Friday, 28 October 2011

Popes I have known, by John Julius Norwich

Last night, noted historian John Julius Norwich gave a talk based on his book History of the Popes at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. Here's a rough and (only slightly) inaccurate transcript.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. So what am I supposed to be talking about today? Popes, I think. I'm told I've written a book about them. So I have, it's here on the table, and what an utterly splendid book it is, if I may say so myself. You must buy a copy. I'm sorry to say I've forgotten most of what's in it. It was all so long ago. But then I'm deaf as a post anyway so it doesn't really matter.

I only wrote this book because my daughter told me that it would be a terrific wheeze, and so it was. Hilarious. I don't think I've ever had quite so much FUN in my entire life! The only problem was that were so many of them and they all had such similar names. Twenty-three Johns, would you believe? How confusing! So, yes, there were two or three hundred of the blighters. No-one knows quite how many there were and I've certainly forgotten. I am eighty-two, remember. But they're all here in the book.

The thing to remember is that most of them were quite useless, not really Pope material at all, I'm afraid to say. One does wonder how the Roman Catholic Church has survived so long with such a long procession of nincompoops at the helm, as it were. But it has, somehow, and I'm pretty sure it'll see me out, and most of you people here too, which is quite extraordinary, isn't it, when you come to think about it?

Saint Peter was the first pope, so they say, although of course he wasn't. How could he have been? Why on earth would a simple Galilean fisherman want to go to Rome anyway? Saint Paul, yes, he was a man of the world, he could have held his own at one of my mother's dinner parties, but Saint Peter wouldn't have known which knife to use, so he couldn't possibly have been Pope, I'm fairly sure of that.

It's just a legend. So is Pope Joan. I gave her a long chapter in my book even though she didn't actually exist because it's such a good story. She was an English gal, and really terribly bright, and managed things terribly well for years. But she did insist on giving birth in St Peter's during high mass, which rather gave the game away. So that was the end of her. John XII was quite fun. He became pope at the age of twelve and immediately started having sex with every woman in Rome. His mother, incidentally, was the most notorious prostitute in the city, which doesn't sound too good but on the positive side she did give the most delightful dinner parties.

Nicholas V, he was my favourite. Absolute darling, and did you know he single-handedly invented the Renaissance? Without his support Gutenberg's printing press would never have taken off, I'm quite sure about that. And let's not forget Alexander VI, il Borgia. People say he was a dreadful man, and I suppose he did have an unfortunate habit of killing anyone who got in his way, but you know I've always had a soft spot for old Rodrigo. He was witty, highly intelligent, well-read, shrewd, wonderful sense of humour, great raconteur. And of course he did know how to charm the ladies. He would have been delightful company at one of my mother's dinner parties. I'm afraid he would probably have poisoned the other guests, which might well have dampened the mood very slightly, but then nobody's perfect, not even a pope. He wasn't at all religious, of course, and his son was appalling. Even more fond of poisoning people than his father was. Still, popes weren't meant to be religious in those days. The Renaissance was all about fun, wasn't it? And of course he did invent Brazil, so he couldn't have been all bad.

I'm afraid time is short so we'll have to miss out a few centuries. But you get the picture.

Pius XII, I'm sorry to report, was entirely not a darling. He was a frightful bore, not at all the sort of person my mother would have had to supper. When he was in Germany before the war, do you know he insisted on having his own train and his own food, just like Hitler? He spoke fluent German, too. And of course he was a thoroughgoing Nazi. Beastly about the Jews. Beastly. He didn't lift a finger to stop the Holocaust. He was probably in on it, you know, though that's just me sticking my neck out. I've had lots of angry letters from people who tell me he was a good sort, really, but I don't believe a word of it. Odious little man.

Who's next? Ah yes, John XXIII. Darling man, absolute sweetie. I knew him a bit from when my father was Ambassador in Rome. I'm reliably informed that he was the fattest man in the world - John XXIII, that is, not my father. I've never seen anyone eat quite so much food. He was always coming round for supper. My mother used to get him drunk and make him dance on the table and sing obscene Italian songs about I'm not sure what, prostitutes probably. What a hoot. But yes, absolute darling. It was a bit silly of him to ban Latin, though. He didn't seem to realise that with cheap air travel everyone would be jetting off round the world just to go to mass; and you'll be halfway up darkest Peru and pop into church one Sunday morning and won't have a clue what's going on. Which is just so inconvenient. It does make you wonder somewhat about the doctrine of papal infallibility, a decision like that.

Paul VI was a darling too, naturally, apart from the birth control business, but completely out of his depth, poor love. Anyway, he doesn't matter very much. But his successor, John Paul I - the one who only lasted a month, if you remember - what a poppet! Simple man, barely literate in fact, probably wouldn't have "done well" at one of my mother's parties, but he had the sweetest smile. I knew him in Venice. Whenever I patched up a church he would insist on coming round to bless it, which was awfully sweet of him, even though he couldn't speak a word of English. Of course he was murdered. He was about to lift the lid on corruption in the Vatican, so they bumped him off. I read a book about it once and I must say I was totally convinced. So I'm pretty sure he was killed. What a terrible missed opportunity. Had he lived, he would have got rid of the rules on birth control, and allowed married priests, and gays and women too, I'm quite sure of it, in fact he told me so himself.

John Paul II wasn't particularly noteworthy, a darling but then they all were (apart from Pius XII, of course, and some would add Borgia). The only interesting thing about him was his obsession with making saints, hundreds and hundreds of saints. How utterly idiotic. Where did he find them all, I wonder? Did he just go through the telephone directory ticking off names? He might well have done. He was Polish, after all.

And Benedict XVI? I'm afraid to say I have my doubts about him. I'm sure he's a darling, deep down, though he is a German, but he's really the most frightful donkey, no tact at all. Why does he insist on insulting everyone? That's what I'd like to know. He insults the Jews, and the Muslims, and the protestants, and the gays, and women. And then he has to go round apologising! I just don't understand him at all. I doubt very much that my mother would have invited him round for supper, just so he could insult all the other guests. At least he hasn't invented quite so many saints as darling John Paul, I suppose. If I had to say something nice about him it would be that.

So, yes, that's the popes. Thank you all very much. You can ask me some questions if you must but I probably won't have a clue what you're talking about.
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Thursday, 27 October 2011

Jeremy Clarkson comes out

So, Jeremy Clarkson was the mystery TV personality who took out an injunction to prevent his ex-wife claiming that the two had had an affair. Did you know? Do you care? Is Jeremy Clarkson's career now doomed as a result of these revelations? Scarcely? Is he exposed as a hypocrite? Not really. But he has wasted a lot of money on lawyers to no permanent effect, as he himself now happily admits.

