Friday, 29 February 2008

A Touch of Harry

Behold, as may unworthiness define
A little touch of Harry in the night
And so our scene must to the battle fly

Henry V, ActIV, Prologue

On his admirably candid BBC editors' blog today, Jon Williams stressed the voluntary nature of the agreement that kept secret Prince Harry's tour of duty in Afghanistan. "Any of the organisations could have decided to leave at any time," he writes, and states his surprise that the agreement lasted so long. And indeed, it is somewhat surprising, especially given the emergence of the story in Australia and the more circumspect Internet rumours that were flying around in the middle of January. Williams also claims that,

Until yesterday, only a handful of people in the BBC knew about the story - trust me, keeping secrets from other journalists is hard work!

Is it, though?. Journalists these days, as Nick Davies demonstrates in his must-read Flat Earth News, can be a lazy and surprisingly incurious lot, happy to be spoon-fed press releases and happy stooges for scare stories planted by intelligence agencies. If they didn't know about Harry's deployment, it's because they didn't want to know, or simply didn't care. It was never a secret. The truth was always out there. Not telling the story was in no sense a dereliction of duty.

What came next, however, undoubtedly was.

Last night we were treated to acres of pro-war footage on all the major news channels, celebrating the derring-do antics of the "hero prince". What I found astonishing was the pure unabashed shoot-em-up militarism of practically all the coverage, and the celebratory, almost ecstatic, quality of the images. This was war as entertainment, war as pop video, war as lifestyle porn. See the young party prince blasting away at the dastardly foe. Harry firing a gun, Harry calling down airstrikes on Taliban positions, Harry having an evident ball. "This is about as normal as it gets," he said.


There was no real context, no proper analysis of what we were doing there and why, and little acknowledgement that there was anyone in Afghanistan who was not a terrorist. Repeatedly we were urged to feel pride and vicarious glee at Harry's (I don't deny it) courageous determination to get to the front line, to be in the thick of the action. But pride in a young man's bravery brings with it (how can it not?) complicity in what is being done in our name. All the more reason for a proper account of the real situation in Helmand province. We got none.

Meanwhile, the unfolding disaster, increasingly costly in terms of both lives and resources, less and less successful even in containing the Taliban (let alone rebuilding the country, which was supposed to be the whole point) continues apace. The Guardian today reported the findings of US intelligence chief Mike McConnell, that the Afghan government controlled barely 30% of the territory. Foreign forces, once welcomed as liberators, are increasingly resented and despised. The Taliban come and go, then come again. Most of the country remains under the control of warlords, or atavistic tribal leaders. Women are still prisoners. Poverty and ignorance reign. This is a country regressing determinedly to the middle ages.

In a tear-jerking moment, the prince told his interviewers of a letter he had received from his brother, in which William told him how proud their mother would have been. Harry added:

Hopefully, she would be proud. She would be looking down, having a giggle about the stupid things that I have been doing like going left when I should have gone right.

Proud of her son, no doubt. But would Diana the peace campaigner, who resigned her honorary commissions towards the end of her royal carreer, who was described, somewhat unfortunately, as a "loose cannon" by a Conservative politician after campaigning against landmines, really be full of glee to see him blasting away at a bunch of foreigners? I wonder.

Spot the difference


Whether or not his mother would have been proud, his country undoubtedly is. It's Henry V all over again: young prince puts his debauched, party-going ways behind him and becomes a man in the great proving-ground of war. Even the name's right. And, of course, it's so much more respectable to be taking a shot at "Terry Taliban" than boozing in a nightclub or feeling up some random blonde. Harry is, of course, an entirely unexceptional young army officer. Any of his colleagues could have told much the same story. But because he is a Royal - OK, let's be more modern, a celebrity - we're meant to identify with him, to feel patriotic on his behalf. Prince Andrew, tellingly, didn't get this sort of treatment at the time of the Falklands War - he was just one naval helicopter pilot among others. A better parallel, though a less action-packed one, might be with Elvis Presley's brief time in the US army at the end of the 1950s.

The media sealed a Faustian pact when it agreed to keep quiet about Harry's whereabouts in exchange for exclusive "access". Because what seems like (an undoubtedly is) a to-die-for scoop (even if it is a scoop shared with many other broadcasters and newspapers) actually turned out to be pure, unadulterated propaganda. That every major news organisation showed itself willing to produce such pap is, at one level, a sad comment on contemporary news values. But it was also astute. Royals are always a big pull. War, especially gung-ho, explosive war, makes for striking visuals. Royals at war equals guaranteed ratings, sales and kudos.

The media were bribed. But it was no quid pro quo. The Ministry of Defence stood only to gain from the arrangement.

This is not an argument for breaking the embargo. Jon Snow's synthetic anger on Channel 4 News last night ignored the fact that there were good reasons for keeping the story quiet: as we have seen today, once the story came out it was impossible for Prince Harry to continue. But respecting the dangers involved in Harry's deployment did not necessitate this orgy of propaganda.

And the media hard-sell carries with it immense dangers, if not domestically, then certainly in the wider world. It's particularly bad news for the BBC, who claim to be an impartial, objective news organisation, who claim reliability, who pride themselves on being taken seriously all over the world. They now stand revealed, if not exactly a mouthpiece for the British government, then at the very least as implicated in the British war machine, doing the bidding of the generals, taking the Queen's shilling. Will they ever be trusted internationally again? Can they any longer claim to be different from the likes of Fox News?

This isn't merely a matter of prestige. By a strange coincidence, the BBC's initial meeting with army chief Sir Richard Dannatt, on which the terms of the deal were thrashed out, took place on the same day that Alan Johnston was released from captivity in Gaza. His safety, and that of other reporters in dangerous locations, is to a large extent dependent on the corporation's reputation for even-handedness and honesty. This outbreak of pro-war cheerleading will hardly help. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Keeping Shtum

Whereof one cannot speak, said Wittgenstein, thereof one must remain silent.

News reached the Heresiarch several weeks ago that Prince Harry was on active service in Afghanistan. Indeed, anyone poking around in the comments sections of certain websites could have found sufficient information to join the dots. It was, in fact, widely known in journalistic circles that there was a major suppressed news story involving a member of the royal family, and that national security was involved. It was also noticed that Prince Harry had not been seen in public since December. It wasn't too difficult to work out what was going on.

I pondered, briefly, whether I should share this information with the world. But, coward that I am, I decided that I had better not. I wouldn't want a visit from the Men in Black. My understanding was that the story was subject to a D-Notice or gagging order. It turns out, though, that the information did leak out, on Jan 7, on the "New Idea" lifestyle e-zine of Australian Yahoo. Here's the proof. Said their report:

New Idea can exclusively reveal that despite opposition from senior members of the British government and the royal family itself, Harry now joins his uncle Prince Andrew as a royal who has been to war.

Why this story was completely ignored, yet today's revelation by the Drudge Report has gone around the world, is something I wouldn't want to speculate about. It now, however, appears that the BBC are running full scale embedded reports about the prince's military exploits against the Taliban, complete with interviews with HRH. They were all ready to drop into the schedules when the time was right. Officially, this is part of a quid pro quo for the media's reticence in not reporting the events. But it all sounds a bit cosy to me.

According to Sir Richard Dannatt, the army Chief,

I am very disappointed that foreign websites have decided to run this story without consulting us.

This is in stark contrast to the highly responsible attitude that the whole of the UK print and broadcast media, along with a small number overseas, who have entered into an understanding with us over the coverage of Prince Harry on operations.

There's no news yet as to whether the prince will stay in Afghanistan. But if the Taliban were seriously interested in targeting him, they're unlikely to be surprised by this revelation. Not that they could have done much with the information. Helmand Province is a big place, and one British soldier looks much like any other from a distance. It's understandable, after the media storm over Harry's aborted deployment to Iraq, that the Ministry of Defence wanted to keep the lid on the story for as long as possible. But Dannatt's statement sounds uncomfortably like a celebrity PR protecting an exclusive wedding deal with Hello! magazine.

UPDATE: There was a fascinating discussion about media secrecy on Channel 4 News this evening. It seems that the Harry story was less a matter of official secrets and more a case of a cosy stitch up, with all the nation's editors agreeing to say nothing. Jon Snow was being particularly self-righteous, complaining that it made Britain seem like China or Putin's Russia. But of course Channel 4 was as much a part of the cover-up as anyone else, and as much its beneficiary, running a lengthy exclusive report of its own (which was most notable for Harry's discussion of his lavatorial functions - "If I need a shit - sorry, I can't say 'shit' - whoops, that's twice").

Has there been such a cover-up to protect the royal family since the days of the Abdication crisis? You bet there has. Just ask Viscount Linley. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Hero of the People

In a surprising little exchange in Monday's Independent, Harriet Harman was asked about the departing Cuban leader Fidel Castro. "Hero of the left, or dangerous authoritarian dictator?" was the question. And her answer? "Hero of the Left - but it's time for Cuba to move on".

