Thursday, 31 January 2008

Superstition vs intolerance

There has been plenty of bad news from Afghanistan recently. The other day, young journalist Sayed Pervez was sentenced to death for the "blasphemy" of distributing a report criticising the abuse of women in the name of Islam. Despite international protests, the sentence apparently stands, and a session of the national Senate in Kabul has taken the unusual step of congratulating the court for its decision and demanding the sentence be implemented. The deputy governor of Helmand province was among several killed by a suicide bomber today while praying at a mosque. (Strange how these religiously-motivated terrorists show such little respect for the sanctity of religious buildings, isn't it?) Attacks by the Taliban are now at their highest level since the extremists were toppled more than six years ago.

To add to the gloom, the Afghanistan Study Group warns that any progress made "is under serious threat from resurgent violence, weakening international resolve, and a growing lack of confidence on the part of the Afghan people". An assessment that ought to surprise no-one.

All these developments suggest that the Taliban, if not exactly back in power, are growing in confidence and influence. A stranger but still telling sign of growing religious repression is this report from the Australian broadcaster ABC about the plight of the country's fortune-tellers. Such people, known as fallben, traditionally hang around mosque precincts reading palms, casting lots and using sundry other methods to divine the workings of fate for their customers.

Ruthlessly suppressed by the Taliban, who regarded their activity as decidedly un-Islamic, the fortune-tellers have made a comeback in recent years. Now, however, their livelihood is once again under threat. In one recent crackdown, dozens were recently ejected from outside the Hazrat Ali shrine in the northern city of Mazar-I-Sharif. "Islam does not permit the practice of fleecing simple people," said the shrine's head, Qari Mohammad Qasim.

As another imam put it,

Fortune telling is not permitted in Islamic law. It has been mentioned clearly in the Koran that this is against Islamic values. Fortune tellers are misusing the sacred religion for their personal advantage.

It certainly sounds un-Islamic. But things are rarely so simple. Over the centuries, like all religions, Islam made its accommodation with earlier ideas and beliefs, and with the probably innate and impossible to remove human need to take solace in the irrational. The methods employed by Afghan fellben demonstrate this fascinating blend of religion and magic. First, the diviner will look at the customer's hand or roll some dice. But the results are interpreted according to a mathematical formula that links them with verses of the Koran. These will provide the answer to the problem. Or the customer may be told to repeat the verse several times a day, or it will be rolled into a small ball and worn next to the skin.

In his recent documentary series Enemies of Reason, Richard Dawkins gleefully laid into astrologers, psychics, homeopathists, crystal healers and similar peddlars of superstitious hogwash. It's hard to imagine a convinced rationalist making common cause with the Taliban, but the mullahs would seem to be with Dawkins on this one. Something of a quandary, this. The existence of fortune tellers and similar exploiters on the vulnerable is surely something to be deeply regretted. But is it not also a sign of liberty and tolerance? Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Baying Mob

There's a rather strange post from top Tory blogger Iain Dale this afternoon, responding to the news that Derek Conway has bowed to the inevitable and announced he's standing down as an MP:

The last forty hours have not shown the Conservative Party in its best light. The baying mob is something I hope not to see again for a very long time. Whatever Derek did or did not do he did not deserve some of the comments that have been thrown his way.

True, Dale is a personal friend of Derek Conway, and few will begrudge him for being quieter on his chum's wrongdoing than the likes of Guido Fawkes. But the grassroots reaction was spot on. Conservatives in the country saw instantly the damage this story would do to David Cameron's credibility. And just how profound was Conway's actual offence. Paying your children thousands of pounds from public funds for doing a largely fictional "job", just so they can have a cushy time at university, is beyond wrong. It's borderline embezzlement.

Methinks Iain Dale is too much part of the system. He can see the ambiguous nature of the rules which allowed Conway to perpetrate his fiddle. He knows Conway for an honourable man. He doesn't believe his friend would be involved in anything so sordid.

It's called not seeing the wood from the trees. Many close to the centre of action, whether politicians or journalists, fall victim to this sort of myopia. Hence the day's delay before the Conservative whip was withdrawn from the MP. From a distance, however, the forest is all-too-visible, dark and overgrown and much in need of bulldozers. Almost no Tory out there in the country had any difficulty seeing it. Hence the "baying mob" of bloggers and emailers which Dale so resents.

For all I know, Freddie Conway did carry out a small amount of work for his father. Most parliamentary interns are unpaid, or receive only token salaries, for many hours' slaving on behalf of honourable members, and are grateful for the experience. Many of them are university students struggling to make ends meet. All they lack is a well-connected father able to dip into the lavish funds placed at his disposal.

It's a con, whichever way you look at it.

PS Robert Winnett has a hilarious piece of trivia about one of the Conway beneficiaries of taxpayers' largesse, elder son Henry, at the Telegraph blog. Social butterfly Henry, a fashion writer and friend of starlet Martine McCutcheon (platonic, obviously), knows how to compose an eye-catching party invite. Nice to know voters' contributions to his upkeep at Cambridge didn't go to waste. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Death by a thousand emails

It can be difficult making ends meet as a student in Britain these days, now that top-up fees are in and maintenance grants are a distant memory. Almost all graduate with large debts. Many work long hours in poorly-paid work, with obvious consequences for their academic work. Some even turn to prostitution.

So I suspect that many students and recent graduates will be looking with envy on Freddie and Henry Conway. As an MP, their dad Derek had access to generous dollops of taxpayers' money to spend on secretaries, researchers and other support, to help him in the difficult task of dealing with the tiresome proles who infest his constituency. According to the Telegraph, over the past 6 years the Conservative MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup (previous occupant, Ted Heath) has shelled out £260,000 of this dosh to members of his family. (That's half a million bucks.) Admittedly, his wife Collette, who does appear to actually work for him, got most of it. But Freddie pocketed almost £12,000 a year, plus bonuses and pension contributions, during the three years that he was studying at Newcastle University, a long way from Westminster. His older brother Henry was similarly remunerated while at Cambridge.

It's not clear what, or anything, either did for their money. Derek Conway claims that Freddie gave him "valuable advice about foreign affairs" - perhaps he picked up some valuable inside info during his gap year - but neither he nor his father kept any records, and most of the advice was supposedly transmitted via emails which would seem to have been deleted. In a masterpiece of understatement the Commons standards committee which censured Conway stated that Freddie was "unlikely to be able to meet his contractual commitments" while so far away.

It's fairly obvious what has been going on. Derek Conway has been caught misappropriating public money to fund his children through university. When one considers the severity with which impoverished benefit claimants have been punished for much smaller frauds he can consider himself very lucky not to be sitting in a police cell tonight. Yet he very nearly got away with a slap on the wrist. Initially, the word from Conservative central office was that Conway had been dealt with appropriately, had apologised (bizarrely, to his family!) and that he would not be thrown out of the party. Tory MP Roger Gale went on the radio to back him, complaining repeatedly that his long-standing friend was being treated as "guilty until proved innocent".

One might have thought that David Cameron would have been keen to demonstrate his commitment to clean politics by dumping Conway immediately. But no. The Labour Party have been strangely quiet, too. Presented with an apparently open goal, the full-blooded return of "Tory sleaze" at its Hamiltonian worst, they said little. Perhaps they feel embarrassed after the forced resignation of Peter Hain. A lone LibDem, working apparently off his own bat, has announced that he will take the matter up with the police, but even this came rather late in the day.

Stink as it might from afar, many believed that this affair could be safely buried in details. After all, many MPs employ family members. MP's wives frequently work alongside them, for long hours and very modest pay. Conway didn't break any symbolic disclosure rule. There was no proof that Freddie didn't do any work for his father.

This morning indeed, despite new revelations, the mainstream media continued to report that Conway had the support of his senior colleagues. He was popular on the backbenchers, it was explained, a good egg, and a friend of David Davis, Cameron's rival for the leadership. Moreover, if he was booted out for an allegation, apparently unsubstantiated, where would that leave the principle that MPs were honourable members, whose words were to be believed? Besides, it was whispered, Conway's abuse of the system may have been excessive, but there were plenty of other MPs, on all sides, who also manipulated expenses to channel money towards family members. It would be in no one's interest to start a witch-hunt. Too many snouts, too delicious a trough.

On his blog this morning, BBC political editor Nick Robinson suggested that Cameron's hands were tied.

