Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Don't do that, It'll kill you

It's Halloween, so we could all do with a good scare. Step forward the World Cancer Research Fund with a new survey to chill the blood. You already knew that smoking could give you cancer; it now turns out that eating and drinking can as well.

Prof Tim Key, an epidemiologist at Cancer Research UK who is presenting the survey's findings at a conference in London tomorrow, said: “Already the majority of people don’t smoke and for them obesity maybe the most important identified cause of cancer.”

But it isn't just the obese, or even the overweight, who have to worry. Even small amounts of red meat or processed food put you at increased risk of a slow lingering death, the doctors warn. So will even the merest sip of alcohol.

The researchers found "convincing" evidence that body fat could cause six different types of common cancers, including those of the breast, bowel and pancreas. Even people of a healthy weight should avoid putting on any pounds at all after the age of 21, they proclaim.

Sir Michael Marmot, who chaired the expert panel, said. "This might sound difficult, but this is what the science is telling us more clearly than ever before. The fact is that putting on weight can increase your cancer risk, even if you are still within the healthy range."

So even if you're healthy, you're not healthy.

As for alcohol, you have to take your chances. If you don't drink, you reduce the risk of cancer. But then again you reduce the chances of heart disease. So I suppose you first have to work out what you want to die of.

"Small changes can have a big effect on our cancer risk and everyone needs to take action, individuals as well as government. " said Dr Lesley Walker of Cancer Research UK's. People needed to "make the healthy choice the easy choice in all aspects of our lives" she declared, and called for action to "defuse the obesity timebomb while we still can". She added, ominously, "We have been disappointed with the government's response to the problem of obesity."


If doctors are the new priesthood, and health the new religion, then cancer is the new Hell. Once upon a time the Church tried to control people's pleasures by threatening them with hellfire and damnation. Now anything the authorities disapprove of will give you the big C. And the list of sins is eerily familiar:

Sloth: Lack of exercise linked to obesity. Obesity will give you cancer.

Gluttony: Obesity will give you cancer. Alcohol will give you cancer. Eating meat will give you cancer.

Lust: The sexually-transmitted papilloma virus causes cervical cancer.

Pride: Working on your suntan is a primary cause of skin cancer, of course.

Avarice: Want a nice new mobile phone? Sure it won't give you cancer?

Envy: The "envious" personality type: somewhat introverted, apt to brood, prone to depression, has been linked in some studies to the development of certain types of cancer. At least in rats.

In fact, of the seven traditional sins, the only one that hasn't been linked to cancer seems to be anger. Quite the reverse: it's those who don't express their anger who might be at risk. So you can get as angry as you like without fear of the consequences. That's something, I suppose. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 29 October 2007

Malik's Misfortune



It's difficult to feel much sympathy for Shaheed Malik, the MP for Dewsbury and junior International Development minister detained at a US airport for over 40 minutes while his bags were searched for explosives.

Malik claims that he and two others were singled out for special attention because they had Muslim names. He is "deeply disappointed", he says, especially since the same thing happened to him last year. He goes on:

The abusive attitude I endured last November I forgot about and I forgave but I really do believe that British ministers and parliamentarians should be afforded the same respect and dignity at USA airports that we would bestow upon our colleagues in the Senate and Congress.

Translation: DON'T YOU KNOW WHO I AM?

The publicity-conscious Malik, dubbed a "rising star" after Gordon Brown appointed him in July as the first Muslim minister in the House of Commons, certainly has a healthy sense of his own importance. He recently headed a list of MPs' expenses, raking in a cool £185,421, including over £20,000 for postage alone. (By contrast, Conservative Philip Hollobone claimed just £44,551 in total.)

Of course, it's a splendid irony that he was detained by officials of the Dept of Homeland Security, whose guest he had been and with whom he had been discussing terrorism and security matters. For Malik has been a leading advocate for New Labour's draconian terror laws, often to the consternation of his own fellow-religionists.

Writing last August in the Sunday Times he accused David Cameron of "self-indulgent bad timing" for opposing moves such as the introduction of 90-day detention without trial. The Tory leader, he claimed, was guilty of

...gross misjudgment of the national mood in his criticisms of how the government had failed to keep us safe and secure... Cameron's stance, in undermining the unity required from our leaders on such occasions of national unease, played into the extremists' hands.

He was also signatory to a letter in the Guardian datee 9th November 2005, which bemoaned the attention the press had been paying to

...the views of a small number of MPs who are opposed to a maximum 90-day detention period for those arrested in connection with terrorist offences, giving the impression that many MPs share such views...We wish to make it clear that we believe that the police have produced a compelling case.

In Parliament, he has sung the praises of "robust anti-terror legislation, of which I have been a strong and vocal supporter", stating in a speech of 26th October 2005

To those who would say that introducing these laws is a sign that the terrorists have won, I say that they have the luxury of expressing that view. Our role in the House is to guard against such self-indulgence and to prioritise the protection of our people in the face of a new and lethal threat. Since 7 July, this country has changed. Our world has changed, and we must respond to the challenges that that change presents.

Clearly, then, he only objects to anti-terror measures when they affect him. Of course, the measures adopted at airports are inconvenient and often absurd. But in this case, I think the New York authorities are to be congratulated for showing that, in the US at least, politicians are subject to the same laws as everyone else. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Pop goes the Patriarch

If you think Rowan Williams has a hard time from the press, you might spare a thought for the Patriarch of Ethiopia. His Holiness Abune Paulos I has come in for considerable criticism over the past week after showing Beyoncé round his cathedral and expressing a desire for her to visit the country again.

In a provocative piece entitled "Why Is Our Pope Praying For Beyoncé's Second Coming?" the London-based dissident Abebe Gelaw demanded to know why the patriarch was so keen to be associated with a superstar "whose messages have no spiritual content other than promoting the temptations and sins of our time that he condemns in his daily sermons."

He goes on:
A short list of Beyoncé Knowles’ song titles are enough to reveal the fact that her songs contain no trace of gospel messages or praises to the Almighty. Crazy in Love, Naughty Girl, Get Me Bodied, Suga Mama, Beautiful Liar and The Last Great Seduction are a few among the many songs that have made Beyoncé so popular around the world.
Any devout Christian may consider the story itself a fictitious blasphemy but he did it on the record in front of local and international media.

Shocking stuff. And it gets worse: the Ethiopian News Agency even released "a colour photo of our patriarch with Beyoncé Knowles surrounded by bemused priests... The picture shows that she was standing beneath an emblazoned umbrella as if she was carrying the Holy Ark of the Covenant."


Not that Abebe Gelaw has anything against Beyoncé. "It was good that she went to see his Holiness Abune Paulos," he conceeds, however sinful her music. But why did the Patriarch want to see her? "Has he expected her to help him spread the gospel with her lustrous songs and dances? I hope not." Many believers, he warns,

...would be abhorred to see their patriarch joining the Beyoncé Knowles’ fans club. Followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church expect His Holiness Abune Paulos to pray for the Second Coming of Christ our Redeemer. Contrary to that, the second coming of Beyonce can only make our mortal sins and temptations worse dancing to her seductive tunes.

Miss Knowles was in Addis Ababa the other week to help celebrate the belated Ethiopian millennium and to launch her world tour. "I am very honoured to have been in this beautiful place and I can't wait to come back here again" she told the local press, describing Ethiopia as "like a second home". No doubt the fact that all the beggars were cleared off the streets in readiness for her visit made it seem all the more beautiful.

Springing to Beyoncé's defence (well, sort of) on Friday was Haregwein Sileshi. "Some of you cried that Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Orthodox church has come to an end and is disgraced by Beyonce's presence in the Kidist Selassie Church," he wrote, simply because

This young lady... needs Redemption and she SOUGHT it. I used the word "sought" on purpose, because it appears that she graced herself with Ethiopian traditional cloth not in one of those miserable looking things she used for her performance... just because she stepped her foot into our Holly church (sic) doesn't mean the church legacy, grace, history, and integrity will crumble upon our feet! I am praying for her to realize what she does is sinful, and she could ask forgiveness to the road of Redemption.

