Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Doing two things at once

Mr Eugenides reminded me of this:
"Road warriors face picking up penalty points on their driving licences if they are caught using their mobile phones at the wheel from next month. From February 27, the penalty for using a handheld phone while driving will increase from £30 to £60 plus three points.

Announcing the change this week, Douglas Alexander said: "Research shows that talking on a mobile phone while driving affects your concentration and ability to react to dangerous situations. It's quite simple - it's impossible to do two things at once and do them well."
Douglas Alexander is Transport Secretary.

And Scottish Secretary.

Also, as regular readers of this blog will know - I have revealed in the past that he also used to dress up in women's clothes and pass himself off as Wendy Alexander MSP. Sceptics dismiss this, claiming Wendy is in fact Douglas's sister but since making my original allegation, to date no-one has come forward with evidence to refute this.

The silence speaks volumes.

Thinking about thought crime

The Scottish Catholic Church clearly hasn't been:
"This is UK-wide regulation that will impact on anyone who provides goods and services, from the priest who refuses to hire the parish hall to a same-sex couple, to the editor of a Catholic newspaper who refuses to carry a Gay Pride advert, or a printer who refuses to print those adverts - they will all be criminalised by this Draconian measure. This is as close as you can get to a thought crime."
It's not really. You can get much closer than that. By making, for example, expressions of thought - like heresy - punishable by death. At the stake, replete with the kindling wood and the firelighters and shit.

Don't get me wrong - I wouldn't put it past our Tone to put a White Paper on 'Curbing Incorrect and Non-Progressive Thinking' before Parliament if he thought he could get away with it but this isn't what's happening here. It has nothing much to do with what the Catholic Church thinks, more what it does now but will no longer be allowed to do. Which is to discriminate against gay people with regards to the whole business of childcare. Unless they happen to be in the priesthood, that is.

Flying Rodent
is altogether more blunt. Which is good.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

People losing their damn minds #19

Charlie Brooker , we learn from his CiF profile, is a 'Guardian columnist'. That's all we are told. But what is also clear is that whoever he is the internal evidence from this article is that he's went done gone lost his mind - but in a way that's quite sweet:
"I need a wife. Strangers keep advising me to get one. Three times in the past fortnight, women unfamiliar to me have broached the subject with a blend of amusement and pity."
This sort of thing never happens to me. There are a number of possible reasons for this but I suspect that near the top of the list is the collective understanding that it would quite possibly be doing womankind a disservice to encourage me in this sort of quest. But I digress... This state of affairs clearly upsets Mr Brooker:
"Well stop it, all of you. I don't want a wife. I can't imagine proposing marriage. Never. Not to a human. We're too unreliable.

Besides, marriage inevitably leads to kids, and that's just weird. I don't want to stand in a delivery room, watching someone I'm supposed to love blasting a baby through her hips in an orgy of mucus, gore and screaming. My mind couldn't stand the horror. I would probably grab a rake and start thrashing at it like a farmhand startled by a rat."
Having then drifted on to other strange areas of the human psyche, Mr Brooker secures his damn mind loss status by being the first to comment on his own article:
"Oh good. First comment. Hello, I am Charlie Brooker, and I wrote this rubbish."
He's feeling insecure about his state, which he really shouldn't. The alternatives to damn mind loss induced by singledom and the accompanying surplus time on your hands are:

a) Having a a good relationship - such as being happily married, or whatever. This is some boring-ass shit and makes you put on weight. Or...

b) Having a bad relationship - which makes one svelte, if not gaunt, and is exciting, although not necessarily in a good way.

So c) losing one's damn mind behind a keyboard seems a reasonable option, particularly if one gets paid for it. Which is a bugbear - because I'm quite capable of sustaining a relationship and saying mental stuff that invites not remuneration but questions like, "Do you think that's appropriate, Mr _____ ?" I hate that. Would it kill them to simply say they don't approve?

Monday, January 29, 2007

The pursuit of happiness

Maddy's back - and is she annoying? It's a rhetorical question - she is. Take this, for example:
"Increasingly, the stridency with which the non-religious attack the religious belies their own profound insecurity - that the progress they like to attribute to western or enlightenment values is a much-compromised property. It is challenged by almost everything we see around us: climate change, rising levels of mental ill-health, growing economic inequality fuelled by debt and hyper-consumerism. As Oliver James's new book, Affluenza, makes clear, the nostrums of the west's "good life" - success, fame, wealth - mask an extraordinary vacuity of purpose, a desperate, restless discontent.