Although David Cameron might be tempted to make an example of him he would be taking on a powerful coalition consisting of those who never wanted him to be leader plus the parliamentary old guard.

Then this lunchtime it was announced that Conway had had the Tory whip withdrawn. In effect, he had been thrown out of the party. In a statement, David Cameron said that he took the action "having personally reflected overnight". So what had changed?

On the Times blog, Greg Hurst claims with enviable hindsight that Conway's fall had an "air of inevitability" about it. He was always a bugbear of the Cameroons, Hurst reveals, referred to contemptuously as a "bed-blocker" who ought to make way for a younger, more female, and perhaps more ethnically diverse candidate. There are also those who supposedly have never forgiven him for the toppling of Iain Duncan Smith in 2004 (though few, surely, lament that noticeably hopeless leader) or even for his role as a government whip during the Maastricht crisis of 1992.

A "Westminster village" explanation like this is the only sort many political journalists seem to be able to get their heads round. But in reality, the pressure to sack Conway didn't come from the Parliamentary Conservative party. It didn't even come from the Labour party. In the old days, a story like this might have simmered for days, with media pressure slowly building up behind the wall erected by colleagues to shelter the errant MP. But these are the days of blogs and emails and instant interactivity. And one thing quickly became clear. Conway might be able to count on the support of his fellow MPs, but Conservatives in the country were disgusted.

Reading the comments on such forums as Conservative Home, or Guido, or on the websites of the Daily Mail and the BBC, one is struck by the ill-suppressed rage, the genuine sense of disappointment and dispair. Many accused Cameron of "dithering", or expressed incredulity that he was not taking the opportunity to distance the party from sleaze. There must have been many more private messages sent to Tory HQ.

When Hain was forced out, legendary blogger Guido Fawkes was quick to claim the credit. Having pursued his quarry for months, unearthing a trail of large unattributed donations, implausible ignorance and phantom think-tanks, Guido got his man in what the Guardian's Roy Greenslade described as "Britain's first genuine blogging scalp". But the second scalp, that of Derek Conway, was a team effort. Hundreds and thousands of ordinary, sometimes anonymous, occasionally reluctant Conservative and Conservative-inclined Lilliputians, pinging their comments and emails in David Cameron's dithering direction, brought the man down. He won't be the last.

Follow-up Read the rest of this article

Monday, 28 January 2008

Changing style

You'll notice the revamped masthead. The other day I noticed (which I never had before) the image of a security guard and his reflection in the background of the signature picture. Amazing how you can stare at something for so long - this blog is now four months old - and not spot something so obvious. Anyway, it gave me the push I needed to merge the picture into a proper header. I've also devised a favicon (and learned a new word in the process). I hope it's worth it. As a result, I haven't done much proper blogging today, but normal service will be resumed shortly.

In case you've ever wondered, the image itself comes from the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and shows a brazier in the form of an Aztec warrior. I particularly like his earrings, which appear to be made from the hands of defeated enemies: other human hands adorn his breastplate. Here's the original picture for one last time.

Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Hillicon Valley

The Sunday Telegraph today unveiled a new and possibly (given the results from South Carolina) short-lived political trend: Tories for Hillary. Apparently British Conservative MPs have been turning up at Democrat campaign offices, often uninvited, and offering to do their bit for the faltering Clinton campaign. Chelmsford MP Simon Burn recently spent nine days as a party worker for Team Hillary, canvassing by phone and standing on street corners holding up Clinton placards.

He said:

I walked in and I said 'I want to see Hillary Clinton as president and I'm prepared to work in any way you want to try to help'. I said, 'Look, I'm British so the accent might not be helpful and I happen to be a Tory MP'. For those who understood what a Tory MP was politically, they were very good about it.

Other pro-Clinton conservatives include Alan Duncan and Norine Davies, who said: "She's a woman with a lot of substance and experience. It will be great to have a woman as president." Several other female Tories are said to share her sentiment.

At first sight, a Conservative-Democrat alliance looks like an oxymoron. Surely the Tories are a bit like the Republicans (without the "republic" bit, obviously) and Labour are our Democrats? It has often seemed that way. The decade-long love-in between Reagan and Thatcher casts its shadow, while long before Blair-Bush there was Clinton-Blair. For New Labour in the early days, Clinton's White House was like the promised land, where they earned their campaign colours and imbibed the mantras of the Third Way.

The Major-Clinton relationship, meanwhile, was notoriously bad. Clinton never forgave the Conservatives for their open support of George Bush the Elder during the 1992 presidential election, and differences over Bosnia and Ireland led to repeated outbreaks of frostiness. In his memoirs, Sir Christopher Meyer recalled an uncomfortable dinner at Georgia Brown's restaurant in Washington, during which the president and the prime ministier "barely looked at each other, or exchanged a direct word, addressing instead the rest of us around the table."

Yet the political compass is set very differently on this side of the Atlantic. Gore Vidal once memorably compared the Democrats and the Republicans to "a single party with two right wings", and in many ways almost all American politics is to the right of almost all British politics. A supposedly liberal Democrat might well find himself articulating positions that, transplanted to Britain, would look startlingly right-wing.

There's far more enthusiasm for capital punishment in the Democratic party than in Cameron's conservatives, at least publicly. And every Tory government, no matter what its rhetoric, has dutifully pumped ever-increasing sums of money into that bastion of socialistic provision, the National Health Service, an institution for which, among Americans, probably only Michael Moore has any time. Then there's the uniquely American phenomenon of the Religious Right, which to almost all British conservatives, whether neo-liberal free-marketeers or law'n'order authoritarians looks to be simply poor taste.

As Simon Burns put it,

Maybe it's perceived as a bit odd for a Tory MP to want to support Hillary Clinton but the Republican Party has moved so far to the Right and has been captured by a rather unpleasant religious agenda, and the Tory Party under David Cameron is not equivalent to that. I have nothing in common with them and I wouldn't have thought many of my Conservative colleagues had either.

The blood-brotherhood between Tony Blair and George Bush has also lent distance to the Conservative-Republican relationship. When the previous Tory leader Michael Howard criticised the Iraq war, it was made clear that he would not be welcome at the White House. In November 2005, David Cameron declined to say whether he would have supported Mr Bush or John Kerry at the last presidential election. The following September, on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Cameron annoyed the hell out of the Americans by talking of the need for Britain to have an independent foreign policy. He declared that Britain should not be "America's unconditional associate in every endeavour" and described the Bush foreign policy as "simplistic", characterised by "easy soundbites" and lacked "humility and patience."

Things had thawed enough by last November for Cameron to be invited to meet Dubya briefly at the White House, in what was seen by some as a sign of Republican lack of enthusiasm for Gordon Brown. But Cameron is keen to keep his options open. According to an unnamed senior Tory source, "he likes the fact that some of his MPs are Democrats. In the end it's the big picture that counts for him and if it's Hillary he will make it work."

Conservatives supporting Obama - Obamacons, as they were dubbed by Conservative Home - are easy enough to understand. Barack Obama is an eloquent, feel-good politician very much in the Cameron mould (the unkind would compare him to Blair), and his ethnicity, coupled with his distance from the traditional politics of race, is a perfect fit for the inclusive cuddliness of the new Tory brand.

Earlier this month, Conservative Home identified some of these Obamacons, including prominent Parliamentary candidate Esther McVey, Euro MP Daniel Hannan and Nick Bourne, leader of the small but proud band of Welsh conservatives, who described Obama's Iowa victory as "the most hopeful event of the start of 2008". On 4th Jan, meanwhile, Andrew Lansley, Tory health spokesman, came very close to endorsing Obama on Any Questions. Describing him as a "very exciting candidate" he admitted to being torn between him and Rudy Giuliani, while being very down on Hilary, whom he described as lacking in excitement and too attached to political expediency. Former Telegraph editor Charles Moore was even more unenthusiastic about Mrs Clinton, going so far as to compare her with Gordon Brown. You can't get more negative than that. He went for Obama too "though I probably don't agree with hm about anything" on the grounds that it was time for a change:

As somebody who would naturally tend to support the Republicans in this election I in fact would feel that we really need a Democratic president probably because there has to be - the thing I really notice about political history in democracies is just the basic need to get one lot out and the other lot in.

Conservative Home sounded a note of caution, however. "Conservatives are practical people and should be weary of anyone so inexperienced," the blog warned its readers, adding that it was sticking with the Republicans. Many of the contributors to the comments column shared some of this Obama-scepticism, but many did so regretfully, citing his lack of experience and policies rather than any more ideological opposition.