Harriet Harman's gaffe - if that is what it was - hasn't exactly been big news, but it seems to have created a few ripples at least. The Times's Danny Finkelstein had a cut-out-and-keep guide to Castro excesses which show up the old monster for what he really is. They included (embarrassingly for Harman) his policy of sending homosexuals to forced labour camps and his support for the murderous Mengistu regime in Ethiopia. Although some of Castro's more dubious actions, the political prisoners and press censorship, might indeed seem inspirational to some members of our present administration. Certainly, as yet, there's been no suggestion that a woman who, by her own admission, hero-worships an unrepentant communist dictator doesn't deserve her seat in the government. And, true to form, the BBC has thus far ignored the story entirely.

Then this lunchtime, at Prime Minister's Questions, Conservative MP John Baron asked Gordon Brown whether he agreed with his deputy. And he made the somewhat gnomic response that "There can be no defence against the abuse of democratic rights in any country". Which, if you think about it, doesn't address the question at all. Or does it? After all, when someone has abused your democratic rights you don't generally have much defence left, except perhaps to climb onto the roof of the House of Commons and unfurl a banner.

Cuba has never been a terror-state, and the Castro regime's achievements in health and education have been, considering the poor resources available, quite considerable. But it is in no sense a free society. The press is muzzled and opposition parties are non-existent. People are afraid to speak their minds. And now, the presidency has been handed from brother to geriatric brother in a manner not noticeably dissimilar to what goes on in Saudi Arabia. So how can a leading politician in a western liberal democracy possibly assent to the notion that Castro is a hero?

To be scrupulously fair to Harman (a hard task, but someone's got to try) she didn't actually say that Castro was her hero. She merely agreed with the proposition that he was a "hero of the Left". It was, of course, open to her to say that he was "a hero of some on the Left, but not me"; but the fact that she didn't avail herself of this opportunity doesn't necessarily mean that she personally admired Castro. Although she probably does. However (very New Labour, this) it's now "time for Cuba to move on". Hidden subtext: "Let's pretend the old sod never existed, and forget I ever had a picture of him on my student wall".

What neither the questioner nor, apparently, Harman herself considered was that the two parts of the question are not exactly incompatible. Being a "dangerous authoritarian dictator", which Castro undoubtedly was, at least with respect to the people of Cuba, doesn't preclude him from being, equally, a "hero of the Left". One might even think that the two go together like "Brussels" and "corruption", or "MP" and "expenses claim". Has there ever been a hero of the left who didn't have dangerously authoritarian tendencies? Tony Benn, perhaps, in his dotage, has been a doughty defender of Parliamentary democracy. But then he once described Mao as "the greatest man of the 20th century". Che Guevara, maybe, but only if you're prepared to overlook his involvement in Castro's Cuba. Which I'm not.

Fidel (it's always "Fidel", isn't it; though no-one ever called Ceaucescu Nicky) has long exercised a potent appeal to true lefties. Although not conventionally good-looking (unlike Che), he had a certain style, what with the cigars and the fatigues and the revolutionary beard (carefully poised, in terms of luxuriance, about mid-way between Lenin and Marx). More importantly, there was his half century-long stand off with the Americans. Thumbing one's nose at Uncle Sam is an essential for anyone who aspires to Lefty street-cred. And it's certainly not difficult to feel some sympathy for the Cuban people (if not with their rulers) who have suffered from the short-sighted vindictiveness of successive US administrations. Other anti-Yank dictators shared, and continue to share, Castro's presumed virtue in this regard. The Heresiarch remembers a philosophy lecturer at Oxford who used to organise sponsored bike-rides to support of General Noriega, the imprisoned drug-smuggling Panamanian dictator. These days, Ken Livingstone indulges in alternative diplomacy with the likes of Hugo Chavez, whose authoritarian tendencies become steadily more apparent.

But at least as important as the politics is the aura of romance that attaches itself to Lefty-approved dictators. From Stalin to (until recently) Mugabe, they may have committed atrocities, imprisoned opponents and promoted comico-sinister personality cults, but (so the theory goes) they had their hearts in the right place. They did it for "The People". And "The People", as opposed to individual people, have always been the Left's major concern. New Labour, often accused of selling out the Left, have also justified their excesses in the name of the great collectivity. In the chilling words of the 1997 Labour manifesto, "Our aim is to be the political arm of the British people as a whole". Small wonder that they have attempted to dismantle many of the protections which British people always took for granted against the overweening power of the State.

The socialist mindset is Utopian. And all Utopianism tends towards coercion, because people are awkward and individualistic and don't always want to do what's good for them. In an advanced western democracy politics will always entail compromise and disappointment: even as they stealthily extend their control, New Labour statists find themselves having to justify their actions, and occasionally to retreat. They can't (yet) just lock up the opposition. This, I think, is why so many of them still have a sneaking regard for Castro. They envy him. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Cohesive Cameron

Like the groundhog, David Cameron has peeked out from his burrow and, failing to see his shadow, has ventured into the open air. In a speech today on "Extremism, individual rights and the rule of law" the Tory leader finally confronted head-on the argument put forward by Rowan Williams that a plural and cohesive society requires space to be made for some aspects of religious law: notoriously, the idea that "there's one law for everybody" is "a bit of danger". Rather late, you might think: the archbishop's arguments have been countered before and exhaustively. Williams has himself found other things to concern him, today asking for more "public space" to be made available to teenagers. Still, Cameron's remarks are welcome, not least because they are bang on the money.

Partly, Cameron's target was the idea, put forward by Williams, that some formal recognition of Sharia would promote "social cohesion". He said:

I don't believe that by introducing Sharia law, we will make Muslims somehow feel more British - more content with life here and more happy to work for a common good.

In my view the opposite is the case: I think it would be to head in the wrong direction. The reality is that the introduction of Sharia law for Muslims is actually the logical endpoint of the now discredited doctrine of state multiculturalism instituting, quite literally, a legal apartheid to entrench what is the cultural apartheid in too many parts of our country.

This wouldn't strengthen society - it would undermine it. It would alienate other communities who would resent this preferential treatment.

Here, of course, DC is pushing at an open door. For this most cautious and media-savvy of politicians to enter into the debate at all would once have seemed inconceivable. Too many bad memories. There was a time when Tories were terrified of saying anything at all about multiculturalism for fear of being branded "racist". More recently, the party has tried to stress its multiculturalist credentials, leaving "Britishness" campaigns to Labour. So for Cameron to make such a clear statement is, in itself, a sign of how the ground has shifted away from the "different cultures in one society" view that was, until a few years ago, virtually unchallenged.

But the fact that Cameron feels able to say, bluntly, that "state multiculturalism is a wrong-headed doctrine that has had disastrous results", and that "it has stopped us from strengthening our collective identity. Indeed, it has deliberately weakened it," doesn't mean the argument is over. The "faith agenda", so forcefully promoted by God-botherer in chief Tony Blair, is now institutionalised and growing. It was recently confirmed, for example, that religious schools were to have their own separate inspectorate, more responsive to the "special character" of such institutions.

So it's good to know that David Cameron sees so clearly the basic problem with communitarian solutions of the type Williams appears to favour. Which is simply put: what's good for "the community" might be very bad indeed for individuals. This is what Cameron identifies as the "nub" of the Sharia danger:

It would provide succour to the separatists who want to isolate and divide communities from the mainstream. And it would - crucially - weaken, destabilise and demoralise those Muslims who embrace liberal values and desperately want to integrate fully in British society.

For too long we've caved into more extreme elements by hiding under the cloak of cultural sensitivity.

For too long we've given in to the loudest voices from each community without listening to what the majority want.

And for too long, we've come to ignore differences - even if they fly in the face of human rights, notions of equality and child protection - with a hapless shrug of the shoulders saying 'it's their culture isn't it? Let them do what they want'.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown put the case against Sharia particularly strongly in the Independent shortly after Williams made his pitch. "What he wishes on us is an abomination", she wrote:

Look around the Islamic world where sharia rules and, in every single country, these ordinances reduce our human value to less than half that is accorded a male; homosexuals are imprisoned or killed, children have no free voice or autonomy, authoritarianism rules and infantilises populations.

Truly moderate Muslims - like YAB herself - have been repeatedly betrayed, by the government, by "multicultural" local authorities, and by the pieties of an "interfaith" movement that increasingly resembles a trade union for religious bigwigs, attempting to negotiate some sort of closed shop. Rowan Williams thinks that it's the place of an established church to speak out on behalf of all "faith communities", blithely ignoring the fact that the largest "faith community" of all is the community of the not particularly religious, the weddings-and-funerals faithful who feel some sort of attachment to their ancestral creed but certainly don't want its leadership dictating their lives.

