Friday, January 27, 2006

On religion, harm and politics

Following Richard Dawkins' much-debated recent Channel Four programme on religion being the root of all evil, I've been trying - and probably failing - to follow a conversation going on in the blogosphere prompted with the question of why it is that Dawkins is unable to acknowledge the possibility of any good in religion.

An interesting response from OB at Butterfield and Wheels, if I understand correctly, argues not that religion is incapable of motivating people to do good, only that the harm it causes outweighs the good and since the two are indivisible, it follows that religion is a net bad in this world of ours. There's more here and here with stuff about 'quasi-Hegelian' arguments, which I don't understand at all, but I was struck - and maybe I'm missing something - by how utilitarian the arguments used by both sides are, both in this debate and others where the protagonists disagree more fundamentally (this is a disagreement amongst atheists).

Here the argument against religion on the basis of reason and science has been folded into a utilitarian-historical one about how much harm it has done both now and in the past. I understand why this should be to the point of wondering if they can be separated because both strands have historically rather neatly done the same: there can be no doubt at all that organized religion has been responsible for all sorts of oppressions and tyrannies, pogroms and persecutions, murders and wars. The merging of the concepts is incredibly difficult to resist because history made the two an issue simultaneously. When, for example, the Orthodox Church has a priest in every church telling peasants that it is their God-given vocation to defend their Tsar by charging on German machine guns even if you happen to have the misfortune of not even having any bullets for your rifle - and that this was done to preserve a bankrupt and irredeemably degraded tyranny in the name of a religious fiction - it's not difficult, with this and numerous other examples, to see how the distinct notions of religion being false and religion being harmful became conflated.

But still they shouldn't be because they are two separate questions: it is perfectly reasonable to argue that religion historically has been responsible for numerous calamities that have been inflicted through wars, oppression, persecution and the rest; it is also perfectly reasonable to argue that religion is essentially false, involving as it does not only the belief in something for which there is no evidence, but in some cases, believing something in denial of the evidence. However, I do not think that it follows, either logically or empirically, that religion has been in the past, and is now, harmful because it is false.

It can't because such an assertion requires, not least by those who make it, some historical evidence - and I would argue that no such evidence exists. I'm sure I'm missing something because not many seem to agree but I would contend, standing from the viewpoint of the early years of the 21st century (which I can't help - and no-one can), that one of the lessons of the last is that these kinds of questions are impossible to answer. In other words, the idea that religion per se has 'caused more harm than good' is a proposition for which there is no evidence - close to what Dawkins described as 'faith', no?

Because it's impossible to answer. There can be no doubt whatsoever that in terms of human misery, the sadism that human beings are capable of, the sheer scale and speed at which the corpses piled-up, was matched and surpassed by the regimes of the twentieth century that claimed science as the basis of their cognitive infallibility. How does the utilitarian grapple with this? This, as Eric Hobsbawm has said, was the age of extremes - characterised by the appearance on the human stage of 'mega-deaths', possible only because of advances in technology. Yet so many people died because there were so many in the first place, only possible (lest the environmentalists forget) only because they could be sustained by the application of science to the business of production - the same spirit of scientific enquiry that gave birth to steam power, the internal combustion engine, modern medicine and above all, enough resources to leave only questions of whether we've been able to create so much that the idea that "there's too many off us humans" is a problem. I've no doubt the Spanish Inquisition or whoever could have matched Stalin in the body count if they'd gone hi-tech - but they didn't, because they couldn't, so it's not really a historical question.

And I'd argue from this that the proposition that religion has been a net harm because it is false falls under an even greater weight. The historical harm from organised religion came not from insisting that God exists, that the world was created in seven days, that Yahweh or Allah specifically instructs you not to eat pork or whatever - but from insisting that others do likewise, that everyone should be a replica of oneself, regardless of whether they share your religious convictions or not. The harm it does depends on the extent to which conformity is enforced. If one can abstain from pork or alcohol because of one's religious traditions, despite the fact that this is not the majority position, this is relative liberty - compared to one that banned the sale of pork or alcohol, which is illiberal - compared to a society that flogs people for consuming alcohol, which has obviously passed into tyranny.

It is not whether a belief is true, whether it is rational, that has been essential to the argument, despite the protestations to the contrary. No one expends too much energy complaining about people going to an astrologer because those that do don't hold any political power and are only likely to harm their own purse if they are foolish enough to think that they should make life-decisions on the basis of the notion that there are only twelve types of people in this world. In measuring harm, surely it's the human impulse to enforce belief, whether that be rational or not, that has lead to the greatest harm? Here I would contend that while it is not possible to determine whether religion has been on balance more harmful historically than secularism, I do think one can say with a reasonable amount of confidence that the marriage of cognitive infallibility and state power - whether religious or secular - has been the root of more human misery than the politics of scepticism. Talking from opposite poles it seems but one is really talking about the same thing: whether it is the Spanish Inquisition, Calvin's Geneva, the Crusades, or the Soviet Union, it has always been the idea that a state's subjects have a duty to conform to the Truth that has been the source of the loss of liberty and of untold human misery.

The issue isn't really what is believed - it is faith in action, and whether and to what extent it exercises political power. I do think one can say with a confidence based on historical evidence that when it does, it really does 'cause more harm than good'. But the exercise of political power to enforce conformity of belief has unequivocally not been the exclusive perogative of the religious: disaster awaits any society that attempts to eliminate the boundary between the sacred and the profane, whether religious or secular.

Hamas landslide

Does the Hamas election victory owe anything to the helpful advice given to them by the PR company they employed recently to advise them on electoral strategy? Amongst the helpful tips they received from Nashat Aqtash in helping them with their 'image problem' were:
"Say you are not against Israelis as Jews

Don't talk about destroying Israel

Do talk about Palestinian suffering

Don't celebrate killing people

Change beard colour (if red)"
It's at times like these I know I'm in the wrong job; there's clearly a lot of money to be made out there for stating the bleeding obvious - and it requires minimal effort, as far as I can see. A hundred grand for saying, in effect, the penchant for blowing yourselves up isn't playing well with swing-voters? I'd have been willing to part with this breath-taking insight for a lot less than that.

Because most people - including, obviously, people in Palestine - take a fairly dim view of this blowing yourself up business, on account of it being a bit - can we say unpleasant without being accused of Islamophobia or being a Zionist crazy or something? Because most people haven't been trained in the moral relativism laced with western liberal guilt that seems to be so popular with the Guardian. Today, for example, Jonathan Steele invited critics of Hamas not to get 'hung-up', man, with the self-exploding business:
"Murdering a Palestinian politician by a long-range attack that is bound also to kill innocent civilians is morally and legally no better than a suicide bomb on a bus. Hamas' refusal to give formal recognition of Israel's right to exist should also not be seen by Europe as an urgent problem. History and international politics do not march in tidy simultaneous steps."
I'm not saying blowing-up people in wheel-chairs is a terribly good idea, and it's certainly bad PR, but Steele's first sentence encapsulates the entire problem with journalists of his ilk, Livingstone, Galloway and his ex-friends in Respect, and all the rest. Their logic is (painfully) simple - if people get killed, they get killed - and if someone is responsible, there is no moral difference between them and a suicide-bomber because there is no room for qualitative difference in their politics.

I had thought of turning out a couple of gruesome hypothetical examples to illustrate this, undergraduate philosophy style - but what's the point? We've been here since 9/11 and although I suppose I shouldn't be, I'm still shocked to read the liberal apologetics for those that declare there to be no difference between civilian casualties incurred and those who target only civilians; between those who might be shown to be careless, even criminally negligent with regards to civilian casualties and those for whom killing civilians is as legitimate pursuit of their ends as killing Israeli or American soldiers - because for them the concept of a civilian is meaningless, if the civilian in question happens to be a Jew.

Still, it's a promising sign that normal people who aren't bloggers, clapped-out pseudo-Marxists, and liberal journalists obviously don't feel like this. Why else would Hamas play it down, which they did - as Steele reluctantly, and only half-concedes?
"It is true that Hamas candidates did not make relations with Israel the centrepiece of their campaign. They focused on reform in the Palestinian Authority. But few voters were unaware of Hamas' uncompromising hostility to occupation and its record in fighting it."
You can sense it's hurting him here but it seems clear that it was the former focus that swung it Hamas' way. Steele describes the result as the 'best news from the Middle East for some time', which strikes me as being slightly insane, yet if it can possibly be interpreted as representing a step towards the routinisation of politics in the PA, that would be welcome.

In the meantime - expect lots of hand-wringing about the hypocrisy of our democracy from the usual suspects, with liberal eyes rolling at the mention of anything to do with terrorism from any western politician. Just quibbling because they don't like the result of the election, they'll say.

Here's a 'quibble' - just as a wee reminder...

