Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Pope goes the weasel?

Now that Ratzo has clicked his ruby heels together and disappeared back to Rome, interest in all things papistic has been gently waning in the USA. Or has it? Via Reuters, I learn of bizarre speculations in some Italian newspapers that George W Bush might follow his good friend Tony's example and convert to Catholicism.

The evidence that born-again Bush - who comes across as a quintessentially Protestant phenomenon, and has actually moved previously in the opposite direction, from Episcopalianism to the Methodists - might soon be mugging up on the finer points of the dogma of the Assumption seems slight. According to the Italian magazine Panorama, the fact that the pope and the president prayed together at the Whitehouse might be significant. I doubt it. Bush evidently enjoys praying, especially when he's preparing to dispatch a bomber squadron or sign off on a death warrant, while Ratzo will probably pray with anyone. He's even been spotted inside a mosque. Dubya's brother Jeb Bush did convert to Catholicism, but only because his wife wanted him to (like Cherie, I suppose). Oh, and Bush has some Catholic advisers. And, er, that's it.

Not much of a story, then. Oddly, the source of the story seems to have been an earlier article by Daniel Burke in the Washington Post. Burke wrote on the eve of the visit about "a Catholic wind in the White House". He revealed that on the occasion of Ratzo's election three years ago Bush claimed to have read one of the new pope's books. Not, perhaps, the sort of reading material one would readily have associated with the president: clearly the man has very well-hidden depths.

"If Bill Clinton can be called America's first black president," wrote Burke, "George W. Bush could well be the nation's first Catholic president." Pretty big if, that, especially since Bill's black credentials have been tarnished somewhat after his crypto-racist attacks on Barack Obama. Burke has heard of Kennedy, by the way; he just thinks that JFK kept his religious beliefs (if any) entirely separate from his politics. By contrast, "Bush has welcomed Roman Catholic doctrine and teachings into the White House and based many important domestic policy decisions on them."

It's an interesting argument. Of course, many of these Catholic-friendly policies play equally well with Bush's evangelical supporters: for example, opposition to abortion, a Luddite approach to stem-cell research, or refusal to countenance anything that might look like same-sex marriage. Add in Bush's enthusiasm for "faith-based" social programmes and stricter "taste and decency" controls on TV and you have a presidency that will have given the Vatican much cause for satisfaction. If you forget about the torture rooms, the capital punishment and the illegal war, of course.

Certainly, there's much less contradiction between Bush's public utterances and his professed private beliefs than there was in the case of Tony Blair. Blair voted for gay civil partnerships and the liberalisation of embryological research; and he did nothing to lower abortion limits. The moral has never been political in Britain in the way it has been in the States, of course; but it's glaringly obvious that Blair voted enthusiastically for policies which are in direct contradiction with the teachings of the church he has been so keen to embrace. Not to mention the war. So if they let him in, they would be unlikely to have much problem with Bush.

Burke even quotes Paul Weyrich, "an architect of the religious right", who says of the president "I think he is a secret [Catholic] believer". But what would be in it for Bush? Absolution for a whole raft of sins, I suppose. Validation. The ability to distance himself from all those redneck creationists who have been thus far his main cheerleaders (if that's what he wants). And, as he said himself, the pope is "awesome".
Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Fantastic Plastic

Apparently senior Iranian clerics are worried about the morally corrosive effect of Western toys. And well they might be. As Prosecutor General Ghorban Ali Dori Najafabadi pointed out in an official letter,

The appearance of personalities such as Barbie, Batman, Spiderman and Harry Potter and ... computer games and movies are all a danger warning to the officials in the cultural arena...The unrestrained entry of this sort of imported toys ... will bring destructive cultural and social consequences in their wake.

Najafabadi even coined a new word - "Westoxication" - to describe the pernicious influence of these toys on young minds. I rather like it, though it would be interesting to know the original Farsi: the idea, presumably, is that Western culture is a sort of mind-altering drug that leaves its addicts spaced-out, incoherent and unable to function properly. Perhaps it does work in such a way in a society which has not been jaded by decades of stealthily-coarsening tastes and lowered expectations. The custodians of Persian culture, brought up on the subtleties of Hafiz, might well look upon the vapid products of the West rather as the rulers of late Qing-dynasty China regarded the opium with which British traders insisted on doping their people in exchange for porcelain and tea. Though I suspect Dr Najafabadi is more worried about the irreligious nature of some of these toys.

Certainly, the mullahs have been fretting about Barbie for years. With her outrageously skimpy outfits and her presumably non-marital dalliance with the blandsome Ken, the plastic prom-queen is scarcely the best role-model for modest Islamic womanhood. The Guardian reports that "In May 2002, the Komiteh - the public morality police - cracked down on sellers of the doll, arresting shopkeepers and saying Barbie was improperly dressed." One shopkeeper interviewed had had $11,000 worth of stock seized. "Iranians love everything Barbie. I just can't understand it," he moaned. No, I can't understand it either. I guess that's Iranians for you.

It's unclear whether Barbie-deprived Iranians have been satisfied with the Shariah-compliant "Sara" which replaced her. According to The Guardian again, "She follows Islamic rules of dress and her brother, Dara - much like Barbie's boyfriend, Ken - is the male version of the doll." What's his job, I wonder? Is he there to make sure she doesn't insult the family honour by showing too much ankle?

Like this trollop, perhaps: not Sara, but the most popular of the "Burkha Barbies", Fulla, who hails from Qatar. Altogether too liberal, those Qataris.

It's slightly less clear, perhaps, just what Iran's moral guardians have against the other figures mentioned. Perhaps Batman's soubriquet "the caped crusader" tells against him. Too many bad memories. As for Harry Potter, he does have a well-known tendency to annoy religious believers. Spider-man seems rather less obviously offensive, unless the ayatollahs have paid close attention to the first of the three films and noticed that the teenage Peter Parker's ability to make a white gooey substance shoot out from his wrists might be a metaphor for something.

It's easy to mock, or to become indignant. Even easier, perhaps, to look at cases such as this as further evidence of the alien and incomprehensible nature of the Islamic mind. (Though is it so different, I wonder, from the imperative felt by the guardians of the French Republic to defend their culture from the imperialistic designs of Ronald McDonald?) I prefer to look on the bright side. After all, as the aggrieved shopkeeper pointed out, "Iranians love everything Barbie". She, Batman and Harry Potter are the standard-bearers of secular modernity, before which the ayatollahs make their Canute-like gestures of defiance. Forget Fitna, never mind the fallout from the Rushdie, Theo van Gogh and Danish cartoon crises: the medieval-minded clerics who want to wrap the world in a chador are not winning. We are. It's a Barbie world. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 28 April 2008


Via Guido, I hear news of a power-failure at the court of King Ken. The lights all went out after "flooding from a burst water-main", according to the Beeb. An omen? A pre-emptive cleaning out of the Augean Stables? Was someone trying to drown all the rats before they managed to escape? Or perhaps this may be relevant:

The announcement of the 1 May election results may have to move to another location as a result and officials are deciding between alternative buildings.

Somewhere low-key and anonymous, no doubt, with bad acoustics so no-one can hear Boris's victory speech.

The latest YouGov poll, again showing a strong lead for Boris, adds to the prevailing atmosphere of confusion. No-one has a clue, really. The pessimist in me is still calling this for Ken. But then it's always a good idea to put money on the team you really want to lose. That way, you can console yourself with a few drinks. Read the rest of this article


The death of Humphrey Lyttelton the other day has been doubly sad for the many fans of his masterly chairmanship of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. His perfect timing and avuncular, deadpan delivery are, of course, irreplaceable. But there's also the knowledge, or at least the expectation - certainly one shared by his long-serving fellow cast members - that the show will die with him. No more Mornington Crescent. No more unlikely ball-goers. No more improbable letters from Mrs Trellis of North Wales, or Colin Sell's long-suffering accompaniment of One Song to the Tune of Another. No more Samantha, who always managed to score. Perhaps Lionel Blair will be relieved. But everyone else who has ever tuned in will be feeling the withdrawal symptoms for years.

Well I have a solution, and I offer it to anyone at the BBC who may be reading this (and people at the BBC do read this blog from time to time; the stats don't lie). There needs to be a new chairman. Not an ersatz-Humph: that would be impossible. But there must be someone out there with the combination of wit, timing, the slight air (feigned, obviously) of not quite knowing what the hell is going on, above all the ability to preside over a superbly-orchestrated chaos. Such a person must exist. And I think I've found him. Coincidentally he is, like Lyttelton, an old Etonian. He has, it's true, been rather busy these past few weeks, but he might just become available soon. I refer, of course, to Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

Naturally, he would have to lose on Thursday, and the minute possibility of my suggestion being taken up is no reason to vote against him. But if Ken Livingstone does squeak back in (and for a while now I've been convinced he probably will) then perhaps chairmanship of Clue would make a suitable consolation prize. There's no doubt of his abilities. His chairmanship of Have I Got News For You is always inspired: his episodes have all been instant classics. More importantly, the extensive knowledge of the London transport system that BJ has presumably acquired might be put to good use determining the best route to Mornington Crescent. Indeed, compared with the subtleties of that game, sorting out the administration of the capital ought to be simplicity itself.

