Monday, July 23, 2007

God is not great - (not really) a review

It's difficult for me to say what I think of this book because I found it hugely enjoyable and annoying at the same time.

While Hitchens distills his opposition to religion into a sort of four-point thesis at the beginning of the book, really he has two main targets: the idea that religion is the sole source of morality, and the notion that a claim to be custodians of divine revelation should serve as a justification for the exercise of political power of any kind. These are two ideas that should be questioned, argued with, opposed. And there are few people - no, there isn't anyone - who can do this with the skill and panache of Christopher Hitchens.

Which is why the book annoyed me. Because while he hits his target alright, he does so using a blunderbuss. I have the American version, which is subtitled, "How religion poisons everything". This involves, as becomes clear throughout the book, attempting to show that religion poisons everything because religion is uniquely poisonous. The book runs into problems here for reasons that have been outlined by a number of reviewers. I don't think I've got anything particularly original to say, so I'll confine myself to restating it in a slightly different form.

When certain types of Christians are confronted with evidence of various crimes, wars and genocide that have been committed in the name of their religion, they have been known to respond, "Ah but they weren't real Christians". An answer that is as convenient as it is complacent - as well as being for the historian completely useless - I hope you'll agree. The problem with Hitchens' argument is that he does the same thing, only the other way around. When Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King behave well, this they do despite their religion. And when a dictator who closed churches and turns them into museums of atheism behaves badly, this is understood as an essentially religious phenomenon.

Hitchens' argument here is more subtle than it is usually given credit for, but it still doesn't quite work. Bonhoeffer was indeed what you might describe as a Christian humanist, and a liberal theologian. But for us to accept that religion poisons everything, you'd have to show that Bonhoeffer's religion poisoned his humanism in some way. I suppose you could attempt this, but it would require a moral self-confidence that I simply don't possess, not to mention historical sources that I have hitherto been unaware of.

In the same way, I think Hitchens is right to identify the essentially religious nature of totalitarianism - with its claims to cognitive infallibility, its recourse to holy books, its martyrs and prophets, its icons, rituals and confessionals, it's eschatology and it's insistence that the ordinary populace live their lives standing to a state-endorsed moral attention. Very like religion - but the point is, it isn't the form of 'religion' that Hitchens addresses himself in most of the rest of the book. No permission claimed from an invisible deity, and without the creation myths or ideas of original sin that he takes issue with in the previous chapters of the book.

In this way the concept of 'religion' becomes stretched when it is applied to Stalin, or Mao - but narrowed in a way that few people would recognise in the case of Martin Luther King. Religion poisons everything because it is uniquely poisonous: after the century of Hitler, Stalin and Mao, I think this is a difficult claim to sustain.

It's this over-reach that is annoying because it spoils for me a book that is otherwise lucid, entertaining, and even on occasion life-affirming. Because it isn't only in the discussion around totalitarianism that Hitchens does this. Take the scandal of paedophile priests, which Hitchens does to challenge the hypocrisy of the church's claim to monopolise morality. It is right to do so, and in this sensitive age of ours it should be noted that few have the gumption to throw this reality back in the faces of those who intone 'family values'.

But the sickening truth is there has never been a human institution, whether religious or not, that is supposed to care for children but has not at some point abused them instead, and then subsequently attempted to conceal it. Therefore, to use this to support his case, Hitchens really needs to provide some evidence that religious institutions are the worst offenders here. But we don't get any, which doesn't sit very well with the tone of the rest of the book. He surely wouldn't want us to take it on faith?

There's another problem raised by this, which has to do with his understanding of what motivates people, which touches upon scriptural literalism or 'fundamentalism'. Religious people do evil because their various bibles give them permission to do so. This is the fact that Hitchens wants people to confront, which is fine. However, when the bible in question doesn't give them permission to do so and they do it anyway, they are nevertheless being motivated by religion. Again I'd argue that Hitchens' argument here, while not entirely satisfactory, is more subtle than it's given credit for. But the concept-stretching goes too far when it is argued further - that if a religious person does do good, and the good they do is apparently inspired by some scriptural injunction or other, this has nevertheless been done despite their religion.

