Wednesday, October 22, 2008


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


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, clichés, 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


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.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

In its peace

One of the many surprises of recent years has been the unforeseen places where you find agreement. Never, only a year or two ago, would I have even thought of reading a book by the Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth; I barely knew that there was such a thing. Nonetheless, I have been reading Jonathan Sacks' The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society and finding it like fresh water after a desert trek.

It won me from the first line, a rather surprising one from a member of a group that has been , for most of its 4,000-year history, a minority, strangers in a strange land:

Multiculturalism has run its course.
I have not yet got to his solution, but his analysis of the problem is spot on. His basic point is that liberalism is a structure without content and that, socially, it is unsustainable. It has led, in recent decades under the banner of multiculturalism, to inward-looking, isolated groups that feel no loyalty to the host community, which is good for neither. Not that he wants melting pot assimilation; unthinkable for someone who calls himself "the acceptable face of fundamentalism". But he does want the centre to hold.

I've found this interview with two Times journalists, both of whom seem rather obtuse, on the hunt, perhaps, for a soundbite that he wouldn't deliver. They keep pushing him about faith schools, which he supports, but where he sees some problems. His own parents sent him to a Christian school because they
knew that I would be taught hard work, respect for authority, respect for the family, a certain basic set of ethical guidelines that were utterly congruent with their own.
He then goes on to say,
Today parents are very concerned about where their children will find those values – they do not find them in the wider culture.
It seems fairly clear to me that what he is saying is that faith schools themselves are not the problem; the problem is the emptiness outside, which pushes groups from other cultures to compensate though the faith schools, among other means. He contrasts the ambitions of his own parents and their like:
They [Early 20th-century Jewish schools] wanted their kids to be good Englishmen and women, that’s what my parents wanted for me. I think that today there is just too little content to that idea.
I cannot tell you what his solution is; I will when I get that far. But it perhaps adumbrated in a quote from Jeremiah, speaking to the Jewish exiles in Babylon.
Seek the peace and welfare of the city to which you have been exiled because in its prosperity you will find prosperity. In its peace, you will find peace.

Friday, February 22, 2008


My wife has made me watch this twice now, so I don't see why you shouldn't watch it, too.

Boris, our muse

And they said the age of the political song was dead! How I wish I had a vote in London.

Who needs Barack Obama? I bet you his Ancient Greek really sucks. And his Latin is mediocre, at best.

Courtesy of Boriswatch.

Still coming

Further developments in the onset of Spring. I had expected more daffodils to be out. Maybe the cold has kept them indoors. As you can see, there are some. Curiously, this photo was taken at the northern end of the park. There are many more here than at the southern end, which is where I took the previous one. Among that clump, there was only one out and it was hanging its head, as if in shame. It may be because the northern daffs are well-established while the southern ones were planted just last autumn.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Slack post

Buried in work and so will play the slacker and just quote from the few articles I've read over the last day or three.

First (via Norm), a piece by Noel Pearson, who is himself a very interesting chap. In this article, called "All enemies aren't equal", he is making a distinction that really shouldn't have to be made, and he's doing it for the sake of the poor benighted for whom 'bin Laden, Bush - no diff'. An excerpt.

US Marine Corps major Michael Mori, who represented Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks, has been widely celebrated among progressives in Australia for his outstanding defence of important principles of justice.

But Mori is not a dissident, he is part of the system.

That system is guaranteed by the US, which provides to individuals subject to military prosecution fully funded and fully independent legal representation. Mori conducted an international legal campaign on behalf of his client -- which had a political dimension, a campaign against the actions of his own Government -- with complete immunity. Mori no doubt caused a lot of anger among military brass and politicians who would have loved to have shut him up; the genius of that system prevented this from happening.

One of Mori's colleagues, Charles Swift, successfully took the case of Osama bin Laden's bodyguard Salim Ahmed Hamdan to the US Supreme Court and caused significant political embarrassments and headaches for his Government.

What other nation guarantees a system of justice that is capable of holding to account the government of that nation on questions of international political significance?