This isn't the first time that Princeton-educated Patriarch Paulos has had trouble with Western pop stars. A couple of years ago he was less than thrilled when Bob Geldof suggested he should set an example to his AIDS-ravaged country by getting an HIV test. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 26 October 2007

Brown's Diabolical Dissimulation

The Heresiarch was pleased, if surprised, to hear the Son of the Manse (and doesn't he go on about it?) quoting Satan in his speech about "British liberty" yesterday. Here's the quote in context, from Book 5 of Paradise Lost: it's certainly worth savouring as a rallying-cry for freedom from Goverment interference, not something that has so far seemed very high up GB's list of priorities:

But what if better counsels might erect
Our minds and teach us to cast off this Yoke?
Will ye submit your necks, and chuse to bend
The supple knee? ye will not, if I trust
To know ye right, or if ye know your selves
Natives and Sons of Heav'n possest before
By none, and if not equal all, yet free,
Equally free; for Orders and Degrees
Jarr not with liberty, but well consist.
Who can in reason then or right assume
Monarchie over such as live by right
His equals, if in power and splendor less,
In freedom equal? or can introduce
Law and Edict on us, who without law
Err not, much less for this to be our Lord,
And look for adoration to th' abuse
Of those Imperial Titles which assert
Our being ordain'd to govern, not to serve?


For the rest, though, it was hard to take much comfort from Brown's fine-sounding words, aimed as they appeared to be mainly at reassuring all those liberal-left human rights lawyers who have been mightily pissed off by the government's creeping (or rather galloping) authoritarianism. Actions, after all, speak louder than words. At the very moment Brown was quoting Mill and Voltaire and waxing lyrical on the need to "write a new chapter in our country's story of liberty", home secretary Jackboots Smith was plotting to double or even treble the period of detention without trial, despite admitting that there was actually no evidence that such a move would be necessary, or even useful. And whilst it would be nice if the thirty-year embargo on public documents were reduced, as Brown hinted, it hardly compensates for the erosion of jury trial, the increasing number of thought-crimes, the DNA database or the virtual abolition of private space.

Viewed against the government's previous actions and ongoing plans, indeed, the Brown speech is profoundly disingenuous. He says, for example,

To claim that we should ignore the claims of liberty when faced with the needs of security would be to embark down an authoritarian path that I believe would be unacceptable to the British people.

Yet isn't that precisely what Tony Blair did claim, in one speech attacking the concerns of civil liberties campaigners as "libertarian nonsense"? And when his government, then in its hubristic pomp, passed hurried legislation making it a criminal offence to demonstrate outside Parliament, did Brown try to stop it?

Or he says this:

I am concerned that too often in recent years the public dialogue in our country has undervalued the importance of liberty.

It's not the public dialogue that has undervalued liberty, Gordon. It's your government.

(Interesting, by the way, how keen Brown is to pretend the Blair tyranny was nothing to do with him. Reminds me of the Archangel Michael's retort to Satan's posturing:

And thou sly hypocrite, who now wouldst seem
Patron of liberty, who more than thou
Once fawn'd, and cring'd, and servilly ador'd
Heav'ns awful Monarch? wherefore but in hope
To dispossess him, and thy self to reigne?)


Brown seems to have a very strange conception of what freedom actually means. He quotes T.H. Green's definition of "positive" (as opposed to "negative") liberty,

When we speak of freedom as something to be so highly prized, we mean a positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying, and that, too, something that we do or enjoy in common with others.

Which is true, so far as it goes. But there's little you can do with this positive capacity if you don't have the space to enjoy it. And it's this space, so-called negative liberty, which New Labour has never understood. Real freedom, being left alone to get on with your life without being snooped on or arrested, has come under a twin-pronged attack over that past decade.

On the one hand, there are far more laws. Traditionally, our rights as British citizens were protected by governmental restraint: anything was permissible so long as Parliament hadn't seen fit to legislate it. But this government has no such restraint. With its thought-crimes, its bans, its ASBOs, its 3000 new criminal offences, it has turned a basically law-abiding people into a nation of suspects. It's now increasingly difficult to go through a normal day without breaking some law or other: laws which you may well not be aware of.

All this might not matter so much without the surveillance, the CCTV cameras, the databases and all the other apparatus of Orwellian control. This government wants to know everything about you: your income, your medical history, your school records, even your religion and sexual orientation. It wants to put all this information together. It wants you to think that this is for your own benefit. As Gordon put it,

At the same time, a great prize of the information age is that by sharing information across the public sector - responsibly, transparently but also swiftly - we can now deliver personalised services for millions of people, something not dreamt of in 1945 and not possible even ten years ago.

So for a pensioner, for example, this might mean dealing with issues about their pension, meals on wheels and a handrail at home together in one phone call or visit, even though the data about those services is held by different bits of the public and voluntary sectors.


How nice. The trouble is, it simply can't be done without vastly increasing the number of officials who will have access to all this information; and with access comes the potential for leaks, for personal vendettas, and for abuse. Do you really want all your most personal data available at the click of a mouse to anyone who happens to work for the government? For that's what "personalised service" will mean.

The worst aspect of all this surveillance and information-gathering is the way it will distort human psychology. Once a nation of free-spirited individuals, we're now fast becoming a nation of paranoid wrecks, a country of overgrown children, pampered, bossed-about, talked down to and afraid.

There are many prerequisites for freedom. Rights of free speech, free assembly, security of property and the rule of lall matter, and have all been won, sometimes at great cost, down the centuries. But what might well be the principle condition for freedom has rarely been articulated, and never demanded, because it has always (at least in this country) been taken for granted: the relative incompetence and inertia of the government. As the government becomes omnicompetent, freedom will die. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Telegraph boob alert

Has April 1st has arrived unseasonally late at The Telegraph this year? Their website is currently reporting that an Australian barmaid, one Luana De Favari (31) has been fined A$1,000 dollars (£439) after admitting performing a party trick which involved crushing beer cans between her breasts.

De Favari was found to be in breach of hotel licensing laws under the Liquor Control Act, police are quoted as saying. Her colleague Tracey Leslie, 43, was also fined A$500 (£220) for helping to hang spoons from De Favari's nipples, it was claimed, while the manager of the Premier Hotel in Pinjarra, near Perth, was fined A$1,000 for failing to stop the performance.

Local police superintendent David Parkinson is reported to have commented that the conviction "sends a clear message to all licensees in Peel that we will not tolerate this type of behaviour in our licensed premises."

Another example of political correctness trampling on the famed Australian sense of humour? The Heresiarch initially suspected a hoax, and indeed a strikingly similar story is to be found in the satirical online mag TheSpoof.com, complete with a disclaimer reading "The story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious." The author, identified as "Queen Mudder", is also responsible for "Florida hosts underwater pumpkin-shagging contest".

But perhaps it's true after all, and preceded the similar-sounding spoof. Reuters were reporting the story yesterday, and a fuller report from Perth Now (in which the woman's name is spelled De Faveri) includes a longer quote from Supt Parkinson which certainly sounds authentically Aussie:

Tits and bums don't worry me, but if you want tits and bums, you go to a private room and it's not a problem. The law says you don't do it in public bars. I don't make the laws, I enforce them.
This has sent a clear message to people who might choose to do this sort of thing - there are rules and regulations. The bottom line is they have broken the law. We were ridiculed and who's laughing now?'

In the present media environment, it can be difficult to sort fact from fiction. Earlier this month, for example, the existence was widely reported of the Happy Endings Foundation, an organisation supposedly dedicated to banishing depressing endings from children's books. The story struck me at the time as mightily suspicious; and, indeed, it wasn't too long before a bit of digging by bloggers traced the organisation's website to ArtScience, a PR firm working for the publishers of the decidedly unhappyendinged Lemony Snicket books. The "proper" press, by and large, fell for it.

As for Luana, if she exists, she has my sympathies. But I predict a bright future for her on Australia's Got Talent. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Praying for Rain

Muslims have an image problem in the West: too many pictures of bombs and burqas, not enough openly-Muslim gay chatshow hosts or bunny girls. What's needed, clearly, is a Good News Story. Something eye-catching and non-controversial, that will show the Kaffir that Mo's boys (and girls) have all our best interests at heart.

And, courtesy of Mother Nature's pyromaniac tendencies, they may just have found it.

