Monday, June 30, 2008

On faith schools, blowing yourself up and dumb journalists

Wonderful thing faith schools - all reactionary journalists who've had the education system described to them agree about this. Great ethos, discipline, sense of belonging, uniforms, values, more ethos, then some press-ups, back into uniform. Splendid.

Via Tom Freeman I found this offering from the perfectly ghastly Christina Odone where she outlines another supposed benefit of faith schools: they, apparently, reduce the tendency to want to blow yourself up. Excellent. The evidence?
""Seeing their religion treated with respect," explains Dr Muhammed Mukadam, head of Madani High, a faith school in Leicester, "gives them a sense of respect for all religions. The self-esteem they gain here makes them feel confident in the wider community. And it is not the confident, but the insecure, who grows aggressive." Evidence bears this out: all but one of the 77 people convicted under the Terrorism Act of 2000 attended a secular state school (the one was home-schooled) [emphasis added]."
Honestly! Could someone tell Ms Odone that not only does correlation not show causation - she hasn't even identified an example of the former? Slightly embarrassing since she herself provides the salient details: there are 1.8 million Muslims in Britain but only 7 state-funded Muslim schools. Therefore, not only are we not obliged to accept Ms Odone's evidence-free arguments, no explanation as to why the former pupils of said schools aren't represented amongst the 77 people convicted of terrorism is necessary at all.

Update: Here's someone who's put rather more effort into the whole fisking thang.

Call to rethink child BMI testing

"Perhaps we should just fuck off and leave people alone", leading scientists said today.

No, of course they didn't:
"Using a child's body mass index (BMI) as a measure of the success of exercise targets may be misleading, say experts.

UK researchers could find no difference in BMI between those exercising regularly and those missing targets.

Writing in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, they said blood testing might be the only way to measure exercise benefits.

However, another scientist said BMI did offer useful information, and testing should continue."
I've always been a tad sceptical about the old BMI as an indicator of health for a couple of reasons:

1) I appreciate it's very unscientific but I've just always had this sense that the whole measure expects people to be unreasonably light. I remember when I got divorced and lost a shit load of weight. According to the BMI, I sat comfortably within the range of being my ideal weight. But I looked like a heroin addict. People were worried about me and insisted I eat more pies.

2) Your average heroin addict probably has an excellent BMI ratio.

(Potential) by-election blues

The Scotsman speculates on the prospect of Labour failing to hold Glasgow East in the forthcoming by-election that was triggered by the resignation of David Marshall for health reasons:
"Many in the Labour Party now believe victory for the Nationalists in Glasgow East – one of the safest Labour seats in the UK – could force Mr Brown out of 10 Downing Street.

One senior Labour source at Westminster said last night that he believed the Prime Minister would have to go if Labour failed to hold on to a safe seat in the East End of Glasgow. The vote could be held as early as 24 July."
I'll put that degree to some use and give you some in depth psephological analysis: if Labour can't hold Glasgow East then they are fucked. Completely. Because Labour have been running Glasgow for over four hundred years.

Ok, so it just feels like that. It's since the fifties or something. I think it's been completely Labour since Roy Jenkins lost his Hillhead seat to George fucking Galloway in 1987 - apart from two wins for the SNP in Govan.

This was because on both occasions the Labour party fielded various wildlife wearing red rosettes instead of candidates.

If Labour can't win in the east end of Glasgow then there is no longer such a thing as a safe seat for them anywhere in the country. "Might have to go" indeed! Why is he still here?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Labour leader quits

Not Gordon Brown sadly - it's Wendy Alexander.

Like Gordon Brown, prior to her taking the leadership of the party in Scotland, people used to bang on about how intelligent she was, how she didn't suffer fools gladly and all that jazz.

Then, like Gordon Brown she was elected without contest and like Gordon Brown she proved to be utterly useless at the job.

The latter is inextricably linked to the former. Commentators who argue that leadership is irrelevant to Labour's woes and suggest either implicitly or explicitly that calling for a change represents the politics of personality miss the point about leadership elections. They are a process whereby the prospective candidate has to get closer to his or her party and, crucially, have some kind of programme that the election would oblige them to spell out.

So the advice to Labour in Scotland would be to actually have a proper election - y'know one with more than one candidate? There's always the hope than someone somewhere is Scottish Labour might then address the real problems in the party. Not to have one would represent a retreat into the traditional complacency that lost them the election to the SNP.

Leadership is not just a question of personality. Candidates represent different factions in the party, have different policies and differing ideas about what the party has to do to win elections again. If the Westminster party fails to get rid of Gordon Brown, this would simply be a way of saying that they're not interested in this third question.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Teachers' new year

I appreciate that our English friends have a bit to go yet but for us up here it's tomorrow.

