Monday, 30 June 2008

Indoctrination, Indoctrination, Indoctrination

The insufferable Cristina Odone has been talking up "faith" schools almost everywhere today, plugging a "report" she compiled for the Centre for Policy Studies (How are the mighty fallen!). She claims that Ed Balls is engaged in a "witch hunt" against faith schools (if only!). She thinks that there is no evidence that faith schools are in any way divisive. She asserts that everyone who disagrees with her is an "anti-religion bigot".

Quite why the CPS, which used to be a serious think-tank promoting conservative ideas, has taken to employing a self-publicising hackette to compile a report into a serious issue is far from clear. The pamphlet certainly isn't an academic study, and can hardly be said to constitute research. Rather, it is a newspaper column padded out with selective quotations and distorted statistics.

She claims that for Muslims Islamic schools "offer a bridge between their religious community and the wider secular society". Yet in arguing this case, she seems most concerned with pointing to those aspects of "wider society" that the bearded misogynists get so upset about, and stressing that girls (boys too, but mainly girls) will be protected from such things. No art classes in which children might be required to draw human beings. No mixed gym classes. No exposure to that dangerous thing, the opposite sex, either: at a co-ed school Odone praises, the lesson times are carefully staggered to ensure that boys and girls, while occupying the same building, never come into contact. Some people might find something slightly pathological about such an arrangement. Not Cristina.

This is a passage I found particularly chilling:

The architecture at Madani High conspires to [segregate]:
there is a girls’ wing and, mirror image, a boy’s wing, separated
by an elegant Arabic-style courtyard with a fountain. Madani
High is located on the fringes of Highfields, home to large
Somali and Caribbean communities and one of the poorest
areas in the country. But the high school building is spanking
new (construction finished last year) and dazzlingly high-tech,
with interactive white boards and sophisticated IT equipment
in almost every classroom. For the 70% of the student body
who come from Highfields, school must be an oasis in a
desolate landscape.

“We want the school to be a real centre for the community
around here,” Dr Muhammed Mukadam, Chair of the
Association of Muslim Schools and the principal of the school.

Here, side by side, is the ancient and the modern: outdated notions of sexual apartheid more appropriate to a medieval desert, but being reintroduced into 21st century Britain with all the bells and whistles of modern computer technology. A technology, I might add, developed in and made possible by the secular, materialistic, individualistic Western society from whose corruptions these refusniks want to protect their daughters. And the funding and the resources to make this institutionalised regression possible? Hitherto, of course, it has often come from the Wahhabists of Saudi Arabia. But increasingly, unless these plans are derailed (and, despite the noises he sometimes makes, Ed Balls seems in no hurry to stop them) the money will come from the British taxpayer. A famous phrase springs to mind, something about a nation heaping up its own funeral pyre.

Here's a very odd phrase. It comes from Iftikhar Ahmad, "who in 1981 founded the London School of Islamics, the first Muslim school in Britain": “Children from minority groups, especially Muslims, are exposed to the pressure of racism, multiculturalism and bullying". But hang on a minute, aren't we supposed to celebrate multiculturalism? Isn't a multicultural society something that government policy has long tried to create, often at the cost of individual human rights, let alone "social cohesion"? Well, it seems that the promoters of Muslim schools aren't that keen on a multicultural society after all. They equate it with racism and bullying. Why else would they want to separate off their children, "protecting" them from the British mainstream? These schools might want to teach their charges about modern British society, but they don't want to teach them to live in it.

Odone's enthusiasm for Islamic schools seems premised on the notion that Muslims are doomed to separatism; that deprived of access to schools offering a strict regime of sexual segregation and Koranic instruction Muslim parents will simply remove their girls from education and pack them off to Pakistan to marry some cousin twice their age. In some cases, of course, this is true. But Odone offers no evidence that girls from the tiny number of Muslim schools are not being subjected to "arranged" marriages. In any case, if children are being illegally removed from school then it is up to the authorities to investigate and, where appropriate, to prosecute. The timidity of the police and social services to tackle abuses of this kind for reasons of "cultural sensitivity" is regrettable; but further promoting educational ghettoes is no solution. It isn't even relevant.

A superb critique of Odone's idiocy, as regards Islamic schooling, comes from Yasmin Alibhai Brown in the Independent. YAB's demolition job is also well worth reading for the insight it offers into the ancient feud between these two journalistic prima donnas. But I suspect enthusiasm for Islam is not the prime motivating factor behind the noisily (if not always devoutly) Catholic Odone's enthusiasm for madrassas on the rates. Like others of conservative Christian opinions, she hopes to take advantage of the prevailing intellectual confusion of religion with questions of race and cultural identity in order to bring back God. Such people see Muslim reactionaries, who want to deny their children the choice to join mainstream society, along with their multiculturalist patsies in local and national government, not as a threat to British society but rather allies in the work of remoralisation. The sight of demure, perfectly-behaved young girls in headscarves looks to them like an exotic version of their own lost Eden: the 1950s, says, or the priest-haunted Ireland of a thousand misery memoirs. This is nostalgia with teeth.

One of Odone's favourite places would seem to be the Emmanuel Community College, a state school partly funded, and much influenced, by businessman Sir Peter Vardy. Vardy has made little secret of his religious agenda, and a former head of science was forced to resign in 2002 after being publicly exposed as an exponent of Intelligent Design, a "theory" that even the Vatican dismisses as nonsense. Odone speaks to the college's principal, Jonathan Wynch, and is oddly reassured by his answer:

Naturally, as a Foundation with a Christian ethos, we stand
by the Biblical account that God did indeed create the earth
and everything in it – however long it took Him,” he explains.

Creationism, as we understand it, is the belief that there is
scientific evidence that the world was created in six 24-hour
days. This has never been the position of Emmanuel College nor
its sister schools and is taught in neither Science nor RE. What
is taught in RE is that the Bible speaks of a six-day creation and
that this is variously interpreted. In Science, Darwinian
evolution is taught, a part of which is Darwin’s own reservations
regarding the absence of incontrovertible evidence to support it,
including the incompleteness of the fossil record. As a result,
given that students attend both RE and Science lessons, students
are aware of the controversies surrounding the
scientific/religious interface regarding the origins of life.

Odone thinks that this quote demonstrates that Creationism "is not a wild fire sweeping the country’s schools; it is not taught in science classes in place of, or as an alternative to, evolution." Either she is being disingenuous, or she wasn't listening properly, or she hasn't troubled to inform herself of how Creationists operate in schools. In the USA, proponents of various sorts of Creationism want to teach "Darwinism" as a theory among other theories, as part of the history of science. They claim that by stressing that it is "just a theory", they are being objective and balanced; it is those who want to teach it as "fact" who are the bigots. By narrowly defining "creationism" in its most extreme, "young earth" form and alluding to "Darwin's own reservations" and "the incompleteness of the fossil record", Wynch shows himself squarely of this anti-science tendency. If his is an accurate description of his science lessons, it would appear that evolution is not being properly taught at Emmanuel College.

As with the Islamic school, Odone raves about the well-behaved pupils, the modern buildings and banks of whirring computers to be found at Emmanuel. Most of these places seem far better funded than their secular equivalents. In some ways, that's the most alarming fact of all.
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Sunday, 29 June 2008

The most overrated man in history

I heard an Irish priest on the radio this morning stating, matter-of-factly, that Nelson Mandela was undoubtedly the greatest leader the world has seen in the past 75 years, or probably long before that. That'll be greater than Churchill, then, without whom the world might have sunk into a new Dark Age. He added that he was the most remarkable human being he had ever personally met - Mother Theresa would be second, "but a definite second". That's quite something for a Roman Catholic priest to admit, and John Paul II didn't even get a look in.

The cleric isn't alone, of course. Rock-stars old and young, actors revered and reviled, business-leaders, princes and presidents all want a piece of the Madiba action. So do discredited politicians. They want to be blessed by his touch, justified, made whole, like the scrofula sufferers who once yearned for the healing touch of a king. There are some, it's true, who genuflect with almost equal devotion at the feet of the Dalai Lama. But Tenzing Gyatso is a reincarnated god-king, whose aura comes drenched in mystic wisdom of the orient. Mandela is a self-made divinity. "It is funny to see Hollywood's grandest, babbling like schoolgirls before a 90-year-old man who has never made a film," writes Sarah Sands. Funny, but also rather pathetic.

The scenes of jubilation at the Hyde Park concert to mark his 90th birthday represented the emotional apotheosis of Mandelatry, the closest thing International Relations has to an organised religion. Even Amy Winehouse was resurrected from her deathbed, such is the great man's mana - and while the effect may turn out to have been short-lived, it was sufficient to have sustained her (almost) through an intermittently coherent hour-long set at Glastonbury last night. But it was perhaps the evening before, at a dinner in his honour, that Mandela laid bare the delusionary nature of the cult that surrounds him. Because it was on that occasion, after months of silence and prevarication, that Mandela finally said something that might, at a pinch, be taken as criticism of Robert Mugabe.

