should not be legally required to believe anything and therefore should not be punished for the expression of ideas per se, regardless of how false and iniquitous they may be.

This should apply David Irving as it should also apply to those who would fall foul of a law prohibiting the 'glorification' of terrorism. I would prefer these types to be in the open where they are subject to the widespread revulsion felt for them and their odious ideas by the thinking and the good, where I would never forget through lack of practice how to dismantle their intellectually and morally delinquent use of history and theology.

And I'd prefer to avoid the prospect of stupid relativistic arguments about what constitutes Holocaust denial and acts of terrorism becoming determinants in the outcome of a criminal trial - as if their moral idiocy was worthy of this kind of attention.

To be able to recognise the rights of those who represent the very negation of freedom is the glory and wisdom of liberal democracy. That this is so should be a vigorously defended tenet of our beliefs. This requires more self-confidence than perhaps has been on display in recent years; we should understand that we can afford to do this because we have the strength to do it.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

On being conservative and old age

I was having a re-read of Norman Finkelstein's hatchet job on Hitchens, which I read a while ago but was reminded of again because it's in the footnotes of our lenin's latest piece for MRzine. I've been meaning to do something on this concept of apostasy for a while and will still have to leave it for now because it would take too long. But I wanted, in the meantime, to touch briefly on the reasons for that well-known phenomenon of people becoming more conservative as they get older. Mr Finkelstein's piece clearly impressed the comrades, which I find difficult to understand because personally I find it rather sad. Take the introductory paragraph, for example:

"I'm occasionally asked whether I still consider myself a Marxist. Even if my "faith" had lapsed, I wouldn't advertise it, not from shame at having been wrong (although admittedly this would be a factor) but rather from fear of arousing even a faint suspicion of opportunism. To borrow from the lingo of a former academic fad, if, in public life, the "signifier" is "I'm no longer a Marxist," then the "signified" usually is, "I'm selling out." No doubt one can, in light of further study and life experience, come to repudiate past convictions. One might also decide that youthful ideals, especially when the responsibilities of family kick in and the prospects for radical change dim while the certainty of one's finitude sharpens, are too heavy a burden to bear; although it might be hoped that this accommodation, however understandable (if disappointing), were accomplished with candor and an appropriate degree of humility rather than, what's usually the case, scorn for those who keep plugging away."
Candour I can do - I am no longer a Marxist, haven't been one for over twenty years because I decided the old historical data just didn't fit the theory, and this was sometime before I had children. (This in addition to the absolute confidence I have of being one of the first to be shipped off for re-education come the revolution, which I've mentioned before.) But the humility thing I can't do, I'm afraid - and especially not when confronted with people who think that taking the burden of family responsibilities seriously is "disappointing". Anyway, Finkelstein goes on:

"However elaborate the testimonials on how one came to "see the light," the impetus behind political apostasy is - pardon my cynicism - a fairly straightforward, uncomplicated affair: to cash in, or keep cashing in, on earthly pleasures."
Note the telling phrase "earthly pleasures". You'll rarely find a more pure expression of the politics of faith. This is as opposed to what - heavenly pleasures? Given the piece is about Hitchens, one could remark that prior to 9/11 he didn't exactly have a reputation for lacking the resources to indulge his 'earthly pleasures' did he? But this isn't supposed to be a defence of Hitchens; life's too short. Rather I'm interested in a more satisfactory explanation of why it is that people tend to become more conservative as they get older, assuming - as I hope you do - that you find Finkelstein's risible adolescent puritanism unsatisfying.