Those who hold up Mori as a hero can't ignore that Mori's commander-in-chief, at the end of the day, is his country's President, the reviled George W. Bush.
And speaking of the much reviled one, Bob Geldof did. Only to praise him!
Mr. Geldof praised Mr. Bush for his work in delivering billions to fight disease and poverty in Africa, and blasted the U.S. press for ignoring the achievement.

Mr. Bush, said Mr. Geldof, "has done more than any other president so far."

"This is the triumph of American policy really," he said. "It was probably unexpected of the man. It was expected of the nation, but not of the man, but both rose to the occasion."

"What's in it for [Mr. Bush]? Absolutely nothing," Mr. Geldof said.

Mr. Geldof said that the president has failed "to articulate this to Americans" but said he is also "pissed off" at the press for their failure to report on this good news story.
Finally, after an Australian aboriginal defending liberal democracy, and a pop musician speaking up for Bush, The Economist rates conspiracy theories according to Google hits.

I'd never heard of the reptilian humanoids who secretly run the world. If I had the time, I'd go and look up exactly what they get for their efforts, but I think I'd rather hear it in a pub.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Frost attack

I publish these photos in the full knowledge that I'll be frivolously wasting the time of anyone who unwisely spends his time on them. However, there may be a great lesson to be learned concerning chance, rarity and making the most of both.

The photo below shows a hedge on a nearby road. The white stuff is ice.

I should add that the temperature has not got much above zero for the last couple of days. In fact, we can't use our washing machine because the pipes are frozen (this bit is not part of the lesson, by the way, and is only here because I'm annoyed about it). I sense that you are afire with curiosity as to how this extraordinary phenomenon has come about. I do like to satisfy people's urges, so here you are.

On the road at this point, there is a manhole cover that has sunk slightly under the level of the road. Water has gathered, but melted due to the cars that pass over it. The cars splash the water onto the hedge, where it freezes and remains to amuse those with idle minds. (All right. To be precise, it does not freeze and remain with the purpose of amusing me; that is merely an effect, though I'm sure there's a metaphysical argument to be made ... No, let's leave it there, on the hedge, as it were.)

The lesson. First of all, chance. While I admit that the phenomenon in itself is a result of certain physical laws in operation (including the one about British workmanship on the roads), chance enters in the shape of my wife passing along that road at the right moment to see it and so be able to tell me about it.

Secondly, rarity. It's not often so cold here as to permit the above-mentioned physical laws to come into operation (though the one about British workmanship is a constant from which there seems no escape). Thus we hardly ever see such things. Thus they are special when they occur.

Thirdly, making the most of it. It is a little thing. But I enjoyed walking to the spot, trying to get a good photo, seeing the drivers that passed look at me as if I were an idiot, and finally writing this idiotic post. It has given pleasure and added something to the place in which I live.

There. That's it.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Natural abundance

Nature indifferent? Not in the least; it's just got priorities.

Fifty years ago this week, Mackay, sugar cane metropolis of Australia, was hit was one of its worst floods ever. My mother, 9 months pregnant, moved to a house on higher stilts than ours, and my grandfather rowed a boat down the street to help my father stack the furniture high. The floodwaters came to within 2 inches of the floorboards, and then receded in time for my mother to walk across the sodden earth of her front garden with her firstborn.

And now, in the very same week 50 years later, her firstborn finds this photo of Mackay.

Once again, Nature showers her gifts with excess. She just hasn't realised that he has moved.

The beginning

From James Forsyth in The Spectator.

Today is the 18th anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declaring a Fatwa on Salman Rushdie for writing the Satanic Verses. It was a wake up call to the coming challenge to the freedoms of a liberal society but one that we failed to heed.

The Rushdie affair demonstrated the spinelessness of the British political class in the face of Islamic extremism. The Crown Prosecution Service refused to prosecute those who openly called for Rushdie’s death. The Islamist Kalim Siddiqui amazingly got away with telling a public meeting, “I would like every Muslim to raise his hand in agreement with the death sentence on Salman Rushdie. Let the world see that every Muslim agrees that this man should be put away.”