Hillaricons, on the other hand, would seem to be a much stranger phenomenon. Bill Clinton's closeness to Blair was a highly political one, based partly on a shared hatred of the Conservatives. He has addressed Labour Party conferences, and has been a prominent advocate of "third way" politics around the world. It was Clinton who granted US visas to a still-unrepentent Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, much to Major's fury. If anything, it's Hillary who's been more associated with ideologically left-of-centre politics, or whatever passes for that in the States, while Bill's philosophy has generally been assumed to be more about Bill. Add to that the cynical and professionalised politics of the Clinton machine, whose smear tactics have so far backfired spectacularly, and it's quite difficult to see what these Tories see in Hillary.

Perhaps it's just the still-potent Tory addiction to defeat. Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 26 January 2008

A different Islam

I found a fascinating article in the International Herald Tribune, which discusses how the lingering but apparently terminal decline of Inodonesia's former dictator Suharto has brought into the spotlight all manner of unorthodox and animistic beliefs that persist in what is, officially, the world's largest Muslim nation.

Apparently Suharto's reluctance to depart this life is due to "powerful occult forces" that will not let him go until certain rituals have been performed. "His life is supported by a mystical power", according to one shaman.

Suharto himself was notoriously superstitious, studying with a well-known mystic and undertaking many ritual acts. He

made frequent visits to sacred places including mountains, caves, tombs and ruins, and he has taken ritual baths in the ocean and in rivers at places that were believed to hold special powers. He is said to have collected hundreds of sacred artifacts in order to absorb their magical power.

Among them is apparently a red stone with strong powers called a mirah delima, which psychics say can protect its owner from swords and bullets and guard against illness.

In addition, many believe that his political pre-eminence owed much to the magical power of his wife, her "wahyu", which resided in her womb. Her death in 1996 is said to have foreshadowed his fall from power two years later. His present illness has been attended by sinister omens. For example,

Two weeks ago, when doctors said Suharto was dying, a huge tree fell near Parangtritis, the town that is home to the mystical Queen of the South Sea, where Suharto sometimes bathed in the ocean.

Doubtless the purist Wahhabi imams of Saudi Arabia would be horrified by such a syncretic mixture of Islam with Hinduism and native beliefs. Indonesia has its own Islamist movement, of course, as the bombings in Bali in 2002 so devastatingly showed, and in common with other Muslim countries the country has seen increasing trends towards religious conformity. The hijab is spreading, never a good sign. But radical Islam is an alien plant in that part of the world, the product of new globalisation and, in many cases, money from the Middle East. The true spirit of Indonesian Islam is of a folk spirituality, tempered (perhaps corrupted) by the local landscape and a complex history of cultural interchange. Nothing could be in greater contrast to the simplistic certainties of the jihadists. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 25 January 2008

God is Hate

The God-fearing loons at the Westboro Baptist Church are clearly on a roll. On Tuesday they greeted the sad news of Heath Ledger's death with a charmingly-worded press release calling his best-known film Brokeback Mountain a "sordid, tacky bucket of slime seasoned with vomit" and assuring the world that he was now in Hell (to be joined presently by the Pope, George W.Bush, Billy Graham and so far as one can tell, everyone else who wasn't a member, in life, of the Westboro Baptist Church). They will be picketing his funeral, just as they regularly picket the funerals of US service personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, with their easily recognisable "God Hates Fags" placards and other similar expressions of Christian love.

And now, as a follow-up, they have announced plans to capitalise on the Ledger publicity by picketing the Oscars. If, of course, there are any Oscars: the Westboro folk may well be joined by other, better-organised and more literate protesters.

According to their latest statement, "the entertainment industry has created an evil, poisonous Zeitgeist in which sodomy and all lesser forms of perversion now flourish."

Or, put more simply,

God hates Hollywood

And then, bizarrely, there's an outbreak of pedantry:

Hollywood is here put for the entire worldwide entertainment industry. This is a form of speech known as a synecdoche; part put for the whole.

Just so as to get the most from their time in LA, they also plan to protest outside two local churches, one Catholic and one Episcopalian, for "their part in creating the Zeitgeist of evil in which the sin of sodomy flourishes throughout America."

They're a canny bunch, these God-botherers. A fringe of a fringe, they appear to consist mainly of members of the Phelps family and assorted hangers-on. Founder Fred Phelps, 78, claims to teach mainstream Calvinist theology. His single-minded obsession with "sodomy" is, however, entirely his own. According to the church's website, the best-known Phelps slogan, "God hates fags" is "a profound theological statement, which the world needs to hear more than it needs oxygen, water and bread." But it's not just homosexuals who are bound for the brimstone,

To every lover of lies, believing and preaching that God loves every individual of mankind, we say, You are going to Hell! Period! End of discussion! God's decree sending you to Hell is irreversible! Hypocrites! How can ye escape the damnation of Hell?

They claim to have carried out more than 33,000 anti-gay demonstrations, mainly at funerals and gay rights events. "The unique picketing ministry of Westboro Baptist Church has received international attention," they boast. And not without reason. Like many in Britain, I first heard about the Westboro Baptists when Louis Theroux made the trip out to the small town of Topeka, Kansas to film them last year. He smiled indulgently while they assured him he was going to Hell. They were also visited by Keith Allen for another documentary, memorable for the moment when he mistook a picture of Lily Tomlin for one of his daughter. It's Heath's funeral, however, that looks set to give them their biggest opportunity yet.

Given that they look so much like a parody of hellfire Bible Belt fundamentalists at their most rabid, it's perhaps not that surprising that some have wondered if the Phelps clan are for real. Chez Pazienza in the Huffington Post has fun imagining the Westboro church as "Andy Kaufmanesque performance art at its most sublime." More mainstream representatives of religious reaction find themselves acutely embarrassed by Phelpsite antics, not least because they're unable to fault their theology. Calvinism aside, what is the real difference between Phelps and the Nigerian archbishop Peter Akinola and his fellow wreckers of the Anglican communion? Or indeed the Pope?

If nothing else, the unfettered activity this hateful group of "Christians" provides ample testimony to the American attachment to free speech. In Britain, Parliament is currently debating proposals to further extend the domain of prohibited "hate-speech" to include remarks deemed homophobic, legislation that has worried several religious groups who fear that they would be deliberately targeted. And even without these new, explicit, provisions, accusations of homophobia have led to police investigations of several prominent activists; which have led in turn to complaints of victimisation, witch-hunts and that old standby "political correctness gone mad".

On balance, I think the American approach works better. Let the rancid morons of Westboro spew their bile. They're only really hurting themselves. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Negative Aspects of the Colour Orange

From Colour Therapy Healing





Destructive attitudes


Difficulty interacting with others

(And, of course, dodgy accounting.)
Read the rest of this article

Eye of the Beholder

Much excitement is being had with this image, taken on Mars in 2004 by the Spirit probe. A small, irregularly-shaped rock, thrown into odd relief and casting a shadow, it forms an interesting simulacrum.

Many are calling it "Bigfoot on Mars", suggesting that it resembles the famous 1967 fake footage of the supposed American man-ape.

Unromantic geeks! It's obviously the Little Mermaid.

Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Pigging Out

Winston Churchill liked pigs. "Dogs look up to us" he explained. "Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals".

I wonder what he would have made of the decision by judges of a school award to disqualify an educational CD Rom retelling the tale of the Three Little Pigs on the grounds that it "might offend Muslims"?

Ridiculous? Absurd over-sensitivity? Another own-goal by the self-abasing multiculturalists? Of course. But then, we've been here before. In 2005, staff at Dudley city council were banned from taking to work any pig-related trinkets after Muslim councillor Mahbubur Rahman apparently complained. You can't blame him for trying, I suppose. He described the ban as "a good thing, it is a tolerance and acceptance of their beliefs and understanding". Also in 2005, it was reported that branches of Halifax and NatWest banks were banning the open display of piggy banks.

There was the saga of the Florentine boar, a statue in Derby whose restoration was put in jeopardy when concerns were expressed that it might be, yes, "offensive to Muslims". And then there was Barbara Harris, headmistress of a primary school in West Yorkshire, who in a 2003 foreshadowing of today's story, banned stories mentioning pigs. As she explained,

Recently I have been aware of an occasion where young Muslim children in class were read stories about pigs. We try to be sensitive to the fact that for Muslims talk of pigs is offensive.

