Monday, 31 August 2009

Silence of the Fems

Last week, CIF "Belief" was asking one of its typically loaded questions: "Can Western feminism save Muslim women?" The answer was fairly obvious, I thought: No. Western feminism is too bogged down in its own limitless self-regard, arguing ad nauseam about the evils of sexually stereotyping adverts, or why female bankers don't get quite such enormous bonuses as their male equivalents, to care about anyone else. Least of all the millions of subjected women living in conditions they cannot begin to understand, although Jaycee Lee Dugard could probably give them a few pointers.

But that wasn't really the question - rather, we were asked to consider whether western feminists had any business interfering in someone else's culture:

When community customs come up against individual human rights, which will prevail? Can liberals grant women the right to choose to be oppressed? Or can there be some compromise worked out, which would modify both modern and traditional ideas of what it is to be human, and so what rights we all deserve?

Shocking stuff - at least if you take a step back and consider what is being said here. Not only is it apparently being suggested that women have the "right" to "choose" to be oppressed - an absurd, illogical proposition, given that being oppressed is the direct opposite of having a choice - but that somehow we ought to "modify" - i.e. discard - our hard-won concept of individual rights in favour of a "compromise" with the very values that once condemned half the human race to a position of subordination and, in many cases, virtual slavery.

Still, that's the Guardian for you. Feminism is best expressed by Melissa McEwan's solipsistic whining about how she feels undermined by male friends daring to argue with her. When questions of culture and religion are brought into the mix, the politically correct liberal wants to put her head in the sand.

Geraldine Brooks was the worst:

By Allah, we're an arrogant lot. By "we", I mean modern western feminists, a group among which I am generally proud to be included. Except when we're full of ourselves.

I'm not going to demur. But why are you western feminists arrogant, Geraldine? Because you take it upon yourself to stand up for the rights of women of non-western background (including the many who live among us)? Or is it because you don't?

Western feminism is not the only ideology exquisitely sensible of gender injustice. Nor are western feminists the only ones willing or able to speak up about it. Muslim women have been doing this themselves for decades, loudly and often effectively.

It's true, they have. Unfortunately, when they attempt to interest western feminists in their struggles, western feminists don't seem to want to know.

Brooks claims that "western feminist finger-wagging or attempts by pro-western governments to alter Islamic laws by fiat have been spectacularly counterproductive". But while she points to examples of the latter - such as Sadat's "mild reform of marriage and custody laws" in Egypt, later reversed under Islamist pressure - she offers no evidence of feminist finger-wagging, counterproductive or otherwise. Perhaps because there has been none; or not enough to make a difference. Such finger-wagging as there is tends to take the form of self-proclaimed progressives telling oppressed women that they're on their own.

Nick Cohen provides some examples of this phenomenon in a highly worthwhile article for Standpoint:

When Ayaan Hirsi Ali published Infidel, her account of escape from forced marriage and genital mutilation to Europe, her defence of the liberal values they once believed in appalled "liberal" Europeans. Although Ali needed bodyguards to protect her from Islamist assassins, Timothy Garton Ash sneered that she was an "Enlightenment fundamentalist" while Ian Buruma denounced her as an absolutist. Maryam Namazie, a Marxist Iranian exile who set up the "One Law for all Campaign" to oppose the Archbishop and the Lord Chief Justice, tells me that she experiences every variety of Western duplicity. When she argues in favour of the demonstrators in Tehran, the hard Left tell her she is serving the interests of US imperialism — "It's now reactionary to have a revolution," she sighs. When she last appeared on the BBC, to argue that the burka was a straightjacket designed to mark off a woman as a man's private property, the presenter told her she was an "extremist".

...Azar Nafisi gave the best reason to dismiss such indifference to the power of real tyrants. The author of Reading Lolita in Tehran fled from the Ayatollahs' Iran to Boston, Massachusetts, not far from the site of the Salem witch trials of the 17th century. Instead of finding a strong movement dedicated to freeing women, she found a racist discourse on American campuses which insisted that culture and religion demanded female subordination. "I very much resent it in the West when people — maybe with all the good intentions or from a progressive point of view — keep telling me, ‘It's their culture.' It's like saying, the culture of Massachusetts is burning witches. First, there are aspects of culture which are really reprehensible, and we should fight against it. Second, women in Iran and in Saudi Arabia don't like to be stoned to death."

Another man, Clive James, expresses a similar frustration in an eminently recommendable (if long) piece in the same magazine:

My own impression, drawn over the course of these past ten years or so, is that the amount of protest about honour crimes from Western female thinkers has diminished as the news about honour crimes has proliferated, and has steadily shrunk towards nothing even as news about honour crimes among immigrant populations in the Western countries has become more conspicuous. In Britain especially, the worse it gets, the fewer objections we hear from writers in the serious newspapers....

A serious British journalist, such as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who promotes the difficult double programme of wanting Islam respected and honour crimes condemned, would not have to be quite so brave if she had more back-up. But the feminists do not want to know, or, if they know, prefer to do nothing. This was certainly a conclusion I didn't want to draw, because I never wanted to publish this essay, or even to make much more than a start on writing it. I wanted women to do the job. After 70 years of hard training, I had finally accepted that it was not a woman's job to wash my socks, but I still thought that if there were thousands of madmen all over the world ready to murder or mutilate their own daughters for imaginary crimes, then it was a woman's job to object in the first instance, always provided that she was free to do so. On the whole, however, it hasn't happened.

Both point to western women who have spoken out against the oppression of other women. Cohen mentions Ophelia Benson, whose book Does God Hate Women? was panned by liberal critics and compared unfavourably with the vapid outpourings of Karen Armstrong. Indeed, the Sunday Times tried to stir up an Islamophobia row over the book (as the Mail was later to do with Sebastian Faulks's comments about the Koran) in the hope that some beards would start calling for her death. They didn't. James salutes the late Pamela Bone, whose 2005 article "Where Are The Western Feminists?" remains unanswered. But such writers don't partake of the mainstream consensus reflected in the Guardian's choice of priorities, any more than does Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose unforgivable crime is to be black, a woman, an immigrant AND a believer in the liberal principles of the Enlightenment.

These days, Hirsi Ali is bankrolled by US Neoconservatives. Most on the left, no doubt, see this as confirmation of their suspicions about her. But the true explanation for her switch in allegiance should be clear. Thinkers on the right, on the whole, aren't burdened by hatred for their own culture and its historic values. Many "liberals" are astonished and repelled by the idea that an outsider like her might see the blessings of liberal society the more keenly because she has known the opposite. But as Clive James writes, "Western liberal democracy, or a reasonable imitation of Western liberal democracy when it comes to the rule of law, is still the only kind of society we know about where women are not at the mercy of systematic injustice". The trouble is, you have first to believe in liberal democracy to see that.
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Saturday, 29 August 2009

Summer Reading

In light of recent controversies, especially given the outrageous comments yesterday made by the son and heir of the Harper Collins publishing empire in his speech in Edinburgh, I thought I'd take this opportunity to say just how much I enjoyed this August's literary selection from the BBC. We take this unique public service too much for granted; perhaps this, then, is an appropriate moment to think seriously about how diminished we would be as a nation were we forced to rely on the uncertainties of the free market for the provision of books.

For the benefit of my non-British readers, a short explanation. The British Book Council (BBC, for short) is an independent statutory body charged with selecting and distributing a package of eight books, to be delivered three times a year (in March, August and December) to every household in the country. In return, a compulsory levy, the Reading Rate (currently £153), is charged to each householder (although pensioner households receive a 75% discount, and those with children under ten are given an additional package of age-appropriate reading matter). Unlike in the United States, where people are forced to buy their own books - one result of which is the lowest literacy rate in the industrialised world - or France, where the state only subsidises impenetrable novels written by existentialist philosophers about their own sex-lives, or Italy, where the book trade is entirely controlled by Silvio Berlusconi, in Britain each household, for a modest fee, is assured a regular supply of high-quality books chosen for them by a panel of experts.

Present members of the BBC's key Selection Panel include Will Hutton, Myleene Klass, Lord Paddy Ashdown, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and the chair, Professor Germaine Greer. Their duty - as set out in the brightly-illustrated 42-page Readers' Report - is to "produce triannually a distinctive, accessible but thought-provoking list which balances the public-service need to inform and enlighten with awareness of popular trends, prioritising both creativity and value for the Rate-payer". An almost impossible task, I think you'll agree - and one regularly undermined by the negative attitude of the Daily Mail, many of whose journalists are convinced that the panel's selections are politically biased (although, to be fair, the Mail does not call for the BBC system to be scrapped, merely reformed, with a small proportion of the Reading Rate shared with independent publishers). Still, even critics were forced to admit that this August's selection - always the most difficult - had something for everyone.

