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?