Both Labour and Tory politicians embarrassed themselves and failed to grasp how essential it was to protect the right to free expression. The Labour deputy leader called for the paperback edition not to be published and some backbench Tories whinged about how much Rushdie’s protection cost. Indeed, Rushdie ended up being pressured into contributing to his own security costs. All in all, a shameful episode.
The first of many to come, all with the same message, "Try it on. We'll just fold and probably apologise as well".

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Coming soon

I realise there are more important things happening in the world, but then again, there always are. I'm ignoring them in order to tell you that the daffodils down at The Carrs (the ones that I, and some nameless others, planted in November) are not quite there yet. But they will be soon, and so will I. As you can see, they are ready to burst forth in all their sunny yellowness, completely unaware as they are of the good cheer that they spread.

These are the first daffodils in the Carrs, as far as I know, and they come courtesy of Macclesfield Borough Council. It is a great and good thing; all you need do is say that you want some daffs, or bluebells, or crocuses in your park, and they'll send a truck loaded down with potential spring gaiety and dump it right there in front of you. Not a penny changes hands. You need to shift your arse to plant them, but that's not asking too much, is it?

So, if a day or two, if my depleted stores of energy permit, I will sidle down to the park and be greatly rewarded. And I will share it with you, not because you deserve it (Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?), who does? - but because the pleasure is magnified in the sharing.

Friday, February 08, 2008

An entirely civilised law

I have been a little puzzled over the fuss generated by Rowan Williams' ideas on Shari'a and British law. Now I'm no fan of the good Archbishop; I tend to find in his public pronouncements a degree of sanctimonious political correctness that makes me ill. And I'm as enraged as the next bloke when bearded men tell me what I cannot say, and threaten those that do say it. I might also add that Shari'a conjures very few, if any, positive images in my mind. However, in this case, I cannot for the life of me see what is so offensive.

According to this BBC article,

English law states that any third party can be agreed by two sides to arbitrate in a dispute [not involving criminal law].
This seems to me an entirely civilised law, and an example of its application is the existence of the Beth Din, the Jewish court which sits in North Finchley. There are also Catholic courts that fulfil a similar function. If two people agree to abide by the judgements of such courts, and no other law is broken, I cannot see the harm.

I took the trouble of reading Williams' speech (and was, against my will, impressed). He's only talking about "aspects of marital law, the regulation of financial transactions and authorised structures of mediation and conflict resolution". He is more than aware of Shari'a stellar reputation with the status of women and converts. And he seems to have a better understanding of liberal democracy than many of his accusers. It is not the 'imposition' of rights, but more a clearing of the obstacles to those rights, if they should be claimed. [Warning! Abstruseness aplenty.]
The rule of law is thus not the enshrining of priority for the universal/abstract dimension of social existence but the establishing of a space accessible to everyone in which it is possible to affirm and defend a commitment to human dignity as such, independent of membership in any specific human community or tradition, so that when specific communities or traditions are in danger of claiming finality for their own boundaries of practice and understanding, they are reminded that they have to come to terms with the actuality of human diversity - and that the only way of doing this is to acknowledge the category of 'human dignity as such' – a non-negotiable assumption that each agent (with his or her historical and social affiliations) could be expected to have a voice in the shaping of some common project for the well-being and order of a human group. It is not to claim that specific community understandings are 'superseded' by this universal principle, rather to claim that they all need to be undergirded by it. The rule of law is – and this may sound rather counterintuitive – a way of honouring what in the human constitution is not captured by any one form of corporate belonging or any particular history, even though the human constitution never exists without those other determinations.
I confess that Williams' style does not make me want to rush out and buy his Collected Sermons and Essays, but the point is a good one.

People are reacting to this in the same way that certain other people reacted to a few cartoons and a pope's lecture that they didn't understand. Well, not quite the same way; no-one's died yet. But it is still a fuss over nothing. Let's just allow an entirely civilised English law to be followed.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


I made a long-overdue return to the Portico Library today, had lunch and read an article in the BBC History Magazine. It was written by Michael Burleigh, the author of the just-published Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism. (The article does not appear to be available on their dreadful website.) It included this vignette, which is like a perfectly formed short story.

