Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Blame

Far be it from me to deny the immense social benefits of identifying and sacrificing a scapegoat or two, but at some point or other, we should also tell something approaching the truth.

[In the quotes below, VD Hanson is referring only to Americans; I would spread the net much wider.]

[S]o far no one seems willing to tell the American people the truth: It is not just “they,” but we, the people, who have recklessly borrowed to spend what we haven’t yet earned.

Take energy... Our energy challenges do not just concern independence, natural security, and global warming. They involve basic financial solvency, as well. Yet so far, none of our public officials have warned us that the energy crisis is largely a money matter: We’re borrowing too much to buy what we won’t or can’t produce at home.

Second, as a nation of debtors, we are renting money from Asia to buy its exports with our credit cards. Given our talents and natural wealth, we could easily consume more than others in the world and still balance the books. But Americans cannot charge all that we desire on unlimited credit.

Third, the government can only hand out more entitlements by borrowing even more to pay for them. Raising taxes on anyone in a recession is insane. But even crazier is cutting them further at a time of skyrocketing national debt without commensurate reductions in spending.
And then he asks this question:
So who will tell the people that we can’t raise — or reduce — taxes and that we can’t borrow for any more new programs until we first cut expenses and begin paying off the trillions we’ve already borrowed?
But there's another, bigger question of which that one is only a part. Which politician is going to tell us that we can't ALL have what we want; we can't ALL have endless choice; we can't ALL have the right to acquire and consume more than we produce?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Relativity

The big chunk of black is space. The lemon-yellow is the sun. The disc resting on the black is Venus during the transit in 2004. Isn't that a pretty pattern? Just think.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Value systems


A propos of discussions I have been having here and here, this tiny example of why it is difficult for any religion, or any authority, to take and maintain the premier position in the hierarchy of values, images, ideologies or anything else.

The image is from here. Though the collection has been made other reasons, it does demonstrate the randomness of the thousands of messages we receive every day.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Finally, now

A new play by the American playwright Christopher Shinn called Now or Later is built around the conflict of self-expression and its consequences in a world where cartoons published in an unknown paper in Denmark lead to deaths all around the world.

Shinn’s play is set on the eve of a presidential election. The Democrats are on the point of victory when news breaks out, via political blogs, that the would-be new president’s homosexual son, John, has gone to a party dressed as the prophet Mohammed and his friend as the gay-baiting evangelist Pastor Bob.

As footage of the party circulates around the globe, sparking riots in the Muslim world, John is under immense pressure from presidential advisers to make a public apology. While John insists on the importance of free expression, and also that he was attending a private party, his friend Matt points out that he could be responsible for deaths around the world. Principle and pragmatism collide to fascinating effect. Staged in real-time, Now or Later carefully explores the anguish and arguments of this very contemporary concern.

Until now, the response of our brave engaged artists, fearless in their searing denunciations of America, Christians and other evil, though unreponsive, groups, has been to take the discretion out of valour, and then drop the valour. Shinn, a homosexual who benefitted from the rights battles of the Nineties, now sees discussion smothered by identity politics and the cult of the victim.
I think in many ways American campuses are a distorted and extreme way of dealing with problems in US culture. The left-wing ideology in these campuses doesn’t seem to be related to the way the world is. The antics on campus almost have a feeling of play acting, as it’s so divorced from people’s lives.

Amazingly, though he describes himself as a 'left-wing champion of free speech', he doesn't actually hate his homeland, which may explain why most of his plays are premiered here.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Everybody worships

Came across this yesterday and thought it was very good. It's from a commencement speech to a graduating class at Kenyon College, Ohio. It's by David Foster Wallace, who died recently.
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship - be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles - is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things - if they are where you tap real meaning in life - then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already - it's been codified as myths, proverbs, clich├ęs, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power - you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart - you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the "rat race" - the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don't dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness - awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: "This is water, this is water."

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Who would have thought?

Benjamin Skinner

There are more slaves in the world today than at any point in human history, and A Crime So Monstrous is their story, in full color. For four years, I traveled in over a dozen countries, talking to slaves, traffickers and liberators, going undercover when necessary in order to infiltrate slave trading networks.

The book is a record of evil. I witnessed the sale of human beings on four continents, once being offered a suicidal, mentally handicapped young woman as a sex slave in exchange for a used car.

But it is also a story of survival. A young man in Sudan escapes slavery in the Muslim north, finds Christ, and frees his mother and sisters. A Haitian girl is freed when two Americans of sterling conscience discover her domestic bondage in a suburban Miami home.

And it is a living history of quiet heroism. John Miller, a former Republican congressman appointed to be America's antislavery czar, zealously cajoled foreign governments—friends and foes alike—to bear their responsibility and free their slaves. At the same time, he battled State Department elites in an attempt to convince them that abolition mattered. Thanks to his efforts, the Bush Administration can boast of the most aggressive antislavery record since Lincoln.
Human rights, that Western imperialist notion.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Britishness day

This is embarrassing.

I always thought that one of the prime qualities of whatever -ness we have in this country is that of not crowing about it. Those values that are most loudly stated are generally the ones least acted upon. My recommendations - Study history.
Don't denigrate our achievements; be inspired by them.
Don't apologise for the past; do better.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Two questions

There's a lot I don't understand about what is happening in Gaza.