"A tragic failure of leadership", is how he put it. Something of an understatement, surely, of all the beatings, the rapes and the murders perpetrated by Mugabe's thugs to enable him to cling to power, vote-rigging having failed so spectacularly in March. Indeed, Zimbabwe didn't even merit its own sentence in the Mandela speech; rather, it was tacked on, an undistinguished phrase in longer lament:

We warned against the invasion of Iraq, and observe the terrible suffering in that country. We watch with sadness the continuing tragedy in Darfur. Nearer to home we had seen the outbreak of violence against fellow Africans in our own country and the tragic failure of leadership in our neighbouring Zimbabwe.

Like the later Margaret Thatcher, Mandela has taken to referring to himself in the plural, though his appropriation of "our own country" and "our neighbouring Zimbabwe" more closely resembles a formal royal decree. Mugabe's criminal regime is here placed on the same moral level as the stupid but ultimately well-meaning decision to topple Saddam Hussein, another ruthless despot. Note, too, that the reference to violence seemingly applies merely to the breakdown of law and order that has led to attacks on Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa. Shocking as that has been, it was not organised and carried out by agents of the state and the ruling elite. By any objective assessment, then, Mandela has once more failed, or refused, to tell it like it is.

It was a "tragic failure of leadership", all right. But not by Mugabe. By Mandela's ridiculous successor Thabo Mbeki, first of all, whose latest diplomatic triumph it was to remove the word "illegitimate" from the UN's description of the Zimbabwe election. But also by Mandela himself, who could long ago have used his immense moral authority to destroy Mugabe's legitimacy in a single word. I mean this literally. Mugabe's tactic, in retaining the support of fellow African leaders, has been to appeal to his status as a leader of the "liberation struggle". This, of course, has been the tactic employed by sub-Saharan despots from Maputo to Idi Amin, and Mugabe doesn't look out of place in such company. His rule has, almost since the beginning, be accompanied by corruption, intimidation and intermittent massacres, starting with the rape of Matabeleland in the early 1980s.

Less bloodthirsty or frankly crazed than some of his peers (it's unlikely that human remains will be discovered in any of his fridges, come the revolution), Mugabe nevertheless yields to few in terms of incompetence or sheer cynical determination to advance his own power. But he is, so his propaganda asserts, a "hero of anti-colonialism". Only one person has the power unilaterally to blackball Mugabe from that particular club; there's only one independence leader whose personal record remains spotless. That person is Mandela; and he has failed to exercise his tribunician veto. As a consequence, Mugabe is today able to show up at Shaam al-Sheikh and strut his stuff with the other African headmen.

He could have spoken out. After all, Desmond Tutu has been calling for Mugabe to be shown the door for years now. Tutu may be the one person on the planet who makes outsiders think the Anglican church worth saving, but sadly his writ doesn't run among African heads of state. He's not one of their number. He can only be a prophet, crying in the wilderness. If Mandela had spoken so clearly, they would have listened. And so, I dare say, would many of Mugabe's remaining supporters.

It was too little. It was too late. It will do no good.

You wouldn't know that from the coverage, though. Almost all the newspapers and broadcasting organisations went into overdrive celebrating the supposed significance of Mandela's words. "His words were seen as hugely important" said the Independent. "Mandela condemns Mugabe 'failure'" was the headline on the BBC's account. "Mentions" would have been slightly more accurate. "Although only brief, his words of condemnation will echo around the world and send the strongest signal yet that the tyrant's days in power are numbered," the Mail declared confidently. Somehow I doubt it.

And, in a vignette that perhaps reveals quite a bit about the world-father's sense of priorities, it transpires that Mandela "personally intervened" to ban Naomi Campbell from the Hyde Park event. Using the softly-softly approach on dictators is all very well, it would seem. But he cannot allow himself to be compromised by appearing on the same stage as a stroppy model.

And why had it taken him so long to say even this much? "He had to wait until the United Nations had finished and until it was clear that Mugabe was going to go ahead with this election," said a spokesman. It's hard to see why.

If it be objected that, at the grand old age of ninety, Mandela cannot be expected still to take the lead in international affairs, the answer is simple. He has not always been ninety. But Mugabe always has been a crook. The events of recent weeks have been marked out only by their intensity, their thugishness, and their shamelessness. But Zimbabwe has been suffering from its president's depredations for many, many years. If Mandela had spoken out ten years ago, or even five, Zimbabwe might already be free of Mugabe's tyranny.

We have been here before. In 1995, the distinguished Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, along with 8 others, was sentenced to hang by a kangaroo court set up by that country's dictator of the time, Sani Abachi. Despite international protests, the sentence was carried out a few days later. But amid all the many pleas for clemency, one was noticeable by its absence. Few who heard it can forget the anguished voice of Saro-Wiwa's son, Ken, begging Nelson Mandela to intervene, declaring repeatedly that he alone had the authority to sway the Lagos despot. It will never be known whether or not such a call would have reprieved Saro-Wiwa and his fellow campaigners for democracy. But it would not have done any harm.

Why was he silent then, and why is he as near as dammit silent now? Is he signed up to the same Dictators Solidarity Club as his anointed successor Mbeki? Does he prefer to float serenely above the fray, as apolitical as the Queen? Is he, perhaps, afraid that if he spoke plainly, and Mugabe yet survived, he would lose part of his own mystical status?

Mandela is quite capable of being outspoken when he wants to be. In 2002, before the Iraq War, he was happy to describe the USA as "a threat to world peace" and even accused the Americans and British of by-passing the United Nations because its then Secretary General, Kofi Annan, was black! "If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America" he said a few months later. Doubtless when he hears Robert Mugabe laying into the wicked neo-colonialists of Whitehall he nods his noble old head in agreement.

That Nelson Mandela is both a great and a good man I wouldn't deny. His achievement in leading South Africa to majority rule with surprisingly little bitterness and bloodshed will assure him his place in history. He played to perfection the role that the world wanted, and South Africa needed, him to perform. There's no doubt that, had he called for a bloody revenge on the white minority many would have answered his call. He did not; and the moral authority he gained as father of the nation has not been squandered. His work raising money to combat HIV and for development projects in Africa has continued into late old-age. He has never sought to enrich himself or his family, and if he has not refused the statues and the honours offered him, as it were to a deified Caesar, by an awestruck world he has used such occasions to promote a wider message.

But he has his faults and moral blind-spots, and a fondness for cosying up to dictators well-versed in liberation-speak is perhaps the worst. His reluctance to criticise Mugabe by name is of a piece, not only with his reluctance to help Ken Saro-Wiwa, but also his friendship with Libya's Colonel Gadhafi, Fidel Castro (the great fallen idol of the international Left) and even, according to some accounts, Saddham Hussein himself. His loudest condemnations have always been reserved for Western countries, even as they showered him with medals and honorary degrees. Even his greatest achievement, in South Africa, was largely a symbolic one. He was the point of gravity around which a new South Africa coalesced. Yet even as he emerged from prison on that unforgettable day in 1990 the South African settlement had already taken shape, and the biggest decisions, and concessions, were not his.

Mandela, in short, is great, but not that great; good, but far from perfect; wise, but also deeply foolish and morally purblind. There is a complex and interesting Mandela that will one day, perhaps, be rediscovered by the historians who will cut him down to size. But many years will have to pass before that reassessment occurs. A generation, probably two, perhaps three, will have to die. For a shiftless, sceptical, fractured age seems to need a hero, a figure almost beyond the category of human being who can bestow a kind of legitimacy on the whole planet. The Myth of Mandela makes the world see itself as a nicer, truer, more noble place. But myth it undoubtedly is. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 27 June 2008

Runners and Riders

It was David Davis's stated aim, in subjecting himself to the voters of Haltemprice and Howden, to lead a wide-ranging democratic debate on the state of liberty in modern Britain. The governing party might have declined his invitation, but if choice is one of the measures of democracy then this forthcoming by-election will be the most democratic in history, with a field of 26 candidates easily surpassing the previous record, 19, set in Newbury in 1993, and more than double the mere 12 candidates who stood in this week's Henley poll.

And what a very strange bunch they are, a mixture of extremists, doomed idealists, publicity-seekers and single-issue campaigners. Yet beneath their disparate (and unlikely) platforms a common theme emerges, a dissatisfaction with the status quo combined with a touching, and ultimately hopeful, belief that change might still be effected via the ballot box.

The only "real" party standing is the Greens, represented by the teacher and LEA official Shan Oakes. Oakes, who is also "one of the founders of Voice International, an organisation working to sustainability through education". She claims to be standing for "real" civil liberties and has the backing of human rights activist Peter Tatchell. In a message of support, Green Party "principal speaker" Derek Wall laid into Davis, accusing him of being someone who "thinks it's okay for the government to lock you up for four weeks without even telling you what you're supposed to have done." This on the grounds that the Conservatives managed to defeat the Blair government's attempt to impose a 90 day limit in 2006. He goes on to claim the David Davis supports the ban on unauthorised demonstrations outside Parliament (which even Gordon Brown has promised to rescind) and caricatures Davis's support for capital punishment as a belief that "a judge should be allowed to kill you if he thinks you've committed a serious crime." Derek is clearly a bit off the Wall.

