Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Does God care about animals?

It isn't quite April 1st yet, so I suppose this must be true.

New Humanist reports that PETA, the US animal rights group, is objecting to a new "inclusive language" version of the Bible, on the grounds that the language isn't quite inclusive enough. The translators' politically correct agenda extends only to human beings, you see: animals are routinely afforded the pronoun "it". I find it hard to think of a more inclusive pronoun than "it", personally - it's not as though creatures are assumed to be male - but PETA nevertheless finds it rather undignified. Animals are people too - a spokesman is quoted as claiming that the pronoun "denies them something" and that "God cares about animals". "He or she" would have been both inclusive and respectful of the unique personality of each of God's creatures, from the elephant down to the humblest flea. We're not told how the translators should tackle the pronounisation of hermaphrodites, such as earthworms.

This is all a trifle odd. The strongest argument in favour of inclusive language, where human beings are concerned, is that the old grammatical principle that "the male embraces the female" is offensive to women. In other words, that many women are offended by it. Are animals offended by being called "it"? Are they even aware of such nuances of language? And if not, why should it matter?

As for God caring about animals, the evidence for this in the Bible would seem ambiguous at best. Yes, the Lord did instruct Noah to rescue two animals of every kind (rather more of the edible ones) and preserve them from the Flood. But the cramped conditions of the Ark would scarcely answer to modern animal welfare standards - and with only one breeding pair of each species I worry about the health of the genepool. And what of all the myriads of other creatures, those not lucky enough to be selected by Noah? God was quite happy to drown them all for the sins of humanity, it would seem. Perhaps he cares more about fish.

In the Old Testament, God's concern for animals seems to revolve mainly around their suitability for eating and sacrifice. The Bible records, usually without adverse comment, several instances of what looks like casual cruelty. In Numbers, Balaam beats his ass (which does, however, answer back). A little later, in Judges, Samson catches 300 foxes, ties their tails together and sets them on fire, just to frighten the Philistines.


And God himself takes revenge on the serpent that tempted Eve: "On thy belly shall thy go, and dust thy shall eat all the days of thy life". He might, though, be said to have a soft spot for frogs and locusts, which he sent to plague the Egyptians. And, as Alexander Waugh noted in his eccentric biography of the deity, God does have at least two pets, Leviathan and Behemoth. Sadly, though, "When God has finished playing with them his intention is to crush their heads and feed their flesh to the wild beasts of the wilderness". Ouch.

The New Testament starts off well, with Jesus talking warmly about the birds of the air and claiming that not one sparrow falls to the ground without God being aware of it. But before long he is casting demons, with cavalier disdain, into an entire herd of quite blameless pigs. Not, I would think, quite the behaviour PETA would want to encourage. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

In for a Penny

Father Rattue observes (with typical iconoclasm) on his Facebook page:

The March Against Cuts was 'marred' by the disorder, everyone says. Funny, I feel the other way around. I think the thinking behind the March makes no sense, but can sympathise with anyone for wanting to lob a brick at Lloyds' ...


Meanwhile, this year's must-have young radical Laurie Penny has sparked a minor blogquake with her reports and Tweets from Saturday's London demo. In a now-deleted Tweet, she suggested that "smashing a window is not the same thing as violence", leading Charon QC to declare that he did "not expect to read nonsense about *Violence* on twitter from a 'respected journalist'." At Penny's own New Statesman website, Mehdi Hasan thought her preference for window smashing and sit-ins over houmous and speeches was not just silly but served to "wreck an important and historic march by rewarding right-wing, pro-cuts media outlets with the negative headlines and imagery that they had so craved."

Now I have a major soft spot for Laurie Penny (and none for Mehdi Hasan) but superficially the case against her is compelling. For most of the marchers, the experience of Saturday's protest was one of a family-friendly Spring walk, rounded off with the rare treat of hearing Labour's charismatic new leader speak live. It was, like the anti-Iraq war and Countryside marches of yesteryear, a coming-together of a large cross-section of middle England in a common, doomed cause (for it will, of course, no more stop the cuts than an even larger demonstration Stopped the War). Yet the "official" marchers get home and what do they see? Sit-ins, kettling, black-clad "anarchists" baying for broken glass. The actions of a few did indeed tip the balance of reporting, and Laurie's choice to report from the point of view of that minority serves to bolster the misleading impression that criminal, violent and non-violent direct action was what Saturday's rally was all about.