The end of term, that is.

Oh joy.

See you after the hangover.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

On being parochial

Johann Hari is on hand to give you a master-class:
"Wherever the London Labour tribe gathers, they panic and weep and commiserate about Gordon Brown – and then a new whispered discussion begins. Who should be Labour’s candidate against Boris in 2012?"
To which we respond with that old injunction: get a life.

Filed under: Is that all you've got to be worried about? Lucky you.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Evangelist accuses Obama of 'distorting' Bible

The 'evangelist' in question would be one James Dobson. In case anyone was unaware, if you're enthusiastic about 'the family' and 'family values', you can count on Dr Dobson's support - with the caveat, it goes without saying, that your family and its values should at the very least aspire to be a replica of his. Y'know - smack your weans whilst condemning homosexuality and other abominations and think to yourself you wouldn't be having half of these goddam discipline problems if we could have prayer in schools. That shit.

Anyway, Dobson accused Obama of bad theology in fairly strong terms:
"I think he's deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own world view, his own confused theology," Dobson said, adding that Obama is "dragging biblical understanding through the gutter."
An old saying containing the words 'beam' and 'mote' immediately sprung to mind. Then I thought perhaps the one with 'pot', 'kettle' and 'black' was better because in this case it catches the sense that these two men, despite their opposite political allegiances, are about the same thing - asking or demanding 'respect' for religion, advocating the extension of religion into something they like to call 'public life'. One suspects - indeed knows in certain cases - that with regards to the latter, 'public life' equals legislation - to allow and forbid according to the consciences of those who claim to derive their morality from a book they hold to be inerrant. And we can say without a doubt that the role of religion in 'public life' clearly involves politicians inflicting their pretentious theological musings on the rest of us. Surely we can all agree this is objectionable on aesthetic grounds at least?

And more than this, of course. Dobson is clearly an asshole of significantly larger proportions than Obama because he's an intolerant rightwing Republican who has much larger ambitions for the role of religion in 'public life' than Mr Obama - but in as far as both men favour injecting their politics with their own particular brand of the Truth, they are both wrong. Historically, politically, legally, morally, and philosophically wrong. But there's something else too: they're theologically wrong. I don't care which particular branch of political Christianity someone comes from; I think they should be confronted with the fact that a salvation religion by definition - even if it were desirable - simply cannot serve as the foundation for the morals of society and shore up its basic institutions.

All the soft sell, all the talk of the positive influence of religion in terms of providing something called 'social cohesion', seems to me to be avoiding one basic, inescapable fact about salvation religions: for them the world is divided into the saved and the damned and that this irreducible factor can have, has had, at various times and in various ways the most devastating impact on all of society's institutions - from the state down to the family.

Do we have to demonstrate this? Superfluous rhetorical keystrokes there - of course we do. What happens, for example, if the saved and the damned are found in the same family? Believers - here's your instruction:
" If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple."
If this is the case for the most primal and immediate of human institution how much more so for the wider, looser, associations we form in civil society? Anyone uncertain of the answer here is cordially invited to read some history - I'm off duty right now.

J'accuse all political Christians of 'distorting the bible'. You'll search the pages of the New Testament in vain for any political programme for reshaping civil society in God's image. It simply isn't there. Instead indifference to human institutions is what you'll find. Indifference because they are part of this age which is already passing away. Anything beyond this is just interpretation and extrapolation born from the delay of the parousia. Moreover, it is interpretation and extrapolation that is curiously utilitarian in character. Curious because religious believers seem to be unaware that by making this argument, they undermine the very reason why they believed in the first place. For converts, this has nothing much to do with social utility, cementing social institutions and shoring up the family but a great deal to do with the salvation of their own souls. Christianity is very individualistic that way. What impresses me is how few of its (loudmouthed, public) adherents seem to get this.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Against the politics of identity

Paul Linford suggests that Brown might be wise to ditch Alistair Darling:
"But for me, the reason Mr Darling should be replaced is the same two reasons that he should never have got the job in the first place - one, because he is Scottish, two, because he is rather dull.

It was always going to be the case that, with Brown as premier, having another Scot in what is effectively the No 2 government role was going to be tricky. When that Scot has a reputation for being almost as dour as Brown himself, it was going to be doubly so."
I have to say I found this post a rather depressing read because I take it as indicative of the extent to which the nationalist logic has taken hold of our political discourse. Going to be 'tricky', was it? More tricky than the previous situation when two Scots held the Nos 1 and 2 spots in government, along with various posts like Lord Chancellor, Home Secretary, shit like that? More tricky, yes - but only because this is a purely aesthetic judgment being made here.