To begin with, there was the inevitable middlebrow chick-lit - Poppy Harvest, by Cecilia Cowshawe, which tells the tale of Poppy Horsley, a fashion journalist sent by mistake to Afghanistan who falls in love with a local warlord and finds eventual fulfilment designing burqas. There was a crime novel, too, the latest in the Inspector Morseford series by Valerie Daggerton, and history: I was Hitler's Dog-handler, an inside story of life at Berchtesgarten by the late Hans Graul. The history selection usually has something to do with the Third Reich or, failing that, Henry VIII - although this March many readers were absorbed by a biography of the little-known Princess Helena Von Hosenstocken, a great-niece of Queen Victoria who scandalised European high society in the Twenties by becoming a cabaret singer in Berlin.

Gardening and Cookery - the latest Delia Smith - were both represented, and we were also treated to the latest hilarious memoirs of Jonathan Ross - this last leading to an unseemly row about the amount of Ratepayers' money the BBC paid him as an advance. Another controversial choice was Global Meltdown, described as "a powerful wake-up call", which criticised the government for not investing heavily enough in wind farms. Some saw this as further proof of the BBC's politcally-driven environmentalist agenda, though others thought that the book's strong words gave the lie to suggestions that the Council is an instrument of state propaganda.

Finally, for younger readers, came the long-awaited twelfth installment of The Tamara Chronicles - which, as everyone knows, record the adventures of a three hundred year-old teen vampire at a progressive but inevitably crepuscular school for the undead.

A splendid package, I'm sure you agreed - and delivered straight to our frontdoor at no additional cost. True, not everyone will have enjoyed every single book on the list - and opportunities for resale are few, since all households receive the same selection. But then what are recycling bins for? And, of course, the wide variety that is the hallmark of BBC booklists ensures that everyone, whatever their financial status or educational level, has access to stimulating and entertaining books. Without the BBC, it has been estimated, millions of Britons would never open a book at all, leading to an incalculable cultural impoverishment both for individuals and for society as a whole. It's not as though no other books are available, at a slight premium, for those who wish to buy them: the BBC is not a state monopoly. What it does provide, though, is a basic guarantee of quality for all households, and one which has provided the backbone of our national book-reading culture over many decades. It also enables both new and established authors to develop and express their creativity free from the harsh and uncertain commercial environment.

And now here comes young Murdoch - an American by upbringing, though he is now based over here - to cast doubt on this national treasure, the envy of the world, with his frankly absurd claim that the BBC is "out of control". He argues that, especially in a recession, the BBC has a dominant and distorting impact on the book market, that it provides a kind of outdoor relief for second-rate writers who belong to an incestuous politico-literary network while skewing the political debate in a left-leaning direction. He appears to think that there is something wrong with charging people, on pain of imprisonment, for books they may not read. He even points to the free-market free-for-all that is television, where most high quality cultural and sporting content is available only to subscribers and free-to-air services offer a depressing diet of soap-operas, fly-on-the-wall documentaries about the emergency services and dance pseudo-competitions. Is that really the sort of dumbing-down he wants to see in the world of books? Yes, there is some news available, but most commentators agree that Channel 4's hour-long daily bulletin has very little depth. And yes, a free commercial channel is beginning an adaptation of Wuthering Heights tomorrow - but that only got the go-ahead when the producer told the channel's bosses that the hero, Heathcliff, was a vampire. It hardly compares to the rich brew served up three times a year by the British Book Council.

Of course, Murdoch's not the first to think such thoughts. But by and large the British book system retains a strong measure of popular acceptance. We love our BBC - and woe betide any politician who dared to disturb it.
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Friday, 28 August 2009

The Sun sets on Afghanistan

Will it be the Sun what lost it?

The paper's new editor, Dominic Mohan, has splashed with a picture spread of the 207 British casualties in Afghanistan and the headline Don't You Know There's A Bloody War On.

In what amounts to a thousand word editorial (in Sun terms, that's the equivalent of War and Peace) the traditionally gung-ho paper berates Gordon Brown personally for the equipment shortages and the traditional atmosphere of shambles at the Ministry of Defence which, in its view, is solely responsible for the lamentable state of affairs.

Each dead soldier "represents a sacrifice made for democracy and freedom in the name of Britain" sez the Sun.

Yet, to its shame, our Government doesn't seem to want to face up to the fact we are in the middle of a savage conflict. Our leaders are pretending the war isn't happening. Today, The Sun asks the Government and Gordon Brown: Where is your leadership?

Accusing Brown and other ministers of being "missing in action", the piece speaks of "an air of reality" in the country, and describes defence secretary Bob Aintworthit as "a fool who is out of his depth and with little experience". It also compares Brown unfavourably with Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and even Tony Blair, who "assumed full responsibility when we invaded Iraq to topple Saddam" - though many people rather wished he hadn't.

Meanwhile Brown is "hiding beneath the parapet and delegating wartime command to a journeyman politician with no natural feel for the role and a department full of incompetents". Furthermore he MOD is "groaning with third-rate penpushers, riddled with petty turf wars and empire building, and paralysed by indecision" - the authority for this is former defence chief Lord Guthrie - one of several voices whose contributions feature in sidebars, including the mother of an injured paratrooper, Andy MacNab and Patrick Hennessey, author of the bestselling Junior Officer's Book Club.

It is, of course, possible to overstate the influence of the Sun, but New Labour has always regarded the paper with a kind of superstitious awe. And no paper is more astute when it comes to spotting a bandwagon worth jumping on. If Murdoch's main British mouthpiece does turn decisively against the conflict it could be the beginning of the end.

True, most of Mohan's complaints relate to under-resourcing rather than the more fundamental question of what we're doing in Afghanistan. I've never been convinced by the argument that, could we only get adequate equipment in theatre the situation would be transformed. The required investment would be vast, and military budgets have been stretched enough as it is. The shortages are not merely problematic in themselves, they are symptomatic of deeper problems with the campaign. Most military adventures, even the most successful ones, are under-resourced. The Falklands was on a knife-edge, fought with obsolescent make-do-and-mend equipment and much ongoing improvisation. But it didn't matter, because the aims were achievable and limited - and we won. Demands for better equipment, while certainly valid, tend to miss the point.

The Sun provides no analysis of the situation in Afghanistan beyond the claim that

"We are resolutely behind our troops and the war they fight. But it's increasingly a war our leaders would rather not talk about."

There's a difference between supporting the troops - which we all do, even if we're not all as trumpet-blowing about it as the self-styled "Forces' paper" - and supporting the war. The Sun's right to point out that our leaders have had too little to say about the situation - what the paper omits to say is that when Brown and Aintworth do attempt to explain the war, their words carry little conviction. The absurd notion that being in Afghanistan somehow keep terrorism "off the streets of Britain" has recently been supplemented by the even more puzzling idea that the fight against one lot of "Taliban" in Afghanistan is the only way of keeping an entirely separate group of "Taliban" from overrunning Pakistan, a state with one of the world's largest armies. Then there's the notion that it has something to do with "democracy" - rather undermined by an election at least as rigged as the one in Iran, and in which the ballot-stuffing was done right under the noses of NATO peacekeepers. Or - laughable were it not so offensive - supporting women's rights.

We're there because we're there because we're there. And most of the time we've been there, the Sun has been as uncommunicative on the subject as government ministers have.

"Our Forces are dying in increasing numbers for this war that the Government seems to be finding such an embarrassment" says the Sun. True enough. But why does the government find it such an embarrassment? Surely because they know perfectly well that it's an unwinnable mess - and that, for the next few years at least, we're stuck there. What can they say? What could they possibly say?

The Sun suggests three steps:

First, Mr Brown must take personal charge of the war in Afghanistan and tell the country clearly where we stand.

(Not clear why Brown taking personal charge would make things better. Who died and made him Churchill?)

Second, he must sack Bob Ainsworth and appoint a competent Defence Secretary who will work with the military, not against them.

(Which might help - but probably not much)

Third, he must make available whatever money it takes to supply the equipment urgently needed on the ground.

And then what? The Sun doesn't know; the government doesn't know; I sure as hell don't know.
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Over-ripe fruit

Thanks to SepticIsle for pointing me towards an earlier version of MAOAM's fruity fruit-wrapper hoax. It turns out that yesterday's Daily Mail story about the supposed Pontefract resident "Simon Simpkins" being offended by the sight of a lemon and a lime getting it together on a sweet wrapper wasn't just (as I had assumed) an example of lazy journalism. It's also an example of lazy advertising.

In 2004, according to a now-disappeared report on internet news service Ananova preserved on the Museum of Hoaxes website, authorities at the St Blasien Jesuit College, a boarding school in Germany, complained about the lascivious packaging in remarkably similar terms. After a bit of digging, I found the original story preserved in an old newsgroup archive:

A Catholic college has complained about new Haribo sweet wrappers which it claims portray fruit in sexual positions.

"We are shocked at the shameless presentation of sexual practices on the wrapping, which includes not only sexual intercourse but also fellatio and cunnilingus," wrote the St Blasien Jesuit College near Bonn.

The letter, complaining about the new packaging of Haribo's Maoam fruit chews, added: "It's irresponsible, to expose children to such pornographic representations."

The sweets wrapped in bright yellow, red and green colours show lemons, limes, strawberries, cherries and oranges playfully romping with each other. But the college sees it differently. They were especially opposed to the lemon flavoured chews, which "undoubtedly show a green figure having sex with a lemon.