Multiculturalism may indeed lead to a fragmented, polarised, racially or religiously divided society. But that's not what's wrong with it. The objection to it is, at base, a philosophical one. It puts people into little boxes marked "ethnicity" or "religion" or "sexuality". And then it concentrates on the box, not on the person. The results, for victims of forced marriage or "honour killings", can be catastrophic. But even those who aren't subject to these headline-grabbing horrors are still often constrained or suffocated by strong, internally cohesive, "close-knit" communities. Modern, secular society should be about allowing everybody, whatever their background, the space to be themselves. And to find out, for themselves, what that means. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 25 February 2008


Two contradictory decisions by the BBC last week suggest a level of moral confusion surrounding the question of "sensitivity" and the responsibility of broadcasters.

On the one hand, the corporation decided on thursday to scrap the planned broadcast of BBC3 drama Dis/Connected, described as "a drama aimed at a young audience which deals with the emotional build up to the suicide of a teenage girl and the effects which this has on her friends". According to a spokeswoman, although "the drama deals with the issue with sensitivity", they decided to postpone it "given the recent tragic events in Bridgend". No new broadcast date has been given.

Yet, on the same day, the BBC showed the latest episode of Ashes to Ashes, the inferior follow-up to Life on Mars, despite the plotline's focus on a religious nutcase who went around murdering prostitutes. This was at least as topical a subject as suicide: more so, in that the"Suffolk Strangler" Steve Wright had been convicted on that very day, after a highly-publicised trial, of the murders of five prostitutes in Ipswich. In an explanatory note, the Beeb stressed the "fantastical nature" of the series, and the fact that it was "set in a different era and different location". "we believe that there is little similarity between the Suffolk murders and the plotline." And the decision would seem to have been vindicated; certainly, there have been very few reported complaints.

But there was equally little connection between events in and around Bridgend (which has seen seventeen youth suicides in just over a year, four in the past month) and the drama Dis-connected. The drama investigates a social issue of considerable importance, one which the Bridgend cluster has highlighted but which is by no means unique to that corner of Wales. There are an average of two youth suicides in Britain every day: most do not make the national news, but the bereaved families suffer just as much. If "sensitivity" were to be shown to all such families, no drama on the subject could ever be shown.

Nor would the broadcast be likely to trigger "copycat" suicides. Even if some of the later suicides in the Bridgend area were influenced by media coverage - and it's far too early to tell - a serious drama concentrating on the impact of a suicide on the victim's family and friends would be more likely to discourage than provoke a young person contemplating taking their own life. If anything, Dis/Connected should have been promoted to one of the BBC's terrestrial channels, where it would have a larger audience. The coincidence of timing would almost certainly have garnered the film more viewers in any case. Potentially, it could have saved lives. Instead of which, in the dubious interests of "sensitivity", it has been junked.

On the face of it, it's hard to see how the Bridgend suicides should be seen as an issue requiring much greater sensitivity than the altogether more extraordinary events last year in Ipswich, a spate of killings that recalled the activities of the Yorkshire Ripper thirty years before but little in between. If anything, the use of the serial murder of prostitutes as a plot device in what is, basically, light entertainment is far more "insensitive" - certainly towards the families of the murdered women - than a socially-aware "issues-based" drama such as Dis/Connected was apparently intended to be. If "sensitivity" is indeed the BBC's watchword, then the decision to screen Ashes to Ashes seems about as sensitive as DCI Gene Hunt.

But of course, serial killers, while the everyday staple of crime drama, are rare in everyday life. That is why, when caught, or on a killing spree, or on trial, they are invariably big news. The past week, by a freak happenstance, has seen the conviction of new fewer than three such offenders: a whole year's worth. This may create the impression that the country is overrun by serial killers. In reality, the despair and loneliness that lead so many young people to suicide are much bigger killers, as dangerous as they are (usually) unreported. Showing Dis/Connected would have gone some way towards redressing the balance. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Spinning and Flogging

Ever since the notorious case of the rape victim sentenced to being flogged for being in the wrong car - known as the Qatif girl - Saudi Arabia has been a happy hunting-ground for news organisations in search of an easy snigger. Or, to put it more politely, a pithy illustration of the cultural gulf that separates that "conservative" Islamic country from the decadent west. In recent weeks there has been the female executive - who happened to possess American nationality - arrested for using a laptop in a Riyadh branch of Starbucks where men were present, the ban on Valentines Day roses (aimed at suppressing a "pagan Christian festival") and, rather more seriously, the case of a woman sentenced to death by beheading for witchcraft.

Yesterday's "only in Saudi" tale concerned 57 teenage boys arrested by religious police in a shopping mall for "wearing indecent clothes, playing loud music and dancing in order to attract the attention of girls". It's a situation that oddly recalls the plot of The Mikado, the action of which is set in motion by an imagined anti-flirting campaign in a fictional Japan:

Our great Mikado
Virtuous man
When he to rule our land began
Resolved to try
A plan whereby
Young men might best be steadied.

So he decreed in words succinct
That all who flirted, leered, or winked
Unless connubially linked
Should forthwith be beheaded.

Although it's likely that these youths will get off rather more lightly. With a flogging, perhaps.

It appears, though, that the Saudis have begun to take notice of the puzzlement their unique style of justice creates in countries whose legal systems lack the salutary benefits of a firm religious foundation. And they are resolved to do something about it. The Ministry of Justice, it is reported, is planning to appoint a spin-doctor.

According to the Saudi Gazette (a must-read news source for anyone with an interest in extraterrestrial life-forms), "the Ministry is leaning towards appointing an official spokesperson to nip rumours and 'fabricated' news in the bud." The move came, said an anonymous source, partly as a result of the "upheaval" triggered by the Qatif case. "Openness to the media and delegation of powers are one of the administrative policies favored by the Minister of Justice Abdullah Bin Mohammad Aal Al-Sheikh," he added.

So it's all about "transparency", then: the last redoubt of the politically desperate. It's not that there's anything wrong with the way things are, it's just that we're not getting our message across effectively. It's hard to believe, though, that more information about Saudi justice will combat its negative image in the wider world. As Bagehot said in a rather different context, it doesn't do to let daylight in on magic. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 22 February 2008

Pictures for the Attic

The picture on the left shows how Britney Spears might look in ten years time, according to boffins at They reckon that a combination of junk food, drink, drugs and general bad living will take a major toll. The picture on the right advances the aging process a further decade, offering us a glimpse of a 46 year-old dyed-blonde casualty of life who wouldn't look out of place on a checkout at ASDA.

Of course, she won't look anything like either of these images. She will have botox, surgery, and the attentions of a small army of stylists to neutralise the aging process. Kylie at not quite forty looks eerily similar to Kylie at 18, albeit with much improved hair. The once drug-addled Marianne Faithfull looks magnificent in her sixties. Assuming she manages to stay alive over the next few years, Britney will be no different. Mere mortals fall prey to the ravages of time and gravity, superstars do not.

But she'll certainly be locking the door to her attic.

Via The Superficial Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Obamamania Rules

Now that Barack Obama has the Democrat nomination (almost) in the bag, one thing should be glaringly apparent: he's made of teflon. None of the mud will stick. The guy who claims he had sex and cocaine with the Illinois senator in the back of a Las Vegas limo, the claims of plagiarism, the whispering campaign attempting to link Obama supporters to radical Islam, the brainless smearing Michelle Obama for being insufficiently "proud" to be an American: none of it seems to matter. No-one's listening, for one thing: what the Clinton camp, who are deeply implicated in some of these stories, have failed to realise is that increasing numbers of Americans actively want Obama to succeed. Like Bonnie Tyler, they need a hero, and now they appear to have found one it's positivity all the way. Even if there were substance in the stories (which I don't believe) it probably wouldn't do the Obama campaign much damage. At least not at this stage in the campaign. He is, as they say, on a roll.

There are those who find the candidate's seemingly unstoppable momentum, and especially its unrelenting upbeatness, somewhat disconcerting, even sinister. "Obamamania", they complain. There are reports of women fainting at rallies, and other reports subtly insinuating that the fainting women have been planted. Obama is accused of acting like a Messiah, or even believing he is one; and, if you want to experience the nuttier fringe element, try googling "Obama antichrist". Some talk of an "Obama cult". In the Mail of Sunday, Peter Hitchens absurdly compared an Obama event to a Nazi rally:

A Left-wing friend has emailed me a YouTube Obama propaganda video that reminds him - in technique - of Leni Riefenstahl's Hitler-worshipping film Triumph Of The Will. I see what he means. To an insistent beat, impossibly beautiful, multiracial young men and women endlessly repeat the slogan "Yes, we can", in a disturbingly mindless way.

The thing contains no thought, no argument - just Obama worship.