With bush-fires devouring much of southern California, the USA's leading Muslim grouping CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) yesterday announced that mosques throughout the country would lead prayers for rain. They invoked an old Islamic practice, going back to the days of the Prophet, known as Salatul Istisqa, according to which Muslims offer up prayers like this:

"O God, give us rain that will replenish us, abundant, fertilizing and profitable, not injurious. Grant it now without delay...Send down rain upon us and make it a source of strength and satisfaction...O God, give us a saving rain, good and productive, general and heavy, now and not later, beneficial and not harmful."

The Koran even promises that Allah will hear the prayers:

"O my people! Seek forgiveness of your Lord and turn to Him in repentance. He will send you from the sky abundant rain."

It perhaps isn't surprising that a religion formed in the dusty deserts of Arabia should have a long tradition of invoking the Almighty's rain-making prowess. Indeed, CAIR has made a similar call before, when fires swept California in 2003. It certainly needs some good PR: like the Muslim Council of Britain, it has been accused of harbouring extremist sympathisers. But will Islam be able to take the credit when the rains come? After all, leading Scientologists Tom Cruise and John Travolta have expressed similar hopes. And America's army of born-again Christians is hardly likely to take kindly to being told that God sends his rain at the instigation of Muslims. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Love me, love my genes

The other day, Ancestry.com, the commercial arm of Mormon-backed Generations Network, announced a new DNA-matching service. Send off for a swab-kit and you could soon be chatting to the distant cousin you never knew you had. Their website promises,

As the DNA Ancestry database grows, we will automatically compare your result against each new entry. If a close match is found, you will receive an e-mail with a link to a page that describes how your two test results match. You can now begin communicating with your genetic cousin using Ancestry.com's Connection Service as the first step towards comparing the genealogies of your two families.

And this isn't all.

Individuals may be able to extend the branches of their family trees, prove (or disprove) family legends, discover living relatives they never knew existed and find new leads where traditional paper trails dead end.

"DNA testing in family history is reaching critical mass," said Megan Smolenyak, Chief Family Historian for Ancestry.com and co-author of Tracing Your Roots with DNA. "As more people add their results, the DNA Ancestry database becomes a powerful asset for users to make connections and discover their family tree."

Initial concerns are likely to concentrate on the security implications. As Privacy International point out in their complaint to the UK Information Commissioner, the ever-hungry authorities would just love to get their paws on Ancestry's DNA database. And how well-protected is the anonymity promised in the publicity blurb?

Still, the way things are going, I'm sure many people would love to share their most private genetic encoding with the whole world. There's no shortage of personal information being dished out every day on Facebook after all, much of it a great deal more compromising and embarrassing than any sequence of hydrocarbons could ever manage. It won't be long before "DNA Subgroup" joins Star Sign, Birthday and Hair Colour in any standard blog profile. Though certainly not on mine.

I'm more intrigued by Ancestry.com's notion of a "genetic cousin". Is that more or less than an ordinary cousin, who may well not share a direct-line male or female ancestor? Will "genetic cousins", connecting initially online, form themselves into artificially constituted pseudo-families, DNA clubs, or mutual-support networks? The scope that this technology offers to the eternal human propensity for cliquishness and snobbery seems endless. More worryingly, will they start dating, re-creating in a modern cosmopolis the immemorial inbreeding of an Alpine village? How soon before specialist DNA detectives start offering to track down your genetic cousins, whether or not they actually want to be found? And what about people who discover that they're related, do a little digging and discover Grandpa wasn't quite the saint he appeared?

In a deracinated urban society, ancestral ties of extended family, clan and village count for less and less, though culture and ethnicity, paradoxically, are stressed more and more. The sense of dislocation felt by the loss of such ties may account in part for the upsurge in the popularity of genealogy and family history. At the same time, much of the appeal lies less in the need for connection with other people than a search for one's own identity. Discover your genes, the theory goes, and you will know who you really are. Heredity is destiny.

As a society we fetishise genetics. Adopted children are encouraged, indeed expected, to go off in search of their "real" parents, as though the combination of molecules counts for more than the work, pain and love involved in actually raising a child. The right of sperm donors to anonymity in return for a couple of minutes masturbating into a test tube has recently been trumped, in law, by that of the resultant offspring to know who they "really are". The somewhat fatalistic assumption that one's core essence can be determined by sequencing DNA now goes increasingly unchallenged, as though we were still born into hereditary castes.

As the scope of genetics continues to expand, we will all come to be defined more and more by our DNA. That much seems inevitable. But do we really want to look to shared DNA as a reason to choose our friends? Read the rest of this article

Monday, 22 October 2007

Plucky British losers

Politicians searching for a national motto as part of their continuing drive to turn us all into New Labour clones could do a lot worse than "We Was Robbed". Or if, like Gibbon, you prefer the decent obscurity of a dead language, Exspoliati Sumus.

The defeats of the weekend have brought out all the usual clichés about British sporting endevour. As a nation, we may not be doomed to fail, but we seem to prefer it if we do. If there was no surprise about the rugby defeat by South Africa (to me, the only remarkable thing, given past form, was that the final score was so close) then Lewis Hamilton's fatal gear-box trouble, in what should have been a fairly trouble-free coast to victory in the Brazilian Grand Prix, has struck several commentators since as oddly predestined. As Jim White noted in this morning's Daily Telegraph, "I sat down to watch... yesterday afternoon with a gathering sense of the glum."

Losing is what makes you a true Brit, after all. Just ask Tim Henman.

Watching the BBC's ten-o'clock news last night, I was struck by the tone of self-indulgent despair. Hamilton, we were told, "came away with nothing" from Sao Paolo. The same tone of misery extended to the press. "It's the Pits!" wailed The Sun today. "Hamilton double blow as his title dream dies". "Hamilton driven to despair", bemoaned The Times, although the man himself, whose level-headedness has always contrasted with the hype surrounding him, seemed anything but despairing. The perennial whinge was much in evidence, too, as hopes were briefly raised that an argument about "fuel irregularities" in two other cars might hand him the title on a technicality. Unsurprisingly, it came to nothing. We was robbed, indeed.


To cast Hamilton in the role of plucky British loser is clearly ridiculous. Earlier in the season he had some lucky breaks; towards the end the wheels came off his chariot (literally, in China). And given that the gods seemed to be against him, yesterday's performance should by rights have been hailed as the staggering achievement in actually was. Let down by his car, he dropped down to 18th place and looked certain to retire; yet he managed to claw his way back to seventh. In so doing, he finished the season a mere one point behind Kimi Raikkonen and ahead on Alonso. Quite a result, really. And of course, his earning potential remains frightening. If that is failure, I wouldn't mind some.

The worst news for Hamilton must be that not clinching the world title leaves him still black. At the very beginning of the season, to judge from the tone of the reporting, being black seemed to be the most interesting thing about him: whereas, of course, the fact that he was the only black Formula 1 driver said very little about Hamilton and a great deal (rather disgracefully) about the sport. And, needless to say, the fact of his colour became a lot less interesting once he started winning. Attention switched to his youth, his preternatural composure both behind the wheel and in front of the camera, and to the distinct possibility of his becoming the first driver ever to win the championship in his first season. That significant milestone will now forever elude him. But when he does claim the title, presumably next year, he will be hailed as the first black champion. Denied a genuine record, he will have to settle for a pretend one.

As for the rugby, as many commentators have noticed the most amazing thing was that the England team came so far.

Of course, RFU officials and other enthusiasts were hoping that another England triumph would lead to an upsurge in popularity for the game, not just as a spectator sport, but in terms of participation. For that reason alone, I am certainly glad that they lost. Rugby is, by any objective standards, an ugly, violent and almost incomprehensible game, worlds away from the subtle beauties of proper football. It is also dangerous, resulting in far more serious injuries than any comparable sport, many of them in schools. Indeed, the greatest threat to school rugby comes from the fear of litigation associated with injury. In 2001, Ramsey Elshafey was awarded £10,000 in damages for serious neck injuries he sustained during a school rugby match at the age of 17. Such incidents are fairly rare: the longer-term impact of rugby, in terms of arthritis and other chronic conditions, is much less easy to quantify yet clearly debilitating.

Still, the present government's drive to force all schoolchildren to participate in sports for at least an hour a day is likely to lead to some sort of rugby boom, if only for the sake of variety.

Quite why a government which normally takes an absurdly proscriptive attitude to "health and safety", and now wants five year olds to be weighed like bags of carrots, should be so keen on extending the possibilities for juvenile mutilation is something of a mystery. Especially since it is led by a prime minister who lost an eye playing rugby as a teenager. But where sport is concerned, rationality scarcely features. And rugby attracts far more than its share of sentimental eyewash. And, of course, snobbery.