After careful consideration, though, my response to Mehdi Hasan is "boo-hoo". Laurie Penny is right to emphasise the fringe over the centre - if only because, as at the Edinburgh Festival, the Fringe is where most of the interesting things go on. The fact that the TUC can assemble "up to" half a million peaceful demonstrators in opposition to spending cuts is logistically impressive but of no great significance. The opponents of cuts have no coherent analysis and no alternative programme beyond Labour's official position of cutting almost, but not quite as much from the national budget. Many in the largely public-sector crowd were, presumably, worried about losing their jobs, which is understandable and a perfectly good reason for them to march. But, in a developed democracy (unlike, say, in Egypt or Tunisia) demonstrations of "people power" do not topple governments or alter the course of national policy. They are self-indulgent and a waste of time, or at most a form of group therapy for those taking part. Saturday's march was, then, not really news. A lot of people don't like the idea of cutting public services? Yes, we knew.

On the other hand, the much smaller, legally contested activities of UKUncut, to say nothing of the anarchist Blackshirts (do these people have absolutely no historical awareness, I wonder?) is newsworthy, and not simply because pictures of smashed windows look dramatic or because the quixotic decision to target Fortnum and Mason's produced the day's one good joke ("Because proper tea is theft"). First of all, it has led to the Coalition government, focus of so many liberal hopes after Labour's authoritarian decade, muttering about repressive new laws. Yes, "dawn raids and snatch squads" sound almost Gaddafian, as David Davis pointed out in the House of Commons. But it increasingly looks as though such measures might be needed if we aren't to see scenes like Saturday's recurring at ever more frequent intervals.

There's a debate to be had as to whether, in that case, the cure would be worse than the disease (and I think Mark Wallace probably goes too far in seeing in the protest groups the seeds of full-blown terrorism). The people Laurie Penny celebrates in her writing are characterised not by violence (most are avowedly peaceful) but by a combination of spontaneity and truculence that makes them peculiarly hard for the authorities to deal with. Nonetheless, the activities of the "mindless minority of thugs and hooligans" (Theresa May) are now a regular and predictable feature of large public demonstrations called with traditional and peaceful intentions. This is a major change in the architecture of protest in Britain (though not of other European countries) and is thus properly the chief focus of attention.

And even the law-abiding majority - many of them - will be torn between shock at "mindless violence" (and the inconvenience it causes) and a sneaking regard for it. There's an urge - as Martin Amis once said in another context - don't you feel it? - to "lob a brick at Lloyds" (if not, perhaps, Fortnums; certainly TopShop had it coming). It's an urge that, in a civilised society, is usually sublimated into grumbling, calling radio-phone-ins or these days posting comments at the end of online newspaper articles. But a low, persistent hum of outrage - just below the surface - is everpresent and getting louder. Dissatisfaction with the political system and the radical inequalities of a globalised economy is hard to miss. Even if you don't agree with their naive politics, even if you despise their methods, is there not something strangely cathartic in watching the anarchists at their work?
Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Is Buddhism a religion?

In an article largely taken up with defending the loopy, intellectually dishonest evasions of those charlatans Karen Armstrong and Terry Eagleton ("radical, iconoclastic thinkers" - I ask you), Madeleine Bunting reports this confusing claim about Buddhism:

In the final event, two Buddhist teachers, John Peacock and Stephen Batchelor, challenged all the contemporary understandings of Buddhism. It's not a religion, they insisted, the very word "Buddhism" was invented in the 19th century by westerners who were trying to force it into a Christian model. The Buddha never intended to found a religion, he was deeply critical of the Brahminic rituals of his time. What he proposed was a set of strategies to question experience and live ethically. But within a few centuries of his death, Buddhism had become a religion full of rituals and dominated by institutions in the many cultures where it spread.