Like the Russian nihilists, 19th century anarchists were admired in avant-garde circles. After an anarchist had thrown a bomb onto the floor of the Chamber of Deputies in 1893, the French poet Laurent Teilhard asked, "What do the victims matter as long as the gesture is beautiful?' He may have revised his view after he was blinded in one eye when an anarchist hurled a bomb into his favourite restaurant.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Business as usual

Every now and then, it is salutary for both mind and body to read an article like this one. It deals with the long-term, describes real issues and communicates a very simple message: calm down.

It dispels 3 myths about the decline of the US: that it is going to be taken over by a non-white, largely hispanic, majority, or by right-wing Christian fundamentalists and that, with the retirement of the baby-boomers its pension system is going to collapse.

To save you reading the whole lot, here is a quick summary. About the fear of a non-white majority.

[There is no] long-term danger of the US becoming permanently polarised between anglophones and Spanish speakers. Among second-generation Hispanics, roughly half speak no Spanish at all, while fewer than 10 per cent speak only Spanish. By the third and fourth generations, Hispanics in the US are almost completely anglophone.
The right-wing Christian fundamentalists are much abused and feared, unjustifiably, it would seem. The US is, in fact, becoming more secular.
[T]he number of North Americans who believe that the Bible is "the actual word of God" has fallen from 65 per cent in 1963 to just 27 per cent in 2001. At the same time, attitudes among Americans toward homosexuality, sex out of marriage and censorship are growing steadily more liberal.
One exception, a very interesting one.
Abortion is the major exception; younger Americans tend to be more opposed to abortion than their elders. Possibly this reflects the growing use of ultrasound by parents to view their offspring in the womb, a practice which may be inadvertently undermining the distinction that supporters of liberal abortion laws have tried to make between foetuses and babies.
Do you remember the rubbish about Bush believing he was told by God to invade Iraq? And the consequent panic that the US was going to end up like Iran? Bush is mild compared to such religious bigots as FDR.
Franklin D Roosevelt tended to use the phrases "western civilisation" and "Christian civilisation" interchangeably. At the 1941 Atlantic summit in Newfoundland, Roosevelt and Churchill joined the British and American sailors in singing "Onward, Christian Soldiers," "O God Our Help in Ages Past" and "Eternal Father Strong to Save." Bush and Blair may have prayed together but they never would have sung hymns together in public.
Even in the south, the use of the word 'christian' as an identifier has more to do with ethnic-style description along the lines of Italian-American or Chinese-American than religion per se.

Finally, there is the 'incoming' bomb of the baby-boomers and their pensions, which, supposedly, will send the US tax bill into freefall. Lind says that this worry is based on Government forecasts that rely on very low growth estimates of 1.7 per cent, a figure that has been exceeded in almost every year since 1996. At worst, government spending might have to rise by 2%, which would take its share of GDP to 32%. Compared to the European average of 47%, it is still remarkably slim.

Even the general economic picture looks good for the next century. Sure, China and India will be vastly more important than they have been, but even so, the North American (Mexico, US and Canada) share of global GDP will be almost a quarter, just as it was for the US alone 20 years ago.

Attached to this article is an editorial from the conservative magazine “Commentary”, whose normal tone is one of despair at a disintegrating society. However, here it is more one of puzzled optimism thanks to the relative decline over the last decade of the following 'social pathologies': violent and property crime, teenage drug use, divorce, welfare and abortion. In some, the change is dramatic.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Patriotism, bad

[Riri is displeased, a completely unacceptable situation. I have not performed. Therefore, I make a (doubtlessly inadequate) attempt to do so.]

Evidently, the government has proposed lessons in patriotism. The Institute of Education has responded, with a report drawn up by teachers in London's secondary schools.

A lesson in patriotism does sound like an extremely silly idea, like a lesson in love. Classic 'centralised' thinking. There is social disintegration; bon!, let's have lessons telling people they need to integrate. But, of course, it doesn't work like that.