Even on a more prosaic level, Jade Goody and Branscombe beach have been such absorbing spectacles because they echo our fear that the "progress" of rationality and freedom has done nothing to enlarge the human spirit. Indeed, the "larger freedoms of mind and action" of secular Europe cited by Grayling have proved just as much a licence for egotism as for noble achievement."
Where to begin? How can we possibly know whether levels of mental illness were lower in traditional societies than now when the aforementioned condition was routinely diagnosed as demon possession? Goddamit all, even in the post-Enlightenment situation, those suffering from mental illness during WWI were diagnosed as suffering from cowardice and promptly shot.

But there's a more substantive point and it's to take issue with the notion that the purpose of a liberal society is to produce 'enlarged spirits'. Only someone who thinks it is the proper function of a polity to be an enterprise association could say such a thing. But the point of liberalism, which depends utterly on a distinction being made between what is a crime and what is a sin, is to allow people to pursue their own salvation. Or not, as the case may be. To allow the pursuit of happiness - not guarantee this as an outcome, whether this is seen as lying in the possession of an 'enlarged spirit' or not.
"Indeed, the "larger freedoms of mind and action" of secular Europe cited by Grayling have proved just as much a licence for egotism as for noble achievement."
Indeed. And what of it? A Europe with Jade Goody as a celebrity is a price well worth paying for one without the Spanish Inquisition. Those with a sense of history say yes and amen - those without suffer from the crisis of confidence that Maddy describes. It's a wee shame for them but I can offer only sympathy, not empathy.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

As if work wasn't hard enough...

You get confronted with signs like this one:

Which makes the day just a little more shit than it was already. I mean, "make choices you can count on"! What the fuck is that supposed to mean? Who says to themselves, "I would make that decision, were it not for the fact that I'm not sure I'll be able to count on it in the future"? No-one. Exactly.

Then there's this rather strained acronym. It's really getting on my tits:

This one is true to the 'ethos' of the school. Those without any discernible talent or intellect, whether staff or pupils, are indeed valued highly - as are those who might be unfortunate enough to have no skin. Absolutely no discrimination against the skinless goes on here, let me tell you - regardless of what year it is.

However this business of celebrating the gorgeous mosaic of our diversity has limits, y'know. This life is fine but should you happen to have that disease that is euphemistically designated "non-RC", I'm afraid you're going to hell where your worm will not die, nor will your fire be quenched. Sounds a bit harsh maybe, but there it is. I'll see you there.

Adoption decision 'due next week'

From the beeb:
"Tony Blair has promised a decision next week on whether Catholic adoption agencies will be able to opt out of gay discrimination laws."
Hmmm - feel much the same way about it all as this blogger.

A couple of men in frocks wrote to the PM saying:
"rights of conscience cannot be made subject to legislation, however well-meaning".
Except they can be - and are. Especially if you include in your 'rights of conscience' mental stuff like female circumcision and hacking people's heads off.

I'm slightly embarrassed about my prior defence of Ruth Kelly. Obviously her religious beliefs do indeed stop her from doing her job properly.

She could always move to Scotland.

Update: From the Scotsman:
"CATHOLIC adoption agencies will defy new anti-discrimination laws, the Church warned last night, as the row over allowing gay couples to adopt threatened to divide religion and politics."
Eh? Religion and politics are supposed to be divided.


Schools much teach 'Britishness'.

But only in England.

You see the problem.
"A review of how schools teach citizenship and diversity found there was not enough emphasis on British identity and history."
Teachers, I'm sure you'll agree that any 'review' that didn't find the whole concept of 'citizenship and diversity' teaching to be utter shite really isn't worth reading.

Short education rant

From the Scotsman:
"SCHOOLCHILDREN across Scotland are being taken out of class and put in large cages assemblies instead as headteachers struggle to meet new working-time limits for staff.

Primary-school heads in nearly half of Scotland's local authorities say they are having to resort to the measure to meet the conditions of the landmark McCrone pay deal, which reduced the amount of time teachers spend in front of a class to a maximum 22 and a half hours a week.

The move was designed to give teachers more time to mark pupils' work and plan their lessons. But a teaching union's survey found pupils were having to sit through whole school assemblies to ensure teachers did not break the rules."
Now, while some of my secondary colleagues are disparaging about our comrades in the sand-pit supervising business, I think this is unfair. Imagine having just one class all day, every day and there's someone in it you can't stand. Hellish. Plus the responsibility. I fuck up, the worst that can happen is some kid's put off history for life. Primary teacher fucks up and kids can't read, underachieve, become unemployed and die in drive-by shootings. Plus you'd have to cope with weans peeing themselves and stuff. Not good.