Rugby fans are typically congratulated for their restraint and civility and contrasted with the stereotypical hooligans of soccer. Which is fair enough. But you don't have to dig too deep to find a rather ugly upper-middle-class sense of superiority, banished from almost every other sphere of public life, creeping through. Because, of course, (in England, if nowhere else) Rugby is posh. This means, I suppose, that it is played by drink-sodden ex-public-schoolboys rather than coke-snorting uber-chavs. A popular paradox is often evoked: that rugby is a thuggish game played (and watched) by gentlemen, whereas football is a gentleman's game played by thugs. Almost as though the thuggishness of the game were evidence of its moral purity.

They never say that about cricket, the most elegant and gentlemanly of all sports. Funny, that.

The popularity of rugby among the upper classes is not paradoxical, merely the accidental result of historical development. But neither that fact, nor the decency and dedication of the heroic England team, nor the good humour of the fans, should detract from the obvious truth. Rugby is rubbish. Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Watson's elementary mistakes

The things we do can have most unexpected consequences.

A little more than eleven years ago, in what might be considered a liberal gesture towards equal opportunities in science, the DNA pioneer James Watson offered a young female student from England a placement in his Cold Spring Harbor laboratory, and even accommodation in his own home.

Today James Watson is returning from this country to the United States, his book-tour and lecture-series cancelled, his tail between his legs, after making a few admittedly outrageous remarks about race to that same student, now become a journalist writing for the Sunday Times. A talk due to have been given at the Science Museum in London was the first to be called off, after the museum announced that his views were "unacceptable in public debate." Bristol and Edinburgh universities followed suit. Even his position at the Laboratory, which he has directed and overseen for fifty years, has been suspended.

Support for Watson has come from Richard Dawkins, Colin Blakemore, Sue Blackmore and others, and has focussed on the need for science to be free to explore controversial evidence. Yet it's not his science, but his opinions, which came in for censure: opinions which, while tempered with talk of research, sound suspiciously like the ravings of a demented old racist.

Dr Watson said he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really". He was quoted as saying his hope is that everyone is equal but that "people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true".

Precisely what flirting, what degree of journalistic subterfuge, what subtle playing on the ambiguity of her status - old student or new reporter - Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe engaged upon to get her scoop, only she knows. There can be little doubt, however, that she stitched him up good and proper. His attempts, in an article for the Independent, to extricate himself from the mess ranged from the pitiable - "If I said what I was quoted as saying, then I can only admit that I am bewildered by it" to the downright incredible.

"To those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologise unreservedly. That is not what I meant." If that isn't what he meant, it's very hard to see what he did mean. "More importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for such a belief." So what about all those tests he referred to?

Watson's Independent article attempts to shift the terms of the debate, as his supporters do, away from his colourful remarks and onto the safer territory of science's duty to explore the truth, wherever that quest might lead, however uncomfortable. Referring to the Human Genome Project he writes,

"I knew that many new moral dilemmas would arise... Since 1978, when a pail of water was dumped over my Harvard friend E. O. Wilson for saying that genes influence human behaviour, the assault against human behavioural genetics by wishful thinking has remained vigorous.

But irrationality must soon recede... science is not here to make us feel good. It is to answer questions in the service of knowledge and greater understanding."

It sounds good, but it's nonsense. Science is not, and never has been, neutral. Scientists do not inhabit an ivory tower: they both influence, and are influenced by, the wider world. Just like politicians or historians, they rarely find it difficult to discover evidence that proves their preconceived point of view, justifies their research budget or answers to their prejudices. Watson, a convinced genetic determinist, has devoted much of his life to explaining and decoding the influence of genetics in determining bodily, behavioural and now mental characteristics. So it isn't surprising that he finds it. Yet Steve Jones, equally a geneticist, can look at the same evidence and reach diametrically opposed conclusions.

Nor do even Watson's more considered views, as set out in The Independent, show much evidence of, well, evidence. Discussing the genetic influence on behaviour, for example, he makes the extraordinary, little-noticed, claim, that one in three people looking for a job in temporary employment bureaux in Los Angeles is a psychopath or a sociopath. On closer analysis, this turns out to be a reference to a study looking into the neurological characteristics of habitual liars. Volunteers had been recruited from five employment agencies selected precisely because a high proportion of their clients had criminal records. And the proportion of volunteers who exhibited psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies was actually a quarter. This sort of lazy manipulation of evidence hardly displays the kind of fearless scientific rigour that Watson's supporters promote and seek to defend.

We expect science to be objective. It is part of its myth, and its justification. In almost any area public discourse, from abortion to obesity, road safety to global warming, vaccination to nuclear power, politicians appeal to science as kings once appealed to the Pope: for vindication, for absolution, to take the blame. This quasi-sacerdotal role gives a handful of leading scientists the potential for immense power, and equally immense harm.

Science, the scientists tell us, is different. Unlike other forms of knowledge (the social sciences, say, or religion) it depends on careful, dispassionate evaluation of evidence, upon corroboration, upon high standards of proof. And so it does. Yet away from the laboratory and the peer-reviewed research papers, scientists are no more immune from vanity, political bias and tendentiousness than anybody else. By making moral claims to higher legitimacy, on the basis of their scientific "objectivity", Watson and his ilk attempt to skew the terms of debate. And in so doing they are behaving less like scientists than politicians. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Fish out of water

The world contains many wonders that creationists ought to have a hard time explaining. Forest-dwelling penguins, almost-flightless bats, and my all-time favourite, the tree kangaroo. I mean, what sort of twisted deity would create a kangaroo that lives up a tree? The poor things keep falling out and breaking their legs. Not too surprising, then, that scientists have also found the ultimate evolutionary oxymoron: the ground-dwelling tree kangaroo.

A new gold-medal contender for biological weirdness, however, now enters the lists: the tree fish.

Scientists discovered this unlikely creature, a species of mangrove killifish, hiding in rotting branches in swamps in Florida and Belize. They (the fish, that is, not the scientists) had slithered up from drying pools of water around mangrove roots, and into cavities made out by insects, where they were found lined up "like peas in a pod". To cope with their un-fishlike habitat, they had developed specialised gills and excreted through their skin.

Odd things, these killifish. They're also the only known vertebrate capable of fertilising itself. They develop both male and female organs, and their eggs are (almost uniquely for fish) fertilised inside their bodies before being deposited in the water.

"They really don't meet standard behavioural criteria for fish.", said Dr Scott Taylor, of Florida, announcing the discovery. Nuff said.

Full story: from The Telegraph. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Rex Nemorensis

In this sacred grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of the day, and far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him as if at every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary...

The post which he held by this precarious tenure carried with it the title of king; but surely no crowned head ever lay uneasier, or was visited by more evil dreams, than his. For year in and year out, in summer and winter, in fair weather or in foul, he had to keep his lonely watch, and whenever he snatched a troubled slumber it was in peril of his life. The lea
st relaxation of his vigilance, the smallest abatement of his strength of limb or skill of fence, put him in jeopardy; grey hairs might seal his death-warrant.

Sir James Frazer, of course. I was put in mind irresistibly of The Golden Bough, not so much by the grey hairs which sealed Ming Campbell's political death-warrant, as by the revelation that Chris Huhne, now among the favourites to succeed him, was foremost among the plotters of this swiftly-attained coup. It's often said in politics that he who wields the knife does not usually wear the crown. This may be true, to some extent, of the Conservative Party (it was certainly true of Michael Hestletine). It was not true of the Blair/ Brown succession, which saga however, with its long-festering fratricidal passions, recalled a story from the Bible more than anything from classical mythology: the tale of Jacob and Esau, perhaps. With the recent travails of the Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, we seem to be in the woods at Nemi.


Huhne toppled Campbell, and seeks to wear his crown. Just so did Ming orchestrate the defenestration of Charlie Kennedy, an act that did not conspicuously redound to his party's advantage, nor even, with hindsight, his own. In that respect, for all the tributes now being paid to his statesmanship and dignity, he had it coming. Kennedy was a leader who, for all his manifest incompetence and inner demons, knew instinctively what the Lib Dems were for: to incarnate a mood of non-specific dissatisfaction, to not be as other politicians. Campbell tried to turn the Lib Dems into a serious force, and in the process has brought them close to annihilation.