They are incredibly expensive to maintain and there's an assumption of guilt about which you can do nothing because I'm as bound by it as everybody else.. I wanted to get rid of it and it will save us a hell of a lot of heartache.

Because not only did the injuction prevent his ex-wife from talking about him, it also prevented him from talking about his ex-wife.

Clarkson now says that he regretted his action from the day he took out the injunction. He's changed his tune a bit. Back in May - gosh, how long ago that sounds - he opined that without injunctions for the rich and famous there would be a "charter for lunatics and blackmailers to do and say pretty well whatever took their fancy."

Among these "blackmailers" perhaps he counts his ex-wife. The court report of the case, which was heard last October, refers to Clarkson as AMM and his ex-wife Alexandra Hill as HXW. Mr Justice Tugendhat goes on at some length about blackmail:

As appears from this passage, where a claimant alleges he is being blackmailed, the court may be faced with limited choices. One choice is to refuse an anonymity order. But in that case, if the blackmailer's threat is to be thwarted, the court will restrict publication of the information which is the subject matter of the action. The alternative is for the court to grant the anonymity order. The court can then permit publication of some of the facts about the action, including the allegation of blackmail. If the court adopts that course, then the anonymity order should suffice to prevent publication of the fact that it is the applicant who has been blackmailed.

Note how "allegation of blackmail" becomes "the fact that it is the applicant who has been blackmailed" without regard to whether or not this serious criminal offence has actually been proved. Alexandra Hall has not in fact been charged with, or even it would seem investigated by the police for, the crime of blackmail. Amazing how insouciantly the word gets bandied about. And she denied in the Independent earlier this year, writing anonymously:

It's being accused of blackmail that's the worst part. I've never been in trouble with the law, apart from the odd driving offence. Yet I'm having to defend myself, and prove that I didn't blackmail him. Why do the judges take their word for it, without asking me?

The man who won this order considered that to even have my existence made public would be detrimental to his career. But what about my life? What about my rights to freedom of expression?

What indeed? Hall's marriage to Clarkson lasted for less than two years, but the relationship as a whole endured for close to a decade. He was her first serious boyfriend, and their time together represents a signifcant proportion of both their lives. Of course she should have a right to talk about her life. Privacy judges value far too lightly the right to free expression under Article 10. As it happens, Clarkson denies Hall's claim that they slept together more recently; but that isn't a matter of privacy but of libel, should he wish to sue. But it looks as though Clarkson has finished, for the time being, with the lawyers.

"She is now free to go and flog her story and Max Clifford, who's handling it, will be trying to do a deal," he says. Publish and be damned, as they used to say. Very sensible. Clarkson has realised, not before time, that the world is not about to come crashing about his ears.
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Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The judgement of Solon

Among the more perceptive and, indeed, prescient books in my collectionis Voltaire's Bastards by John Ralston Saul. The main thesis of the book, which came out in 1992, is that much of what ails the modern world derives from the dark side of the Enlightenment: the "dictatorship of reason", the appropriation of rationality by amoral, technocratic process. Saul's thought resembles the post-liberal ideas of John Gray, or the ideas Adam Curtis plays about with in his documentaries. One particularly good chapter, entitled The Miracle of the Loaves, begins thus:

Inflation has always meant flatulence... It was only in the 1860s that inflation focused itself on economic phenomena. With hindsight, the 19th century clarification that uncontrolled money was nothing more than uncontrolled farting made perfect sense. From that moment on it became almost impossible to confuse inflation with growth.

Just as our structures and elites prefer corporate manipulation to real production, so financial manipulation comes more naturally to them than the creation of new capital. The result has been the gradual conversion of our economies into myriad forms of inflation, most of which are not measured by our many measuring institutes...

These abstract methods are so widespread and sophisticated that, as in the 1980s, they can create the impression of general prosperity when the reality is one of continued decay in both economic and social infrastructures. Our elites seem often to be the most perplexed by the inability of their systems to create real wealth. But then, they are themselves the products of the rational system and not its creators. They therefore live in the profound expectations that their methods will work. Their isolation from reality is such that they believe their systems can produce growth where in the past only inflation has grown.

Even more interesting is the lesson Saul draws from Athens in the days of Solon. Athens in his day was in the midst of... I'm tempted to say a Greek-style debt crisis, but that would be doubly anachronistic. But yes, a Greek-style debt crisis. Archaic Athens was controlled by a financial elite, the Eupatridae, landowners who acted as bankers, lending money to poor farmers who, unable to pay it back, lost their land. "This debt situation spun further and further out of control." Austerity and Draconian repression -- Draco being the lawmaker responsible for the clampdowns -- didn't work. Faced with the final collapse of Athenisan society (and their rule) the Eupatridae sent for Solon:

Solon's first act on taking power was to redeem all the forfeited land and to free all the enslaved citizens. This he did by fiat. That is to say, he legislated immediate default. The Athenians called it the shaking off of burdens, but in practical terms what he had done amounted to simply ripping up the debt papers.

Having released both the people and the nation from their paper chains, he was able to re-establish the social balance. From there he went on to create a code of fair laws (in place of Draco's) and to lay the foundation for a democratic constitution. Athens immediately began its rise to glory, spewing out ideas, theatre, sculpture and architiecture, democratic concepts and concrete riches.

"Immediately" is a bit misleading. A century separated Solon's settlement from the democracy established by Cleisthenes, and a vital chapter in Athens' rise to power and glory occured under the rule of the tyrant Peisistratus. But still, it's an interesting parallel. Today's problem is not confined to the actual debts of countries like Greece or of publics like that of the UK, however. If it were, default would be an attractive option. The problem is that most of the "debt" takes the form of financial instruments such as Credit Default Swaps that were largely imaginary to begin with, being at several steps remove from any economic activity in the real world. The financial crisis exists in the realm of ideas. It is all hot air - which is, of course, an inflationary substance. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Evolution and Climate Change - the problem of evidence

This is a guest post by Keith Gilmour

Last month's Glasgow Skeptics talk was"Evolution and Global Warming Denial: How the Public is Misled", by NCSE (National Centre for Science Education) Executive Director Dr Eugenie Scott. (Video here). In response, ID proponent Dr Alastair Noble has used his website, The Centre For Intelligent Design, to take issue with Dr Scott's contention that "there is no contrary evidence to evolution" - and to criticise her decision to highlight "parallels between the denial of evolution and the denial of global warming."

On the first point, Dr Scott was, of course, just stating a fact. "There isn't scientific evidence against evolution. That all comes from the creationist literature and it's of the quality of those xenoliths that I mentioned and the lava flows." It shouldn't have to be pointed out that good scientists are always on the lookout for "contrary evidence" and if Dr Noble has, or knows where to find, some evidence against evolution (anatomical, geological, bio-geographical, genetic – anything!), he should silence his foes and critics by producing it. Instead, though, he refers us to the joke of "irreducible complexity" as if this, in any way, constituted evidence.