And what of the introductory monologues, in which Humph would genially insult whatever town the programme happened to be coming from? Boris has plenty of experience in that regard. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Going for Gordon

Is David Cameron being too nasty to Gordon Brown? That's what Peter Oborne apparently thinks, writing in the Mail yesterday about the increasingly brutal and personal attacks on the PM from the Tory front bench. It's uncivilised, he thinks, unnecessary, demeaning to politics and, ultimately, will turn people off both parties even more. If such a thing were possible.

Cameron is not only destroying Gordon Brown, but risks destroying himself. For the most part, the British electorate are decent people. If David Cameron is not careful, voters will start to come to the conclusion that for all his cleverness, he is an arrogant and perhaps a nasty man.

I have some sympathy with this argument. Attacking the man rather than his policies is, apart from anything else, rather lazy, especially when there's so much in the current government's policies so richly deserving of attack. And Gordon Brown, for all his faults, is hardly the socially-handicapped monster of Blairite mythology. Surrounded by a coterie of loyalists he may be, but the likes of Ed Balls are loyal for a reason. Brown has genuine qualities. He has deep convictions, but (unlike Blair's) convictions based on thought rather than instinct. He has an intellectual grasp that Blair always lacked. Had it not been for the sequence of unlucky events, and, even more so, the plotting of his enemies, he might have continued the success of his first two months in office - a period when, let it not be forgotten, most people were heartily glad to see the back of Blair.

All this is easy to overlook. With the economy worsening and opinion polls nose-diving, Gordon Brown is taking most of the blame. His backbenchers are revolting (most backbenchers are). Some are openly pining for the glorious days of Tony, which is to say that they wish it were still 1997. Blairites, led by Charles Clarke, seem actually to want Brown to fail in order to vindicate their conviction that Tony alone had the ability to run Britain. Some, in contrast, want the socialist policies that they thought would manifest themselves once Brown took over. All, though, are worried about their seats, a fear that paradoxically makes their defeat more likely. Dr Johnson famously observed that if a man know's he is to be hanged in a month, it concentrates the mind wonderfully. When it's a whole group headed for the long-drop, on the other hand, the opposite seems to happen. They start arguing with each other over who bought the rope.

A victory by Ken Livingstone next week might produce a small respite, but with commentators increasingly drawing parallels with the last, calamitous days of John Major's government the natural human instinct to seek a scapegoat has kicked in. And as the anthropologist Sir James Frazer used to maintain, the most potent sacrifice is the king himself. It's hard to imagine, though, that replacing Brown with, say, David Miliband would have a positive impact on Labour's situation. Whatever his manifold faults, Gordon Brown is by far the best thing the party has got. That, in fact, has always been the problem. There's very little talent in depth. How else could you end up with a cabinet most members of which have either been to school with each other, been related to each other, or shared one another's bed?

To some extent, all the Tories need to do is sit back and enjoy the fun. But only to some extent. They also need to have a properly thought-through programme for government, and evolving such a programme, together with the accompanying narrative, is vital. As Boris Johnson is likely to discover to his disadvantage. This doesn't mean, however, that they should expect Labour malcontents to do all the work. Apart from anything else,the opposition would be failing in their duty if they didn't resort to every weapon in their armoury to finish off this discredited government before it manages to do any more damage to the economy, the constitution, the rule of law, civil liberties and the democratic process itself. Morally and intellectually bankrupt it is, worse, incompetent. The Tories should certainly be doing everything they can to point these things out.

After all, Labour has it coming. As Oborne admits, Blair (advised by Alastair Campbell) destroyed the reputation of the fundamentally honest (if not terribly competent) John Major with utter ruthlessness. They gave no quarter, and were not above bare-faced lies of a sort Cameron has not yet attempted. During the 1997 election campaign, the Labour lie machine went into overdrive, for example misrepresenting a moderate scheme for the long-term reform of pensions as a threat to the income of people already retired, or claiming, over and over again, that the dastardly Tories were about to abolish the NHS. They deserve no sympathy whatever.

Where criticism is valid, though, is the contrast between Cameron and co's savaging of Brown and their kid-gloves treatment of Blair. For a whole decade, Blair got away with evasions, misstatements and rhetorical absurdities that no previous PM would have got away with. He manipulated patronage, lied about the opposition and launched at least one illegal war; yet his own estimation of himself as a "pretty straight sort of guy" with the highest of motives and an almost mystical bond with the British people was never seriously challenged by the opposition. His most formidable and successful opponents were on his own backbenches. The up and coming generation of Conservative politicians were, and to a large extent remain, in thrall to him: to his awesome political skills, naturally, but also to the Blair myth. The idea that he was a strong leader who knew what he was doing, whereas Brown is vacillating and has no plan.

In fact, Blair's plan - domestically, at least - was always Brown's plan. The mirage on which his successive election victories were based - the supposed strength of the economy, and the real (if it turns out temporary) rises in living standards - were Brown's doing also. So were the mistakes: the hideously complex and philosophically obnoxious system of tax credits, for example, the ever-rising taxes. Tony Blair got in just in time, just as Gordon Brown got out of the Treasury just in time. If the financial crisis had happened a few months earlier, it would have done irreparable damage to them both.

In truth, the Blairite regime was rarely more than an illusion. It was, however, a remarkably good and effective illusion, and as long as nothing too obvious happened to disturb it the phantasmagoria continued to float in mid-air. If Brown had come to power sustained by a record of solid achievement - whether the credit for that record be Brown's or Blair's - his government would not have evaporated so soon. But it wasn't, and it did, and the game is up.

In his bleaker moments, which must be most of the time, Gordon Brown almost certainly realises this. But do David Cameron and his sidekick George Osborne? I see little reason to discourage them from launching the most ferocious attacks on Brown's personality of which they are capable. Just so long as they don't actually believe them. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 25 April 2008

Just Quilliam

This week saw the glitzy, celebrity-packed launch (at the British Museum) of the Quilliam Foundation, the latest manifestation of "moderate", government-backed Islam in Britain. Speakers included the beauteous Jemima (no-knickers) Khan, who revealed that she had been the subject of the inevitable death-threats from extremists, as well as celebrity ex-Islamist Ed Husain whose idea QF appears largely to be. There was also Paddy Ashdown, Timothy Garton-Ash and the Rev Giles Fraser, while Rachel North spoke movingly about the need to "go forward together". Another high-profile supporter, looking somewhat out of place in such company, is Conservative MP Michael Gove. The group would seem to have behind it a good deal of political goodwill and, possibly, financial support. What's not to like?

The aims of the foundation, which include persuading young Muslims away from the path of violence and rejecting the notion that Islam and western democracy are incompatible, sound laudable enough. It's reassuring, too, to note the calibre of opposition that they have attracted: an unholy alliance of leftists and Islamic radicals. Inayat Bunglawala wrote on CIF that a conspiracy of sorts was afoot:

Some representatives of various UK Islamic groups were invited to see senior officials at the Department of Communities and Local Government recently to discuss the work they were doing with young people. Strong hints were dropped that they could obtain financial support from the government, but only if they were prepared to work with - and thereby help lend credibility to - Ed Husain's soon to be launched Quilliam Foundation.

While Seumas Milne, also on CIF, complained that Husain,

has, meanwhile, compared Hamas to the BNP, described the Arab "psyche" as irredeemably racist, criticised the director of MI5 for "pussyfooting around" with extremists, poured cold water on the idea that western policy in the Muslim world makes terror attacks in Britain and elsewhere more likely, dismissed the idea of Islamophobia and defended the government's decision to ban the leading Muslim cleric Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi from Britain because he had defended Palestinian suicide attacks.

So far, so good. And QF's statement of objectives sounds progressive enough, if more than a little vague:

The Quilliam Foundation is a counter extremism think tank. Created by former activists of radical Islamist organisations, our founders are familiar with the mindset and methods of extremist groups. Now under the guidance of mainstream Muslim scholars, we believe that Western Muslims should revive Western Islam, our Andalusian heritage of pluralism and respect, and thereby find harmony in West-Islam relations.