Commenting on that particular incident, Inayat Bunglawala of the MCB dismissed the idea that Muslims would actually be offended by such stories. "There is absolutely no scriptural authority for this view. It is a misunderstanding of the Koranic instruction that Muslims may not eat pork." And indeed, councillor Rahman apart, it's difficult to discover any Muslim who has ever demanded images of pigs be removed or pig-related stories banned. As sensible Muslims are well aware, such tales only serve to damage community relations, as well as playing into negative stereotypes of Islam as intolerant, alien and weird.

The notion that Muslims are likely to be offended by such items is, in any case, plainly absurd. Just because they aren't supposed to eat pork does not mean that they would be horrified by a cartoon animal, any more than Jews would. No-one has ever suggested that nursery rhymes about pigs should be suppressed out of deference to Jewish sensibilities.

This latest decision, in fact, comes from Becta, the government's educational technology agency, a body the existence of which few people were aware before today. The panel of judges, most of whom are apparently teachers, criticised The Three Little Cowboy Builders on the grounds of "concerns about the Asian community" and claimed that "the use of pigs raises cultural issues". They were also worried that it might alienate builders.

Such idiocy is clearly well-intentioned. But it can only be counter productive. As Anne Curtis, the CDRom's designer, said tonight, this type of hypersensitivity must end up by "closing down the minds of our children", and is hardly conducive to building a tolerant, cohesive society. This is so blindingly obvious that I must apologise for boring you by writing it. Yet stories like this keep emerging, so someone hasn't got the message yet.

Given the supine reaction of our leaders to anything to do with Islam, and the propensity of the noisier sort of Muslim activist to bring out the "Death to Infidels" banners at the slightest opportunity, it's interesting to speculate what would happen in our society if Muslims really were offended by representations of pigs. There would be no TV broadcasts of the film Babe, or of Porky Pig cartoons, no schools would allow their classes to study Orwell's matchles allegory Animal Farm, Winnie the Pooh would be re-edited to remove references to Piglet. Pork and bacon would be cleared off the shelves of Tesco and Sainsbury's, at least in places where there was a statistically-noticeable Muslim population. Queen's College Oxford would ditch the Boar's Head Carol. Vast swathes of our culture would be expunged.

No doubt it would be considered a small price to pay for a quiet life. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Britney's Islamic Panic

So it's over. Adnan Ghalib, from Pakistan (or is it Afghanistan?) is well and truly dumped, Birmingham bound with only his intimate snaps and world exclusive tabloid deals for company. And the word is that this 24 carat ratbag plans to tell all about his brief but incident-packed relationship with "troubled star" Britney Spears. Not that he hasn't told an awful lot already. According to the News of the World the other week,

But while telling close family that he only wants the best for Britney and sincerely cares for her, Ghalib has rung old mates from his days as a teenage radical to tell of their sex romps together.

One pal told us: "Last week he called to say how she is amazing in bed and gets turned on by him talking dirty in his Brummie accent. Adnan says she takes lots of prescription happy pills to get her high before getting really filthy in the bedroom."

Sudden trips to Mexico, naked romps in clothes-store cubicles, pregnancy rumours, marriage-rumours, restraining order rumours; this story has had a lot of rumours. And a lot of photos.

But it also has an intriguing cultural sub-plot. For Adnan Ghalib, in addition to being a society photographer, is also (theoretically at least) a Muslim. And as we know, Muslims are all seething fanatics seeking to blow us up, impose Sharia law or indulge in multifarious other (according to the approved Jacqui Smith version) "anti-Islamic" activities. Or else they are uniquely devout, humble, public-spirited followers of the "religion of peace" who wish to be left alone to grow their beards, wear their hijabs or broadcast their calls to prayer all over Oxford.

But Adnan Ghalib is neither of these things. He wants to have a lot of sex with a famous singer, and then make a lot of money by selling his story. A not incomprehensible ambition for a modern man; Ghalib is only exceptional in having succeeded. To the current media mindset, however, it would be difficult to imagine anything quite so un-Islamic. It just doesn't compute. It's almost a category error.

So how to deal with it? One response is to play up the culture-clash angle. The News of the World reported that Ghalib's "respectable Sunni Muslim family" were "so horrified by his antics they have disowned him".

One family member told us: "His parents Ghalib and Saghra are devastated. This week his dad gave him an ultimatum, ‘Give up Britney, or you are dead to me,' which Adnan ignored."

Meanwhile the Daily Mail delved into Ghalib's "traditional" background, contrasting his childhood home in a "humble terraced house on a predominantly Muslim street" with his life in California where he "managed a strip bar before branching out as a paparazzo."

Adnan was the second of four children, all raised as strict Muslims by their devout parents.

They are respected members of the local community, and today Hussain still regularly attends Small Heath's Central Mosque, while Saghra, who wears traditional dress, continues to teach the Qur'an to local children from the family home's sitting room. Both Ghalib's sisters, Farrah, 36, and Aisha, 30, are understood to be in arranged marriages.

But of course a Muslim, however westernised, however anomalous, is still a Muslim, and we all know what that means. The Screws reported a bizarre rumour that the star was considering converting to Islam in order to marry Ghalib:

In her crazier moments she's even been threatening to fake her own death to start a new life with him in Pakistan.

This was a prospect that appealed to the Hindustan Times, which brought up the (to it) similar cases of Jemima Khan and Princess Diana. Its reporter wondered if the sleazy paparazzo was possessed of the same mysterious Asian glamour as the brilliant surgeon Haznat Khan and the cricketing legend Imran.

The paper quoted housewife Sehr Naqvi as saying,

I think Pakistani men are more committed and, of course, the Pathan genes hold them in good stead. Britney Spears is hardly a good example - well, she could fall for anyone - but we have had Jemima and Diana too falling for Pakistani men.

Meanwhile, the Daily Star, a publication that prefers to make up its own stories, tantalised readers with the prospect of Britney in a burqa:

SINGER Britney Spears will be ordered to cover her face with a veil and wear a full-length Islamic dress when she weds her British boyfriend, it was revealed last night. She is planning marriage No3 to Muslim Adnan Ghalib, 35, who she hopes will help keep her on the straight and narrow so she can win back custody of her two sons.

But the only way Brummie cameraman Adnan’s strictly religious family will accept her is if she converts to the Islamic faith.

Astonishingly, party girl Brit, 26, is keen to do it – even though it will mean ditching the booze. The singer, famed for stepping out without her knickers, has even told friends she plans to wear a burka, or even a naqib, which leaves only the eyes visible.

Astonishing indeed. And, of course, utterly ridiculous. Although the Star apparently found a "pal" of the singer who claimed,

She is really keen to do it. It would be a mark of respect to Adnan and his family, and it would give her the anonymity she’s craving. Adnan’s Muslim beliefs could be Britney’s saviour.

Ah yes. Adnan's "Muslim beliefs". Which would appear to be remarkably flexible, if indeed they could be said to exist at all. But therein lies the undeniable slipperiness of the term "Muslim", which is responsible for much of the current confusion. Does it define a religion, or an ethnicity? Is there even such a thing?

Last November, a survey commissioned by soon-to-be-deposed London mayor Ken Livingstone complained about "Islamophobia" in the British media. Taking a "random" week in 2006, a week which just happened to include the publication of an inquiry into the Underground bombings of the year before, the report's authors described 91% of the stories they analysed as "negative" in their portrayal of Islam and Muslims.

For example, accounts of the conviction of the boxer "Prince" Naseem Hamed for dangerous driving were described as "negative". Hamed's religion wasn't actually mentioned in most of the stories, but he has an obviously Muslim name. So the mere act of reporting this newsworthy event was obviously Islamophobic.

By the same token, reports of Adnan Ghalib's caddish behaviour must presumably be counted as Islamophobic also. And indeed the Islamosceptic website Religion of Peace included the allegation that Britney had taken out a restraining order against her lover among its round-up of Islam-related horrors, alongside "Children's books seized over pictures of Mohammed", "Women told to wait in separate shopping lines in Malaysia" and (get this!) "Porn sold in Algeria disguised as Islamic sermons".