The Greens are probably looking to come second in H&H. However, among the serried ranks of independents a couple approach seriousness. So far the rape campaigner Jill Saward has attracted the most press attention. Saward seems to believe that Davis wants to switch off all CCTV cameras and destroy all DNA samples (something Davis has denied). Her personal history will guarantee her a sympathetic hearing but some of her positions strike me as overly simplistic and, if implemented, downright dangerous. She has a naive faith in the reliability of both CCTV and DNA testing. "If anything we should be expanding the national DNA database so that everybody’s DNA is on it," she declares. Rather than "standing up for British Justice", she writes, Davis "is attempting to strike a hammer blow through the very tools the police need to keep us safe." And his decision to contest the election, as well as being a waste of money, shows his refusal to accept the "will of Parliament" on the 42 days issue. She finds this "deeply, deeply disturbing".

A second "serious" candidate, and the one identified by Mike Smithson of Political Betting as perhaps Davis's most dangerous rival, is the former Tory MP Walter Sweeney. Sweeney was MP for the Vale of Glamorgan in the 1992-97 Parliament, where he was best known for having the smallest majority in the House (a mere 19). He also introduced a private member's bill which would have permitted householders to shoot attempted burglars on sight (though since losing his seat he has stood up for property rights by campaigning against Home Information Packs instead). A Eurosceptic, he had "a number of run-ins" with David Davis during debates on the Maastricht treaty (when Davis was a government whip). According to one possibly apochryphal tale, Davis blocked the door to the Commons loo with Sweeney inside to prevent him from voting against the government. Perhaps Sweeney's decision to stand is part of a long-delayed revenge. Oddly, he is on the council of the Freedom Association, whose website recently carried a fulsome message of support for Davis. "At last, a leading member of Britain's political class has spoken out in defence of Britain's traditional liberties," it rejoiced.

Another candidate with a previous career in mainstream politics is Herbert ("Herbie") Crossman. Crossman was elected as a LibDem councillor for Harrow in 1994, but resigned from the party to become an Independent two years later. He stood for Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party in the 1997 general election, soon afterwards switching sides once more and joining the Tories. However, he left the Conservatives in 1999. Crossman's most high-profile campaign was against a former LibDem colleague on Harrow Council, Alastair Alexander, who had posted pictures of his pierced penis on a personal website. Crossman collected more than 200 signatures in an attempt to have Alexander thrown off the council. "It's a private matter and not something the party would take a line on," said a LibDem spokesman.

Fringe parties are perhaps under-represented (no Respect, no BNP). Tess Culnane, a former BNP candidate who according to some accounts was dropped after an embarrassing and expensive court case, is standing under the banner National Front Britain for the British. She also stood in the London Assembly elections, and is apparently a popular speaker in far right circles. At the opposite extreme we find Chris Talbot of Socialist Equality, a Trotskyite outfit that describes itself as "the British section of the International Committee of the 4th International". Like Davis, Talbot is worried about the erosion of British freedoms; unlike Davis he largely blames international capitalism and the "criminal" war in Iraq.

The Socialist Equality Party is standing in the Haltemprice and Howden by-election to counter efforts to divert legitimate hostility to the Labour government and its extension of detention without charge to 42-days into support for right-wing Conservative David Davis.

The government knows that the drive to seize control of the world’s major oil deposits and other vital resources have made Britain a pariah internationally and the focus of justified hostility amongst millions of oppressed peoples. The fact that the British people face a terror threat is entirely the result of Labour’s criminal actions in destabilizing the Middle East and inflaming ethnic and religious tensions within the UK itself.

The most familiar party banner, though, apart from the Greens and Davis's Conservatives, is undoubtedly that of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, this time represented by "Mad Cow-Girl" Rosalyn Warner. Warner, who is OMRLP's party secretary, is controversially standing on a populist, anti-Davis platform. "A vote for the Mad Cow-Girl is a vote for a return to real law & order," she says. "I may be a Loony, but I'm not mad enough to want dangerous people walking free in the name of political correctness." Indeed, she sounds no more Loony than, say, Kelvin Mackenzie, who was forced to pull out. Among her other suggestions, she thinks that suspected terrorists should be held "until proved safe"; sex offenders should be held in asylums "until considered safe (if ever)"; and "antisocial yobs can rot in prison if they can't be sociable." "Why don't decent citizens have a "Human Right" not to be assaulted, blown up or harassed, when the criminals can scream human rights if their handcuffs hurt?" she asks.

This hardline stance has already led to a split in Loony ranks, with another leading member, John Cartwright of the Croydon Loonies, pointing out on UK Polling Report website that "if you had been paying attention you would have noticed the photo of me in the London Metro newspaper two weeks ago demonstrating in Parliament Square with my prominent “NO 42″ placard." He adds, "Unlike the Reactionary Bourgeois Dictatorship Imperialist Lib-Lab-Con-trick parties, the OMRLP does not have a centralised God-like figure (called a “whip”) telling us all to agree about everything. We actually have out own opinions, and we are all individuals."

There are many more individuals in the race, and I would love to go into detail about all of them, but it would take far too long. So here are a few tidbits.

- Joanne Robinson, of the English Democrats, who would seem to be liberal romantic nationalists in favour of an English parliament and against the EU

- Gemma Garrett, the Belfast-born Miss Great Britain, who wants to improve childcare and "put beauty back in Britain". "If women look and feel beautiful it makes Britain a happier place," she told the Belfast Telegraph on the eve of the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, which she also contested. She wants "to see politics rapidly becoming sexy instead of sleazy", which makes her sound like La Cicciolina. Which she plainly isn't, though she recently posed as the new "face" of Formula One (the job of "bottom" presumably being taken by one of Max Mosley's friends).

- Ronnie Carroll, standing for "Make Politicians History", which used to be known as the Rainbow Alliance. Carroll had a musical career half a century ago, and has the unique distinction (if it can be so described) of having represented the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest in two successive years (1962-3). Both times he finished 4th. Once married to actress and singer Millicent Martin, his real surname is Cleghorn. According to Wikipedia his party "advocates the abolition of Parliament in favour of devolution to city states and decision-making by referendum. In the Cardiff North constituency (2005), candidate Catherine Taylor-Dawson received only one vote, thus setting a new record for the lowest vote for any parliamentary candidate under universal suffrage."

- Hamish Howitt (Freedom 4 Choice) is a Scottish-born Blackpool publican who in 2007 was the first to be prosecuted for continuing to allow smoking in his pub. A disillusioned former Labour Party member, he now says that the government "stole my vote and many others by lying in its manifesto" and told the judge at one of his trials that he was "the slave of the state".

- David Craig, whose real name is Neil Glass, campaigns against bureaucracy and believes that the 42 days issue is of much less significance to most people than the fact that MPs "have become overpaid, out of touch and are wasting billions of pounds of our money when the cost of living is spiralling out of control."

- Eomann "Fitzy" Fitzpatrick, a market trader who calls himself the Voice of Northampton, believes in Common Sense, "and particularly in the common-sense of Yorkshire folk." He supports 42 days' detention and believes that "in Britain the honest man has nothing to fear". Clearly he has nothing to hide. His other Common Sense policies include "stop the epidemic of heroin", opposition to irresponsible lending and supermarkets, lowering the rents of market traders (well, he would, wouldn't he?) as well as support for ID cards. "Gordon Brown deserves to be given a chance and he seems to be a reasonable sort of chap," he says. I doubt he Speaks for England on that one.

- Rev George Hargreaves, of the Christian Party. Formerly George Jackman, Hargreaves had a career as a songwriter and pop-producer during the Eighties. His biggest hit was Sinitta's 1986 gay anthem "So Macho", the royalties from which he now uses to fund campaigns against homosexuality and "Christianophobia" peddled by "the pink press". When accused of hypocrisy, he protested that "the money allows me to do the work that needs to be done to advance Christianity. What would they prefer me to do? Flush the money down the toilet? That would be ungodly." Hargreaves comes originally from Trinidad, and is now a minister at the Hephzibah Christian Centre in Hackney. Another of his campaigns was against the Manchester United Crest, which features a red devil holding a pitchfork.

- Norman Scarth, an 82 year-old World War II veteran and retired stud farmer who describes himself as "a whistle-blower, a writer, a dissident & a human rights activist". Scarth was jailed for six years in 2001 for wounding with intent after attacking a baliff with a chainsaw. He had earlier contested Chesterfield in 1997 as an Independent Old Age Pensioner, but after his release took on Tony Blair in Sedgefield in 2007; he stood, oddly enough, as an anti-crime candidate. He is standing in H&H as an Independent after offering himself to the Conservatives at Monday's selection meeting. "This was no democratic 'selection' meeting, he complains, "it had already been decided in secret by a cabal."

- David Bishop, a.k.a. Lord Biro, of the Church of the Militant Elvis. The party "was founded in 2001 to overthrow the Corporate Capitalist State which turned Elvis, a man of immense talent, into a fat media joke. Some members of the Party also believe that George W Bush is the anti-Christ - ‘Beelzebush’ - who will trigger off the battle of Armagedden." Bishop recently stood aside as party leader in favour of "Lesbian Elvis", a female mannequin.