Can anyone make sense of that? Let's assume that the Buddha was not intending to found a religion (nor was Jesus), and that it is possible to be a Buddhist without being "religious" - there's still a mighty contradiction here. First of all, we're told that the concept of "Buddhism" as a "religion" is the fault of 19th century Europeans. Then we're told that "within a few centuries of his death, Buddhism had become a religion." So which is it?

I suspect (though I could be wrong, since I know very little about the subject) that Buddhism as appropriated by Westerners in the 20th century and up to the present isn't really a "religion", but rather a form of therapy and self-hypnosis drawing on ideas and practices developed over the centuries by Buddhist monks (some of which might be traceable, in a shadowy way, to an historical "Buddha" - who presumably must have existed; after all, Karen Armstrong has written a "biography" of him). And it's tempting to contrast this pure, philosophical and mystical Buddhism with the divine pantheons, elaborate mythologies and reincarnated lamas that developed in many Buddhist countries. Tempting, but false; for the conclusion that should be drawn isn't that "religious" Buddhism is a degenerate form of an original non-religious philosophy, but rather that the Buddha's teaching turned out to be inadequate and had to be supplemented with all the usual paraphernalia of "religion" to make it work.

There's an important lesson here, but it's the opposite of the one that "sophisticated" (i.e. agnostic) religious apologists like Karen Armstrong tend to make. Religion is basically a placebo: it only works if you believe it, and the institutional and mythological undergirdings that sustain traditional religions are vital to its credibility. Strip them away, and you're left with little more than weak platitudes about "compassion". Armstrong claims that because all religions teach compassion, then compassion must be the core of all religious teaching. But that is reduce religion to ethics. Almost everyone accepts that it's possible to be ethical without being religious (it may even help); so there must be something else that explains the hold that religion continues to exert on most of the world's population. I would locate that something in the "extraneous" rituals, the untrue myths, the falsifiable truth-claims, the appeals to questionable authority. Religion is mainly about religion. Ethics, spirituality and cosmic awe (not to mention the actual ideas of the religion's founder) just occasionally come along for the ride. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Talking of Freedom

This is a guest post by James Rattue

On Monday night I led the first of our church’s Lent Talks this year. We discussed guilt. There are, I think, two aspects to guilt; the objective element, your responsibility for an event which has brought harm to other people, and the subjective one, your awareness of being responsible. Often, of course, the two are difficult to disentangle.

Great events happen in the world and we turn them over in our minds. We have opinions, and sometimes voice them. Depending on where they get voiced, and who we are, they can add to what is called a ‘public mood’, and contribute to what the people who actually decide things end up doing. It’s a remote, weak sort of responsibility, but even at the weakest, we can’t help thinking what we might do, were we actually in the position of deciding.

The military situation in Libya is an example. I’ve listened to news reports, talked about the crisis in various places online as well as in real life, and debated what I would do. Generally speaking, I’ve found myself feeling highly impatient with the approach the West has had towards the whole of the Middle East, propping up horrible autocracies because they happen to be convenient for our foreign policy objectives in the short term and, when freedom appears to be on the brink of breaking out, vacillating and hedging, apparently lacking the imagination to see how secular democracy is in everyone’s interests – oil-dependent Western nations, fearful Israelis, and the Arab peoples themselves. There are three things in which every human being has an investment: peace, freedom, and trade. We should not be afraid of championing them. Hark at me, the old liberal.

Now various nations in the name of the UN are bombing Libya and, much as we talk about legitimate targets and specific objectives, war almost always means civilians die. And even if the dead are not civilians, none of them are ever coming back. Soldiers, even mercenaries, they may be, yet they are each unique individuals, blotted out forever, at least in this world. When three men die in a burning tank, they are three men who won’t be going home, even if they were doing the will of a wicked autocrat. Hark at me, the old pacifist. We should be very, very sure of ourselves before we do this kind of thing.

For a war to be ‘just’ in the classic account it needs to stand some chance of success. The current military action against Colonel Gaddafi has already ‘succeeded’ in preventing an immediate massacre of rebels in Benghazi, but protecting the civilian population in the longer term means the rebels being able to hold their own against the Colonel, and they certainly seem incapable of doing little more than that. We hear today that they attempted to recapture Aydabija – the town that controls the water supply to Benghazi – and were easily repulsed by the government army. If they can’t advance against the government militarily, there doesn’t seem much prospect of support leaching away to them from the government, no matter how long they squat in the east of the country. As Yasmin Qureshi, one of the handful of MPs to vote against intervention yesterday, said, ‘We don’t really know who these rebels are, we don’t know how much support they really have, we don’t know anything about them’.