'Tis all to do with scepticism - faith rarely grows as one gets older; rarely does one get more absolute in one's opinions with age and a key element here is epistemological scepticism. If you haven't read too much history at least as one gets older, you'll have lived long enough to have actually experienced political movements and ideas break on the rock of experience. Remember the Soviet Union? I could go on about the folly of thinking human beings know enough to plan a human society to that degree but instead can I remind you of another, less commented on facet of the USSR's demise? Hardly anyone saw it coming. Now people retrospectively have claimed they saw it coming - but by and large they didn't. I'd challenge you to have a trawl through the literature pre-1989 and find more than a dozen commentators who predicted the resurgence of nationalism and religion in a world where it was assumed we were becoming more secular and rational with each passing day. This kind of scepticism is often identified as being, pace Karl Popper, linked to liberalism in the classic sense, which it is - but it is also crucially important to conservatism, as some Scottish dude called David Hume would insist. In short, nobody knows anything so one learns to be suspicious of those who have a theory that can explain everything.

Whether this is more or less important than the second type of scepticism I'm not sure but what has also been always and everywhere important to conservatism is scepticism about the human condition. "We are afraid to put men to trade each on their own private stock of reason", wrote Edmund Burke, "because we suspect that this stock in each man is small". It is indeed difficult, as the economists would have it, to "assume people are rational" because human history would suggest that at the very least, they have a rather eccentric way of demonstrating this. It is this understanding that has always led conservatives to see order as the first virtue of any polity.

Michael Oakeshott once wrote that "it is a sign of maturity to be not too dismayed at the human condition". On that basis, I'm not sure I can claim to have reached maturity yet - but maybe more than those who imagine they can remain untouched by the human stain. For what is the impulse driving Mr Finkelstein and all the rest of them that imagine virtue can be gained by always and everywhere aligning yourself against power of any kind but a desire to keep one's white garment unblemished by this world?

Better this, for them, than getting involved in the stuff and filth of the world as it actually is. Finkelstein writes, "It is when the phenomenon of political apostasy is accompanied by fanfare and fireworks that it becomes truly repellent." Possibly - but when it isn't, as was the case with Eric Hobsbawm, nobody seems to notice. Which is a pity because his observations are a salutary lesson to these the political equivalents of the Jehovah's Witnesses: no improvement in the living conditions of the ordinary working man was ever brought about by those who preferred the purity of their ideology over engaging with the world as it actually is and not how they hope it will be come the eschaton, which no student of history expects any time soon, if ever.

Yet conservatism, like all political dispositions and ideologies, has a couple of questions it finds difficult to answer and in this case one of the most important is: what does one do when your enemies come to power? Arguably to answer this in any practical way is to cease to be conservative in any traditional sense and I'm interested in the way that left wing thought feeds into this, as alluded to in this post.

I intend to develop this at a later date. Until then, can I leave you with a Biblical observation? Everyone knows the story of the woman caught in adultery in the Gospel of John. When the assembled crowd ask Jesus what should be done, he replies that he who is without sin should cast the first stone. So far, so familiar - but a lesser noted feature of the story is that it was the older amongst the crowd that were the first to drop their stones and walk away...

I'm a 'champagne humanist'

apparently - according to this:


You are one of life’s enjoyers, determined to get the most you can out of your brief spell on Earth. Probably what first attracted you to atheism was the prospect of liberation from the Ten Commandments, few of which are compatible with a life of pleasure. You play hard and work quite hard, have a strong sense of loyalty and a relaxed but consistent approach to your philosophy.

You can’t see the point of abstract principles and probably wouldn’t lay down your life for a concept though you might for a friend. Something of a champagne humanist, you admire George Bernard Shaw for his cheerful agnosticism and pursuit of sensual rewards and your Hollywood hero is Marlon Brando, who was beautiful, irascible and aimed for goodness in his own tortured way.

Sometimes you might be tempted to allow your own pleasures to take precedence over your ethics. But everyone is striving for that elusive balance between the good and the happy life. You’d probably open another bottle and say there’s no contest.

What kind of humanist are you? Click here to find out.

Whatever. I don't put a great deal of store in these things. One asked me to select from a number of pictures; I liked the one with the flowers and the result told me I was a demi-god who would one day take over the world. Flattery will get you nowhere, so you can forget about asking for my credit card number. And this one's a pile of shite: I'm not even an atheist and I think George Bernard Shaw was a complete arsehole who wrote shit plays, was puffed up with his own self-importance, and was so stupid he wasn't even able to see through someone like Joseph Stalin. Never trust a vegetarian is what I say. Give me Orwell any day. Although the bit about opening another bottle winning over ethics rings a bell...