The Andalusian kingdoms, so frequently eulogised as a golden age of mutual tolerance, scientific enquiry and civilisation, were of course created by an invasion of Spain, and there was never any doubt as to who was in charge. But we'll let that one pass. And few could object to QF's desire for "a genuine British Islam, native to these islands, free from the bitter politics of the Arab and Muslim world". A Muslim version of the C of E, perhaps, minus Woolliams' enthusiasm for Sharia. I particularly warm to their desire for Muslims to integrate into Western society "as citizens, not as a faith community".

Putting a little more flesh on the bones, we also read

The Foundation aims to help foster the intellectual and religious paradigms necessary to revive a genuinely Western Islam. To do so, obstacles along our path need to be removed. We consider these to be scriptural literalism, extremism, Islamism, and foreign ideological influences and interferences with Western Muslim communities. By exposing and undermining these forces, we hope that Muslim communities will organically move toward Western Islam: pluralistic, traditional Islam set in a modern Western context.

Sounds a bit New Labourish to me: "traditional values in a modern setting". And, indeed, Blairesque triangulation seems to be the name of the game. So while stressing the modern, western orientation of QF - and of the Islam it wants to see created - its supporters are anxious to look to traditionalist (but comparatively moderate) clerics from the Middle East:

Western Muslims should pioneer new thinking for our new times. Here, Muslim scholastic giants, such as the noble Abdullah bin Bayyah and Shaikh Ali Gomaa (Mufti of Egypt), have provided ample guidance.

New thinking, old men. Gomaa, as it happens, is on the record as supporting the use of suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. He also attracted much mirth in Egypt a few years ago when he issued a fatwa praising a woman who allegedly drank the Prophet's urine. Last year it was reported that Gomaa had rejected the traditional punishment of death for "apostates". He angrily denied this slur: "What I actually said is that Islam prohibits a Muslim from changing his religion and that apostasy is a crime, which must be punished".

As for Abdullah bin Bayyah, he has been prominent among Muslim leaders demanding an international blasphemy law to prevent any criticism of Mohammed. He described the publication of the Danish cartoons as "an aggressive act that has violated the highest sanctities of the Muslim people" and "devastating to the ideal of convivial dialogue between peoples."

Another puzzling feature of this new grouping is its name.

QF takes its title, and its inspiration, from the unfortunately-named William Quilliam, a Liverpudlian convert to Islam who lived about 100 years ago. An article on their website, by Ashraf al-Hoque, contrasts Quilliam's approach with that of Sayyid Qutb, the spiritual forefather of Al Qaeda. But it also bills him as "Britain's first Muslim activist", reveals that he was in the pay of the Ottoman and Persian governments, and details his advice to Muslims on their duty to fight against Western colonialism:

Quilliam utilised his established periodicals to urge Muslims of the colonies not to participate in British military campaigns directed against other Muslims, such as in Sudan. He encouraged Muslims neither to take up arms against their co-religionists nor to even nominally aid the imperial apparatus under any circumstance;

“For any True Believer to take up arms and fight against another Muslim is contrary to the Shariat, and against the law of God and his holy prophet…I warn every True-Believer that if he gives the slightest assistance in this projected expedition against the Muslims of the Soudan [sic.], even to the extent of carrying a parcel, or giving a bite of bread to eat or a drink of water to any person taking part in the expedition against these Muslims that he thereby helps the Giaour [sic.] against the Muslim, and his name will be unworthy to be continued upon the roll of the faithful”. (The Crescent, March 25th 1896, Vol. VII, No. 167, p. 617)

We also learn that "Quilliam’s fervent advocacy of Muslim solidarity and united resistance against anti-Muslim imperial policies were a prominent feature of his discourse."

At the same time, he managed to annoy the neighbours by insisting on having the call to prayer chanted at his Liverpool mosque, an action that led to demonstrations and brought forth an editorial in a local newspaper which, leaving aside differences in language, might almost be describing events in Oxford in 2008:

“To hear the muezzin (sexton) here is most incongruous, unusual, silly and unwelcome, and the man who stands howling on the first floor of the balcony in such a fashion is certain to collect a ribald crowd, anxious to offer a copper or two to go into the next street, or even ready to respond to his invitation with something more than jeers”

In fact, the more one reads about Quilliam, the less appropriate a model he seems for a modern, relaxed Islam, comfortably fitting in with western secularism, and the more he comes to resemble the very radicals the eponymous foundation is supposed to be campaigning against. Here he is, for example, in full rhetorical flight:

“At the present time, union is more than ever necessary among Muslims. The Christian powers are preparing a new crusade in order to shatter the Muslim powers, under the pretext that they desire to civilise the world…This is nothing but hypocrisy, but armed as they are with the resources of Western civilisation it will be impossible to resist them unless the Muslims stand united in one solid phalanx”. (The Crescent, April 22nd 1896, Vol. VII, No. 171, pp. 681-682)

Osama bin Laden himself couldn't have put it better. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Kindred Spirits

It should hardly have come as a great surprise when the Guardian reported today that Ken Livingstone's faltering campaign to keep his job was being supported by two of Tony Blair's finest. Pollster and strategist Philip Gould is advising the arch-lizard along with celebrity diarist Alastair Campbell, while the erstwhile PM himself is said to be giving Ken the benefit of his great experience and wisdom. According to Tessa Jowell, another unlikely Livingstonian, people "right across the Labour party" were committed to the cause. "We sought advice from people who were in place as part of the New Labour team in the past," she said. "Alastair Campbell and Philip Gould. They are the best in the business and of course you go for the very best advice."

On the face of it this might seem an unlikely conjunction of talents. Before he swept to victory as an independent in 2000, Blair predicted that Livingstone would be "a disaster for London". The Guardian report quotes Alastair Campbell as admitting that "I amaze myself going round talking up Ken, because I used to think he was dreadful". Which comment is followed up with a paean of praise: "He has done a really good job and he is one of the reasons why London is effectively now the capital of the world."

Spin, of course. The not-so-subtle message is that Livingstone is a mayor so spectacularly and unarguably successful that even former sworn enemies are happy to help his campaign. Although the story might suggest some degree of difficulty, even desperation, in camp Ken: after all, why should Livingstone, if he's a shoe-in, be going cap in hand to his former detractors? The other message being conveyed is that, whatever his maverick reputation, Ken has now been utterly embraced by the Blairite machine, whose aid for the troubled mayoral campaign may seem to some in contrast with their distance from the equally troubled Gordon Brown. As Jowell herself put it, the involvement of these Blairites is "a measure of how everybody who has been part of New Labour wants to see it go forward and wants to see Ken win in London."

The Guardian quotes Blair himself as saying that the contest is "very winnable" (implication: if you take my advice; otherwise you're doomed). Blair also "privately" (one of those words, like "frankly", that is always used in journalism to mean its precise opposite) described Ken as "a man who can transcend traditional politics in a way that few others can." Few, indeed. Some might think that Boris Johnson was also such a man. There's little doubt, however, who else Tony Blair had in mind when making that assertion. Tony Blair was thinking of Tony Blair.

It is part of the Blairite mythology, of course, that it was Tony who elevated Labour to power, rather than Labour electing and promoting Blair. While most independent analysts are sure that, had he lived, John Smith would have become prime minister in 1997 with a healthy majority, such thoughts are akin to heresy among the true believers. It was New Labour that defeated John Major; and (despite the deep involvement within it of Gordon Brown) New Labour was Tony Blair.

Livingstone can certainly claim his own mandate, distinct from the party in which he achieved prominence. Thanks to the blundering of Blair and his allies, he stood and was elected as an independent, and a few years later the humbled prime minister had virtually to beg him to come back. And while in many ways he is a quintessentially Labour figure - far more so than Blair - he has always presented himself, rather than the party agenda, as being the main reason for electing him. This disdain for their own party, treated as little more than a vehicle for their own ambitions, is then the most obvious trait which Livingstone and Blair have in common.

But there are many more. Another is a pronounced tendency to surround themselves with a coterie of (usually) unelected cronies and advisers. Where Blair had, in addition to Campbell and Gould, Lords Levy and Falconer, Ken has such figures as Redmond O'Neill, Peter Hendy and, most controversially, Lee Jasper. Both, too, have shown a willingness of which Machiavelli himself would have approved to abandon their sidekicks when it becomes politically expedient to do so. And both have displayed a mastery of political manoeuvring. Livingstone's putsch against GLC leader Andrew McIntosh in 1981, which first brought him to prominence, has interesting parallels with the way Blair skilfully sidelined Brown in 1994.

Tony Blair was notorious for his disregard of Parliament and Parliamentary proprieties, and for his impatience with traditional ways of doing things. He preferred sofa government and informal understandings, which unkind opponents thought contributed to political sleaze. Ken Livingstone for his part has been openly contemptuous of the Greater London Assembly. "Almost nobody is aware of who any member of the assembly is," he said, rejecting their vote of no confidence in Met Commissioner Ian Blair. "They make members of parliament look like household names."