The Lib Dems, it seems, are now embarked on a revenge cycle of leader-switching which for so long incapacitated the Tories and which saw the periods of office of Major, Hague, Duncan-Smith and Howard become progressively shorter. A process which embodies, as so much in politics seems to, the sort of primitivist fallacy which Frazer devoted his career to decoding: that the fertility of the land depends upon the health of the king.

In the three Hausa kingdoms of Gobir, Katsina, and Daura, in Northern Nigeria, reports Frazer, as soon as king showed signs of failing health or physical infirmity, an official who bore the title of Killer of the Elephant appeared and throttled him.

Much in modern politics depends, of course, on the ritualistic presentation of The Leader as a sort of god-about-town, the possessor of preternatural abilities to magic away all the ills of the modern world yet somehow simultaneously the sort of bloke (sic transit gloria Thatchris) you'd want to have a drink with down the pub. In reality, all leaders float upon much deeper currents, most of the time merely treading for water and struggling for breath while others try to drag them down.

It is a sombre picture, set to melancholy music... No one will probably deny that such a custom savours of a barbarous age. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 15 October 2007

Mad to be a Tory

No-doubt the satirists will have great fun with the extraordinary case of Kostic v Chaplin and others, in which Mr Justice Henderson ruled that Serbian millionaire Bane Kostic was of unsound mind in 1989 when he left all his money to the Conservative Party.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, the case is a corker, and it's well worth ploughing through the judgement in detail. Mr Kostic was convinced that he was the victim of a vast conspiracy involving his wife, international bankers, satanists, the late Bernard Levin, and assorted demonic forces, and that only the intervention of Mrs Thatcher could save him. The conspiracy also included his son, who describes himself as "a scholar of independent means", and devotes himself to conducting "private research into the philosophies of the world and pursues interests which include psychology and the occult."

The judge considered that there "was a definite connection between Bane's deluded beliefs and his relationship with the Conservative Party":

From at least December 1984 onwards, when Bane first wrote to Mrs Thatcher, his correspondence with prominent figures in the Conservative Party betrays a fixation with the dark forces conspiracy and a desire to enlist help in the fight against it. Given the nature and extent of his delusions, it was a natural thing for him to turn to the Conservatives, both as the party of government and because of the values represented by the "Thatcher revolution", in order to combat the conspiracy, and for him to make donations to the Party for that purpose.

Mad as a hatter he may have been, yet sometimes the mad see things more clearly. Who can honestly disagree with this assessment of Mrs T, written at the height of his delusions:

"Our Prime Minister is the greatest Leader of the Free World in the human history … God knows when we shall have again such a unique and genius person". Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 14 October 2007

A Letter to the Philippians

If the pre-broadcast publicity was to be believed (and, OK, I suppose it probably wasn't) then some anthropologists were unsettled by the prospect of bringing a group of Vanuatan islanders into the presence of their living God as part of the series "Meet the Natives", the final episode of which was broadcast last Thursday on Channel 4. One stray word from the notoriously gaffe-prone Duke of Edinburgh, it was apparently feared, might "destroy a unique culture".

They needn't have worried. All the evidence suggests that Prince Philip very much enjoys being the centre of a cult (and, given the coverage he often receives in the British press, it's difficult to blame him). The official Buckingham Palace website lists the devotion of the Kastam tribe of Tanna as one of "50 facts" about the Queen's husband, along with his naval service in World War II and his work with the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme. Over the years since the existence of the "Prince Philip Movement" was brought to his attention, the prince has dispatched gifts to his devout followers: if not the cornucopia of cargo and everlasting bliss their prophets have foretold, then at least letters, a box of cigars, a union jack and a number of official photographs, in one of which the duke is posed clutching the sacred nalnal stick which symbolises his sacred status. (Although he declined to wear the traditional penis-sheath.)



So while the programme makers sought to tantalise us with a series of will-they-or-won't-they cliff-hangers, there was probably never much doubt that the prince would accede to the islanders' request for an audience. And thus it proved. The five Tannan men of the party, wearing shiny new suits oddly reminiscent of those issued by President Ahmadinejad's people to the captured British sailors (presumably the penis-sheafs were deemed inappropriate) were ushered through various grand reception chambers at Windsor Castle to a private meeting with their Messiah. After presenting him with some more carved sticks, they posed him a riddle about a paw-paw. And he answered them with another riddle about the weather.

Back on Tanna, the five are greeted like returning heroes and deliver their message. "He has grown old", says the wizened chief Jack Naiva, Philip's high priest, wearily, looking at the latest photograph. He has grown even older waiting for his Messiah's second coming (Philip first visited the island in 1974).

On one level, of course, all this is extremely amusing. And there's little doubt that the programme's makers, for all their lofty-sounding aspirations about challenging cultural assumptions, largely played it for laughs. But wherein lies the humour? The natives' presumed innocence and naievety, their holding on to a bizarre belief? Or is it merely the incongruity of it all? This black tribe's reverence towards a man whom we know best for his irascibility, his unselfconscious rudeness, and his many borderline-racist "quips". This deeply felt belief, which we know to be untrue, that he is a god.

The villagers' Philip Cult, a mish-mash of local animistic beliefs about a volcano-god, half-understood stories learned from missionaries about Jesus' second coming, and beliefs about the coming distribution of "Cargo" otherwise attributed to the mythical American "John Frum", may seem ridiculous. But is it any more ridiculous than other, more established, religions? Is it any more ludicrous than the belief of the Rastafarians that Haile Selassie was a god? Like Philip, Selassie (an Orthodox Christian) was more than happy to humour his devotees during his lifetime, with the result that many today believe he never died at all. Perhaps such a legend will attach itself, in time, to Philip, as it attached itself to Elvis Presley, to King Arthur, or to Jesus.

The Philip Cult merely exists at one end of a spectrum of respectability at the other extreme of which lie the "great religions". While the high priest of Philip squats, half-naked, in a hut of straw, the Pontifex Maximus of Rome sits enthroned in splendour and expects (if he doesn't always receive) the obedience of more than a billion followers. Meanwhile the Prophet of a rival faith is accorded such honour (born as much of timorousness as of respect) that it is increasingly difficult to criticise him. No such taboo yet surrounds the persons of L. Ron Hubbard or even Joseph Smith, founder of the Chuch of Latter Day Saints. But, especially in the USA, the Mormons - in spite of their highly questionable origins - have long ceased to be an eccentric sect and are on the cusp of acquiring the full status of a "great faith".

Besides, what about the islanders' beliefs is really so outlandish? Prince Philip does, after all, live like a god, surrounded by attendants and protected by ritual and taboo from contact with the reality of life. The islanders of Tanna, used to conditions of extreme privation such as are experienced by Westerners only when they volunteer to take part in reality TV, might well, when introduced to the splendours of Windsor, have experienced emotions comparable to those felt by the first Russian emissaries to Byzantium in Hagia Sophia: "We knew not whether we were on earth or in Heaven." And, unlike followers of Mr J. H. Christ, the Philippians can actually see and touch their God.

It is recorded in the Gospels, that when Simon Peter asked Jesus if he was the Messiah, he replied with a riddle: "And you, who do you say that I am?" Philip gave his followers a similarly riddling response. Should he have owned up, replied in that famously blunt manner of his, "No of course not you damn fools. Don't be so bloody ridiculous"? Did he not owe it it truth, to his own integrity, to put them straight? Or would that have been an act of wanton destruction, a crime against anthropology? We mustn't be judgemental about other cultures, must we?

There is, of course, a third possibility. Maybe Prince Philip really does think he is a god. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 12 October 2007

Theocrats United

Anyone who says Muslims don't have a sense of humour should take a look at the extraordinary "open letter" signed by 138 assorted mullahs, muftis and sheikhs and addressed to the world's Christians.

Cheekily purporting to be a plea for dialogue and understanding based on what the two religions have in common, it reads more like a series of veiled threats.

Like this: "As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them—so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes."

Which begs a whole series of questions. I mean, say what you like about the Iraq war, the Americans aren't exactly there to spread Christianity. Indeed, the increasing domination of fundamentalist Islam may well turn out to be the war's most lasting (and all-too-foreseeable) consequence.