"The lemon, which from the drawing looks female, is obviously enjoying it with the greatest of pleasure."

Spokesman Marco Alfter said: "The new wrapping is certainly fruitier than the old. But we have not had any other complaints. In fact until now the feedback has all been positive."

A stroke of marketing genius? Not necessarily. It was soon revealed (says Museum of Hoaxes) that the source of the complaint - which apparently featured in several German tabloids - was a group of pupils at the school who "admitted writing it and posting it on the internet as a joke".

One small problem - the St Blasien College does exist (unlike the Simpkins family of Pontefract) but is located near Freiburg in the Black Forest, nowhere near Bonn. A small mistake in the report - or evidence that it was those cunning advertising people after all? (A German report today, picking up the Simpkins tale, describes the earlier incident as "a successful PR campaign for Haribo")

P.S. Haribo is claiming that the letter in Tuesday's Daily Mail from "Mr Simpkins" was, in fact, genuine - and that Simpkins really had complained to them. It's possible, I suppose, that there is a self-motivated hoaxer out there calling himself Simpkins who just happens to have timed his spoof complaint to coincide with Haribo's marketing push. But I remain unconvinced. If Simpkins exists, why hasn't he come forward to be interviewed, or at least owned up?

The Daily Mail is the respectable face of tabloid journalism, yet it happily promotes a bogus story for which there is not a jot of evidence. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 27 August 2009


Have you heard of Haribo MAOAM sour candies, a type of fruit sweet? I must confess I hadn't, until I spotted this "story" in the Daily Mail about the allegedly obscene illustrations that adorn the packaging - like this:

One "Simon Simpkins", described as a father of two from Pontefract, West Yorkshire, is quoted as being outraged when he saw one of the packets. "The lemon and lime are locked in what appears to be a carnal encounter", he said. "The lime, whom I assume to be the gentleman in this coupling, has a particularly lurid expression on his face".

"Mr Simpkins" sounds more amused than horrified (I hear his voice as something quite close to John Major's) but he goes on to claim that during a "heated exchange" with the shop manager his wife "became quite distressed and had to sit down in the car park". The story also appears in The Sun, where we learn that the children's names are Benjamin and Ofelia.

Something is not quite right about this story, is it? It reads like a press release - not to mention the fact that there's no f in Ophelia, as it were. All versions of the story (of which there are now dozens) feature the same follow-up quote from the manufacturer, who explains that the packaging was introduced in 2002 and that "the jovial MAOAM man is very popular with fans, both young and old." The phrase also appears on the company's website.

Space filled. Free advertising ensured. Amusing silly season item filed. As the meerkat says, Simples!

No wonder an increasing number of newspaper bosses have come to the conclusion that journalists are an optional extra.

UPDATE: Via Jon Slattery I discover this item from Brand Republic, which thinks the story "looks increasingly like a publicity stunt by Haribo", who by coincidence are currently conducting a sampling campaign for a new product line, and that the company's "marketing department appears to be lying low on this one". Also, the Telegraph's Jon Swaine is Twittering that there is no Simon Simpkins on the electoral roll in Pontefract and no record of an Ofelia Simpkins anywhere (absolutely no f in Ofelia, it seems). Thanks too to John B below who points out that while there might not be a Simon Simpkins in Pontefract there certainly is a Haribo UK in the town.

I'm profoundly shocked by this news. But I'm glad to see that investigative journalism is not quite dead yet.

This type of campaign, based on a superficially plausible"complaint" that just happens to draw attention to the product complained of, isn't exactly new. My personal favourite was the "Happy Endings Foundation", supposedly a group of concerned parents campaigning against the unsuitably dark Lemony Snicket books. The foundation had a website, which turned out to be owned by a marketing company employed by the offending books' publisher. Quelle surprise. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Arguing with feminists

According to a now-notorious post by Melissa McEwan, causing great excitement over at CIF this afternoon, it's a form of misogyny to argue with a feminist.

There are the occasions that men – intellectual men, clever men, engaged men – insist on playing devil's advocate, desirous of a debate on some aspect of feminist theory or reproductive rights or some other subject generally filed under the heading Women's Issues. These intellectual, clever, engaged men want to endlessly probe my argument for weaknesses, wrestle over details, argue just for fun. And they wonder, these intellectual, clever, engaged men, why my voice keeps rising and why my face is flushed and why, after an hour of fighting my corner, hot tears burn the corners of my eyes.

Why do you have to take this stuff so personally? ask the intellectual, clever, and engaged men, who have never considered that the content of the abstract exercise that's so much fun for them is the stuff of my life.

Not surprisingly, this line of thought hasn't gone down well with everyone (and to judge by the number of deleted comments, some people have taken it personally). A couple of things strike me - and I realise that even by attempting to be objective about this I am already, by McEwan's lights, displaying my deep-seated hatred of women. So be it. First, there's an essentialism that, in another context, would seem deeply sexist. McEwan appears to be saying that women - or at least women like her, feminists, whatever - are what generations of patriarchal oppressors have assumed that they are, irrational and emotionally (or hormonally) driven creatures incapable of abstract thought, or at least incapable of talking about ideas that affect them personally without becoming overwrought.

Perhaps she's like that herself, where feminist theory is concerned. But then so - in other contexts - are many men. Men who take personally any criticism of their religious traditions, for example. Although McEwan chooses to frame her experience in a Mars/Venus type of explanation - these clever, cynical men playing intellectual games over the stuff of women's deepest pain, they just don't get it - she could just as well be a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain explaining how some fairly innocuous cartoon is a source of untold personal suffering for believers. Instead of engagement with the argument, answering objections (which do presumably have answers) - and thus, potentially, winning new supporters - comes the demand to shut up, acknowledge the profundity of feeling, show respect.

There is the perplexity at my fury that my life experience is not considered more relevant than the opinionated pronouncements of men who make a pastime of informal observation, as if womanhood were an exotic locale which provides magnificent fodder for the amateur ethnographer. And there is the haughty dismissal of my assertion that being on the outside looking in doesn't make one more objective. It merely provides a different perspective.

That, however, cuts both ways: for what McEwan is surely saying isn't that the insider's perspective is merely different but that it is superior, privileged (as of course in some ways it is) and that therefore it must prevail - that to even engage in discussion is to concede the high ground. And that does not make for an inclusive conversation or a harmonious society. It is the victim-mentality embodied in multiculturalism and its offshoots: the claim that only a black person has a right to an opinion on the black experience, only a gay person can understand homophobia, only a Muslim can express an opinion about the Koran, only a Jew can criticise Israel. It leads to intellectual ghettoisation, in which arguments are never challenged, only reinforced, until eventually we stop speaking to each other.

Now oddly enough McEwan does have some sort of point, though she doesn't make it at all well. The kernel of truth in her argument is this: she does know a great deal more about feminism than the men who casually try to engage her in debate. What to her (stereotypically male) interlocutors might seem good points (because any debating point seems brilliant at the moment it occurs to you) are from her point of view tired old arguments that the high priestesses of feminism dealt with long before she or her sparring partner were born. Any system of thought - religion, philosophy, politics, science - creates its own logical universe, its own modes of discourse, language and assumptions which insiders take for granted. And the whole mystery cannot be revealed at once. Just as in Scientology the information about Xenu is too deep for neophytes to grasp, so feminist concepts that seem patently barking to outsiders (mainly, but not exclusively, men) will turn out - to anyone who bothers to study the subject properly - to be the result of hard and thorough intellectual effort carried out over decades. So it is naturally aggravating to have some outsider muscling in on "your" intellectual terrain, acting like they have all the answers or can prick all your balloons.

People who have spent their entire lives convinced of the centrality of some intellectual project don't take kindly to hearing it rubbished. Richard Dawkins, for example, got ticked off by bishops and theologians (and wannabe theologians like Armstrong and Eagleton) for not knowing much about theology - and, worse, not realising that theology mattered or had anything useful to say. They weren't threatening to kill him, or accusing him of being filled with hatred, merely of being unsophisticated. But the defence mechanism is much the same: shoring up the edifice of a system by rejecting even the possibility of valid criticism by an outsider. All worldviews have the intellectual equivalent of an immune system to enable them to repel invaders. And the more all-embracing a system is, the more it incorporates within itself an explanation for every possible objection.

