Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Godless Ed

Richard Dawkins regularly complains that in common (and media) discourse children are assumed to follow the religion of their parents. There's no such thing as a Christian or a Muslim child, he claims, any more than there's such a thing as a Tory child (he should have met me aged eight). Yet, as a rule, children do grow up to follow their birth religion. Even a leading candidate for the papacy, Cardinal Francis Arinze, is on record as saying that if he had been born in a different part of Nigeria he would have been a Muslim.

Atheists are unlikely to provide an exception, so it's no surprise to learn that like his brother and lifelong Communist father Ed Miliband does not believe in God. Whether he has departed in other significant ways from the faith of his cradle only time will tell. The Red Ed label, though, suggests that he may have remained closer to Ralph Miliband's beliefs than David, whose leadership ambitions were fatally undermined by his undiscarded Blairism. Psychologists may see this as anomalous: there's some evidence that first-borns tend to be more conventional in their thinking and less rebellious than younger siblings. In the Miliband household, conventional and less rebellious means hard left. Despite this, there was more than a whiff of primogeniture about David Miliband's former status; he was New Labour's firstborn son as much as Ralph's. Now he's abandoned the shadow cabinet, perhaps he will become the focus of sotto voce toasts to the Miliband over the water.

But back to God. When I Tweeted the story earlier today, Church Mouse responded by wondering if the fact that two out of three of our major party leaders are now avowed non-believers means that atheists are over-represented in British politics. I don't think so. Or if they are, they are probably less over-represented than are serious religious believers (as opposed to the apathetic majority, who tick "Christian" or whatever on the census form without much thought). And there are no reserved seats for secular humanists in the House of Lords.

In any case, Ed Miliband was at pains today to say nice things about faith and its contribution to public life. Nick Clegg's lack of personal belief has done nothing to dampen the Coalition's enthusiasm for co-opting faith groups into the Big Society (with Labour high-ups like Stephen Timms singing Hallelujah). The present government seems marginally less obsessed than its predecessor with consulting religious bigwigs (the disbanding of John Denham's panel of "interfaith advisers" is a clear indication) but Sayeeda Warsi was presumably not speaking out of turn when laid into "secular fundamentalists" on the eve of the Pope's visit. The bottom line - at least as it appears to politicians of all parties, whatever the reality on the ground - is that there are votes in championing religious belief, and few votes in rubbishing it.

This isn't the United States, however, where the beleaguered Barack Obama - once so ambiguous on the topic of religion that some hoped he was privately a non-believer - has now started talking of how he "felt God’s spirit beckoning me" when he "chose" to be a Christian. A presidential candidate would never speak openly of his lack of belief, as Ed Miliband did today. This isn't just a question of piety: in the US, atheism has long been suspect for its association with Soviet communism. Come to think of it, someone with Miliband's communist family background wouldn't stand much chance even if he claimed to be born again. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

William Hague, Eco-warrior

Ed Miliband's speech to the Labour conference was vacuous in content and deathly dull in delivery. But it's inevitably today's big news story. By contrast, EU Referendum points out the lack of attention being paid to a possibly far more important speech delivered yesterday by William Hague to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. In it Hague lays out that supreme importance the British government apparently attaches to tackling global warming, and comes up with a new phrase, "climate security", to describe the Godlike ambition of bending the planet's climatic system to the will of international politicians. From "climate security", all other securities - food security, energy security, political security, security - will naturally follow.

That large-scale climatic events - desertification, for example - have a major political impact is undeniable. Climate is one of the main motors of history. However, achieving "climate security", a state in which the climate doesn't change, or at least not enough to disrupt the global status quo, is impossible. To suggest that it is represents an expression of hubris so monumentally deranged we would be questioning his sanity were it not also now a commonplace of international affairs.

William Hague (who, aged sixteen, famously expressed the desire to "get government off people's backs") certainly displays the zeal of a convert. He also makes the interesting, if somewhat controversial, claim that "the fundamental purpose of foreign policy is to shift the political debate." Hague-watchers will be intrigued to learn how warmly he speaks of the EU's role in achieving "climate security". Almost as warmly as he speaks of Chris Huhne, the anti-nuclear Lib Dem Engergy secretary. Perhaps the most amusing section, though, describes how Her Britannic Majesty's diplomatic corps have been made over as a regiment of climate-change bores:

All British Ambassadors carry the argument for a global low carbon transition in their breast pocket or their handbag. Climate change is part of their daily vocabulary, alongside the traditional themes of foreign policy. They are supported by our unique network of climate attachés throughout the world.

If this is true, I imagine at diplomatic receptions our ambassadors increasingly find themselves alone in a corner, stuffing their faces with Ferrero Rocher. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 27 September 2010

James Delingpole, Global Cooling and the Global Elite

James Delingpole has made an exciting discovery. At its meeting in June, the Bilderberg Group - the high-powered talking shop that gives conspiracy theorists everywhere a special thrill, largely because they don't broadcast their discussions on YouTube - had a session on "Global Cooling".

Yep, that’s right. Global Cooling.

Which means one of two things.

Either it was a printing error.

Or the global elite is perfectly well aware that global cooling represents a far more serious and imminent threat to the world than global warming, but is so far unwilling to admit it except behind closed doors.

The appearance of this two-word phrase on the agenda is proof positive, cries JD, that They know global warming is a myth and a scam, and are trying to work out what to do when the it becomes impossible any longer to conceal the Awful Truth. It is, he thinks, "a bombshell waiting to explode". The public, shivering in the deep freeze of the coming Ice Age, will naturally be annoyed that decades of eco-taxes and rising fuel bills were for nought (indeed, may actually have made things worse). "All this, of course, spells big trouble for the global power elite."

The next few years are going to be very interesting. Watch the global power elite squirming to reposition itself as it slowly distances itself from Anthropogenic Global Warming (”Who? Us? No. We never thought of it as more than a quaint theory…”), and tries to find new ways of justifying green taxation and control. (Ocean acidification; biodiversity; et al). You’ll notice sly shifts in policy spin. In Britain, for example, Chris “Chicken Little” Huhne’s suicidal “dash for wind” will be re-invented as a vital step towards “energy security.” There will be less talk of “combatting climate change” and more talk of “mitigation”. You’ll hear enviro-Nazis like Obama’s Science Czar John Holdren avoid reference to “global warming” like the plague, preferring the more reliably vague phrase “global climate disruption.”

And you know what the worst thing is? If we allow them to, they’re going to get away with it.

Personally, I haven't been able to take the Bilderberg seriously as a shadow world government since I discovered it was set up by Denis Healey. At most, it's a networking opportunity. There's an argument for saying that democratically elected politicians shouldn't be hanging out behind closed doors with international financiers, of course, but the disappearance of the Bilderberg Group would not lead to the end of corporate lobbying. Delingpole is right that "they" usually "get away with it." That's not because of the Bilderberg Group, however. As Richard North notes, "the big problem is that this country is no longer a functional democracy, if it ever was". Neither is the United States, for that matter, and let's not even mention the EU. Such ruminations, however, have no bearing on the question of "Global Cooling", and what it was doing - it appears - on the Bilderberg agenda.

So what was going on? A couple of minor points. First of all, it's quite amusing to note that the ultra-secretive cabal of the string-pulling power elite otherwise known as the New World Order, the World Government, ZOG or - if you're David Icke - the Reptoid Illuminati Bloodline - has a website on which it publicises its agenda in advance. Some sophisticated double-bluff, presumably. Or a joke maybe. Maybe they announced the Global Cooling discussion just to see what sort of reaction it would get from the conspiracy nuts and Delingpoles of this world. Secondly, the story has been doing the rounds of the Conspiracy Web for a few months now (see a typically deranged discussion here). It's interesting to discover where he hangs out - though, to judge from the tone of pieces like this, not altogether surprising.