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Education: the ignorance and the rage

David Aaronovitch has a piece in the Times about Blair's proposed education reforms. You'll no doubt be astonished to learn that Mr Aaronovitch supports them. His reasoning is that to support comprehensive education is so last century. No, that's not quite right - rather, he sees something distinctly primordial in the Labour back-bench rebellion:
"They are opposed to further change as much for what it represents to them as for what it actually is. It is, in other words, a fetish. They have fashioned an animal skin, named it comprehensive education and tied it to a stick."
The aim, of course, is to present the opponents of this Education Bill as conservatives - which he does quite neatly by linking attitudes to the present system with those in the Tory party who cleaved to the grammar school system: only dinosaurs oppose more marketization in education.

I just love education debates in the blogosphere. There's something about this topic that really makes people come out, say what they really think. And when this happens, it turns out there's a whole load of social Darwinists out there. There's some pretty hardcore, unalloyed contempt for the lower-orders from some in this strand, for example, at HP. In it someone made reference to Nick Cohen's observation that most people don't realise how good pupils from grammar and private schools actually are. Having read some of the comments, I have to concede that I too was one of the unenlightened but now realise the excellent work being done in these august citadels of learning: I find there's not a few grammar school and public school boys who, despite having not by definition participated in the comprehensive system, and clearly having done no research, are nevertheless experts on the subject of how it should be run. It's very impressive I must confess; selective education obviously does wonders for the confidence, if nothing else.

The New Model army of education experts eschew boring stuff like empirical evidence and international comparison, on account of its annoying tendency to spoil a perfectly good rant. For instance, the Darwinian model obviously has problems with the fact that Finland topped an international comparison of educational standards, despite having the evil comprehensive system. And on the other side, those who make comprehensive education an article of leftwing faith might have a few problems with the fact that only Finland and Korea do better than Northern Ireland, which retains the grammar school system. We don't know how England compares because despite giving the impression to the outsider of having a system that makes a fetish out of formal assessment (I'd welcome an anthropological analysis of this strange phenomenon, Mr Aaronovitch), they were unable to supply the necessary data. But we do know that Scotland's comprehensive system produced results that were above the OECD average in reading, maths and science - but compared to Northern Ireland, better only in maths.

Tempting then to conclude that structure doesn't matter a damn. Tempting but wrong, because if one believed this, you could conclude that Blair's proposed reforms - even if you didn't think they were a terribly good idea - won't make that much difference. I sincerely doubt that there's anybody on the face of this planet that is less misty-eyed about the present system than me. I think I could make the case for urgent reform to our schools with more venom, and rather more evidence, than most people could muster. Yet these reforms should be resisted, because change isn't to be welcomed - not if it makes matters worse, which these ill-considered reforms surely will.

The cult of the private, of private management techniques, the general embrace of the market principle into the public sector has already disfigured education in this country to a devastating degree. And by 'this country' I mean Scotland. Here we have no grammar schools at all, no city academies, a fraction of the number of schools run by various experts in the supernatural compared to England, a smaller private sector - yet we've still managed to mess everything up by embracing the market to the limited extent we have. League tables and parental choice have created a supermarket of schools where people vote with their feet and the people from the Executive who brought you the centralisation of medical services pounce on the opportunity to gain economies of scale by annihilating local education provision with a series of closures where 'failing schools' are shut down and amalgamated with supposedly 'successful schools' - duly extended courtesy of PFI, of course.

According to the market theory, everyone should be 'levelled-up' as the 'good practice' of the 'successful school' rubs-off on the plebian pupils and teachers from the closed school. Meanwhile, back in the real world, what quickly emerges is that whatever success previously enjoyed by the 'beacon of success' school had sweet f.a. to do with the management of the school, or the quality of the teaching, or - most absurdly - the 'expectations' or 'ethos' of the school and everything to do with the fact that hitherto they just had it easy with lots of nice, fluffy middle-class kids. Indeed, the lesson of these amalgamations is that both the management and some of the teaching staff in the 'successful' school is that they are relatively incompetent in their dealings with difficult kids compared to the troops in the trenches who understood their charges and the problems they faced.

In Glasgow, even the limited extent to which the logic of the market has been embraced has proved itself to be an unmitigated disaster of, in my view, quite scandalous proportions. Non-denominational secondary education in Maryhill, Glasgow has been completely obliterated and the intake has been mostly absorbed by schools in the west end of Glasgow, despite the fact that it is a much smaller area geographically. I have taught in every one of these schools. I tell you no lie when I say there ain't a whole lot of 'levelling-up' going on.

That the situation in England is already much worse is demonstrated in the neurotic response you get from the average middle-class parent in London when education is discussed - an anxiety the depth of which continually takes this foreigner by surprise; they're almost as worried about education as Americans are about health care. And that, as anyone who has been there can testify, is a lot. This White Paper aims to extend the principle immeasurably. I'd have to confess, behind this there is a remarkable degree of idealism - as David Aaronvitch's fantasy of how the City of Choice in Education might function in reality demonstrates:
"So how might good schools expand? Possibly by becoming the lead institutions in a constellation of local schools and colleges who agree to co-operate. This could happen across LEA boundaries, or between secondary and primary schools and FE colleges. New schools might be started up by collectives of parents, or groups of businesses, charities or even religious bodies."
How funky and tolerant this new strain of social democracy is - that it embraces the prospect of MacDonald's and the Jehovah's Witnesses playing a more active role in the education of our children as 'progress'. And as for the idea of a 'collective' of neurotic middle-class parents being actively involved in the establishment of a new school - what can I say? One man's utopia is another's dystopia, I guess.

It's times like this, when I realise I'm just not modern enough, I like to pop over to see if Polly Toynbee - a sometimes disagreeable but reliable - keeper of the social democratic sensibility has any words of support. And when I feel like this, she rarely disappoints. She asks, for example, amidst the bullshit about ethos and standards and all the rest:
"At least this dangerous row is about something important. This is no airy ideological dance. Conservatives - and Blair - know that a lot of schools could be improved rapidly, and maybe many middle-class families wooed back to inner-city state schools, by allowing schools to arrange their admissions according to "ethos" - or anything else that's a proxy for class. (Was there ever a school whose ethos expressed a yearning for difficult children?)"
No there wasn't - and that's the heart of the problem: there is no reward in the market for dealing with the problems that most people are either unwilling or unable to deal with. Yet these people exist - and it has been this blogger's privilege to work with such, to witness their skill, and their commitment to teaching as a vocation. It's a beautiful thing - yet such are dismissed and treated by contempt by the Blairites and the Cameronians (is there a difference?) as non-entities working in 'bog-standard comprehensives', whose real contribution to learning and teaching is extinguished by the heartless advance of the cult of choice.

And our Polly, with a line sure to raise a yawn amongst the free-marketeers, but which strikes a chord with me, raised the awkward problem of inequality. Even if we had a perfectly-functioning education system where there was equality of opportunity for all, do we want a situation where 'meritocracy' means via education there is an equal chance of stepping over beggars as you walk into the opera? Not my idea of utopia - but even if it were, I think most people have not the least idea how far we are from even this.

The rage of title, as you'll have discerned by now, is all mine. I've written before about the way in which poverty is used as an excuse for educational failure but the social Darwinists have got my back up and I feel like bearing witness. I've taught in the east end of Glasgow. Many of the kids there are physically smaller, have faces like clenched fists, and many of them live in schemes where the rule of law is but a faint rumour. There isn't any 'equality of opportunity' for these kids - and Blair's Sainsbury's approach isn't going to do them any favours. It's these that I think Polly Toynbee is right about, if I understand her correctly: the problem with our education system is that no-one - not Blair, Cameron, nor all the rest of the privately-schooled experts in education, gives a fuck about them. They say they do - some of them are paid to say that they do - but they don't. Not really. Meritocracy? As Chris Rock would say: let's keep it fucking real, ok?

Monday, January 23, 2006

Politicians and their peccadilloes

I used to repeat the 'a politician's private life is of no public interest line' religiously whenever some hapless sexual adventurer had the misfortune of having their extra-curricular activities splashed on the Sunday tabloids. Clinton pushed this public/private distinction to destruction for me and, while I still despise the destructive prurience of the tabloids, I've never quite got it back. With regards to Mark Oaten, Max Hastings riffs the usual tunes:
"It is incomparably simpler for many people to accept the notion that a married man is damned because he slept with a male prostitute, than to decide whether, say, his last policy initiative on prison reform was a load of nonsense. Sex offers a lazy way of passing judgment on a public figure, sparing us the difficulties of assessing their work."
It's a reasonable point but I've concluded there's a couple of things about sex-scandals that those of us who take the liberal line need to get real about. For one, it isn't just laziness that produces the focus on politicians' private lives. Their incompetence/corruption/laziness/stupidity or whatever can be well-documented and challenged by the press and Her Majesty's Opposition but the minister in question will still cling to their job. It isn't necessarily that people aren't interested or think these more trivial than an extra-marital affair; it's just that today's decision-making, taking place as it does within a vast departmental bureaucracy, is objectively more difficult to trace than it used to be. The advantage of sexual indiscretions is that this disappears - it either happened or it didn't, there's no possibility of blaming civil servants this time.