Imagine members of two rival religious sects, each convinced of the truth of their claims and the falsity of the other's. It might seem obvious to each that the other was under the control of Satanic powers - how else could their wrong-headedness be explained? Or say you believed in a conspiracy for which no convincing evidence had ever been supplied: is not the very lack of evidence proof of the diabolical efficiency of the conspirators? Now feminism (of McEwan's type), like many -isms, is very like a conspiracy theory, in that it proposes a single overarching explanation for most of the problems of the world, viz "the patriarchy". It is patriarchy's fault when women are kept at home, and it is patriarchy's fault when women are forced out to work. It is patriarchy's fault when women wear too many clothes, and when they wear too little. Patriarchy is to blame when Britney Spears is criticised for behaving in ways that the patriarchy has forced her to behave. It's patriarchy that restricts women's access to abortion, and explains the high rate of terminations. So it's scarcely surprising that patriarchy - or its underpinning, misogyny - also explains the otherwise perplexing fact that anyone might attempt to argue with a feminist.
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Fay's Way

Fay Weldon is on great form in the Telegraph, plugging her new novel Chalcot Crescent which is set in the near future when "power cuts are frequent, and everyone lives off rations of National Meat Loaf (which seems to be laced with hallucinogenic drugs)." Interviewer Bryony Gordon thinks it "a bit bleak". Fay hits back:

“Well, I don’t suppose it’s really all that bleaker than things are now. We just don’t notice it. All we know is all we’re told, and all we’re told is what they want us to know.” What does she think of the state of the country right now? She laughs for a long time. “Well it’s shit, isn’t it? We have come to depend upon the most extraordinary construct of employment where we create artificial jobs such as community support officers just to keep employment up. It’s all got to fall like a pack of cards.”

And here she is on party politics:

We are seeing now how little power politics actually has. Parliament has sort of evaporated. It’s a committee not of politicians but sociologists and psychoanalysts. They just benignly watch us, micromanage us, and nobody ever asks any questions. You’re not allowed to eat ham, or salt. I smoked and drank all the way through all four of my pregnancies, and nobody said it was bad. They all came out perfectly healthy and heavy. It’s absurd! They want to go on putting an extra year on your life, but what for? I don’t want to be kept alive.

What a wise woman. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

My life is unbearable - don't fix it, just kill me

This is a guest post by Clair Lewis

Care staff had to help me out of bed this morning. It happens increasingly often these days, as my incurable disease and my unfit body's slow ageing makes its mark. Some mornings, being lifted hurts so much I cry. It's only a matter of time before I end up wet in bed and need a commode and then a nappy. I regularly tip coffee down myself in the mornings because I can't hold a mug, and I still can't type properly because it takes two hours for my hands to warm up. I am only 36.

I'm pretty lucky actually. I am reminded almost every year by a social care manager that if I was childless I wouldn't qualify for care at all - in which case I'd be lying here alone with a bladder full to bursting, paralysed by pain and stiffness. Instead of writing and drinking coffee, I'd be trying to work out how to make it to the toilet before I wee. My life, what there was of it, would be pretty unbearable.

Nobody wants me to suffer. I don't want to suffer. My friends and colleagues don't want me to suffer. Neither do my doctors, my care manager, either of my beautiful girlfriends, or my three wonderful kids. If I died tomorrow, it would indeed end my suffering. If I said I wanted to commit suicide when it all gets too much, many people would support me and think the state should do it for me. If I said I wanted to die, would you rage at the state for not offering me a final solution?

It seems acceptable these days to suggest that being ('kept') alive is a kind of abuse. Polly Toynbee, for example, calls the 1961 Suicide Act - whose guidelines are now being re-written in the light of Debbie Purdy's case - "an instrument of state torture". She notes that "every poll in the last decade has shown between 74% and 87% of the public want the terminally ill to have the right to ask a doctor for a peaceful death."

The majority of the public are not disabled and not sick, so they have no direct knowledge of the subject. Their opinions are based on such things as prejudice fed by the media and government, witnessing the neglect of people they know or fearful fantasies about their own potential suffering. Many support the idea of death clinics because they believe that most severely sick and disabled people want to end their lives, and just couldn't do it themselves. In that case, why don't more of them simply direct their electric wheelchairs into the nearest river?

If a healthy, non-disabled friend told you that their life was unbearable, and asked you to kill them, and they were really serious, would you help them to find a way to die? Or, would you ask them why and offer them support? Would you maybe suggest solutions to the problems causing their misery? Would you send them to the doctor? Faced with a suicidal patient who is physically healthy, a doctor will most likely offer antidepressants; if your friend is lucky they may even get therapy to help them look into how they could feel better and what could improve their life.

The help offered to people with such feelings is often inadequate - patients who have slashed their arms in miserable failed suicide attempts are sometimes patched up and sent home from casualty with no further support. But however strapped for cash the health service is one thing they won't do is offer to finish the job off properly. There's a reason for that - our healthcare system is here to save lives, to treat and cure. The Hippocratic Oath states that quite clearly. Thanks to doctors' traditional ethics - and their knowledge of the real issues people face - we currently don't have a healthcare system that aids and abets suicide. Thank goodness!

Suicidal tendencies are not exclusive to disabled or sick people. Lots of people who have lives filled with struggle or abuse, people who feel their lives are worthless, or who are having a miserable life, feel they want to end it all. But in the general population suicide attempts are seen as a cry for help, whose solution is to offer people help to live. Only people with physical health problems or impairment are ever seen as being mentally competent when they want to kill themselves.

So why do politicians and campaigners propose suicide clinics exclusively for us? My friend Liz Crow, a filmmaker, artist and disabled activist, recently graced Anthony Gormley's Fourth Plinth in full Nazi regalia to point out the similarity between today's discussions and the eugenics promoted by the Third Reich. She comments in the film "Protest on the plinth"

They put across the idea of disabled people as suffering and deserving of mercy killing, in other words they're doing us a favour, by putting us out of our misery. Or where that doesn't work, they put us across as an economic burden and therefore it's in the interests of families and our nation and so on, to kill us. Three hundred and fourty thousand people live in institutions in the UK. Underlying all of that is still the same set of values, about us as other, and lesser.

Despite the slow march towards equal rights for disabled people and people with long term illnesses, the government would prefer to ration healthcare, while social services are underfunded to the point that they now refuse support to anyone not in serious crisis. Meanwhile, the media are running ahead, misleading the public that disabled people's lives are terrible. They rarely consider the reasons, other than our impairments, why we might be having such a bad time. Social isolation, abuse, lack of equipment, being dumped in institutions, lack of opportunity, poor healthcare, insufficient support, and inaccessible housing all contribute to making people feel their lives are not worth living.

Many disabled and sick people fight every day for the right services to improve their lives. Many are isolated, locked away, or go without vital things they need - much of our suffering is not just related to our state of health. It's easy for the newly disabled to feel intimidated and undervalue what difference support makes, and maybe it's just easier to die than trying it out while they are still struggling with the trauma of a changing body, but I believe everyone deserves a chance at living before taking the permanent way out.

Clair and fellow activists protesting outside the House of Lords

The public has an image of us as pathetic victims of charity, tragic but brave, lazy workshy scroungers, a drain on the state, burdened with a fate worse than death, fit for abortion, even subhuman. People are so terrified of becoming one of us that some of them want to book in their suicides now. You think I'm exaggerating? Someone came up to me recently when I was out in my wheelchair said "I'd kill myself, if I was like you". (It wasn't the first time. My response these days is "I pity you, coward".)

I believe the root of public opinion is fear of suffering - and I agree that nobody wants to suffer. So why are we not looking for solutions which do not involve people having to die? The concept of liberating people from suffering by offering them fatal medications is more like an idea for a horror movie than a social policy.

It may help the public to swallow this idea, now that as a poplulation we have quietly taken up the state's unique offer to investigate all pregnant women to identify and terminate unborn children with 'defects' any time until birth, even in cases when those infants could survive unaided. Parents have morally accepted that disabled lives are not worth living, and are voting with their feet, or rather, the live contents of their wombs. It is seen as the socially responsible thing to do, even that parents are the cause of our family's suffering if they do not take this morbid way out. I think it is utterly shameful that people feel this is their only option. Parents deserve a real choice, which includes the choice to have their disabled child welcomed and included.

The philosopher Peter Singer goes further: he puts forward the argument that it should be ok to kill disabled infants after birth if it's for the greater good. And he's got a point. If we accept the above program, what's the difference? Other people are starting to wonder if it is acceptable to use the same ideas later in life, to effectively "liberate" people from torturous existences by ending their lives.

Disabled adults are volunteering to die, in many cases because it's easier for everyone concerned than living. According to the US anti assisted suicide organisation Not Dead Yet say, the primary reason for people wanting to die is the feeling of being a burden. Polly Toynbee seems to agree: "Besides, the loss of independence and becoming a burden to others may be a valid part of the reason why someone feels life has become undignified and past bearing."

Liz Crow told me,

"I saw a film about the Dutch euthanasia system, which is held up as a carefully regulated system. A man I have never forgotten had his suicide approved by three doctors. It struck me that the one of the last things he said was "I don't want to be a burden to my wife." I felt like nobody could hear what he was saying. He wasn't saying he wanted to die, he was saying he didn't want to be a burden, and dying is not the only way to achieve that. I felt desolate because if that was the shallowness of their understanding, then where do we begin?"

Absolutely it is natural that this makes people feel awful - but I want independence and dignity in life, not to be given drugs to kill myself! Similarly, I feel angry that families do not automatically get the support that would prevent anyone becoming a burden. We certainly have the capacity to do this, if government chose to release the funding.