Tricky one this. On the one hand, Ghalib is a shining example of integration. The Star's rabid imaginings aside, religion had nothing to do with it. Others from his background have taken the trip to Pakistan and ended up in al-Qaeda training camps or Guantanamo Bay; Adnan boarded a plane for LA and bedded a pop star. A far better result, one would think, for both him and us. Proof that a Muslim doesn't have to be born a Saudi prince to enjoy everything the West has to offer. Yet is this not the very type of corruption against which the radical preachers are forever declaiming? Is he not a horrible example of western decadence, another reason to cleave ever more closely to traditional values, the mosque and the veil?

Are we meant to think that Britney had a lucky escape, or is the politically correct response to regret that she did not, after all, pronounce the Shahada and swap her kinky boots for the Koran? Or perhaps that's the morally-censorious, pro-traditional family, Daily Mail, position? Confusing.

UPDATE: Did I write this too soon? Some sources are now reporting that Britney and Adnan are back on again. But I still don't think we'll be seeing her in a burqa any time soon.

MORE BRITNEY Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Cruise Control

Poor Tom Cruise. Not only is Andrew Morton bringing out a typically gossipy and mud-raking biography, but a video appears online in which he makes a less than convincing case for the merits of Scientology. One German historian said that listening to Cruise speak reminded him of Joseph Goebbels. All this after the German authorities tried to disrupt his filming in the country because of official concern that Scientology's "totalitarian structure and methods may pose a risk to Germany's democratic society".

In a statement issued in his defence, his long-term producer and collaborator Paula Wagner describes him as a "rock-solid dependable partner" and pays tribute to his "talent, integrity, kindness, and dedication." She adds:

I am not a Scientologist, nor are most of the people Tom and I work with, but that doesn't mean I can sit by silently while he is attacked for his religious beliefs. As a filmmaker and an American, I feel strongly that an individual's religion should have no bearing on their professional life. I have always believed that Americans celebrated these differences, and to see the vitriol that has been directed towards my friend is truly discouraging.

I must say I think Ms Wagner has a point. Tom Cruise seems like a pretty decent guy. He is, by all accounts, a devoted husband and father. He has brought pleasure to millions. Like most Hollywood stars, he as made a few good films, and a rather greater number of awful ones. But he has never forced anybody to watch his performances. He has never hurt anyone. His only crime is to be associated with a non-mainstream religion.

Admittedly Scientology isn't everyone's religion of choice. Its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, was a fairly obvious con-man, its fund-raising methods are dubious in the extreme, its theology is a mish-mash of sci-fi and Fifties psychobabble. But are its beliefs really stranger than those of, say, Catholicism, which requires its adherents to believe in transubstantiation and papal infallibility? Has anyone ever been murdered for criticising Hubbard? How many Scientologists have tried to dictate morality, or threatened non-Scientologists with Hell?

All religions are palpable nonsense to those who do not adhere to them. Except that where the "great religions" are concerned most people are too polite to say, or even think, so. Scientology, however, is a soft target. Because it's of relatively recent origin, it has yet to build up the patina of ancient wisdom that protects other, equally preposterous, belief-systems. Embarrassing details about its creator can't be expunged from history, or written off as the deluded ramblings of heretics and persecutors.

And so it remains perfectly acceptable to ridicule the deeply-held faith of Tom Cruise, whereas the equally risible beliefs of Mike Huckabee or Tony Blair have to be accorded respect. So it becomes open season on the Hubbardites. It's almost as though there's a pent-up desire to laugh at other people's religions, that, short of socially-acceptable outlets, bursts upon Scientology like the Atlantic bursting through the Pillars of Hercules.

No bad thing, perhaps, in an absolute sense. Scientology deserves to be laughed at. Tom Cruise, on the other hand, is a sincere believer. And, like other sincere believers in religious fairy tales, his delusional beliefs don't make him a bad person, and may even help to make him a better one. Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 19 January 2008

The Pope, the Wizard and the Astronomers

With his sunken eyes, sallow complexion and soft, slightly lisping Bavarian accent, Pope Ratzinger makes a convincing avatar of Dr Evil. He has a name which Ian Fleming would have been proud to have invented, a mysterious if much-exaggerated Nazi past, and runs his own private country. Rumour has it he even likes cats.

It is however as an arch-conservative, almost a throwback to the middle ages, that he is likely to be best remembered: a man suspected of wanting to restart the crusades, or even, according to a claim by the Vatican's exorcist, recruit a new army of demon-hunters. Over the past couple of weeks, two new stories have appeared to consolidate the myth of Ratzinger the obscurantist. He was forced by protests to abandon plans to deliver a lecture at one of Rome's oldest universities, and reports suggested that he had a new target on his pontifical radar: Harry Potter.

According to Wednesday's Telegraph, the official Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano had been responsible for a "damning indictment" on J.K. Rowling's young wizard. The report highlighted an article by professor Edoardo Rialti of Florence University entitled The double face of Harry Potter, which criticised the books' alleged promotion of witchcraft as a "positive ideal":

The violent manipulation of things and people comes thanks to knowledge of the occult. The ends justify the means because the knowledgeable, the chosen ones, the intellectuals know how to control the dark powers and turn them into good.

This a grave and deep lie, because it is the old Gnostic temptation of confusing salvation and truth with a secret knowledge.


The characterisation of common men who do not know magic as 'muggles’ who know nothing other than bad and wicked things is a truly diabolical attitude.

In fact, Rialti's piece was not an official Vatican statement, and was actually published as part of a debate on the books: a contrasting pro-Potter article, written by the literary historian Paulo Gulisano, appeared alongside it. And there have been other Catholic defences of the young wizard. Massimo Introvigne, who heads the Centre for the Study of New Religious Movements, has written about the obvious Christian allegory contained in the final Potter book, Deathly Hallows, which he compares to that found in the works of Tolkein and, especially, C.S. Lewis.

Harry Potter, who endures his own Via Dolorosa, becomes an explicitly redemptive figure, and the substance of a long speech in which the ghost of Dumbledore speaks to him is a paraphrase of John Chapter 15: No greater love has any man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends.

He adds, though, that,

Any discussion of the content of Harry Potter cannot ignore the criticism from religious circles, which saw a potential vehicle for dissemination of magic and occultism: an author in Germany, who put forward these objections, even received a letter of encouragement from Cardinal Ratzinger.

Introvigne is referring to a letter sent by Ratzinger, in his capacity as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (a.k.a. Grand Inquisitor) to the Gabriele Kuby, who had written asking for his views on her Harry Potter exposé. His reply spoke of

subtle seductions that are barely noticeable and precisely because of that deeply affect children and corrupt the Christian faith in souls even before it could properly grow,

a vague answer which suggested to some sceptics that Ratzinger had read neither the Potter books nor Ms Kuby's attack on them. Nevertheless, when Ratzinger became Pope the story resurfaced, and here it is again. Not only Dr Evil, but also Voldemort.

The other, more serious, incident concerned Ratzinger's planned visit to Rome's La Sapienza university, which had to be called off after students threatened to drown out his lecture with loud rock music. (Ratzinger is known to prefer Mozart, though whether he actually described rock as the devil's music, as is claimed, is more doubtful. Perhaps he just said it sounded diabolical). Earlier, 67 scientists had signed an open letter protesting about the pontiff's perceived anti-science position. They quoted a 1990 statement by Ratzinger in which he claimed that the trial of the astronomer Galileo as a heretic had been "just and reasonable":

At the time of Galileo the Church remained much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself

A curious contention, especially when one considers the reasoning set out by the Inquisition in their condemnation of the astronomer in 1633, for having

held and believed the doctrine which is false as being contrary to the divine Scriptures, that the sun is the centre of the world and does not move from west to east and that the earth moves and is not at the centre.

A student website, meanwhile, condemned the pope for having

condemned centuries of scientific and cultural growth by affirming anachronistic dogmas such as Creationism while attacking scientific free thought and promoting mandatory heterosexuality.

Given all this, Ratzinger's attacks on Islamic fundamentalists look a little strange. They would seem to have a lot in common.

Meanwhile the Pope's famously devoted personal secretary Mgr Georg Ganswein has been talking to Catholic World News about his priestly vocation. "I cannot marry, but I know love." he explained. Whatever can he mean? Read the rest of this article

Friday, 18 January 2008

Creative thinking

Some people believe that Creationism isn't scientific. Nonsense! Word has reached the Heresiarch of a new online journal, the Answers Research Journal, which aims to set the record straight, showing up Dawkins and similar evolutionists as the shallow saps they really are.

ARJ claims to be

a professional, peer-reviewed technical journal for the publication of interdisciplinary scientific and other relevant research from the perspective of the recent Creation and the global Flood within a biblical framework.