So they deserve a break, dammit. The McCrone agreement says they've a maximum classroom contact time of 22 hours so that's what they should have. Yet all these headteachers are bitching about it. Concerned about the quality of education that's being delivered, are they?
"The Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland (AHDS), which represents primary-school heads, also found most members were having to take classes themselves because staff had reached their weekly class-contact time-limit."
Nah - there's the reason right there. Headteachers actually taking classes? Bet they found that a traumatic experience. No wonder they're upset.


Norm on smokers:
"I think the hospital should consider rounding up all smokers who enter its premises, holding them for several days and hosing them down with liquid horse shit until they confess to the unutterable baseness of their own miserable beings and renounce their evil ways forever."
Being a liberal-minded chap, he is, of course, being ironic.

Personally I've given up. No, not smoking - just objecting to the ban. The reasons for this are threefold.

1) It doesn't make as much difference as you think it will. The only place you could smoke with impunity prior to the ban was the pub. And I find I don't spend that much of my life there as I thought I did. My liver declares this to be not a bad thing.

2) Our 'tolerant' society is not very tolerant - which is to say the idea that you should permit things you do not approve of is not particularly well-understood, in my experience. Given that this is so, might be a better idea for those of us who describe themselves as liberals to concentrate on those issues of freedom that really matter - like detention without trial, freedom of speech and freedom of religion - shit like that. Oh, and the cause of the legalisation of drugs that are demonstrably less harmful to society - like heroin, for example.

3) Hate to say this but a part of you that knows smoking is not good welcomes it. "Would you want your son to smoke?", someone asked me. Obviously not - and if there is less opportunity for him to do so in the future, this is a good thing.

Having said all this, the smoking ban sucks - and not in a good way.

Fisking cat-lovers

I for one am glad someone has.
"There are too many cat-lovers in the blogosphere."

25 marks

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Prisoners and votes

The Court of Session in Edinburgh reckons the two should go together, having ruled that denying Her Majesty's guests of the right to vote in Holyrood elections contravenes the European Convention of Human Rights.

It's on occasions like this I worry about this conservative streak in me that seems to being growing by the day.

It shows itself when, for example, the question forms in my mind, "Since when was it a 'human right' to be able to participate in a process that leads to the formulation of laws that the complainants in this case have demonstrated that they are either incapable of, or unwilling to, abide by?"

Don't attack Iran (redux)

It's not that I think this is likely, just that recent events in Iran have tended to reinforce my view that a military confrontation with Tehran would be highly undesirable.

Those presently talking up this possibility are doing what Ahmadinejad's rhetoric is designed to do; distracting from the fact that internally, Iran's President, after less than two years in office, has been an abject failure.

He was not elected to confront the West but on a promise to address Iran's economic woes, specifically the chronic unemployment which few oil-rich countries seem able to avoid. Not only has he failed to do this, his attempts to do otherwise have stoked an inflation that hurts disproportionately the poor that Ahmadinejad pledged to help in the first place.

I'd imagine conservatives like Rafsanjani fear further sanctions rather than military confrontation but understand that in any event the Iranian economy, and by extension the regime, would be unlikely to be able to withstand either.

But even if those whom Rafsanjani represents were able to avoid both, they would be incompetent to deal with the problems that led to Ahmadinejad's election in the first place.

This is why military confrontation with Iran would be undesirable. In terms of incubating international terrorism, both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia pose a greater threat than Iran, so intervention would not be justified on those grounds. In terms of a threat to the region, Iran faces oblivion in any form of military confrontation - something that the bureaucracy grasps, even if Ahmadinejad does not.

But while the bureaucracy may be capable of avoiding the immediate catastrophes of sanctions or intervention, they cannot cope with a country that has experienced both Western-sponsored secular dictators and a revolutionary regime founded on religious zeal - and found both of them wanting.