He certainly has a very high opinion of Bilderberg's influence and far-sightedness. "Whether you believe it’s part of a sinister conspiracy which will lead inexorably to one world government or whether you think it’s just an innocent high-level talking shop," he writes, "there’s one thing that can’t be denied: it knows which way the wind is blowing."

I wouldn't know; though any gathering of top people is likely to have some idea of what they the wind is blowing at any given moment. Healey told Jon Ronson that the Bilderbergers "make a point of getting along younger politicians who are obviously rising, to bring them together with financiers and industrialists who offer them wise words." In other words, Bilderberg tends to reinforce the conventional wisdom as seen from the boardrooms and the corridors of power at any given moment. So it is at least interesting that "global cooling" should find its way onto the agenda. But the mere fact that Bilderbergers devote a few hours to discussing the possibility of that the planet may have entered a cooling phase does not mean that it is going to happen. They don't have the power to alter the earth's climate. I doubt even David Icke would claim that.

Two obvious things: even if the current scientific consensus on global warming turns out to be false, the Bilderberg Group did not invent it. And the fact that some large corporations have been able to manipulate measures designed to tackle climate change to their own financial advantage does not, of itself, invalidate the science.

As it happens, the notion of global cooling was in the air earlier this year (literally as well as figuratively, of course, which may have had something to do with it). In January, the Mail carried an article suggesting that "eminent scientists" had predicted "the start of a worldwide trend towards colder weather that seriously challenges global warming theories." The report cited the work of Professor Mojib Latif, a member of the IPCC, whose analysis of deep ocean fluctuations hints at a twenty year "cold cycle". Such an effect, if true, would slow (or perhaps merely disguise) the effect of man-made global warming but is not incompatible with it. It would, however, present a PR problem for governments convinced that the long-term trend still points towards a dramatically warmer planet. In the face of demonstrably colder winters, they will increasingly not be believed. Delingpole is right about that.

This is interesting stuff. The implications of Global Cooling for politics and economics would be profound, even if it only lasted twenty years. In many ways it would be a good thing, of course, buying the planet a breathing space while the carbon age came to its inevitable end (not because of expensive, largely ineffectual measures being imposed to "tackle" global warming - wind-farms and the like - but because oil supplies are being used up). But it would also be destabilising, leading to ever-higher food prices and heating bills and, in some parts of the world, real distress. So of course members of the Bilderberg Group want to discuss the possibility. They would be pretty pisspoor Secret Rulers if they didn't.
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Friday, 24 September 2010

The uses of civilised disagreement

In the Telegraph, Peter Oborne puts his finger on the big difference between the Brown/Blair government and the new one:

Let's try a thought experiment and suppose that Vince Cable's off-message blast against City "spivs" had come from a minister during the Blair years – just imagine the panic, the vicious briefing, the character assassination, the bad language, the screaming telephone calls, the blackmail and threats, the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations.

It's true. Ironically, the fact of coalition, which could have produced even-tighter control of "message" - the media, after all, are more alive than ever to the possiblity of "splits" - has led to the opposite, a huge relaxation. A member of the government speaks his mind, or appears to, and Number 10 just shrugs. And the media, taking their cue from the top (this, I think, is the really important point) shrug themselves. How civilised and normal it all seems. How grown-up.

Politically, this relaxed atmosphere may have consequences far profounder than merely a temporary end to Westminster yah-booism. If ministers are given carte blanche to disagree, the implication must be that disagreements don't matter - they are free to say what they want because it doesn't make any difference. The government will not be blown off course; its policies will be implemented regardless, in a climate of merely apparent debate. Oddly, the latitude given to individual ministers underlines, rather than undermines, the inevitability of the complete package which (it is strongly suggested) is dictated by the demands of the international markets rather than the philosophical views of politicians.

If There Is No Alternative, after all, there's no harm in tolerating, even encouraging, dissent. Rather, such dissent underpins the legitimacy of the policies that are ultimately to be enacted. Its very existence is an anaesthetic necessary to prepare the body politic for major surgery. The public meanwhile, impressed by the unexpectedly rational and adult behaviour of their political leaders, may feel somewhat less inclined to question the basis of their decisions.

Oborne suggests that the coalition is playing the role of both Opposition and Government, leaving little role for Labour. To an extent. But much the same was said of the Labour government for at least its first decade - that the real debates were between Blair and Brown, not between Blair and whoever happened to be occupying the Conservative Party's rotating leadership. The difference, I think, is that while Labour struggled to maintain a united front everyone knew that it was riven at its heart, whereas the coalition's facade of pluralism and debate covers a paradoxical but (as yet) unassailable unity of purpose. That, too, fools no-one - though it surprises many, not least many on the Tory and Lib Dem benches. There is, and certainly soon will be, a role for Labour. The real question is whether the new leader, Mr Miliband I presume, will have the credibility to fulfil it, or whether he will be too tainted by still-fresh memories of Labour's record in office. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

This time, Sex education really has gone too far

Like the Daily Mail, the Heresiarch was shocked to learn of the proposed new GCSE sex exam, to be taken (or at least studied for) by pupils as young as eleven or twelve. I was even more shocked to see a leaked copy of an exam paper. It is indeed very shocking, an open inducement to our children to engage in underage sex. Its very existence is enough to put ideas into their innocent, sex-free heads, to turn unsullied, virginal little darlings into spotty, hormonally-driven animals swirling around in an orgy of lustfulness. And thanks to Harriet Harman (who is out of office, but her wicked influence lives on) all this is going to be forced on our children whether parents agree or not. Indeed, it is strongly rumoured that parents who do object to state-enforced sex-coaching will be put on a watchlist and made to attend parenting classes until they have been sufficiently re-educated about the need for full, explicit and above all "helpful" sex education.

I mean, just look at some of the questions:

1) How old were you when you lost your virginity? Describe the experience in no more than 200 words. Alternatively, if you are still a virgin, describe how you intend to set about remedying this deficiency (10 marks)

2) Name three different varieties of condom. Which is your favourite kind, and why? (5 marks)

3) Briefly describe the plot of a pornographic film you have seen. How effective was it, and why? What was your favourite scene? (5 marks)

4) Define and briefly describe the following sexual practices: felching, frottage, emetophilia (6 marks)

5) You and your partner are having sex when your parents or carers unexpectedly walk in. How would you persuade them you that were simply doing your homework? (Hint - include some of the standard coursework elements of GCSE Sex) (10 marks)

6) Below are diagrams representing the male and female genitals. On each, mark three places that are particularly good for oral stimulation. (6 marks)

7) How many times a day should a normal, healthy teenager masturbate? (2 marks)

8) You're embarking on a new career as a porn-star, erotic dancer or escort. What name would you choose for yourself, and why? (2 marks)

9) Outline some of the advantages of swinging over more conventional sexual relationships. (4 marks)

10) Sally is a prostitute. She charges £150 per hour for normal sex, £500 for an overnight, and £50 each for "extras" such as anal sex or watersports. Compose an effective advertisement for her on Craigslist. (8 marks)

Terrible, isn't it?

Please feel free to take the test. Marks will be awarded, and there may even be a prize. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 20 September 2010

Can the Lib Dems get out of bed with the Tories?