"There has been a pressing need for such a journal" writes editor Andrew Snelling (PhD).

People want to know they can trust what is published on the Internet, which is why papers in our journal will be reviewed by the best experts we have available to us through a large network of well-qualified creationist researchers, scientists, and theologians who are the best thinkers in their fields of creationist research. Thus, we can give you absolute assurance that the papers we will be publishing in our Answers Research Journal are of the highest scientific and theological standard.

Answers Research Journal makes no concessions to the Intelligent Design wimps, who fondly imagine that they can take on mainstream biologists on their own ground, thus surrendering the initiative to the godless. Instead, it is entirely upfront about its approach. Bible first, questions afterwards, science, if you're lucky, somewhere far behind.

Take, for example, an account of "the role of microbes in God's wonderful design" by Alan L Gillen.

Gillen's problem is the lack of reliable (i.e. scriptural) evidence. After all, there's not much in the Book of Genesis about unicellular life. One searches in vain for "And on the fourth day God created amoebas." Even Jesus didn't make many unambiguous statements about bacteria, having, it might be thought, other things to worry about. Which leaves a number of important issues unresolved:

Were they created along with the rest of the plants and animals in the first week of creation, or were they created later, after the Fall? These are some questions that creation microbiologists have been asking in recent years. Ongoing research, based on the creation paradigm, appears to provide some answers to these puzzling questions.

Gillen even claims Lister, Pasteur and the microscope pioneer Leeuwenhoek as previous "creation scientists" saying that they "were blessed by God as He revealed (Psalm 139:17a) to them critical insight into His creation."

Nice microbes, like the ones we have in our stomachs to aid digestion, were, Gillen thinks, created by God along with more complex lifeforms. However, the ones responsible for all the nasty diseases

would have originated after the Fall (Genesis 3). The Edenic Curse would have profoundly influenced all creation, including viruses, bacteria, fungi, and protozoans that would later become pathogens or parasites...

It is not the way the Creator intended for man and nature.

I see. So because Adam and Eve developed an unfortunate taste for apples, there are now parasitic wasps which lay their eggs inside the living bodies of caterpillars.

I'm sure Richard Dawkins and his acolytes will now feel thoroughly embarrassed at the shallowness of their own so-called "science".

The most striking thing about "creation scientists" is their complete lack of interest in science. To them, the findings of bona fide researchers are merely debating points to be settled by cleverly twisting certain Biblical passages. Still, they should have plenty to chew on. Here's one I've never understood. If the dinosaurs were wiped out in the Flood (because Noah didn't let them in the Ark, presumably) what killed off the ichthyosaurs? After all, they could swim.

Yes, I know it sounds like some sort of wind-up. As science writer Adam Rutherford puts it,

To be honest, I'm finding hard to believe that's it's not a wheeze, a clever dig at us po-faced scientists. I'll be the first to issue a public self-deprecating tut when it's all revealed as being a prank orchestrated by Chris Morris.

As far as I can tell, however, the people behind the site do exist: one even pops up on YouTube talking about the time humans coexisted with dinosaurs. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Scooped by Hume

There is no kind of report, which rises so easily, and spreads so quickly, especially in country places and provincial towns, as those concerning marriages; insomuch that two young persons of equal condition never see each other twice, but the whole neighbourhood immediately join them together. The pleasure of telling a piece of news so interesting, of propagating it, and of being the first reporters of it, spreads the intelligence. And this is so well known, that no man of sense gives attention to these reports, till he find them confirmed by some greater evidence.

- David Hume, Essay on Miracles (1748) Read the rest of this article

Case Closed

Since my scepticism about the "married twins" story began attracting attention, I've become increasingly conscious that while I did express a fairly widespread (and growing) sense that something about the story didn't quite add up, I wasn't able to deliver a killer blow. Indeed, I didn't really try. Since no evidence has been put forward to substantiate the story, there's really no need to debunk it. Only an extraordinary suspension of disbelief by the world's media, led by the BBC, allowed the tale to be taken seriously at all.

Besides, if the twins exist, where are they? It's not enough to say that they are protected by strict secrecy laws. Such protections are normally only accorded to children, notorious ex-criminals and people in the witness protection programme: there's no suggestion in this case that the couple involved have been given new identities, nor is such a thing even possible. The coupe's identities were, at most, confidential: but such an extraordinary case, had it actually occurred, would surely have been picked up by someone at the time. Over the past few days, tabloid newspapers have offered to open the chequebooks to anyone who'll give them a lead, offering anonymity if necessary. Yet not a whisper.

Lord Alton told the House of Lords that he had learned of the case from the judge who decided it. Later, pressed by the Sun, he admitted that the judge he spoke to might only have been "familiar" with the case. To date, no judge has come forward, even off the record, to confirm having had such a conversation with the noble lord. The senior Family Division judge stated, on the record, that he was unaware of any such case. In any event, annulment cases normally only reach the High Court when there are complex financial issues at stake, or the legality of the marriage is in real dispute. Neither is likely to have been the case here.

So Alton's story lacks not only detail, verification and likelihood, it also lacks procedural plausibility. We are asked to believe that a case, in itself statistically extraordinary, was decided in a legally unusual manner, in conditions of strict secrecy, and without the senior relevant judge being made aware of it.

Alternatively, Lord Alton might have been mistaken. He might have mis-heard, or over-interpreted what he was told, or mis-remembered.

It's easy to imagine how Lord Alton might have come to hear about, believe, and repeat, a story that is not, in fact true. Much more difficult to imagine circumstances in which such an incident could have taken place in reality. That ought to be case closed.

And yet, and yet. A lot of people out there want to believe it.

According to some, indeed, the onus ought to be on the sceptics to disprove the story. Here, for example, is Andrew, writing on the BoingBoing site:

As an identical twin whose mother is an adoption researcher and support provider (no, I'm not adopted, but I've heard countless stories and read plenty of books about twins and adoption), I'd like to point out that stories like these are not as uncommon as you might think. Many of you have previously made this point, and I think that just because some guy on a blog came up with a couple not-so-well-thought-out ideas for why it might be an urban legend doesn't mean it is. I've met plenty of people, through my mother's work, who have had even more bizarre stories than this. Not to mention that in many cases of adoption, if there even are records, they are usually extremely difficult for a person to get, even if they have medical reasons to request them, and often are changed or filled in with incorrect information in the first place. These two people might not have even had copies of their birth certificates, or if they did they might have had incorrect info.

How does "some guy on a blog" answer that one?

Mathematics was never my strongest subject, so feel free to correct my arithmetic. I believe, however, that the following ought to be enough to put paid to this story.

The earliest year for which I could get figures for adoptions in Britain was 1974, when there were 22,502 adopted children. In the same year, there were 640,777 maternities, of which 1,873 were cases of mixed-sex twins. Which yields 3,746 individuals, or approximately 0.6% of the total. The figures for adoption of twins were not available to me, but, assuming all other things are equal, there would have been something in the order of 130 individual twins, the vast majority of whom would have been adopted together. Indeed, it is likely that all were.

(Some people have raised the well-known American case of Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein, who were born in 1968 in New York and adopted separately, as part of a research programme into the influence of environment on development. They were, however, identical twins, their separate adoption was deliberate and controversial, and it took place in the USA. Moreover (and this is important) they didn't meet by chance. Their meeting was the result of their seeking each other out. Almost all known cases of separated twins meeting have been the result of such endeavours.)

There are known cases of separated twins in Britain. In the 1970s and 80s, the social worker John Stroud was responsible for bringing several such people together, and encouraging them to co-operate with an American research project. However, his work relates to adoptions that took place at least 50 years ago. And even then, making such connections isn't easy. It's not the sort of thing that tends to happen by chance. In any case, Alton's story allegedly relates to a "recent case".

But let's imagine a scenario in which 50% of twins taken for adoption are separated at birth (almost certainly much too high a figure). That represents, on 1974 figures, around 60 individuals. Over a thirty-year period (say the ages of 20 and 50, when most people get married) there would therefore be 1800 potential long-lost twins. In a population size of 60 million, what are the chances of their meeting?