Iran has the internal conditions of regime-change and the possibility that this might follow from the experience of a bankrupt clerical bureaucracy that shows signs of collapsing under the weight of its own obscurantism is a prize that anyone who believes in liberty and equality should earnestly desire.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Naming God

Brian Whitaker in CiF argues that news translators, by leaving 'Allah' untranslated, rather than simply rendering it 'God' are reinforcing the 'Otherness' of Islam in the mind of the news consumer:
"Some readers may think this is a minor, nit-picking point, but it is not. The English-language media's use of "Allah", rather than "God", when talking about Islam falsely implies that there is some theological distinction. Also, more importantly, it provides yet another example of the subtle ways that news organisations can influence people's attitudes, perhaps unintentionally and probably without realising they are doing it."
He's got half a point, I think - but there's a couple of problems with it. One is the notion that the concept of God in the "Abrahamic faiths" is either indistinguishable or theologically insignificant:
""The fact that Allah and the Biblical God are identical is evident from Biblical etymology," Dr Umar Abd-Allah of the Chicago-based Nawawi Foundation writes. "From the standpoint of Islamic theology and salvation history, it is simply unacceptable to deem the Biblical God and that of the Qur'an to be anything but the same ...

"Muslims, Christians and Jews should have no difficulty agreeing that they all turn to the God of Abraham, despite their theological and ritual differences. Historical arguments between their faiths have never been over what name to call Abraham's God.""
I don't really think this is the case. God did not become flesh and dwell amongst us, looking from the "standpoint of Islamic theology and salvation history", whereas for the Christian he did - spoke his final words through his Son, thereby dispensing with the need for prophets.

In this sense, Mohammed is for orthodox Christians a false prophet. Hardly an insignificant theological quibble. And this brings us to another point. I can't say I've noticed the MSM rendering 'God' as 'Allah' any more than they used to. What I have noticed, however, is the routine way in which Mohammed is referred to as 'the Prophet Mohammed'. Why is this? After all, references to Yeshua Ben-Joseph as the 'Lord Jesus Christ' don't pepper the columns of religious affairs journalists with quite the same frequency.

Taliban's school pledge

The Taliban have been converted to the virtues of education, according to the Times:
"'From March to July, the Taliban movement will open all the schools in the districts under their control,' a spokesman, Abdul Hai Mutmayn, said. It is believed that the teachers will be brought from schools in Pakistan into the provinces of Helmand Kandahar, Uruzgan, Nimroz, Farah and Zabul.

'In the schools, all the textbooks and subjects which were being taught under the Taliban Government will be taught. This will cost $1 million [£500,000] and the Taliban movement will pay for that,' said Mr Mutmayn."
I say converted because hitherto, they were hardly noted for their commitment to a rounded education.

The regime forbade geography, physics, mathematics, biology and modern history - presumably for their profanely un-Islamic character. Girls, of course, were not educated at all, and since the collapse of the regime, Taliban rebels in the south have destroyed something in the region of two-hundred schools and killed over forty teachers. Such is the progressive nature of the resistance.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Gordon Brown on heat

I trust I don't go out of my way to be vulgar but sometimes no other idiom will do. This is the case, for example, with the contortions Gordon Brown is putting himself through to ingratiate himself with the English electorate:
"GORDON Brown stumbled over the issue of national identity yesterday, naming England, not Scotland, as the team he'd like to win the World Cup.

Announcing the launch of the English bid for the 2018 World Cup, Mr Brown said he hoped the host nation would win the tournament. When talking about the English, he repeatedly used the word "we". When asked what about the Scotland team, he said only that they would "do well."

Aware of the error, Mr Brown later tried to qualify his comments, insisting he would support Scotland in any game against England."
English voters, there's no other way of putting it. Well, there is but I think we can and must say Gordon Brown has the horn for you - big time. And it's not pretty.

Because I don't think he really does want England to win the 2018 World Cup.

Most of us don't - even those of us who are unionists.

There's a cultural misunderstanding here, which we saw during the last World Cup. It has to do with the fact that while the Englishman who convinces himself that England is going to win may be quite sad, he is not necessarily insane since it is not entirely outside the bounds of possibility.

On the other hand, a similar conviction in a Scotsman in relation to his national team would be an obvious sign of mental illness.

So we don't take it anything like as seriously as you do. But we don't want you to win anyway. Well some of us do but they're all either Rangers supporters or posh folk.

According to Charlie Wheelan, Gordon Brown was gutted when Scotland was humped by England in Euro two-thousand and something. [Can't remember exactly when but it was the time you lot went on to get beaten by the Teutons in a penalty shoot-out. Which was fun.] Yet there he was trying to pretend that this made his cup overfloweth, or something.

And now this.

Thinking on the ingratiating yourself to the electorate/dating/having the horn theme, then - how impressed is the potential voter/date going to be with someone who is obviously that desperate?

Friday, January 19, 2007

"It's unpleasant, but is it racist?"