Evan Harris, memorably defeated in Oxford West by a god-bothering light soprano, writes in the Guardian that

Some say we will also be fighting the next election on a joint record of achievement with the Tories. We must reject that. Whatever the benefits of ministerial solidarity and collective responsibility for government stability... at the next election we must communicate clearly those coalition achievements that we supported and those we did not. It is essential to the voters' understanding of what the Lib Dems stand for.

Many Lib Dems, meeting this week in Liverpool, would like to agree. It doesn't work, though, if only because with the exception of a few small items set out in the coalition agreement, the Lib Dems will indeed have "supported" - in the sense of voted for (and what other sense is there?) everything the coalition government has done. Does Harris really expect Lib Dem MPs seeking re-election to tell their constituents, "we didn't really support X, Y and Z but we voted for them anyway"? Would that sound like principled politics? Of course, MPs don't always (don't often) allow their conscience to trump the party whip - but where the party leadership has applied the whip it would be complete nonsense for it to then disassociate itself from those very policies it brought into being.

But of course that is precisely what the party will have to do if it is to plausibly offer its voters the prospect of anything other than continued Lib-Dem/Conservative coalition. At the last election, Nick Clegg virtually promised to do a deal with whichever of the two larger parties won the most popular support. To his credit - though mathematically he had little option - he kept that promise. But it was in most respects (and whatever Paddy Ashdown said at the time) a no-brainer. Gordon Brown lost the election. For Clegg to have propped him up would have been, and would have appeared, a democratic outrage.

Such a simple position will be harder to sustain next time, because while technically the public will be faced with a choice between the usual three (leaving aside Ukip and the Greens, not to mention the BNP, because they don't really count, not really) in practice the next election, like previous ones, will be a referendum on the government, a choice between government and opposition. It may happen that Labour regain their position as the single largest party, with the Lib Dems, as usual, well down in third - but still, with the Tories, representing a majority of votes cast. Let's imagine, too, that the difference in seat numbers between the two main parties is narrower than after 2010, so that a deal between the Lib Dems and either of the others is mathematically plausible. The question then is surely: did the British people re-elect the government? And the answer is equally surely, yes.

A majority Lib Dem government, after all, will no more be on the cards at the next election than it was at the last. If (and I hope not) the AV referendum is carried, then it's a fair bet that transfers will predominantly be between the Lib Dems and the Tories. Labour voters may in some circumstances give their second preferences to the Lib Dems out of a desire to keep out a Tory. But it won't work in reverse, will it? Who is going to vote Lib Dem first and Labour second? Someone who doesn't like the government, presumably - and most such people will vote Labour in the first place. But with or without AV, it will be impossible for any voter to put out of their mind the fact that the Lib Dems have been a full member of a coalition government for the previous five years - a government in which they have, in fact, punched above their weight. Yet this is what Evan Harris seems to imagine:

Nick has rightly rejected electoral pacts with any other party at the next election. But we need to go further. We must rule out any pre-election preference for future working with any other party. We will have been in government with the Tories in this parliament and our ministers will feel varying degrees of comfort about it. But that means nothing in terms of future potential coalitions. In fact, we must make sure that we are in a position to "dock" with the Labour party if the parliamentary numbers work and there is relevant policy overlap – regardless of what a wounded Labour party is saying now.

Attempting to distance the party from the Conservatives in terms of their manifesto is one thing. Attempting to separate it from its own actions in government is quite another. It would look just dishonest. It would portray the Lib Dems as a collection of political opportunists with no principle other than being in power - just as it was once said of Palmerston that his only conviction about government was that he ought to be part of it. But most importantly, the voters won't buy it. Harris's proposal may seem logically coherent, and will certainly appeal to the semi-detached political mindset of many Lib Dem members, but it just isn't practical politics.

What is practical politics is far too early to tell. Everything will depend on whether the coalition continues to be reasonably popular, whether its policies are seen as successful, whether Labour sinks further into the doldrums or transforms itself rapidly into an effective opposition. In other words, everything will depend on who wins the election.

I suspect that the least likely outcome will be a hung Parliament with the Lib Dems free to enter into a coalition agreement with the largest party. Even if the mathematics allowed such a thing, the politics might not, with David Cameron seizing on the fact that, with a working majority and a majority of votes cast, the coalition had not been voted out. Only a situation leaving Labour a few seats short of majority, with the mood of the country obviously hostile to the coalition, would allow the Lib Dems the opportunity to extricate themselves from the Tory embrace. But in that case, it would scarcely be in Labour's interest to enter into a new coalition arrangement. The Lib Dems - much reduced in numbers, I suspect - would end up doing penance for their role in government by propping up a minority Labour administration, and getting precious little thanks in return.

But this is unlikely. Whichever voting system is in play will most probably produce a majority or near-majority government; neither David Cameron nor the new Labour leader will need the Liberal Democrats. A Conservative victory would raise an interesting possibility, however. Lib Dem ministers, having grown accustomed to office and having shared in the achievements of a re-elected government, may well be loath to be ejected from office by their partners. And if the Liberals find it difficult to stand on an anti-government manifesto, it will be still harder for the Conservatives to blame all the coalition's failures on the Lib Dems. Unless the Tory victory is overwhelming, then, and unless the Lib Dems had already abandoned the coalition well before the election, I would expect to see some sort of offer being extended to Lib Dems to keep the coalition going, in name at least - and the slow absorption of the Lib Dem right into the Conservative party. It has happened before, after all. And Nick Clegg does make a most convincing Tory.
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Sunday, 19 September 2010

Answering the Pope

With the BBC transforming itself, over the past few days, into the Benedict Broadcasting Corporation, dissenting voices have seemed as marginalised as Ratzinger has repeatedly claimed Christianity to be in modern Britain. I even heard one newsreader express astonishment at the numbers turning out to the Protest the Pope rally on Saturday. The visit is inevitably being hailed a tremendous success, even though to judge from the pictures of Cofton Park this morning - where the pontiff was beatifying John Henry Newman - there were plenty of empty seats. If the extent and reverence of the coverage is the criterion, though (and this papal visit, for all the mass masses and Popemobile processions, has primarily been a media event) it could hardly be accounted anything else.

Something of a paradox, this. For several years now, coverage of the Roman Catholic Church in the British media, including (and even primarily) the BBC, has been as dominated by the child-abuse scandal, gay adoption and condoms as any anti-pope protester could have wished for. Ratzinger might well have been expecting to be arriving in enemy territory (although, as said on the plane coming over, almost every country he visits in Europe likes to think of itself as the most irreligious and pope-unfriendly.) The forelock-tugging tendency at the BBC, though, always notable whenever there's a royal wedding or jubilee, was equally in evidence this week. The only consolation lies in the knowledge that once Benedict XVI is back in Rome normal hostilities will be resumed.

For now, though, it seems you have to turn elsewhere to get the other side of the story. You may not have heard, for example, that the estimated 10,000 protesters at Saturday's rally - widely dismissed as derisory compared with the pro-pope crowds - constituted the largest numbers ever brought together against Ratzinger on any of his foreign trips. Here's Richard Dawkins on Saturday with an eloquent riposte to the Pope's absurd linkage of atheism and the crimes of Nazi Germany and declaring Ratzinger "an enemy of humanity." After all those papal homilies, it's a breath of fresh air.

More pope-baiting speeches here.

That's Popeweek over. Next week, I will be mainly talking about Nick Clegg. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 16 September 2010

What is the pope for, exactly?

This is a guest post by Rev. James Rattue

‘Two potty little provinces of no importance’ was how Father Alfred Hope Patten, modern re-founder of the Anglican shrine at Walsingham, described the Church to which he had the honour to belong. He was never faced with the conflict of loyalties that might have been provoked by a Papal visit to Britain, but held no high opinion of his own denomination. Like many Anglo-Catholic clergy of yesteryear, Fr Patten solved ‘the problem of authority’ by doggedly ignoring anything that happened outside his own parish. The irony was, as for many others in his position, that his ecclesiastical eccentricities would never have been tolerated by the Roman observance in which, in theory, he would have felt more at home.