An average person meets, in the sense of getting to know reasonably well, approximately 1000 people in the course of a lifetime. Thus the chance of any person meeting any other person in Britain is roughly 1 in 60,000. But there are 1800 people to meet, so the odds of this happening for any individual should be reduced by the same factor, to a mere 1 in 33. There would, therefore, be 54 people who randomly met their separated twin. Yet stories of such random meetings are much rarer, which suggests that my initial figure was an exaggeration. Either that, or they remain ignorant of the fact. After all, most people who know each other only slightly don't compare birth certificates and adoption stories.

But we're not talking about random meetings of slight acquaintances. We're talking about marriage, which is much rarer: most people only marry once or twice in a lifetime. So for a person A, the chances of meeting and marrying a second person B, in a random sample of the population, is one in 20 million. In the case of separated twins, the figure can be reduced, agan, by a factor of 1800. This represents a possibility of one in 11,111. That works out as 0.16 marriages. Over a thirty-year period.

Alton's incident, therefore, is something that (if total ignorance prevailed, and there were no safeguards to prevent it) ought to happen once every 200 years. But only in a country whose population is 60 million. A century ago, it was half that. So let's call it once every 400 years.

Unlikely, but possible? No, because several safeguards would still stand in the way. Most adoptees know at least the basic facts of their birth. Under British law the birth of twins is recorded in a specific way, with the time of birth being recorded. And while the names of the parents are omitted from the birth certificate of an adopted child, the date and place of birth are retained. So no-one putting themselves forward for marriage ought to be in any doubt that they are adopted; in the case of separated twins, the coincidence of time and place would also be made apparent. A serious and fairly rare error would have to have taken place, or there would have to have been a deliberate deception, for the facts not to become apparent before the wedding. Factor in a error margin of 2%. Or, to be generous, 4%.

Even allowing for a higher percentage of twins being adopted separately than is known to be the case, therefore, we are still left with a situation that ought to occur in a country the size of modern Britain, on average, once every 10-20 thousand years .

And even then, it would be most unlikely to reach the High Court.

Alternatively, Lord Alton might be mistaken. Well, what do you think? Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Welcome Heretics

The Heresiarch would like to welcome the many neophytes who are visiting this blog for the first time. I don't quite feel like Lord Byron, who awoke one morning to discover himself famous, but my attempts to raise doubts about the "married twins" story have at last attracted a modicum of attention.

If you want to read the full story, scroll down. I first blogged about this subject last Friday "("I don't believe it") raising doubts about the plausibility of the story, which has many of the characteristics of an urban legend. On Saturday, I turned to the media coverage, the credibility of Lord Alton himself, and the cultural and mythic resonances which the story might have ("Lord Alton's Tall Story"). After a Hef-related interlude on Sunday, I subjected the coverage to further scrutiny on Monday ("The myth-makers") with particular emphasis on the role of the BBC, and the fantastical embellishments of the tabloid press.

Just to be clear, my objection is not based on the implausibility of the story itself. Of course, it was wildly improbable, not only statistically but also in terms of the number of failures of procedure, disclosure and common-sense there would have to have been. But then very strange things do happen. Extraordinary claims, however, require extraordinary evidence, and there was no evidence produced for this story at all. Just an anecdote told by a maverick peer, with a particular religious and political agenda to promote. Why, then, was it taken so seriously? This is a question to which I shall return.

While you're here, I hope you take the opportunity to look around and see if there's anything else that interests you. This blog tends to concentrate on politics, religion, and to a lesser extent cultural and social topics, with a generous helping of the bizarre. I try not to be too predictable.

Let me know what you think. And please come again. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Pub philosophy

As I noted yesterday, the "married twins" story is probably too widely disseminated to be finished off entirely. Still, it looks like a smidgeon of doubt is at last beginning to creep in. Writing in today's Guardian, Jon Henley wonders how seriously anyone would have taken the story if they'd heard it down the pub.

Assuming your brain is still functioning like the well-oiled piece of precision engineering it is, your response would, I trust, be: "That's a wind-up if ever I heard one. Think about it for a minute - you mean these two meet by accident, discover not only that they were both adopted but were born on exactly the same day in exactly the same town, and still never pause to wonder whether they might be related? Pull the other one. What did it say on their birth certificates?"

In his piece, Henley references the "excellent Heresy Corner blog". Clearly a man of taste and discrimination. Thanks, Jon. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 14 January 2008

The myth-makers

It's probably too late now to kill the "married twins" story. Short of Lord Alton himself stepping forward and admitting he made the whole thing up - and perhaps even then - it will remain for all time one of those weird-but-terrible "real life" stories, recycled endlessly, trotted out as evidence of the strange workings of chance, or as proof of the existence of "genetic sexual attraction".

I blame the BBC. Whether or not the Beeb had the story first (it might have been the Evening Standard) they ran it on all their main bulletins, gave it prominence on their website, and consulted various legal and psychological experts without once pausing to question the strength of the evidence or the trustworthiness of the source. Their version is by far the most frequently-cited and most "authoritative" record of the supposed case.

The BBC always stresses the excellence and renown of its news-gathering operation in any defence of its protected and pre-eminent position, funded by a compulsory and increasingly anachronistic licence fee. It revels in its supposed status as the world's most trusted purveyor of reliable information. Its press office boasts:

BBC News and Current Affairs is at the heart of the BBC's output.

It is the largest broadcast news operation in the world, producing about 120 hours of output daily (44,000 hours a year), with more than 2,000 journalists.

These days, however, much of its journalism appears to consist of little more than recycling press-releases and dressing up the words of spin-doctors as political reporting. Proper investigations do still exist in the BBC, but seem rarely to make it into the main news slots. Certainly none of those fabled 2,000 journalists seems to have done anything to check out this particular fairy-tale.

David Icke, a man whose skewed outlook on the world occasionally gives him a perspective of detached lucidity, has coined the term "repeaters" for practitioners of this type of lazy journalism. "They are just repeaters, repeating what they are told to believe".

One of the remarkable aspects of this story was the way in which so little information was stretched so far. The original speech by Lord Alton, made in December in the House of Lords, contained literally nothing in the way of verifiable fact, and almost nothing in terms of detail. Just to recap, all he actually said was that the case

involved the normal birth of twins who were separated at birth and adopted by separate parents. They were never told that they were twins. They met later in life and felt an inevitable attraction, and the judge had to deal with the consequences of the marriage that they entered into and all the issues of their separation.

Compare this with how the Mirror reported the story on Saturday:

The couple, who did not have children, met as adults and went on to have a happy marriage until DNA tests revealed they are related.

Their marriage was annulled at a special hearing in London behind closed doors. A High Court judge ruled the marriage had never validly existed.

Apart from "met as adults" and "the marriage was annulled", every word in this account appears to have been invented, presumably by the reporter trying to sex things up. DNA tests? No children? Happy marriage? Of course, no-one's going to contradict them. If the Mirror really believed the story they might have been more circumspect.

Worse still was the Daily Star:

The twins were adopted by separate families in different parts of Britain when they were just days old.

In an amazing twist of fate, the pair met as adults and fell in love. They were said to have felt an instant attraction after meeting in a nightclub.

They held a traditional white wedding.

But not long after their honeymoon, the bombshell news was revealed.

All made-up nonsense, as is the following juicy tidbit:

They were told they could not live as man and wife and were in an illegal and incestuous relationship....

They have agreed never to live together or have sex with each other again.

The whole account is a work of fiction, if a remarkably unimaginative one (met in a nightclub? who'd have thought it!) . But then the Star can say anything it likes. After all, as the report went on to affirm,

The judges who ruled that their marriage was invalid ordered that complete secrecy should surround the case.

One wonders how any these details could have been brought to the Star's attention, given the "complete secrecy" ordered by the courts.

The ultimate irony, however, must be that the only news organisation which bothered to research the facts with any degree of rigour was (drumroll) the News of the World.

Yes indeed. The Screws has it.

On Saturday, they took the (one would have thought) obvious step of contacting the President of the Family Division of the High Court Sir Mark Potter.

"This is the first I have heard of it," he said.

"I know of neither any judge who presided over such a case nor of the case itself."

Which, of course, kills the story stone dead. At least it ought to.

Lord Alton's Tall Story Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Parallel Lives

When he nearly ninety (according to Plato) someone asked Sophocles how his love-life was going. "Are you still capable of having sex with a woman?" asked the questioner, bluntly. Indeed not, replied the author of Oedipus and Antigone. "I am grateful to be free of that brutal and insane master."