Polly Toynbee herself, quoting the National Council for Palliative Care admits that "the least affluent get the least care." It seems a shame that in the face of this evidence she concludes that assisted suicide clinics are the answer. But I suppose that's not entirely surprising for someone who once wrote that "the right to life is not an absolute. It is inextricably and untidily linked in almost every case with social and psychological considerations, as well as the money that might have bought more health and happiness elsewhere."

Let's get the "death with dignity" myth smashed once and for all. No one gets dignity in death. Being dead simply cannot give the dead person more dignity, still less a better quality of life - so suicide cannot be the answer to the question of how people's dignity and quality of life is improved.

Whilst it is true that death would ease my suffering, it would also end my life, leave my children motherless and homeless, break my lovers' hearts and end my usefulness to society. I don't want to die, I have already faced that possibility once and the value of every day of my life is immense. The benefits of living outweigh the consequences of my death a hundredfold - what price a mother? It's not a tough decision.

One day, I will die, like all other humans, and if I wanted to die at my own hands in this country I have already have a right to commit suicide. If I want to take advantage of that one day, I will, and in almost all situations of possible illness there are ways to do it - as long as I continue to have independent living - the healthcare, support, equipment, housing and access I need to life and the living.

My body is still deteriorating. But my independence is going to tangibly improve next week when I'll be drinking coffee from something resembling a baby's beaker in the mornings, so I don't have to have my care staff hold the cup and straw, or burn myself. I am also awaiting equipment so I can get up without human assistance and go to the toilet when I wake, on foot or using my wheelchair, depending what suits. All by myself.

These are just some simple examples of how the right support or equipment increases my ability to have a decent life, but I could list many more. These are the things that give me a shot at equality in life, the things which enable me to participate and have value as a human being in society.

Baroness Jane Campbell, a disabled activist we can thank for fighting the last assisted suicide bill ferociously in Lords, stated in the Guardian recently,

"Our underfunded and discretionary systems of health and social care, coupled with rampant discrimination, are having fatal consequences for disabled people. But, rather than tackle these issues head on - to choose life, in Irvine Welsh's now famous phrase - the warping effects of our discourse on disability have made death seem the only humane option."

I think our current working population ought to reject government and media fear-mongering, which lets the state off the hook, and ask the government for a better deal than death for their money, for those whose suicidal feelings are usually caused by neglect. I can't point you to accurate figures on this, as it's not in the interests of the state purse to study it. What I can tell you is, that in over a decade of experience of disability rights activism I have met hundreds of disabled people and people with serious illnesses, none of whom are privileged enough to be suffering from their illness or impairment alone.

For all those reading who still think we need suicide clinics, I ask you this. Are you happy to support the idea, knowing that one day someone might facilitate you or others to die, at least in part, due to external factors which could be changed? If not, then this is the time to secure all our futures by fighting against these clinics and deciding to fight for inclusion, independent living and assistance to live, not assistance to die.

Clair Lewis is part of the Disabled people's Direct Action Network
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Monday, 24 August 2009

The Koran: not a patch on the Bible

Sebastian Faulks is in trouble. The Daily Mail has identified him as the next Salman Rushdie after he made a few disobliging comments about the Koran in an extended interview with the Sunday Times:

“It’s a depressing book. It really is. It’s just the rantings of a schizophrenic. It’s very one-dimensional, and people talk about the beauty of the Arabic and so on, but the English translation I read was, from a literary point of view, very disappointing.

“There is also the barrenness of the message. I mean, there are some bits about diet, you know, the equivalent of the Old Testament, which is also crazy. If you look again at those books of the law, Leviticus or Deuteronomy, there’s a lot about who you are allowed to sleep with, and if a man had lost his testicles he wouldn’t enter into the presence of God, that is just terrible. But the great thing about the Old Testament is that it does have these incredible stories. Of the 100 greatest stories ever told, 99 are probably in the Old Testament and the other is in Homer. With the Koran there are no stories.

He's a brave man to put it in quite such direct, indeed brutal, terms, but Faulks's experience is a common one. Many non-Muslims feel they ought to take some sort of look at the Koran, because Islam is in the news a lot, or because it's an important part of world culture that everyone should know about, or because they've heard it's full of inspired poetry. And the vast majority, in my experience, are distinctly underwhelmed. They assume they're going to find a profound, immortal classic of spiritual wisdom. Instead they find things like this (from Sura 9, which I selected entirely at random from an online Koran):

(This is a declaration of) immunity by Allah and His Apostle towards those of the idolaters with whom you made an agreement.

"9.2": So go about in the land for four months and know that you cannot weaken Allah and that Allah will bring disgrace to the unbelievers.

"9.3": And an announcement from Allah and His Apostle to the people on the day of the greater pilgrimage that Allah and His Apostle are free from liability to the idolaters; therefore if you repent, it will be better for you, and if you turn back, then know that you will not weaken Allah; and announce painful punishment to those who disbelieve.

"9.4": Except those of the idolaters with whom you made an agreement, then they have not failed you in anything and have not backed up any one against you, so fulfill their agreement to the end of their term; surely Allah loves those who are careful (of their duty).

"9.5": So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them; surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

I mean, if you hadn't been told it was a great sacred classic, you wouldn't guess from passages like that, would you? It may well read better in Arabic; the poetry, in the original, may well be, as is often claimed, a thing of matchless beauty. But it plainly doesn't translate; and that, in itself, reduces its claim to be a message for all times and peoples.

Not everyone who looks into the Koran finds it a disappointment, of course. There are some who become converts, and others, like Tony Blair, who wax lyrical (though largely, perhaps, for effect) about its manifold beauties and moral greatness. Blair once said ("with great humility") that "the most remarkable thing about the Koran is how progressive it is" and that it was "far ahead of its time in attitudes toward marriage, women, and governance". But that kind of talk merely makes you wonder how much of the Koran he had actually read. (From a Muslim point of view it's also rather patronising, since it gives the Koran marks for being "progressive" and "ahead of its time", as though it could be judged by the yardstick of a New Labour manifesto. Whereas orthodox Muslims believe that the Koran is from God, and for all time.)

I've read the Koran, or tried to. In bits, or rather fits and starts. It's boring all right - worthy of Mark Twain's criticism of the Book of Mormon, which he compared to "chloroform in print". Hence one of Faulks' criticisms, the lack of stories. I can understand why a writer would be disappointed by that, certainly when compared with the Old Testament, parts at least of which were written by people who understood the principles of plot, narrative and characterisation. The books of Samuel, which tell the story of King David, offer a masterclass in storytelling - though, conversely, they have very little religious content.

Actually, there are stories in the Koran, but they are told allusively; it is assumed that the reader already knows them, or knows of them, and they are there to illuminate the religious message, not to entertain. It's a religious book, after all. It is perhaps the presence of good, well-told stories in the Bible, rather than their absence from the Koran, that is unexpected - or would be if they weren't so familiar. The Bible moulded our culture, and so formed our expectations of what a holy book is or ought to be that we take it for granted. But it really is a most peculiar assemblage of writings, many of them scarcely "religious" at all.

The Old Testament is better understood as the surviving collected works of an entire culture - ancient Israel - than as "a holy book". It has a bit of everything: stories, poetry, hymns, archaic laws as well as that unique style of declamatory moral philosophy developed by the prophets. God's in there, all right, but only because of his abiding and inexplicable fascination with the Jews. Some of it is beautiful, some of it horrifying, a few passages baffling or simply deranged. A personal favourite is Isaiah 36:12:

But Rabshakeh said, Hath my master sent me to thy master and to thee to speak these words? Hath he not sent me to the men that sit upon the wall, that they may eat their own dung and drink their own piss with you?

The New Testament is different: a collection of evangelistic materials produced by the followers of a new religious movement at the time of the high Roman Empire. But even that isn't the type of holy book that the Koran aspires to be: the direct utterance of God. Assuming that the creator and sustainer of the universe has a message for mankind, and wants to convey it as directly as possible (Mohammed being a mere mouthpiece) then it's only to be expected that he wouldn't waste time on creating distracting storylines and great characters. Its rhetorical, repetitive style is, perhaps, less surprising in a holy book than the Bible's occasional flourishes of literary brilliance.

But Faulks is on rather stronger ground when he is unimpressed by the Koran's moral message. Blair may have been impressed by its "progressiveness", but there's very little in it that wasn't already expressed, more cogently, by the prophets of ancient Israel more than a thousand years before. There's certainly nothing comparable with the deep, properly thought-through work of Aristotle's ethics or (let's be generous) some of the church fathers. Faulks says:

"It has no ethical dimension like the New Testament, no new plan for life. It says ‘the Jews and the Christians were along the right tracks, but actually, they were wrong and I’m right, and if you don’t believe me, tough — you’ll burn for ever.’ That’s basically the message of the book."