Asks the Scotsman about CBB:
"THE head of Channel 4 defiantly refused to pull the plug on Celebrity Big Brother yesterday, despite the loss of a multi-million pound sponsorship deal as Jade Goody branded an Indian contestant "Poppadom".

Andy Duncan, chief executive of the broadcaster, which has consistently courted controversy in recent years, insisted the issues raised by programme were "undoubtedly a good thing".

However, as Channel 4 officials admitted for the first time that they could not say categorically whether the comments on the show were racially motivated, Mr Duncan's claims were branded "absurd" by Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London."
For once I find myself agreeing with our Ken. Is it racist? Expressions with words like 'Pope' and 'Catholic' immediately spring to mind.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Banning Holocaust denial

There's a good piece by Timothy Garton Ash about the suggestion by the German justice minister that all European states adopt a law similar to those that can be found in Germany, Austria and France that proscribe Holocaust denial.

His arguments are sensible and supported by evidence but they are, unless I've missed something, entirely utilitarian.

But another reason for opposing this would be on simple free speech grounds, the preservation of which no-one can ever guarantee will produce a utility-maximising outcome in every case. There is a genuine risk in this case but it has to be taken because if the spirit of intellectual freedom is to be preserved, it is not tolerable for the state to make the falsification of history a crime.

I do accept you could argue that this is a utilitarian argument as well.

Statistical aberration?

With company last night and during conversation discovered three of those present had visited a leper colony, whereas two of us had never felt the need to do this.

Given that we non-visitors of leper colonies represented only 40% of the sample my first instinct was to assume said sample was highly unrepresentative and frankly a bit odd.

But perhaps not. One should be open to new ideas and experiences so I'm doing a straw poll: if you're reading this, have you ever visited a leper colony and if so, why would you do this? Did you go because you felt it was the sort of thing right-thinking people should do but didn't particularly enjoy it? Or did you go because you thought it would be fun? I have to know. Answers in the comments please.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Heads summoned to Mr Blair's office

Warming to familiar themes, Mr Blair has declared that Newness and Leadership hold the key to solving the problem of really shit inner-city comprehensives:
"[H]ead teachers and business leaders were called to step inside the Big Black Door of Number 10 to hear the prime minister's endorsement of a project designed to find a new type of school leader.

Future Leaders - a title with no shortage of connotations for the Labour party - is a project designed to recruit and train an elite group of teachers to take charge of the toughest inner-city schools."
'Future Leaders'. Yes, you read correctly. They will be better than 'Past Leaders' on account that they will be even less acquainted with what actually goes on in a classroom than their predecessors - who have now been rendered obsolete by History. That'll fix it:
"Instead of clawing their way up the career ladder over several decades, these fast-tracked, crack troops of the education sector could be deputies after two years and head teachers after four years."
It said 'crack troops'. As opposed to 'troops on crack'. That wouldn't be good.

Yes I know I've broken my New Year's resolution already. But honestly!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Independence a tad unlikely - in the near furture, anyway

According to the bookies. From the Scotsman:
"Bookmakers are now offering odds of 10/1 that Scotland will become independent in the next 50 years. William Hill has also cut the odds on the SNP becoming the largest party in the Scottish Parliament from 50/1 to 25/1.

On chances of independence, William Hill offers odds of 200/1 that Scotland will become independent of the rest of Britain within five years; 100/1 within ten years and 10/1 within 50 years."
An antidote to the predictions/forebodings of English commentators who have just noticed Scotland is there. Dunno how bookies work exactly but I presume these odds are worked out using evidence like this YouGov poll [pdf], which shows support either for the SNP or independence insufficient to achieve separation from the rest of the UK.

Support for the SNP is higher than support for the policy of independence. With regards to the latter, 33% of those polled said they did not believe the union was worth preserving, against 53% who said that it was.

The SNP lead Labour in voting intentions but if the parties are divided into nationalists and unionists, the former are trailing with 45% of the sample saying they intended to vote for them, compared to 60% declaring their intention to vote for one of the unionist parties.

Assuming a) that something like these intentions were translated into actual votes in May and b) that our democratic mechanisms actually work - the most likely outcome would be an SNP victory in Holyrood, followed by a defeat in an independence referendum.

These are two big assumptions to make, obviously.

Update: This is funny.

P.S. For anyone who has beheld the insanity that are Comment is Free threads and gaped in wonder should take a swatch at some of the stuff that is routinely left under articles in the Scotsman.