I would agree with Paul that there are, despite him having been Chief Secretary to the Treasury, reasons Darling is unsuited to the job but they're not the same as his. No - the most important as far as I'm concerned is because he is understood to be a creature of Gordon Brown's patronage. The thing is, this is related to his Scottishness in the sense that both men come from the culture of Scottish Labour - the land where, as I've said before, the selectorate is the electorate and where loyalty is always preferred over competence.

But then again, perhaps such analysis should be avoided by someone who called it so wrong with Gordon Brown from the beginning.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The atheist thirteen

I normally don't do memes. Apologies to anyone who's sent me one before and I've ignored it - it's just that I usually don't know the answers to the questions. This, however, is not the case with this one from Norm. Why thirteen? We don't know because this one's ten questions. My answers are as follows:

Q1. How would you define "atheism"?

In a more elastic sense than most people, I think.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

No, my parents were both atheists and socialists so apart from the milk and water stuff you get in a non-denominational comprehensive, my upbringing involved no religious input.

Q3. How would you describe "Intelligent Design", using only one word?


Q4. What scientific endeavour really excites you?

I don't get turned on that easily.

Q5. If you could change one thing about the "atheist community", what would it be and why?

I don't think there's any such thing as the "atheist community". I think this refers to the celeb atheists like the ones listed below, along with those who identify with them? I'll cover this under question 9.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said "I’m joining the clergy", what would be your first response?

I'd think, "Someone's fucked up big time here - and the chances are it's me."

Q7. What’s your favourite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

Favourite? As in the one you most enjoy busting up whilst debating with 'theists'? I don't do that shit. I only usually argue with religious people if they fail to understand that while their revelation may serve as a basis on which to form their conduct, this cannot be so for those of us who do not share it. I sometimes argue that any suggestion that this can be otherwise, or still less should be reinforced by the state, is at variance with their own solutions to the theodicy problem. But I don't do this too often because a) it doesn't apply to predestinarian monotheisms, b) no-one likes a smart-arse.

Q8. What’s your most "controversial" (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

I find the way these questions have been framed interesting. There's a shadow of the idea that atheists in some way form, or should form, an ecclesia, I think. But they don't and therefore have no 'general attitudes'. With regards to the vocal campaigning atheists, I take the view that their basic analysis of religion is too intellectual in the sense that they give the impression that they imagine cleaving to a religion is simply a matter of accepting intellectual propositions about the cosmos that there is no evidence for. But religious behaviour cannot be reduced to this. Certain kinds of blogosphere atheists who claim to be Marxists don't seem to like this view. This I don't quite get because I think my understanding is more materialistic than theirs.

Q9. Of the "Four Horsemen" (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?

Bit of a "which Spice Girl would you like to shag?" vibe coming off this question, methinks. I don't feel like that - they're all too protestant for me. Hitchens is the hands-down best writer - everyone understands this. Over and above that, he's a more subtle thinker on this subject than he is given credit for. Having said that, I didn't really like his God is not Great. I wasn't at all impressed with his excursion into Biblical theology and his central argument falls apart simply because it set itself an impossible goal: in order to argue, with actual historical examples, that religion poisons everything, he stretches the concept of religion to breaking point. I haven't read anything from the others except their journalism and in the case of Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. I think life's too short to read, for example, The God Delusion. I already know what Richard Dawkins thinks. I once heard him say that he thought theology departments in universities should be closed because since God doesn't exist, theology isn't really a subject as it studies nothing. I thought then and still think that this was an unbelievably stupid thing to say. If someone with Richard Dawkins' intelligence and learning can't be bothered to acquaint himself with what goes on in other departments in his own university then there's scarcely any point in reading him on any other subject apart from pure science.

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

Nobody particular in mind. Someone for whom belief causes more harm than good; someone who means harm because of their belief.

Update: Forgot to 'tag'. I'd be interested to know what Paul, Chris and Peter thought - although maybe they've done so already and I haven't been paying attention.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


On the 42 detention vote:
"No 10 said Brown had shown himself in tune with the country and demonstrated true political courage by standing firm on an issue of national security, even if it endangered his premiership."
The governing party moves to the right of the Conservatives to win the vote for one of the most authoritarian pieces of legislation in living memory with help from rightwing MPs from outwith the party. Then it goes on to describe this disgraceful state of affairs as a 'victory' and one that had something to do with 'courage'. Audacity is the word I'd prefer. From the place where liberty means saying stuff:
"Brown has won the key vote to extend detention without charge to 42 days. There’s still the battle in the Lords to face, but it seems reports of his political death have been exaggerated."
No they haven't. His political death is already a fact. What's left are commentators, observers and actors who are divided between those who can smell this and those who cannot.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Faith in politics

I'm coming to it late but Chris Dillow has a nice post about sincerity in politics where he touches on a theme he has explored before: the very notion that public life, or even the execution of one's duties in your more mundane profession, should be about the revelation of one's personality is both narcissistic and pernicious.