That this should mean the end of a ministerial career is something I've always thought wrong. (Martin Luther King had extra-marital affairs; Hitler didn't - discuss.) But I'm thinking in my old age that maybe it's we who insist that private behaviour should have no bearing on one's fitness for public office, we who argue that people should have a more realistic view of the human condition, who aren't being a bit unrealistic ourselves. I dare say people shouldn't be interested in other people's sex-lives, but they are - and anyone who listens to the average water-cooler conversation post-staff night out understands that this interest is not confined to the activities of politicians. One could say: but the tabloids should not be raking around in people's private affairs. I completely agree - but they do, which gets us to the crux of the matter: people are interested in sex and will read about it if it appears in the press. High-minded liberal stuff about minding one's own business goes precisely nowhere in addressing this. Privacy legislation might. I'm not sure about that one but self-regulation certainly isn't working, is it?

Anyway, Hastings is wrong if he is suggesting that the Mark Oaten disclosures tell us nothing about his effectiveness as a potential party leader. What this episode shows is that even a rather exotic sex-scandal like this has completely failed to make Mr Mark Oaten sufficiently interesting - and that is what's pretty damning.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The best small nation in the world?

Despite three wars, a decade of sanctions and now suicide-bombings, the average male will live longer in Iraq than in the Calton, Glasgow - according to the Guardian:
Andorra (highest): 80.6

United Kingdom: 75.9

Gaza Strip: 70.5

Iraq: 67

Calton, Glasgow: 53.9

Liberia: 38.9

Swaziland (lowest): 32.5
Average life expectancy in Glasgow is actually 69 - the lowest in the UK. But as everyone knows, if you stick your feet in the freezer and your head in the oven, on average you'll be perfectly comfortable. In Glasgow's case, if you live in the East End, there's no need to move to Andorra: average life expectancy in Bearsden, one of Glasgow's wealthiest suburbs, is 87.7. That's 34 years of a difference depending where you live in this city. Surely that's got to be a record of some kind?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Iraq election results now in

From the beeb:
"Iraq's Shia-led United Iraqi Alliance has won the country's parliamentary elections..."
Which was predictable...
"but failed to obtain an absolute majority."
Meaning they'll have to govern in a coalition, which is surely the only feasible option in a country like Iraq? Marcus at HP links to this Times article that suggests despite winning less seats than last time, Allawi's Iraqi National List could hold the balance of power.

Wilson Pickett



Chirac: Lost his damn mind or just being silly?

Jacques ain't messing, according to the Guardian:
"Jacques Chirac said yesterday that France was prepared to use nuclear weapons against any country that carried out a state-sponsored terrorist attack against it.

In a speech aimed at defending France's 3bn euros-a-year (£2bn) nuclear arms programme, the president said the country's nuclear strike force was "not aimed at dissuading fanatical terrorists", but states who used "terrorist means" or "weapons of mass destruction" against France.
Some commentators reckoned this was sabre-rattling in order to bolster his waning authority at home. Well I hope so 'cos it certainly isn't a well-thought out strategy...
"(H)e said the country had changed its nuclear strategy, configuring its strike force to react "flexibly" to any new threat, particularly from regional powers. "The flexibility and reactivity of our strategic forces would enable us to exercise our response directly against its centres of power and its capacity to act."
Erm, ok - but in 'exercising your response', you'd end up hitting a whole lot of other stuff - like cities full of civilians. And possibly oil-fields. That shit is flammable, Jacques - you need to calm down, ok?

Chirac: "Go ahead terrorist punks - make my day".

Lost his damn mind, I reckon.

(Hat tip: Simply Jews)

Kelly has survived

And is said to be 'defiant over school reforms' in the face of growing opposition in the Labour party - not least from the normally fastidiously loyal Neil Kinnock.

One reason for her survival appears to be not that many people seem to care much about the teacher selection scandal - which surprised me, I have to say.

But the most important surely is that no-one else in the party is mad enough to want to be Education Secretary at this time. Poisoned chalice? More like a poisoned cask.

I keep reading about how intelligent she is.

So why did she take the job in the first place then?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

A Scottish school's leap of faith?

Laban Tall drew my attention to this story about St Albert's primary school in the Pollokshields area of Glasgow. The south side of Glasgow easily has the highest concentration of Muslims (and Jews also, as it happens) than anywhere else in Scotland. In the case of St Albert's, around 90% of the pupils are Muslim, not Roman Catholic - and given that religious observance plays a reasonably prominent role in the life of St Albert's, as it does in most Catholic schools, the Muslim parents have suggested the school should switch to Islam instead of Catholicism:
"This week, the Campaign for Muslim Schools (CMS) is calling for the school to change its faith in order to better represent the existing pupils... The campaigners argue that to maintain the Catholic faith rituals for such a minority is absurd, particularly when there are no denominational schools for Muslim children."
Under the present system, I can't think of a single argument against this move - or at least not one that makes any sense. Roman Catholics represent about 15% of Scotland's population - and, as it turns out more neatly than I imagined, around 15% of Scotland's schools are Roman Catholic. In contrast, Muslims - numbering around 43 000 - represent 0.83% of the population (2001 figures): according to my calculations (which I did on my phone, so don't quote me) this means there should be about 19 publicly-funded schools in Scotland. Presently there are none.

Under the present system, there's no argument against it that makes any sense - which has the effect of focusing your attention on the fact that it's the present system that doesn't make any sense. Britain is the only, as far as I'm aware, country in Europe where the state subsidises Catholic schools. Now, I dare say this has produced models of moral rectitude elsewhere in the country - but in the West of Scotland, I really don't think dividing an already small population on sectarian lines has been a particularly winning strategy. Certainly sectarianism would exist without separate schooling but could the advocates of religious segregation in education at least concede this much: hasn't exactly helped, has it?

I met a trainee teacher from Lanarkshire once who had not held a conversation with a Protestant until he was seventeen years old. Not typical I don't think but (obviously) it can happen. And it can happen only because we have state-funded religious segregation in education. Certainly there'll be opposition to this business that stems from simple prejudice, from resentment about "them" taking over "our" area. But a lot of it will be down, is down already, to people clinging on to their advantage, their position in the bureaucracy. And there'll be also opposition based on the understanding that is often, too often, spoken sotto voce in this part of the world: religious education has not, on balance, been a good thing for Scotland - and instead of extending the principle to others who have under the present system an undeniable grievance, wouldn't it be wiser to recognise that religion, like so much of what is essential to oneself, is best practiced in private?

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

People losing their damn minds #8

For those of you with absolutely no knowledge of religion, there's an essential part of the belief system of the average monotheist that you absolutely have to get to grips with if you are to understand anything: God is pissed off big time. With you.

It is this rich seam of religious tradition that Ray Nagin, the Mayor of New Orleans, was drawing from when he suggested that Hurricane Katrina was God's chastisement against America for being naughty:
"The mayor of New Orleans, who excoriated the Bush administration for its indifference to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, was again involved in controversy yesterday when he said the disaster was a sign of God's wrath at America, and black Americans in particular.

"Surely God is mad at America. He sent us hurricane after hurricane after hurricane, and it's destroyed and put stress on this country," the mayor, Ray Nagin, said in a speech to mark Martin Luther King Day.

"Surely he doesn't approve of us being in Iraq under false pretences. But surely he is upset at black America also."

The mayor went on to describe an imaginary conversation with King. "We are not taking care of ourselves. We are not taking care of our women, and we are not taking care of our children when you have a community where 70% of its children are being born to one parent."
You might think that drowning a whole load of single-mothers was a rather eccentric way of God expressing His anger at their abandonment. And a pretty weird way of expressing One's disapproval of American foreign policy, I think you'll agree.

There's more madness here, which I found here - I particularly liked the comments by Ed Renwick, director of Loyola University's Institute of Politics:
"It was another case of him saying the first thing that entered his mind...Instead of thinking it through, he likes to shoot from the hip."
Delete 'through' from the above: man's lost his damn mind. But can we be so sure? The man's being compared to Pat Robertson, ok? And that means you done gone lost your damn mind - no mistake.

Pat Robertson: lost his damn mind

People losing their damn minds #7

Intended to make this an occasional feature - maybe make it a weekly or monthly feature or something. But having started, one realises when you've struck a gusher - or geyser - or whatever. Anyway, if at all an accurate account of what he said, Norm brings news that Noam Chomsky has lost his damn mind.