The Bishop of Rome may be having to trek to Edinburgh to meet the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, but despite this rather delicious near-snub there’s little for either denomination to envy in the other at the moment. The calamitous collapse in vocations to the Roman Catholic priesthood is matched by a slump in the proportion of the population which identifies itself as Anglican. Both Churches have experienced the same, slow, steady decline in observance over the same period.

In any case, I imagine weighing up the relative state and relations of Christian denominations is of very limited interest to the readers of Heresy Corner, and I admit it’s of decreasing interest to me, except when my sense of amour propre is wounded by Popish triumphalism (and I suspect the cause for the canonisation of Cardinal Newman, that most famous if troubled traverser of the Tiber, whose beatification forms the centrepiece of Papa Josef’s visit to Britain, is at least partly about wounding Anglican amour propre – the saints you favour say a lot about you, like my somewhat ultramontane colleague at theological college who was enamoured of Blessed Archduke Karl of Austria, I think because of the uniform and moustache).

I can no longer see a ‘true Church’ located anywhere, or at any time; if anything the Christian faith has been growing towards unity and truth, with numberless eddies and cross-currents, not fracturing from an original, and every modern ecclesial body is characterised by mess and ambiguity. Any idea that the Holy Spirit operates only within the boundaries of one denomination is something none of us believes any more (at least in theory). I rather envy the universality of the Roman Church, the fact that Catholic congregations are so eclectic and multiethnic, but that’s about it. Real spiritual depth and energy I find in diverse places: the writings of Reginald Somerset Ward, the journals of Pope John XXIII, or the epigrammatic utterances of the Desert Fathers. Authority and dogma are trumped by authenticity and relationship; I see the point of the first half of that equation being to foster the second half, not the other way around.

Which brings us to Il Papa himself. More than once people have asked me what Roman Catholics see in the Pope. I suppose I ought to ask some, but I imagine it has less to do with the man’s personal qualities, which after all differ wildly from pontiff to pontiff, than with his representative function, the charism of his office. He represents identity and continuity. In his person are united all the world’s Catholics, both now and across time; because they all have a relationship with him, they all have a relationship with one another. It’s that that they’re cheering. Of course this is relatively modern. In the Middle Ages believers throughout most of Europe didn’t love the Pope; he was a distant juridical authority. A medieval English Christian might love St Gregory, perhaps, Apostle of the English, who appeared in pictures of the Four Latin Doctors on the rood screen of the parish church, but she would know next to nothing about whichever Innocent or Boniface actually occupied the throne of St Peter at the time. Catholics first loved the Pope when they first had Protestants to hate, and that was when Protestants first hated him too. Even then they wouldn’t know what he looked like until the age of cheap printing, or sounded like until the 1900s.

This means that Catholic Christianity’s relationship with the Bishop of Rome is actually in flux, not because of who he happens to be at the moment, nor because of a ‘crisis in faith’ or the paedophile issue. Of course that doesn’t help; Damian Thompson recently posted a delightful article which virtually repeated in all seriousness Fr Ted Crilly’s great statement, ‘Say there’s two hundred million priests in the world, and five per cent of them are paedophiles, that’s still only ten million’, and everything that comes out of the Vatican leads one to conclude that, yes, that is the way they think, and it’s not the way most of the world thinks. But no, the relationship is changing because that old kind of unquestioning devotion is made impossible by the sheer levels of what we know about the famous.

Nobody can be a flawless icon of anything, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to be. A Presidential candidate captures the adulation of a nation, or a large part of it, for the course of an election campaign, and then reality bites; a gentle and retiring academic becomes Archbishop of Canterbury, and can’t please any of the parties who rejoiced at his elevation because their desires are incommensurable. Universal acclamation is only possible if you remain a silent figurehead, presiding impassively over the institution you represent. It helps if you have no past to be examined, too, but you simply must say nothing and do nothing if you’re going to avoid obloquy. Which is nonsense, because the hyperactive modern world rules out the option of silence and inactivity.

If relationship of that kind is increasingly impossible for religious leaders, this collapse might be the prelude to relationship of a more real and realistic kind. Modern communication technology facilitates this very thing. The next Pope should be a blogger and a Tweeter (or whatever form of interaction has taken over at that stage), not to impart nuggets of dogma from on high but to muse, relate, tell stories about himself and his interactions with real people. He should spend the rest of the time visiting the great diocese of which he has the charge of being supreme pastor, its churches, its prisons and hospitals, its institutions, listening to its people and clergy and their real lives and struggles.

I mentioned John XXIII earlier on. Many Catholic homes still have pictures of Pope John on their wall even though he died over fifty years ago, not because he called the Second Vatican Council, but because of his clear, obvious love for people which emerged through what he did and said. I think Pope Benedict is probably a good and pleasant man. If only he talked more about the things that he really likes – music, art, the delights of intellectual interaction – or dressing up – and people, one hopes – he might genuinely usher in something new. And given Jesus’s distinct reluctance to lecture or issue grand encyclicals, something very old as well.
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Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Andrew Brown, Richard Dawkins and "the most evil religion"

Just belatedly noticed this rather hysterical post by the Guardian's religion supremo Andrew Brown. Brown has some of the same problems I have with the Protest the Pope campaign and some of its more vitriolic comments, but his comparison of the likes of Terry Sanderson and AC Grayling with Stalinists sails as far over the top as any denunciation of Ratzinger. That something a little strange is at work is evident, I think, from this:

Richard Dawkins calls the Pope "the head of the world's second most evil religion". Presumably this means that he considers Islam the world's most evil religion.

I find this very revealing. Andrew Brown offers not a shred of evidence as to Dawkins' views on Islam, though he does go on to criticise the National Secular Society for nominating You Tube legend Pat Condell ("an exemplification of what is meant by Islamophobia") for one of their awards. Hmm. Pat Condell doesn't like Islam, certainly. And there's absolutely no reason why he, or anyone else, should, any more than anyone should be obliged to like Catholicism or the Pope.

Those who promote the concept of "Islamophobia" like to claim that it is bigotry and racism against Muslim people disguised as disagreement with Islamic doctrines. To my knowledge, Condell has never said anything inciteful or unpleasant against peaceful, law-abiding people who happen to be Muslims. His criticisms, however forcefully expressed, are aimed entirely against the violent, intolerant, homophobic and misogynist tendencies that are rampant within Islam today. If to say such is to be "Islamophobic", then Islam really is a special case, the only religion in the world that it is compulsory to like. This, of course, is what Islamist propagandists, whose true aim is to shut down criticism and even discussion of their beliefs, are really after.

As to Dawkins, he devoted very little time to Islam in The God Delusion or in his films for Channel 4. He has always been much more engaged with attacking both Catholicism and bone-headed American fundamentalists. Perhaps he thinks that Bible Belt creationists represent "the world's most evil religion." Perhaps, like fellow "New Atheist" Sam Harris, he thinks that Islam is worse. I don't know; I haven't asked him. Why does Andrew Brown leap so readily to the conclusion that Dawkins puts Islam at the head of his league-table of religious awfulness? Is it because, at some level, Andrew Brown himself thinks it is "the world's most evil religion"?