As a general idea, I find this impossible to disagree with - and I don't know anyone in my profession who would argue otherwise. I once heard Hanif Kureishi argue that the duty of the writer is to say what he (or she) thinks is true. If this could be considered a virtue, it's one I could excel in (saying what one thinks is true - not the writing bit) but while this might be the luxury of the writer - and if so, I envy this - it would be singularly inappropriate for someone in my line of work.

Those who think it's appropriate to tell the truth in every circumstances are those who fail to understand that values collide and that sometimes you have to decide which ones take priority. But beyond this, it is an idea espoused by those who imagine they have duties only to themselves. As someone said, while in the past people saw virtue in what was 'the done thing', today there is only 'one's own thing'. Positively Burkean in its vibe, you might think - but it actually comes from here.

But it is here, I think, that Chris conflates two related but different things. He's right to say that in politics neither faith nor sincerity are per se virtues - but they are different things, especially in the sense in which he uses the latter.

The sincerity he seems to be talking about is a fundamentally ego-centric disposition to believe there's something meritorious about confessing. This is Oprah Winfrey meets democratic politics and it is, I'd agree, fairly nauseating. But belief, while related, is distinct. It's highly problematic and the Oakeshottian part of me tends to recoil at the merest hint of the thing. But I'm left with a problem: those who - not just in politics - achieve worthwhile deeds, worthwhile innovation, in the face of great opposition and obstacles tend not to be those of a sceptical, pessimistic disposition. They tend not, in other words, to be people like me. And I say this with the sure and certain knowledge that great harm has been inflicted on mankind throughout human history by those who 'sincerely' believed they were right.

There's something else. While I very much agree with the spirit of what Chris is saying, he overstates his case - and one of the ways he does so is by neglecting to mention the harm that can be done where instead of faith and sincerity, cynicism, calculation and false faces are evident throughout the whole proceeding. I take as an example one he uses to make his argument - the issue of the proposal to deprive British subjects of their liberty for 42 days. That we can even consider such a move in a so-called free society is a shameful thing, in my view. But we are doing so and the point is, I can't think of any issue recently that has been distinguished - both amongst its supporters and (to a lesser extent, in my view anyway) its opponents - by such a complete lack of anything one could describe as faith or sincerity.

Cameron and the SNP

What concerns me is that both have an interest in the other doing well. For the Tories, the obvious benefit is that any SNP success is invariably at Labour's expense; for the SNP, there is the possibility that Labour MPs have been warning about:
"They fear a General Election win for David Cameron could drive voters into the SNP's hands as the Nationalists would be seen as the "lesser of two evils".

SNP figures admit privately that a Tory victory would be good for their cause, allowing them to accuse Mr Cameron of having no mandate to govern in Scotland, [emphasis added] where the Tories admit they are unlikely to add many – if any – seats. There is only one Tory MP in Scotland at present."
We became used to hearing this line about a 'mandate to govern Scotland' under Thatcher and perhaps even more so under Major. Despite not being a fan of Conservative rule, this line used to really annoy me - and it makes even less sense now that we devolution: parties seeking election to Westminster need a mandate to govern Britain; they don't need a separate one for Scotland, or for Wales.

That people can, post-devolution, argue the contrary illustrates how far the nationalist logic has taken hold. Scottish Labour have to take their share of the blame for this - and my own view is that this share is large, since they were inclined to play this 'Scottish mandate' card when they were in opposition.

It would be hypocritical in the extreme for Labour to complain about the Tories playing the English nationalist card - but I doubt that this would stop them. A threat to the union greater than the voting behaviour of Scots would be if the Tories decided that to maintain it was simply no longer in their interests. This logic has not been lost on some English Tories. I don't think it's lost on the present leadership either. I would, despite myself, be inclined to say that it reflects reasonably well on Cameron that, despite this understanding, he has more or less resisted this - but we'll see if this remains the case in the future.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Teacher rant #534

Man, I'm knackered. For non-Scots readers, unlike in England, school's done at the end of June - which makes me wonder why the EiS is bothering with this shit:
"The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) will place a motion before its conference later in the week saying the education sector is being damaged.

Councils across Scotland have announced cuts to school funding in order to make their budgets balance.