Friday, January 12, 2007

A battalion of bachelors

Martin Jacques on China in 2007:
"Predictions are a hazardous business at the best of times. In the case of China, they are positively dangerous. The country is so vast, and changing at such speed, that we should expect the unpredictable as much as the predictable."
Jacques always struck me as one of those former Marxists who found determinism the most difficult part of the Marxian model to let go of, so this was refreshing to read. I don't pay enough attention to what he writes to know whether this represents a change of mind on his part but he's surely right? One of the things about China that makes prediction even less likely to be accurate than usual is that its demographics are, to my knowledge, completely unprecedented.

One aspect of this is that China is the first country in history to grow old before it becomes economically wealthy.

The other is the demographic imbalance that the One-Child Policy has left in its wake. It is estimated that by 2020, there will be something in the region of 30 million men in China bereft of a mate - a battalion of bachelors roughly equivalent to the population of Canada.

The social and political implications of this, I wouldn't care to predict - beyond the observation that it's unlikely to be conducive to social harmony. I don't intend to be crude or reductionist but when it comes to understanding social dynamics, I take the view that the sexual aspect of the human condition tends to be neglected, compared to the economic. Most of the violence in the world is carried out by males over the age of puberty but before they have settled down and produced a few sproglets. And when there is no foreseeable prospect of producing the aforementioned sproglets, or at least participating in the enjoyable activity that, in the absence of contraception, leads to this - they are all the more dangerous.

Jason Burke
made this observation in relation to the development of radical Islam in Afghanistan. This was exacerbated by the highly uneven economic development in the country with Kabul pre-Taliban being much like any other city - mobile, anonymous, relatively cosmopolitan - and tantilising. To an excruciating degree for any young man brought up in the countryside where conservative social mores and, above all, the lack of privacy made the opportunities for sexual adventure limited in the extreme.

I'd reiterate that I don't intend to be reductionist here. Crucial elements in the production of violence throughout the world today include the deracination of males finding their way in societies where the state, if it exists at all, is unable to sustain a monopoly over the legitimate use of weaponry - and these conditions don't, as far as I'm aware, apply to China as it is today. However - and here I hope you'll forgive me for falling into Glaswegian crudity - as a friend of mine once put it, "There are few things on this earth more dangerous than a young man who cannae get his hole". Especially if they are living in poverty and/or under conditions of political repression.

May you live in interesting times. My understanding was that this saying, often wrongly understood as a kind of blessing, is taken by the Chinese to be a curse.

Raising of the school leaving age

Alan Johnson the Education Secretary is to announce that the school leaving age should be raised to eighteen, according to the Times:
"With full encouragement from Gordon Brown, Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, has set up a team to organise the lifting of the age at which children must be at school, in training or in an apprenticeship from 16 to 18 by 2013.

Ten-year-olds who enter secondary school next year will be the first to have to stay in mandatory education until they are 18. It will be the first rise in the school leaving age since 1972, when it was raised to 16."
Not sure I understand the reasons behind this. One seems to be something to do with tackling unemployment:
"The change, which will affect around 330,000 teenagers, will help to tackle rising youth unemployment, with unskilled school leavers finding it increasingly difficult to get a job."
Tackle? That should say delay unemployment, surely? On a previous occasion Alan Johnson mooted raising the school leaving age in order to combat adult illiteracy. I think most teachers would agree with me that if a youth has managed to get through 11 years of compulsory education without acquiring the ability to read and write, the chances of this being sorted out with a further two years are pretty slim.

The other reason seems to be an aesthetic one:
"It should be as unacceptable to see a 16-year- old working, with no training, no education, as it is now to see a 14-year-old. A 14-year-old at work was common until the Butler changes [after the Second World War], but now you would find it repellent."
Well, speak for yourself. If I have to see 16-year-olds with no skills and no education - which I do - I think I'd rather this was in a quarry breaking rocks rather than cluttering up my goddam classroom.

ROSLA Update: Apparently this insane idea is to apply on both sides of the border:
"Jack McConnell, the First Minister, told the Scottish Labour conference last November that he wanted similar changes north of the Border.

Under the plans, which are set to form a key part of Labour's Holyrood manifesto, pupils would only be allowed to leave school at 16 if they were entering employment, training or further education."