Apparently he said - on the same day, in the same place - actually, in the same fecking speech that "Iran would be 'crazy' if it did not develop nuclear weapons" and then "no sane person wants Iran to have nuclear weapons".

There's more but I wasn't strong enough to read it. Whole damn world's going crazy.

Hitchens joins authors to challenge NSA wiretap

From the Guardian:
"The British writer Christopher Hitchens, one of the most reliable allies of the US administration's conduct of the war on terror, has joined a lawsuit seeking a ban on a domestic spy programme authorised by President George Bush.

In two lawsuits filed separately yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union in Detroit and the Centre for Constitutional Rights in New York City, the National Security Agency is accused of violating the constitution by eavesdropping on people without court oversight.

They represent the first legal challenge to the surveillance programme, which has outraged members of Congress and led to charges that Mr Bush has overstepped his authority as president.

In the ACLU suit, Hitchens joins other writers, Greenpeace and the Council on American-Islamic Relations in seeking an immediate end to the wiretaps, saying they violate constitutional rights to privacy and free speech.
Hitchens and the other plaintiffs said they feared their email and telephone calls were monitored, compromising their contacts in the Middle East. "People will say it's wartime and we have a deadly enemy, and I agree with that. I was in favour of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan very strongly, but it is even more important in such a time that we don't give away power to the unaccountable agencies that helped get us into this in the first place," Hitchens told the Guardian. "It is extremely important we know what the rules are and there has to be a line drawn. You mustn't turn emergency or panic measures into custom or practice."
Brothers and sisters, friends and comrades - it's been a very very very silly ding-dong we've had in the blogosphere with regards to the antics and pronouncements of our respective anti and prowar 'dudes' but can we now all declare a winner and be done with all this shit? On aesthetic grounds at least?

If one can once again try and recapture the spirit of intellectual seriousness that we've all maintained in the last eighteen months or so in one's words because the results are now in: our dude is way cooler than your dude. Like, totally. Our's is suing the US government on libertarian grounds. Publicity stunt? He's a flawed character so he's perfectly capable of such a thing just to piss people off - especially to piss people off - but in this case there's absolutely no reason to think so.

Yours, on the other hand, is being observed by millions losing his damn mind on what an old friend of mine described with a phrase I'll never forget: colosseum TV.

Childish, I know - but the whole damn thing was childish, so are we done with this now? I for one don't blame anybody for forgetting JM Barrie's aphorism: "There are few more impressive sights in the world than a Scotsman on the make." He said that before the invention of reality TV, of course.

People losing their damn minds #6

An online casino for paying $25 000 for one of William Shatner's kidney stones.

Celebrity effects being sold for charity or at auction has always struck me as a bit weird even when it's something of value - but a kidney stone? The piece informs us of the difficult arrival of said kidney stone:

"The actor was rushed to hospital after suffering "unbearable" backache that prompted him to drop to his knees in pain while filming on the set of Boston Legal, according to a TV interview last year.

"It was just unbelievable and it made you think about what pain is," he said.

The operation is said to be excruciatingly painful, and the auction price includes the surgical stint and string used to permit passage of the stone.

The stone was so big, Shatner said, "you'd want to wear it on your finger"."
Wear it on your finger indeed! He's lost his damn mind too - but why the hell are we being given all this information anyway? Does an especially painful delivery add value in the febrile and dynamic international kidney-stone market or something?

Don't get me wrong - nice of them to give some of the dosh they've fleeced from their customers to charity and all, but can't they just give the money without all this? I mean what is the matter with people that they have to be prompted by the sale of a tempting kidney-stone before they part with their money? Lost their damn minds, if you ask me.

SNP: Union flag a 'butcher's apron'

Actually in fairness, this was a press-release from Sandra White MSP who is, as the Scotsman put it, a maverick, left-wing MSP known for her strong anti-unionist views. It involves no exaggeration to say she doesn't quite share Gordon Brown's "it represents the gorgeous mosaic of our diversity" view of the union flag:
"The release attacked the flag as a symbol of centuries of repression, including the Highland Clearances, and for being at least partly responsible for the "disproportionate" number of Scots casualties in the armed forces.

It went on: 'Under the shadow of the Union flag, the first concentration camps emerged, the first civilian populations were gassed in Iraq, civilian massacres in India and Kenya followed and later again in Derry.'"
They try and keep a lid on it, and are successful most of the time, but inevitably it occasionally spills out - just how much some elements in the SNP absolutely hate Britain. We're not talking 'amicable divorce' here; these are the equivalent of those crazy separations where bank accounts get emptied, photographs defaced, boxes of CDs thrown out of the window, altercations the neighbours can watch because you're having your stupid argument in the goddam street. Know what I mean? If not, well, good for you - but suffice to say these dudes ain't going to want to meet for a civilised coffee a few months later once it's all done with.

Love it when some SNPer departs from the sanitised script and comes out with mental stuff - like when some loon went off at the party conference a few years back about 'taking direct action against the British state', or someone else who's name escapes me describing George Robertson as Lord Haw-Haw (for collaborating with the evil English, y'see). Which is not to say all of what Sandra White said was completely nuts - the stuff about the British setting up the first concentration camps and civilian massacres in India, for example, is perfectly true. It's her use of this that illustrates the way nationalism works: your nation symbolises, and is a repository for, all that is good, virtuous and noble (essential this involves suffering these days); the one you want to split from all that is bad, bloodthirsty and oppressive.

To do this, you need to massage the historical evidence a wee bit. The British Empire was indeed pretty bloody at times and it makes for some gruesome reading - and it hasn't escaped the attention of anyone who has broken open a history book from time to time that Scots were usually at the forefront of all this. How to square the circle? You have to pretend that the Scots were, despite ample evidence to the contrary, in someway reluctant partners in this. That would appear to be Sandra White's technique with this 'disproportionate Scots casualties' line.

Scots have had a disproportionate number of casualties in the armed forces because there are a disproportionate number of Scots in the armed forces. Now you could argue this is all the fault of the English because the Union meant the Scottish economy suffered, resulting in limited opportunities at home driving people to join the army. Problem with that is it's bollocks - and it does strike me every now and then that some people are desperate to avoid the more mundane explanation that there were lots of Scots at the forefront of the armies of the Empire because we had, and have, a flair for this soldiering thing.

I'm not blind to the attractions of Scottish nationalism because if you take Sandra White's kind of line, you get to completely disengage your sense of national identity from the crimes of Empire. And there were crimes - so it's an understandable thing to want to do. But it doesn't work for me. For one thing, as I've argued, it doesn't wash historically - and it doesn't properly grasp what an attachment to one's country is all about. I don't want to have to pretend that Scotland is blameless, that all it's misfortunes are the fault of the English. I prefer what I understand patriotism, rather than nationalism, to be about: in this world we find ourselves in - in which we move and have our being, it is those relationships you don't choose that are often the most profound - those to your family and the place of your birth. You love them, not out of a conviction that they come out the best in any comparison but simply because they are yours. It comes instead, as I've said before, from an affection for what is familiar.

And as I've also said before, the SNP would do better if they stopped trying to define the Scottish national identity in terms of victimhood. Not only is it historically unsound, it can't have escaped their attention that the Irish, with some justification, have cornered the suffering as national identity market.

Euthanasia today

From the Scotsman:
"DOCTORS broke the law to help nearly 3,000 patients die in a single year, according to new research which has reignited the debate on euthanasia."
I know a lot of people these days are in favour of voluntary euthanasia. It's not a view I share and I think even people who believe the choice of the individual should be sovereign would find some elements of this report disturbing:
"The survey, published in the journal Palliative Medicine, found a further 0.33 per cent - or 1,929 cases - would be described as "ending life without an explicit request from the patient" - a practice also known as non-voluntary euthanasia."
Or in layman's terms, 'killing people'. The Scotsman's website always has a 'key quote' at the top of it's pages. On this one:
"Key quote:'The illegal decisions are extremely rare compared with other countries. Three thousand sounds like a lot, but it's not.'"
Doc - um, yes it is; it sounds a lot because it is a lot. I know it makes me look terribly old-fashioned but this is not cool, people.

People losing their damn minds #5

There's a bit in the Scotsman about Fathers 4 Justice. Seems Leo Blair was the target of a kidnap plot by extremist elements in the group:
"LEO Blair, the youngest son of the Prime Minister, was the target of a kidnap plot by elements on the extreme fringe of the campaign group Fathers 4 Justice, according to reports last night.