The Scottish Government said that local authority funding was increasing year on year.

But leaders of the EIS union said planned cuts by many councils translated into job losses - with the threat of some being compulsory."
Should they vote for strike action, I assume this would take place next year? Surely not now? Because this wouldn't 'cause chaos' as the Scottish Tories ludicrously claimed. No - no-one would fucking notice. Half my colleagues seem to be on strike already. They must be doing something because they ain't here. I know this because I keep getting their goddam classes to take. I don't know most of them; in a staff of over a hundred, I know maybe twenty or so. Where the fuck are they? Pulling a sickie - or out of school for a couple of days doing something Really Important. Like attending the poxy EiS conference perhaps? I've got reports to do so get your fat asses back into work and stop leaving me your classes to take, you bunch of bastards. We're supposed to be chilling out at this time of year and here I am stressed out my box.

Anyway, what's this all about? Budget cuts courtesy of the SNP 'Scottish Government' - you know, the one that all these seasoned commentators agree are doing a Good Job. Are they fuck! But given the council tax freeze is a fait accompli, there's a distinct lack of imagination from the EiS here. Cutting teachers' jobs maybe not such a good thing - but there are other avenues we could explore. Like reducing the number of people who Talk Shite For a Living. "We demand less People Who Talk Shite" - that would be a winning slogan for the EiS as far as I'm concerned. People with flip charts: shoot the fuckers.

The whole striking thing's a bit tricky anyway. Do a day here and there and frankly it's a complete waste of time because no-one gives a shit; do it for any length of time and teachers lose sympathy for fucking up everyone's education. Methinks they really should make an effort to think of something else.

One embarrassing thing about public sector strikes is the way that these spaced-out blogging SWPers and other assorted fuckwits delude themselves into thinking it's a harbinger of some revolutionary awakening or some such shit.

No, it really fucking isn't - so stop being a twat.

I feel better after that.

I don't care how it makes you feel.

I want one of these. Could someone arrange that for me? Thanks...

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

People losing their damn minds #24

George Monbiot, environmentalist and expert in international law, apparently attempted to perform a citizen's arrest on evil neocon John Bolton who was speaking at the Guardian Hay festival:
"I realise now that I didn't have a hope. I had almost reached the stage when two of the biggest gorillas I have ever seen swept me up and carried me out of the tent. It was humiliating, but it could have been worse."
He realises now? For me, his damn mind certificate is warranted for two reasons:

1) He seems to be implying that the only reason that he was thwarted in his righteous quest was the presence of 'two gorrilas'. Does he realise making an arrest may involve the use of force? And a question leading from this - how lacking in self-awareness is it possible to be? In case anyone was unaware, here's what George Monbiot looks like...

There are girls in my six year old's class at school that look more intimidating than George Monbiot. And if I imagine him doing my job, phrases with 'Christians' and 'lions' in them immediately spring to mind.

2) If you're going to pull a stunt like that, while we have already seen the reasons why it's unlikely to succeed, it might be an idea not to reduce your slim chances even further by publicising your intentions on the internet, you stupid mother-fucker. Honestly!

Monday, June 02, 2008

Sisters who would like to be doing it for themselves

Blowing themselves up, that is:
"Muslim extremist women are challenging al-Qaida's refusal to include — or at least acknowledge — women in its ranks, in an emotional debate that gives rare insight into the gender conflicts lurking beneath one of the strictest strains of Islam.

In response to a female questioner, al-Qaida No. 2 leader Ayman Al-Zawahri said in April that the terrorist group does not have women. A woman's role, he said on the Internet audio recording, is limited to caring for the homes and children of al-Qaida fighters.

His remarks have since prompted an outcry from fundamentalist women, who are fighting or pleading for the right to be terrorists. The statements have also created some confusion, because in fact suicide bombings by women seem to be on the rise, at least within the Iraq branch of al-Qaida.

A'eeda Dahsheh is a Palestinian mother of four in Lebanon who said she supports al-Zawahri and has chosen to raise children at home as her form of jihad. However, she said, she also supports any woman who chooses instead to take part in terror attacks.

Another woman signed a more than 2,000-word essay of protest online as Rabeebat al-Silah, Arabic for "Companion of Weapons."

"How many times have I wished I were a man ... When Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahri said there are no women in al-Qaida, he saddened and hurt me," wrote "Companion of Weapons," who said she listened to the speech 10 times. "I felt that my heart was about to explode in my chest...I am powerless.""
You'd have thought your heart about to explode in your chest would be preferable to actually exploding - but apparently not. Dunno about you but I mentally file this sort of thing under a heading: the human race? We're all fucked.

Nobody knows anything.


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