- Thomas Faithful Darwood, a religious writer and publisher who leads (probably on his own) the Reformation Party. Darwood's platform includes support for the Book of Common Prayer, a reunification of Christendom (to be achieved when the Archbishop of Canterbury becomes Pope), and his own election as king in a new democratic monarchy. In pursuit of this latter aim he has written to the Queen urging her to abdicate in his favour. His ideas are explained at exhaustive length on his website.

- Christopher Foren, a former Crown prosecutor from Leeds, whose "embryonic" party is called Work for Progress. More a case of work in progress, its programme so far includes opposition to roadbuilding and support for population reduction. Foren also believes that we should "get off the treadmill of consumerism and move to a society that concentrates on human development and well-being." As an interim measure, he supports proportional representation and an elected Senate.

- David Pinder, former chief executive of the Humber and Lincolnshire Chamber of Commerce and now an expert in terrorism. His New Party supports low taxation, individual funding for education and healthcare, and reducing the power of the European Union. He says: "If we are to roll back the state and return to traditional British values, then we must be brave enough to confront the problems which have caused our decline."

- The other independent candidates are former UKIP candidate John Upex, and some others I could discover almost nothing about, but whom I am required (I think) to list for legal reasons: Grace Astley, John Nicholson, Greg Wood and Tony Farnon. And David Icke, of course.
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Thursday, 26 June 2008

Self-cleaning planet

On a day when we learn that household energy bills may rise by almost 40% - over and above the already massive increases in the cost of fuels - to help fund the Government's grandiose scheme to turn the country into a giant wind-farm, it's interesting to learn that nature may have found its own solution to the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

According to a new study from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, large amounts of ozone are disappearing from the Atlantic ocean, especially from the tropical area around the Cape Verde islands. This has nothing to do with the ozone "hole" around the Antarctica which they doom-mongers used to threaten us with, and about which we hear much less nowadays. Rather, it's relatively low-lying, useless ozone which is actually a greenhouse gas. And its loss is particularly great news because when it is broken down it produces a chemical that, in turn, attacks the even more greenhousey methane.

What is happening, it seems, is that bromine and iodine, produced by sea spray and emissions from phytoplankton, attack the atmospheric ozone. And as Professor John Plane, one of the lead researchers, notes, "the production of iodine and bromine mid-ocean implies that destruction of ozone over the oceans could be global". It has been known for a long time that the oceans serve as carbon sinks. It now seems they may be ozone and methane sinks as well.

Science Daily quotes Professor Alastair Lewis, who describes it as a good news story "at the moment" but still manages to find a downside. It could only take "a small increase in nitrogen oxides from fossil fuel combustion" to produce the opposite effect, he warns. But then reputable scientists have to invent worst case scenarios, otherwise they might be open to accusations of not taking the threat of global warming seriously enough. The findings point to a different conclusion, that the planet retains a vast and little understood capacity for rebalancing itself. All the climate change projections on which governments base their ruinously expensive and probably suicidal plans are crude speculations. No-one really understands how the climate works. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Another David

It seems that David Davis finally has a challenger. Labour refused to put up a candidate to defend its record, and Kelvin Mackenzie dropped out, despite the endorsement of Simon Heffer who oddly described him as "a profoundly serious and intelligent man" and "a thinking man's Boris Johnson". But, with the deadline for nominations in Haltemprice and Howden approaching tomorrow, a high-profile name has confirmed that he intends to stand. And it's another David. David Icke.

The reptilophobic former goalkeeper's website announces that "He will stand under the title 'Big Brother - The Big Picture' after a tremendous response to the idea over the last few days." It seems that Icke's legion of online groupies have been urging him to stand and expose the worldwide lizard conspiracy to the glare of the world's media. Not that he particularly wants to get elected, nor even opposes much of Davis's platform. As he says in his election address,

I am not standing to oppose David Davis as such because I have no wish to be elected to Parliament and get stuck in that irrelevant web of deceit and corruption. I couldn't take my seat anyway because I would never go through the pathetic ritual of pledging my 'allegiance' to the Queen.

I would be supporting the stand of Davis against the Orwellian State and I would want him to win the seat and let him be a voice against the Big Brother society in Parliament.

There is an enormous amount of what David Davis stands for on other issues that I fundamentally disagree with, but this is a time for all colours, creeds, backgrounds and views to unite on something that affects ALL of us - the tearing down of the most basic freedoms.

So why is he standing against Davis, then? Simple. He thinks it is An Opportunity. He will be able to let people know the Big Picture, of how international governments, carrying out the instructions of the Bilderburg Group, the Illuminati, and the Reptoids from Sirius or wherever it is Reptoids come from, are busily creating a world-wide slave state of which Brown's terrorist legislation and ID cards are just a local manifestation. As Icke says,

The same is happening in countries worldwide at the same time because it is centrally and globally coordinated, as I have been exposing and detailing for these last two decades. The UK Labour government is just the vehicle for introducing it in the UK, that's all.Because this election, with its mainstream media coverage, can be a platform to gain publicity for the big picture behind the Big Brother State - which I have been highlighting and warning about in my books and public talks for nearly 20 years.

David Davis has seen one level of it and blames the Labour government for destroying civil liberties in Britain. But it is bigger than that, much bigger. The same is happening in countries worldwide at the same time because it is centrally and globally coordinated, as I have been exposing and detailing for these last two decades.

"Yes, of course, the mainstream media will ridicule me," says Icke. "But so what's new? I am not doing it for them, nor to win a popularity contest, nor even an election."

No, just to bugger up the other David's. And what is the subliminal message that will be conveyed by the coverage of this development? That concern for civil liberties and the ancient traditions of parliamentary debate, magna carta and the rule of law is the province of conspiracy theorists and nutters. That serious, sober politicians get on with the "hard choices" of re-shaping society as a sort institutionalised paranoia in which no-one trusts anyone else but rather puts their trust in an omnicompetent state.

Is David Icke a New Labour stooge, I wonder? What is needed, and what David Davis's principled stand was intended to provide, is a serious, grown-up, wide-ranging debate about the role of the state and its increasing intrusion in the lives of individuals: an intrusion that may be intended for the best motives or (more likely) propelled by by a combination of administrative convenience, fear of tabloid headlines and the general atmosphere of risk-aversion, but which in any event has nothing to do with extraterrestrial lizards. Fat chance of that debate happening now.

An wonderful article in the Guardian by Jan Morris today put the matter plainly:

Anyone can see that in Britain, 2008, individuality is being suppressed, so that year by year, generation by generation, the people are being bullied or brainwashed into docile conformity. What is more ominous is that so many want to be docile. They want to be supervised, cosseted, homogenised, obedient.


A few more generations of nagging and surveillance and we shall have forgotten what true freedom is. Young people will have foregone the excitements of risk, academics will temper all thought with caution, and the great public will accept without demur all restrictions and requirements of the state. Ours will be a people moulded to docility, perfect fodder for ideologues.

She speaks with the wisdom of Teiresias. Or should that be Cassandra?

Without doubt Icke's candidacy is very bad news. The Labour party revealed its contempt for democratic debate when it refused to field a candidate; but that tactic may have proved a masterstroke, depriving Davis of the serious challenger he really needs.

"David Icke to stand in Big Brother by-election" is the headline above his statement. I doubt the double-meaning is intentional, but it has potency nevertheless. This was supposed to be a by-election about Big Brother. But with the Monster Raving Loony Party, a former beauty queen, and now the Conspiratologist-in-Chief, Haltemprice and Howden is beginning to make the Big Brother house look like a haven of sanity and serious thought.
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Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Trojan Bull

Over the past 24 hours, news organisations around the world have been reporting (with varying degrees of excitement) a claim that astronomers have proved the historical basis of Homer. According to two researchers, who have written up their findings in the US-based Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, a passage in the Odyssey can be shown to refer to a total eclipse on April 16, 1178 B.C. Since the passage in question describes events ten years after the Trojan War, the fall of Troy in turn can now be dated precisely to 1188 BC - a date that ties in well with the findings of archaeology.

The End of an Odyssey: Homer's epic is finally pinned down, declared the Independent, while the Times's headline was almost equally clear-cut: Scientist settles debate on Solar eclipse in Homer's Odyssey. The New Scientist, tellingly, was more circumspect: Is an eclipse mentioned in ancient Odyssey poem? it asked. And the Guardian's take was positively non-committal. Celestial clues may end ancient debate about eclipse in Odyssey, it announced. Or indeed they may not.

Ian Sample's report in the Guardian, though, starts off on a distinctly odd note. He begins offering up the ominous-sounding quote from the Odyssey itself, in which the seer Theoclymenus describes how Penelope's suitors will meet their end: The sun has been obliterated from the sky, and an unlucky darkness invades the world. Sample then claims that

the line set the stage for an argument that after hundreds of years may finally have been settled: did the bloody massacre at the hands of Odysseus and his son take place during a real eclipse?