Loyalty to, and enthusiasm for, that hopeless and discredited policeman (described by Livingstone as "the leading police officer of his generation")is, in itself, a telling point of contact between Livingstone and Blair. So is an obsession with grand and unnecessary projects: for Blair the Dome, for Livingstone his own lavish new offices. (And, of course, the Olympics, the vast cost of which will give Ken's successors headaches for generations to come.)

If forced to choose one thing, though, I would nominate the paradoxical nature of their political positioning as their most remarkable shared characteristic. While Blair surrounded himself with billionaires and made loud noises about law and order, he presided over a thoroughgoing socialisation of British society. And while Ken posed as the champion of the underdog, he supported the police over the Stockwell shooting, happily shared a platform with Yusuf al Qaradawi - and surrounded himself with billionaires.

I wonder, though, if Qaradawi is still Ken's favourite associate. It was reported the other day that the cleric thinks Mecca should replace Greenwich as the hub of the world's timekeeping. He "said modern science had at last provided evidence that Mecca was the true centre of the Earth; proof of the greatness of the Muslim "qibla" - the Arabic word for the direction Muslims turn to when they pray."

It's unlikely he shares Ken's estimation that London is "the capital of the world". Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Desperate Measures

It seems to be a law of politics that the less the evidence for a particular proposed law or measure, the more vehement and blood-chilling are the arguments adduced for its imposition. That is certainly the case with the Home Office's increasingly desperate attempts to introduce 42 days detention without charge.

Today it was the turn of the utterly compromised and partisan Sir Ian Blair to justify the proposal before the Commons committee examining the counter-terrorism bill. He admitted to the MPs that there was no evidence to justify the government's claim that the police need the extra time. Indeed, he said, it had never been part of the police case that there was any such evidence. Rather (and this is also the Home Office line, of course) the situation might possibly arise in the future. And it's better to take the powers now, just in case.

Blair added, as he invariably does, that with the "increasing complexity and sophistication" of terrorist plots the day would soon come when they did need 42 days detention pre-charge.

There have been a number of cases where the level of threat that we perceive means we make an arrest when we have almost no evidential material at all. So we are starting from a place where we are very very concerned about what these people are going to do but we are not quite sure what it is.

Which for some reason made me start thinking about Jean Charles de Menezes.

As an exercise of the "precautionary principle", this really takes the biscuit. I'm reminded of the White Knight in Through the Looking Glass, who had equipped his horse with a mouse-trap. When Alice protested that there weren't likely to be many mice on his horse's back, the knight agreed. "But if they do come," he added, "I don't choose to have them running all about."

He had also attached devices to the horse's legs "to guard against attacks from sharks".

The case for 42 days is based almost entirely on supposition and scare-mongering. In the language of ministers and their police allies, terrorist plots are always multiplying and deepening, the threat is always unprecedented, the sophistication of the terrorists is invariably growing. Faced with this menace, the authorities of law and order present themselves as weak, powerless and vulnerable, fighting a rearguard action against mighty odds. Society itself, in this analysis, is fragile and perennially imperilled. Only by increasing detention, increasing surveillance and eroding rights can life even be sustained here.

But what about the IRA? Ah, says Commissioner Blair, they didn't have mobile phones or the Internet back then, did they? And they usually phoned in warnings. And they weren't into suicide bombing. Altogether a better class of terrorist.

Such nice, friendly, unthreatening terrorists were the IRA that they managed to kill an estimated 1800 people during a thirty year campaign. Which is an average of 60 per year. This contrasts with the 52 victims of the London tube bombings. If we say that their "campaign" has been going since 2001, then in all but one of those eight years there have been no deaths at all in Britain. The IRA were so gentlemanly that they came within an ace of murdering the entire cabinet in 1984 (and, as I recall, there was no warning). They were a real threat, and we got through it.

It's been pointed out often enough by opponents of the extension that other countries - including the US, Canada, Australia and most of continental Europe - seem to manage perfectly well without such a draconian regime. Sir Ian and his cronies have finally, it seems, found an answer to this one. Britain, he claimed today, was uniquely vulnerable. "We appear to face the most radical and escalating threat of any of these countries in terms of the number of people involved and plots going on and that are happening now," he claimed.

If this is true, perhaps the police and the government should be concentrating on finding out why, rather than looking to yet more laws.

Blair in any case seemed curiously vague about the details and seriousness of these plots. He said that a total of 12 terrorist plots, all "likely" to involve loss of life, had been foiled since the successful bombings of 2005. His colleague Bob Quick, sitting next to him, put the figure at 15.

In the same period there have been around 2200 murders in England and Wales, and as many as 40000 recorded rapes. And it's worth noting that the police have somehow managed to detect all of these 15 terrorist plots, even while labouring under the massive disadvantage of not being able to detain suspects for more than a month before charging them with one of the many new and remarkably flexible terrorist offences.

Blair's case seemed to be based, at least partly, on making the police's life easier. "There are practicalities - where officers have to trail all around the world, with very extreme and tight deadlines, working with high technology teams breaking encryption codes," he said. "That places real pressure on people to deliver the evidence."

I'm sorry, but enabling police officers to knock off work early on a Friday afternoon is not a convincing reason for further eroding our civil liberties.

In addition, Blair said, while you basically knew where you were with the IRA, these new terrorists can pop up anywhere, "out of left field".

Presumably he's thinking about cases such as the increasingly bizarre story of Andrew Ibrahim, the Bristol public schoolboy turned crackhead turned Big Issue seller turned devout Muslim turned (perhaps) would-be jihadist. Since Ibrahim disappeared into the legal limbo of pre-charge detention last week, the police have carried out three controlled explosions at his bedsit. But while information about the teenager himself has been plentiful very little has emerged about the nature or extent of his involvement in terrorism. It would seem that the police were acting on a tip-off from a suspicious local Muslim when they arrested him.

Someone who had lived at the same hostel as Ibrahim in his days as a spiky-haired drug addict told the Bristol Evening News that he had "clearly gone through a dramatic transformation":

We knew he was a Muslim but he was obviously now taking his faith very seriously. He was previously fanatical about hip-hop music. Now it seems to be religion that became his obsession.

Strangely, this seems to many observers to amount to proof of his guilt. I have no idea. But the notion that casualties of life like Andrew Ibrahim represent an existential threat of the order of Communism or the Third Reich - or even the IRA - strikes me as more than a little far-fetched. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 21 April 2008

Fed up with God

Religion and politics - especially the overlap between the two - is back in the news in a depressingly big way. While much of the attention in recent days has been drawn by the (to some) surprisingly enthusiastic reception given to Ratzo in the USA, closer to home there have been some interesting public interventions and even more interesting surveys.

Tony Blair, in his speech at Westminster Cathedral earlier this month, repeated the line, fast becoming conventional wisdom, that the notion of a secular society is a myth, or at least passé. "Even ten years ago, religion was still being written off as a force in the world," he said.

But in fact at no time since the Enlightenment has religion ever gone away. It has always been at the very core of life for millions of people, the foundation of their existence, the motive for their behaviour, the thing which gives sense to their lives and purpose to their journeys – which makes life more than just a sparrow’s flight through a lighted hall from one darkness to another, in that memorable image of the Venerable Bede. In the last few years we have been reminded of the great power of religion.


Archdruid Rowan Williams has been making speeches, too. In his own Westminster Cathedral oration the other day, he explained just why he was so keen on the resurgence of Islam:

The growing presence in Europe of a substantial and confident form of classical religious practice in the shape of Islam has put the quest for detached non-sectarian spiritual capital in perspective: post-religious spirituality has to compete with an articulate corporate voice which stubbornly resists being made instrumental to the well-being of an unchallenged Western and capitalist modernity. The natural and instinctive reaction of government is to attempt to co-opt the strong motivations of such corporate vision into the project of strengthening social cohesion.

He also came out with this masterpiece of self-delusion:

The better we understand the distinctiveness of religious claims, the better we understand the centrality within them of non-violence. That is to say, the religious claim, to the extent that it defines itself as radically different from mere local or transitory political strategies, is more or less bound to turn away from the defence or propagation of the claims by routinely violent methods, as if the truth we were talking about depended on the capacity of the speaker to silence all others by force.

As history shows, of course. Ah, but that's not the point:

Granted that this is how classical communal religion has all too regularly behaved; but the point is that it has always contained a self-critique on this point. And that growing self-awareness about religious identity, which has been one paradoxical consequence of the social and intellectual movement away from such an identity, makes it harder and harder to reconcile faith in an invulnerable and abiding truth with violent anxiety as to how it is to be defended.