Not that these teachers think that patriotism is a good thing, in any case. As the writer points out, it's their reasons for rejecting these lessons that are significant (and entirely predicatable).

Are countries really appropriate objects of love? Since all national histories are at best morally ambiguous, it's an open question whether citizens should love their countries.
There is much to say about this old nugget. Notice that it's a moral question. As if the primary function of a country was to be good. It isn't. The primary function of any group is to survive, and then to do its best for its members. Whether that's how things should be is another question. However, it's not a matter of choice - that's how things are.

Notice also that it is a decision, the result of rational reflection. I will give loyalty, or love, to this group called my country insofar as it measures up to my idea of what is good. Which, of course, it doesn't, won't and can't. Because, more than likely, the idea of what is good is premised on the non-existence of countries, nationalisms, classes, etc and probably on some notion of complete equality of means and ends, as well.

But can such 'decisions' be made rationally? Does that not ignore all that you have been given from the moment of your conception up until the moment when you 'decide'? (Or is all that nothing more than your rights, what was owed you for being born?) Do you also decide at a certain point on the worthiness of your parents? Do they merit your love and loyalty? Are they good enough?

Now the revolutionary mind has never had problems with all this stuff - it, like the rest of tradition and the accumulation of historical experience, would be swept away by the Brave New World to come and loyalty would then be given to 'humanity', who would look nothing like the bloke next door. He is the product of the unworthy history that should only be taught as a warning. Unfortunately, the Brave New World to come isn't coming, but no matter, let's just keep on as before, denigrating what has been achieved to glorify instead ... what exactly?

Monday, January 28, 2008

Name dropping

I'm going to compound my neglect of blogging with this post. Which has no other purpose than to say that I know someone who has read Das Capital (abridged, but hey!), Mao's Little Red Book, Che's Diaries and Qaddafi's Green Book. Not content with that, he is now reading Ruhnama, or the "Book of the Spirit", dedicated to "Allah, the most Exalted TURKMEN", by the erstwhile Turkmenbashi the Great, Saparmurat Niyazov. [Yes, the man whose gold-leaf covered statue rotates to face the sun and who renamed the month of January after himself (only in Turkmenistan, thankfully, because we wouldn't know how to pronounce it, would we?). ]

But to return to the premise of this post, which was a boast. Yes, I know this very personable and knowledgeable man who has nevertheless passed hours of his time reading some of the most irrelevant literature ever written - and he has survived, as far as I can tell, undamaged. Read about it.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Lives of Others

I watched The Lives of Others last night. It's good.

I appreciated the fact that there is no great discussion of ideological issues (nothing of any import is ever determined by such discussions), that the characters are loyal or disloyal to the state for reasons that come directly out of their 'lived-in' lives. The writer betrays because of friendship and a sort of remorse that the system constructed to end the waste of lives depicted in his plays should itself waste lives so nonchalantly. The seasoned Stasi interrogator who observes the writer and is seduced and brought down by a life lived well with love and friendship, the very things his life, so correct, so sound, lacks entirely.

I liked as well the means chosen by the writer to expose the GDR: statistics, or rather, the selective lack of them. In a system obsessed by the 'scientific' justification of its policies through statistics about every facet of human life, the decision of stop gathering the figures on suicide in 1977 is the tiny confession that something essential has failed.

The Stasi interrogator, and lecturer in interrogation, is the fulcrum of the film. He is upright, like Cincinnatus in To Kill a Mockingbird. He believed in Socialism and so worked diligently for its endurance. When he stops believing, he acts accordingly. He ends up as a postman. But in a rather awkward and sentimental coda of 3 parts, he is recognised as 'a good man', and the viewer is able to leave the film feeling comforted.

I came across this quote by CS Lewis yesterday. The Lives of Others is a perfect illustration of it.

The greatest evil is not done in those sordid dens of evil that Dickens loved to paint … but is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Great Moments (again)

I posted a couple of verses from this poem a while back. Last night I read it again and it made me feel so good that I thought I'd get up a couple more.