A crude summary, perhaps, but not an inaccurate one. Pope Benedict got into trouble a few years ago for quoting a Byzantine emperor who said more or less the same thing: what has Islam brought that is new - apart from violent jihad, that is? Many of the one-liners attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are radical, surprising, shocking, many-sided. Even if you don't agree with him you have to admit that he can make you think. Ditto St Paul (though I've rarely agreed with anything he said). The Koran, by contrast, seems to be designed to stop people thinking, to forestall even the possibility of debate. The New Testament wants to persuade you; the Koran wants to bludgeon you into submission. Morally, it represents a massive step backwards. For the Arabs of the sixth century, it might have been an advance (or it might not; I'm not sure, but I suspect women had a rather better time in Mecca when it was pagan). But by comparison with what the Judaeo-Christian and Classical pagan traditions managed to achieve (over a much longer period of time, it is true) it is intellectually meagre, morally uninteresting, derivative, repetitive and distinctly second-rate. Of course it is. That isn't to deny the achievements of Islamic civilisation - on the contrary, one of the wonders of history is the way in which they managed to erect such a rich, intellectually vibrant culture upon such unpromising foundations.
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Trouble at Hogwarts

Yet another casualty of the recession, I hear, is a school of witchcraft and wizardry opened amid high hopes a mere 18 months ago. Founded by Isaac Bonewits, druid, "polytheologian" and, according to a press release, "the only person to ever earn an accredited degree in magic", the school was intended to do for spell-casters what statutory regulation did for the image of chiropractors until they ran up against Simon Singh.

Bonewits' degree, in "magic and thaumaturgy", was awarded by a proper university - Berkeley, no less - in 1970, when such eccentricity might well have seemed to be at the cutting edge of modern research.

Last February, Bonewits and his wife Phaedra decided to open "a [sic] online Academy called Real Magic School with the purpose of teaching magic in it's [sic] various forms and gaining accreditation for it's [sic] future degrees. (Bonewits might have a degree in spells and potions, but it looks like he could do with one in spelling.) He was keen to reassure applicants that he was "not Dumbledore", and his academy was "not Hogwarts". On the contrary,

Real Magic School is definitely real world and has a truly academic and educational philosophy unmatched in today's world. Isaac Bonewits is a serious teacher, along with Phaedra, with lifelong experience, and is one of the most respected voices in the Pagan world today calling for academic truth and excellence in the study of magic and thaumaturgy, history, and Paganism.

Perhaps the Real Magic School would have been more successful if it had been modelled more closely on J.K. Rowling's fictional boarding school. Announcing the folding of their venture (you'd think they'd have seen it coming), the Bonewitses tell their students that two other respected online institutions, the Grey School of Wizardry and the Witch School International, are prepared to take accept those whose courses have been unexpectedly truncated. "We highly recommend both schools" they add. Leading pagan blog Wild Hunt, however, notes that the Grey School, led by one Oberon Zell-Ravenheart (where do they get these names?) has "a somewhat different m.o. ...with its Harry Potter-isms and courses that equip someone to become a Journeyman Wizard".

As for the Witch School, with which Bonewits' academy was affiliated from the start, this is a somewhat controversial institution noted for its agressive recruitment drives. Among its graduates we find "Pope Princess Bedwetter Fluffernutter (Rev. Mikki Barry), Mistress of the Garden Gnomes of Festering Goo, head of the Shrine of the Sacred Chao (formerly the Shrine of the Flaming Asscroft)". But then Aleister Crowley was a Cambridge man, so I suppose you can't hold universities entirely responsible for the behaviour of their alumni.

It seems that Mr Bonewits had high hopes that his "truly academic" approach would be rewarded with respect from more firmly established disciplines - that one day, even, well-known universities would offer degrees in the theory and practice of witchcraft. Some proper colleges offer courses in things like homeopathy, after all, which no more or less valid a subject. Indeed, our own wellbeloved NHS still bankrolls some of the shaken water dispensers. One assumes that witches' brews do at least contain the promised ingredients. Nor is it clear to me how witchcraft is a less valid discipline than, say, media studies. Or even theology, which also presupposes the existence of invisible and mysterious forces active in the world. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Where's Gordon?

Thirty years ago, I gather, the country was engrossed in a search for a jewelled rabbit that an enterprising artist had hidden in a field somewhere. The clues were hidden amongst the illustrations of a lavishly produced book, with such devilish cunning that it was weeks before they were successfully decoded. But finding that particular piece of buried treasure was child's play compared to trying to establish what has happened, this summer, to Gordon Brown.

In recent weeks, our prime minister has become as invisible as Kim Jong-Il (although even he was briefly unplugged from the cryonics machine to be photographed sitting next to Bill Clinton) or the procession of reanimated corpses who presided over the Soviet Union during the days of its decadence. He is said to be in Scotland, engaged, among other things, on "community work", but we've seen not a jot of evidence. That, in itself, is most peculiar: it's hard to see why any self-respecting politician would engage in social activism without the presence of cameras to record his selflessness.

And simply because a politician happens to be on holiday, he needn't be invisible. Previously, we were accorded glimpses of Blair on yachts or relaxing at some Italian villa. Last year, GB himself was briefly filmed walking along a beach in Suffolk, unconvincingly holidaying for a few days before a succession of crises released him. It was big news. This year, he spent a week in the Lake District ignored by the world. There was, it is true, a photo, which showed (said the Mail) "a man utterly at ease with himself" - he looked to be sitting in a rather nondescript boat boat. The picture, however, turned out to have been taken by a tourist from Burnham-on-Sea, who was astonished when a blacked out Mercedes people carrier turned up at the quayside. "It was cold and drizzly, but they'd come sensibily dressed for a chilly evening", he recalled. Without his presence of mind, we would have no visual evidence whatever of the prime minister's whereabouts this summer.

Of course, there's no actual mystery about where GB is today. He's in Scotland (I think). But that only deepens the puzzle. It's not as though there's no news. Peter Mandelson rushed out of his hospital bed to comment on the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. The news from Afghanistan - dead soldiers, rigged elections - continues unaffected by this being August. Brown hasn't even emerged from aestivation to exploit Daniel Hannan's thoughts about the NHS, a quite incredible forbearance given his fondness for scaremongering about "Tory cuts".

The prime minister went on holiday on 27 July and isn't due back in Downing street until the second week of September. That's a full six weeks during which he has been incommunicado. According to John Rentoul, it's all part of some "cunning Baldrick-style plan to keep Gordon Brown off the television for the whole of August". And it might well be. Instead we've had the entertaining spectacle of Harriet Harman's one woman feminist revolution followed by Peter Mandelson's charm offensive - though the main upshot has been fresh speculation about Brown's future, which can scarcely have been the intention.

But such a Machiavellian device can't in itself explain Brown's invisibility. Why has no journalist gone to solicit a quote from him, or even to take a photograph? They know where he is. They even know how peculiar it is for him to have gone so thoroughly to ground. It's strange, and slightly disturbing in this day and age, to see the press observing a level of discretion not seen since the run-up to the Abdication crisis, when newspaper barons colluded to keep news of the king's dalliance with Mrs Simpson out of the prying eyes of the British public. What threats, what inducements, can a failing, flailing, soon-to-be ousted government possibly have made to secure Brown's invisibility? I think we should be told.

I suppose we should be grateful he didn't put in an appearance at the Oval this afternoon - things looked dicey enough around lunchtime as it was. But regardless of the politics, for a modern prime minister to be out of public view for over a month amounts to a dereliction of duty. He shouldn't be allowed to get away with it. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 21 August 2009

Among the Exorcists

The committed atheist Adam Rutherford's matchless skewering of the Alpha Course for CIF Belief continues apace. The latest session, however, took an unexpected turn when the course leader - supposedly discussing personal experiences of God - started talking about demonology.

We go off-piste again with Toby talking about how he's been involved in exorcisms. I am utterly bemused. I had no idea, but dioceses are required to have an exorcist. We're talking about demonic possession here. He explains that most are clearly the product of psychiatric disorders, and they approach each with that in mind. But others were not so easily explainable. "You're talking about ghosts?" I ask. "Oh no, not if you mean the spirits of the dead spooking around houses. These were poltergeists," he says. "Is that not just a type of ghost?" I ask, looking around for support to see if I have gone crazy. Toby says "I've seen things that I simply cannot explain."

The growing willingness to believe in the activity of demons is on the face of it one of the more puzzling aspects of modern Evangelical Christianity. In former centuries, demons provided a ready explanation for many psychiatric diseases, as well as phenomena for which there was as yet no scientific explanation; but as knowledge has advanced belief in the supernatural ought to have retreated, at least from those areas. That is not, of course, to say that exorcism doesn't work: for some mental conditions, the panoply of exorcism, with its drama and supposed divine power, can be a most effective placebo. But it is perhaps especially surprising to find the sensible old Church of England giving its endorsement to such nonsense by requiring all dioceses to have an official ghostbuster.

Father WeepingCross, whose absence from these debates in recent weeks has apparently been down to a rather protracted job move, once very kindly sent me an article of his about exorcism in the Church of England. What he makes clear is that, far from being a survival of medieval and older Christianity, exorcism in churches today is actually a modern phenomenon. I hope he won't mind if I reproduce a few extracts.