Firstly, what is Hamas's strategy? It is evident that they have been baiting Israel to react in this way for a long time. The attacks on Sderot and other towns have increased steadily over the last few months, but did not produce a substantial response until Thursday when Ashkelon was hit for the first time. Israel had to do something, and now they have, which is, I can only assume, what Hamas has been seeking. But what do they get from it?

Is it to make sure that Abbas can make no deal with the Israelis? That will certainly be the short-term effect, and has been achieved many times before, the more extreme always having the last word. Is that the idea?

Is it a media event? The rocket launchers fire from Gaza’s school buildings, rooftops, playgrounds and underground pits, using civilians and children as human shields. They make it so that civilians will certainly be killed, especially children, who make the best news photos. Is it to further degrade the reputation of Israel that they make martyrs of their children?

Or is it the start of a hot summer with conflagrations to the south and then to the north? 2006 all over again.

Secondly, what can Israel hope to achieve by large scale military incursions into Gaza? I can't see a feasible military target. Hamas have been preparing for this for some time and, short of a complete occupation, what useful political or military benefit can Israel hope to gain? It might slow the rocket launchers down, but they will start again very soon afterwards.

It's not that I have an alternative strategy. The Israeli government are damned if they do and damned if they don't. They're fighting an enemy with whom they cannot negotiate because any concession they make will merely provoke another demand. I don't know what they should have done or should do. Nonetheless, it is easy to predict what will happen here. There'll be the usual media storm, with world leaders pontificating from the moral heights before international pressure forces the IDF to cease operations, and get out, and so let the whole cycle start again.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Translation

At the top of my Google News page a couple of hours ago was a BBC headline according to which the Israeli deputy defence minister, Matan Vilnai, had said that if the Palestianian rockets did not cease to fall, then Israel would bring them a 'holocaust'. You can imagine the reaction, if you haven't already seen it. I thought, how inept can you get?

Trouble is, he didn't say it. Reuters buggered up the translation. As translated, the quote went:

‘The more Qassam (rocket) fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, they (the Palestinians) will bring upon themselves a bigger “shoah” because we will use all our might to defend ourselves'.
Melanie Phillips explains
Reuters translated the Hebrew word ‘shoah’ as ‘holocaust’. But ‘shoah’ merely means disaster. In Hebrew, the word ‘shoah’ is never used to mean ‘holocaust’ or ‘genocide’ because of the acute historical resonance. The word ‘Hashoah’ alone means ‘the Holocaust’ and ‘retzach am’ means ‘genocide’. The well-known Hebrew construction used by Vilnai used merely means ‘bringing disaster on themselves’.
The BBC has now (as of 14.58) changed both the translation and the article.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Government of the people

An excellent post on Comment is free by Asim Siddiqui, who discusses some of the ideas in Who needs an Islamic State, by the Sudanese, Abdelwahab el-Affendi. That author asks the question

Why is it that Muslims can only be 'good Muslims' under a dictatorship? Surely submission to Islam must be voluntary and come from the heart, not [be] imposed by political force.
A question that the Catholic Church had to face, first answered one way and only recently changed its mind. Siddiqui ends his article by claiming that the 21st Century will see more attempts at Islamic government, more failures and recourse eventually made to Western political models, which he dares to call "universal".

I was reminded of the Catholic Church because its accession to political power occurred mostly through the absence of an alternative. Despite Constantine's adoption of Christianity in the early 4th Century, it was really only in the dreadful years after Rome's decline that the Church became the only true political centre of Western Europe. There was to be little else for several centuries to come.

Siddiqui doesn't mention the fact that Western political models have already been tried in much of the Middle East, and signally failed. The rise of political Islam is, in fact, a reaction to a previous costly failure to modernise. As in Western Europe after the fall of Rome, there seems to be no alternative. I agree with him that Islamic governance will not succeed either, at least as it is envisaged by its more militant adherents. Nonetheless, whatever form of government does manage to do the trick, I would guess that Islam, in one form or another, will have to play some part. Surrey on the Tigris is just not a realistic prospect.

I found this article via Harry's Place. The post there quotes a reply comment by Asim Siddiqui that is a splendid example of the sort of thinking necessary in times like this. A commenter has pointed out that
... the Prophet Muhammad was an 'Islamist'. After all, he was a statesman as well as a religious leader, he negotiated peace treaties and conducted wars. He established a state based on Islamic laws. Did he 'politicise Islam' or was Islam from the outset political?
Siddiqui's reply is a wonderful 'Yes, but ...'
Our Beloved Prophet was both a temporal political leader and a recipient of revelation. There were numerous occasions when he would be asked by his companions if an opinion he had was from revelation or from his own judgement - where it was the latter the companions would be free (and did) to challenge him and suggest alternatives. There were also occasions when 'political' decisions were made guided by revelation.

However, revelation ended with him. No subsequent leader can claim divine guidance or an insight into God's mind on any political decision they make. Hence, my point is that all leaders must be accountable to the people, not claim they are accountable to God (which in reality means accountability to no one and allows them to get away with murder, literally).
[My emphasis]
A model of damage limitation. Well, that may be a little cynical on my part, but, you see, I'm with the Grand Inquisitor (a bit): organised religion is a necessary protection against enthusiasts like Jesus and Mohammad. They promise too much; they demand too much.