A more basic question, surely, is "Did the massacre take place at all?" It is, after all, just a poem. One might as well wonder whether Theseus really slaughtered a bull-headed man-beast in the Cretan labyrinth, or whether Samson actually killed ten thousand Philistines armed only with the jawbone of an ass.

Still, at least Sample credits his readers with some familiarity with the dramatis personae of the Odyssey, and the rudiments of the plot. (In the ten years since the fall of Troy, Odysseus has been missing, presumed dead, while back home in Ithaca his wife Penelope has been fighting off the attentions of various suitors. I'm sure you knew that.) Over in the Telegraph, science editor Roger Highfield seems to think the findings somehow prove the existence of the Trojan Horse:

the exact date when the Greeks used the Trojan horse to raze the city of Troy has been pinpointed for the first time using an eclipse mentioned in the stories of Homer, it was claimed today. Scientists have calculated that the horse was used in 1188 BC, ten years before Homer in his Odyssey describes the return of a warrior to his wife on the day the "sun is blotted out of the sky".

The original news agency reports made no mention of the horse.

Once you get past the hype, does this story actually amount to anything? Let's start with the researchers: Marcelo Magnasco, head of the Laboratory of Mathematical Physics at Rockefeller University, New York, and Constantino Baikouzis of the Proyecto Observatorio at the Observatorio Astronómico in La Plata, Argentina. Impressive qualifications, then. What they seem to have been engaged upon is trying to stand up an old hypothesis. It was noted in the 1920s that there had been an eclipse on April 16, 1178 BC which would have been visible in Greece. Since that was fairly close to traditional dates for the Trojan War, and the passage in the Odyssey appears to refer to an eclipse (though it may of course be entirely metaphorical) the link was made. Magnasco and Baikouzis's contribution is to track down four other apparent astronomical references in the poem which, taken together, seem to point to the same date.

According to Magnasco,

Not only is this corroborative evidence that this date might be something important, but if we take it as a given that the death of the suitors happened on this particular eclipse date, then everything else described in The Odyssey happens exactly as is described.

Everything else? That would presumably include that part where Circe turns Odysseus' shipmates into swine. Or the part where the hero escapes from the one-eyed cannibal giant Polyphemus by hiding underneath a sheep. Or indeed the part where he spends several years holed up on an island with only a supernaturally beautiful goddess for company. Then there were all those long, hand-wringing, heart-melting conversations he had with the goddess Athena...

The worst thing is that Magnasco is well aware that his claims are a bit far-fetched, or at the very least tentative. He is quoted in the Telegraph as saying, apropos the Trojan War,

Under the very large assumption that there was an Odysseus, there were suitors that got massacred, that it indeed took 10 years for Odysseus to get back ... yes, in that case the fall of Troy would have happened 10 years before the death of the suitors, thus in 1188BC. The current dating of the destruction layer of Troy VIIa is around 1190 plus/minus a few years.

If everything is true, then it's all true. Otherwise, though, it's probably bollocks. The Magnasco/Baikouzis evidence is certainly open to severe doubt. Of the four astronomical phenomena they rely on, three are fairly uncontroversial, being references to the phase of Venus, the visibility of the constellations Pleides, Bootes and Ursa Major, and the occurrence of a new-moon (a pre-requisite for an eclipse). Unfortunately, the most indicative "clue", in terms of tying down the precise date, is also the one most open to doubt. This is a description of the god Hermes moving from east to west, which they take as a coded reference to the retrograde movement of the planet Mercury. This interpretation, however, makes no sense whatever. I checked the passage, and it clearly refers (as do all Hermes' appearances in the poem) to the god's role as the messenger of Zeus. He is merely fulfilling a function of the plot, visiting the island where the divinely beautiful Calypso is holding Odysseus as a kind of sex-slave, and ordering her to let him return home.

It's a poetic device, not a piece of astronomy. And with that, the whole theory collapses: as Magnasco has admitted, forget Mercury and there are more than a dozen other dates in the 135-year interval that the researchers studied that might fit equally well. "This is a risky step in our analysis," he is quoted as saying. Indeed. If Homer had intended to describe the movement of the planet mercury, he could have done so. Otherwise, you would have to assume that every single time he mentions Hermes he was encoding an astronomical secret; in fact, that the whole poem was coded astronomy. It plainly isn't.

So is there any mileage in this story? Well, the dates do fit: if Homer did describe an eclipse, then there was an eclipse at about the right time (assuming the Trojan war took place then), and a memory of the eclipse might have entered the cycles of legends concerning the heroes who fought at Troy. But that is as far as it is possible to go. The trouble with the latest theory is that it requires a great deal more: precise information about a particular eclipse being recorded and transmitted over a period of four or five hundred years, a time when writing was unknown in Greece. And even that doesn't address how a specific eclipse, and the astronomical circumstances in the month leading up to it, came to be associated with a fictional journey of an almost certainly legendary hero from an imaginary country to a fairytale kingdom, where he metes out poetic justice to some made-up suitors.

The story of the Odyssey is not true. Whatever else they may be, The Iliad and the Odyssey are first of all stories: narrative poems whose content is largely or perhaps entirely fictional. Had Homer shared the conventions of the modern publishing industry, the first edition of the former poem might have had the tagline "inspired by real events"; but the Odyssey would certainly have carried the disclaimer that "any resemblance to actual persons is purely coincidental." Odysseus is a mythological hero with less historical justification than King Arthur, though he might be comparable with Beowulf. It's pointless to try to pin down the date of an event which never occurred.

Still, if you can get "scientists", "prove" and "ancient legend" into the same headline you've got it made.
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Monday, 23 June 2008


It was Start the Week this morning and the writer Eva Figes was plugging her book Journey to Nowhere, about her family's German Jewish employee who survived Nazi Berlin but later had some bad experiences in a kibbutz.

Then she came out with this:

The main reason I've told this story now is that I'm so utterly appalled by Israeli behaviour. They're just like the Nazis. They don't have gas chambers, but that's largely because they would be found out...

At this point an audibly disconcerted Andrew Marr tamely interjected that that this was "an extreme view" which "some people will find offensive". "I can't help that," retorted Figes, and carried on with her rant, claiming that "the Zionists lied to the rest of the world about their intentions. They always intended to get the whole of Palestine...".

A little later Kenan Malik, who had earlier made some interesting points about the meaning of race (especially how the multiculturalism industry has turned "culture" into as static and essentialist a concept as "race" used to be) mentioned that he found Figes' comments on the air and in her book "extremely one sided... at one point you say that 9/11 was the Muslim world finally striking back. It was nothing of the kind. It was a nihilistic terrorist attack..."

At which point the unabashed Mrs Figes merely warmed to her theme:

It's not about what happened in 1948. It's about what's happening now. It's about murder on the Gaza Strip.. Ordinary people see that on their televisions every day. It's not like under Hitler when it was kept secret.

Twice then, in the space of less than 10 minutes, this distinguished novelist not only equated Israel with Nazi Germany, but claimed that the Israelis would like to shove thousands of Palestinian men, women and children into gas ovens, and that only fear of international reaction was stopping them. Apart from Marr's mild rebuke and Malik's brief balancing act, these shocking and outrageous comments were left to stand. Noticeably silent was one of Marr's other guests, the historian Ian Kershaw, who specialises in the Nazi period and must have been fully aware of the odiousness of Figes' comparison.

It need hardly be said that Figes' comments were inaccurate as well as disgraceful. I do not intend to mount a full defence of Israeli policy in the occupied territory, which is open to criticism on various grounds. But it derives, essentially, from the country's history and continuous experience, that of a small nation surrounded by enemies - some of them terrorist groups, but others which are members of the United Nations - whose stated aim is to see the Israel destroyed. "Wiped off the map" as Iran's nuke-hungry President Ahmadinejad put it. It was Ahmadinejad, of course, who sponsored a "conference" of Holocaust deniers in Teheran last year. The repressive actions of the Israeli state are a reaction - if sometimes a "disproportionate" reactions - to provocation: to suicide bombings on the streets of Jerusalem, to rocket attacks on civilian populations, ultimately perhaps to the knowledge that the Palestinian leaders with whom they have to negotiate have openly called for the whole Israeli people to be driven into the sea. It might be wondered what threat the Jews of Vienna, Munich, France and Poland posed to the ordinary citizens of Hitler's Reich.

There are many Israeli Arabs, with full civil rights, who have not as yet been rounded up, deported to labour camps and scheduled for mechanical death. Israel has not embarked on unprovoked wars of conquest, aimed at extending its sway over the whole region - although the proximity of vast oilfields would surely have enticed Hitler. There is no Israeli equivalent of the SS, no lebensborn programme designed to breed a new master-race, no sinister medical experiments. I suspect that it is more than just the fear of public exposure that has prevented such developments.

Glib talk of democratic and still essentially liberal Israel (how many Arab countries host gay pride marches?) being somehow equivalent to Germany under Adolf Hitler has become surprisingly common in recent years. Jewish critics of Israel in particular (and Figes herself has a Jewish family background) seem to delight in enunciating this smear. Perhaps they feel that, unlike others, they can get away with it. Perhaps they enjoy the apparent paradox: the persecuted turned oppressor. One such, Professor Richard Falk, made the comparison after being appointed special investigator by the misleadingly-named UN Human Rights Council - the same body that wants to make criticism of Islam an international crime comparable to genocide or war crime. He has also been linked with conspiracy theorists who suggest 9/11 was a US-Israeli plot. But even was careful to temper his remarks; and he didn't go nearly as far as Eva Figes did this morning. I don't think even Noam Chomsky has said anything quite so obscene.

