Monday, November 30, 2009

On liberty, democracy, history and minarets

Liberty and democracy are closely related both historically and philosophically - but they are nevertheless distinguishable. The various attempts in the blogosphere to pretend this isn't so would be amusing - if they weren't so depressing.

Amongst the recent converts to the sort of democracy that forbids people to wash their clothes after ten o'clock include these no crash-helmet wearing 'libertarians' who are so ubiquitous in the blogosphere. What to do when a democracy passes an illiberal measure that you happen to approve of? You pretend it's really liberal, of course. Here's someone, for example, who takes his moniker from a brand of rolling tobacco:
"The people told the Government, not the other way round."
Despite the government's attempts to argue that the firstborn should live, the people stood their ground and said NO! and subsequently approved the Slaughter of the Firstborn Proposition. This qualifies it as a liberal measure. This is the argument that is being made in all seriousness. Welcome to the fucked-up world of the internet libertarian.

But what to do if you're a democrat and you disapprove of the tough on minarets, tough on the causes of minarets line recently validated by our Swiss friends? Similar strategy, different tactic: rather than stretch the concept beyond its conventional usage, narrow it instead to exclude things that you don't approve of:
"We on the Left know very well that this measure, far from being a triumph for democracy – except in the formal sense – serves only to divide the people of Switzerland one from another. If democracy is merely about the relationship of individuals to authority then I’m wrong, but if democracy is about associative relationships and how we collectively relate to authority, then the Swiss have weakened that associative relationship and its collective relationship with the Swiss state."
This is neither as offensive nor as philosophically convoluted as the previous 'libertarian' argument but it still isn't good enough. Democracy is concerned with the source of power, liberty with its scope. Is it really too difficult to acknowledge that these two are a) distinct b) can collide - both in theory and in practice?

Chris Dillow, being a clever sort of chap, understands this 'trade-off' perfectly well. Unfortunately he's spent too much time reading econometrics and other sundry ahistorical stuff, hence his cavalier dismissal of the historical compromise that civil society has come to in what we like to call liberal democracy. For example, one tool for balancing power and freedom that has proved quite popular through the ages is the notion that individual rights should be entrenched in law. Mr Dillow finds this unsatisfactory, arguing, "[A] bill of rights would not solve this problem at all, as it merely prioritizes liberty over democracy.".

But is this as simple as he suggests? Bills of Rights are not static things but evolve and are mediated through democratically-controlled institutions. These decide what these mean in a contemporary setting. Who has decided, for example, that a constitutionally-protected freedom of religion does not include the right to burn witches or sacrifice goats in the town square? Parliaments, Congresses, Constituent Assemblies of various kinds.

Moreover, even if this were not so - what, exactly, is the problem with prioritizing liberty over democracy? You either believe in human rights or you don't. If you do then these are rights that no power should override, regardless of how impeccably democratic the origins of its authority. Imperfect, certainly - but I'm unconvinced by the historically untested alternatives Chris suggests:
"One possibility which I favour is to use demand-revealing referenda. If people had to stake their own money - even though the risk of loss is actually small - they would be less ready to vote to reduce others’ liberty. They’d figure: a minaret does me no harm, so why should I pay to stop them being built?"
I don't really get this demand-revealing referanda thing. Is it able to overcome the free-rider problem? More specifically, how does it overcome the sort of problem thrown up by this particular case? Let's try this formulation: "If people had to stake their own money - even though the risk of loss is actually small - they would be less ready to vote to increase others’ liberty. They'd figure: a pogrom against Muslims does me no harm, so why should I pay for their rescue?" I'm sure I'm missing something but until someone explains to me why I'm wrong, I prefer the wisdom of ages and of nations to that found on the blogosphere.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Faith in faith schools

David Cameron, being badly briefed, made a bit of a tit of himself by claiming in Parliament that a Slough school run by some extremist Islamist outfit had received government money. Turns out, though, that one of the school's trustees is in fact a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir but any wider point about the poor monitoring of faith schools was lost because of Cameron's mistake.