This won't do. "Pagan self-assertion is as good as Christian denial", as JS Mill said. This can and should be argued morally or aesthetically, but Mill's meaning is political. This is the idea that liberty requires this credo to be adopted by the state, which can and must remain neutral on matters of religion; it must make a distinction between a crime and a sin, if it to take a proper role in preserving human freedom. This is what Hitchens believes. As do I - so I would have liked him to make this case with more precision. Instead we got, "Not only is pagan self-assertion as good as Christian self-denial, it is always better because the latter is always bad" - a book that was enjoyable and annoying at the same time.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Home secretary: I smoked cannabis

And as is the ministerial protocol these days, stresses she didn't particularly enjoy it.

No, heaven forfend.

Ms Smith is now to review whether the re-classification of cannabis - enacted under that crazy hippy David Blunkett - should be reversed in the light of research into links between cannabis use and mental health problems, and with crime.

On the mental health aspect, and the liberal argument in general, Tim's good here.

I'd depend solely on the crime aspect to support my own position: most of the crime, particularly the most serious crimes, associated with drugs use have to do with their production, distribution and sale. I'm repeating myself but it's not that drugs aren't dangerous, just not as much as the people who sell them.

The chemical generation has come to power. Is it really unrealistically 'libertarian' to expect people, specifically some of those in the media, to be a bit more grown-up about this sort of thing?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Galloway facing 18-day Commons suspension

From the Scotsman:
"GEORGE Galloway, the Respect MP, faces suspension from parliament for 18 days after an inquiry by its standards watchdog chronicled his charity's links to Saddam Hussein's regime."
Galloway seems unhappy about this.

When when you consider his record of attendance at the House of Commons, it isn't obvious why. It's a bit like when some hardcore truant gets suspended from school for something they did on one of the rare occasions they actually turned up. You think: what's the point of that? Will they even notice they've been supposedly punished? However, like I said - he does seem a little displeased. Miffed, you could even say.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Lightminded provocation

As part of his response to a post by Mick Hartley, Norm writes the following:
"I'm aware I've been writing a fair bit on religion lately, and it isn't for the first time. How come? Well, as everyone's noticed, there's a certain amount of fanatical religion around today, some of it of murderous inclination. It is important to combat this, to argue for the values of tolerance and secularism and a pluralist democratic society. I hope the overall political alignment of this blog has been such as to emphasize those priorities. But I do not think they are well served, and neither is the argument against fanatical religion, by a stance of mockery towards the religious, whether fanatical or not, of denial that religious doctrine and teachings could have any value whatsover, and of the temptation to deny also - what is patently true - that countless people have been brought by their religious beliefs to act well towards others and to try to lessen some of the miseries of human existence. As a confirmed atheist, I find it dismaying when those on the same side as I am, loosely speaking, discredit our case by the addition to it of lightminded provocation."
I reproduce this with the observation that the best writing is often that which says what you already think, only better than you could yourself.

I'd intended to include the following in a post I'm doing about Hitchens's, "God is not great", but I feel the need to get it off my chest now.

When I was studying for my PGCE, I took an elective module on Holocaust Studies. Our tutor arranged for us a speaker who was a rabbi and Holocaust survivor. During the course of his talk, he referred to his understanding of God, how the experience of Auschwitz had changed it but how he still believed. Our tutor, a strongly atheist Jew, didn't agree with this but said nothing. Because what can one say? Introduce him to the theodicy problem in a here's something you haven't thought of sort of way? Can there be any serious doubt that the only appropriate response here is to shut your mouth and show some respect? Because when we talk about respect, it isn't about respecting what people believe - just the people themselves and the space in their souls that is common to all mankind where we do our best to make sense of things. What goes on in this space, one could add, is often governed - not by what is or isn't true - but what we can and cannot bear.