For some, no doubt, the Israel-Nazi comparison is a result of indignation mixed with a limited historical vocabulary. The currency of diplomatic name-calling has long been debased. Arguably, it was Churchill who started it with his remarks during the 1945 election campaign warning the public of a kind of "British gestapo" if Labour got in. Eden identified Nasser as a new Hitler; Bush and Blair said much the same about Saddam Hussein. "Like the Third Reich" has become a lazy cliché meaning little more than "generally unpleasant". But it is a comparison sometimes made with far more sinister intent. For Nazism has come, for good reasons, to be synonymous with evil, something whose elimination is worth almost any price in blood and gold. If Israel is like the Third Reich, it becomes a moral imperative to eliminate it. Hardly surprising, then, that such language comes so naturally to Islamic extremists, who talk unabashedly of Jews as apes and pigs. But if anyone can be compared with the Nazis, then it is not the Israelis, but rather the corrupt leaders of surrounding countries. They wrap themselves in jingoistic criticism of Israel, stirring up latent antisemitism to deflect criticism of their own repressive regimes, blaming "the Jews" - just as Hitler did - for their own failures.

Comparing the Israelis' treatment of the Palestinians with the Holocaust doesn't merely understate and misunderstand the scale and nature of the Nazi crimes and feed antisemitic prejudice - thus, by implication, justifying Hitler's actions. It also does the Palestinians no favours. Their tragedy has many contributing factors. Israeli policy is one, but equally significant has been the cynical attitude of Arab leaders, whose interests have been served by having a bleeding sore on their doorstep which acts as a focus of bogus unity. If they really cared about the Palestinians, the oil-rich Gulf Arabs could have solved the problem years ago by recognising Israel and offering the Palestinians resettlement and financial aid. It is their hatred of Israel, rather than their sympathy for the Palestinian people, which has driven this 60 year conflict.

The Israel-Nazi analogy has, moreover, become a standard trope of antisemitic discourse in recent decades. An EU report in 2006 singled out "comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis" as one of the modern manifestations of antisemitism. Similarly, a State Department report of 2005 concluded that "the demonizaton or vilification of Israeli leaders, sometimes through comparisons with Nazi leaders, and through the use of Nazi symbols to caricature them, indicates an anti-Semitic bias rather than a valid criticism of policy concerning a controversial issue."

Certainly, the Nazi-Israel analogy has become oddly fashionable on the left, as well as the common currency of media-savvy Islamists. Writing in Comment is Free last year, Anas Altikriti (one of the prime-movers in the "Muslims4Ken" campaign that attempted to smear Boris Johnson as an Islamophobe) claimed that "The tragedy is that those who kill, torture, maim and humiliate the Palestinians today are the very same who weep over the crimes committed by the Nazis against their parents, often resorting to the same means and methods which the Nazis employed." Another example is London based Jihad Al-Khazen, the former editor of the Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, branded Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert "a young Fuhrer" who is "perpetrating definite Nazi practices against the Palestinians and the Lebanese." Bizarrely, he went on to suggest that the Israeli leaders were the descendents of Nazi war criminals. "I cannot find any other logical reason for Israel's Nazi-like practices," he said. Mad as well as dangerous.

Figes family background is Jewish, which she may feel makes her immune from criticism on grounds of antisemitic prejudice. Possibly her novelist's instinct for a striking image has got the better of her. She's an old lady, full of anger at what she has seen and heard (if mainly on the news). But the BBC has no such excuses. Faced with Figes' diatribe, Andrew Marr hummed and hawwed; neither he nor his guests directly challenged her monstrous accusation that the Israelis would murder the Palestinians en masse if only they thought they could get away with it. And so the propaganda war continues, and a lie becomes slightly more acceptable. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Is nothing sacred?

A new Mike Myers vehicle, The Love Guru, opened this weekend in the US. As the title implies, it's intended to be a satire on the perennial American enthusiasm for purveyors of Eastern spiritual tat, a gullibility that goes back all the way to Madame Blavatsky in the 19th century and is currently represented by the likes of Deepak Chopra. A good target, if not exactly an unknown one: 2002's The Guru, starring Jimi Mistry and Heather Graham, was a quiet but well-deserved hit. Myers, the creator of Austin Powers, seems to have gone in his usual way for broader humour.

Sadly, early reviews have not been promising. Dana Stevens in Slate described it as "a movie so bad that it takes you to a place beyond good and evil and abandons you there, shivering and alone," and "about as much fun as a tour of someone's large intestine". While AO Scott in the New York Times thinks that "a whole new vocabulary seems to be required" to describe the film's awfulness. He suggests "antifunny", which he defines as "an experience that makes you wonder if you will ever laugh again".

A sure-fire flop, then? Perhaps rescue is at hand. For several weeks now, campaigners have been trying to drum up publicity for the film, claiming that it defames Hinduism and is thus highly offensive. Claiming to speak in the name of "the worldwide spiritual and Hindu community", they take particular exception to any ridicule directed at gurus. "We feel that the parody on Gurus will contribute to the misunderstanding about the sacred concept of the Guru," said Bahavana Shinde, who has been organising the campaign. In response, Myers has asserted that the religion he parodies is purely fictional, though some have thought his character's saffron robes and prayer beads are a giveaway.

The protests were begun in late March by a Hindu leader from Nevada, Rajan Zed, who is sufficiently well-known to have been invited to lead prayers at the US Congress. But most of the running has been made by an organisation calling itself Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS), which to judge by its website would seem to be permanently on the look-out for things to be offended by. Among other targets of their recent campaigns are an obscure cartoon of Kali drawn by a woman who adds the comment, "this could explain why I don't have a boyfriend", and an American clothing company which offers a "Radha and Krishna thong".

Their anti-Myers campaign has so far involved complaining to national film authorities urging that the film be given the highest possible classification, even though, in the well-worn language of the BBFC, it contains at worst "moderate sex references". They have demanded that the film's distributors make amends by issuing a "study guide about Hinduism and the sacred tradition of the Guru". Threats have also been made to "put protest fliers in temples, grocery stores, community centers, etc." wherever the film is shown.

The group has tried to increase pressure with an online petition, which so far has attracted around 6,000 signatures, suggesting that most of the world's estimated 900 million Hindus aren't particularly bothered. Paramount did, however, bow to pressure, at least in that it agreed to screen the movie for members of the Hindu American Foundation. "The film was vulgar, crude and, in the opinion of many of our attendees, too often tasteless in its puerile choice of humour," said a spokesman for HAF, showing rather more restraint than the critic from the New York Times. He admitted that it wasn't "overtly anti-Hindu or mean-spirited" yet still still demanded the the producers add a disclaimer "that the characters and events are not based on Hindu spiritual masters".

As yet there have been no reports of crowds gathering outside US or Canadian embassies calling for Mike Myers to be beheaded. No doubt the campaign will be as forgotten as quickly as the film. Nevertheless it is regrettable that a tiny group of professional offendees, claiming to speak on behalf of many millions of people, managed to attract the support of a cross-section of Christian, Jewish and human-rights worthies and indeed rattle Paramount. They even got a letter from the BBFC expressing "sympathy with your concerns", which sounds rather ominous. The notion that the guru is a sacred figure who should be treated with exaggerated respect is especially strange. As a report in Hollywood Today put it,

All religions have been free targets for creative film community appreciation or satire – and their actions will likely increase the film’s box office, not help their stated cause for Hinduism awareness. Simply stated, gurus get made fun of — same as, say TV preachers. It does not hinder their important messages to believers.

I would go further. A guru can have a huge and reverent following and still be an out-and-out crook. India has always been replete with such chancers. If you say that a person occupying a position of religious leadership ought to be immune from ridicule, you would close the door on jokes about vicars, nuns and rabbis. Or is it only functionaries of "ethnic" religions who are to be protected? Arguably, the more sanctified a religious personality is, the more they ought to be cut down to size. Looking around me, I observe an unfortunate lack of jokes about ayatollahs.

Nor are Hindus in much position to complain. Hinduism is patently an absurd religion, full of animal-headed gods and goddesses with six arms, which sustains an archaic and cruel caste system, mistreats widows and encourages the selective abortion of millions of female foetuses. Any filmmaker genuinely setting out to defame Hindu beliefs could find far more relevant and controversy-sparking targets than a fraudulent guru who just wants to be on Oprah.
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Friday, 20 June 2008

Anatomy of a smear

It's not an important story, but the saga of Shami Chakrabarti, David Davis and Andy Burnham has sparked lively online debate. Was the culture minister's comment about "late-night, hand-wringing, heart-melting phone calls" an innuendo-laden smear and an example of casual sexism, as Anne Perkins suggested? Was it something more sinister - evidence of the security services tapping Chakrabarti's phone, or Davis's, and passing on the details? Was Chakrabarti's threatened legal action an absurd over-reaction, a cunning tactic which turns the tables on New Labour's smear-merchants and keeps the story in the news, or just the reaction of a woman who has been genuinely hurt and upset?