UPDATE: Twitter-user Morungos points me towards the probable source of the "most evil religion" chart - a blogpost on the Dawkins website by "Hitchens Jnr" listing his own personal top five evil religions. This list is indeed headed by Islam, followed by Catholicism, then Zionism (which isn't a religion) and Scientology, with Protestant fundamentalism bringing up the rear. A plausible list (though where are the Moonies?) - but not Dawkins', even if the professor may well have had it in mind when he spoke to New Humanist. And it still leaves the question as to why Andrew Brown should have made the assumption he did. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

My dangerous Dungeon

In the Dungeon, I've posted an image of a 200 year-old Japanese woodblock print that appears to fall foul of New Labour's 2009 Coroners and Justice Act. It depicts an everyday domestic scene that (as Elly points out in the comments) is perfectly legal in and of itself. But that's no defence. Even by viewing the post on a laptop you'd be breaking the law. You have been warned. Read the rest of this article

Pope calls time on Commons drinking

James Kirkup reports the extraordinary news that there will be no alcoholic beverages available in the Palace of Westminster on Friday afternoon. Apparently this unprecedented move ("I can’t remember anything preventing our elected representatives getting a drink when they wanted one" writes Kirkup) has something to do with the fact that His Heiliness is in town. He's planning to lecture a cross-section of British parliamentarians and other notables in Westminster Hall later that day about our collective moral failings. And to apologise once more about the sex abuse cover-up, no doubt.

But why? Kirkup asks

Now, I admit I’m no theologian, so I’m somewhat baffled by this. Does the Holy Father forbid drinking? Are Roman Catholics under orders to abstain from alcohol? These are genuine questions, and if anyone can offer answers, I’d be grateful.

The answer's no. Quite the opposite, in fact. Whatever its other failings the Roman Catholic Church has never been down on alcohol. Indeed, wine is a central feature of the religion's most important rite. It was a Benedictine, the legendary Dom Perignon, who is said to have invented champagne, while to this day the holy monks of Buckfast Abbey bear a heavy share of responsibility for Glasgow's social problems.

It's a puzzle. I'd have thought that MPs faced with the prospect of listening to Ratzo's sermon would be in need of a stiff drink. I suppose it's possible that the Commons authorities have confused Pope Benedict with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It's an easy mistake to make. But I suspect the decision is a purely practical one. They're obviously afraid someone will get roaring drunk and start heckling. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 13 September 2010

Pope in Britain to plug new cure for backache?

As Popeweek begins in Britain - a long build-up of complaints about the cost and resurrected (and new) scandals, to culminate at the weekend with what various pundits will agree to have been a "surprisingly successful" visit - the BBC website gives us the strange inside story of the beatification of John Henry Newman.

Newman's credentials for sainthood lie in his writings (of which the intellectual Ratzinger is said to be a fan) and the role he played in the restoration of English Catholicism in the mid 19th century. Without Newman, Rome's British contingent might have remained an unofficial network of Irish immigrants and the grand aristocratic descendents of seventeenth century refusniks. Newman helped turn it into a rival to the Church of England. He also provided intellectual ballast to the quintessential Catholic belief in the Pope's cosmic significance. His beatification ought to have been a straightforward matter of returning an old favour. Alas, under the bizarre Vatican procedure for canonisation there has to be a "miracle". So poor old Newman (or whatever remains of him - not much, apparently) was kept waiting for years until a "miracle" was discovered.

Jack Sullivan was in agony. Bedridden after complicated surgery on his spine, the pain was so intense he was unable to sleep and had trouble breathing.

An earlier scan had revealed the vertebrae in his lower back had turned inwards and were squeezing his spinal cord, severing the protective layer around the spine. His doctor said the case was one of the worst he had ever seen and that he was lucky not to have been paralysed.

Nearly a decade later, on Sunday the 71-year-old will walk pain-free to preach the Gospel at the Mass to beatify 19th Century Cardinal John Henry Newman.

That's right. Newman is being beatified this week, not for his life and achievements, but because someone's bad back got better and he believes that Newman deserves the credit. A Vatican panel of medical experts spent eight years weighing up the evidence - obviously, it was a close run thing - before accepting that Sullivan's back-pain was "miraculously" healed, and all thanks to the shade of John Henry Newman. How convenient. Now obviously, I'm thrilled that Sullivan feels well enough to walk up to a lectern unaided (though "will walk pain-free" strikes me as tempting fate somewhat); but equally obviously, his improvement has nothing whatever to do with the intervention of Newman.

So what gave him the idea that it had?

Doctors warned he would have to quit his religious studies to undergo surgery, and the former court official returned home dejected, flicking through television channels until he came upon a programme about Cardinal Newman.

It ended with an appeal for anyone who had received a "divine favour" after praying to Cardinal Newman to get in touch.

"I certainly needed a divine favour at that moment so I prayed: 'Please Cardinal Newman help me to walk so that I can return to classes and be ordained'," said Mr Sullivan. When he woke the next morning, the pain had gone...

The Newman effect was unfortunately shortlived, however. Sullivan still needed an operation, which was duly performed nine months later, leaving him in "excruciating pain". Until he asked Newman to fix it, whereupon he instantly felt "a strong tingling sensation" and "an indescribable sense of joy and peace". Are you thinking "placebo" here? I know I am. As for his remaining pain-free nine years later - well, heretical thought I know, but just maybe that operation worked. The report quotes Michael Powell, a consultant neurosurgeon at London's University College Hospital, said a procedure like Sullivan's typically took "about 40 minutes, and most patients... walk out happy at two days".

Is this the best the Vatican can come up with? To convince a sceptic of the reality of miracles, of course, it would take a truly impossible event, like someone's amputated leg spontaneously regenerating. But most beatification committees manage to find something superficially impressive like a sudden recovery from inoperable cancer after all the radiotherapy has failed - though such events are far from unknown to science without any suggestion of divine intervention. But relief of back-pain is surely scraping the barrel, even by usual saint-making standards.

Compared with the news from Belgium - and almost everywhere else, indeed - the authenticity of a claimed miracle is a fairly minor matter. I'm not so sure. An organisation that can set up committees of inquiry lasting eight years into an elderly man's back-pain, all the while repeatedly failing to take the necessary action to root out paedophiles in its midst (or even now fully to co-operate with the civil authorities) has, at best, a strange sense of priorities. Clearly, the Vatican is capable of carrying out thorough investigation if it considers the subject matter sufficiently important - in this case, whether some guy's back-pain was alleviated by a Victorian prelate. Although even here the result is a convenient fudge.

On the other hand, perhaps Newman is being lined up to be patron saint of chiropractors one day. After the year they've had, they certainly need a miracle. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Just another Koran burning.

To anyone this side of the Atlantic, the name Terry Jones summons up, not a weirdly mustachioed Bible-thumper but rather the rudest and most lovable of the Monty Python team. There's an irony here, of course, since the Pythons' greatest production - the one in which Jones delivered the immortal line, "He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy" - was seen in its day as almost as provocative as the oddly-named Dove World Outreach Center and its absurdly over-hyped Koran-burning. True, Life of Brian did not lead to actual violence. But it was seen by many Christians at the time as recklessly provocative, mean-spirited and blasphemous. Many generally liberal-minded people demanded it be banned or withdrawn. Today, few people can understand what all the fuss was about.

The way these incidents catch on is oddly random. The Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed - the reaction to which presumably provides the template for what American politicians, church leaders and others fear will happen if Jones sets light to the Word of Allah - were published months before the riots happened. And here's something that has been completely missed, so far as I can see, in the blanket and increasingly hysterical coverage of Paster Jones's stunt. Two years ago an even loonier pastor, Fred Phelps of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, laid on his own Koran-burning event. No-one noticed.