"Yes we can" may be a fairly empty slogan - and nicked from Bob the Builder, to boot - but it's hardly "Sieg Heil". And, from a British perspective, it makes a refreshing change from the finger-wagging moralism of New Labour, who seem much of the time to be saying "No you can't". Besides, enthusing a crowd is in itself morally neutral. Hitler's rhetoric was dangerous only because his message was evil. He wanted his followers to beat up Jews and invade Poland. Obama wants his supporters to make America a better place, or at least to believe that such a thing is possible. There's a difference.

The more serious detractors complain that Obama lacks substance: this, of course, is the main plank in Hillary Clinton's faltering attack, that she has the experience, he merely the aspirations. On one level, of course, this charge is nonsense: Obama has a solid record as a legislator both at state and federal level. But there is something to the Obama campaign that lifts it, and him, far above anything that can reasonably be connected with his real achievements, or, indeed, the likely achievements that he would be able to effect in the White House. There is an undeniably delusional quality to some of the fervour that encompasses him. It floats on a cloud of rhetoric. There's a lot of hot air.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. Hot air is an unfairly maligned substance. Hot air rises. It fills out empty packages. It is hot air that enables eagles to soar and gliders to glide for miles. It can power balloons across oceans. It's usually preferable to the alternative, which is cold water. Of course, talk is no substitute for action, or work, or actual accomplishment; but it can make these things happen. Churchill had little going for him in 1940 besides rhetoric. He said as much himself: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat." But his words made the difference. Today, with the world economy facing potential crisis, we need a figure at the helm exuding optimism and belief. Depression is, after all, a condition of the mind. Save the cynicism for the good times.

Obama's major message, of course, is "change". That most hackneyed of political pitches, "time for a change", has perhaps never seemed more pressing, or more appropriate. George Bush's blundering foreign policy and simplistic utterances have trashed America's image around the world, and Americans increasingly know it. Michelle Obama may have been lambasted by right-wingers - how dare she question the sacred truth that all decent Americans walk around coddled in a microclimate of patriotic self-satisfaction - but many will have nodded in agreement. There's little to be proud of in Guantanamo Bay, in rendition flights, in the response to Hurricane Katrina and the underbelly of racism and misery that it exposed, in capital punishment. If nothing else, President Obama will look different. And if he's even a tenth as successful at charming the rest of the world - even cynical old Europe - as he has been at courting millions of Americans, then his hot air may yet dispell the chill that has descended on international relations. It'll be global warming, but in a good way.


And what of John McCain? His campaign has moved today to deny allegedly damaging claims that he has been intimate with glamorous Washington lobbyist Vicki Iseman. According to the story in the New York Times,

In 1999 she began showing up so frequently in his offices and at campaign events that staff members took notice. One recalled asking, "Why is she always around?"

That February, Mr. McCain and Ms. Iseman attended a small fund-raising dinner with several clients at the Miami-area home of a cruise-line executive and then flew back to Washington along with a campaign aide on the corporate jet of one of her clients, Paxson Communications. By then, according to two former McCain associates, some of the senator's advisers had grown so concerned that the relationship had become romantic that they took steps to intervene.

A former campaign adviser described being instructed to keep Ms. Iseman away from the senator at public events, while a Senate aide recalled plans to limit Ms. Iseman's access to his offices.

McCain's aides have, it is said, been trying to suppress this story for weeks, fearing a romantic entanglement will be a major, perhaps fatal, blow to his candidacy.

I wonder. The odd sex scandal didn't do Bill Clinton's electoral prospects much harm in 1992, after all. And McCain, for all his hero status, looks his age. A bit of mild naughtiness, a hint here and there that his virility is still intact - even the fact that the reputed liaison, even if untrue, is at least plausible - could be just what he needs. And Ms Iseman is both beautiful and classy, as well as young enough, at 40, to be his daughter.

Might this story even be a plant?

I'm reminded of the occasion when the septuagenarian Prime Minister Lord Palmerston was reputed to have fathered an illegitimate child. Opposition leader Disraeli decided not to exploit the situation. "If this news gets out, he'll sweep the country," he is said to have warned. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

I've got this friend

The Times has an alarmist story about students turning to prostitution to pay their way through university. "Handcuffs and condoms are replacing textbooks for a growing number of students" it warns, citing among others "Catharine" who earns £900 a week for two nights' "work". Says "Catharine":

I could be stacking shelves in Tesco for £5 an hour but I choose to have a job where you can make a lot of money in a few hours and then actually have time to do my uni work properly.

It's not exactly news: such stories have been around for years. As long ago as 2001 a student leader in Leeds claimed that 60% of the city's prostitutes were students. It is, however, increasingly topical. Last year a report in the Cambridge student newspaper Varsity, which featured an interview with a student escort-girl, hit the national headlines. Academics at the university were forced to issue a denial that large numbers of their undergraduates were on the game. (Oxford, I'm proud to report, got there first.) A few weeks ago, the French government expressed concern at claims that as many as 40,000 students might be prostituting themselves - although on closer analysis, it appears that the story had much to do with publicity for the racy memoirs of "Laura", a French student and escort. It also comes at the time when government ministers are considering following the lead of Sweden by introducing a total ban on all payment for sex, a measure said to be aimed at sex trafficking but which would seem particularly deadly to escort agencies or the Internet sites that "Catharine" and her like use to advertise their services.

The Times report bases its alarming statistics on a survey carried out by a team led by Dr Ronald Roberts. A psychologist currently based at Kingston University, a little known institution in South West London, Roberts's research specialisms include student health and the paranormal. His initial findings on student involvement in the sex industry formed a small part of a much broader survey into student health carried out in 1999, which revealed, among other things, that 4% claimed to know someone involved in lap-dancing, stripping, or prostitution. A follow-up survey, focussing on the sex industry, was carried out in 2006, and appeared to find that this figure had increased by a half to 6%. On this basis, the Times went on to speculate that

with a third study currently underway, more than eight per cent of the current student population is expected to be participating in sex work. a trend that will see at least 8% involvement.

According to Roberts himself:

We anticipate that figure will continue to rise. What we can definitely say is that as long as student debt increases so will the numbers of students entering the industry. Since the introduction of tuition fee’s in 1998 there has been an increase in students undertaking this kind of work.

I had a closer look at Roberts's report, and the methodology on which it was based. Although it set out to "gather more systematic evidence on the involvement of UK students in the sex industry as a necessary means of supplementing their income", it actually proves nothing. For a start, it was a tiny survey. Only 130 questionnaires were sent out, to students at "a London university" which may or may not have been Kingston. The study was based on the 96 replies which were received. Of these, according to Roberts, almost half "met the criteria for probable psychiatric disorder". Either this means that half the student population of Britain is seriously mentally disturbed (unlikely) or there's something strange about the sample. If the latter, of course, then the survey is completely meaningless.

But even on its own terms, it tells us little or nothing. Only 10 of those surveyed claimed to know (or know of) a student in the sex industry. Of these, six knew of prostitutes, four knew of strippers, and six knew of lap-dancers (there was obviously some overlap). But (and this is the kicker) the sample were also analysed for membership of what Roberts termed "risk groups": a history of alcoholism, prior sex abuse, and financial difficulties. Those thought to be in high risk groups were more likely than others to know someone involved in stripping or lap dancing. But this did not apply to prostitution.

Roberts speculated that the anonymity of the survey allowed for a significant degree of self-reporting. In other words, the "friend" involved in the sex industry was the respondent herself. If this is true (and it is pure speculation) then it suggests that such students might indeed earn money stripping. None of them, however, seem to have been prostitutes.

Needless to say, six students in a sample of less than 100 claiming to know of the existence of a student prostitute doesn't equate, as the Times suggested, to a similar percentage actually being engaged in prostitution. Any more than the finding in the earlier study that 22% claimed to know a drug dealer means that almost a quarter of students deal in drugs (though it may suggest that they know a supplier).

Roberts and his colleagues themselves seem unsure of the relevance of the survey. At one point, they write that

This study confirms a considerable amount of anecdotal evidence and replicates earlier work (Roberts et al., 2000) that suggests that students are participating in the sex industry as a consequence of financial hardship.

Yet they also stress (a point ignored by the Times) that the apparent increase from 4% to 6% in respondents claiming to know a sex worker was "not statistically significant."

We also acknowledge that the limited sample statistical power of the present study cannot establish with certainty whether students are involved in sex work as a direct consequence of rising financial hardship brought on by tuition fees.

Roberts's intentions would seem to be largely political. His paper makes much of the financial hardship facing students today, deplores the government's attitude to student finance, compares student prostitution with sex trafficking, and bemoans the fact that the government, the universities and student bodies have

so far shown little inclination to recognise or address the problems that are on their doorstep. This must change if progress is to be made. The question for universities and for the National Union of Students, is why their clientele are increasingly turning to employment which entails the provision of sexual services to a paying public with the potential cost of psychological and physical harm to themselves.