A plan to take the Blairs' five-year-old son as part of a publicity stunt was uncovered by police investigating the activities of men linked to the fathers' action group, a newspaper reported."
Seems it was planned by the same idiots who dress in super-hero costumes and scale buildings and other stupid stunts in order to gain publicity. Problem is, as the boys from Respect could now tell them, that more publicity isn't necessarily a good thing if all it achieves is to illustrate the fact that your representatives have done gone and lost their damn minds.

Demonstrate your concern about uniting families and the welfare of children by planning to take a five-year old boys away from his parents! A five-year old boy! Did these lunatics have a mind to lose in the first place I wonder? Idiots.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Local News

Mr Eugenides informs me that Boris Johnston MP is a candidate for rector of Edinburgh University, along with award-winning journalist John Pilger, former Scottish Arts Council chairman Magnus Linklater and Green MSP Mark Ballard. Apparently some dullard pseudo-radicals want to make the election an anti-war issue. Students really are a bunch of tossers, aren't they? For anyone who like me is puritanical enough to regret the historical tendency of Scottish universities to elect complete and utter fuckwitted cartoon characters as their rectors, I'd go for Magnus Linklater. I don't know who 'Green MSP Mark Ballard' is but he's probably worthy - and extremely dull.

Our Scotland Forum is the latest (to me, anyway) incarnation of Scot nats in cyberspace. A political forum hosted by a Scottish nationalist republican socialist, it's in a message-board format that I have to confess I can't quite navigate. Looks interesting though, for anyone interested in Scottish politics.

Kelly's progress

Reading the press and various blogs on the scandal surrounding Ruth Kelly and the appointment of teachers with records for sexual misconduct, I have to say I'm astonished at how many seem to have convinced themselves that the sacking of someone whose grasp of his professional responsibilities was so poor he didn't seem to understand that shagging the pupils under his care was not part of his remit represents some kind of injustice. The most bizarre example of this was Peter Preston's piece in yesterday's Guardian. What seems to upset Mr Preston and others is that the possibility of reformation has been ruled out:
"Last week the man who shot Pope John Paul was released from prison after 25 years. The priest he tried to kill had forgiven him. Are we truly saying that there is no forgiveness, no prospect of rehabilitation, on offer to a teacher who...25 years before, made sexual advances to a 15-year-old girl?"
Um, for those of us who don't think it's the proper function of the Department of Education to dispense absolution, the answer to that question should be yes. And I don't understand why those who see this case, unbelievably, as some Great Liberal Cause are so confident in the possibility of reformation. Has the teacher in this case been reformed, rehabilitated? I think not - his pathetic self-defence reveals he still doesn't understand the problem:
"William Gibson walked into his local newspaper's office and announced that he and his 15-year-old victim had gone on to forge an amicable relationship.

The evidence that Gibson, 59, produced to support that claim cannot be reported for legal reasons. He argued, however, that it demonstrated he posed no threat to pupils today.

"I am not a paedophile and I am not a risk to children," he said. "It's not as black and white as everyone thinks. I hope everyone will come to the conclusion that I have never abused everyone. It was a genuine relationship and nothing happened against her will."
A sex-offender claiming consent? Gee - bet that's never happened before. I find it disturbing that one has to remind the liberal commentators that this teacher has no grounds for claiming he had her consent, since the law states that she is unable to give it.

But it goes beyond that: the question of professional conduct in this case should not be solely about will and consent. Would it have been ok if the pupil in question had been over the age of consent? Absolutely not. His unfitness to teach is demonstrated in the fact that he, along with his liberal defenders, doesn't seem to understand that he has failed his duties and that these exist regardless of whether consent was present or whether any lasting harm was done.

His plaintive cry is that he never abused anyone. I'd question that but in any event, we can and must say what he has certainly abused is his position, his place of trust and responsibility, and his vocation as a teacher. The fact that he makes the nauseating and stupid claim that it isn't so simple, that it isn't 'black and white' shows his unfitness for the job.

Because it is black and white, and it is that simple. Having disgraced himself and his profession in such a way, this man should never be allowed to teach in a school ever again - and the notion that there is something 'McCarthyist' about taking this view is truly bizarre and frankly disgraceful.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Is Gordon Brown a big grumpy incarnation of the West Lothian question?

A number of people have suggested, not implausibly, that this is the reason he was coming over all patriotic - and it certainly is a wee problemette for our Gordy. As well as being seen, a bit unfairly, as someone who personifies Calvinist gloom - he represents what is increasingly seen as an imbalance in the constitutional settlement we have post-devolution. During eighteen years of Tory rule, we got so used to the fact that the way Scotland voted didn't matter a damn when it came to the outcome of a British General Election, we seem to have forgotten the possibility that when Labour came to power, the opposite could be the case. The first two Labour landslides meant the West Lothian question remained academic, but with their present more slender majority it has become a genuine source of disquiet amongst English MPs, according to the Scotsman.

We have already seen controversial legislation on health care passed but only with the government retaining its Parliamentary majority with the presence of Scottish MPs, who represented constituencies that would not be affected by the changes. Gordon Brown must be anticipating the possibility of leading a government that does not have a majority of the seats in England. Bit of a problem for him - and adds to the feeling I keep getting, that the Force isn't with this one, and that his star may have passed... and that he senses this too?

People losing their damn minds - update

If you're like me, you would have nearly choked on your Frosties (or whatever) when you read that Blair had used 1930s Glasgow as an example of the respect culture that he wants to yet again govern our civic spaces. Well, there's more mirth to be had: he was, apparently, talking about Govan.

Can I entreat you to read that last bit again? He was talking about Govan. In the 1930s! Man's done gone lost his mind - as a few old residents of this quaint fishing village on the Clyde would testify.

Blair: lost his damn mind

(From Marcus at Harry's Place)

The West's worse nightmare

Is how Jason Burke describes the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It's an interesting piece well-worth reading but I couldn't quite get past the title: Burke invites us to understand where he's coming from, and there's lots of fair enough stuff about the hypocrisy of the west with regards to the use of nuclear power, possession of nuclear arms and so on. But I couldn't help thinking this is the problem; it's all about us, our guilt, our hypocrisy - and because of this it's easy to lose sight of the fact that Ahmadinejad is a nightmare in his own right, independently of what our governments think about him.

It's not appeasement - more something akin to self-loathing, I reckon - that allows people to be blinded to what Ahmadinejad represents. In so many ways, he is the very incarnation of what just about everyone who could claim even a passing acquaintance with the centre-left opposes. His early career, as Burke outlines in his article, is marked by his enthusiasm for, and identification with, the most reactionary elements in the Iranian revolution:
"When the revolution against the repressive regime of the Shah finally came in 1979, Ahmadinejad was already a well-known figure in one of the harder-line student groups and took part in the vicious struggle to establish the dominance of the Islamists over the leftists following the Shah's fall."
Having been instrumental in establishing the post-Shah regime as a strict theocracy, he then spent his energies maintaining it's purity:
"In 1986, he joined the Revolutionary Guards, the militia created by Ayatollah Khomeini to balance the power of the Iranian army. Based near Kermanshah, Ahmadinejad directed a squad specialising in the assassination of 'enemies of the revolution'. He was, according to those who came across him at the time, committed, brutal, extremely effective. He may have participated in secret missions overseas, such as the assassination of a Kurdish dissident in Vienna.
All the present evidence would suggest that he hasn't mellowed with age. The beeb reports that he intends to host a debate on the Holocaust where the scientific evidence would be 'examined', according to a government spokesman. Now, given that Ahmadinejad has already described the attempted annihilation of Europe's Jews as a 'myth' and has called for Israel to be wiped (hypothetically of course) from the face of the planet, I'm not expecting the standard of scientific objectivity at this 'conference' to be particularly high.

This is the regime whose nuclear ambitions we're not supposed to worry about. Or at least if we are permitted to be concerned, it must be tempered with plenty of western, middle-class liberal guilt about the hypocrisy of it all. Don't we have nukes, along with the USA, China, Russia, France, India, Pakistan, and Israel? Don't we pursue nuclear energy as a future option yet deny this to others? Yes, yes - but let's try and keep it real. Am I being asked to believe that a country that says, in effect, we've got so much oil that if you refer us to the UN, we'll reduce production and push up the world price - and can say, with some justification, that you need us more than we need you - feels a pressing need to search for alternative sources of energy?

When I was with CND, we took the view that while no nukes was the ideal, less was better than more, which is why we supported unilateral disarmament. So what happened? Is this being ditched in the name of anti-imperialism or something? We've went from shitting ourselves that an American President with his finger on the nuclear trigger described the Soviet Union as an 'evil empire' to being blase about the president of a sovereign country who mixes his pursuit of hi-tech energy solutions with the Higher Force.