Tributes to George Best

There's been a few but I like this one above them all.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Sick teachers 'quit to take new posts'

This was a piece in the Scotsman about teachers taking early retirement, getting a big fat pension and then taking up new jobs, many of them 'teaching related' - whatever that means:

"MORE than a third of teachers who are allowed to retire early because of ill health take up new jobs, many of them teaching-related, new research has shown.

Academics at Glasgow University warned that teachers could be abusing the system as a way of getting out of the profession through the 'inappropriate use of ill health retirement.' They called on councils to investigate how the early retirement system operates."
The idea that academics at Glasgow University are in a position to make comments about anyone abusing any system is really very funny. If you read the rest of the article, you'll see that for one year (2002-3) this would have been less than sixty people - and given that the average survival rate for teachers post retirement is one year, it isn't anything as like a drain on the public purse as all these people who are paid to talk complete bollocks on in-service days and the like. (Please note that's an average dear readers - if I put my head in the oven and my feet in the fridge, on average I'll be perfectly comfortable. In other words, the people taking early retirement is balanced by the people who drop dead on the job, which two of my colleagues at my last school did.)

Still, it's not good really, is it? But the basic problem, as this research from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious points out, is that there isn't enough support for teachers before it gets to the stage where the job drives you completely insane:

"The report reveals that the most common cause of early retirement is mental disorder. It also says that the support available to teachers experiencing ill health is "inadequate and insufficient"."
Yes indeed - I'm a teapot. Something must be done. Why?

"There is an issue about the amount of support teachers get and whether employers are doing enough to keep them in the workforce, given the current teacher shortages."
Recruiting problem? Now why would that be? It's such a fulfilling job - everyone remembers a good teacher...

I've often thought we need to get away from this idea that teaching is a job for life. I've only been doing it for eight years, I'm already half-insane, half-alcoholic as a result - as no doubt this blog clearly demonstrates - and frankly I'm absolutely sick to death of it already. "Support" for teachers should consist in part of being a little bit more realistic: perhaps the Job Centre could open a wee branch in each school so that those of us who have had enough of this ridiculous profession can look for something more sensible to do for a living in our lunch-hour (sic).

Ah, but what about the shortage, you ask? I suggest a recruitment drive aimed at all those people who seriously imagine that most problems in the education system are attributable to the fact that no one has asked them how to run it. Perhaps Melanie Phillips could be persuaded to take a few classes on a part time basis. Or Chris Woodhead to show us how it's done - provided he can be persuaded not to shag any more pupils, that is. Or Peter Hitchens, as long as he promises not to hurt anyone (he'll have to be kept away from the scissor drawer, I reckon). From the other end of the spectrum, I'd dearly love to see a few social workers have a go: "Hi guys - I'm Sue. I'm not like your other teachers; I feel your pain. Is there anything I can do to ameliorate your oppression under this patriarchal capitalist regime?" Cue muffled cries of, "Yeah, geis a blowjob Sue", farting noises, flying objects and general mayhem.

The really annoying thing about teaching is that because everyone's been to school and then go on to send their little darlings there (he's so advanced for his age), everyone's a bleedin' expert on how you should do your job. I want one of those jobs where when you tell people what you do, they just say, "Oh" because they're absolutely clueless as to what that actually entails - like when people tell me they're a "system analyst" or a "project manager" or something. I say, "Oh, really?" when inwardly I'm thinking, what the hell does that mean?

So until such times as I've found a way of escape from this lunatic job, hear this, those of you who seriously imagine you know what it's all about: no you fucking don't so shut the fuck up because you're raising my blood-pressure and I'll end up going for early retirement before I hit forty.

Sorry about the language but that's the way it is, I'm afraid. You don't agree? Ah, fuck off!

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