He begins by noting that the vicar at the Chatham church he attended prior to his training for the ministry had occasionally conducted exorcisms, but "tended to keep quiet about it, partly because he found the process unnerving, and also because he was reluctant to arouse more irrational religious hysteria than already existed." However, "he was adamant that there were evil entities that required it". This "willingness to combat the diabolical marks a shift of attitude, paticularly in the Anglican church, over recent decades".

Exorcism was an entirely normal part of early Christianity...The change in attitude in the English church came with the Reformation. Protestants tended to deny that the church could share actively in God's work rather than passively receiving his grace. Those with rationalist sensibilities also had to cope with the difficulty that their reason revolted against the concept of demonic possession, a thing Jesus happily accepted. Elizabeth's archbishops Parker and Whitgift kept their scepticism very quiet in public, and it took a layman to put forward a coherent anti-exorcism argument. Reginald Scot's book The Discovery of Witchcraft (1584) suggested that the power of exorcism granted to the apostles was restricted to them alone and was no longer operative.

There were Protestant exorcists, indeed, but they tended to be unofficial enthusiasts such as John Darrell, whose career "came to an end in 1597 when one of his clients declared that his deliverance had been a fraud and that Darrell had trained him in behaving as a demoniac." Although Darrell protested his innocence, the Anglican hierarchy "leapt on the case as proof that all exorcists were charlatans". In 1599 Samuel Harsnett, chaplain to the Bishop of London, wrote a book about Darrell's "Fraudulent Practices", following it up four years later with the gloriously titled "Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures".

And so it remained. The religious extremism of the 1600s produced a reaction in favour of rationalist peace and quiet in the Anglican hierarchy, and the discoveries of science made the idea of devils seem ridiculous. It did not resurface among the sects to any great extent, and even the most obscurantist of Victorian High Church revivalists scrupled to bring back this particular aspect of the faith of past ages. RR of the Gentleman's Magazine of 1814 treated the subject with jocularity and quoted a Catholic argument that possession was absent from England largely because "the Protestants the Devil hath alread, and the papists are so holy that he dares not meddle with them". He sniffed at the recent exorcism of George Lukins of Bristol "he was, I presume, a Dissenter, as the ceremony... was conducted by five ministers who were not of the established church. By 1925 the ardent medievalist Montague Summers could sneer, "I do not conceive that at the present time many, if any, bishops of the Church of England would license exorcism. Certainly, the more scientifically minded and modernistic lords spiritual have rid themselves of such an idle superstition..."

Now, however, there is an exorcist in every diocese and they have rarely been busier. Father Rattue attributes the revival in the practice in part to the abiding English fascination with ghosts, which kept up the link between the spiritual and the spiritualistic even when few would take seriously the possession of individuals by devils. He notes, for example, how in the early 1970s the Rev Bacon of Yeadon near Leeds "carried out two services at the offices of Air Heating Ltd", apparently with some success. However, "ghosts are not demons, and this sort of thing is now frowned upon". At the same time, exorcism of people, in the guise of "deliverance ministry", began to make a comeback:

A commission under the Bishop of Exeter published a report, Exorcism, in 1972, recommending that each diocese should appoint an exorcist, and three years later Archbishop Coggan reiterated in Synod that a bishop had to give permission for the ceremony to be held. There is reason to believe that some priests do not follow this order, but officially the keynote is caution. The Christian Exorcism Study Group will not even print the ritual for Major Exorcism of Persons, regarding it as too dangerous.

(Wow. They have a ritual for Major Exorcism! Is it like on The Exorcist?)

Nonetheless, the acceptance within the church that demonic possession is possible, if very rare, is a change from centuries of top-level denial. The source of this seems to be twofold. Firstly, the emergence of Satanism early last century and the popularisation of its imagery through novels and films has given clergy a cause for jitteriness which did not exist before. Often this leads to mistakes. Less politically-aware priests have misinterpreted anarchist symbols as Satanist pentagrams. Some acquaintances bought an old house near Wimbourne in Dorset after it had lain empty for many years. Like many isolated, deserted houses, it had become known among local children who told stories of ghosts and witches about it. The local vicar took this as evidence of actual devil worship and took it upon himself to break in and conduct an exorcism.

(So, the C of E employs people who can't tell the difference between fiction and reality? I suppose some might think that was a qualification for the job, but I couldn't possibly comment.)

A similar experience is reported in the comments to the Rutherford article by President Gas:

I was visiting an uncle of mine a few years ago, who is a retired CofE vicar, of a fairly evangelical bent and acting Rural dean of the place he retired to. He was talking about various social problems in this particular small Derbyshire village, and he suddenly announced that the cause of the social problems was the reactivation of pagan worship in a stone circle that is located just over the hill from his house, by new age traveller types. I was astounded, but prompted him to go on, and it turned out that he had been the resident exorcist for his diocese, and others in the area, throughout much of his tenure.

The second possible reason for the revival is the Evangelical revival, which Fr Rattue dates to Billy Graham's crusades of the 1950s and which "has led to an increased emphasis on the experiences of the early Christians, and an acceptance that the supernatural claims of Christianity may actually be true. Such an attitude "opens the gates to all sorts of eccentricity", such as the Bishop of Carlisle, Graham Dow - a friend and mentor of Tony Blair's who garnered some embarrassing headlines a couple of years ago when he claimed that the flooding that hit parts of Britain might be a divine punishment for the introduction of gay civil partnerships:

Dow states in his book Deliverance that devils are widespread in Britain. He lists twenty-nine telltale signs for picking out the possessed, including "a persistent preference for the colour black"; he states that "it is possible to see evil in a person's eyes" and for children to inherit devils from their parents. Some Christians seem to ascribe all diseases or psychological difficulties to devils, turning the whole scientific mentality on its head in a way which is completely contrary to the evidence of the Bible itself.

Fr Rattue carried out a survey among local clergy, which found "marked support for Bishop Dow's statement that 'evil spirits are widespread in Britain'... only one minister, a Nonconformist, was entirely hostile to the notion and would refuse to carry out any such service...the others accepted that deliverance from actual demonic entities was a real possibility." He finds this "level of theological orthodoxy" to be "a corrective to those who have the impression that Christian ministers no longer believe in anything very much".

On the contrary, this revival of belief in demons and exorcism doesn't strike me as showing any great confidence in the Christian message. It shows, rather, a similar turn of mind (though from a different theological starting-point) to that of the liberal clerics who wish to embrace such innovations as women bishops and gay blessings. Likewise, the influence of cultural artefacts like The Exorcist may be a factor in the willingness of some religious leaders to embrace demonology (just as UFO sightings peaked at the same time as the popularity of The X Files), but that raises problems of its own. It isn't just, as James Rattue suggests, that a minority of ministers have their minds turned to thoughts of the devil by watching or reading fictional (indeed, explicitly fantastical) presentations of the supernatural. Rather, such stories inhabit the post-Christian, postmodern, anti-rational and relativistic culture of the contemporary West. The famous phrase attributed to GK Chesterton, that "when a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn't believe in nothing, but believes in everything", applies with equal or greater force to those who do still believe in God. The common view of conventional piety as an inoculation against the wilder shores of unreason simply does not hold: Christians, no less than agnostics, are vulnerable to belief in fairies.

The Evangelical fascination with the spirit world, as evidenced by Rutherford's recent experience, may seem to be rooted in the Bible and in the beliefs of the ancient world which Jesus himself seems to have possessed. But Christians - in England at least - managed perfectly well for centuries without it. Indeed, an earlier generation of Christians - the missionaries who went out to Africa, for example - saw belief in demons, witches, ghosts and the like as the sort of thing they were fighting against, part and parcel of the superstition that was to be dispelled by (as they saw it) the light of Christ. It was in a similar spirit that the Anglican church of the Victorian age made a surprisingly easy accommodation with Darwinism, to the extent of allowing Darwin himself burial in Westminster Abbey. They lived in an age of science, when progress and knowledge were seen as unquestioned goods and before the notion got around that all points of view were entitled to respect. Their religion reflected the prevailing rationality. Those who wanted to believe in contact with the spirit world were looked upon with derision, and were forced to set up their own "spiritualist" churches.

Now, however, unreason is fashionable. Scientists, and those who promote the scientific worldview, are dismissed as arrogant or rigid, while Karen Armstrong cultivates a reputation as a sophisticated thinker by claiming, in more emphatic terms than any evidence allows, that "belief" and "truth" are concepts that no-one living before the Enlightenment would have understood. Peddlars of bogus alternative remedies (for which there is usually not a jot of evidence) have gained not merely market share but, latterly, statutory recognition and wide acceptance. Millions of people read their horoscopes every day. There is a huge appetite for the supernatural and the fantastic - more, probably, than there is for the certainties offered traditionally by religion. And so, as has always happened, religion adopts the patterns of the prevailing culture, but with a twist. In this case, the references to demons in the New Testament provide a useful point of entry, and a defence. After all, it was good enough for Jesus.
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Thursday, 20 August 2009

Releasing Megrahi

Legally, and quite possibly in reality as well, Abdulbaset Ali Al-Megrahi will die a guilty man. His action, in the face of approaching extinction, to drop his final appeal means that today's decision to release him was technically unconnected with his actual guilt or innocence. But of course, things are not that simple. If he was guilty, then to release a man with the blood of 270 innocents on his hands, even on compassionate grounds, is dubious in the extreme. Such a man deserves to die in jail. But if, as many including some families of Lockerbie victims appear to believe, there are such doubts about his guilt that he ought never to have been convicted, then to exercise the prerogative of mercy was the least that Scottish justice minister Kenny MacAskill could have done.