But a wider point has been lost in the details of the case, which is that a political consensus between the major parties that supports 'faith schools' is bound to produce instances where extremists of various confessional divisions slip under Ofsted's radar and have influence on the running of schools. It doesn't help that any inspections system has to operate in a political culture where the content of religion is unimportant - what seems to matter is only that it is held.

Shiraz Socialist argues that the Tories are incapable of making this point since it is they who have, even more than Labour, faith in faith schools - which is why they've indicated that if they come to power, England will see many more of them.

Couple of point here. I'll be brief because I'm repeating myself but I'm always struck by the way believers make utilitarian arguments for religion in schools. The results are better, they promote cohesion, their discipline is better because of something they usually call 'ethos'. They never say faith schools are better because they set aside space in the timetable for religious instruction and don't expose their children to the evils of teaching about contraception and abortion. Why so coy?

The utilitarian arguments are repeated so often, even non-believers have come to believe them - yet there is precious little evidence to support them. Having taught in eight different 'faith schools' in Glasgow and Lanarkshire, I'll dismiss as absurd the idea that they promote social cohesion.

But what of the better results argument? The league tables - at least those in Scotland - provide precious little evidence for this, showing instead that the most prosperous councils, such as East Renfrewshire and Edinburgh, have the best performing schools. The poorest - Glasgow - makes no appearance in the top fifty.

It could be argued - it has in the thread below this post, for example - that all other things being equal, religious schools perform slightly better.

Firstly, I'd like to see some evidence for this - in particular exactly how all other variables have been held constant because from experience, I can't see how this can be done. Even in the shittiest areas of Glasgow, the religious schools have a more genuinely comprehensive intake simply because their catchment is wider.

In Glasgow's peripheral and impoverished housing estates, absolutely no-one who doesn't live in the schemes sends their children to the schools that serve them. In my experience, this never happens in Catholic schools but where it comes close, the results and discipline are just as poor as the non-denominational comps.

But there's no need to labour the point because even if it could be shown that the religious nature of a school had a positive influence on results, the evidence from the league tables is absolutely unequivocal: compared to the impact class has on educational outcomes, the effect 'ethos' has is so marginal that it is almost completely insignificant. But none of this will have the slightest impact: regardless of evidence, people will continue to have faith in faith schools. It is only to be expected from people of a religious disposition but I really wish the non-religious would stop making evidence-free arguments in favour of religious schooling.

On a related point, while the council has no schools in the top fifty, it is in fact a Glasgow school that comes first in the entire country. It is the only one that operates independently of the city council. Since it is also the only state school in the entire country that is outside local government control, it's obviously impossible to detect a pattern but it seems unlikely that its position in the league tables has nothing to do with this. Been in this gig for ten years and have listened to people going on about the incompetence of the council. And I've done a fair amount of this myself. But I'm increasingly of the view that the reason the education department is such a shambles is simply because it has acquired too many functions. Even if you got rid of the deeply-entrenched culture of nepotism, you'd still be left with this problem: no-one could run it competently because the task it sets for itself is just too big and complex to be managed from the centre.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Christmas traditions

Yes it's that time of year again - stress, shopping, spending time with people you either don't know or don't like or both. And there's the usual story involving 'Winterval' and the 'abolition of Christmas':
"Christmas could be cancelled by a bill being put forward by the Labour government, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales have said.

In a letter to MPs, Monsignor Andrew Summersgill, general secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Conference, said that Harriet Harmon's Equality Bill will have a "chilling effect" on local councils, town halls and other organizations clamping down on Christmas festivities for fear of offending people of other religions."
Garbage in the way these stories always are. There comes a point when these become so routine that they acquire the status of tradition.