You'd think the fact that the Higher Force appears to be telling him extinguishing the region's Jewry is a desirable outcome might be enough for the left to view him as an unsavoury character, but it seems not. Nor, it seems, is the fact that he follows the pattern of reactionary regimes everywhere; using external enemies to distract from their failures internally.

There's too much stuff in the press suggesting we should understand Ahmadinejad's behaviour as being about Iran seizing its moment as a regional power in the wake of regime-change in Iraq. It ignores the internal dynamic in Iran: this should be interpreted as the last gasp of a revolution that has faltered and is at the crossroads. The signs of its failure are that it seeks external enemies as a distraction from its own internal problems: the problem isn't that we run a corrupt and bankrupt semi-theocracy that has failed to meet the economic aspirations of the people; the problem is them, is the regime's line.

It's not a little unsettling that quite so many people on the 'left' understand perfectly well that the 'them' in question are those pesky Jews; I wouldn't accuse them of agreeing exactly but I'm disconcerted by the way they seem so relaxed about it all.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

People losing their damn minds #4

Gordon Brown for saying we need to plonk the union flag in every garden to combat globalisation and the BNP:
"The Chancellor will say that Britain can only respond effectively and confidently to globalisation if its people have "a clear view of what being British means and how you define national identity for the modern world".

In a speech that is bound to anger some on the Labour Left, he will suggest that homeowners imitate the Americans by planting "a (Union) flag in every garden" and will float the idea of a "British day" on which uniquely British ideas and values can be celebrated."
Now the idea that you can just cut and copy American-style patriotism and paste it onto the British psyche is fairly silly at the best of times but you could maybe just smile and nod politely whilst shuffling away quietly if it were being espoused by someone - an English dude, perhaps - who didn't know any better. But Gordy's a Scot and is surely aware that in this neck of the woods that this isn't exactly a recipe for good community relations?

Tip for anyone new to the area: if your neighbours look like this, do not under any circumstances follow Gordy's advice

Man's done gone and lost his damn mind.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The limits of consent

This has to do with the bizarre case of Armin Meiwes, the German cannibal, who killed and then scoffed a Berlin-based computer specialist who went by the name of Bernd-Juergen Brandes. Meiwes returned to court for a retrial because the supreme court came to the understandable conclusion that his eight-year sentence was a tad on the lenient side.

Y'see, the problem in this case was that Brandes "had yearned to be eaten", apparently - and unsurprisingly, German law isn't geared-up to deal with cases where the victim wants to be killed, dismembered and eaten.

This illustrates the limits of the idea that morality and notions of crime should be completely determined by the question over whether consent was given. With a lot of aspects of human conduct it's the absolutely central issue - the absence of consent in sexual intercourse, for example, completely changes its nature and it becomes rape. And as a fully paid-up liberal, I'm not generally in favour of state intervention to prevent harm to people when they've consented to it - so people who do weird shit like sand-papering each other's genitals or battering nails through their scrotums to pass the time should be left in peace, in my view.

Buuuut - some things are just plain wrong, even if the other party consents to it, and so wrong they require intervention - so if you're looking to draw a line, surely this is a good a place to do it as any? Apart from anything else, if they don't nail this one on the head, can you imagine the amount of time would be wasted with insane not guilty pleas on the grounds that the murder victim was up for being shot, run-over, thrown off a bridge, pulverised with a hammer and then put in a blender, or whatever?

And proving that life doesn't imitate art - only tasteless jokes...
"In a dark suit, and thinner than at his first trial, Meiwes, 44, listened again to prosecutor Marcus Koehler's description of his crime."
Prison food not to his liking, perhaps?

Scientists set to create human-rabbit hybrid

From the Scotsman:
"British scientists are planning to create human-rabbit hybrid embryos to speed up research into the causes of inherited conditions such as motor neurone disease and Parkinson's.

The controversial work, which involves placing the nucleus of a human cell inside a rabbit egg, is rejected as immoral by churches and anti-cloning campaigners. One of the key ethical problems is whether the hybrid embryo should be treated legally as a human or an animal."
It seems this quest to make a human bunny has exposed a grey area in the law...
"The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which sets out the rules for conducting research on human eggs, sperm and embryos, is being reviewed by the government. Dr Chris O'Toole, head of research regulation at the HFEA, said: "The issue of mixing human and animal material is complex."
Complex, certainly - also a bit mental, if you ask me. However, Dr Ainsley Newson, a medical ethicist, is relaxed about it:
"'Obviously we need to be careful about species boundaries, but we are not talking about creating a hybrid animal,' she said."

Hmmm, well not yet anyway...

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Sunny Glasgow in the winter

Definitely more aesthetically pleasing this place, on the rare occasion it isn't pissing with rain...

But at this time of year it has the disadvantage of reminding you...

That you share a latitude...

Or longitude, I can never remember, with Iceland or somewhere similar that's really damn cold...

Cardinal in ethnic row over 'Christian Scotland' remarks

It seems Cardinal O'Brien reckons that people of other faiths in Scotland need to get real and recognise this is a Christian country. News to me too - what with the number of churches that get turned into pubs these days. But I think he means historically:
"He said Christianity had been present in Scotland since St Ninian landed at Whithorn in AD397, but that the country no longer lived up to Christian standards: 'I feel I must take a stand when Christianity itself is questioned in this country'."
Yep, country sure has gone to the dogs since it became secular: I haven't been to a witch-burning in months and the last time we executed anyone for atheism was away back in 1697! Political correctness gone mad, I tell you.

I've got something I think Cardinal O'Brien should get real about: hanging around this part of the world, it can't have escaped his attention that there have been two branches of Christianity who have had - how it put it delicately? - a few differences over the years. And the last time Scotland really was a Christian country, it was the boys who had fallen under the spell of that mental French lawyer who were calling the shots. Memory prompt: your lot didn't fare so well under that regime, your, er, Cardinalness. (?)

In today's Scotland, one can go to kirk, or chapel, or mosque, or temple and worship as they please. Most people don't bother with any of the above. It's that reality that really pisses people of Cardinal O'Brien's ilk right off. I wish they'd calm themselves right down: no, it wasn't always like this; used to be much worse.

People losing their damn minds #3

Who else? George Galloway of course. Maybe before people knew what it was about, one could plead ignorance but now there's no excuse: you go on Big Brother because you've taken leave of your senses. I thought Germaine Greer had lost her mind when she went on it - how much more Georgy-boy. "I did it for Palestine..." No you didn't! You did it because your unquenchable thirst for publicity has made you lose your damn mind.

And now he's saying, apparently, that Saddam wasn't hated by his people. Dammit all - doesn't this man own a telly, at least? Nearly the whole country danced with joy when he was captured - whether they supported the invasion or not. He's now no longer merely wrong - he's out of his tree, gone to lunch, discarded the sandwiches one needs for the full picnic.

And who else? His groupies trying to justify this madness. Hell, people who justify BB under normal circumstances are fairly mad, in my view; you get some post-modernist arts critic on the goddamn TV trying to spin some garbage about it being 'democratic' or some other such nonsense. But to try it now with some bullshit psuedo-proletarian rationalisation backed up with quotes from Lenin? World's going crazy.

And maybe the rest of us who talk about him as if he matters. As I write this, I'm reflecting on the minutes I've spent writing the odd thing about GG on this blog; these are minutes I won't get back and life's too short. I'm done with this lunatic, I hereby pledge never to write another word on the indefatigable one ever again. Man's obviously done gone lost his damn mind.

People losing their damn minds #2

Who else? The person who wrote the course descriptor shown below. The identity of the writer and the institution she represents have been concealed to protect the guilty. This is a verbatim copy of a course descriptor designed to be included in the MEd at _______ University:
"(9TDS): Ethnic Diversity and Education: From a Global Perspective One of the most important challenges that teachers face today is how to equip all pupils with the necessary cognitive, emotional and social skills to enable them to negotiate their position in the changing climate of interculturalism and globalisation. The last four decades of the twentieth century witnessed the emergence of intellectual and political movements led by the indigenous peoples, national minorities, old and new immigrants, feminists and other excluded groups. They represent views and ways of life that is, to much extent, are discouraged and disapproved by dominant cultures. The education systems in many Western European countries reflect such disapproval through their assimilation and homogenisation of cultures and identity. Homogenisation and assimilation can prove to be contrary to the current challenges in education, which is to create a balance between social justice and competitiveness. This module will focus on increasing critical understanding on the current educational ideologies on race, culture, inclusion, interdependence and globalisation. It will also facilitate participants in using multiple perspective approach in classrooms to raise pupils’ critical analytical skills and the realization of the interconnectedness between globalisation and knowledge capitalism."
Let it sink in - the person responsible for this semi-literate bilge intends to teach a masters degree to teachers, who up here are all gradutes. Woman's done gone lost her damn mind - along with any teachers insane enough to sign up for this.