So much for the evidence. To his credit, Roberts does call for more extensive research to be done in the area. The media, on the other hand, are less concerned with evidence than with alarmism and titillation. That the "student escort" exists is not in doubt. There is much less evidence that the proportion of students involved in prostitution is significantly higher than in the population as a whole. It is unknown what percentage of the roughly 80,000 sex-workers in the UK (according to possibly exaggerated Home Office figures) are in full or part-time higher education. Nor is there any research asking what becomes of these women, although there are anecdotes aplenty. Some, no doubt, graduate and give up the game. Others may find it an easy living and keep it up, Belle de Jour style, for years afterwards. And others still will drop out of education and find themselves in a downward spiral of drug abuse, psychologicial problems and self-hatred. But who knows?

An unknown, but probably fairly small, number of students moonlighting as prostitutes is not in itself a social cataclysm, but it does make a great story. It plays into several contradictory stereotypes. On the one hand, the hard-up student forced to desperate measures by dire financial straits can be portrayed as a victim of the government's reforms of student finance. Yet the notion that a prostitute is more likely to be a confident, intelligent Oxbridge girl than a heroin-addicted single mother or a trafficked rape victim is a strangely positive one.

The "student escort girl" is a figure of fantasy, of admiration as well as of pity or scorn. She embodies, I think, many of our confusions about sex, money, feminism and modern morals. She represents the ruthless careerism and pragmatic attitude towards sex that seems to characterise the rising generation, a generation that came of age in an era of "raunch culture", spiralling property-prices, sex blogs, unsentimental globalisation and pervasive porn. She is, in short, an urban myth.

But then again, I knew a girl who did a bit of escort work back in the day. She's now quite prominent in one of our major political parties. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Flat Earther speaks

Nice to know that scientific debate is alive and well in war-torn Iraq. Leading astronomer Fadhel Al-Sa’d here takes on the heretical dimwits who believe the earth is round. The Koran says otherwise. So does common sense.

Of course, as admirers of Terry Pratchett are well aware, the earth is not only flat but balanced on the back of a giant turtle. As to what the turtle is standing on, the standard response is "turtles all the way down." Read the rest of this article

Monday, 18 February 2008

Sad, mad and dangerous to himself

David Icke will no doubt be feeling vindicated, or at least gratified, by the news that Mohamed Al Fayed has compared members of the royal family to vampires. Speaking as a witness at the Diana inquest today, he referred to "that Dracula family". (Although of Prince Philip, confusingly, he said that his real name "ends with Frankenstein"*) And then, for good measure, he called Camilla Parker-Bowles a "crocodile wife". Icke, of course, is famous for his belief that the Queen and her relations are shape-shifting, blood-drinking, three-metre-long lizards from another planet. They secretly control the world.

Even if Fayed doesn't buy the whole lizard argument, he and Icke share a conspiratorial mindset. The difference is that Icke has found his niche as part of the entertainment industry. His sell-out exposés of the worldwide reptoid threat are original enough to make him a good living, and sufficiently harmless to be laughed off. Fayed, by contrast, is prey to much darker and more destructive inner forces. The grand conspiracy that he summons up, involving alongside Prince Philip (the "real ruler of the country" and a "Nazi" who should be "sent back to Germany") the security services, members of the Spencer family, senior politicians, and everyone who has ever crossed him, is interpreted in less than grandiose terms. They aren't secretly ruling the world, or if they are Fayed isn't too bothered about it. It's worse than that. The conspiracy is mainly directed at him.

The customary response to Fayed's outbursts - his claims that Prince Philip was personally responsible for the deaths of Diana and his son Dodi, that Diana was pregnant with Dodi's child, or had secretly married him - is either anger or laughter. It should perhaps rather be pity. He is clearly a man deranged by grief. He has long since become a sad parody of his former self, a ruthless and vindictive pursuer of fantasies. His claims don't stand detailed scrutiny. Most of them are preposterous: indeed, given the time, resources and determination that he has poured into substantiating his claims, it's remarkable that his "evidence" is so flimsy, so obviously outweighed by the sheer biology and physics produced by an inembriated man in control of a car, driving at high speed in a dark tunnel. Of course there was a crash. But that, in itself, counts for nothing, because Fayed is not amenable to reason. That is why this absurdly expensive and long-drawn-out inquest is utterly pointless. It will reach its inevitable conclusion - accidental death - but in the end change nothing.

The establishment wishes that Fayed would go away and shut up; but he won't and they can't force him to (a fact which in itself is enough to disprove most of his theories: why haven't they murdered him?). He has the money, and the will, to go on fighting, to bring case after case before the courts, to ignore both his critics and reality. His wealth insulates him from the checks and balances of normal society. If he were not so rich, things would never have come to this. He would have been treated for depression long before his sorrow turned into paranoia. He would have had help.

I have much less sympathy with the lawyers and private investigators, the PR consultants and journalists who exploit his madness for their own profit, who are well aware that his theories are nonsensical but are more than happy to feed his delusions and take his cash, than I have with Fayed himself.

But it should also be remembered that the seeds of his crazed embitterment were sown long before that fateful day in 1997. Like Robert Maxwell before him, Fayed was a man determined to join a club (the British establishment) that did not, in the end, want him as a member. And, to be honest, the snobbery and racism which he discerned in his critics were not entirely products of his imagination. Like a spurned lover, he concocted far-fetched explanations (for how, unless deceived, could they have overlooked true worth) and nursed fantasies of revenge.

When the accident happened, his manifold resentments joined with his grief in a toxic combination. And it is that very personal tragedy, rather than any real doubts about the cause of the crash, that has kept the story running for so many years.

*Actually, the Duke of Edinburgh's real name is von Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderberg-Glucksberg.

P.S. Unstable he may be, but part of me wants to admire Fayed's retort to a BBC journalist this afternoon. "I'm not talking to you because you're a bloody idiot. You're part of the Establishment." Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Gone to the dogs

Interesting choice of target for the latest suicide bombing in Afghanistan: a dog-fighting event in Khandahar. Among the 80 or so victims was a leading local warlord, said to be a well-known opponent of the Taliban. Which I suppose makes him our ally.

According to the BBC report of the incident, "Dog-fighting competitions, which were banned under the Taleban regime, are a popular pastime in Afghanistan."

"Fighting had just started between two dogs," said one spectator, Abdul Karim, when the bomb went off.

It isn't known (or I can't establish) whether the dogs were among the casualties. It is however assumed that the Taliban were responsible for the attack, rather than, say, the militant wing of the RSPCA.

Among their many crimes and eccentricities, the Taliban had, or have, one or two redeeming features. They cracked down, at least to a limited extent, on the drugs trade. They had a Dawkins-like disdain for fortune telling and astrology. And, we now learn, they attempted to outlaw the barbaric spectacle of dog-fighting.

Admittedly, the form of entertainment they used to replace it, public executions, could scarcely be said to constitute a great advance in civilisation. And the grounds on which they opposed dog-fighting are more likely to have been disapproval of gambling, or perhaps a more general aversion to fun, tinged maybe with the well-known anti-dog sentiments of some conservative Muslims. Still, it's a small mark in their favour.

In Britain, dog-fighting was made illegal in 1835. That one of the main signs of freedom marking the end of Taliban domination should have been the resumption of a primitive and evil sport, rather than, say, the abolition of the burqa, shows what a backward, alien and incomprehensible land Afghanistan is, even after more than six years of Western oversight. What on earth are we doing there? Read the rest of this article

Bird Brained

A Christmas cracker joke from three or four years hence, which has slipped through a hole in the spacetime continuum:

Q: Where do sick parrots go?

A: To a Polly Clinic.


Apart from the possibility of adding to the national stock of unhilarity (as Rowan Williams might put it), it's hard to summon up warm feelings towards the plans, outlined by health minister Lord Darzi yesterday, to replace traditional GP's surgeries with larger, more specialised, "polyclinics". He looked forward to the time when most people's experience of local medicine would take the form of visits to a large health centre, possibly run by private companies, where around 25 doctors would work alongside other medical staff to serve the population of a small town. Think Tesco health. Many doctors, not surprisingly, are unhappy.

By pooling GPs in these super-surgeries ministers claim to be "extending choice and diversity". It is however plainly a scheme for money-saving "rationalisation". Nothing wrong with efficiency. What makes this scheme downright barbaric is its inhumanity, its fundamental misunderstanding of what medicine is, or ought to be, about.

There can be few more comforting phrases in the English language than "family doctor". "Polyclinic", by contrast, is a cold, technical, bureaucratic sort of a word, as impersonal in concept as it will no doubt seem in reality. By removing the element of continuity, the personal relationship between doctor and patient developed over years, sometimes decades, the "polyclinic" threatens to sever the practice of medicine from its roots in the tradition of Hippocrates.