Most of the letter is taken up with a highly selective series of quotations from the Bible and the Koran, chosen to demonstrate
1. That Christianity and Islam are basically the same thing; and
2. That same thing is called Islam.

Jesus, it turns out, was a Muslim all along. If the Christian world would only acknowledge that obvious fact, then all the world's problems would disappear. After all,

Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.

So no role then for Hindus, atheists, Buddhists, agnostics, Sikhs, Jews, Zoroastrians, Scientologists or devotees of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

The presumption of these scholars, an ad-hoc group put together by a Jordanian institute, is quite astonishing. Needless to say, appeaser-in-chief Rowan Williams has welcomed it warmly. Other top Christians, though, are liable to be less enthusiastic. I do hope Ratzinger puts the boot in. Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali already has, and in no uncertain terms.

But if the letter's theological assertiveness takes the breath away, it's the clerics' political naieveté that is truly staggering. Do they really think that a theological dialogue will produce world peace? Do they really think that most people in the West, even in the USA, are so bothered about religion that the best hope for the future of the world is to get a bunch of old men in robes and (in many cases) beards to discuss the Unity of God?

They probably do. In the same way they probably think that the entire Western world would like nothing better than to follow Anne Coulter's advice to "invade their countries and convert them to Christianity". They probably believe the Crusades are still in full swing.

Just look at the list of Christians they thought worthy of receiving the tract.

They begin with "His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI". Fair enough. Then follows an extraordinary enumeration of all the Patriarchs of the various Orthodox communions, most with titles of (literally) Byzantine plenitude.

There's "His All-Holiness Bartholomew I, Patriarch of Constantinople, New Rome", "His Beatitude Ilia II, Archbishop of Mtskheta-Tbilisi, Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia", and "His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa on the Apostolic Throne of St. Mark" (pictured), not forgetting "His Beatitude Ignatius Zakka I, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, Supreme Head of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church".

In 21st place comes "His Beatitude Mar Dinkha IV, Patriarch of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East". I believe he lives in Chicago.

Then, as an afterthought, there's a short list of Protestants, beginning with Rowan Williams.

All this may represent the Christian world as viewed from 13th century Cairo, or indeed Ratzinger's Vatican (his 2000 shocker, Domine Jesus, declared that Protestant churches were "not churches in the sense that the Catholic Church understands the word church"). But I doubt it reflects the view from Washington.

Perhaps it's just a wind-up. Orthodox churches seem to expend almost as much effort excommunicating each other over obscure points of precedence as Anglicans do arguing about gay bishops. Just this week, the Russian Orthodox delegation stormed out of unity talks with the Roman Catholics because the Estonian church, which the Russians regard as schismatic, had been invited along. The Muslim scholars are bound to have left some bearded prelate out of the list of salutations. The repercussions will be felt in the Christian east long after the contents of this silly letter are long forgotten. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

A level playing field

Anyone who still thinks that the authorities in this country place any value on fairness or natural justice should spare a thought for Fran Lyon.

For those not familiar with this tragic but sadly not unique case, Fran is a pregnant 22-year-old from Hexham who, on the basis of a report by a paediatrician she has never met, has been branded a danger to her unborn child. Fran was raped as a teenager, and the trauma left her with psychiatric problems for some years. But while her psychiatrists have discharged her, when social services got to hear of her condition they got in touch with a controversial expert in the possibly non-existent condition "Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy". He reported that she might, under certain conditions, develop the disorder. But then again, it all depended on the circumstances. On this basis, the authorities decided she was an unfit mother. Unless their decision is overturned, they will apply to the secretive family courts to have her baby (already named Molly) taken away as soon as she is born.

This remarkably courageous young woman, who is studying for a degree in neuroscience, is deeply committed to being a good mother. Yet when her psychiatrist wrote a letter informing the child protection panel of the true facts, she was contacted by a social worker who tried to get the letter withdrawn. Something along the lines of "You wouldn't want to endanger a child, now would you?"

It's now reported that, even as she battles officialdom for the right even to a fair hearing, she faces the loss of her home. The meetings with lawyers and doctors, the endless form-filling and worry have not surprisingly affected her earning capacity. Before, she was working up to seventy hours a week for a charity. Even now, she manages half that: the equivalent of a full time job. But not enough to pay the rent.

It gets worse. While the baby-snatchers of Northumberland social services can spend as much tax-payers money as they like on lawyers, Fran isn't even entitled to Legal Aid. And she has to find the money to travel to and from the numerous meetings and appointments she is required to attend.

She says, "It is wrong because there is no system in place to help people in a situation like this. I didn’t ask for this to happen but I have to pay the consequences."

It's not only wrong, Fran. It's deliberate.

Fran has a website. She should find out soon if her appeal has been successful. But even if it is, she has been subjected to months of completely unnecessary anguish by hatchet-faced "caring professionals" who are effectively beyond public scrutiny. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 8 October 2007

Winning the Battle





Our lords and masters in charge of the global war on terrorism can finally chalk up a major success.

They may have reduced Iraq to a pile of smouldering rubble fought over by various groups of armed fundamentalists. They may have been so successful in promoting democracy in Afghanistan that liberal, smiling, Gucci-clad President Kharzai recently begged the Taliban to come and join him in government. They may have turned that nice pro-feminist gay friendly Ahadinejad into a hero of the chablis-sipping classes. They may have made suicide bombing chic in certain educated circles in the Middle East, and inspired young British graduates to go off and train for global jihad. All these, though, are by the by.

For in one important respect they have succeeded in getting their point across. They have scared us all shitless.

According to a new YouGov survey, carried out at the behest of the Mental Health Foundation, terrorism is the greatest contemporary fear. 70% are worried about being blown up by one of Osama's sidekicks, as against a mere 38% who expressed misgivings about global warming.

Terrorism made the majority of respondents feel powerless and angry. Sizeable majorities also felt anxious and depressed. One in seven claimed to be so worried they were unlikely to have children.

Fear of Al Qaeda is actually making people ill.

According to Clinical psychologist Dr Michael Reddy, terrorism threatened people's sense of security and emotional wellbeing. He said, "As social animals, we are sensitive to dangers from other humans that are intentional, such as terrorism. Accidental dangers, such as natural disasters, fail to motivate us in the same way."

These findings are deeply depressing. Whatever one thinks of the precise danger from climate change, there are few people left who still doubt that something is happening. There's at least a significant chance that by the end of the century this planet will have become more-or-less uninhabitable, at least as regards what passes for comfortable, civilised life.

By contrast, the chances of actually dying in a terrorist attack closely resemble those of being struck by lightning.

In 2005, the odds of being murdered by a terrorist in Britain were approximately one in a million. In 2006 (and 2007 so far), they have been zero. Of course, we don't know where or when the terrorists will strike next. But we do know that when the next attack does occur, all but a vanishingly small number of the preternaturally unlucky will only get to hear about it on the news.

In some ways the danger from terrorists resembles the danger from paedophiles. Both create an utterly disproportionate amount of anxiety. Both are experienced largely through the media, yet are of more concern to people than dangers they are actually likely to face in their day-to-day lives, like traffic accidents or heart disease. Both get blamed on the Internet.

Both, moreover, have been cynically exploited by a government ever on the lookout for more surveillance, more regulations, more ways of clamping down on expressions of dissent.

Thus the draconian National Children's Register ("ContactPoint" in the sinisterly ugly NewSpeak), which is being introduced next year, will contain intimate medical and personal details about every child in Britain. Accessible to an estimated third of a million officials, it is a security breach waiting to happen, a veritable paedophiles' charter. Yet it is justified in terms of protecting children's "safety".

Likewise measures like ID cards, absurd bans on hand-luggage or baby-milk on aeroplanes, restrictions on demonstrations outside Parliament, tracking vehicles and compiling vast databases of phone-records: all in the name of "security". Anyone who objects is a friend of (in Dubya's felicitous phrase) "the evildoers". In reality, of course, "security" has nothing to do with it. It's all about control.

Of course, politicians proclaim that the public are "demanding" measures against terrorists. But most of these restrictions aren't aimed at terrorists: they're aimed at us. And I can't help thinking that those calling for ever more controls are pushing at an open door. The perceived danger of terrorism gives the permanent government and the police a marvellous excuse to do things they've wanted to do for years, but never had the chance.