Harder for who, exactly?

Clearly Woolliams thinks he's on a roll. A lot of media fuss and blather about religion doesn't equate to widespread religious belief, however. Nor does the increasing visibility, and volubility, of semi-professional atheists (the two Ds and the two Hs most prominent among them) represent a tacit acknowledgement that the secularist cause is fading, as is too often claimed. In fact, in much of Europe - at least among the majority - religion continues to fade. Recent figures suggest that almost a half of British people don't belong to any religion, and only 38% believe in God (presumably the 14% unaccounted once came within splashing distance of a font). Religious belief is much stronger in poorer, less developed parts of Europe, such as Malta, Poland and Greece, whereas the most irreligious countries included Scandanavia, France and Britain.

It is in this general atmosphere that we have to understand the current debate: a volume of talk about religion increasing almost daily against a backdrop of longstanding, and growing, public resentment. There are various reasons for this. Most obviously, there's the explosive (literally) re-emergence of religion into public consciousness in the form of Islamist violence. There's also the (partly-related) re-designation of ethnic minority groups as "religious communities". On top of which, the traditional churches, who had (grudgingly, in many cases) begun to accept the relegation of religion to the private sphere - surely the defining characteristic of secularism - have seen the attention being paid to religious "community leaders" by politicians and demanded their piece of the action. The result is, for the indifferent majority, highly paradoxical.

Of course, whatever is widely reported in the media appears to be important, and is apt to be taken for something of great significant by politicians and other framers of public policy. Moreover, the importance of religion to individual believers - and for the truly devout it can be all-important - is apt to be misconstrued as proof that religion is important in itself, and thus that it is the part of the job of government to channel, control, develop, encourage - and fund - religious institutions and religious initiatives. We're told that the aim is to encouraged "social cohesion" and foster neighbourliness and good citizenship. But when you take a look at what is being promoted and funded - factional and sectarian "faith-based" pressure groups like the Muslim Council of Britain, segregationist "faith schools", university training courses and so on - it hardly inspires confidence in the future of an equal, tolerant society.

Perhaps that's why more and more people are apparently coming to the conclusion that religion is a "social evil". That was the most unexpected (and so headline-friendly) finding of the latest survey(pdf) from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, released yesterday. It wasn't the only finding, of course. The 3,500 largely self-selected participants in the study (made up of people who had heard about it, or had wandered onto the website by accident, plus a few carefully-selected members of minority groups to make it more "representative") were also bothered about binge-drinking, uncontrolled immigration, the fact that "young people nowadays have no respect", untrustworthy politicians and the unrestrained excesses of big business. Typical Mail readers and grumpy old men, in other words. Their complaints had a timeless quality. It could have been Hesiod, moaning about declining standards in archaic Greece. Or Juvenal, 800 years later in Rome. Or some 18th century moralist. Or Peter Hitchens.

Against this unoriginal backdrop, resentment of religion stands out as something genuinely new. And it's not just resentment of particular manifestations of religion, either: rather, the whole phenomenon of religion is increasingly seen, at least by these participants, as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution. While religion might have been a force for morality and social cohesion in the past, the plurality of religious voices today, combined with the implausibility of their claims, make it unlikely to be of similar benefit today. I quote from the detailed analysis by Beth Watts of the Rowntree Foundation.

Some people saw religion as a social evil because it “undermines social cohesion” and is “a force for separating people”. Participants also felt that religion can actively encourage intolerance, towards some groups in particular: “Faith in supernatural phenomena inspires hatred and prejudice throughout the world, and is commonly used as justification for continued persecution of women, gays and people who do not have faith”. So in stark contrast to those who see the decline of religion as complicit in a decline of values, some participants blamed religion itself for undermining certain values. Another participant highlighted the deficiencies of religion as the basis of a value system for a different reason:
There are too many of them [religions], and none make any sense.

Others were worried about the anti-scientific nature of religious beliefs, and how paying attention to them could undermine progress. Religious extremism was also a particular cause for concern.

So why is the government so keen on promoting something which most people are, at best, uninterested in and which is increasingly unpopular? Two possible explanations spring to mind. One is the long shadow of Tony Blair. It is increasingly obvious just how obsessively religious, and obsessed by religion, the former PM always was. His religiosity was always implicit, of course, but the careful insistence by Alistair Campbell that "we don't do God", coupled with Blair's own reluctance to talk about his convictions, managed to create the impression that this was largely a personal idiosyncrasy. In fact, he moved steadily, and stealthily, to promote a "faith agenda": encouraging faith schools and local activism, setting up ministerial groups and working parties (such as the "Faith Communities Unit" in the Home Office), inviting religious leaders to make submissions on matters of policy, and so on. During his decade in office, much of the machinery of government became accustomed to thinking in "faith-conscious" ways, as well as assuming, as a kind of default mode, that religion is a good thing.

A wholly needless comment in the recent social trends report sums this mindset up very well. "Belonging to a religion can provide a spiritual and a moral framework to a person's life, as well as involving contact with other individuals and participation in the local community," it says in the introduction to the "religion" section. Indeed it can. But so what?

We are still living, too, with the aftershocks of 9/11. In the aftermath of that, and even more so after the London tube bombings of 2005, the government sought to co-opt religious community leaders in the fight against terrorist extremism. And so we saw the procession of bearded reactionaries trooping into No 10 for fruit juice and halal sandwiches. As part of the quid pro quo, the religious "community leaders" were treated as the main interface between the governments and the communities which the affected to represent. Groups such as the strongly Islamist MCB (whose long-serving head, Iqbal Sacranie, had once said that death was "too easy" a fate for Salman Rushdie) gained credibility and funding. And the communities themselves came increasingly to be defined by religion rather than ethnicity. It's difficult to understand how this can be considered progressive, or indeed as progress.

Not only did this process leading to the increasing visibility of political Islam, the most recent manifestation of which is the "Muslims4Ken" campaign in London. It also opened the door to other religious groups who wanted their piece of the action. Hindus formed a Hindu Forum, on the analogy of the MCB. Sikhs protested against a "disrespectful" play by a Sikh woman playwright, and were shamefully applauded by ministers for so doing. Catholic bishops tried to blackmail the government into restricting important scientific research. Anglican bishops are still desperately clinging on to their seats in the House of Lords. Everyone wants more religion-segregated schools, on the absurd principle that the religious affiliation (or claimed affiliation) of parents should determine the quality of a child's education and life chances thereafter.

With Blair out of the way, things may begin to change. Ed Balls, for example, has been notably less enthusiastic about faith schools than his predecessors in the Department of Education (as I intend to continue to think of it). Gordon Brown has spoken a great deal about growing up as the son of a Scottish minister, but in terms of "values" rather than personal belief. I suspect he's secretly an agnostic. Unfortunately governments, like supertankers, take a long time to turn around. And these things develop a tendency to become self-sustaining. If communities conceive of themselves in religious ways, they are quite likely to start voting in religious ways, too. And that really could be the death of secularism.

Expect resigned tolerance for religion to continue to turn, for a growing number of people, into active dislike. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 20 April 2008


The Evening Standard has been busily making mischief, or, if you prefer, drawing the attention of Londoners to the Islamist credentials of some of those behind the "Muslims4Ken" pressure group which is attempting to mobilise the vote for the Islamophile incumbent. And, more particularly, distributing evidence of Boris Johnson's alleged Islamophobia. "Websites have been bombarded with selected quotes from his journalism," the report claims.

Indeed they have. One such website, cryto-Islamist blog Ummah Pulse, carries a small selection of Borisisms. Including this one on the Iraq war, from 2003, which while far from Islamophobic has a somewhat unfortunate appearance in retrospect:

"If we know the Pentagon, there must be a very good chance that this will be an outstandingly successful and stress-free war."

Still, London isn't electing a fortune-teller. It is also, like many of these quotes, taken completely out of context. It comes from a Telegraph column he wrote at Christmas 2002, which goes on to say,

At every key moment in the Iraq drama, there is a little Whitehall-generated drum-roll of alarm about a terrorist threat in London. Last week, the Americans declared that Iraq was in material breach of UN resolution 1441. The war came closer! And offstage, as if by magic, government sources muttered about anthrax on the Tube, smallpox in the water supply, etc.

It is a cynical and ludicrous attempt at Pavlovian conditioning. War in Iraq! Terrorist threat! War in Iraq! Terrorist threat! On it will go until the poor mutton-headed public believes that only the first will obviate the threat of the second.

It is a belief for which, alas, there is no evidence whatever. Try as he may, Blair has been unable to link Saddam with September 11, and we have no good grounds for thinking a war on Saddam will make future al-Qa'eda attacks less likely.