Medicine, at its basic, non-specialised level, has always been an art as much as (or more than) a science. Healing is often basically voodoo or, to put it slightly more politely, an exercise of the placebo effect. The GP may be a highly-trained professional, but he or she is also in large part counsellor, shaman and priest: trusted, impartial but also (in a special kind of sense) a friend. Experienced doctors know their patients as human beings, know their foibles and peculiarites, will often be able to spot signs that something is amiss that in another patient would show no cause for concern. General practice is, in the best sense of an overused and misappropriated word, holistic.

In the word of the "polyclinic", doctors will no longer know their patients as individuals. They will be cases, discrete packets of symptoms, summed up by a series of numbers revealed by batteries of semi-compulsory diagnostic tests and recorded on a giant database. Instead of trusting a known professional, patients (or rather, I suspect, "clients", a word whose original Roman meaning becomes every day more relevant) are to place their trust in the machinery, literal and metaphorical, of the system. Doctors will become mere technicians, applying procedures and formulae, meeting targets, producing desired outcomes. Perhaps there will be benefits for some in terms of convenience or comprehensiveness of cover. But the price will be paid in the further objectification and commodification of human life.

Polyclinics are for the birds. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 15 February 2008

Licence to kill yourself

One of the government's favourite professional thinkers, Professor Julian Le Grand of the LSE, has proposed that smokers should be forced to buy a permit in order to purchase cigarettes. The cost of the permits should not, he thinks, be particularly high, at least initially. Perhaps £10. But they should be made as awkward and time-consuming as possible to obtain:

Suppose every individual who wanted to buy tobacco had to purchase a permit. And suppose further they had to do this every year. To get a permit would involve filling out a form and supplying a photograph, as well as paying the fee. Permits would only be issued to those over 18 and evidence of age would have to be provided. The money raised would go to the NHS.

This would, thinks Le Grand, serve as an admirable deterrent. It wouldn't be an interference with freedom, he claims, because anyone could still smoke if they wanted to. Indeed, he describes the proposal as "libertarian paternalism", which must be the winner, if there were such a competition, of oxymoron of the week.

Not surprisingly, the nation's top blog ranters, like Dizzy and Devil's Kitchen, have laid into the proposal with relish. "Quite apart from creating yet more vast swathes of civil servant jobs, it is just absolutely beyond the fucking pale as far as freedom is concerned," says the Devil. Quite so.

The trouble is, this nation sold the pass on freedom a long time ago. Once you've established (and it's now so established it's almost completely uncontroversial) that it should be illegal to drive your own car unless you're wearing a seatbelt, despite the fact that the only person you're likely to hurt is yourself - not to mention the studies that show consistently that drivers without seatbelts tend to drive more carefully - then there's little you can object to, as a matter of principle, in whatever the state should choose to propose "for your own good". Utilitarianism, and paternalism, rules.

Indeed, there's a stronger case for regulating smokers than there ever was for regulating seatbelt-wearers. Drivers who don't wear seatbelts might, if they are very unlucky, get killed in a car-crash. Smokers will damage their health, and shorten their lives, unless they're extremely fortunate. The health-risks of passive smoking may have been exaggerated for propaganda purposes by the anti-smoking lobby, but the social impact of smoking on other people can't be denied: the unpleasant, lingering smell of stale smoke which necessitates forking out for dry-cleaning, the eye-irritation, the impure and polluted air.

Some things have improved since smoking in "enclosed public places" was banned, but others have got worse. On hot, still days public parks, once urban paradises, have come almost to resemble the pubs of old, with small, foul clouds of malodorous toxicity floating gently on the breeze. Most smoking, one assumes, is now done at home, with potentially serious consequences for children who are, in any case, far more vulnerable than adults to passive smoke.

As it happens, I think Le Grand's proposals stink, but because they are yet another exercise in invasive bureaucracy, another opening for prying, nannying, hectoring, illiberal snooping, not because they target smokers. And smokers should beware. They are still a significant minority, but they are a shrinking and unfashionable one. Once the idea gets around that "something must be done", and that idea is fast becoming received wisdom, then the only question becomes, "What?" If not this proposal, then perhaps some other less expensive, less cumbersome, and less easily-circumvented one. To do nothing will no longer be an option. And expect the cost of smoking to the NHS to become an increasingly quoted, and increasingly precise, figure.

Proposals like this tend to go through 4 main stages.

First, incredulity. "What a ridiculous suggestion," they say.
Second, outrage. "Bloody cheek," they say. "Little Hitlers"
Third, scepticism. "It sounds like a good idea," they say. "But it'll never work, or it'll be too expensive, or there will be widespread disobedience."
Finally, people are amazed it didn't happen sooner.

And then, it's on to the next lunatic-sounding proposal. Cholesterol rationing, perhaps. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Valentine Massacre

There's so much defeatism around when it comes to the future of western culture - whether it's Rowan Williams talking about the "unavoidability" of Sharia or Martin Amis gloomily foreseeing demographic disaster - that's it's good to see just how resilient and appealing our consumeristic western decadence really is. In Saudi Arabia there are people so desperate to celebrate Valentines Day, says the Telegraph that they place under-the-counter orders for roses weeks in advance. One florist claims to make up to four times his usual price on each order, which are delivered secretly at midnight to avoid the attentive gaze of the Commission for the Suppression of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue, who (anxious to take no chances) ban the sale not just of roses but of anything red in the week leading up to February 14th. Others go abroad.

The Saudi Gazette quoted one leading imam as saying,

As Muslims we shouldn't celebrate a non-Muslim celebration especially this one that encourages immoral relations between unmarried men and women.

This is actually an annual crackdown. An official fatwa issued in 2004 declared:

It is a pagan Christian holiday and Muslims who believe in God and Judgment Day should not celebrate or acknowledge it or congratulate people on it. It is a duty to shun it to avoid God’s anger and punishment.

They must find this particularly offensive:

Of course, Saudi Arabia has a reputation for (shall we say) peculiar judicial priorities - today's horror story concerns the plight of a woman sentenced to having her head cut off for being, of all things, a witch - but the story is far from unique to that benighted land. In Kuwait (that's the place that decadent western armies rescued from the tender mercies of Saddam Hussein, it will be recalled) two prominent politicians this week sought to prevent any hearts and flowers from polluting their oil fiefdom. "We call on the commerce minister to perform his duties by banning celebrations of Valentine's Day which is alien to our society ... and contradicts our religion's values and teachings," said one. While another, who heads the delightfully named (it could almost be French) "parliamentary committee for monitoring alien practices" spoke of the need for restrictions, in order to prevent the spreading "moral corruption of the young".

Further afield, multicultural Malaysia also has its anti-Valentines, such as the government official Muhammad Ramli Nuh who last year made the remarkable (and historically ignorant) statement that,

Celebrating the Day could be regarded as recognizing the enemies of Islam because Valentine or Valentinus took part in planning and attacking Cordoba, once a well-known centre of Islam in Spain, causing its downfall.

What all this shows, of course, is profound cultural defensiveness. And well they might be defensive. The traffic is mostly one-way, after all. Despite a small fuss last week over Dutch plans to re-brand Lent as "the Christian Ramadan" (on the grounds that, modern education being what it is, teenagers were much more aware of the concept of Ramadan than they were of Lent) there are few signs of a mass take-up of Islamic holy days among the wider population in Europe and America, no attempts to ban them, no attempts to circumvent such bans. It might feel, sometimes, like we're losing the struggle, but the samizdat roses of Riyadh tell a different story.

Happy Valentines, everybody. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Crouching China, Hidden Director

Stephen Spielberg is, of course, right to resign from his role overseeing the opening ceremony for the Peking games. Although it might be wondered why he ever accepted the position in the first place. China's bad human rights record is hardly a secret, after all, and the director, surrounded as he is by Hollywood Buddhists, could scarcely be unaware of the sufferings of the people of Tibet. His stated grounds for withdrawing, concern about the crisis in Darfur, seems a little odd too. He thinks that China should be "doing more", specifically by putting pressure on the Sudanese government. So it should, but the Chinese are not directly responsible for that humanitarian calamity. I can only think that someone (probably Uma Thurman) has been nagging him.

But the really odd thing about this affair, for me at least, is why Spielberg should have been employed in the first place. China is a proud nation of getting on for one and a half billion people. They have a booming and increasingly respected film industry, capable of producing such breathtaking spectacles such as House of Flying Daggers and Hero. And the Chinese, surely, have more experience than anyone when it comes to the mass choreography and fluid displays of pomposity which usually constitute Olympic open ceremonies.