There are several strands here. On the origin of the story, I think the conspiracy theories can be put to rest. The closeness between David Davis and Shami Chakrabarti has been common knowledge for months. Last October, the Telegraph featured Liberty boss in a list of politically influencial persons, commenting that "She, more than anyone, has influenced Conservative civil liberties policies... She is a huge influence on Davis in particular." In December last year Chakrabarti took part in a Q & A on the Telegraph website: she was introduced with the remarks that she "has true cross-party appeal" and "sees David Davis often."

The stories linking Davis's resignation from the Commons to Chakrabarti's influence came originally from anti-Davis elements in the Tory leadership, angry and confused about his unexpected and somewhat bizarre action. Ann Treneman, in the Times on Wednesday, commented acidly (apropos Gordon Brown's speech on security to the IPPR),

I am surprised that she was allowed in. There is a rumour that DD resigned after being “bewitched” by Shami. She denies this, but then she would.

Which goes a whole lot further than Burnham's remarks in the New Labour organ Progress:

To people who get seduced by Tory talk of how liberal they are, I find something very curious in the man who was, and still is I believe, an exponent of capital punishment having late-night, hand-wringing, heart-melting phone calls with Shami Chakrabarti.

Gramatically the sentence doesn't quite work, but would appear to single out Ms Chakrabarti as an example of someone who has been "seduced by Tory talk". While Conservatives who disapprove of David Davis's enthusiasm for civil liberties blame Chakrabarti, then, for exercising some witch-like influence over him, Burnham and others in the New Labour establishment imagine that she has had her head turned by the Tory ex-SAS action man. Both assumptions, of course, are in their way extremely sexist. The notion that the agreement between David Davis and Shami Chakrabarti might be based on a common analysis of law and politics doesn't seem to register.

Susan Kramer, the LibDem MP, was among several female politicians playing the sex card:

This kind of tawdry salacious gossip about any young woman who becomes prominent in the political world is really shocking. It is going to drive young women out of politics if it continues.

What is slightly surprising, however, is how Burnham's ambiguous reference to "late-night phone calls" becomes "tawdry salacious gossip". There are two possible explanations. One is that Kramer, and others whose misogyny radars started bleeping as soon as this story arose, were (subconsciously at least) guilty of precisely the sexualised thought-process of which they accused Andy Burnham. The mental leap between the idea of Davis and Chakrabarti discussing civil liberties on the telephone and the two of them engaging in torrid sex would appear to be a large one indeed. Yet Chakrabarti herself would seem to have made it. Unless she is simply trying to discredit Burnham or keep the Davis story in the news, she would on the face of it seem to be more than a little over-sensitive.

But then is it not somewhat sexist even to perceive sexual innuendo? Imagine that there was an element of flirtation in the Davis/Chakrabarti relationship. Would this be in itself disreputable, improper, or serve to undermine the strength of her arguments? Men after all tend to be susceptible to sexual manipulation, as successful women are well aware. This has little to do with sex, per se: all daughters either instinctively know how to twist their fathers round their little fingers, or quickly learn. Mrs Thatcher flirted with both Reagan and Gorbachev, even Mitterand, and no-one ever thought that Denis was a cuckold. Shami Chakrabarti has had a much higher public profile than her predecessor as director of Liberty, John Wadham, and it is not implausible to suggest that her gamine charm has contributed to that success. And if she has flirted with the camera or with politicians to advance the cause of civil liberties then she has nothing to be ashamed of. It's not like she was after a pay rise.

So why the outrage? Presumably because of the puritanism and hypocrisy of the modern age, which makes it almost impossible to express such a thought. So that it becomes a slur on a woman's integrity to suggest that she might have used "feminine wiles" - even in a noble cause - rather than the mere marshalling of arguments. And indeed it is an insult, precisely because it is assumed to be; but it is surely Davis, not Chakrabarti, who ought to feel insulted. Except that Burnham's suggestion was quite the opposite. If there was sexism in his words, it wasn't any implication that as a woman Chakrabarti was using sexuality on Davis. On the contrary, he seems to have been saying that Shami is a silly, flightly girl who has been taken in by a smooth-talking older man. Perhaps that's what made her so upset.

The other explanation for Chakrabarti's wrath is altogether darker. Could it be that Westminster gossips have indeed been insinuating a full-blown affair between the two? We go back to the origins of the story, and the nudge-nudge comments of Ann Treneman with which I began. Another hint comes from Benedict Brogan: "Mr Burnham is said to be aghast at the way his words are being interpreted, but no one seems to believe it was accidental". Why would Burnham's words be given the interpretation that they were if they didn't allude to something that was already the talk of the town? And why did a throwaway comment in a little-read political journal come to attract such a storm of controversy in the first place. Few political journalists are avid consumers of Progress. Someone chose to draw their attention to it. Someone decided that this would be a story.

For what it's worth, I think the conjunction of Davis and Chakrabarti is a genuine meeting of minds. As Burnham's comments hint, many in the left instinctively feel that there's something unnatural about civil libertarians making common cause with Tories: they must have been "seduced". Civil liberties, they imagine, are "their" issue, as nationalisation used to be. This, of course is nonsense; it always was nonsense, but the galloping authoritarianism of New Labour has made it more nonsensical than ever.

One exchange from the Q&A in December's Telegraph demonstrates this clearly. In response to "Bob from England", who questioned the compatibility of Islam and gay rights (something which does indeed pose a ticklish problem for many on the Left, though they choose to ignore it) Chakrabarti had the following to say:

I don’t believe in “group rights”, I believe in individual human rights that belong to each and every one of us. You find them documented in a long thread of documents that begin with Magna Carta and find an international consensus after the holocaust and the Blitz in the UN declaration and Churchill’s Human Rights Convention (now contained in our Human Rights Act). I do agree passionately with the importance of free speech. Too many people (not just on the Left) think that their speech is free and others’ more expensive.

Most Conservatives would heartily agree - accept for the part about the Human Rights Act, of course, which has had the possibly unintended consequence of encouraging certain manifestations of group rights. Perhaps the party should offer her a seat.
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Thursday, 19 June 2008

Why Ireland voted No?

Here's Irish musician Jim Corr (the one with all the sisters) explaining in a radio interview how the EU is a stepping-stone to a united world government, how the Lisbon Treaty re-introduces capital punishment, how the dollar is about to be replaced by the "Americano", and how 9/11 was a put-up job. It's all part of a centuries-old plan thought up by the Illuminati.

Corr then flatly denies being a conspiracy theorist. "I hate conspiracy theories" he says. "I'm a truth-seeker." Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

A head case

The Daily Mail today carried an interview with Sarah Desrosiers, the "funky" King's Cross hairdresser who has been ordered to pay £4,000 to a failed job applicant on the grounds of "hurt feelings". The applicant, of course, is a hijab-wearing 19 year old Muslim who wears one of those seraphically smug expressions often seen on young women who have convinced themselves, or have been convinced, that having weird ideas about hair makes them morally outstanding.

She lost her main claim: the employment tribunal conceded that the salon owner's desire to have staff who proudly sported the fashionable coiffures in which she specialises was an entirely reasonable one, and that she did not "directly" discriminate on racial or religious grounds. But Ms Desrosiers was still found liable, on the grounds that, in the words of the tribunal,

There was no specific evidence before us as to what would (for sure) have been the actual impact of the claimant working in her salon with her head covered at all times. We concluded that, on a critical and balanced assessment, the degree of risk, while real, should not be assumed to be as great at the respondent believed.

Bushra Noah claims to have suffered emotional distress as a result of the failed 10 minute interview. Sarah Desrosiers, on the other hand, has suffered more than a year of stress and heartache. "For months, I couldn't sleep, I couldn't eat, I felt as though my whole life was on hold," she said. "All I could see was that I'd be forced into bankruptcy and lose my business." The case has cost her an estimated £40,000 in lost income and legal expenses, her salon has almost gone to the wall, and she now faces the agonising decision of whether to appeal.

If she did, she would (in the view of most people who have expressed a view, and certainly mine) have right on her side. The whole case was vexatious and ridiculous. Ms Noah was not being discriminated against for wearing a hijab, she was discriminating against herself. There are many good reasons why her choice of attire was inappropriate to the environment in which she sought employment, and Desrosiers' expectation that her staff show off the hairstyles in which she specialises is entirely reasonable. Indeed, the tribunal half-acknowledged this.

But if the decision was ridiculous, it is important to understand why it was reached. However satisfying it may be to condemn Britain's culture of political correctness, to worry about appeasement or accuse Noah and other high-profile litigants of waging a "soft jihad" aimed at establishing Islamic supremacy or at the very least getting special treatment, such expressions of exasperation are ultimately meaningless. It was not "political correctness" that handed Noah her £4,000, it was the tribunal. And the tribunal was not, for all the huffing and puffing of secularists and Mail readers alike (to be joined, in all probability, by the Bishop of Rochester), promoting a secret anti-Britishness agenda. It was doing what all courts and tribunals do, attempting to interpret and apply the law.