Which isn't bad soothsaying. Although he was among those calling for the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Boris was never a whole-hearted proponent of the Iraq war. Nor is he one of those (many on the "Left", whatever that means) in long-term denial about its justification or aftermath. Here he is in 2005, for example:

Whatever we achieve in Iraq, we will not have made our own world safer, or made the risk of terrorism less likely: quite the reverse. Perhaps it is just my paranoia, but there was something too neat about the way the British authorities released the new pictures of the four suicide bombers this week, not just to take the heat out of the Basra story, but also subliminally to remind the public of the claim with which Blair invaded Iraq - that it was part of the "war on terror". That claim was a lie, and whatever good may come out of the Iraq war, we should never forget that it was based on that lie.

Apart from the high quality of the prose, that could almost be Ken talking.

I was, though, particularly struck by this comment, left on Ummah Pulse by someone calling himself "Coolness of Hind".

Yes, Borris Johnson. I sat down with him once. He wanted to gauge the understanding of a young Muslim and try to figure out why educated people would blow themselves up. At the time no criminal convictions were made. I raised the inconsistencies in the reportings, the distinct lack of evidence, and pointers to suggest that the suspects were in fact innocent; distinctly opposite take on what the media was regurgitating at the time.

Through the entire meeting he gave me "dirty looks" (you know the ones which start off fights). He then chose to ask why women were subjugated/segregated and made to wear the veil. I asked why he had an affair...

In essence, I could see his hatred spewing out in his uneasy gestures and "dirty" looks.

I gathered the man knows absolutely nothing about Islam. I invited him to the Deen, and gave him a Quran. May Allah guide him.

I wonder if Boris managed to get very far with the Koran. He's a busy man, after all. Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Mass panic

This accidental (or is it?) juxtaposition has been causing much online hilarity. (I got it via Friendly Atheist).

When I checked the NYT website, I couldn't find the exact headline/ picture combination. Perhaps they thought it best to take it down. This one, however, is still there, and it's almost as good.

Read the rest of this article

Friday, 18 April 2008

Believe it or not

The authorities at Yale might have officially described it as a hoax, but aspiring conceptual provocateuse Aliza Shvarts is apparently standing by her abortion art. She really did inject herself with sperm, she claims, and she really did film herself bleeding all over the bathroom. She adds,

The artwork exists as the verbal narrative you see above, as an installation that will take place in Green Hall, as a time-based performance, as an independent concept, as a myth and as a public discourse.

Which doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the reality of her "creation". Still, Shvartz has certainly mastered the inanities of modern art discourse. Here's an extract from her statement:

It is the intention of this piece to destabilize the locus of that authorial act, and in doing so, reclaim it from the heteronormative structures that seek to naturalize it.

As an intervention into our normative understanding of “the real” and its accompanying politics of convention, this performance piece has numerous conceptual goals. The first is to assert that often, normative understandings of biological function are a mythology imposed on form. It is this mythology that creates the sexist, racist, ableist, nationalist and homophobic perspective, distinguishing what body parts are “meant” to do from their physical capability. The myth that a certain set of functions are “natural” (while all the other potential functions are “unnatural”) undermines that sense of capability, confining lifestyle choices to the bounds of normatively defined narratives.

When considering my own bodily form, I recognize its potential as extending beyond its ability to participate in a normative function. While my organs are capable of engaging with the narrative of reproduction — the time-based linkage of discrete events from conception to birth — the realm of capability extends beyond the bounds of that specific narrative chain. These organs can do other things, can have other purposes, and it is the prerogative of every individual to acknowledge and explore this wide realm of capability.

Aliza may or may not have utilised her vagina in the service of art. But she obviously made considerable use of another orifice for the purposes of communication. Read the rest of this article

Joining the dots

Robert Mugabe, a man whose grasp on reality rivals that of Mohamed al Fayed, has been warning his people about the conspiratorial doings of the evil British government and its nefarious plans to reimpose colonial rule in Zimbabwe.

This is what he said in a speech today:

We need to maintain utmost vigilance in the face of vicious British machinations and the machinations of our other detractors, who are allies of Britain.

Whereas yesterday they relied on brute force to subjugate our people and plunder our resources, today they have perfected their tactics to more subtle forms by using money literally to buy some people to turn against their government. We are being bought like livestock.

And this is what he said last Saturday:

Brown is the world? ...I know Brown is a little tiny dot on this world.

At the time, I thought that summed up our prime minister quite accurately. But Bob can't have it both ways. Either Gordo's a criminal mastermind pulling the strings from somewhere behind a curtain of invisibility, or he's an insignificant dot. Judging by the impression he created in the US this week, I'm with the dot. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Suffering for her art

This is going to be huge.

As part of an "art project", Yale student Aliza Shvarts allegedly made herself repeatedly pregnant - by artificial insemination, we're told - and then induced abortions (using herbal compounds) which she filmed. The blood and foetal remains are due to be exhibited in a cube as part of Shvarts' degree show next week. The report states:

Shvarts will wrap hundreds of feet of plastic sheeting around this cube; lined between layers of the sheeting will be the blood from Schvarts' self-induced miscarriages mixed with Vaseline in order to prevent the blood from drying and to extend the blood throughout the plastic sheeting.

Shvarts will then project recorded videos onto the four sides of the cube. These videos, captured on a VHS camcorder, will show her experiencing miscarriages in her bathrooom tub, she said. Similar videos will be projected onto the walls of the room.

Shvarts claims that her intention is "to spark conversation and debate on the relationship between art and the human body". Rather than, say, become famous overnight. "I believe strongly that art should be a medium for politics and ideologies, not just a commodity," she is quoted as saying. "I think that I'm creating a project that lives up to the standard of what art is supposed to be."

Which raises questions as to precisely what she thinks art "ought to be". I suppose that brought up on a diet of shock art, in which bissected livestock and lightbulbs switching on and off garner headlines, dense passages of critical analysis and inexplicable fame and money for their creators, she has a fairly jaundiced view of what art is meant to be. A way of getting attention.

By these lights, this piece is indeed Art. Not so much épater le bourgeois as splatter le bourgeois. Servers at Yale Daily News crashed when the story was discovered.

IF this story is true (and all we have to go on is a report of an undergraduate seminar at which she revealed or described - it's not quite clear - the contents of her show) then a major ethical row looms. On the other hand, she could turn out to be a pro-life evangelical Christian staging a hoax in an attempt to discredit abortion. I'm suspicious. The story is short on details. Schwarz apparently induced her abortions without any medical supervision and is cagey about where she found her "donors".

If nothing else, it would make an interesting subject for one of Tony Blair's seminars when he arrives at Yale to teach about faith.

UPDATE 18/4/08 It seems I was right to be suspicious. A statement passed on to me by "Anonymous" (who would appear to be based at Yale) late last night runs as follows:

Statement by Helaine S. Klasky — Yale University, Spokesperson

New Haven, Conn. — April 17, 2008

Ms. Shvarts is engaged in performance art. Her art project includes visual representations, a press release and other narrative materials. She stated to three senior Yale University officials today, including two deans, that she did not impregnate herself and that she did not induce any miscarriages. The entire project is an art piece, a creative fiction designed to draw attention to the ambiguity surrounding form and function of a woman's body.
She is an artist and has the right to express herself through performance art.
Had these acts been real, they would have violated basic ethical standards and raised serious mental and physical health concerns.

No surprise there. There never was any real evidence for this story, as I noted. But until this statement was issued no-one apparently cried foul. The New York Sun has a full report on the episode, which included a quote from a biology professor at rival university Princeton who thought it more likely to be menstrual blood. Why this professor? Well, according to the Sun,

A science student of Mr. Silver’s once proposed impregnating herself with chimpanzee sperm. Mr. Silver convinced her it was a “horrible thing for her to do,” but his fictionalized account of the event became a book and a play.

I don't believe that either, as it happens.

The story went on,

An environmental health official at Yale, Peter Reinhardt, sounded alarmed when told of Ms. Shvarts’s plan to put a mix of her own blood and Vaseline on display in a public building. “I will look into this immediately,” he said. “Normally, that would be out of the bounds of what we would allow a student to do.”

I love that "normally".

A few weeks ago there was another student art project which went global. An anonymous young woman calling herself "90 day Jane" announced that she was going to commit suicide three months after beginning a blog detailing her last days. In the event, she lasted only a week before admitting it was all a hoax.

So what was Shvarts's point? Is her intention really, as the statement claims, "to draw attention to the ambiguity of a woman's body"? Was she just trying to get publicity? Or was she perhaps making a point about the easy sensationalism and credulity of the media, especially in the internet age? It's a point that can't be made often enough. Read the rest of this article

Spot the difference

One of these charming little pink fellows is a Beanie Baby® called Ratzo. The other just likes dressing up. Can you tell which is which? Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Bad Timing

Why exactly is Gordon Brown visiting the US at the same time as the Pope?