Dr Noble even has the nerve to lump this "evidence" in with the (at least respectable) 'fine-tuning' argument for the existence of God, gods or aliens - an addendum, by the way, to his favourite update on William Paley's 'watchmaker' argument of 1802 (which now has him quoting philanthropic atheist Bill Gates on the complexity of DNA), the objections to which are well-known.

On the second point, Dr Scott's comparison is a compliment evolution deniers do not deserve. Global warming/climate change deniers are certainly cranks (and many are clearly guilty of the sins highlighted in Dr Scott's lecture) but the same cannot be said of sceptics honestly querying the extent to which the climate is changing, the degree to which human activity has contributed towards changes in temperature, the role of CO2, the influence of solar activity, and so on. These sceptics do not face overwhelming evidence that has settled the matter and, unlike creationists and the ID crowd, are at least searching for natural explanations. In contradistinction to evolution, in other words, 'It's all our fault' is not "the only game in town."

In the Q&A that followed her talk, Dr Scott defined "anthropogenic global warming" as "the planet is getting warmer and people have something to do with it". But in her preceding lecture she had used a 'Global Warming Denial' slide to divide sceptics/deniers into just three categories: "It's not getting warmer", "It's getting warmer, but humans aren't responsible" and "It's getting warmer, we're responsible, but there isn't anything we can do about it." Unfortunately this omits those who only question the extent and predictability of the warming, the degree to which human beings are to blame and the most appropriate response. (My own view, incidentally, is that we should be aiming to clean up the planet irrespective of the AGW evidence and alarmism.)

Alastair Noble objects to Dr Scott's comparison on the grounds that confusion may result and insists that evolution, global warming, etc must be treated "separately" and the evidence "judged on its own merits." As evolution and global warming 'are' treated separately and the evidence 'is' judged on its own merits 99.9% of the time, this is an extremely odd point to make but what reasons are we being offered to dismiss as illegitimate efforts to highlight similarities in approach, thinking, attitude, tactics, etc?

If Dr Noble had paid attention to my question, he would know that I was not trying, for the sake of it, to "lump in 'Holocaust denial' as well." Instead, I made the straightforward point that evolution deniers have more in common with holocaust deniers than they do with climate change deniers. (See my essay/report Creationism, Holocaust Denial and The ID Crowd). Would Dr Noble object to a book entitled 'Conspiracy Theories' on the grounds that each must be treated separately and judged in isolation? "Academic scientists" do not waste their time debating with evolution deniers for the same reasons historians do not waste their time debating with holocaust deniers: to wit, both denialism groups reject overwhelming existing evidence, offer no real evidence to the contrary, dishonestly quote experts out of context, mischaracterise scholarly debate, and take comfort in paranoid conspiracy theories.

My question to Eugenie Scott (which she claimed not to have detected) was precisely as follows: "Don't evolution deniers have more in common with holocaust deniers?" To be honest, I was rather taken aback by Dr Scott's response. I first read about the similarities in Michael Shermer's excellent 1997 book Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time and came across it again most recently in Richard Dawkins' equally excellent 2009 book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Like them, I do not think it particularly "offensive" to point out the obvious and nor would I consider 'reluctance to cause offence' a good reason for keeping quiet about parallels. Comparing a historical fact supported by overwhelming evidence (the Holocaust) with a scientific fact (evolution) supported by equally overwhelming evidence is not, after all, to just "bring up the Nazis."

If Dr Scott had been determined to avoid causing offence, she would not have used the terms "denier" or "denial" at all (even if they were occasionally replaced with "anti-global-warming-ist"). Instead, she would have employed the word sceptic throughout - in all honesty, a more accurate description of people who aren't, after all, claiming that nothing has ever evolved anywhere/no-one was gassed/climate doesn’t change. If Dr Scott genuinely would, as she asserted in the Q&A, "rather persuade" people, why did she use these loaded words? And why use the term 'ID-Creationism' when it is virtually guaranteed to infuriate ID proponents such as Dr Noble? Why tell one questioner that, "This is really not a matter of discussion" and "We're just not gonna argue about that" - or another, after the Q&A, that it would be pointless to debate ID with him? I too would "rather persuade" my opponents but when someone shows absolutely no interest in being persuaded and consistently goes around peddling tripe to anyone who will listen, I think we have a responsibility to expose that person, their allies, and their pseudoscientific agenda.

The question of offensiveness to one side, Dr Scott's reference to "Intelligent Design Creationism" probably wasn't "the old guilt by association trick" (AN) but instead just a reference to the common ancestry and close working relationship of creationists and ID proponents - and I would remind Dr Noble that it was his choice to compare creationists and ID proponents to "Sinn Fein-IRA" (though I'm still not sure which is supposed to be which)! In addition, his suggested reading list for Dr Scott does not constitute "a substantial body of contrary evidence" any more than the writings of Arthur Butz, Paul Rassinier or Robert Faurisson constitute "evidence" against the holocaust. In truth, neither group have 'anything' to compare with Martin Durkin's (flawed but fascinating) 2007 documentary, The Great Global Warming Swindle or Nigel Lawson’s 2008 book An Appeal To Reason: A Cool Look At Global Warming. And there is a reason Channel 4 can justify 78 minutes of primetime for Mr Durkin's contentious and controversial film whilst poor Dr Noble has to settle for 108 seconds via!

Finally, the word evolution is not, as Dr Noble contends (and would prefer), a "slippery" one. Common ancestry is simply the logical conclusion that comes from all that we have discovered - as well as from the absence of evidence to the contrary. Noble embarrasses himself by pushing the idea that, yes, this branch is obviously related to/descended from that branch but please don't go thinking they might both be from the same actual tree! Oh, and by the way, since we don't have every piece of the jigsaw (and never will), an interventionist must therefore come along, every now and again, with "new genetic information" and "body plans" (AN).

Unfortunately for creationists and the ID crowd, educated and open-minded theists do not need the farce of "Intelligent Design" to challenge the proposition that "the origin and development of life is a blind and purposeless process" (AN). A god or gods (or aliens) may well have sparked the Big Bang, planted the seeds of life, implanted souls into hominids, and so on, but I'm afraid this would still give us zero reason to be led astray, in our scientific and philosophical quests for answers, by the conspiracy theory denialism of attention-seeking kooks.