Miffed, perhaps, that their thunder has been stolen by this upstart, the Westies have posted an old video of a burning Koran on the front page of their website, preceeded by a typical rant by Phelps, who denounces Mohammed as a charlatan and American commanders in Afghanistan for apologising after an allegation surfaced that copies of the Muslim holy book had been used for target practice. Another Koran-burning is planned for Saturday's "Burn a Koran Day", maybe in solidarity, maybe in a spirit of competitive bigotry. In any case, regardless of whether or not Jones carries out his threat I've no doubt Phelps will.

Someone else anxious to jump on the bandwagon is our very own Stephen Green of Christian Voice. He would "never burn a Koran", he proclaims tonight, "more out of respect for the feelings of others than out of fear." Right. Nevertheless he hails Jones as "obviously a man of courage and sometimes extreme things have to be done", before quoting the usual Koranic injunctions to fight unbelievers. Green is almost as bigoted as Jones and Phelps. Yet even he manages to make something approaching a valid point:

And us Christians should hang our heads in shame that for all this trouble and fear about the burning of the Koran, hardly a breath of protest was heard about the burning to death of a Pakistani Christian in March, whose wife who witnessed his death was then gang-raped by three policemen. The Italian Foreign Ministry summoned the Pakistani envoy, but why were we not all outside the nearest Pakistani Embassy or High Commission?

Compared with, say, the savage punishment of stoning facing Sakineh Ashtiani in Iran (and many others whose cases have attracted less international attention) or the worldwide scandal of "honour killings" - often in the name of religion and culture - exposed by Robert Fisk this week in the Independent, torching a book seems like a very small thing. But let's not single out the Muslim world. In the US, those of a similar theological bent to Pastor Jones have burned down abortion clinics and murdered doctors. Why not burn a Koran? It's only paper, after all, paper and ink.

There is an argument that the Koran merits a degree of consideration not afforded to other texts, not even to the Bible. A Roman Catholic woman on Newsnight yesterday suggested that a similar level of insult might be caused to members of her faith only were someone to destroy a consecrated wafer. PZ Myers did precisely that a couple of years ago, to the great upset of many Catholics, some of whom nevertheless made a point of loudly turning the other cheek. A few sent Myers death threats, but he's still here. One outraged Catholic challenged him "if you REALLY want to do a courageous, revolutionary act, [to] defecate publicly on a copy of the Quran." He didn't go quite that far, but he did nail the Body of Christ to a few torn-out pages from the Muslim scripture, emptied the contents of a garbage bin on the ensemble, and posted a photo on his blog. Did Muslims worldwide protest? Not that I've been able to discover.

It's true that book-burners, from the Emperor Ch'in Shi Huang Ti to the Nazis, have had a bad rap. We remember the quote from Cleopatra, spoken in contemplation of the (accidental) burning of the library of Alexandria: "Not you, not any other barbarian has the right to destroy a single human thought." And we also remember, perhaps, the remark attributed to the Caliph who ordered the burning of the same library, on the grounds that texts that disagreed with the Koran were blasphemous, while any that agreed with the Koran were superfluous. While that view has never been remotely mainstream in Islam it has its partisans among the hotter Muslim radicals today - the same hotheads whose reaction everyone from Obama to the Pope to Sarah Palin fears today.

Historically, though, the purpose of book-burning was to not merely to demonstrate disapproval or provocation. The idea was to destroy the book. Even in the early days of printing, officially sanctioned books were rare and expensive enough to be obliterated by a thoroughgoing campaign of censorship, even if the bonfire - traditionally in England (yes, this country had its book-burnings too) conducted by the public executioner - was largely symbolic. Books were burned, and pulped - as they still are, by order of the courts, if discovered to contain a libel - and disappeared. Not all the bonfires in all of America could remove the Koran from the world. Burning it will be a gesture, one of impotent defiance rather than of strength, born of the fears and frustrations of a section of American opinion rather than of imperialist arrogance.

For the sake not only of the American tradition of free speech, but of Islam itself, I hope it goes ahead. The fears of violent reaction are almost certainly overblown, as were the fears of violent reaction to Geert Wilders' film Fitna - which, too, was going to start World War III until people saw it and yawned.

It was General Petraeus who asserted that the book-burning would lead to more casualties in Afghanistan, not any Taliban warlord. (And, after all, the Taliban hardly need this provocation to encourage them to attack Americans, do they?) It was Barack Obama, not Osama Bin Laden (or whoever speaks for him these days) who claimed that it would be a "recruiting bonanza" for Al Qaeda. What we've seen over the past few days has been rampant Islamophobia - as in literal fear of Islam - among prominent liberals. It is their apocalyptic visions, rather than any grassroots revulsion in the Muslim world (which has seen, at best, a few half-hearted protests) that has made of this the latest flash-point in the clash of civilisations.

No wonder Pastor Jones, surveying the massed OB vans of the world's media camped outside his run-down church in a hitherto little-known town in Florida, can scarcely believe his luck. No wonder Fred Phelps is jealous.

UPDATE: When the news broke last night (after this post was put up)that the Gainesville Koran-burning was "on hold", the Westboro Baptists wasted little time putting out a new press release, denouncing Terry Jones as a "false prophet" who had "caved". They promise to burn both the Koran and the flag of "doomed" America on Saturday. But will anyone be there to watch?
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Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Ten Reasons to love the Pope

The Pope is said to be looking forward to a "joyful" visit to Britain next week. It's not clear who else is. The organisers seem to be terrified it will be a flop, even while doing their best to discourage the crowds. Even Damian Thompson is filled with foreboding, perhaps because his liberal enemies are responsible for the arrangements, while surveys suggest that grassroots Catholics are oddly indifferent to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a close-up look at their boss. Only the Protest the Pope crowd would seem to be truly looking forward to the occasion. And the Guardian and BBC, of course, who will relish the opportunity to big up the protestors.

Well the Heresiarch will not be joining in the frenzy of pope-baiting. As Brendan O'Neill astutely points out, "the great irony of this allegedly rationalist protest against the pope is that it is indulging in precisely the kind of demonology that the Catholic Church once excelled at." So what if millions of pounds of our tax-money are being spent entertaining and protecting him? He's only the spiritual figurehead of a billion people, after all. So what if he has old-fashioned views on sex and the role of women in his church? He's in his eighties and by most accounts doesn't have that much experience of the opposite sex.

So what if he has been slow to appreciate the seriousness of the child abuse scandals? As Ann Widdecombe notes, in the 1970s practically everyone was touching up children. And as she also says, the only reason the Catholic church gets a bad press is that it is too filled with Christian humility to resort to the kind of PR tactics that would get any other organisation the great headlines it deserves. (But then, if the Catholic Church was PR-savvy they wouldn't have elected Ratzinger in the first place, so it's not quite clear what she's trying to say.)

So welcome the Pope, say I. Lay out the bunting. Cheer for the man in white. Stop being such party-poopers. Let's hear it for Joseph Alois Ratzinger, Pontifex Maximus and Vicar of Christ. I mean, he's got to be more fun than Peter Tatchell. To get you started, here are ten reasons to love the pope. But I'm sure you can think of many more.

1. Julie Burchill hates him. So does Claire Rayner, who recently commented that "in all my years as a campaigner I have never felt such animus against any individual as I do against this creature." Silly woman. That pompous ass Geoffrey Robertson QC has written an entire book about how much he wants to arrest him. And did I mention Peter Tatchell? Anyone who manages to collect such an impressive roll-call of humourless, self-important and tedious enemies must be doing something right.