The trouble is, we thought we did. The BBC, at any rate, seemed for several weeks to know all about everything. You’ll forgive me for not quoting the exact words – they’re not available – but not long after hostilities broke out, revered correspondent John (‘I had written Ceaucescu’s obituary with his own gold pen’) Simpson was being jeeped down the road towards Tripoli with the rebels, reporting how it was only a matter of time before Gaddafi was out. ‘The air force has defected to the rebels, Colonel Gaddafi has a few thousand troops left at best’. Every hour brought news of some retired general or diplomat in the Libyan service who had denounced the government; there was momentum. Analysts and spokesmen appeared on the Today programme giving the dictator days, even hours, and nobody seriously queried it. Gaddafi’s own deranged rantings tempted commentators to assume they knew what was going on better than he did.

Then the tide turned. Days later, the same John Simpson was reporting to Today from Benghazi that ‘nobody’ there was calling for the establishment of a no-fly zone. ‘Nobody’, perhaps, apart from the ‘rebel leader’ who was the very next person interviewed that morning, who demanded just that. You can forgive Mr Simpson for believing what he was told; what’s more disturbing is the way the BBC editors didn’t question any of this confident but apparently amnesiac narrative, that vigorously asserted one thing and then its opposite. At first a democratic revolution was sweeping more or less bloodlessly across the land, people coming out to welcome it in town after town; then a dictator was brutally repressing his population with foreign mercenaries.

Was it really like that? When BBC correspondents were so confused, how can we say we genuinely know what was going on? Now reporters are admitting that the rebels’ account of what’s happening is far from reliable. They claimed they had captured Aydabija; correspondents went there and found Libyan government forces well entrenched. They continually exaggerate their success, minimise problems, expect sudden deliverances. They aren’t reliable, and the BBC seems only just to have discovered it.

The revolutionary narrative is one that at a very deep level we rather like, as it confirms our view of ourselves and the world. It reminds us of what happened twenty years ago in eastern Europe, and in fact of our own national stories of progressive advance, whether they follow the revolutionary model of France or the US, or our own more gradualist British history. We want everyone to follow the same pattern and enjoy the benefits we have won for ourselves; nothing wrong about that, until it amounts to pulling the wool over our own eyes. In 1989 we were led to believe, again by the enthusiasm of the media, that the student protests in Tiananmen Square represented the tip of the democratic iceberg in China, the yearning of its huddled millions to be free. They were, we now know, nothing of the sort. They were representative of an urban elite and not much of that. The rest of China, in so far as it had any opinion on the matter, supported their suppression. We don’t like that kind of thing; it doesn’t fit our fantasy that everyone wants the kind of freedom we would like them to have.

I was impressed to read one intervention in the Commons yesterday by Tory MP and former soldier Kris Hopkins, who’d heard a radio phone-in programme discussing whether Gaddafi should be killed:

There's nothing glorious in war. There's nothing romantic about it. And I would say to some members of the media who have portrayed some form of entertainment about what's going on, and what has gone on in previous wars, it is just not right. I'm afraid human beings need to commit brutal savage attacks on each other to win wars.

People were phoning in and it was almost like a gladiatorial thumbs-up or thumbs-down about what the populace thought - and I've got to say I was fairly disgusted about this form of entertainment, about the killing of another human being, however disgusting he is.


Which doesn’t tell you much, but is at least realistic, and acknowledges the role the media plays in shaping opinion. It doesn’t fit the narrative either.