Keith Gilmour runs the anti-Creationist website The Centre for Unintelligent Design

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Sunday, 23 October 2011

Dawkins and the philosopher

William Lane Craig, the self-publicising American theologian best known over here for allegedly being snubbed by Richard Dawkins, is currently walking about Britain like a roaring lion, seeking atheists to devour. He even turned up in my home town last week, lecturing on the inadequacy of Stephen Hawking's godless cosmology. I wasn't there, partly because I didn't particularly want to give him my money and partly because I was listening to Marcus du Sautoy instead. Dawkins set out his reasons for having nothing to do with Craig in the Guardian last week. "I took pleasure in refusing," he writes, describing Craig's attempts to share a platform with him as "the epitome of bullying presumption".

This is an extremely silly and entirely synthetic row, of course. Public debates about the existence of God are in any case rarely serious intellectual events. They don't change anyone's mind; and people with open minds rarely come to them. At most they provide an opportunity for the already committed to cheer their supporters and declare afterwards that their man won. Craig is notoriously successful in such prize fights. He's an effective debater and, just as importantly, always brings his claque with him. But no-one should confuse winning a debate with proving the existence or otherwise of God. Still less should anyone imagine that such occasions matter.

Daniel Came is an Oxford philosopher who, for some reason, is bothered by Dawkin's refusal to debate Craig. Although an atheist, Came was unimpressed with The God Delusion, his main criticism being that it is light on philosophy. Which it is, rather, Dawkins not being a philosopher. Came also considers that the "New Atheists" don't do the unbelieving cause any good with their belligerent attitude. Their tactics are "fundamentally ignoble and potentially harmful to public intellectual life" he declares. He also objects to the "implicit assumption that hurling insults is an effective way to influence people's beliefs about religion"; in attacking belief they are seeking "to replace one form of irrationality with another".

Given that there isn't much in the way of serious argumentation in the New Atheists' dialectical arsenal, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Dawkins and Grayling aren't exactly queuing up to enter a public forum with an intellectually rigorous theist like Craig to have their views dissected and the inadequacy of their arguments exposed.

Get her!

It's precisely the belligerence of the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens that has given atheism such a high public profile, of course. Yes, their arguments aren't particularly sophisticated, but I doubt more than a handful of people (most of them philosophers) have ever been persuaded of the existence or otherwise of God on the basis of rational argument alone. Belief is an area in which reason is usually the slave of the passions. One believes, or doesn't believe; and then one looks around for supporting arguments. A believer who loses their faith will suddenly find the arguments for religion that used to seem so convincing have lost their force. An atheist who discovers God will likewise suddenly spot the flaws in the arguments they used to employ with such conviction, or else maintain that such arguments miss the point.

Came's anger at Dawkins is especially puzzling since, as an atheist, he should presumably be pleased that Dawkins isn't accepting the bait and thus having his inadequate arguments embarrassingly and publicly exposed. There may even be something in his implicit claim that Craig is more effectively opposed by a philosopher who can take him on his own chosen ground. Certainly, the humanist philosopher Stephen Law seems to have caused Craig more trouble than usual when they debated in Westminster last Monday. But, oh dear, what is Came so het up about? And why hasn't he volunteered to take Dawkins place in the Oxford debate? It can't be, surely, that William Lane Craig is scared of him?

Came is particularly unimpressed that Dawkins should bring up the matter of Craig's views on genocide. (Basically, it's OK if God ordains it; in fact, it's morally obligatory if God ordains it.) I've dealt with these troubling matters before and won't be going there again. But see what Dr Came has to say about it:

I am disinclined to defend the God of the Old Testament's infanticide policy. But as a matter of logic, Craig is probably right: if an infinite good is made possible by a finite evil, then it might reasonably be said that that evil has been offset. ...

But whatever you make of Craig's view on this issue, it is irrelevant to the question of whether or not God exists. Hence it is quite obvious that Dawkins is opportunistically using these remarks as a smokescreen to hide the real reasons for his refusal to debate with Craig – which has a history that long predates Craig's comments on the Canaanites.

I agree, it is irrelevant to the question of whether or not God exists that He might be a genocidal maniac. It's highly relevant, though, to the question of whether the type of God Craig (like most believers) claims to believe in exists: that is, an all-loving, infinitely good God.

In the debate last week, Stephen Law managed to unsettle his opponent by trying out a new argument for the non-existence of God - the argument from an evil God. If I understand it correctly (and I may not) Law contends that all the arguments for God's goodness can be made for an evil God. In such a scenario, the Problem of Evil becomes the Problem of Good: for does not the presence of good in the universe undermine the evidence for an evil deity?

Yes, evil god wants us to suffer, do evil and despair. To that end, he introduces various goods into the world.

Why would an evil god pepper his creation with some beauty, which we enjoy? Why, because he requires a contrast. In order to fully appreciate the drab dreariness of day-to-day life, we need to BE reminded now and them of how much better things might have been.

Why would an evil god give us children to love? Because it’s only if we truly, unconditionally love someone that we can made to suffer as deeply as we do when evil god kills them slowly before our eyes.

In short, someone might conclude, this is not, as many Christians suppose, a vale of soul-making. It’s a vale of soul destruction – engineered by an evil god intent on crushing and breaking our spirits so that we bow out in agony and despair. As so very many of us do.

The interesting thing about this line of argument is that it convinces neither believers nor atheists that God exists, and is evil. Believers will continue to believe in a good God; atheists will continue to use the problem of evil to argue against the existence of any God. Yet I have the sense that some version of the evil God hypothesis is precisely what lies behind a lot of atheism - and, most especially, the "strident", activist style of atheism associated with the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I'm reminded, for example, of Kingsley Amis's response when someone asked him if he believed in God. "No," he replied. "But it's more that I hate Him."*

Came's entirely wrong, though, in his claim that Craig's theological defence of divinely-sanctioned genocide is not a good reason for Dawkins to refuse to debate him. It's an excellent reason. It exposes Craig as both an amoral sophist and a bad historian, someone whose polished and apparently sophisticated philosophy masks a cold, narrow and essentially fundamentalist theology. Why on earth should Richard Dawkins, or any other self-respecting atheist, waste their time and energy on someone like that?

*It was Yevtushenko. Thanks to Leopold below.
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Friday, 21 October 2011

It's that man again

The dissident "Catholic bishop" Richard Williamson is back in the news this week. A prominent group of European rabbis has called on the Vatican to suspend negotiations with the Society of Saint Pius X, the ultra-traditionalist group of which Williamson is a senior member, after he used his blog to repeat the ancient charge that the Jews were responsible for killing Christ. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt demanded that the SSPX show "a clear commitment to tackling anti-Semitism within their ranks."

The "bishop" will be no doubt be delighted to hear that his words have had their intended effect.