2. His shoes. Got to love those ruby slippers. They even have their own Facebook page. None of your Prada rubbish, either, as was once inaccurately reported: these are unique, handmade pumps created by a leading traditional craftsman, for His feet only.

3. His intellectual brilliance. John Paul II was a crowd-pleasing figurehead who spoke (and indeed wrote) in platitudinous soundbites, which may explain why he was so popular. I once picked up a copy of his bestseller, Crossing the Threshold of Hope. It might as well have been written by Poulo Coelho, frankly. Benedict XVI writes proper books. There's no doubt he's the brains of the organisation. His refusal to dumb down, to compromise his message to make it more palatable to the shallow and fashion-obsessed mass media has been his undoing on more than one occasion, but it gets my respect.

4. His clarity. You know where you are with the pope. You can disagree with him if you like, condemn him as an obscurantist reactionary, but at least you know what he thinks. What a contrast with our own Rowan Williams, who may well be very clever but whose thoughtscape is so profoundly complex that it can often seem that even he doesn't quite understand what he's saying.

5. His age. Well into his eighties now, he continues to travel the world, make speeches, write learned commentaries and encyclicals and otherwise keep up a hectic schedule. It's typical of the youth-obsessed culture of today's world that his venerable years are held against him. Surely we should be celebrating the fact that someone well past the usual age of retirement can still make such a huge contribution. In an era of demographic stretch and shrinking pensions, he is an example to us all.

6. The antiquity of his office. Is there not something heart-stoppingly romantic in the very name of Pope, and all its immemorial glories? Macaulay caught it well in 1840:

No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the pope who crowned Pepin in the eigth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains...

7. His name. Ratzinger, that is. One cannot get two excited by the ponderous appellation Benedict XVI, but Ratzinger is a name worthy of Ian Fleming at his most baroque, a name that fits perfectly his sallow complexion and slightly sinister lisp. I can almost hear Shirley Bassey. "Ratfinger, he's the man, the man with the cross of gold... and he's so old!"

8. His preference for traditional forms of worship. I even learn that he is to insist on saying mass in Latin during his visit to Britain, despite trendy attempts to strong-arm him into using the vernacular.

9. His moral courage. Not for Ratzinger the easy way out, telling people what they want to hear so as to gain cheap popularity. Instead he witnesses to the tradition that has been entrusted to him. If it offends members of other religions or other churches, feminists, the gay rights lobby or the Guardian that is no reason to tone down his message. He would be betraying not just his faith but his integrity if he trimmed to the times as some other religious leaders have done. Instead he stands firm. Unless there's a really big row, of course, as there was when he was rude about Islam. That same fearlessness now carries him to the geopolitcal epicentre of the culture of death. Tony Blair, by contrast, won't even turn up to his own book launch, so scared is he by the prospect of a few unfriendly placards.

10. His linguistic flexibility. Even if you don't like what he's saying, you've got to admire his ability to say it fluently in half-a-dozen different languages. "That woman speaks eighteen languages, and can't say No in any of them," quipped Dorothy Parker once. Well, Joseph Ratzinger speaks eighteen languages, and can't say Sorry in any of them.
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Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Things that really matter

Around about a year ago, I drew fire from some feminist websites for complaining that high-profile feminist individuals and groups seemed to get far more excited by strip clubs or airbrushing in adverts than by the gross abuses of female human rights in places such as Afghanistan. I had written,

Western feminism is too bogged down in its own limitless self-regard... to care about anyone else. Least of all the millions of subjected women living in conditions they cannot begin to understand...

In a follow up, I modified the position slightly:

I wouldn't deny that for some feminists the suffering of the women of Afghanistan is an important issue. It's not that feminists never talk about these issues. It's just that I seriously wonder why they ever talk about anything else.

I was roundly accused of not understanding feminism, ignoring the work of those feminists who did manage to look beyond their own immediate narcissism and, not least, of engaging in classic "whataboutery". I Blame the Patriarchy thought I was "One of those asshole dudes who believes that his important dudeliness qualifies him to lecture the feminists on the nature of feminism." Honestly, I was thrilled.

Now here's Bidisha, a woman blessed with a mystical ability to sniff out covert misogyny in the way some people once claimed to be able to detect witches, writing in the Guardian just the other day about the "pyramid of sexist language":

At the base of the Pyramid is Just Plain Sexist. This is your daily, standard, bread-and-butter misogyny. It includes commenting on a woman's appearance, calling her a girl, a babe, a sweetie or lightly saying she's bossy or flighty. The point of the pyramid, so to speak, is not to have every word filed in its rightful place. We are not 1950s librarians. All the terms are terms of hatred, originally invented (sometimes centuries ago) by men, now used by both sexes.

Bidisha even thinks it's evidence of misogyny if any man dares to say anything complimentary about her:

Even seemingly nice words are often used against us, delivered with sizzling spite and patent enjoyment of the victim's discomfort. The hisses of "That's good, keep doing that" and "That's nice" whenever I go jogging. The homeless guy who said to a friend, "Got a light? No? Well, you're looking quite smoking to me, babe." One afternoon at a road crossing in Covent Garden a man turned around and began harassing the woman next to me: "Hello! How are you, darling? You are so pretty. You look like a supermodel. Where are you going?" She didn't reply, he didn't stop. All these arseholes would say they were "only" complimenting their victims.

Yes, some men are arseholes. So are some women. But if that is misogyny, what is this?

In August of 2008, five women were buried alive for "honour crimes" in Baluchistan by armed tribesmen; three of them – Hameeda, Raheema and Fauzia – were teenagers who, after being beaten and shot, were thrown still alive into a ditch where they were covered with stones and earth. When the two older women, aged 45 and 38, protested, they suffered the same fate. The three younger women had tried to choose their own husbands. In the Pakistani parliament, the MP Israrullah Zehri referred to the murders as part of a "centuries-old tradition" which he would "continue to defend".

That paragraph comes from a gut-wrenching, almost unreadable report by Robert Fisk in today's Independent about the worldwide epidemic of "honour killing". That euphemism, of course, does little justice to the cold-blooded murder, usually of women by their own fathers, brothers, husbands or in-laws, for "crimes" such as falling in love, not being "appropriately" dressed, engaging in conversation with an unrelated male, running away from an abusive marriage, or even for being the victim of rape. Murders sanctioned, even mandated, by custom and religion, murders whose perpetrators have positions of respect in their communities, who think of themselves as men of honour, and who in many countries are treated leniently by the police and the courts - if, indeed, they are even arrested.

Fisk produces a horrific litany of such cases, which may run into the thousands every year. For example:

Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow, 13, who in Somalia in 2008, in front of a thousand people, was dragged to a hole in the ground – all the while screaming, "I'm not going – don't kill me" – then buried up to her neck and stoned by 50 men for adultery? After 10 minutes, she was dug up, found to be still alive and put back in the hole for further stoning. Her crime? She had been raped by three men and, fatally, her family decided to report the facts to the Al-Shabab militia that runs Kismayo. Or the Al-Shabab Islamic "judge" in the same country who announced the 2009 stoning to death of a woman – the second of its kind the same year – for having an affair? Her boyfriend received a mere 100 lashes.

Or the young woman found in a drainage ditch near Daharki in Pakistan, "honour" killed by her family as she gave birth to her second child, her nose, ears and lips chopped off before being axed to death, her first infant lying dead among her clothes, her newborn's torso still in her womb, its head already emerging from her body? She was badly decomposed; the local police were asked to bury her. Women carried the three to a grave, but a Muslim cleric refused to say prayers for her because it was "irreligious" to participate in the namaz-e-janaza prayers for "a cursed woman and her illegitimate children".