Now the momentum of Arab revolution seems to be taking Yemen with it. Good if it does; as I say, peace, freedom and trade are in everyone’s interests. The West almost certainly won’t do much about Yemen, or Syria, or Saudi Arabia, and I don’t mind greatly; you do what you can, not what you can’t. But are we – reporters, public, and politicians – being deluded by our own liberal histories into seeing what isn’t there and, therefore, taking the wrong decisions? Again, in the Commons debate yesterday Rory Stewart, the MP for Penrith, revealed succinctly what I’m sure is the root of many people’s thinking:

If we had sat back and done nothing, people in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria would have concluded that we were on the side of oil-rich regimes against their people. We would have had no progressive narrative with which to engage the people of that region.


… and I have a degree of sympathy with that, too. But it results in just, prudent policy only if those people in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and elsewhere actually do think the way we are assuming they do. And that’s still unproven. As a coda, I’m reminded of what Silius, Messalina’s co-conspirator, says in Claudius the God: ‘You know how it is when one talks of liberty. Everything seems beautifully simple. One expects every gate to open and every wall to fall flat, and every voice to shout for joy’.

James (a.k.a. Weeping Cross) blogs at The Hearth of Mopsus
Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

So why DO we keep bombing Muslim countries?

Once again, Western countries are making war on (or, to be more precise, in) an Islamic country. First Iraq, then Somalia, then Afghanistan, then Iraq again, now Libya. And that's just since 1990. There was also the peace-keeping operation in Bosnia (which has a large Muslim population) in the early 1990s, with a follow-up attack on Serbia, ostensibly to protect the ethnically Albanian Kosovans, whose religion, once again, is Islam. And that's to say nothing of the constant, less formal but still enormous engagement of Western forces in places such as Pakistan and the Arabian peninsula. Whenever Western countries go to war, these days, most of the time the country they go to war in or with is Muslim.

Don't worry. I'm not turning into Osama Bin Laden, or one of the Islamist rentaquotes who pop up on the 24 hour news channels to denounce whatever it is the US and its allies are doing in the Middle East. But it's interesting - is it not? - that of all the countries of the world facing civil strife, where there is oppression, where doddery or thuggish dictatorships hold sway, American and European policy-makers seem only interested in the Muslim ones.

Zimbabwe? Sorry, Mugabe's a bastard but he's a Catholic bastard. Burma? What are they, Buddhist or something? Sorry, not interested. And sod, quite frankly, Tibet. Yes, I appreciate that no-one wants to tangle with the Chinese - but if the Dalai Lama were Sheikh D'al-Aylahma you can be sure the problem would be higher up the Western world's policy agenda. As for North Korea, that ticks all the boxes: totalitarian regime, loopy dictator, a full-on nuclear weapons programme, threats towards neighbours, even occasional acts of war. Everyone shrugs. North Korea might regularly appear near the top of lists of conflicts about to happen. But the war never quite starts.

It can't just be oil. Kosovo had no oil, and Libya's oil was flowing perfectly freely under the ruthless and weird, but ultimately pragmatic, Gaddafi. Terrorism is another generally assumed explanation for Western interest in what is lumped together as "the Islamic world". But, Donald Rumsfeld's wilder fantasies aside, there was no terrorist problem in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, while the vast majority of Libyan jihadists dwell in the heroic East of the country and hate Gaddafi's guts. He was, until this blew up, our ally. It's not evil Western colonialism, either - most of the time, these interventions are in large measure humanitarian or liberal in spirit, if not in result. So what is the factor X?

Not, I think, anything intrinsic in Islam itself. There is, of course, an expansionist strain in the religion that historically has regularly caused problems for the rest of the world. But this tendency has not predominated in all the Muslim countries in which the West has intervened during the past few decades, or even in most of them. And to adduce Islam as an explanation is in any event to consider the question backwards: for what puzzles me is not that newsworthy events happen in Muslim countries, but why newsworthy events in Muslim majority countries regularly trigger Western military intervention, while equally newsworthy events in other countries prompt, at most, hand-wringing and platitudinous expressions of sympathy. The answer cannot be a fact about Islam; it can only be a fact about ourselves.

A clue, perhaps - or at least a parallel case - lies in the Western media and political classes' ongoing obsession with Israel, the Palestinians, the "peace process" and all the whole interminable soap-opera. The relationship between the Jewish state and the inhabitants of the occupied territories is important to those who happen to live there, but scarcely matters to anyone else. It's an endless, unedifying property dispute which is as parochial as Northern Ireland or the Basque country. In a balanced world, it would be well down the diplomatic agenda. Instead, it is generally believed to be one of the most important questions of our age, the solution of which would hold the key to the peace of the entire region, if not the world. As if. Why is this minor problem given such undeserved prominence?