(From K via email - thanks)

People losing their damn minds #1

Simon Jenkins asked in yesterday's Guardian if Blair was losing his marbles with this 'respect' initiative:
"Listening to Tony Blair talk about his "respect agenda" yesterday, I wondered if he was losing his marbles. What is "investing in good behaviour"? When was "spitting at old ladies always a crime"? We have had this drivel for eight years."
Yes folks - it just feels longer. I have to say the same thought occurred to me when I read that Blair had evoked 1930s Glasgow as an example of the respect culture. Merde! Glasgow in the 1930s! When, exactly, does Blair think Glasgow got it's violent reputation? As the Guardian pointed out, the papers of the time were full of tales about rampaging razor-gangs which terrorised many of the most impoverished parts of the city - until Sillitoe "scuffed the razors down the stank".

Doubt very much anything happening today would have shocked Blair senior - unless he spend the 1930s indoors. Junior's losing his damn mind.

The piece also noted that in the media of the time, "Less publicised than the gang wars was the extensive corruption among Glasgow city councillors and building contractors".

Ah, how things have changed.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

On losing our religion

From Paul Anderson:
"The cant of the day is that, for better or worse, Islam in Britain — as elsewhere in Europe — is on the march, and that the Muslim community is an increasingly important political actor. George Galloway and a large part of the far left see Muslims as allies in anti-imperialism. Since 7/7, the government has been desperately trying to find Muslims who can credibly persuade Muslim youth not to become jihadis. The Spectator rants about the threat to our existence posed by “Eurabia”.

But what if the rise of radical Islamism among Muslim youth in Europe is in fact a symptom of a crisis of belief? What if the young men who turn to jihadism do so for the most part because they can’t get laid — because the girls they think should be theirs are turning them down because they can’t stand the idea of life with a dickhead 20-something would-be patriarch and have given up the religion?"
That sound you hear is a nail being hit firmly on the head. The rest is here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Dawkins on religion, again (briefly)

I was going to do a follow-up to this after watching Richard Dawkins' thingy on religion on channel four last night because it attracted some interesting comment - but decided it would be too boring. I'll limit it to this wee point to try and illustrate what I was getting at.

I mean, it's not as if I don't agree with Dawkins about the irrationality of religion and the evangelist guy he was talking to with the excess molars was indeed very scary. It's just that all "irrationalities" are not equal, so to speak.

For instance in this piece where he praises Richard Dawkins, Johann Hari uses the term 'superstitions' to describe religious belief. The idea, I suppose, is that there is no more evidence for the existence of god than there is for the idea that walking under ladders brings you bad luck or whatever:
"Dawkins' critics say that he too is a peddler of faith, an Ayatollah of atheism offering certainties as glib as the Pastors and Mullahs he attacks. At first, this might sound logical: isn't Dawkins' insistence that God does not exist also a matter of faith? How can we know? But this is flawed, for reasons the great philosopher Bertrand Russell outlined. He asked his readers to take it from him that there is an immense tea-pot orbiting Mars, and then asked, are you agnostic about its existence? Of course not. You do not believe it is there. If you do not believe in something because there is absolutely no evidence for it, you are not acting on faith. You are acting on reason - its polar opposite. As Dawkins says, 'We who are atheists are also a-fairyists, a-teapotists and a-unicornists, but we don't have to bother saying so'."
Why the hell Bertrand Russell felt the need to make up a superstition, I can't imagine - there's enough real ones. But the point about these real ones is that they are, I would have thought, most unlike religious belief. They're both irrational but there the similarity ends. Superstitions don't sustain people through persecution, they aren't the repositories of moral and legal traditions, they don't motivate people to do benevolent work and, yes, they don't motivate people to blow themselves up or deny Africans condoms either.

Thing is, I'm highly sympathetic to the cause of Dawkins et al particularly where it touches apon education. But keep it real people - you aren't going to get anywhere with crap analogies about people believing in flying tea-pots. That's just being silly.

Crime and human nature: Blair's 'respect' agenda

Cameron's response to Blair's latest get-to-bed-early initiative caught my attention. According to the beeb, he said:
"The real respect agenda must be based on optimism about the ability of people and communities to create civilised lives for themselves, rather than a pessimistic view of human nature."
Honestly, you can't rely on anyone these days - if you can't even expect the Tories to take a dim view of the human condition. It seems at first a fairly left-right swap between Blair and Cameron, the former's punitive approach being understood by the latter as stemming from a pessimism about human nature. He even sounded to the left of Blair in his opposition days as Shadow Home Secretary:
"As he met voluntary groups in London, Mr Cameron said: "The real respect agenda must include long-term solutions to the causes of social breakdown, not just short-term sanctions and punishment."
The idea that having a pessimistic view of human nature automatically leads to authoritarian government is one I no longer share - but I was thinking anyway, does Blair have a pessimistic view of human nature? I'm really not sure; he certainly has an over-optimistic view of the state to modify and change human nature for the better. On the other hand, this means that human beings are not as maleable and biddable as Blair thinks they are or should be, so maybe his view is rightly described as negative.

Negative or not, it's annoying when politicians give it the 'get real' line about human behaviour requiring restraint and then fail to apply the logic to themselves, don'tcha find?

Labour rebels demand total smoking ban

From the Guardian:
"A total ban on smoking in all English pubs appeared to be drawing closer tonight, after rebel MPs tabled an amendment demanding that the government's proposed partial ban be made comprehensive.

Chair of the health select committee, Labour MP Keith Barron, revealed that the government was considering allowing a free vote on the amendment - which would almost certainly see it passed."
Heartwarming, isn't it? A backbench rebellion limiting our liberty in order to save the working classes from themselves. The logic appears to be that the partial ban would have been insufficient to curtail the activities of the peasants:
"Critics argued that such a distinction would further exacerbate health problems between rich and poor, with working-class, saloon-style bars continuing to allow smoking, whilst upmarket gastropubs or family-orientated public houses banned it."
I'd really like to see the health committee's research which supports this idea that only the middle-classes eat in 'family-orientated public houses'. Patronising gits.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Giant Pygmies

On the subject of Charlie Kennedy's resignation, Torcuil Crichton writes in the Sunday Herald:
"The irony, with Kennedy departing the stage, is that nobody in the ranks of the Liberal Democrats can match his political stature. The pygmies have toppled a giant from his plinth and left nothing but ample space on which to dance."
I don't know anything about Mr Crichton but surely only a) partisan loyalty, or b) an excessive use of controlled substances would allow someone to occupy a world in which Charles Kennedy was a 'political giant'.

His drink problem was enough to render him incapable of doing his job, by all accounts, but that isn't the most important reason why Charles Kennedy had to go. He was the incarnation of the Liberal Democrats' chronic identity crisis. The hoary old cliche about the left-right divide in politics being redundant doesn't hold water at the best of times; the rise of the Conservatives under Cameron simply makes the question of where the Liberals stand more urgent. This would be the case with or without Kennedy.

The paradox of the Liberals under Kennedy is that they failed, even when they succeeded. The best results since the 1920s can't hide the reality that this last election represented probably the best chance for a generation to finally break the mould of British party politics; an impressive showing of MPs can't disguise the fact that the opportunity presented by the governement's unpopularity and an opposition in disarray has been missed.

This wasn't all Kennedy's fault; the Liberals in general have no serious political future in this country unless they can decide whether they're economic liberals or social democrats. This is the decision they have avoided hitherto and Kennedy was the very embodiment of this avoidance. It's meant that they haven't even been able to agree amongst themselves which party was their key enemy, and which they hoped eventually to replace.

One can't really blame the Liberals for avoiding the decision that most of them surely know now must be made, because inherent in the logic is the destruction of the party itself - should too many of them conclude that they no longer have any convincing answer to the question: what are the Liberal Democrats for?

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Cornered: a couple of psueds

Henry Porter, in a piece entitled "If it would change the world, yes, you should vote Tory" offers the following delectable morsel for the Cameronians:
"David Cameron has not yet said enough for me to know where he stands and my endorsement still dangles as a tiny reward to whoever declares themselves nearest my convictions."
How David Cameron can contain himself is a mystery...

Meanwhile, GG gives his reasons for appearing on Big Brother:
"Firstly it was for Palestine..."
Frankly, I think I'd rather hear him rationalise suicide-bombings or something; this goes beyond tasteless and passes into surreality, and not in a good way.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

When people stop believing in God...

They write articles about religion in the Guardian. I notice Norm takes a fairly charitable view of our Maddy's swipe at Richard Dawkins for his latest anti-religious diatribe (to be screened on Channel Four) before pointing out a couple of flaws in her argument. Now, taking issue with either Dawkins or Bunting on the subject of religion is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel because with both of them, their propensity to pontificate about the subject is in inverse proportion to their knowledge of the subject. But shooting fish in a barrel can be fun, so let's have a go...