Monday, July 16, 2007

On modern superstitions

Dr Andrew Wakefield and two of his colleagues are facing disciplinary action over their conduct related to the study that purported to show a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. From what is alleged, this seems entirely appropriate.

One thing I'm not sure about, though, is the way the MMR scare was used by various commentators as an example of a modern anti-science superstition. It may well be that for many this was indeed the case - I wouldn't know. But doesn't it show a mistrust in government, rather than science - and post-BSE, was this entirely irrational?

I had my son vaccinated for the following reasons:

1) The weight of scientific evidence disagreed with Dr Wakefield.

2) I was swayed by the argument that autism was detectable around the time infants get vaccinated so many people were confusing causation with correlation.

3) I knew a friend of the family had not had her daughter vaccinated, yet she still developed autism.

I'm not sure my reasons were impeccably rational. On point 1), I didn't actually read any of the research, on the grounds that I probably wouldn't have been able to understand it even if I had. Point 2) shouldn't be decisive, I wouldn't have thought - and point 3) was irrelevant - yet it had an impact on my decision-making.

Thing is, I was like most Scots - who showed themselves more likely than either the English or the Welsh to have their children vaccinated. It may be - but I doubt the difference here has anything to do with Scots being more 'pro-science' or rational than our friends south of the border.

Another example of modern irrationality that's sometimes used is people playing the National Lottery. Not convinced by this either. I'd agree it's irrational to think you're likely to win, or that the numbers you've chosen have some kind of magical properties. But playing it, in and of itself, isn't that irrational, is it? The odds are extremely high, obviously - but then the stake is extremely low. It's more a lack of imagination that's the problem, I reckon. People purchase a ticket and enjoy fantasizing for a short while about what they would do with all the dosh if they won. I just take it a stage further and imagine I've bought a lottery ticket.

Global broadband prices

Unsurprisingly vary from country to country, according to a report by the OECD:
"JupiterResearch telecoms analyst Ian Fogg said: "It's very hard to draw comparisons across 30 countries globally because there are different trends happening in each of them."
These different trends, I'd venture to suggest, are at least partly a function of confusion. I think it was Scott Adams who coined the term 'confusopolies' to describe the way that firms compete these days - not so much by competitive pricing, or even by attempting to differentiate products that are essentially the same, but by confusing the consumer as to the actual price of the product they're bloody well buying.

This is certainly my experience, anyway. Tariffs, bundles that include digital TV, or mobile phones, or phone lines that are free - provided you use them on Wednesdays when it's raining or when everyone who isn't a student or unemployed is asleep... Can't make much sense of them. "You innumerate fool", you might say. Yes but there's a lot of us out there. We're probably being ripped off on a regular basis but since we are too confused to know for certain we're being ripped off, we tend not to do much in the way of uniting and losing our chains and stuff.

Anyway, assuming my theory has anything to it - which would probably be unwise - Sweden is the least confused country in the OECD. Why is it always bloody Sweden?

Breaking news: Pope is Catholic shock

It's a now oldish story, in reality. It refers to Ratzinger's declaration that Orthodox and Protestant churches aren't 'proper' ones:
"The document said that the Orthodox church suffered from a "wound" because it did not recognise the primacy of the Pope. The wound was "still more profound" in Protestant denominations, it added.

It was "difficult to see how the title of 'Church' could possibly be attributed to them", said the statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Roman Catholicism was 'the one true Church of Christ'."
I refer to this only to note the way that people get all shocked when the representatives of various branches of Christianity drop the obfuscation essential to ecumenism and state what is for them simply orthodox doctrine.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

More intermission

Sorry, recovered now but still nothing substantial to say.

So no change there.

On T in the park: if you get a chance to camp there - don't. And if you need the toilet - hold it in. In fact, if you're of a delicate disposition, don't go at all. Someone described it as Glasgow neds day out - which from experience strikes me as being fairly accurate. Glastonbury it ain't.

Reading this at the mo'. I'll do a thing on it when I'm done.