All this talk of terrorism has turned a once proud and free people into a population of frightened sheep. And like sheep, we are being herded, fleeced and enclosed in a pen. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Reality Check

Conservatives seem to have worked themselves up into such a state of rapture over their lucky escape as to half believe that Gordon the Grim has vanished as completely as the unlamented Princess Tony.

He hasn't.

Last time I looked, he was still presiding over his thought-suppressing, money- wasting, liberty-denying, interfering, hectoring, clique-ridden, boring wannabe police state. And, having finally crawled up his perch, it's hard to imagine him giving it up any time soon.

Likewise, a momentary post-conference bounce in the polls does not mean that David Cameron will be in government this year, next year, or the year after that. Any more than the strong showing for Labour last week meant that the Tories were headed for a Canadian-style wipe-out. Though you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, given the hysterical, almost manic tone of some political commentators over the past couple of days. The Heresiarch's favourite piece of demented wisdom came from Peter Kellner, who yesterday solemnly pronounced that the recent swing to the Conservatives represented the biggest single shift in opinion since the Falklands.

That's right. Since the most unpopular prime minister in history suddenly became a national institution after her hastily-assembled fleet administered a sound thrashing to the Argies.

Cameron, on the other hand, spoke (not particularly) off the cuff to a few thousand somewhat flustered supporters desperately willing him on. It was only a speech. It was not even the "speech of his life" (that was in 2005). And my strong suspicion is, Brown had already decided to jettison the election idea. If, indeed, he ever really meant it.

The truth is, the prospect of Gordon Brown voluntarily calling any election he isn't 100% certain of winning is about as likely as Louise "No-knickers" Bagshawe winding up as MP for Corby.

So what happens now? Very little. In a few weeks, the PM will trot off to Brussels and obediently sign away what remains (admittedly not much) of Britain's status as an independent country. He will return, proclaiming victory in securing his "red lines", which were, after all, chosen as being easy to defend, apparently significant but actually pretty meaningless. It's the lines, red or otherwise, he didn't even bother to defend that worry me. And he will continue his subversion of democracy by denying the promised referendum. After all, it's his country, not ours.

Free thought, free speech, and free assembly will continue to diminish. Tomorrow sees another massive extension in state surveillance, giving 800 governmental and quasi-governmental bodies access to phone records - a measure scarcely debated in Parliament, and hardly mentioned by a media obsessed by the minutiae of personality politics and the fate of BBC executives. The quite terrifying National Identity Register, and its even more sinister children's equivalent, will continue their remorseless progress. By the time Brown finally faces the voters, they will probably be unstoppable.

The massive inefficiencies in the NHS will continue, as the government continues to impose its dehumanising target-driven culture, part of its drive to turn us all into obedient zombies. The next big idea, intimated in Brown's Conference speech, will be "individual health care". People will be offered "personal" health-checks. If they accept, they will be bullied into adopting diets, exercise regimes and pills until their bodily statistics conform to centrally determined norms. If they refuse, they find themselves struck off their local GP's register. Wait and see.

Most Conservatives are of course delighted that they no longer have to face an election for which they were woefully unprepared, and which they would almost certainly have lost. In their ecstasies of relief, they imagine they have already won the day. But it will take a massive collapse in the economy or house prices to undermine Labour's base sufficiently to place Brown in serious danger of losing an election.

And if defeat looks even remotely possible (and given the grotesquely distorted electoral system, it will never look likely), Gordon can be relied upon to hang on until 2010.

Cameron and his charming bunch of toffs appear currently to be basking in a sort of post-orgasmic euphoria. But it was ridiculously premature. And the rest of the country is asking, Was that it? Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Putting the Cat in Catholicism

Is the Pope a cat-aholic? That's the question posed by the publication of a new children's book, Joseph and Chico.

The latest attempt to fluffify the Pontiff tells Ratzinger's not notably eventful life story from the point of view of a ginger cat who apparently formed a close bond with then cardinal when he went to stay in the comically-named Bavarian village of Panting.

Ratzinger is said to be fond of cats. Especially white Persians, I imagine.

Ratzinger's secretary and close personal friend, the famously handsome Georg Ganswein, writes in his introduction that "it does not happen every day that a cat considers the Holy Father to be his friend." Or writes a book.

Chico is, however, following in the literary pawsteps of Mrs Fifi Greywhiskers, a siamese whose memoirs were dictated telepathically to the New Age guru Lobsang Rampa, aka Cyril Hoskin, in the 1965 classic Living with the Lama.

Author Jeanne Perego says she adopted the device of a feline narrator to increase the book's appeal. "If I had just told his life story, it would have been boring."

Of course, there are plenty of interesting things to say about the Pope. But I doubt they would find their way into an officially authorised account. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Halloween should be nicer, says Bishop


Just as the call of the first cuckoo traditionally heralds the spring, so you know the year is on the turn when you hear the first Christian denouncing Halloween.

So it's with a surge of pumpkin-crunching excitement that I learn that the bishop of Bolton, Rt Rev David Gillett, has been targetting supermarkets who sell "gloomy and scary" toys like rubber spiders and ghost masks. Indeed, it is a year since he launched his "Halloween Choice" campaign to persuade retailers to switch to more "positive" products. "Not all parents want to see their children dressed as monsters and murderers", he claimed as he set up his stall outside Hulme's branch of Asda with a range of alternative goodies. Instead of celebrating ghouls and witches, the positive-minded bishop (who also chairs the Christian-Muslim Forum) would like parents to organise "Bright-Night" parties and "reclaim the Christian aspects of Halloween".

You might think that the Church has co-opted enough ancient festivals down the centuries to start worrying about the one that got away. And the bish's "Bright-Night" doesn't exactly sound like a barrel of laughs. "We in the Church want everyone to be able to have an enjoyable time at Halloween" he says, by which he seems to mean standing around singing Kumbaya or talking about Martin Luther, who with a sort of mordant humour chose October 31 1517 to nail his ninety-five complaints about various religious scams to the door of Wittenberg cathedral.

With more Halloween merchandise on display in supermarkets every year (they even sell ready-carved pumpkins) you might think the bishop is fighting a losing battle. But this week he is claiming victory, of sorts. Sainsbury's have responded to his call by promising to sell glow-sticks, hair braids and face-paint alongside the zombie masks and plastic chainsaws. Tesco's were less forthcoming. Nevertheless, Dr Gillett declares himself "delighted...I now hope that parents will use their spending power, vote with their baskets and do what they can to show big businesses that we all want Halloween to be a more positive festival for people of all ages."

Perhaps he can get some of his Muslim friends to join in.

The bishop is equally pleased by a new opinion poll, carried out for the Church of England, which suggests that almost half believed that supermarkets should carry a range of alternative, "positive", Halloween gifts. Hang on a minute, though, doesn't that mean that more than half disagree? Whatever.

People like Bishop Gillett really don't get Halloween. My main problem with him isn't that he's prepared to make a fool of himself by saying things like this:

I am worried that Halloween has the potential to trivialise the realities of evil in the world and occult practices should not be condoned, even if they are being presented in a caricatured, light-hearted form.

That's just silly. Like the Americans who make bonfires of Harry Potter. (To be fair to the bishop, he claims to be a Harry Potter fan.)

No. The trouble with Gillett is his cloying sentimentality about how we (and especially children) should be upbeat and positive all the time. The idea that for children to be scared is somehow dangerous and wrong. Whereas, of course, most children want to be terrified from time to time. Halloween is a great festival because it takes kids through the dark and faces them with realities of life and death in a fun, and ultimately harmless, way.

All the great childrens' storytellers understood this. The Brothers Grimm understood it. Roald Dahl understood it. So does JK Rowling.

Halloween is healthy. If Bishop Gillett wants to understand why, I suggest he watches Tim Burton's peerless classic The Nightmare Before Christmas, which says everything that needs to be said about the difference between Halloween and Christmas, and why both matter.

It's only once a year, after all. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Great Balls of Buddha




Police in Norwich are investigating this bronze sculpture entitled The Iconoclast by leading local artist Colin Self, currently on display at the city's Saint Giles Street Gallery. Originally facing into the road where it apparently upset a number of passers-by, it has been turned inwards after the cops called round. A spokeswoman for the police "hate crimes" unit commented,

There is no issue with the fact that the statue is on display within the gallery. However, there is an issue with such a piece of art being displayed prominently in a window frontage in full view of passers-by on a busy public street.