When I go to the markets, I look at the nectarines
and work my jaws at the sight of the plump cherries,
the oozing figs, the plums fallen
from the tree of life, a sin no doubt,
being so tempting and all. And I ask the price
and haggle over it and finally knock it down,
but the game is over, I pay double and it's still not much,
and the salesgirl turns her astonished eyes on me,
is it not happiness that is germinating there?

Opening a window; feeling the cool air;
walking down a road that smells of honeysuckle;
drinking with a friend; chattering or, better yet, keeping still;
feeling that we feel what other men feel;
seeing ourselves through eyes that see us as innocent,
isn't this happiness, and the hell with death?
Beaten, betrayed, seeing almost cynically
that they can do no more to me, that I'm still alive,
isn't this happiness, that is not for sale?
from Great Moments, Gabriel Celaya
Translated by Robert Mezey

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Good thoughts

I just came across this at Harry's Place.

Becta, the government's educational technology agency, has refused to consider a book called "Three Little Cowboy Builders" because they had "concerns about the Asian community and the use of pigs raises cultural issues" and because they "could not recommend this product to the Muslim community".

The important thing to notice about the BBC article cited there is that no Muslim voice is heard crying out for defense against the cultural imperialism and aggression of books that include pigs. Nor, among the many more or less silly things that Muslims have protested against, have I ever heard of any upset over the depiction of pigs cooked, raw or on all four trotters. This has all been decided by yet another government committee full, undoubtedly, of people who have completed several Diversity Training courses and are therefore qualified to impose a complete homogeneity of opinion all the time quivering in empathetic self-righteousness.

Which, unfortunately, is only going to be reinforced by what is happening across the Atlantic in a former dominion. A little while ago, the magazine Macleans published an excerpt from Mark Steyn's America Alone. Now he is being hauled before an especially Canadian quango called the Human Rights Commission because he has offended Islam. Similarly, Ezra Levant, once publisher of the Western Standard, may be about to suffer a similar fate because he published the Danish cartoons in that magazine.

I am sure you can imagine what Steyn and Levant have to say about such commissions per se (if you can't, go here, here or here), but they are not the only ones.

Alan Borovoy, general counsel to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the chap who helped found these commissions in the 1960s and ‘70s, was equally appalled. Writing in the Calgary Herald, he said “during the years when my colleagues and I were labouring to create such commissions, we never imagined that they might ultimately be used against freedom of speech”.
There's a great video going the rounds that features Levant's first meeting with the HRC. Among the many great points made by him is the obvious one that nothing of any import can be said that is not offensive to someone. Free speech cannot be regulated according to the sensibilities of the thin-skinned. Well, it couldn't. But now we have Human Rights Commissions, or BECTA, or any other well-intentioned organisation set up by the government to make people think good thoughts. The Catholic Church couldn't do it; Stalin couldn't do it. Do we have to?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Führer's welfare state

I watched the German film Sophie Scholl last night. I recommend it highly. It is a 'plain' film; nothing flashy or clever, but with a story like that, the main task must be to tell it and to allow the character to be revealed. This it does.

Just one brief observation on the side. Both Sophie Scholl and her brother, Hans, were university students. This was important for both the Gestapo investigator, Robert Mohr, and the judge, Roland Freisler, who condemned them to death. for them, not only were they traitors to the cause of German supremacy, but they were privileged ingrates. The Führer's social policies, the German welfare state, had made it possible for them to have this education. The state had paid; they owed it their loyalty.

It is not an argument used in this welfare state, at least not in this form. There are versions of it in discussions about the NHS. Since the state is paying for your health care, does it not have the right to forbid or strongly discourage certain behaviour that may result in illness and therefore cost to the state? It is difficult to argue with it. The state pays; you have in some sense surrendered your power, or right, to make certain decisions since they necessarily involve the state in their consequences.

I am not seeking to draw any conclusion here. I merely note the connection because it makes me think.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Scoundrel's Plea

Two little poems by Al-Ma'arri.

They say Time is soon to die
that the days are short of breath.
They lie.
I came across this in Amin Maalouf's Balthasar's Odyssey.
The Scoundrel's Plea
Make not, when you work a deed of shame,
The scoundrel's plea, "My forbears did the same".
This, with many others, is here.