Other news: vegetarian girlfriend is now eating fish. This is excellent - give me another year or so and she'll be doing the sirloin steak in brandy sauce. My own view is that there's very little excuse for herbivorism but in her defence I'd have to say that at least she's aware that a fish is not a goddam vegetable - which is more than can be said for many supposed 'vegetarians'.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere: HP have already linked it, but it's worth doing again. Money quote from Mr E:
"I must say that it takes a special kind of moron to be outwitted by Richard fucking Littlejohn."
I can only concur. Find out why here.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


Went here at weekend - and as a result completely fucked.

Back later after dignified recovery period.

Meanwhile, here's a voice of righteousness.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

On direct democracy and participation

There's a potentially interesting expansion in direct democracy to be unveiled today, apparently:
"Voters will be given powers to decide how ten of millions of pounds should be spent in their neighbourhood under radical plans being unveiled today.

In a potentially dramatic extension of direct democracy, councils will have to hold ballots before deciding where money should be targeted. It would mean that, for the first time, people could direct cash to areas that concern them most, such as parks, curbing antisocial behaviour, targeting drug trouble spots or cleaning up litter."
I'd expect Chris Dillow to both welcome this and suggest it doesn't go far enough.

Personally I'm sceptical about this whole wisdom of crowds thing but the other question that occurred to me was this: is there's any reason to think the crowd is fair? If you look how the 'crowd' that donates to charity [pdf] behave, for example, we find that they feel health charities are much more important than ones to do with housing. This would reflect voting patterns, which continually show health care in the top five of voter concerns. Social housing, on the other hand, doesn't even register. The reason, I'd suggest, is that while a majority of people fear illness - particularly cancer - a majority are comfortable enough to be unconcerned about the prospect of homelessness.

You could argue that this is a fairly rational result, since the average person is indeed more likely to contract cancer than become homeless, but the point is the marginal concerns seem to get squeezed here - unless the marginal concern happens to be private schooling, of course.

The analogy arguably doesn't quite fit, since with charity donations some people obviously have more 'votes' than others. But still, is there any reason to think that equal votes would overcome the problem of minority needs being neglected?

Another problem I have with Chris's advocacy of direct democracy is that it is seen almost exclusively* as an antidote to 'managerialist' politics. For example, in response to the idea that falling voter turnout shows a lack of appreciation of the democratic process and the need for active citizenship, he responds:
"No, it doesn't. It shows their lack of confidence in (managerialist?) politicians. I suspect many of these non-voters are protesters against the Iraq war, or committed greens, or are active citizens in other ways.
In what other activity would a near-halving of demand be seen as a reason to insult one's customers, rather than as a sign of one's own incompetence?"
But how do we know this particular 'fall in demand' can be explained in this way? Because the 'demand' for participation in representative democracy has coincided with a fall in demand for membership of all sorts of civic institutions - political parties, charities, friendly societies, clubs, trade unions and churches. I suppose you could argue that all of these have become more 'managerialist' and incompetent in equal measure over the years, but it seems unlikely. Could it not be that this declining willingness to participate, to join anything, reflects a more general and profound change in the 'customer' - indicated, perhaps, by the fact that we even use these terms to describe civic participation?

Nearer the truth, I suspect, is that the 'customer' is much more individualistic than he or she used to be. This explains the examples of participation Chris uses - going on demonstrations, environmentalist activity and so on. These are activities that, because of their 'single-issue' nature, people can involve themselves in without compromising their sense of individuality. People can identify with one cause - opposition to war, for example - and by-pass almost completely any sense of discomfort at being associated publicly with other policies they don't really agree with. These are also, frankly, for most people a low cost, low commitment expression of political concern.

I'm not suggesting that politicians have no share of the blame for the apathetic citizen, nor even that the rise of individualism is entirely a bad thing. But I'm afraid I do think there's a problem with the 'customer base'. Is low civic participation always the fault of the 'managerialists' and never the 'consumer'? There's a declining willingness to turn out to vote - but there's also a declining willingness to turn up for jury duty. Here, I'd argue, the customer - while they might have legitimate criticisms of both elections and trials in this country - is simply wrong to do this.