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The pursuit of the millennium

Fred Halliday has drawn up a New Year's list of the world's worst ideas. Much to agree with, some to disagree with. I thought number six was both interesting and particularly problematic:
"In the modern world, we do not need utopias."
To which Halliday responds:
"Dreaming, the aspiration to a better world and the imagination thereof, is a necessary part of the human condition."
It has often occurred to me that it is a paradox of the human condition that consciousness by its very nature allows human beings to 'imagine a better world' and it is this that is essential for anything we might describe as progress in human affairs. But at the same time, those who seek to reach beyond mere dreams and make them a reality are predestined to be disappointed, or worse.

The scale of the disappointment depends on the nature of what is imagined and it's here I have a problem with the use of the term 'utopia' because by most people's definition this has something to do with perfection, rather than with a state of affairs that is merely better than what presently exists.

Arguably the capacity to imagine, to simply say 'things could be otherwise', is the very basis of human morality and in that sense it is indeed an absolutely essential facet of the human condition.

But this is surely a different matter altogether to imagine a human state of affairs that could achieve perfection and it is surely more contentious to suggest that this is in any way essential to the human condition or even if it were, to say with any degree of certainty that this has been a net benefit to mankind?

Isaiah Berlin argued that in human history, no single idea has been responsible for a higher pile of corpses than the notion that there is a final solution - that all [legitimate] human wants and desires can be fitted into a single harmonious pattern.

In the same vein Milan Kundera said that "there is always a gulag built onto the side of paradise", this not being a regrettable lapse from the pursuit of perfection but rather something that was intrinsic to it.

Both had in mind the totalitarian experiments of the 20th century and their religious parents, the various political attempts throughout the ages to achieve the entire sanctification of the mundane and bring the City of God to earth.

Surely this should at least be considered as a contender to be among mankind's worst ideas? Not least because it has endured and is still with us today. Essential to the human condition, perhaps. But desirable? No.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Bad things

a) This hangover

b) Going back to work

c) No more partying

New Year's resolution: less but better blogging. Back when I've got something sensible to say.

Aura best for 2007.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Against utilitarianism (again)

We knew this already but Johann Hari in this Hogmany piece explicitly nails his colours to the utilitarian mast. On the use of violence, for example:
"No: the only justification for using violence, ever, is a utilitarian one – to prevent even more violence occurring. To choose the least controversial example, innocent people died horrifically in the bombing of Nazi Berlin – but even more people would have died if the bombing had not gone ahead, so it was not only justified but morally necessary."
He then uses this utilitarian calculus to oppose the death penalty under any circumstances, even for Saddam Hussein - a case which he confesses to feeling ambivalent about:
"Does the relief and joy given to a once-tyrannised population outweigh the murder of a human being? No. In the end, I cannot find a morally justifiable explanation for my glee at Saddam’s death. The real test of your belief in human rights is not whether you support them for the innocent – the Marsh Arabs and the Ang Sang Su Kyis. No: it is whether you support them for the disgusting, the depraved, the genocidal – the Saddams."
I don't understand any of this. If you are a utilitarian, why shouldn't the 'relief and joy given to a once tyrannised population' serve as a perfectly good reason for welcoming Saddam's execution? The problem with utilitarianism, as every undergraduate philosophy student understands, is that it cannot in theory rule out the execution of the innocent, never mind a heinous tyrant like Saddam Hussein.

The other problem I have with this is the manner in which Johann links this calculus to war because the only way these can be justified with any degree of certitude is retrospectively. Since I began blogging, I have seen this done in relation to WW2 on a regular basis. Usually in a most ahistorical manner - as if we can know what the body count would have been had, say, the British opted for surrender after Dunkirk.

But, as Oliver Kamm has pointed out in a different context, this is a false calculus anyway because such was the nature of National Socialism, a 'barbarism without limit', that there can be no serious discussion of the consequences had we failed to defeat it.

That those who originally supported the invasion of Iraq and have subsequently recanted their position do not believe this reasoning is applicable to Iraq is something I have no problem understanding at all.

What I do have a problem understanding, though, is where they got their confidence from in the first place? Johann Hari used to be among those argued that who opposed the war should feel ashamed of themselves - now he feels ashamed for supporting it. I'd imagine this would be something of a morally-tortuous roller-coaster ride to find oneself travelling on, although I can't be sure because I don't understand the basis on which the original position was taken.

If you were a utilitarian supporter of the war, why did you do this to yourself? Given that human beings can't predict the future and that wars have especially uncertain outcomes, it was a mistake for utilitarian supporters of the war to accuse those who opposed it of being 'objectively pro-fascist', when they should have restricted themselves to the more limited charge of being 'objectively pro-disutility'. Doesn't have quite the same ring of certitude, does it?