It might be that the creation of Israel was an event that had relevance to many in Europe and, especially, the United States; that the so-called Israel Lobby has helped maintain American interest and involvement; and that as a result anything to do with Israel is automatically "news". But what of the many Korean Americans? And there are no such special factors at play in Libya. I suggest the true answer lies much deeper and is rooted in primordial European fears: of the Muslim advance that was checked at Tours, of Turks at the gates of Vienna. It's not fear of Islam per se. Rather, it's a hard-to-shake-off sense that anything involving Muslims is somehow more pressing, more pregnant with potential trouble, or just somehow more important.

For reasons they do not fully grasp, Western journalists and policy-makers (one not leading the other - both groups think the same way) get excited when an event occurs somewhere in the world that has some Islamic dimension. Their interest is piqued, their pulses race faster, they start imagining hideous possibilities, they quickly become convinced that they should Do Something. And it's not long until the bombs start dropping. It's very strange.
Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Education Jamie Style

Chris Dillow is no fan of Jamie's Dream School, a preposterous Channel 4 reality show on which celebrity "teachers" try to inspire a group of NEETs with a love of learning. Although no-one seems to be watching. Predictably, the kids seem to have been chosen mainly for their massive egos and ability to play up to the cameras. As have the "teachers", especially one David Starkey, the overexposed Henry VIII bore absurdly billed by Jamie Oliver as "one of the world's top historians". (Teaching art is Rolf Harris, but even Jamie couldn't bring himself to describe him as the world's greatest living artist.) The format owes rather more to Big Brother than to the Big Society. In last night's tear-jerking climax, one girl won a holiday in Arizona after managing to spend three days sitting in a greenhouse with an alarmingly intense redhead.

As for the "headmaster", John "Dabbs" D’Abbro is certainly a bit wet. On last night's episode he called a special assembly to impose order on the unruly pupils - an attempt that lasted approximately 30 seconds as he was reduced to a quivering wreck by a motor-mouth ghetto princess named Harlem. Cue much earnest discussion of her diva-sized ego and "anger management issues". Harlem might not have succeeded in her school career, but she clearly has a deep understanding of the grammar of Reality TV - unlike the hapless D'Abbro, who really does seem to be under the impression that he's running an educational establishment. At the start, we were told that D'Abbro was an inspirational head who had turned around several failing schools. It makes you wonder what his predecessors must have been like.

D'Abbro inspired this wonderful observation from Chris Dillow, to draw your attention to which was my initial purpose in writing this little post:

A giveaway here was when he criticised David Starkey for making an “inappropriate” comment to a kid. Not “wrong”, note, but “inappropriate.”

The use of this word is a hallmark of a particular character that thrived under New Labour. It’s someone who is enough of a moral relativist not to want to use the terms “right” and “wrong”, but no so much of a relativist as they are prepared to forego the power and wealth that comes from passing judgment upon others.


How true.

Another linguistically interesting moment came when financial guru Alvin Hall, brought in to teach maths, expressed scepticism at Oliver's claim that the assembled NEETs were "bright". Some were clever, wily, or able to talk the hind-legs off a rhinoceros, but these educational failures, he opined, scarcely deserved the epithet "bright". But then he's an American, and in the US "bright" means "brilliant", whereas over here it has come to mean little more than "talkative." In our egalitarian culture the word has been subject to severe grade inflation, like exam results.

Talking of which, a new OECD report on the state of the British economy accuses the UK of lying about exam performance. A fairly extreme claim, perhaps, but it's hard to put any other spin on phrases like these:

"Official test scores and grades in England show systematically and significantly better performance than international and independent tests."

"The measures used by the Office for National Statistics... show significant increases in quality over time, while the measures based on cognitive tests not used for grading show declines or minimal improvements."

"Despite sharply rising school spending per pupil during the last ten years, improvements in schooling outcomes have been limited in the United Kingdom."