Because whatever their shortcomings, competitive elections are better than those that are not, and trials that have a jury present are better than those that don't. The crowd may disagree - in which case the crowd is mistaken. Thing is, I don't really think they do. Probably down to a more mundane truth about the 'crowd': bit damn lazy, sometimes.

*On reflection, this isn't quite right - Chris also suggests participation in direct democracy has 'procedural utility', a benefit that is, to me, more likely than it producing wise decisions.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Joy and the predictable

Heard enough about John Smeaton yet? I know Will hasn't. Neither have I, and here's why. Everyone involved, and who has subsequently commented on, the Glasgow airport attack behaved as you might have predicted:

The terrorists themselves, it should be stressed, picked the first day of the Scottish school holidays, so as to maximise the potential mayhem.

As you might expect.

While Muslims and even former Islamists are telling anyone who cares to listen that terrorism can't be reduced to 'grievances about foreign policy', the usual suspects, whom I won't link to, are appearing - fingers firmly in ears - in comment boxes, on their own blogs, or the radio, or whatever, coming out with the usual crap about 'blow-back' and who the 'real terrorists are'.

As you might expect.

Meanwhile mealy-mouthed reactionaries 'of course' condemn terrorism - and then go on to say, in effect, that when Islamists go on about how debauched and degraded we are, they do have a point and we could do with drinking less and covering up our women a bit. So as not to offend, you understand.

As you might expect.

Simon Jenkins, being a more liberal Tory, suggests - as ever - that the real problem is that too much is being done, and that the solution - as ever - is to follow his advice. Which invariably consists of doing nothing much, really - because you'll just make matters worse.

As you might expect.

When I'm talking about joy and the predictable, I don't mean these, of course. It's rather the response of my compatriots and fellow Glaswegians who have behaved exactly as you might expect.

Or hoped, would be more accurate. Good and bad things about the Glaswegian in your face, 'come ahead' attitude, obviously - but when imagining a scenario like this, I've often liked to think it would at least come in a bit handy.

And it seems to have done, right enough. This city is for the terrorist somewhere where they'll find more people inclined to kick them in the gonads to the point of self-injury than they will people inclined to wring their hands and bleat, "What did we do to invite this?"

Which you might have expected - and which is, for me, a source of joy. You might think this is wrong, or in poor taste, or something - but it really is.

Or maybe you think this is bravado? Well, quite possibly - but I'm from Glasgow so what the fuck did you expect?

Hat tips: Norm, Will, Flying Rodent.

War against bullshit - on-going

I saw this from Tom Hamilton briefly but didn't follow the link. I thought it was made up but apparently this is a real speech given by Dr Desmond Hamilton, president of the NAHT. Frankly I still can't believe it's real but here's the link (pdf) and here's a sample from where Tom left off:
"The new world we live in TODAY is FLAT! Colleagues: If I haven’t got your attention up to this point, I certainly have it NOW! When I was a boy, if I said the world was FLAT, teachers would have looked at me. Today, as a teacher, I am saying the new world we live in TODAY is FLAT!

FLAT in terms of economic, business and entrepreneurial opportunity. FLAT in terms of out-sourcing, down-loading and accessing information. FLAT in terms of globalisation. As for the FUTURE, think BRICK: Brazil, Russia, India, China and Korea. Therein lies a challenge for the FUTURE.

Colleagues: The current generation of children, and young people, with their mobile phones, laptops, I-Pods, PDAs, Blackberries and personal organizers, is not willing to leave their virtual lives at the classroom door. What we are seeing NOW, is but the beginning of new opportunities in Transformation and Shaping Futures. TODAY, we have to teach our pupils, and our young people, to navigate that exciting new world safely."
Dr Hamilton: Think the Greater Good and Kill Yourself NOW. No, REALLY.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

"Glasgow disnae accept this, d'ye know what I mean?"

Message to would be terrorists: "This is Glasgow, y'know? So, we'll set about you".

If I knew how to, I'd have this filed under civic pride and Weegies, ya bass.