Thanks to Hazar.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The strain of civilization

A mate just sent me this quote from Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies.

...that great spiritual revolution, the invention of critical discussion, and, in consequence, of thought that was free from magical obsessions. At the same time we find the first symptoms of a new uneasiness. The strain of civilization was beginning to be felt.

This strain, this uneasiness, is a consequence of the breakdown of the closed society. It is still felt even in our day, especially in times of social change. It is the strain created by the effort which life in an open and partially abstract society continually demands from us - by the endeavour to be rational, to forgo at least some of our emotional social needs, to look after ourselves, and to accept responsibilities. We must, I believe, bear this strain as the price to be paid for every increase in knowledge, in reasonableness, in co-operation and in mutual help, and consequently in our chances of survival, and in the size of the population. It is the price we have to pay for being human.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Visitor

Until about a year ago, we got our TV and Internet via a set-top box. Then, for various reasons, we got fed up with the BBC and decided that television was a luxury we could well do without. So out went the set-top box (the modem, of course, stayed). There is still a TV set in the house, but only connected to a DVD-player and (may whatever being sits upon us in judgement forgive me) an X-Box for Sons Nos 2 and 3.

It follows that we didn't pay the TV Licence when it became due. It necessarily follows that there was a sharp exchange of emails between my wife and the agency that collects the licence money. Nonetheless, the sharpness didn't bite as I had expected it to. The matter seemed to have ended with an email last week saying that they had understood our position and would adjust their records accordingly. End of story.

No. Another email today repeating what had been said in the previous, but adding this paragraph.

In due course one of our Visiting Officers will call on you and confirm the situation. Once confirmed, we will update our records accordingly. This will protect your address from mailing, for a longer period than would normally be set at an address, as it has been confirmed that a set is not in use.
What could they possibly mean by "confirm the situation", I wonder. My wife has replied.
What precisely do you mean by a Visiting Officer 'calling' on me? I assume I'm under no obligation to prove a negative unless you have evidence to the contrary - if it were otherwise there would be a queue at my door. In addition to not having a TV that can receive signals, for example, I also don't:
1) harbour known terrorists
2) cultivate illegal drugs
3) solicit sex for financial gain
... but I'm not expecting a Visiting Officer to pop by and check that I'm telling the truth.

Is this a doorstep call or will this Officer assume they will be invited in?
We await the visit.

It's got to be a conspiracy

Damian Thompson, the writer of this article and of a blog called Holy Smoke at The Telegraph, is publishing a book called, and about, Counterknowledge. It's basically about conspiracy theories; I'm not sure why he needs a new name for them. He included creationism, so it may be the way they dress themselves up in the rags of science to strut their stuff.

He quotes Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic magazine, to this effect.

The mistaken belief that a handful of unexplained anomalies can undermine a well-established theory lies at the heart of all conspiratorial thinking, as well as creationism, Holocaust denial and the various crank theories of physics.
Shermer is pointing to the widespread misconception that science 'tells it how it is'. People don't seem to be able to grasp, or accept, that science is, first of all, a method and that its theories are just that: theories, the best ones available to explain the evidence. A scientific theory is never definitive, just as anomalies are only unexplained so far. Science is always a work in progress; the anomaly doesn't necessarily disprove anything.

This is obviously not enough. People need and want conspiracies not least for the comfort that they bring. If the multinationals, the CIA, the Jews are controlling everything, at least someone is - far better that than the chaos which seems the only alternative. In addition, there is the added benefit of an excuse for our own failure - I, or we, can't get ahead because the multinationals, the CIA, the Jews (add for taste) are holding me, or us, back.

It doesn't stop there. Conspiracy theories also single out a clear group of Baddies, just like in the movies. This is the sort of economy of means that the mind always seeks, for the simple reason that it makes the world more comprehensible. As a habit of mind, it is both lazy and a sign of the our (natural) unwillingness to accept the role of chance in all things. It is just unacceptable that often there is no clear answer to the question, why? Conspiracy theories provide it, and, as well, a name to apply to that other great question, who's to blame?