If there is a culprit here, then, it is the law. In particular, the Employment Equality(Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, which shift the burden of proof in such cases onto the defendant. The claimant has merely to prove that dismissal or (in this case) failure to gain employment might have been the result of discrimination. It is up to the defendant to prove that it was not. Section 29 runs as follows:

29. - (1) ...

(2) Where, on the hearing of the complaint, the complainant proves facts from which the tribunal could, apart from this regulation, conclude in the absence of an adequate explanation that the respondent -

the tribunal shall uphold the complaint unless the respondent proves that he did not commit, or as the case may be, is not to be treated as having committed, that act.

This, of course, is contrary to the general principle of English law that it is up to the plaintiff to prove his case - in civil cases, on the balance of probabilities. Worse, it serves as an open invitation to anyone who has been refused a job to put in a claim, and can put an almost impossible burden on employers. Desrosiers had the case stacked against her. Although she was able to produce a cogent justification for her decision not to employ Noah - that she feared the incongrous staff member would detract from her business - she was unable to prove it to the exacting standards of the tribunal. As they said, "the degree of risk, while real, should not be assumed to be as great at the respondent believed."

That employment law is in such a sorry state is the result of an EU directive, 2000/78/EC of 27 November 2000, which was slavishly adopted in the amendment to the Race Relations Act cited above. Section 31 of that document states:

The rules on the burden of proof must be adapted when there is a prima facie case of discrimination and, for the principle of equal treatment to be applied effectively, the burden of proof must shift back to the respondent when evidence of such discrimination is brought. However, it is not for the respondent to prove that the plaintiff adheres to a particular religion or belief, has a particular disability, is of a particular age or has a particular sexual orientation.

In other words, all Noah had to do was prove that she was a Muslim, and she had already won. And there's nothing anyone can do about it. These laws are no longer decided by our elected representatives. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Two views of freedom

The David Davis for Freedom site is now up and running. The new John Wilkes (but without the squint) has this to say:

The growing power and reach of the state has not made us safer. It has made us less secure. The growth of the database state has not protected our privacy. As data fiasco after data fiasco demonstrates, reliance vulnerable databases has left our personal data more exposed than ever.

The surveillance society has not improved public protection. Violent crime has doubled under this government, whilst neighbourhood spies check rubbish bins and conduct surveillance on school runs. And freedom of speech – the hallmark of any democracy – has been stifled by repressive laws. Peaceful protesters have been prosecuted for demonstrating outside Downing Street, whilst extremists have been left free to incite violence and vitriol against Britain for years.

My real fear is that there is worse to come. Having rigged the voted on 42 days – through bribery and bullying – this government will be tempted by the politics of terror to come back and ask for even longer periods of pre-charge detention. And they still plan to introduce ID cards, which will leave us vulnerable to criminal hackers and even terrorists. So I believe it is time to take a stand. But I appreciate there are different views on these important issues - I want to hear them all.

Over the last few days, I have received support from across the political divide on issues that transcend party politics. But most of all, I have been surprised and humbled by the public response, with thousands of people sending messages of support.

It has, indeed, been a most extraordinary few days. For years, pundits and politicians alike have talked glibly about the "disconnect" between the inhabitants of the Westminster village and the ordinary folk out there who view all politicos as remote, unaccountable, boring and possibly corrupt. They have bemoaned the supposed apathy and ignorance, lamenting the consequences for the democratic process. Yet there has always been a ritualistic quality to these complaints, and the solutions proposed tended to involve such things as consultation exercises, citizenship classes or a relentless concentration on trivia. The people, it was confidently asserted, were not interested in abstract issues.

Since Davis announced his decision to resign, the "disconnect" has been more apparent than ever. But it is not the disconnection that the politicians and the media assumed. It is the professionals, not the people, who have revealed as the cynics, obsessed with gossip, trivia and careerism, uninterested in the Big Issues. That was the first surprise. While the Tory leadership feared for the polls and the lobby journalists agreed their line, public sentiment started to swing behind Davis. A tense stand-off ensued: commentariat on one side, bloggers, emailers and phone-in contributors on the other. And then, as the first opinion polls showed widespread support for Davis's stand, and even his opposition to 42 days, the ground shifted. The new argument against Davis is not that he doesn't undertand the public mood, but that the mood is dangerously misguided, that the true danger to democracy lies in asking the people what they think. Steve Richards in the Independent has taken it upon himself to lead the charge:

If every MP were to be equally self-indulgent, democratic politics would be unworkable in Britain too. Cleverly, Mr Davis portrays his move as one that chimes with voters compared with the timid, insular preoccupations of the "Westminster village", always a location viewed with a lazy disdain.

In doing so, he fuels the stupid and dangerous "plague on all their houses" culture. Politics is a tough old business. It is about the resolution of disagreement through debate, manoeuvring, winning votes in parliament, persuading voters and the media to come on board. This may not sound especially romantic, but the alternative to resolution of dispute through politics is the use of force. Politics is better.

Richards then claims that the 42 days policy is merely the result of Labour following public opinion. It isn't; it's the result of Brown trying to be populist and look "tough", but that's entirely different. And he manages spectacularly to miss the point:

For once, the media marches in step with Parliament. Newspapers and broadcasters offer reams of coverage. When Tony Blair was Prime Minister, he even took part in an exchange of letters with the journalist Henry Porter, the Prime Minister and an unelected journalist getting equal billing, which is about right in terms of who has most influence in shaping the debate, although a bit harsh on Mr Porter. Only last Wednesday the Commons staged a debate on 42 days, in which Mr Davis's side won the argument convincingly.

They may have won the argument. They didn't win the vote. That's the whole problem.

So what is Gordon Brown offering in response? Not a candidate, that seems certain, which will, disappointingly, leave David Davis with almost a clear run. He has, however, delivered a speech to the Institute of Public Policy Research in which he set out the case for all the measures of which Davis disapproves. His argument is hardly new, the language all too familiar. According to Brown,

The modern security challenge is defined by new and unprecedented threats: terrorism; global organised crime; organised drug trafficking and people trafficking. This is the new world in which government must work out how it best discharges its duty to protect people.

Actually, the threats are neither new nor unprecedented. It is extraordinary to claim that any of these things are new: they have existed since at least the 19th century, and have at times been much worse than they are today. What is genuinely new is the technological capacity of the state to monitor, to watch, to control. Also new is the desire of the state to monitor everyone in the hope of catching the few. The true threat to liberty comes not from the state's concentration on suspects and criminals, but in its novel tendency to consider everyone a suspect or a potential criminal. Why should it have evolved such at attitude? Probably because it can.

In an effort to prove his credentials as a douty defender of traditional freedom, the prime minister made the following startling claim: "We have given people new rights to protest outside Parliament." New rights? Surely he has just given us back the old rights, albeit in reduced and highly circumscribed form. But then that is the Brown way: give us something we already have, and present it as an act of generosity by the state.

He also mentioned the "increased resources - from £1 billion in 2001 to £3.5 billion in 2011" that the government is spending on tackling the terrorist menace, which he itemised using the now-familiar figure of 2000 "active" suspects being monitored by the police. I work that out as £1.75 million per terrorist. It would be far cheaper just to bribe them.

I'd like to single out a paragraph from the speech that, I think, speaks volumes:

Today, while in many ways we are more secure as a country than at most times in our history, people are understandably fearful that they may become victims of terrorist attack. While overall crime is a third lower than ten years ago, people are understandably fearful of guns or knives on our streets. And while our border controls are stronger than ever, with more countries subject to visa requirements and 100 per cent of those visas based on fingerprints, with instant checks against watch lists - still people are understandably fearful about people traffickers or illegal workers. These are new threats, they are real concerns. People feel less safe and less secure as a result, and I understand that.

What Brown admits in this passage is that the threats which he invokes when passing anti-terror laws or extending the sphere of state surveillance are, if not illusory, at least greatly exaggerated. "While...we are more secure...people feel less safe and less secure... and I understand that". I doubt that this is true in any meaningful sense. There are some people, in some places, who have genuine fears and are right to feel insecure. They are terrorised by gangs or live in broken, lawless communities. For these people, Labour's security state has done almost nothing. They haven't been helped by CCTV, and ID cards won't do the trick either. What they need are police who are properly resourced, focussed on real crime rather than artificial targets, and appreciate that they are the servants, not the masters, of the public. Most people, though, do not walk around in a state of fear; except, increasingly, fear of falling foul of one of the little Hitlers empowered by New Labour's culture of conformity and box-ticking.

Kelvin MacKenzie's ignominious withdrawal, and Labour's reluctance to put up a candidate to face David Davis, both speak volumes. The last fews days have put to flight the lazy, automatic assumption that the British people care less for the freedoms their ancestors fought and died for (that they fought for, in the case of many people still alive) than for the illusory security of a Big Brother state. Challenged, too, is the idea that democracy will die of boredom. Politics will never be quite the same again.
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