It can't exactly have been unplanned or accidental, as it was when the funeral of the previous pontiff coincided with the nuptials of Charles Windsor and Mrs Camilla Parker-Bowles. These trips, except in situations of international emergencies (or funerals) are always planned weeks if not months in advance. The diaries of major political leaders are not usually their own. Private secretaries and advisers devote themselves to schedule-fixing. The leader's day is planned minutely. These days, with professionalised media management at a premium, a potential disaster on this scale ought to have been spotted some miles off.

It's not even as though this is just some routine flying visit. Brown will be in America for a full three days, during which he will meet the presidential candidates, address the UN and conduct important financial discussions. Nor is a Scottish presbyterian likely to be pleased to find himself playing second fiddle to the Pope.

And while suggestions have been made that Brown actually wanted a low-key visit, that this was always going to be a serious visit, not some Blair-style PR junket, his advisers would surely have anticipated, and could not have desired, the British headlines and news-reports focusing on his embarrassingly low profile. And such claims are, in any case, belied by the blitz of TV interviews that Brown lined up in a major effort to remind, or more accurately inform, the American public that their best friend and greatest ally is no longer Tony Blair. In his push for Stateside celebrity Gordon even made a cringe-making appearance on American Idol: not, surely, the action of a man seeking to go unnoticed.

No, Gordon Brown did not intend to hide under Ratzo's chasuble.

Cock-up? Certainly. Conspiracy? Maybe. These things are after all arranged by the Foreign Office, currently led by Blairite torchbearer and wannabe Brownslayer David Miliband. A diplomatic embarrassment for Gordo might not be such a bad idea. Perhaps some such suggestion lay behind the indignant denial recorded this morning by Nick Robinson:

British officials are trying hard to hide their disappointment that the prime minister is not so much sharing the stage with the pontiff as being shoved into the wings. No, they say, THEY didn't know about the clash when the White House suggested the date for their man's visit.

So it was all the White House's fault? That would appear to be the Downing Street line, however sotto voce. Is the plan to hand out a humiliating rebuke for Brown's cold-shouldering of Dubya on his previous visit, at Camp David last year? One that occasion, the president spoke warmly of the "humorous Scotsman" and stressed the specialness of the special relationship, while Brown scarcely mentioned the man standing next to him at all and allowed his officials to brief that the two nations would no longer be "joined at the hip". He compounded the insult by appointing the rabidly anti-American Mark Malloch Brown as a Foreign Office minister. There followed the precipitate withdrawal from Basra, a strategically vital city left by the British in the hands of factional militias. American commanders in Iraq are now openly contemptuous of their supposed allies, a view increasingly shared by the general public.

For all his clichéd talk, on American TV, of his mission to be a bridge between Europe and America, Gordon Brown seems to have made a deliberate decision, when he became prime minister, to burn that bridge, sacrificing Britain's strategic interests by distancing himself from an unpopular president (and, by extension, from his own despised predecessor). At that time, he was the man of granite, dominating the political landscape. Arguably, Bush needed him more than he needed the president. Bush wasn't long for this world in any case: time enough, thought the prime minister, to sit out the next few months before bestowing his benediction on Hillary, who at that stage was looking almost as inevitable as Brown himself had done. As it is, a brief photo-call with Barack Obama may well be the prime minister's one small reward for all the jet-lag.

So now the White House gets its revenge: elegantly, without any open discourtesy. Brown will be greeted warmly and with all proper form. He will have his photo taken with Bush (another opportunity to practise his awkward smile); he will have talks; he will appear on TV. But he will be treated like some vaguely embarrassing poor relation who arrives to sit out a plumbing disaster at the same time as the family's daughter is getting married. Or possibly the Olympic torch.

The only other possibility is that Britain is now perceived by the White House as so irrelevant that it simply didn't occur to them that Brown's being upstaged by the Pope would be a problem. Either way, it doesn't look good.

If he were the president of some middling country in Latin America, perhaps GB might be satisfied with such treatment. But he isn't. For all the recent transatlantic divergences and differences of personality between the two leaders Britain remains militarily the USA's most important ally, and economically scarcely less so. He should be the only show in town. Read the rest of this article

Pope Idol

Just click your heels together three times, Dorothy, and say "There's no place like Rome".

UPDATE: Time has a great retrospective of some of Ratzo's best frocks.
Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Fighting Fitna

In the interests of balance, since I gave so much space to Fitna the other week, here's a response (or rather a parody) by Saudi Raeed al-Saeed. He says, at the end, that it's crap, but that it only took him a few hours; whereas Geert Wilders took several months and his film is crap too.

This effort, Schism, is one of many responses to Fitna available on YouTube, but probably the best of the bunch (there's also a tedious American preacher and a hijab-wearing teenager explaining in Arabic how much she admires the Virgin Mary). Disgracefully, it was taken down for a while because of its "offensive" content, but then put up again after protests. To produce ripostes like this is, surely, the only correct way for his critics to answer Wilders. That so many Muslims have taken the trouble to produce their own films rather than rioting on the streets is probably the best thing to have come out of the whole Fitna debacle.

Saeed's technique owes much to Wilders, taking out-of-context Biblical quotations, mainly from the New Testament, and splicing them together with footage of atrocities and other examples of "Christian" belligerence. The Srebrenica massacre, for example, British soldiers beating up Iraqi civilians and American army recruits. There are also shots of Orangemen, crucifixion re-enactments in the Philippines and the flaming crosses of the Ku Klux Klan. And even the Jonestown mass-suicide. The whole thing ends, somewhat bizarrely, with a rendition of God Save the Queen. Why not Onward Christian Soldiers?

Saeed's point, of course, is that you can use any sacred texts to justify atrocities. That was scarcely Wilders' point, though. The main intention of Fitna seems to have been scaremongering about immigration. Apart from that, he was rather obviously pointing out that Koranic verses which may seem to justify terrorism are, in fact, used by the terrorists themselves to justify what they are doing. This does not, at any rate, seem to be the case with any of the clips Saeed has discovered. If they had had film cameras in the twelfth century then there would doubtless be plenty of carefully-preserved footage of the Crusades he could have used. Today, however, the only people who take to heart the more violent passages from the Bible are looking for ammunition to discredit it.

It is plainly and rather boringly true that there are violent and gruesome passages in the Bible, which you don't even need to take out of context to find both disturbing and potentially dangerous. But such passages are scarcely used, these days, as inspirational material. In Anglican evensong the psalms are even censored: psalm 137, for example ("By the rivers of Babylon") usually loses the line which goes "Happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones". Christian apologists can seem over-eager to explain away, rather than simply condemn, violent passages in the Bible, but there are none I am aware of actually invoking such passages in order to encourage their followers to commit violent actions. The use of Old Testament passages to justify Israeli settlement of the West Bank is another matter entirely.

There are two strands here which easily (and by design) become entangled. The first is the problem of religion and violence in general. Religion is not "about" violence in the sense that it is "about" prayer, or right conduct, or developing and accounting for a sense of the sacred. But it does tend to produce a type of group solidarity which has often in history issued forth in violence. Religion is a corporate activity. Solitary ascetics aside, one of its main functions (reflected in the very word) is to bind people together, and the main means by which this is achieved is to invest emotional interest in an imaginary external object (a.k.a. "God") which then becomes a shared reference-point for the community of believers. Defending that object naturally comes to be seen as an imperative. While the founders of religions, in general, have preached peace and tolerance no religion has ever achieved political power without making its compromise with war and coercion. Not even Buddhism.

What makes Islam particularly problematic, on the other hand, is rooted not in the general tendency of religions but in its own unique history. Mohammed fought battles. He ordered the mass-killing of the Jews of Medina. His sword - or a sword purporting to be his - is exhibited in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. Doubtless he also preached tolerance. But he was a complex personality, and there are deeds of darkness in his biography, some of which found their way into the verses of the Koran. And any objective account of his life will admit that, as time went on and his power in Arabia grew the darker, less tolerant aspects of his personality began to emerge. It took centuries for Christians to make the transition from turning the other cheek to fighting battles for the faith. In Islam the process took place within the lifetime of the prophet.

This matters, not because it makes Islam inherently a violent religion (that is not inevitable) but because of the unthinking respect and reverence that Muslims are called upon to feel for their founder. This inhibits criticism: his actions, however questionable to modern tastes, can only ever be explained and justified, never simply condemned. And because his is supposed to be a model for human life, anything that he did, whether engaging in holy wars or marrying a nine-year-old girl, becomes sanctified. Moreover, however wrong-headed they may appear in the eyes of the majority of Muslim believers, advocates of terrorist violence can with plausibility look to the example of Mohammed, and quote the Koran, whereas Christians who engage in violent conduct are well aware that Jesus did not behave like that.