Read it all, if your stomach is strong enough.

This is the sort of thing that happens in a society that truly hates women - or, to be more accurate, does not regard women as in a proper sense human beings at all, but rather a type ofproperty, important for transmitting. The culture celebrated by James Fergusson, author of a sympathetic book about the Taliban, who wrote recently that

The strict sexual propriety the Taliban insist upon is rooted in ancient Pashtun tribal custom, the over-riding purpose of which is to protect the integrity of the tribe, and nothing threatens the gene pool like extramarital relations. "The Pashtun must breed well if he is to breed fighters," wrote the poet Ghani Khan in 1947. "The potential mother of the man of tomorrow is the greatest treasure of the tribe and is guarded jealously... death to those who dare to risk the health of the tribe. It is treachery and sabotage which you also punish with death." The system, as Ghani Khan acknowledges, is "hard and brutal", but it works.

"It works", perhaps, in a social Darwinian sense where all that matters is "the integrity" of the tribe's gene-pool, even if the resultant society is psychotic.

Of course, "honour killing" happens in Britain and other western countries too - it almost happened a few weeks ago to an actress from the Harry Potter films. But when it does, it is in not an expression of British culture. "Honour killing" does not exist on the same misogynist continuum as sexually presumptuous language. It is not the flip-side of an "objectification" that rewards young women who where tight-fitting t-shirts or sleep with footballers. If anything, it has more in common with the finger-wagging feminism that wants women to be "equal" but not free, and that increasingly lines up alongside religious fanatics and cultural paleo-conservatives to denounce the depravity of modern life.

In a way, it's tragic that someone with Bidisha's prominence and media platform as a representative of modern feminism should waste so much of her time and energy on navel gazing, when so many women in the world are genuinely oppressed. My point is slightly different. Bidisha's main complaint seems to be that women are marginalised and denigrated in a thousand small ways. But is not her relentess, mind-numbing focus on trivialities a symptom of that very relegation of women's issues to the margins of public debate? Is Bidisha herself a misogynist?
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Monday, 6 September 2010

Stephen Hawking and God

The two main stories I missed during my week off (excluding the ridiculous Hague saga and the Pakistan cricket scandal, not to mention the return of the News of the World phonetapping business - I certainly picked a lively week to be away from the keyboar) involved Tony Blair and God. In both cases, there was a book being plugged: one by the Dear Ex-Leader himself, another by a scientist best known for his mechanically rendered voice. In both cases, too, entirely expected nuggets of information were treated as if they were startling revelations.

Tony Blair didn't get on all that well with Gordon Brown, likes to take the credit for other people's achievements and remains deeply convinced that he is Right about Absolutely Everything, ever - that's Tony for you. As for Stephen Hawking - his famous soundbite about "knowing the mind of God" was never intended as an expression of theistic belief, so his claim that a super-theory of everything (such as his current favourite, "M theory")would eliminate the need for a divine Creator isn't just nothing new, it's entirely tautological. Coming up with theories that explain the world without resorting to the supernatural - which includes God, obviously - is almost the definition of science. A theory that only worked if you factored in an entirely arbitrary role for a Supreme Being, who just "is", would be an incomplete theory. Eliminating the need for God - as Darwin did with natural selection, as cosmologists try to do with their ideas about the origins of th universe - isn't even an anti-religous stance. Only "creation scientists" and other jokers actually look for evidence of a Designer (or, indeed, for evidence against one) while doing "science". Science is agnostic. Scientists are quite often believers, after all.

Richard Dawkins denying the existence of God is not news, obviously. Stephen Hawking appearing to do so (even while promoting a speculative hypothesis which may, but probably won't, herald the big breakthrough) was, however, huge. But why should it matter that a reasonably respected physicist, one whose creative years were forty years ago and, even then, not a Nobel laureate, is late in life excited by someone else's brainchild? Hawking now has the public status once accorded to Albert Einstein, but enjoyed by no other physicist, not even Richard Feynman. His unavoidably gnomic pronouncements are automatically imagined profound, such that an unsurprising comment in a forthcoming book (which may well prove as difficult to the general reader as A Brief History of Time, but will no doubt sell) sparks a major debate about Science and Religion.

Presumably it's the wheelchair and the voice. Without his disabling condition, Hawking might have more genuine scientific achievements to his name, but he would probably not have become world-famous or a bestselling author. As it is, he has acquired an heroic status, as though surviving for decades with a degenerative disease that normally kills within a few years, or simply being profoundly disabled, somehow made him a more complete scientist and oracle. It is not as a scientist, indeed, that he seems to speak, but as Science itself. His wheelchair functions as a kind of papal throne, while his artificial voice, forcing him to employ slow and concise phrases, cannot converse, only pronounce. There's no arguing with Hawking because it is literally impossible to do so. Instead his sentences, like the utterances of a Zen master, are objects of contemplation.

Hawking is a wholly benign figure, yet he takes his place in an ambiguous tradition of wheelchair-bound scientists among whom one must mention Dr Strangelove, Professor Xavier of the X-men and Davros, evil creator of the Daleks. In all these cases, anxieties about science are expressed in the semi-mechanical (and thus not fully human) body of the scientist. The over-developed brain of the genius has its counterpart in his deficient body, just as science is often accused of privileging "cold" logic and reason over warmer, more human and harder to pin-down emotions or beliefs. At the same time, it is the triumph of science to gain understanding and control over the world through reason alone. Hawking's physical predicament renders him something very close to a disembodied mind, capable only of thought and articulation, and thus in a sense the semiotically perfect scientist.

Hawking's status, though, is only made possible because of how science has, unwillingly and inappropriately, taken on some of the trappings of religion.

Science isn't really a religion, of course. The thing itself is based on evidence, not faith, after all. That, though, only applies to the scientists. Everyone else has to take their work, and their words, on trust. Belief in science as an enterprise may have a rational basis, but when it comes to particular scientific facts only the prestige of science, or of particular scientists, carries weight. We believe that they must have good evidence for what they are claiming, because we're sure that other scientists would refute them if they didn't. But in truth it's a faith position. Thoughtful and conscientious people used to believe, for very similar reasons, that theologians knew what they were talking about when they all agreed that the world was created six thousand years ago.

Nowadays, religious leaders protest that while science can tell us the "how" of things, only religion can tell us the "why". That may of course be true, if only because there is no "why" - at least, not an ultimate, cosmic "why", as opposed to the whys that emerge naturally in human life. But it was't so long ago that people looked to religion to supply the "how", as fundamentalist believers still do. Now it's the other way around - hence the increasing appeals to science in matters of public or even private morality. Science merely describes the world, but by doing so it fuels a public need to do more, to answer those old questions that religion always saw as particularly its province. Religion, meanwhile, having failed to provide an accurate picture of the universe, has a credibility problem. Giving ultimate answers is after all supposed to be its job.

Science has a problem too, though, because it is fundamentally ill-equipped to do what people deep down yearn for it to do, which is to provide guidance and truth in the way religion has traditionally done. It is too argumentative; it changes; its answers are always tentative. Hence the appeal of the mirage of an ultimate theory - and mirage it is, because if M theory, or some other, were proved to give an adequate explanation of the structure of the universe it would merely open up new and unanticipated lines of enquiry. That, after all, is what all previous "ultimate" theories have done. Hence, too, the odd phenomenon of scientist as prophet, a role now occupied by Stephen Hawking. The attention paid to his views on the role of God in creation (or lack thereof) has little to do with actual science, and much more to do with desire for ultimate authority. It is in the end a religious impulse, not a scientific one, that leads people to pay attention to Stephen Hawking and to buy his books.
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