Couldn't they have found their own director? Are they really so lacking in cultural self-confidence, even as they stockpile most of the world's cash reserves, that they felt the need to turn to an American whose most successful films have re-defined trash? Strange. Read the rest of this article

Calling, calling

As part of the ongoing search for extraterrestrial intelligence, scientists have been beaming messages announcing the presence of humanity, and detailing the achievements of our species, in the general direction of various constellations deemed capable of supporting life. To date, there has been no unambiguous response. In many cases, the speed of light being lamentably slow over great distances, the messages will not even reach their destinations for many decades, even centuries. And when they do, will there be any reply? Will the aliens shrug their green shoulders, thinking us too primitive to be worth bothering with? Or will they engage us in philosophical debate? Or attempt to convert us to their prevailing religion? Or will they rather think, like Homer Simpson, "Aaah, doughnuts" and launch their battle fleets?

Who can tell? We beam our messages into the darkness, and hope that someone out there is taking some sort of notice. It's a bit like blogging. I've been writing this stuff for some months now, emitting my thoughts into the darkness of cyberspace, hoping that it is serving some purpose. And occasionally, the odd comment makes it back, like a photon bouncing off the nucleus of an atom. But not very many, and although the situation has been improving somewhat in recent days beneath too many posts I still find the depressing legend "0 comments". Not surprising, then, that one of my correspondents yesterday described this blog as my "lonely tower".

I know that there are people out there reading my little essays, and in (generally) increasing numbers: the stats tell me so. But do you like what you see, does it provoke in you thoughts of your own, of agreement or denunciation? Or are you just bored? It's hard to tell. Although the comments I do get, I must say, are generally very kind. I particularly appreciated this one from Rachel:

I thought, Why is no-one commenting on this excellent, thoughtful prose? And then when I wanted to make a comment, I found all I really wanted to say was "Exactly!". I don't want to inundate the Heresiarch with "Me too" posts. Many things have me shouting at the screen these days, but very few have me shouting "Yes, that's the point!"

That's sweet of you, Rachel, but it's not good enough. A blog is a vehicle for debate, for the exchange of ideas, not merely an opportunity for authorial pontification (though there's room for that, too). Comments are the fuel that keeps a blog in orbit, or at least on the road. They are, to switch metaphors, the currency of the blogosphere, and most of you, I'm sorry to say, would appear to be freeloading.

I happened upon an interesting online article today entitled 4 reasons you should encourage, foster and harness dissent on your blog. "A group of sheep is not a community", declares the author, Muhammad Saleem:

Most of us write because we want to comment on new ideas and have conversations rather than simply have people agree with us. By encouraging dissent on your blog you are encouraging each community member to think for himself or herself and write their opinion on the matter rather than just echoing your thoughts. Eventually you help your entire community’s intellectual capital grow.

His third reason is, I think, particularly telling, if a little harsh:

One-sided conversations are no fun for the author and they are no fun for the community. If everyone is agreeing with you, you might as well turn the comments off and call it a day. Multiple, opposing viewpoints offer colorful conversation for everyone and ensure that there is enough debate for people to want to come back for more. This not only gives people to return to the same post again and again, but these opposing viewpoints also create opportunities for further posts and more conversations on previously covered topics.

I must say I rather like the idea of Heresy Corner as a community. If nothing else, as a "community leader" I would no doubt become eligible for government funding, and be consulted by ministers on all the major issues. But I can't do it on my own.

I know my readers are intelligent, discerning people with heads brimming with interesting and original thoughts. So let's hear some of them.

Over to you. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Time Served

The sprinter Dwain Chambers was caught using a performance enhancing substance a few years ago, and banned from athletics for two years. That period of suspension is now over. Not unnaturally, he wishes to be allowed to compete for his country again, initially in the World Indoor Championships in Valencia next month.

Since he has showed his fitness, indeed superiority, in his chosen event, UK Athletics have had no choice but to select him. They did so, however, under duress, and bemoaned the fact today in a statement of quite extraordinary gracelessness:

The committee was unanimous in its desire not to select Dwain. Taking him to the World Indoors deprives young, upwardly mobile, committed athletes of this key development opportunity. Our World Class Performance Programme is focused on achievement at Olympic and World level. On this basis, it is extremely frustrating to leave young athletes at home; eligible for Beijing, in possession of the qualifying standard and committed to ongoing participation in a drug-free sport.

Unfortunately, the committee felt that the selection criteria pertaining to the winner of the trials, coupled with the manner of Dwain's performance, left them no room to take any other decision.

Indeed, the board of UK Athletics expressed a desire to alter the rules (retroactively, they implied) so that they wouldn't have to select him in future. He remains, for the time being at least, banned from competing in the Olympics, but has announced his intention to challenge this in court.

I'm with Dwain on this one. He was foolish, indeed stupid, given the rigour with which drugs in sport are now policed. And, of course, he broke the rules. But he has served his punishment and, against the odds, come back as strong as ever and this time, we must assume, clean. To impose a life ban would not only be unfair on him, it would deprive the country of the medals he has shown himself potentially capable of winning. He should also be allowed, if he qualifies, to go to the Peking games. Britain should send the best available team to the Olympics, and if that team contains a man who has previously been suspended then so be it.

A "zero tolerance" policy is regressive, vindictive and denies the capacity for change and repentance. It also, in the case of a world-class athlete like Chambers, amounts to the country shooting himself in the foot. UK Athletics should welcome him back. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 11 February 2008

Diabolically Clever

By and large, we have little to fear from nutters. They are too obviously deranged, too unrepresentative of human rationality, for their nuttiness to present much genuine danger to society. It is those who speak in quiet, reasonable terms, those who appear to say nothing in particular and say it obscurely, who are difficult to disagree with without seeming uncouth, who we should worry about. One such, I am increasingly coming to believe, is Dr Rowan Williams.

With his usual clarity, Rowan Williams has today restated most of the points he made about the desirablity of some sort of "accommodation" with Sharia law. This time, he will probably get away with it, if only because of a growing perception that the attacks on him were over the top and distasteful. But does his new statement add anything to the explosive debate that he, accidentally-on-purpose, detonated last week?

Well, yes and no. The new speech, delivered to the General Synod, is slightly less opaque than his now-notorious lecture to the lawyers. If nothing else, it gives us a slightly better insight into where he is coming from. One thing he was clear about was that he sees it as part of his duty to speak up on behalf of religion generally, rather than for Christianity or, indeed, merely the Church of England:

As I implied earlier, part of both the burden and the privilege of being the Church we are in the nation we're in is that we are often looked to for some coherent voice on behalf of all the faith communities living here. And that is a considerable privilege, and I hope we can use it well - however clumsily it may have been deployed in this instance. If we can attempt to speak for the liberties and consciences of others in this country as well as our own, we shall I believe be doing something we as a Church are called to do in Christ's name, witnessing to his Lordship and not compromising it.

Now this all sounds very benign and well-meaning and, indeed, "inclusive". It is also, more subtly, an attempt to preserve a role for the established church in a secular society. If the state can no longer privilege Anglicanism, on the basis of unfairness to minorities, Williams seems to be asking, then how can it continue to give privileged status to the Archbishop of Canterbury? His answer, subtle or Machiavellian according to taste, is that the role of the archbishop, and of other bishops, should be expanded. Instead of speaking for Christians, he will speak for "faith". Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and others can shelter in the capacious folds of his archiescopal cope, confident that he will defend their interests against the common enemy, the secularists. It is in many ways analagous to Prince Charles's notorious desire to be "defender of faith", rather than Defender of the Faith, when or if he becomes king.

There's a two-edgedness about this claim that is frankly chilling. He is not seeking merely to preserve market share for his own church which, no longer representing the majority of the population, can hardly justify it. Rather, he is attempting to use the fears and particularities of minority faith communities to extend the empire of religion itself. To demand special treatment for Anglicans sounds anachronistic, but by co-opting Muslims (and perhaps others) such an aim might still be achieved.

Indeed, it has already been achieved. A few years ago, Anglican and Roman Catholic church schools were peripheral to the education debate. They were generally primary schools. They were successful and over-subscribed, but were not expanding: the emphasis was on improving the standards of all schools, and the church schools were largely an historical relic which persisted by default.

Now, though, they are expanding. Former comprehensives have been taken over by church authorities and re-invented as "faith schools". Children who might have expected to attend their local school are being turned away because they have not been baptised, or because their parents are unable to convince the religiously appointed (and religiously accountable) teachers and governors that they are sufficiently rigorous in church attendance. For the quality of a child's education, and their life-chances thereafter, to be dependent on the religiosity of their parents, and for this blatant discrimination to be sanctioned by the state, is little short of scandalous. For it to be occurring in an increasingly secular society, where most people are indifferent to religion, is almost incomprehensible.

How is this being allowed to happen? The answer, of course, lies in the Christian churches' adept manipulation of multi-faith sensibilities. All the heat has been concentrated on the relatively small number of state-funded Islamic schools that have been proposed. These are, as has often been pointed out, a truly terrible idea. They are sectarian and divisive. They will perpetuate inward-looking (and, we now learn, inbred) communities and promote cultural apartheid. They will make all the girls wear hijabs, thus further institutionalising the pernicious sexual separatism that characterises many recent revisions of Islam. They represent the reverse of what we should as a society be encouraging. But, if Christians are allowed their schools, not to allow the Muslims seems (or is made to seem) blatantly unfair.