In his riposte to Fitna, Raeed al Saeed quotes Matthew 10:34. "I did not come to bring peace, but a sword". As prophecies go, this must count as one of the more accurate ones: down the centuries Christians have fought enthusiastically and bloodily against each other and against followers of other creeds. And all in the name of a teacher who claimed that the meek would inherit the earth and urged his disciples to "love your enemies and do good to them that hate you". Saeed had no trouble finding material for his film. And the Bible has been used, and continues to be used, to justify such things as slavery, the persecution of gay people, the subordination of women and, yes, warfare. It can also, like any holy book, serve as a convenient substitute for thought. But it's just a book. Militant Islam, by contrast, is a movement.

As many have noticed, Fitna apes the form and production-values of a jihadist video. The combination of extreme piety and murderous violence that is the hallmark of such productions is, at present, a phenomenon unique to radical Islam. That the Koran can be made to promote violence is in itself irrelevant. That it is, in fact, being used in this way is something that matters a great deal. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 14 April 2008

Browned Off

Suddenly, out of the chaotic mess that is the Brown premiership, a coherent narrative, of sorts, has appeared. He was never up to much, the theory goes. The "psychological flaws" that Alistair Campbell alluded to all those years ago (or was in Blair himself, or even perhaps Cherie?) now stand exposed for all to see. The brooding, the obsessive secretiveness, the lack of empathy, the desire to control may have been all very well at the Treasury but are disastrous in a prime minister. There's no plan, no drive, nothing that GB actually wants to do, except maintain his dominance and crush rivals. He's Stalin without the moustache, Mr Bean without the creative flair.

Matthew Parris, for example:

No, for all I care, Mr Brown can be a bean-counting, flak-ducking, procrastinating, tunnel-visioned, trainspotting monster. These are human qualities. I like human qualities. It's vacuums I despise. What is unforgivable is the empty space in Mr Brown's head where an idea ought to be. One big idea, one bold, brave, all-consuming purpose, one gripping sense of political direction, would outweigh all the carping criticisms we may have of Brown the man.

Everything was fine, according to this version of events - which is so consistent that one feels someone must be spinning it - as long as Tony Blair was around. Not only did he manage to keep Brown in his box (though perhaps he should have gone further and ditched him altogether) but he understood, as Brown does not, the desires of the electorate. He knew how to connect, he was decisive, full of plans and ideas. That these ideas tended to involve illegal wars, repressive legislation or schemes to channel large sums of money into the pockets of foreign casino-operators was ultimately less important than his reputation as a winner. If it wasn't for the small trouble of Iraq, he would still be smiling at us today, and many chastened Labour MPs in marginal seats must now wish they hadn't let him go so easily.

There are hints everywhere of nostalgia for the easy victories of the Blair years. On Labour Home, for example, Tony Hannon writes as follows:

I remember in the run up to the Iraq war, Tony Blair went into a hostile studio audience and faced slow clapping, almost farcically tough questions and an angry Sir Trevor MacDonald. Even if you disagree with a policy, you’re somewhat assured when the main protagonist of the policy is willing to go into enemy territory to defend it.

Not so with Gordon. I look at the conference Q&A where barely a question from his own Party members went satisfactorily answered. The video link is out there somewhere. Waffle and platitudes around the topics raised.

Whenever there was a crisis for Blair – Gordon was nowhere to be found and a statement came a few days after the fact. We’ve now stumbled from issue, to crisis, to non-issue for almost a year and this guy never makes his argument convincingly.

There's some truth in these arguments. People generally like a leader who cheers them up, and it's hard to listen to Brown for any length of time (say, ten seconds) without conceiving the desire to try out an exquisitely painful method of suicide, just to relieve the boredom. And Blair, despite the disaster of Iraq, retained his almost supernatural ability to charm and get out of scrapes. Of course, it can't be known how he would have played the sub-prime crisis, the collapse in the value of the pound, the humiliation of British forces in Iraq, the Olympic torch relay or any of the other thousand shocks that Brown was heir to. But he would have pulled something out the bag. He always did.

But the mere fact that Brown is depressing, and useless, and appears to have no clear message to give the country is not, in itself, a reason to miss Blair. We had a demonstration last week - in the form of the devastating judgement of the High Court in the BAE corruption case - of just what a dangerous prime minister Tony Blair was, able to disguise the most cynical realpolitik and contempt for the rule of law in the language of high principle and the national interest. Craven before the corrupt, greedy mafia godfathers of Saudi Arabia, he had no compunction in interfering in the administration of justice. Lord Justice Moses details at length the process by which Blair bullied the Director of the Serious Fraud Office and the Attorney General into colluding with a foreign despot. While formally the decision was Goldsmith's, there can be no doubt that it was actually Blair's.

A year ago, as the nation looked forward to the end of the Blair regime, the then PM's reputation had been thoroughly trashed. True, he was not as unpopular then as Gordon Brown is now. But then the global economy was not in meltdown, no British banks had collapsed, the price of bread in the supermarkets hadn't doubled in the space of a few months. The factors - the real factors - that destroyed the government's reputation had no arisen. Apart from Iraq, of course, and even that had begun to fade. Blair's unpopularity then was all his own. In retrospect, of course, his premiership seems like a golden age. But that's just the operation of the Blair luck. If he were still in power, he would be at least as unpopular as Brown, but perhaps for different reasons.

There's a strange irony about the present situation. In the most important sense, Brown thoroughly deserves the blame for the uncomfortable position in which he finds himself. Not so much because he is a useless prime minister (although he is) but because he was a useless chancellor. For more than a decade, he did silent damage to the economy, raising taxes, squandering resources, destroying the competitiveness won during the Eighties at the cost of so much pain. But Blair did nothing to prevent him. He was too busy grandstanding and moralising and strutting on the global stage to interest himself in the petty details of what was happening to the economy. If he had been as determined to reform failing institutions as his torch-bearers now claim then he would have concentrated his attention on the domestic agenda. But that would have been too much like hard work. Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Coming to America

There's much excitement Stateside in advance of Ratzinger's visit next week. Much of the speculation has centred on what the fashion-conscious pope might wear (liturgically, of course), while Time magazine carried a profile of Ratzo's right-hand man, Mgr Georg Gänswein, the precise nature of whose relationship with the pope has been the source of so much innocent merriment in certain circles. By contrast, the Daily Telegraph had a rather strange article this morning pointing to a more sensitive subject.

"The pontiff will call for terrorists to convert to Christianity," it claims, quoting from a prayer Ratzinger intends to read at the site of the former World Trade Center in New York. The "offensive" words are as follows:

Turn to your way of love those whose hearts and minds are consumed with hatred. God of understanding, overwhelmed by the magnitude of this tragedy, we seek your light and guidance as we confront such terrible events.

According to the Telegraph,

The prayer is likely to further incense the Muslim world, which has already attacked the Pope for publicly converting Magdi Allam, a journalist and one of Italy's most high-profile Muslims, at Easter.

How so? It hardly bears comparison with Ratzinger's rightly-criticised decision to restore a prayer for the conversion of the Jews to his reinstated Tridentine mass. It doesn't mention conversion at all, or a particular religion. Merely the "way of love". Presumably Muslims believe that their religion constitutes a "way of love". Or perhaps they don't.

The Telegraph then goes on to mention such high-profile insults to the Religion of Peace as Ratzinger's Regensberg speech of 2006 and the more recent public baptism of the Egyptian-born journalist Magdi Allam. They quote Aref Ali Nayed, a "leading scholar and proponent of peaceful relations between the Roman Catholic Church and Islam" as saying that there were "genuine questions about the motives, intentions and plans of some of the Pope's advisers on Islam". They don't, however, make clear whether he was speaking in response to this new development or in more general terms.

A cynic would think that the paper was engaged in mischief-making.

Interestingly, they didn't contact Ken Livingstone's friend Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi, who has his own perspective on the Pope. According to the Gulf Times, he has called the high-profile conversion of Magdi Allam "a provocative and hostile act against Islam". "We try to seek peace with the Vatican and the World Council of Churches but in vain," he lamented, "They keep provoking us by their hostility."

He doesn't regret the loss of Allam, however, accusing the journalist of being "an agent of Israel". " He was always attacking Islam, the Qur’an and me," said Qaradawi, whose views on suicide bombing and the right of husbands to beat their wives led Livingstone to describe him as "one of the Muslim scholars who have done most to combat socially regressive interpretations of Islam."

Maybe that's why these self-declared progressives are backing Boris.

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