Of course, there was no Viagra in those days, although Pliny the Elder recommended leek, asparagus, and the feet of a certain lizard, mixed with wine, as infallible remedies for impotence. Nevertheless, the great playwright's philosophical acceptance of his waning powers (though he was still churning out Attic tragedies like a man ten years younger, Euripides for instance) stands in dignified contrast to the grinning decrepitude of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who in a recent interview declared his ambition to be still capax coeundi when he reaches 100.

The Playwright and the Playboy

"I have three girlfriends, a TV show and a hugely popular men’s magazine," declared the 81 year-old, as though that explained it.

Hef's carnal performance is, however, said already to leave much to be desired. Frankly emetic descriptions have emerged of the efforts required of the young women in his life to stimulate the old roué. Former Playboy Mansion inmate Izabella St James, in her recent book Bunny Tales, stated that the girls were subject to a 9pm curfew and only got any action once a week. If they were "lucky". Even one of Hefner's three current live-in "girlfriends", 22-year old Kendra Wilkinson, has admitted she relies on artificial stimulus. "All girls need a vibrator!" she said. Some more than others.

The ludicrous goings-on at the Playboy mansion are these days little more than easy publicity for the expanding business. In recent years, the spread of the Playboy's bunny logo to products seemingly targeted at prepubescent girls has provoked a minor moral panic. Personally, though, I find the thought of a child innocently clutching her pencil case with its "cute" bunny logo provides a considerably less disturbing mental image than this new one of a trio of surgically-enhanced twentyish blondes coaxing a drooling centenarian's senescent cock into performing a simulacrum of intercourse.

In any event, history shall be the judge. Unless humanity auto-destructs, or is supplanted by nanobots, in a thousand years time people will surely still be performing the works of Sophocles. But will they also be watching re-runs of Girls of the Playboy Mansion? I somehow doubt it.
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Saturday, 12 January 2008

Lord Alton's Tall Story

The story of the twins who allegedly got married, only to discover their relationship and seek a High Court annulment, continues to be reported uncritically by news organisations around the world. BBC News gave it prominent coverage on all its major bulletins last night, and the sensational tale has been reported as far afield as India and New Zealand.

So far, however, there remains only a single source for it: a speech by Lord Alton in the House of Lords. Since this story made international headlines yesterday, it's a little surprising to discover that he made the speech, in a debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, a whole month ago, on December 10th 2007. Anyway, this is what Lord Alton, a former Lib Dem MP who is now a cross-bencher, told the House:

I was recently in conversation with a High Court judge who was telling me of a case he had dealt with. This did not involve in vitro fertilisation; it involved the normal birth of twins who were separated at birth and adopted by separate parents. They were never told that they were twins. They met later in life and felt an inevitable attraction, and the judge had to deal with the consequences of the marriage that they entered into and all the issues of their separation. I suspect that it will be a matter of litigation in the future if we do not make information of this kind available to children who have been donor conceived.

That's it. No names, no dates, no context, no evidence. And that is where it might have remained, buried away in the pages of Hansard. Except that some eagle-eyed journalist (come forward and take your bow) happened upon it. As it sped around the world, it became, as such stories tend to steadily more specific in its details, until the News of the World, in its appeal for information, is able to claim,

Their marriage was annulled at the High Court at a special hearing held within the last 12 months.

What's their source for this assertion, I wonder?

The Sun has made a particularly big splash of the story. Twins' Plight Cruel Beyond Belief proclaimed their headline, above a story rich in the deathless prose for which that august journal is justly famed:

The smitten brother and sister — adopted by different families — discovered the shattering truth only after tying the knot.

Against all odds they had met and fallen for each other — neither even knowing they had a twin.

The horrified British couple faced the heartbreak of seeking to have their marriage annulled in the High Court after eventually finding out their love was forbidden.

Lacking what they really wanted (Do you know the twins? Call us!) they were forced to fall back on a roll-call of experts.

Biological psychologist Dr George Fieldman said:

Their mannerisms — and even their odour — would remind them of themselves.

Not to mention their birthdays.

Psychotherapist Audrey Sandbank, a consultant for the Twins and Multiple Births Association, said:

These twins were together until they were born and may have had a strong connection in the womb. When they met they would have felt like soul mates — particularly as like all siblings they shared approximately 50 per cent of their genes.

Would have felt like soul mates? How does she know? Many brothers and sisters can't stand each other.

Then there's the inevitable Dr Glenn Wilson, who told the Sun:

If you are raised separately from a close family member there is a tendency to experience a powerful lightning bolt attraction to them if you meet later in life. It can be an incredibly intense response and almost impossible to resist.

Genetic Sexual Attraction is, indeed, a recognised phenomenon. But almost all the recorded cases relate to people who met each other knowing their backgrounds. It's impossible to say to what extent knowledge of the relationship, however taboo, influences the tendency to GSA. Meeting a long-lost (or never-found) relative is an intensely emotional experience under any circumstances. Would there be the same attraction if you never realised that you were related? One can only speculate.

But what of the man behind these lurid headlines, what does he have to say for himself?

Speaking to The Sun last night, he admitted:

I don’t know if the judge was hearing the case himself or if it was simply one he was familiar with.

Say what? So when he told the House of Lords that the judge he was speaking to was the judge who decided the case, he wasn't telling the whole truth.

At this point, and pending the discovery of the couple involved (Do you know who they are? Phone the Sun and make your fortune) the story hits an impasse. Just another tall tale told by a friend of a friend. Or, in this case, a friend of a judge.

I didn't believe it yesterday, and I believe it even less today.

It does, however, have an extraordinary resonance. It's the sort of storyline one might expect from Neighbours. On a slightly more elevated level, it reminds me of the plot of Wagner's Die Walkurie, in which the separated twins Siegmund and Sieglinde meet by chance, feel a powerful attraction, discover that they're related, and only then have sex, engendering the mighty hero Siegfried whose story fills the remaining two operas of the Ring cycle.

It's this mythic quality, I suspect, that gives the story its power. That and the way in which it taps into more contemporary concerns about personal identity, genetics and scientists "playing God". Bear in mind that Alton raised the alleged case in the context of a bill mainly concerned with fertility treatment. This is an area which raises these issues in a stark sense, for we are told, over and over, by science and popular culture, that genetics is identity; that if we don't know our true genetic origin then we are missing "a piece of ourselves". It is precisely this firmly embedded modern attitude, the belief that nature trumps nurture, that the practice of adoption calls into question. "I'm adopted" says the adoptee. "I want to know my REAL parents". Genetics defines "real".

The story also invokes the powerful (and perversely attractive) taboo of incest. Add to that the dislocating effect of modern atomised societies, where few people know every detail of their family tree and it seems entirely possible that the neighbour you barely speak to might be a long-lost cousin; and the natural "wow factor" of any story involving statistically improbable events; and it's no wonder that the press leapt on Alton's tale like a starving dog devouring a juicy bone.

Surely, though, they should have treated it with an ounce of scepticism. The story hangs by a single thread, the credibility of Lord Alton himself, and his claim, which he quickly retreated from, to have spoken to the judge involved. Is the mere fact that he is a member of the house of lords enough to verify a tale that has all the hallmarks of an urban myth? Has no attempt been made to find an independent source?

Of course, there's no perfection in journalism. And journalists are, perhaps, to be forgiven when they fall for a well-laid hoax put up on Facebook or Wikipedia, as in the recent case of Bihawal Bhutto. But this is a story which cries out for some good, old-fashioned investigation.

They could start with Alton himself. In March 2002 Alton chaired a meeting in Parliament at which "satanic ritual abuse expert" Valerie Sinason presented her dubious claims that children were being abused by hooded devil-worshippers all over Britain. This despite the fact that these claims had been comprehensively dismissed in 1994 following a 3-year Dept of Health enquiry. One of Alton's guest experts claimed that the abusers had Masonic connections. 'Nuff said.

A man so pathologically gullible is likely to have seized on the recycled piece of legal mythology pedalled by the off-duty judge and polished it into a "recent case decided by the High Court" (itself unlikely, since annulments sought on straightforward grounds, and the supposed facts here were very straightforward indeed, are usually dealt with by lower courts). Bless him, he didn't even realise it was particularly big news, just an eye-catching plank in his argument for transparency. For a month, it laid dormant. Until a bleak January day when Peter Hain was in severe trouble with his accounts.

A story, thankfully, that the press seems eager to investigate in more detail. Though even here, they're more than a little late.

( See also The myth-makers, Case Closed)
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