Members of the SSPX -- followers of a French archbishop who split from the Roman Catholic Church forty years ago in protest against modernising tendencies such as using vernacular languages in the mass -- are renowned for their reactionary views. Some remain unpersuaded that the earth goes round the Sun, four centuries after Galileo was put on trial for heresy. Others have ideas that border on fascism. Williamson's notoriety (as longer-standing readers may recall) dates from a 2008 Swedish TV interview in which he denied the Holocaust and the existence of Nazi gas chambers. Unfortunately for the Pope, the Vatican had at the time just lifted excommunications on Williamson and other SSPX bishops, despite having being warned about his track-record. Benedict's relationship with the Jewish community has never quite recovered.

Williamson was expelled from Argentina, where he had been running a seminary, and has rarely been seen since, though there are reports that he is living in Wimbledon. He has been prosecuted and fined in his absence by a German court for Holocaust denial. For the past three years the main contact with the outside world has been via his blog.

I should explain about the blog, which used to be called "Dinoscopus". After the Swedish interview, and the furore that ensued, Dinoscopus went private. Until recently his weekly posts were distributed with the assistance of some of Williamson's American supporters and preceded with a message from the editor, usually taking the form of an appeal for funds. Then a few weeks ago, it was announced that henceforth the blog - now retitled "Eleison Comments" - would be distributed under the bishop's sole control. It's still subscription only, but the portal inviting readers is now publicly available.

Even when mediated by an editor, Williamson's words often read like a parody of extreme reactionary conservatism. He once wrote, for example, that women who wore trousers were guilty of "an assault upon woman's womanhood" and represented "a deep-lying revolt against the order willed by God". Indeed, he went on, "today's feminism is intimately connected to witchcraft and satanism." He has also used his virtual pulpit to denounce The Sound of Music as "virtually pornographic", to compare modern Ireland unfavourably with Portugal in the days of Salazar's dictatorship and to blame the world financial crisis on (there will be no prizes for guessing) the Jews.

In his latest post, Williamson declared that "only the Jews (leaders and people) were the prime agents of the deicide because it is obvious from the Gospels that the Gentile most involved, Pontius Pilate, would never have condemned Jesus to death had not the Jewish leaders roused the Jewish people to clamour for his crucifixion." This, he argued,

Williamson is not wrong that for most of its existence -- up until the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s -- the Catholic church has taught that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ. In so doing, it nurtured centuries of anti-Semitism in Europe, manifested in massacres, inquisitions and pogroms as well as the non-lethal discrimination that forced Jews to wear distinctive clothing and live in ghettoes. Catholic doctrine was not directly responsible for the Holocaust, but it's hard to imagine the Nazis fixing their particular hatred against the Jews without this historic backdrop.

"How can the Pope let go of such ancient truths?" asks Williamson, noting that Pope Leo XII at the end of the 19th century was still referring to the Jews as "that race, once God’s chosen people... who called down upon themselves the Blood of the Saviour". One answer is that an idea's antiquity is not a very good criterion of truth. It was an ancient truth that the earth stood in the centre of the universe, an ancient truth that bleeding cured fever, an ancient truth that astrology works or that women are unfit for participation in public life. An appeal to "ancient truth" wouldn't get you very far, these days, in science, politics or many other areas of life. Only in religion, and perhaps in New Age mysticism, does "ancient truth" not sound entirely like an oxymoron.

Pope Benedict is not, indeed, noted for his sympathy with many of the modernising tendencies that emerged in the Catholic Church in the wake of the second Vatican Council. Yet in the topsy-turvy world of Williamson and his supporters, Ratzinger isn't the arch-conservative of popular imagination, stubbornly holding the line against such modern evils as contraception, female ordination and married priests while plotting to bring back th Latin mass, but a dangerous radical, leading a perversion of the true faith which Williamson dubs "Newchurch".

Williamson has not been involved in recent talks with Rome about returning the SSPX to the wider Catholic fold. He has not performed any public role since the events of 2008. But nor has the group disowned him. In his blogposts, he has regularly cautioned the SSPX leadership against closer ties with the Vatican. He appears to regard the discussions as some sort of trap. So he will not be disappointed to learn of the repercussions of his latest online ruminations. It's not beyond the bounds of possibility, indeed, that he did it on purpose.

But it never ceases to amaze me that the Vatican wants to talk to any of these nasty, mad, thoroughly unChristian people.
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Wednesday, 19 October 2011


Ah Europe. Don't you just wish it would go away? Other, less important, stories continue to dominate the headlines, but all the time the elephant sits in the room, sucking out the oxygen and squashing the life out of the economy. It's the great black hole, into which everything is destined sooner or later to collapse, from which no light can escape. Of course, there is news, of a sort, coming out of Brussels; but it's drearily repetitive. Another debt crisis. Another meeting to agree a last-minute bail-out. Briefly, the markets rally as it looks like there might be a Deal. Whereupon the whole sorry cycle starts over again.

This affects us, whether we are in or out; and the argument is that, being in, we (that is to say, spineless civil service surrender monkeys and, to a lesser extent, distracted, compromised politicians drowning in the daily sea of trivia) can at least do something to "influence" what happens. I suppose that must be sort-of true. Yet being "in" seems somehow strangely worse, like being locked in a slowly-burning building in the full knowledge that your inevitable death will be slow, protracted, painful and will leave behind a charred corpse and bloody scratchmarks all over the door.

As a sop the the pseudo-democracy of the e-petitions, the subject of Britain's EU membership is to be debated in the House of Commons; and the Tory front bench, it appears, wants to impose a three line whip. The vote will be entirely symbolic, but the prospect of a large number of Conservative MPs demanding the people be given an "In-Out" referendum is just too embarrassing to contemplate. Not everyone is happy. Here, for example, is David Campbell Bannerman, a Tory MEP who until quite recently represented UKIP.

Let’s have an open debate in Parliament where MPs are free to discuss the merits and practicalities of leaving the EU and not err on the side of caution under the gaze of the Whips. This whole Referendum exercise is, after all, meant to be about bolstering democracy. It is, frankly, what the people want to hear – too often the people believe Westminster to be behind the curve on issues that the public feel strongly about: the Human Rights Act, Immigration and even Europe. Now is the time for bold, open minded leadership, to let MPs speak freely on the EU and let them debate the merits, mechanisms and practicalities of leaving the European Union and engaging with the wider world. Freedom of speech is after all one freedom we all believe in.

Silly man. Campbell Bannerman left a party committed to British withdrawal from the EU and joined one committed to Britain's continued membership. Did he not realise this at the time? Whether a dispassionate view of the political scene convinced him that UKIP was going nowhere or whether he just fell out with the imperious Nigel Farage isn't the point. His continued presence in Strasbourg, though, depends on his gamble paying off: if UKIP replicates its success in the next Euro-elections he will be out on his ear. Hence, I suppose, his tone of desperation; but he really has brought this on himself.