We have liaised with the management of the gallery in order to reach a solution which both upholds the principles of freedom of artistic expression but also prevents any offence being caused to any general member of the public or faith group.

So is the objection to the genitalia, or to the fact that they are appended to an image of Buddha?

This wouldn't be the first time that the authorities have stepped in to protect the supposed sensibilities of Buddhists. This summer, council officials in Durham objected to the naming of a restaurant "the Fat Buddha" on the basis that, in the deathlessly po-faced words of head of "cultural services" Tracey Ingle,

To use the name of a major religion's deity in your restaurant brand runs contrary to this city's reputation as a place of equality and respect for others' views and religious beliefs.

Needless to say, the restaurant's owner, Eddi Fung, was a Buddhist of Chinese descent, and the reaction from the Buddhist community to the name was far from irate. Said a spokesman from the Buddhist Society,

Buddhists regard the fat Buddha as lucky. To suggest this is offensive is to misunderstand the faith. Buddhists don't take offence at anything because to do so doesn't follow Buddhist teachings.

Quite so. A fat Buddha is a happy Buddha, after all. Ms Ingle might as well have objected on the grounds that promoting fat Buddhahood as a desirable state encouraged unhealthy eating. But even if Buddhists don't rise to the "taking offence" bait which seems to have become the main way in which religious groups assert themselves, is it right to become offended on their behalf? There's a difference, after all, between utilising an ancient image of prosperity, and superimposing an erect phallus on a bronze Buddha in order to make some sort of artistic statement. At first sight, it looks a like an adolescent prank, analagous to painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa.

If nothing else, the artist can be accused of going for a soft target. Imagine if this had been an image of Mohammed. There would have been deaths. A Christian response would have been less violent, but (if the Jerry Springer, the Opera controversy is anything to go by) still fairly vociferous and sustained. Hindus, too, have got into the protest business. A couple of years ago Royal Mail withdrew a Christmas stamp which depicted the Nativity from an Indian perspective after complaints from a pressure group calling itself the Hindu Forum, complaints which more thoughtful Hindus argued were absurd. By contrast, going after Buddha is still a relatively stress-free option. You just have local councils and the police to deal with. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Christianity in Faction

Great story from the Metro newspaper today about an Italian convent forced to shut down because of fighting nuns.

And I don't just mean the usual sisterly catfight. The 82-year old mother superior actually required hospital treatment after two colleagues scratched her face and threw her to the floor. She had apparently annoyed them with her strict rule over the tiny Santa Clara convent near Bari.

The community's two other remaining nuns had recently died, and with her assailants hiding out in another convent Mother Liliana is now alone. Not surprisingly, the local bishop wants to shut the place down. The nuns had 'clearly lost their religious vocation,' he wrote with considerable understatement. Liliana is refusing to budge, however, and has reportedly barricaded herself inside.

Then there were nun? Read the rest of this article

Monday, 1 October 2007

Cavaliers and Roundheads

One of the most astute comments ever made about the nature of politics is to be found in that peerless classic, 1066 and All That. Condensing the English civil war to a single sentence, it characterised the two sides thus: The Roundheads (that's Cromwell's lot) were "Right but Repulsive". The Cavaliers, on the other hand, were "Wrong, but Wromantic".

The significance of the remark lies not in the details of the historical events it purports to describe, but in the intuition that things that are right are generally repulsive, and things that are wrong are, mutatis mutandis, considerably more attractive. Sugar and cream are "naughty, but nice". Eating broccoli is good for you. Sex will give you unpleasant diseases. Smoking kills. This, of course, was the main Puritan insight, which is still one of the prime movers of the left-liberal conscience. The fact that something gives pleasure may not in itself ever be a stated reason for banning something, but it's a good rule of thumb that when there's a campaign to get something banned, it's because someone out there is having rather too much fun.

But it's too easy to blame Puritanism. What Puritanism feeds off is a guilt-complex that seems to some extent innate. People have an inbuilt hypocrisy that tells them that, while a little of what they fancy might do them good, it also leaves them slightly soiled.

This may go some way towards explaining the predicament that the Conservatives find themselves in. A few years ago, then chairman Theresa May made a notorious speech to the party conference in which she used the phrase "the nasty party". This has been followed, especially since David Cameron became leader, by a calculated distancing of the party from policies which, at least to a metropolitan elite, sounded "nasty". Such as, Tories have ceased to focus on, or even to mention, immigration controls, "harsh" language on law and order, or Europe. All of which, along with tax-cuts (another no-no) represent the kind of things that a right of centre party has traditionally seen as its unique selling point. Instead, Cameron and his lieutenants have preferred to talk about the environment, the national health service, and public services.

For a while, this strategy looked to be succeeding. Unfortunately, it now turns out that most of their apparent progress was down to sheer boredom with the demented posturings of Tony Blair. Trouble was, having dumped the traditional right-wing agenda, there was nothing much to put in its place. Concern for the environment and for civil liberties, however genuine, seems so counter-intuitive to the broad mass of voters (and, indeed, to most political commentators) that it just doesn't register. Yet whenever a Conservative attempts to venture onto their traditional territory, there's always a Labour spokesman on hand to scream "lurch to the Right." Right, as in Repulsive.

Modern politics is essentially a branch of marketing, since large parts of what used to constitute the red meat of politics have largely been removed from the domestic agenda. And, even without Blair, Mandelson or Campbell, New Labour marketing remains both cynically brutal and ruthlessly efficient. What Labour strategists long ago hit upon was how to exploit voters' innate hypocrisy, their Puritan guilt. A large proportion of the electorate, and especially of that roughly 50% of the population the marketing people refer to as Mainstreamers, want right-wing policies on things like law and order. They also want to be looked after by the state, and, to a surprising extent, to be told what to do. But above all, they want to think of themselves as decent people. Like those nice, caring, sharing Labourites, not like those nasty Tories. A statist, right-wing, socially authoritarian solution of the sort offered by Labour is almost inevitably going to win.

Of course, there are plenty of dissidents. But, whether they launch their dissent from the socialist left, the libertarian right or the civil-liberties centre, or indeed from a position of apolitical individualism like the Heresiarch's, they will always be little platoons when faced with the massed ranks of Labour's coalition. We are in grave danger of sliding into almost permanent one-party government, of the type associated with Sweden or Japan.

Does this really matter? If the people are generally happy with the government's actions, can it really be undemocratic for one party to dominate the life of a nation?

For a number of reasons, I would say yes. And especially if the permanent party of government is, at least notionally, a party of the Left.

Firstly, democracy is not the same as majority rule. Minorities also have their rights. And while one may justly criticise some of the excesses of the previous Tory governments, the great recent (and forthcoming) erosions of civil liberties have taken place under Labour. Nor was this merely a response to terrorism. New Labour has pursued a cynical hard-right law and order strategy right from the start. One of its very first measures was to make easier the conviction of 10 year-olds. The draconian Terrorism Act of 2000 was passed, let it not be forgotten, well before 9/11; yet that did not stop the government, after the attack on the Twin Towers, from rushing through even more far-reaching laws. I have little doubt that if capital punishment were still being practised in this country, New Labour would have extended its scope and speeded up executions.

Of course, many Tories privately have sympathy for a hard-line approach to such matters. Not necessarily private: the cry of "bring back hanging" will always get applause at a conservative conference. There's a deep paradox here. People who join the Labour party rarely do so because they have right-wing opinions; many, indeed come from a civil-liberties background. Yet once elected, their support for authoritarian measures seems uncontainable. Meanwhile, Tories, who often do have right-wing opinions, rarely implement them when in office.

Why should this be? Probably because they have a left-wing opposition to restrain them. Because left-wingers benefit from the deep-seated prejudice that they are the good guys, when they denounce a particular measure their denunciations carry weight. And notionally right-wing ministers, who are as prey to guilt and hypocrisy as the rest of mankind, back off. Or never go there to begin with. Whereas when a supposedly left-wing government proposes something draconian, and the Tories oppose it, to most of the public their stance looks both opportunist and bizarre.

If there is no convincing or coherent opposition from the Left, politics will tend ever more strongly in a right-wing direction. That's why anyone who truly values civil liberties and a tolerant society should be praying for that the Tories stage a miraculous recovery. Read the rest of this article