I'm too far behind to claim to have skewered this one in time but I'd like to be the first - hope I am - to pre-empt another tiresome seasonal tradition, and that would be Christopher Hitchens banging on about how Christmas is awful and terribly authoritarian, nay totalitarian. Art Buchwald? Check. North Korea? Check.
"As in such dismal banana republics, the dreary, sinister thing is that the official propaganda is inescapable. You go to a train station or an airport, and the image and the music of the Dear Leader are everywhere. You go to a more private place, such as a doctor's office or a store or a restaurant, and the identical tinny, maddening, repetitive ululations are to be heard. So, unless you are fortunate, are the same cheap and mass-produced images and pictures, from snowmen to cribs to reindeer. It becomes more than usually odious to switch on the radio and the television, because certain officially determined "themes" have been programmed into the system. Most objectionable of all, the fanatics force your children to observe the Dear Leader's birthday, and so (this being the especial hallmark of the totalitarian state) you cannot bar your own private door to the hectoring, incessant noise, but must have it literally brought home to you by your offspring. Time that is supposed to be devoted to education is devoted instead to the celebration of mythical events."
Getting ready to cut and paste this shit for Slate this year, Mr Hitchens? It may be simply jealousy on my part - over the fact that people actually give you money for recycling the same self-regarding twaddle every year. But I'd like to invite him to keep his frankly adolescent musings about Christmas being like living in a one-party state to himself and fuck right off instead. This is a pre-emptive request, you understand...

Via: Paulie

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Jesus wept

I can barely form sentences after reading about this case:
"A SCOTTISH schoolgirl was behind bars at Yarls Wood detention centre in England last night after a last-minute reprieve from deportation. Along with her mother, the ten-year-old was removed from a Kenyan Airways flight heading for Malawi as it sat on the runway at Heathrow airport in London.

Precious Mhango and her mother Florence, 32, from Glasgow, who have lived in the UK for almost seven years, were taken from Dungavel detention centre in Lanarkshire and sent to Yarls Wood Immigration Centre in Bedfordshire at the weekend under a Home Office deportation order."
Here's an account of her experience:
"Thursday 30 July: We went to sign and we never came back home. After signing we were told to wait because someone wanted to speak to us. My heart started racing.

We were taken to a room, where I saw 5 or 6 giant men officers in blue jackets, black trousers and white shirts. They were so scary and they were staring at us. It was like we were in the court and had been found guilty of killing someone and now we were being handed over to prison guards.

We were locked into the room, my whole body was numb. A woman came in reading a pile of papers.

"Your case has been dismissed, today you're being detained," she said.

Blah blah blah, as she continued talking, I couldn't even listen to her. I started screaming "please, I don't want to go".

My mum too was screaming. The woman carried on reading, I kept screaming. She offered me some tissues and a drink. I said "no thanks".

The others were just watching us.

Shortly we were locked in the van going to Dungavel detention centre.

I was very upset. I couldn't stop thinking about my best friend ever, Maria.

I started thinking about school. I was so excited to go back and start Primary 6 as the summer holiday was about to finish.

After about one hour and a half, we were in Dungavel. It's a horrible place. No friends, no good fun and no smiles from my mum."
The Scotsman reports that a letter from Mr Woolas stated that he "saw no compelling reason to help the family". I don't know what to say to that - just refer you to the title of the post. There's a Facebook campaign you can join, should you feel so inclined.

H/T: The blogger formerly known as Will.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Parents' nights vs marking

Can't decide which of these is more evil. They're both fairly excruciating. What they have in common is a) pulverizing tedium, b) they provide frequent occasions where you're confronted with evidence of your professional irrelevance.

What parents' nights have going for them is that they happen less often.

What they have against them is that, unlike marking, you can't execute your responsibilities with the aid of good things like fags, coffee, and central heating.

I can't decide. All I know is it's parents' night tomorrow and I would be extremely grateful if someone could write me a note saying I don't have to go.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Music nostalgia

This is deep music nostalgia - positively subterranean. I'd completely forgotten about this band until I heard them on the radio recently. They're a hard rock outfit called UFO. In retrospect it's an unfortunate name for them because today on Google and YouTube rankings they have to compete with people looking for shit about alien autopsies.

