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.