Monday, January 07, 2008

Deleted post

I have deleted the post that stood here because of the way a commenter from Muslims Against Sharia spoke to another commenter.

I have nothing against the purpose of the website Muslims Against Sharia; I am a non-Muslim against Sharia. And I disagree on many things with the woman at whom the comment was addressed. However, I respect her. She and I are able to disagree without insulting one another; her comments show intelligence, thought and wit. I do not respect people who at the slightest provocation resort to the language of violence, and sexual violence, at that. It is just this sort of reaction that has so often embarassed other Muslims in recent years and if Muslims Against Sharia want to change that, maybe they should first change the way they approach those who think a little differently.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Death never is [fair]

Have a look at the very moving final post of Major Andrew Olmsted, a post saved until he was no longer able to put it up. He was killed in Iraq on the 4th of January. He quotes Plato, Team America and Babylon 5, and writes a great farewell.

(via PJM)

Friday, January 04, 2008

Man Finally Put In Charge Of Struggling Feminist Movement

[Forgive me, but I just wanted to reprint that. It's from Riri's favourite: The Onion.]

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Religion Within Reason

I would recommend this article only for those with a taste for some of the more intricate arcana of religious debate. Normally, my tolerance here is extremely limited, but the issue here thrust itself into our hearts, minds and/or faces in late 2006. It concerns the address given in Regensburg by Pope Benedict concerning the relative status in modern life of Faith and Reason. Most of his remarks were actually addressed to the West and to what he sees as our overly rigid division between the two which thus weakens both.

However, most of the attention went to his characterisation of Islam, or rather, to his quotation of the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus. The point he was making was the different status Reason has in the two religions. He said,

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry.
The Pope was, in fact, calling for dialogue on this, and other issues. Dialogue was not the initial reaction he got. However, later, some more sensible people (138 of them, to be precise) wrote the Pope an open letter called "A Common Word between Us and You", which began a correspondence, which will lead to a meeting this spring between the Pope and a delegation from among the writers of the Muslim open letter.

In any case, the article I am steering towards, "Religion Within Reason" by Mark Gould, discusses both the Pope's position and the response contained in the Muslim open letter. I won't try to summarise it; it's way too complex. However, it's worth the effort in order to understand the gap between a religion that has absorbed the Enlightenment and one that hasn't.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The undiscover'd country

On Radio 4's Home Planet today, there was a discussion of the new interest in space exploration and in voyages to the moon and to Mars. All of which was interesting. But it finished with one of the guests (I'm not sure which) saying something to the effect of, "But personally, I think that, instead of spending billions of dollars going to Mars, we should sort out planet Earth first."

This is an old canard; it has accompanied the space program from the start. I dislike it for many reasons. Without wishing to quibble over language, but the very idea of "sorting out planet Earth" is a totalitarian illusion. It will never happen, and all action aimed at such grand heights is doomed, not only to failure, but to sow much misery in its wake.

Implicit in this view is also the childish notion that environmental change, or poverty, are 'problems' that are capable of a 'solution', and that spending billions of dollars of them will bring about that solution. I can see no reason to believe that such a solution either exists, or even can exist.

Also implicit (usually) is the assumption that government action is the answer. They stop spending money on space travel and switch it over to the environment or social programs. My use of the word 'totalitarian' above points to just this idea - more government in all parts of our lives making us all live better, and solving the problems of climate change and/or poverty.

But I dislike it most for what it refuses to do - to boldly go where no man has gone before. I dislike for its renunciation of adventure, of discovery, of confrontation with the greatest existential challenge we have: our relation to the unimaginable vastness of which we are such an insignificant part. Whether the world is sorted or not, the lure of that undiscover'd country from whose bourn no traveller has yet returned will only grow stronger. If we fail even to set foot there, it will be through cowardice and lack of nerve. To be melodramatic, the idea that we should not leave the nest until it is all spick and span strikes me as like wanting to snuggle up warm and close to the womb forever, a sort of death wish.