Quite a few bloggers who are around the same age as me talk about how they used to like punk - saying it as if this was cool or something. It really isn't. You do realise you're keeping company with Michael Gove, don't you?
"But the righteous anger she displayed, denouncing McLaren for his cynicism in ripping off young record-buyers, ripping into the Pistols for their lack of musicianship, only reminded me what it was that I liked about punk."
The ripping off record-buyers and the lack of musicianship? Well he is a Tory... I used to like punk - until I was about thirteen. Then I realised it was a big pile of cack - at least as commercial and pretentious as anything it imagined it was reacting against. So I made a backward progression that ended up in the blues - but stopped off with a little hard rock. Forgotten how good this crew were. Saw them live in 1981, I think - at the Glasgow Apollo.

This song in particular has more of a punky edge than I realised at the time. How the Clash might have sounded if they'd ever learned to play their instruments properly. "Ah but punk wasn't about musicianship", says the ex-punk. I know. That's why it was shit. A triumph of style over substance every bit as much as the Flock of Seagulls.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Edookashun news

From the Queen's speech we learn that children in England are to be given legal rights to a good education. Blair may be gone but the Project lives, its essence distilled in this proposal: why actually do something when you can pass a law that says something must be done, instead?

You'd think that after twelve years of government, they might ponder that perhaps the whole central control thing hasn't been an unalloyed success - but you could only think this if you haven't been paying much attention during the last decade or so. They have, it should go without saying, concluded that there is not nearly enough central control. For example:
"New curriculum guidance says the well-being of "mini-beasts", including bees, ants and worms, should be taught in classes as part of primary school's "animals and us" section of the citizenship curriculum.

By the age of seven, pupils will have learnt that "not stamping on insects" is appropriate behaviour "in areas where animals live"."
Fair enough - but my own view is that pupils should be taught to extend this courtesy to their fellow humans first, and then work their way down the food chain.

Anyway, the government is also including the right to more press-ups in their educational Magna Carta. No, really:
"[P]upils will have guaranteed access to five hours PE or sport a week in and out of school."
I'm not sure this is enough though. Today our youth have more PE and possess more tracksuits than at any time since the dawn of civilisation - yet they are also increasingly large. Discuss...

Our English friends are also going to be released from the tiresome burden of teaching discrete subjects:
"The bill will legislate for a new primary curriculum, starting in September 2012, to reorganise traditional subject areas such as history and science into thematic areas of learning, such as "historical, geographical and social" lessons, to try to ease the pressures of the cumbersome curriculum on schools and give them the freedom to do cross-subject thematic lessons."
You could take an Italian theme, for example - with a couple of lessons on the Risorgimento, followed by The Merchant of Venice, pop off to home economics to make a pizza - then during their copious PE time, pupils could learn to make a huge drama out of a barely perceptable foul on the football park. Inspiring isn't the word.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Technology and religious criticism

Marina Hyde argues that the internet has done a great job in exposing the dark heart of Scientology but regrets that this fire isn't brought to bear on other belief systems too:
"Clearly, Scientologists should be forced to justify their doctrinal lunacies – the only sadness is that other religions are apparently exempt from having to do the same. Imagine for a moment a Bashir-type interviewing some senior cardinal. "So," he might inquire, "you're saying that by some magic the communion wafer actually becomes the flesh of a man who died 2,000 years ago, a man who – and I don't want to put words into your mouth here – we might categorise as an imaginary friend who can hear the things you're thinking in your head? And when you've done that, do you mind going over the birth control stuff?""
Yes, why is there this disproportionate energy devoted to debunking this particular cult rather than other religions? Perhaps for the same reason that when discussing 'other religions', Marina Hyde picked Catholicism and the doctrine of transubstantiation rather than, say, Islam and the doctrine of the inerrancy of the Koran: because it's easier that way?