The mainstream Conservative position is one of fingers-in-ears delusion, summed up in William Hague's fatuous soundbite "In Europe but not run by Europe." You cannot be "in Europe but not run by Europe". It's an impossibility, a contradiction. The whole point of being in Europe IS to be run by Europe, as the Irish and the Greeks recently discovered. And it's certainly an impossibility to be in Europe and not run by Europe if, like the British state, you insist robotically on implementing in full each and every EU regulation, however inimical to national interests, however ill thought-through, and however little every other country is implementing it.

Of course, the EU is awful: over-bureaucratic, sclerotic, anti-democratic, elitist in the worst sense, loved only by its feather-bedded servants, who will of course defend it with all the ferocity of people fighting for their livelihoods. The best that can be said for it is that its notional unity counts for something in trade negotiations; which is not nothing, but is a cause not advanced one iota by harmonised extradition policies or standardised passports and driving tests. It is, however, the system we live under; and it could well be that unravelling it would be even more deleterious to our national wellbeing than staying put. That, at any rate, is the Conservative case; and it is the platform that, like it or not, Tory MPs were elected on.

What's the alternative? The Euro is not going to collapse, and if the price of saving it is the death of democracy and national identity in Europe then that price will be paid. Indeed, George Osborne has been urging it, for other countries if not, yet, for Britain. Like some other Tory Euro-sceptics he purports to care about British sovereignty and democracy but isn't too bothered about anyone else's. The problem is that at Eurozone solution would not work on its own because the necessary harmonisation would encompass those aspects of economic policy which are already EU competences, subject in most cases to majority voting.

As for renegotiation of our terms of membership, touted as a solution or even an inevitable consequence of full Eurozone integration, that isn't going to happen, mainly because it's in no-one's national interest but our own. Least of all that of the French or the Germans. By allowing Britain to break free of the constraints of the Union the other member states would be handing it a priceless advantage: all the benefits of membership but none of the costs. They know it and they won't tolerate it.

No, after a few more years of depressing stagnation and rising prices we'll end up joining the Euro and pay our taxes directly to Brussels. Probably on the recommendation of a Conservative prime minister. That is my dismal prophecy. Either that or the whole thing will have collapsed and, free and independent as may be, we'll have gone back to living in caves.
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Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Spying games

Spooks is stuttering towards its overdue conclusion on Sunday evenings on BBC 1. In the penultimate episode, top MI5 man Sir Harry Pearce kidnapped his CIA counterpart and then accidentally handed him over to some Serbian mercenaries posing as the US government. Or something. He was later thrown out the back of a van and left dying in the street. Meanwhile the saintly Ruth managed to steal laptop from a high security vault in the American embassy by pretending to have a cold. Said laptop was then re-stolen by Harry's secret Russian love-child, whose mother is the wife of a prominent diplomat.

Peter Firth, the actor who plays Harry, defended the series' creative invention of the security services in an interview a few weeks ago by saying that since no-one has the faintest idea how they operate you might as well make it up. Intriguingly, he dismissed MI5's website as a "shop window" and occasional speeches by current and former security chiefs as merely "what they want you to think." But it might be even worse than that. The preposterous world of Spooks might actually be less ridiculous than the reality.

What is one to make of the saga of Mike Hancock's Russian researcher, who strongly denies being a spy but is happy to admit sleeping with him? And not, it would appear, for fun.

He made it clear from the beginning that he was interested in me romantically. He asked me back to his hotel room but I didn’t go. He tried to kiss me on the lips in the lounge of the hotel. He said he wanted to sleep with me.

She was twenty when they met, and a student in Moscow; the Lib Dem lothario was nearly sixty. But he got his way the next time he was in Russia - the direct approach sometimes works - and when she came to study at Bradford University they would meet for sex at weekends. A year later she went to work for him. Katia Zatuliveter had other embarrassing things to reveal, like the assignation with a Dutch diplomat referred to only as “L”, who thought she was an escort.

Zatuliveter had been working for Hancock for more than three years before the security services got suspicious, largely because of the large number of Russia-related Parliamentary questions the MP was putting down. (Although Hancock's enthusiasm for Russia long predates his employment of this particular Russian intern.) Her arrest also came in the wake of the Anna Chapman affair, when everyone was on the lookout for young sexy Russian female agents. So she was taken for interrogation "by MI5 and MI6 officers in a series of meetings at top London hotels including the Savoy", which is a fascinating snippet of information in itself. If this was Spooks, she would have been taken to some top secret underground lair. And do MI5 and MI6 really work together?

The Home Office case has a superficial plausibility, if only because Mike Hancock's enthusiam for all things Russian and female would make it absurdly easy for the SVR to plant a young woman in his office and bed, were they minded to do so. But the evidence so far seems rather circumstantial. They couldn't believe she could afford to rent a flat in London unless Russian intelligence was paying for it. She says Hancock was picking up the bill. For me the most suspicious element in her story isn't the rent money (easily proven one way or the other, I would have thought) but Katia's change of heart. In April 2006, when he first propositioned her, she refused to take his money (was this another "L" situation?). A couple of months later, she was apparently happy to meet the ageing beardie to "improve her English".

The "sensitive" parts of the evidence against her will be presented in secret hearings, so we'll probably whether no what it amounts to. So far, though, the case appears to be that her being a spy is the only plausible reason for her wanting to sleep with Mike Hancock.

Would that all his "researchers" had such a good excuse.
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Monday, 17 October 2011

Back to the future

(Apologies for the recent decline in output here on Heresy Corner. I hope to get back to normal eventually.)

If you're Laurie Penny, the sight of a few people camped outside St Paul's Cathedral, to the evident delight of the smug left-wing Canon Giles Fraser (to whom they gave an irresistable opportunity to get himself on the telly AND be rude to the police) will represent the latest stage in a new and unstoppable revolution. But really it isn't.

Before 9/11 turned inaugurated a decade of displacement and paranoia, anti-globalisation protests were all the rage. Does Laurie even remember that far back? She's 25 so she might, just.

The Nineties seem to many people in retrospect like a land of lost content, Downton Abbey series one, one long party. It was indeed, for some, an era of rising living standards and rising expectations. The decade in which Things Could Only Get Better and the only event of real political significance appeared to concern Bill Clinton's sex life. But it was also the decade of globalisation, when the divide between rich and poor began to yawn like a chasm, but also when radicalised young people dared to dream that a bankrupt world system would soon give way to something nicer.

The works of Naomi Klein and (for the more discerning) Noreena Hertz were flying off bookshelves. Every time the G7 (as it then was) met up for one of their lavish beanfeasts there were riots on the streets. Kettles, too, although the word itself had not yet been invented. "Anti-capitalism" was, we were told, the coming thing.