Maddy makes the general point that Dawkins' take on religion is about as subtle as a sledge-hammer to the gonads - and here, surely, she has a point? Does one really have to deconstruct his stupid and really quite vicious argument that parents who bring their children up as believers are guilty of child-abuse? Or his ridiculous idea that theology departments in universities should be closed-down because they're devoted to the study of something that doesn't exist? She writes that, "a misanthropy is increasingly evident in Dawkins's anti-religious polemic and among his many admirers" and I find myself thinking she's on to something here. I cringe when I hear people describe religious belief, and believers, as stupid. The majority of the human race, both now and in the past, have believed in a deity or deities; I'd confine myself to the observation that, in my experience anyway, those who consider themselves on account of their atheism to be intellectually superior to the majority of the human race really ought to take a more sober estimate of their abilities - to say no more than that.

But since Maddy has accused Dawkins of laziness, one can't let her own sloppy reasoning or her under-researched observations go unchallenged. Take the following, for example:
"Over the 20th century, atheist political regimes racked up an appalling (and unmatched) record for violence."
Note the way Maddy shifts from notions of religious faith to discussing regimes that enforce religious conformity, or in this case, non-religious conformity without stopping for breath. The only officially atheist regimes have been communist ones, and here there can indeed be no doubt: the body-count exceeds that of any religious regime in human history, but here she is being just as simplistic as Dawkins because she doesn't ask why this should be so. A pity because any historian would give you two simple answers for this: 1) the planet in the 20th century simply had more available people to be killed and 2) the 'atheist regimes' in question had the technology to do so. It is pointless to speculate what the Spanish Inquisition or the stone-faced theocrats of Calvinist Scotland might have been capable of with the appropriate technology because the crucial thing about all theocratic regimes is their complete and utter failure to apply science to the business of human production. This is why they have failed in the past and will always fail - an absolutely central fact of economic history that Ms Bunting just doesn't tackle.

Perhaps if she did, she'd begin to realise where she's gone wrong: the most successful societies have not had religious regimes - neither have they had atheist regimes; it has been those who have separated the business of religious devotion from legal compulsion. Certainly religion hasn't been the source of all conflict but does she really believe European history would have been more bloody had nation-states made the distinction between what is a crime and what is a sin earlier?

The second point is less important but by no means completely trivial. Like a lot of liberals brought up in a secular age, our Maddy pines for non-materialistic values and sees them in a religious ethos which I suspect she has had no experience of:
"where religion has retreated, the gap has been filled with consumerism, football, Strictly Come Dancing and a mindless absorption in passing desires"
Ah, the old notion that shallow materialism and empty hedonism have rushed to fill the gap left by the decay of orthodox religion. Problem with this is that it's ahistorical: in Europe at least people didn't lose faith in God and then decide to fill their lives with empty pleasures; in practically every situation, other entertainments beat religion in a straight contest. As TC Smout pointed out, in the case of Calvinist Scotland, what did for the church was the 'death of hell', the expansion of the cities in the 19th century and other entertainments.

I realise it upsets the middle-class liberals that ordinary people seem to prefer consumerism to religious devotion but if they look at the alternative, what do they really want to see? The abolition of cities, a feature of capitalism that even old Karl Marx was prepared to accept was a progressive development? The abolition of these alternative entertainments? A revival in the concept of dis-teleological suffering in the form of the doctrine of Eternal Damnation?

One social history of Scotland I read as a student argued that in the 19th century, about 5% of the population were deeply religious, another 5% of the population were strongly atheist, and the remaining 90% of the population regarded both these with suspicion and bemusement. It is my conviction that things ain't changed that much and people like Dawkins and Bunting should just accept this - painful though that may be for them.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Retarded tele-evangelist smites again

CNN reports that the Christian Right's cretin-in-chief Pat Robertson reckons he has discerned the hand of God in Sharon's stroke:
"Television evangelist Pat Robertson suggested Thursday that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke was divine retribution for the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, which Robertson opposed.

"He was dividing God's land, and I would say, 'Woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the [European Union], the United Nations or the United States of America,'" Robertson told viewers of his long-running television show, "The 700 Club."

"God says, 'This land belongs to me, and you'd better leave it alone,'" he said."
God was unavailable for comment on the smiting allegations but according to celestial city insiders the rumour is He is considering a legal action against Pat Robertson for slander and breech of copyright.

Via Simply Jews.

Scots drinking themselves to death

No, I'm not talking about Charlie Kennedy; this has to do with the news that Scotsmen are twice as likely to die from cirrhosis of the liver than they were in 1991:
"SCOTS are drinking themselves to death at a faster rate than people anywhere else in western Europe, a study has found."
No time for further comment because I'm off out for a pint.

George's Big Brother

Appearance, that is. When I read this, I thought it was a joke but apparently not.

In the extremely unlikely event that anyone reading this doesn't know why GG was expelled from the Labour Party, the beeb piece linked above reminds us:
"Teetotal Mr Galloway was thrown out of the Labour Party for inciting Arabs to fight British troops, inciting British troops in Iraq and threatening to stand against Labour in an election."
Refreshing to read the real reason, I thought.

Doctors are confident that Mr Galloway will make a full recovery from his embarrassment by-pass operation. His supporters are expected to find that a bit more tricky.


File under, "What the fuck were you thinking?"

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The drugs (policy) don't work

So it seems likely that the government that brought you 24-hour drinking and gambling is going to do a wee U-turn and regrade cannabis back up to a class B controlled substance. The 'debate' about drugs is usually pretty dismal because practically no-one deviates from the (unfounded) assumption that the present legislation grades narcotics according to the harm that they do the consumer. So-called 'libertarians' usually don't make a proper liberal argument at all; instead they accept the logic but attempt to counter it with some hippy nonsense about cannabis being harmless, or relatively harmless.

Leaving aside the debate between real libertarians and legal paternalists, why does everyone assume that down-grading, decriminalisation or legalisation automatically increases demand? Is there really a vast army of people out there who aren't banging heroin into their veins only because they don't know where to get it or are fearful of the legal consequences? And even if the prohibitionist argument were to be accepted, surely it isn't being executed very logically? Here I had to agree with Simon Jenkins on the wisdom of the British government expending quite so much military manpower on the task of blowing up poppy fields in Afghanistan:
"Trying to combat Britain's addiction to heroin by burning poppies and smashing opium "factories" is like combating London's traffic congestion by bombing oil wells."
There are, for me anyway, two escapable facts about drugs that any policy-maker should get real about: demand is not going to go away, period - but drugs are harmful so this demand has to be regulated, in proportion to the harm this does on the wider society. Maybe if they understood the former a bit better, they'd think of more imaginative ways of doing the latter?

Praise good pupil behaviour, teachers told

From the Guardian:
"'Catch 'em doing something right' seems to be the latest advice to teachers faced with unruly classes.

Children need praise for good behaviour as well as good work and constant telling off has little effect, according to three psychologists who today outlined a short training programme which they claim has helped to improve classroom behaviour dramatically."
What's with this 'latest'? Bit of a seventies revival this one, is it not? They've been peddling this one certainly since I was at teacher training college. I'm not knocking it completely; one can get good results by following these 'new' guidelines, I've found. For instance:
"always make instructions to the class extremely clear"
I do this; on my classroom wall is a list of simple rules, to which I draw the attention of the class. It has some simple, easy to understand instructions like, "hurting people is wrong", "arson is completely unacceptable" etc. It's better to tell them 'cos you've no idea how many wouldn't know if you didn't tell them. But when you're standing in front of a class telling a bunch of fifteen year-olds how to use scissors and glue without harming themselves, you just can't get away from the feeling that someone else hasn't been doing their part of the child-rearing shift.
"look for the behaviour you want, not the behaviour you don't want"
Yep, do that one too. Sucks when you look for the behaviour you want and can't see it, though. And someone tell these "researchers" that the real bad shit, behaviour-wise, is pretty difficult to avoid.
"frequently acknowledge students when they are doing what is required"
Again, I'm never done doing this: "I salute the fact that you got through 55 minutes without harming yourself and others, young man", you will frequently hear me say.

There is a element of truth in this 'new' research but the problem with this sort of thing is it invariably takes on, for a few years at least, the status of The Answer. But it isn't, of course - and the law of diminishing marginal returns set in pretty quickly with this one. It is good to praise kids for making progress, especially if they come from an environment where they don't hear too many positive words. But it's effect is limited and there's little point in dishing out praise gratuitously. This is one where it's limitation perhaps becomes most obvious when they leave: people raised to expect a round of applause every time they do what is expected - indeed, need a round of applause in order to do what is expected - are going to have a few problems in life, problems they don't need.

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