Probably a bit unfair. At least part of the reason why people are interested in Scientology is because while it doesn't have many followers, they count a disproportionate number of celebrities amongst their ranks. Celebs seem vulnerable to all manner of eccentric religious beliefs. I was wondering if this isn't a strain of man's social being determining his consciousness: celebrities by the very nature of their existence are going to find it much easier to believe that the cosmos has been arranged for their benefit than those of us who tend to collide with reality on a more regular basis?

The drugs debate: all a bit Nutt's

Like most people who have commented on this, the sacking of Professor David Nutt from the government's drugs advisory council has left me wondering what the point of soliciting independent scientific advice is, if you're just going to ignore it? Add to this the political ineptitude of the walnut with sledge hammer approach that Alan Johnson has taken here. Whenever drugs are discussed in the media, there's always some journo who recycles the line about how the biggest danger posed by drugs is that it makes the user a crashing bore. Hmmm, but not as boring as some hack striking a libertarian, yet world-weary, pose. The 'drugs debate' is boring - so most people are understandably uninterested in it. If Alan Johnson's goal was to shake people out of this relative indifference, he could have scarcely done a better job.

But there my agreement with those journalists and bloggers who seem to have adopted Professor Nutt as some kind of rationalist liberal hero/victim ends. Because while some appear to think the case represents the primacy of science and something called 'evidence-based policy-making', I was rather under the impression that Professor Nutt was making a case for the primacy of scientists:
"Professor Nutt said that the council was no longer tenable as a functioning advisory group. 'I can’t believe any self-respecting scientist would serve on it,' he declared. Writing in The Times today, he calls for the creation of a truly independent advisory council on drugs modelled on the way that interest rates are set by an expert committee."(Emphasis mine)
Hmph! The setting of short-term interest rates is something that has since 1997 been put beyond ministerial control. Is he seriously suggesting this should be the case with drugs policy too? And if so, why stop there? Why not have a government of experts in health, education, defence? Because as well as having grave implications for anything resembling democratic government, there's every reason to question the notion that just because someone may have expertise in one area - in this case, science - they'll be any good at something quite different - in this case, policy-making. I would have thought this was obviously the case with Professor Nutt. He takes as given the business whereby drug use is arranged into a hierarchy of harm, to which is then attached an appropriate level of disincentive and punishment. He says, for example, that, "The reason for making drugs illegal is to let society reduce harms by punishing their sale and use", without offering much in the way of any opinion as to whether this approach actually works or, even if it did, whether prohibition can be justified in these terms. In other words, there is no evidence as yet that Professor Nutt is particularly interested in politics - which tends to reinforce the impression that he has indeed strayed into areas that are beyond his competence.

On Calvinism

Why the hatred for Calvin, asks Andrew Brown? Well, he wasn't a very nice man and the blood of Michael Servetus bears witness against him - but since this isn't enough for Andrew Brown, thought I might take a moment to take issue with his argument.

Calvin's cosmology was remorseless, depressing and anti-human - can anyone who has actually read him take issue with this? Brown's point is that since a number of secular philosphers take an equally bleak view of the human condition, why is Calvin given such a hard time for it?

Methinks the answer is pretty goddamn straightforward: no matter how bleak an atheist philospher's view of the world is, at least they don't invite us to worship a deity that created it this way.

Weber had Calvin's measure when he said that Calvinism overcomes the theodicy problem by utterly obliterating the goodness of God. Was there ever an artist that hated his own work quite as much as Calvin's god? I don't think so. This is why theists and atheists alike despise Calvin. They are right to do so, in my view.

Anyway, here's a question that, in my experience, believers find more difficult to answer than the theodicy question. It's this: why does god want us to worship him? Believers usually respond with reasons why they want to worship him and why He is worthy of it and so on. But that isn't what I asked. The prize for a winning answer to this question is a copy of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion.

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