Where did they go, those young engagés and enragés of yesteryear? Off into middle age, I suppose, most of them, as people do. But it was all once so happening, so visceral, so vital. Here's how Hertz began her book Silent Takeover, which came out just after September 11 2001 but describes a different world:

J-20. For those in the know the acronym is easily decipherable: July 20, 2001, the call for action transmitted to hundreds of thousands at the click of a mouse. J-20 - Genoa.... They flocked there in droves: pink fairies in drag, red devils anding out Boycott Bacardi leaflets, Italian anarchists in game-show padded body armour, environmentalists with mobile phones, suburbanites with cameras snapping as if they were on a day trip to the big city - a babel of different languages and different objectives gathered under the one "anti" banner.

No Twitter in those days. No malfunctioning Blackberries, either. But she might have been describing April 2009 or Occupy Wall Street this year.

In the concluding chapter, Hertz lays out the composition and aims of the "new political movement" that she can see emerging:

Their concerns, while disparate, share a common assumption: that the people's interes have been taken over by other interests viewed as more fundamental than their own - that the public interest has lost out to a corporate one.

The protestors include ordinary people with ordinary lives: housewives, teachers, students, business people, blue and white collar folk alike. Although their goals might be divergent... they share a scepticism about the promises and assurances given by those in authority and, thanks to the neo-liberal orthodoxy which has taught them that the state cannot solve their problems, considerable uncertainty about the role of government.

Hertz describes a "cycle of cynicism" in which politicians no longer have the trust of the people and "therefore have little to lose if they focus their attention of business rather than on voters"; there is "a widespread feeling that politics simply does not matter." Does any of this seem familiar? Then comes a roll-call of now forgotten mass protests at the start of this century. 80,000 took to the streets in Quebec in April 2001, followed by 30,000 in Gothebury, 150,000 in Genoa and "in December 2001 over one million Argentinians poured onto the streets of Buenos Aires in protest against the economic austerty measures that were pushing thousands below the poverty line every day." How very Greek of them.

"These are early days," wrote Hertz,

but if people continue to feel alienated from traditional politics and distrustful of the politicians' agendas, if they continue to feel abandoned by the state, and increasingly of the opinion that politics has been co-opted by business, if people continue to feel that the only real power is in the hands of unelected institutions, huge corporations and unaccountable supranational structures, the voice of protest will only grow louder and we will continue to see a shift from the politics of acceptance towards that of dissent.

Except that it didn't continue to grow. Protest movements, by their very nature, ebb and flow. They peter out when they fail to achieve their implicit aims of toppling governments and altering the economic structure of society. They are replaced by resignation and apathy - or by a credit binge. At least until the next time, when a new generation arises that has forgotten that it all happened before.

Nina Power, writing last week:

In the US and elsewhere, protests don't seem to be going away anytime soon. Despite mass arrests, incarceration, serious public order charges, jail, fines, deterrent sentences and police violence, despite authorities and the media who spend so much time, money and effort making protest seem pointless, unpleasant and dangerous, people are coming out onto the streets and, in many cases, staying there.

More and more people are becoming aware that protest works, that some protests will (eventually) make it onto the news, that solidarity and reclaiming public space away from security guards, cameras and police is a wonderful thing indeed.

Where will she be in ten years' time?
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Monday, 10 October 2011

Iranian Ironies

Marzieh Vafamehr, an Iranian actress, recently appeared in a film about censorship and repression in the Islamic Republic. In "My Tehran for Sale" she played the part of an actress forced to work underground after being banned by the authorities. The film was banned by the authorities. Vafemehr was arrested and, it is reported, has now been sentenced to a year's imprisonment and 90 lashes for taking part in it.

The ayatollahs clearly have a finely-tuned sense of irony. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Politicians these days, they all look the same

Politicians these days all look the same. They all sound the same, they all say the same things, basically it's impossible to tell them apart.

Such a statement would elicit many a knowing shrug from today's cynical electorate. Especially after three depressing weeks of party conferences. But is that what people really think? Possibly not. An interesting new piece of research from UCL and Queen Mary suggests that many people do believe it's possible to tell Labour and Conservative MPs apart just by looking at them. A typical "Labour" face, an identikit image produced by averaging out the responses of volunteers invited to shift through a pile of 90 (all male) MPs' photographs, was "rounder and softer" than the imagined Tory visage. The "Tories" were the ones with longer noses and darker eyes. When tested on a second sample of volunteers, most correctly identified the intended political stereotype.

I suppose it came down to an imagined political class divide. The "Tories" were the ones who looked vaguely like villainous toffs. Despite David Cameron's best efforts, the image of the Conservatives as the nasty party - and conversely of Labour as the party of warm-hearted men and women of the people - persists.

But it turns out these assumptions were wrong. While the first group of volunteers had a good idea of what they thought Conservative and Labour MPs looked like, they were not in fact able to identify political affiliation from looks alone. Some Labour MPs looked like Tories, and vice versa. This contrasted with a similar piece of research in the United States, in which volunteers were able correctly to distinguish Democrats from Republicans.

Most interestingly, we're told that the 19 volunteers involved in the initial sifting were "predominantly Labour supporters". They must have been upset to discover - if they were in fact told - just how many of today's Labour MPs look like Tories. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

A Blessed Plot

Unlike at Oxford, where the chancellorship is always a matter of lively contention (and the prize typically goes to a retired politician) at Cambridge the process is traditionally a stitch-up. Prince Philip, not unexpectedly, was unopposed when he was elected in 1976. But it is a surprise to learn that the chancellorship has not been properly contested since 1847. Instead, a committee of acadamics and bureaucrats nominates an official candidate, who then becomes chancellor by default unless something unexpected happens.

Why this should be so isn't entirely clear. Perhaps the dons think that a democratic process would smack too much of Oxford-style politicking. It does, however, mean that the chancellor is less a representative of the university as a whole, including its alumni, than his opposite number at Oxford - and probably has less influence as a result. On this occasion, the anointed candidate is Lord Sainsbury of Turville, a failed grocer and a science minister in the last government. Perhaps he's not the most distinguished candidate who could be discovered - if they insist on selecting someone by committee, could it not be one of the great scientists who have helped make Cambridge (according to one recent survey) the world's leading university? Some might think the honour an appropriate reward for someone who has, over the years, given the university tens of millions of pounds. Others may suppose that he effectively bought it.