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Support your local blogs

I'm completely unconcerned with issues surrounding nationality so I don't share the worries of this young blogger:
"Why are there no real big guns in the Scottish blogosphere? And the ones that do attract attention usually aren’t writing about Scottish politics!"
Answer to a) is because in the national tradition the 'big guns' have fucked off to London; those of us that have stayed are wasted on class A drugs and alcohol. But we're okay with that, it's everyone else that has a problem, in my view. Still, I do think the Scottish blogosphere offers good stuff that isn't available in the Glasgow "most fucking boring newspaper in the history of the human race" Herald, so if you're provincially inclined visit this, and this, and this, and this, and this. Plus two adopted Jocks here and here. And we have a bona fide member of the real fleet here.

Fuck - how drunk am I?

Answer to b) is because nobody gives a fuck. Unless the SNP actually show signs of winning in May. In which case I serve notice that this blog is going into unionist overdrive. I'm voting Scottish Labour because they're the only party that can be trusted on this issue. Sad, verging on the tragic - but there it is. Happy New Year.



Chosing metaphors

Seth Freedman in Comment is Free writes:
"I'm not comfortable with the argument that those loyal to Israel shouldn't criticise it, as I have been taught over and over during my formative years (although, fortunately, not at home). Loyalty does not mean turning a blind eye - the "spare the rod..." concept is central to my uneasiness. If we do not take the opportunity to educate Israel whilst it is growing up, we'll be left with a wild, unruly adult version in 50 years' time, totally oblivious to critique or censure - which many would argue Israel already is today."
The first sentence I completely agree with. But what is central to Mr Freedman's uneasiness makes me rather uneasy too. "Spare the rod, spoil the child", the writer of the Proverbs said. Do we have here an example of the problem Western commentators have vis-a-vis the Middle East - infantalization? Better than demonization, I suppose - but still...

The writer of the Proverbs also said "the blueness of a wound cleanses the innermost parts". What would be the political implications of this, exactly?

The lynching of Saddam Hussein

While I'd agree with many of the criticisms Brian Barder has made of the execution of Saddam Hussein, taken as a whole the piece conflates two separate issues; one's attitude and opinion on the death penalty per se and how it was conducted in this case.

It is perhaps inevitable for opponents of the death penalty to say, in effect, that this form of punishment is heinous and this particular example to be especially so, given its obvious departure for recognised conventions of due process.

But I think we should strive to keep the issues separate. I too oppose the death penalty but a rejection of the utilitarian theory of punishment has left me wondering whether my continued opposition isn't really just a matter of aesthetics and prejudice.

I'm not at all sure, for example, that I could agree with Brian Berber's assertion that "all civilised people in the western world...regard all forms of capital punishment as disgusting and unacceptable".

It might be more accurate to say that most of the European middle classes find the death penalty "disgusting and unacceptable" because opposition to this form of punishment as a hallmark of 'civilisation' is both more recent and more localised than many people tend to assume and certainly was not central to the political culture that grew out of the Enlightenment.

A rejection of utilitarianism should also lead one to repudiate arguments against this execution on the grounds that it makes him look like a 'martyr', or that it made him 'look good'. Whatever the shortcomings of this process, only a moral idiot could form either of these opinions.

Neither is the recognition that the result of this trial was a 'foregone conclusion' a valid objection here. The presumption of innocence is not an act of faith but a procedural disposition, the adoption of which should not be taken to indicate that the outcome of any given trial where the evidence is as copious as it is overwhelming should somehow guarantee uncertainty of outcome.

The point of all this? There was one. It is that regardless of what one's position on the death penalty may be, there is a respectable case to be made for it on the grounds that it imputes both to the perpetrator and to the victim a concept of human worth and responsibility that is lacking in the utilitarian view of the human condition.

But what is central to this view is the notion that the law should be blind - that it should not respect persons but universal principles, and with this end in view it is essential that the institutions of a state should never deprive another human being of their life or their liberty without a due process that pays due deference to these aforementioned principles.

In this narrower sense, I'd have to concur with Brian Barder; anyone who cares about these things should indeed find the lynching of Saddam Hussein, as it has been performed, as has become available to the world in pornographic detail, an atrocious thing.

[Via Chris Dillow]

Crossposted at DSTPFW

Happy New Year

To one and all.

Congratulate me on my promotion. Retrospective - but never mind. Conor Foley linked one of my posts on Comment is Free - describing me as someone who "formerly worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia".

Cool. Very tempted to go along with that - but I think I was working as a kitchen porter round about that time.

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