By attempting to preserve their monopoly, the churches ran the risk of losing what they had. But by accepting the spread of other kinds of "faith schools" the C of E and the Catholics have been able to pull off an astonishing coup. So we have see the bizarre spectacle of religious schools proliferating in an irreligious society.

The other notable example of this tactic, so far less successful, can be seen in Williams's response to the recent debate on the blasphemy laws. For a law to protect only Christianity is rightly seen as anomalous and unfair. The response of the courts has been to narrow the offence of blasphemous libel almost out of existence. The decision of the High Court in the recent case brought by Stephen Green ("Christian Voice") against the BBC's broadcast of Jerry Springer the Opera was the latest and most devastating example of this tendency. The law was left so lacerated as to be effectively a dead letter. Rowan Williams, though, is trying to use the government's "consultation" exercise to keep the law on life support, or even to bring it back stronger and meaner.

A couple of weeks ago, in his almost ignored James Callaghan Memorial Lecture entitled "Religious Hatred and Religious Offence", the archbishop argued that the law should do more to protect religious sensitivities. He first of all outlined his disagreement with the notion of free speech:

The creation of avoidable resentment, never mind avoidable suffering, does not seem like a positive good for any social unit; and the assertion of an unlimited freedom to create such resentment does little to recommend 'liberal' values and tends rather to strengthen the suspicion that they are a poor basis for social morality and cohesion.

He then claimed that the business of the law in policing speech was to set out the "acceptable" terms of debate:

Rather than assuming that it is only a few designated kinds of extreme behaviour that are unacceptable and that everything else is fair game, the legal provision should keep before our eyes the general risks of debasing public controversy by thoughtless and (even if unintentionally) cruel styles of speaking and acting

You shouldn't attack minorities, he seemed to be saying (though as usual with Williams, it's never entirely clear), so you shouldn't criticise the deeply-felt religious beliefs of those minorities. There should be a law against it. But hey (don't you know it) we Christians are a minority too, aren't we. But a minority with a historically privileged, even powerful, position. So if we use that power to protect other minorities, we can preserve all our ancient privileges. Which we deserve to keep, because we're now an oppressed minority, so if we lost them it would be discrimination.

A subtle thinker, that Dr Williams. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Bandar in a bind

The Sunday Times has a delicious story buried away in its business pages today. Apparently, Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia, a former ambassador to the court of George Bush, has had some of his US assets seized by court order, as part of an investigation into the BAE Systems bribery scandal. That's the same case that was halted in Britain on the personal orders of Tony Blair (and almost certainly illegally) when it emerged that the Saudis didn't like the Serious Fraud Office poking their noses into the "culturally specific" way business is conducted in that part of the world. Blair, you may remember, invoked the "national interest", playing up an implicit threat that the Saudis would stand by and let their old friend Osama unleash death all over London, unless our police stopped querying why BAE won contracts in the country by handing over large quantities of dosh. $2 billion of it, if reports are to be believed. Much of it probably British taxpayers' money, considering how much BAE's weapons systems are subsidised.

Under the terms of the order, granted on a petition from a Michigan pension scheme, Bandar won't be able to transfer back to Saudi Arabia the money he makes if he manages to sell his mansion in Aspen, Colorado, currently on sale with an asking price of $135 million. Says the Times,

The 56,000 sq ft main residence is bigger than the White House and has 15 bedrooms, 16 bathrooms, an indoor swimming pool, steam and exercise rooms and includes a private children’s wing with four bedroom suites and a sitting room. The estate spans 95 acres, includes two 15,000 sq ft guest houses, tennis and racquetball courts and equestrian facilities. It even has a dedicated waste-water treatment plant, a car wash and petrol pumps.

Still, he's unlikely to be cast out onto the streets.

Prince Bandar's strange relationship with the Bush family was, you may remember, a central concern of Michael Moore's flawed documentary film Farenheit 9/11. So close is the princeling to the Bushes that George Snr and Barbara supposedly regard him as a sort of honorary son, "Bandar Bush". And Bandar has been more than happy to pass lucrative contracts to companies carrying the imprimatur of the Bush clan. Thus far, everyone has been happy.

They understand dynastic succession in Saudi Arabia. It's the notion of an independent judiciary they find a little more difficult.

If he's as influential as Moore claimed, it's unlikely that Bandar's assets will remain frozen for long. But of course, Bush won't be around to protect Bandar for much longer. Unaccountably (and this must really be puzzling for poor old Bandar) we know that whoever the next president is, it won't be a Bush.

The mafia family that controls the laughingly-called "kingdom" of Saudi Arabia in unholy alliance with a collection of religious primitivists is, of course, a by-word for greed, corruption and hypocrisy. They're more than happy to promote virtue and tackle vice at home, by such expedients as letting the religious police round up women using their laptops in Starbucks (scandalous - there might be men present! Unrelated men!) because they don't have to suffer the consequences of all this neo-medieval barbarism. Although often their wives do. Saudi princes are more likely to be found gambling their ill-gotten millions away in the casinos of Monte Carlo and Las Vegas, or snorting cocaine in the company of expensive whores, than following the strict tenets upheld by the Wahhabi clerics of their homeland.

And yet this kind of decadent corruption is, as the usual British proponents of realpolitik are rarely slow to point out, our only defence against "extremism". The present king, Abdullah, is even said to be a reformist. He generously pardoned the young rape victim who had been sentenced to 200 lashes for her sinfulness, and it has even been whispered that he might one day allow women to drive. It would be good if he could reform himself and his anchronistic depotism out of existence before there's a revolution and BAE's lovingly crafted weapons fall into the hands of less hypocritical true believers. But I think we're playing with fire. And firepower. Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 9 February 2008

They're Back

Some respite from the wearing Sharia debate is in order, I feel.

The Telegraph is reporting a "huge rise" in the number of UFO sightings in Britain, after several years of decline. According to figures released by the Ministry of Defence, 135 sightings were reported by members of the public last year, up from 97 in 2006. The most elaborate sighting was in Duxford, Cambridgeshire on April 12, where "a witness reported seeing fifty objects, each with an orange light, assembling in the sky before ascending." Did no-one else see it, I wonder?

Meanwhile Hilary Porter, from the brilliantly-named British Earth and Aerial Mysteries Society (BEAMS!) said breathlessly,

There has been a huge influx of UFOs. Absolutely enormous. There has been these huge formations than have been coming. We have had so many calls from people that have seen these huge formations. We have had call after call after call, from business people right down to ordinary folk in their cars. There have been some very close encounters that have been quite unnerving for the people involved. We have had other people reporting orb sightings.

So what's going on? Given that around 90% of sightings are easily explained as misidentifications of normal aircraft and natural phenomena, and that only barking mad people believe they come from another planet, there are really only two explanations for the truly unidentified celestial objects. One is that UFOs are secret military test projects, which is why they are so often seen near air-force bases. The other is that they are psychic, or rather psychological, projections of prevailing myths and contemporary anxieties.

There's probably some truth in both these theories, but I lean towards the second, if only because it also accounts for the 90% of sightings that can be "easily explained". After all, given that the vast majority of UFOs are explicable, one would expect the number of sightings to be relatively constant. Instead it fluctuates wildly. Clearly something causes people to interpret what they see as an alien craft, and it is that something, rather than the base phenomenon, that comes and goes.

UFO "flaps" tend to happen at times of pervasive anxiety. There were many in the Fifties, when the Cold War was at its height, and again in the Seventies, a time of great international tension. In the Nineties, fewer people actually saw unidentified craft, but many came to believe they had been abducted by little grey aliens. The impenetrable mythology of The X-Files seemed to sum up that decade's obsession with corporate conspiracy. Then, around the time of 9/11, UFO sightings began to dry up. Islamist terrorism is perhaps too earthbound and primitivist a threat to lend itself easily to mythologisation in terms of scientifically advanced super-races from beyond the stars. Star Trek, it may be noticed, also finally went out of business.

So, if the UFOs have returned, what might it signify? Possibly, that the easily-bored western public is fed up with the terrorist "threat". While governments continue to stock-pile repressive legislation to deal with Islamists, the warnings of mass-destruction at the hands of Osama's minions increasingly ring hollow. The imaginings of global doom are beginning to shift: towards the environment, most obviously, and fears for the tottering, unsustainable debt economy of the developed world.

While worries about terrorism tend to shore up support for the political status-quo, environmental and economic concerns are more likely to undermine it. They are dangers, too, that are difficult to put a face to, being far more amorphous than a guy with a turban and a bomb. So people's minds turn once more out to the universe, from which perspective the earth looks less important and thus, perhaps, more easily saved. Perhaps someone out there can help. And so the aliens return. Read the rest of this article