Bizarrely, it appears that there's only going to be an election this time round because a local shopkeeper who objects to a new branch of Sainsbury's opening up and taking away his business, managed to raise the fifty signatures needed to stand. Next, Brian Blessed accepted a somewhat quixotic approach from some dissident graduates. Blessed never actually attended Cambridge - or indeed any other university - and he rambles on a bit in his campaign video (which you can view here). On the other hand, he promises to campaign for fairer access to education; he would look better in the robes than Sainsbury; and he could undoubtedly be relied upon to declaim Latin with authority on ceremonial occasions. He has attracted support from actual Cambridge graduates in the acting profession, such as Derek Jacobi and Stephen Fry.

Fry would have been an even better candidate, wouldn't he?

Michael Mansfield QC, Britain's second most self-righteous human rights lawyer, has also thrown his hat into the ring. He promises "to defend the principles of Higher Education and critical thinking in particular, which have been steadily eroded by successive governments wedded to market forces". He would make an interesting choice; but while a fairly distinguished barrister he's not quite on the same intellectual level as Lord Bingham, who was beaten by Chris Patten in the Oxford race in 2003 (wild-card entrant Sandi Toksvig came a close fourth). Indeed, it's a distinctly under-strength line-up all-round compared with the choice offered to Oxford graduates after the death of Roy Jenkins. But still, it's an election, which is a good thing in itself.

Mary Beard is planning to "toe the management line" and vote for Sainsbury. Barring an unexpectedly massive turn-out from graduates, most of the voters are likely to be serving academics and others professionally active in the university. Sainsbury should walk it. He may not be an inspiring prospect, but he has entered into the spirit of things with his own campaign website and has agreed to take part in hustings organised by the Cambridge Union.

I attended Oxford, so I don't have a vote; but I'd urge anyone who does (that is, any not-too-recent graduate who has taken the trouble to upgrade to an MA) to drop by and support Brian Blessed. Or Mansfield, if you must. You have to vote on Friday 14 October and Saturday 15 October, in person and in academic dress, which they'll be handing out at the Senate House; this may or may not be an incentive.
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Monday, 3 October 2011

Madeleine Bunting's "tragic but necessary" betrayal of Afghan women

Madeleine Bunting is in typically hand-wringing form in the Guardian, pooh-poohing any suggestion that the war against the Taliban either did or could have had anything to do with the oppression of women. It was all, she suggests, pro-war propaganda - "the conflation of western aggression and women's rights has underpinned the last 10 years of conflict":

Key to this largely supportive public opinion was how, over the course of a few weeks in 2001, a war of revenge was reframed as a war for human rights in Afghanistan, and in particular the rights of women. It was a narrative to justify war that proved remarkably powerful. A cause that had been dismissed and ignored for years in Washington suddenly moved centre-stage. The video of a woman being executed in Kabul stadium that the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan had offered to the BBC and CNN without success was taken up by the Pentagon and used extensively. The Taliban's brutal treatment of women, the closure of girls schools: all were used to justify military invasion and close down debate .

Notice how, for Maddy, the fact that the treatment of women under the Taliban was used by the US and British governments as part - if only part - of the justification for war is of greater consequence than the condition of women itself. The fact that the video was largely ignored before 9/11 is more significant than the fact that it was eventually taken seriously. And she's soon on much more congenial ground when laying into the clumsiness of Western imperialists who don't take into account the cultural factors at play in Afghanistan:

Over the last decade little attention has been paid to understanding Afghanistan and its history. The country had experienced various attempts during the 20th century to bring progress to Afghan women. These ended in failure, prompting deep resistance because they were seen as foreign, imported modernisation that corroded traditional Afghan identity. The issue of women's rights opened up divides between the urban and rural populations and between different ethnic groups in an already fragmented country. The position of women has been deeply politicised in this war-torn country. In conservative rural areas, powerbrokers built up their legitimacy with appeals to traditional values. Girls' education was a particularly sensitive subject, provoking anxieties about the transmission of conservative values and the functioning of kinship groups. Such entrenched social systems cannot be re-engineered by outsiders, however well-intentioned.

Now there's a paragraph worth savouring. Nowhere in it does Bunting acknowledge that her paean to Afghan culture is entirely male-centred. When she talks of culture, she means male culture. When she writes that attempts - for example by Afghanistan's last king - to improve the lot of women encountered "deep resistance because they were seen as foreign, imported modernisation that corroded traditional Afghan identity", what she means is that the reforms encountered deep resistance from men. When she suggests that "the issue of women's rights opened up divides ... between different ethnic groups", what she really means is that it opened up divides between the male leaderships of different ethnic groups. Girls' education was a particularly sensitive subject among men, provoking male anxieties about the transmission of conservative values and the functioning of kinship groups. And so on.

Worse than that, she imagines Afghan culture to be something like a biological given. There's a contrast between the national culture - "traditional" "rural", "ethnic", "entrenched", "conservative" and all the rest and the various attempts to introduce change, which even when spearheaded by native Afghans are "foreign, imported modernisation" that "open up divides", are corrosive and create "anxieties about the transmission of conservative values". It's all very fatalistic. As though the Afghans are culturally-determined robots rather than human beings as capable of change and advancement as anyone else.

There have, though, been moves over the past decade to improve the situation of Afghan women. Girls are going to school. In Kabul and some other major cities, some women manage to have careers. There hasn't been enough progress by any means. Neither burkhas nor child marriage are close to being eliminated; and domestic violence is still routine. But there has been some improvement, whereas if the Taliban were still in power there would have been none. Women would still be being shot in the head for "immorality" in Kabul's football stadium if the Taliban's' mate Osama bin Laden hadn't overreached himself ten years ago.

It's trivial to argue that improving women's rights was not the main point of the war, or that its importance was exaggerated in Western propaganda. Security - Western security - was always the main priority. Obviously. Even in the United States military decision-makers remain overwhelmingly male and think of women's' rights (if they do so at all) as at best the icing on the cake. Self-interest and hypocrisy abounded, as it always abounds, among politicians. All that is less significant, in my view, than the fact that it should have been appealed to at all - that Western public opinion cared that women were oppressed in Afghanistan. That says a lot about how our democracies now function.

Of course, if you work for the Guardian, feminism matters, but not nearly so much as anti-imperialism: so it's much safer to bemoan Coalition attempts to make it easier for those mothers who wish to do so to get to know their children a bit before being pushed out into the workplace than it is to get to grips with the true horrors of a genuinely misogynist society.

Bunting seems more than sanguine about the prospect of Afghan women being sold out as part of a deal with the Taliban:

On Monday Oxfam brings out a report urging the international community not to trade in women's rights in a peace settlement with the Taliban. It calls for a long term commitment to support women. I admire and understand the sincerity of their intentions but question whether women's rights should be an obstacle in the process of a settlement.

But then, she doesn't have to live there. And when Western troops do eventually leave Afghan women to their fate, as will happen soon enough, she won't even have to think about it.
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