The trouble is that we just don't know. That being the case, and so long as there remains a scintilla of doubt about the conviction, it must be right to free him. To allow an innocent man to die in prison is far worse than to allow a guilty man a few weeks of undeserved freedom. That is still true even if the probability remains that he was, in fact, guilty. Megrahi had, after all, been granted a fresh appeal at which all unresolved questions about the trial and the evidence which convicted him would have been aired. At that point, had the conviction been upheld, then all thoughts of compassionate release might validly have been cast aside. But Megrahi, and the Scottish justice system, were not granted the time to resolve these issues. Neither his release nor his death will grant closure to the families or to society as a whole; nor will they end the conspiracy theories that have swirled around the case. Even if he had died in prison, questions would have remained. What matters, then, is not the place of Megrahi's demise but that the facts that would have been considered at his appeal be looked into with due thoroughness. MacAskill was right to call for a full inquiry.

He was right, too, to make a long and detailed statement explaining his decision. Whether the decision itself was right or wrong, MacAskill's speech was one of the most impressive I have heard from any politician for many years. It was balanced, cogent, in places deeply moving, eloquent in its delineation of the dilemma that is always involved in tempering justice with mercy. Too often in recent years, debate on crime and punishment has been reduced to a Dutch auction between politicians using the rhetoric of toughness for naked personal and party advantage, stoking up fear of crime, cynically exploiting the pain of victims, politicising what should be a neutral and rational system of criminal justice. The result has not been a significantly lower crime-rate, but it has led to an unsustainably large prison population, at great cost to the public finances, to the erosion of both trust in the courts and mutual trust between citizens, to the dismantling of civil rights that were once taken for granted, to a fervid, paranoid atmosphere in society as a whole.

Most recently, we saw a typical piece of opportunism from one of the leading modern exponents of cyncal politics, Jack Straw, overruling the Parole Board just so that he could make some holier-than-thou remarks about the wickedness of Ronnie Biggs; only to be forced into a U-turn a few weeks later when the facts of the train-robber's condition, and the futility and expense of keeping him guarded in his bed, became too obvious even for most tabloids to ignore.

Now compare what MacAskill said today:

The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live.

Mr Al Megrahi did not show his victims any comfort or compassion. They were not allowed to return to the bosom of their families to see out their lives, let alone their dying days. No compassion was shown by him to them.

But that alone is not a reason for us to deny compassion to him and his family in his final days. Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion be available. Our beliefs dictate that justice be served, but mercy be shown.

Compassion and mercy are about upholding the beliefs that we seek to live by, remaining true to our values as a people. No matter the severity of the provocation or the atrocity perpetrated.

With these words, MacAskill allowed the law, for once, to take priority over political consderations. And he rose to the ethical challenge most politicians these days fail, of facing down the demands of the righteously indignant, of articulating afresh the principle which stands at the core of civilisation - that separates the civilised from the barbarous, indeed - that sometimes justified anger must be put aside, that justice, while necessary, is not always sufficient.

Predictably, the decision has gone down badly in the USA. There were last-ditch appeals from Hillary Clinton to prevent the release, and just yesterday it emerged that seven senators, including Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, had written to Mr MacAskill urging him to keep Megrahi behind bars. I do wonder what they were playing at. Private representations, cogently made, might have had some effect on the Scottish minister's decision. Public demands, intemperately worded, were more likely to prove counterproductive: it won't have done MacAskill any harm in his native land to be seen to have stood up to American bullying. We must assume, then, that the American interventions were made largely for public consumption, in the knowledge that they would not sway the Scottish decision-makers either way.

Finally, on the unanswered questions. I'm certainly not in a position to cast judgement on whether the conviction was sound. The evidence against Megrahi was circumstantial; but he was also the only person against whom there was any substantial evidence at all, and the judges who decided the case were, I assume, neither dishonest nor stupid. One thing should be obvious, however, and that is that Megrahi was no conventional terrorist. He was an agent employed by the Libyan government, a government long involved in acts of terrorism (not least though its funding of the IRA), and a regime led, now as then, by Colonel Gaddafi. If Megrahi bombed flight 103 he did so on Gaddafi's orders. That fact, though, has been conveniently forgotten, especially now that Gaddafi is such a good friend of British and American business interests. Megrahi's trial, after he was surrendered by Libyan authorities who must know the truth of his guilt or innocence, was an important part of the realpolitik that has transformed Gaddafi from international bogeyman to something more closely resembling an eccentric and indulged uncle, lightly mocked for his drag-queen costumes and coterie of female bodyguards but no longer placed in the same villainous category as Kim Jong-Il or the ayatollahs. In other words, Megrahi was either a scapegoat or a fall-guy. Either way, the people truly responsible for the atrocity that took place over Scotland more than twenty years ago have not been, and never will be, punished.
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Wednesday, 19 August 2009

China shows us the DNA

It's a well-known fact that Britain has the largest DNA database on earth, and the present government is determined to carry on happily adding to it, despite the minor inconvenience of an adverse ruling from the European Court of Human Rights. New guidelines, designed to evade the ECHR ruling rather than to implement it, are almost certain to be introduced unamended, despite the widespread criticism the government's "consultation document" has attracted. Professor Sheila Bird, vice-president of the Royal Statistical Society, described the Home Office's arguments as "a travesty of both statistical science and logical thinking".

I've taken the Home Office's largely bogus claims to pieces before, as have others. What struck me most, though, was what seemed to be the unstated agenda of the government's favoured academic source, Professor Ken Pease, a leading exponent of the pessimistic criminological concept known as Rational Choice Theory. Pease suggested - while admitting that there was not a jot of evidence - that the DNA database would have a deterrent effect on anyone included on it. Of course, if you think that the primary purpose of a DNA database is deterring crime rather than solving crimes that have already been committed, then the more extensive it is, the better. A database designed for crime solving is more efficient if it is confined to likely criminals - especially likely violent and sexual criminals - because samples taken from innocent people create noise which increases the possibility of false positives, false leads (from people innocently at the scene of a crime, perhaps weeks earlier, who then need to be eliminated at some expense) and miscarriages of justice.

This ulterior motive, I think, explains why the Home Office's document - which reproduced Pease's questionable research - fell into what critics identified as errors in reasoning. It failed to distinguish between the likelihood of a person being arrested and the likelihood of them committing or being convicted of a crime. Indeed, Pease seemed to think that being arrested and being a criminal were one and the same thing. This is a grievous mistake, if you are concerned with accuracy, logic or preserving civil liberties in a free society, but understandable if your main aim is to build up the DNA database as rapidly as possible. The logical next step would be to identify other types of people (in addition to those who have been arrested) who might be considered at risk of offending, and add them to the database.

And, in China, this is now starting to happen. Police in Canton (Guangzhou) have begun collecting samples from everyone employed in "the entertainment industry", including bar workers and nightclub employees, on the grounds that such places are often associated with crime. (Which they are, of course, but not usually crime committed by the staff.) China Daily reports that 4,233 employees in 118 nightclubs, karaoke bars have already been recorded on the DNA database. Anyone wishing to work in the entertainment industry must produce a certificate, confirming that they have given a DNA sample and fingerprints to the authorities. Even in China, some people feel this is going a bit too far, feeling it reflects "deep-seated prejudice" against nightclub workers. But others, I imagine, repeated whatever the Chinese is for "if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear".

Western governments, I sense, look with some envy on the country's combination of prodigious economic growth and central control. Whether it's censorship of the internet or surveillance of the population, what happens in China increasingly sets the pace for the rest of the world. So - without wishing to give the Home Office any more ideas - I wouldn't be amazed to hear similar arguments being made over here before too long, especially if they manage to face down the Strasbourg judges. Perhaps airport workers, who were supposed to be top of the list for the National Identity Register, will be first in the queue (threat of terrorism, and all that). Or will it be people who work with children and other "vulnerable" people, who will shortly be forced to pay £64 to prove they aren't paedophiles?

UPDATE: BBC reports that Tory spokesman Damian Green MP has succeeded in having his DNA record removed from the database. The police describe his case as "exceptional". I think that must mean "high profile". Glad to see Green realises it isn't just about him, though.

"I think the government is behaving pretty disgracefully, they've been told by the European Court that the current policy is illegal and they are dragging their feet as slowly as possible, supported, I am afraid to say, by senior police."

Note this:

A Home Office spokesman told the BBC: "We are clear that the DNA database plays a vital role in helping us protect the public by preventing crime and bringing offenders to justice."

"Preventing crime" comes before "bringing offenders to justice". So it is principally about deterrence - although there is no evidence that the database has such an effect. Interesting.
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