Via Will.

School motto

Norm recalls his.

Since I ended up teaching - for a mercifully short time - in the school I attended as a pupil, I don't have to cast my mind too far back. It was, "Non Mea Culpa" - which can be rendered in Glaswegian roughly as, "It wasnae me".

I think it would be fair to say that this was one of those rare occasions where a school motto was embraced by pupils and senior management with equal vigour; between them they conspired to make it a living reality.

We didn't have a school song but the staff at the chalk-face adopted the theme tune from the Great Escape.

More on Glasgow airport attack

Bit busy sorting the aftermath of a flood in my flat so I'll direct you to other people's stuff, if I may.

Hitchens makes the point that the London bombs were possibly designed to kill women in particular:
"Only at the tail end of the coverage was it admitted that a car bomb might have been parked outside a club in Piccadilly because it was "ladies night" and that this explosion might have been designed to lure people into to the street, the better to be burned and shredded by the succeeding explosion from the second car-borne cargo of gasoline and nails."
With regards to Glasgow, Jamie K is one of the few outside Scotland to have noted that the attacks were designed to coincide with the start of the school holidays here:
"[A]n airport terminal attacked during the first day of the school holidays. Mass casualty systems attack: al Qaeda classic. Ramming a VBIED into the target before exploding it is an Iraq insurgency classic, too."
Personally I'd also be inclined to agree that the situation has been improved slightly by the fact that John Reid is no longer Home Secretary.

Another hallmark of Al-Qaeda and their imitators we see here is that the perpetrators were not a) the dispossessed and the poor, b) their behaviour prior to the attacks was characterised by quiet piety, and c) their actions have astonished their families to the point of disbelief.

This last point is sometimes greeted with incredulity but while I can't say for sure, I don't think in general it should be. These appear to be disciplined revolutionaries prepared to do the unspeakable in the pursuit of the unattainable - concealing their true aims and beliefs from their peers and their families.

The blogosphere being what it is, there's some strong competition but I think the prize for the most paranoid and stupid post on the subject should surely go to this blogger who finds something fishy in a burning Reichstag sort of way about the whole thing:
"Similarly, the Glasgow driver gets it all wrong, catches fire, runs his jeep against the Airport entrance doors, abandons his vehicle and scarpers. So did he chicken out? Why didn't he ram the doors in order to drive into the main thoroughfare inside to cause maximum havoc? And if he couldn't manoeuvre outside so as to ram the doors at high speed, how come he or his handlers hadn't researched that beforehand?

Which suggests, in both cases, that the drivers had certainly not intended to suicide themselves in a blaze of glory. On the contrary, the behaviour of both suggests they were far too concerned to save their own lives."
Yes, dousing yourself with petrol and then lighting it just screams self-preservation, doesn't it?

Finally, here's something via Will, as ever in the best possible taste:

Update: Nearly missed this, which would never do. Freens notes the "[g]eneral astonishment that a doctor might be involved in the planning and carrying out of these attempted massacres of innocent passers-by.":
"You mean you've forgotten Harold Shipman this soon?"
Read the rest: it's a splendid riposte to those inclined to treat doctors as priests - a distressingly common tendency - as well as those inclined to treat clerics with more respect than they deserve, which is also a distressingly common tendency.

Update #2: Ooh, more on the idea that anyone should be surprised that doctors were apparently involved in these conspiracies, from Norm and Adam LeBor.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Glasgow airport attacked

Or so it seems.

That was a mistake. The beeb reports a typical Glasgow response:
"It was just lucky that I was there, I managed to knock the man to the ground with my forearm and the police got on top of him and restrained him."
I liked Mr Eugenides's comment:
"To borrow a sentiment from the inimitable Rick Blaine: there are certain sections of Glasgow, gentlemen, that I wouldn't advise you to try to attack."
More later...

Update: Here's John Smeaton, posted on YouTube by our Will.

Bet they picked Glasgow Airport because they thought it was a 'soft target' compared to Heathrow or something. Ha ha.

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