Jamie Oliver is trying to reach out to the kids failed by our educational system, but it's not clear that the "successes" are doing so much better - at least by international standards. "Bright" or otherwise, the students of Jamie's Dream Academy are certainly not stupid. So why did they do so badly at school? Behavioural problems - mainly arrogance and insolence - aside, it might just be that they had the insight to see through the phoniness and stultifying intellectual bankruptcy of what passes for education in many schools, even "high-performing" ones, and lacked the patience and natural conformity needed to jump through its many artificial hoops.
Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Hooray for the daffodil police


The daffodils are beginning to flower in the city where I now live, glorious along the riverbank. A symbol of Welshness it may officially be, but nothing - even the all-white inhabitants of picture-postcard fictional murder hotspots - is as evocative of England in the springtime as hosts of golden daffodils, fluttering and dancing in the breeze. They are cheap and plentiful, perhaps, but as Wordsworth noted they take pleasure in crowds, which is why they never look more joyous or spectacular than when arrayed in public parks, a common resource. Conversely, cut at the stem and dumped in jugs of water, they hang forlornly and quickly droop. "I gazed and gazed," wrote the poet, "but little thought /What wealth the show to me had brought." He did not take a scythe to the jocund company, congratulating himself on depriving others of the view.

But not everyone has the poetic sensibility. Not, for example, Jane Errington, a mother from Poole who was quite happy to let her three angelic daughters rip up several handfuls of daffodils from Whitecliffe Park. Not surprisingly, someone complained - either Councillor Peter Adams or someone close to him. "We are very proud of our parks and can't have people ripping up public property," he is quoted as saying. "The parents were encouraging them to do it and it is unacceptable." Quite right too.

The police turned up - this detail has been the focus of attention for a media ever-attuned for stories of bureacratic heavy-handedness and lazy mugger-dodging cops. Two constables are said to have observed the situation for around twenty minutes before walking up to the mother and her partner and pointing out that ripping out the council flowers constituted criminal damage. Quite apart from being monstrously anti-social. Ms Errington was furious - not with her delinquent children, though, but with the police who upset her little darlings. She suggests that "the police have better ways to spend their time and taxpayers' money." But do they? It's taxpayer's money, after all, that funds the daffodils in the first place and I for one am pleased that the police consider protecting the public environment a worthy use of their time.

Not that the police operation is beyond criticism. It's strange that the officers wasted twenty minutes "observing" the situation - during which time large numbers of daffodils will have been wantonly destroyed. Even then, it seems, it took Cllr Adams to (by his own account) "walk across to them and point out the family responsible" before anything was done. No-one was arrested (though they might well have been) and, unless the reports are missing something - the parents haven't even been asked to pay for replacing the daffodils. So what is Ms Errington's problem? Desire for publicity, perhaps? She claimed that her daughters had picked "only" around twenty flowers (Cllr Adams asserts that it was more like 70), and that she had no knowledge of what they were up to. The youngest is just four. Perhaps she was too busy watching the police watching her family to pay any attention to them herself.

The story doesn't say much for the Big Society, though, does it? Neglectful parents, disrespect for public amenities, police who sit around "observing" the daffodil massacre before plucking up the courage to intervene. The press, quick to decry or ridicule the "daffodil police" rather than ask what sort of society it is where parents don't, pre-emptively and as a matter of course, instill in their children that in a public park you DO NOT PICK THE FLOWERS. Even Cllr Adams, proud as he is of his council's floral display, and in a position of some authority, preferred to wait for the police to show up instead of complaining to the family himself. As a man of mature years, he was perhaps afraid the mother might accuse him of having some improper motive in noticing the behaviour of her daughters. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Writing tosh about Japan

Extraordinary people the Japanese. They have an intimate relationship with nature. They are intensely orderly. That's why there hasn't been any looting after the Tsunami (it's the culture, you see; nothing to do with there being nothing left to loot). Their buildings don't fall down, but they do build nuclear powerstations in seismically vulnerable places, just to show how modern they are. The Japanese economy was already shot to pieces before these disasters struck, and this is the final straw. Or perhaps it will give them just the impetus they need to rediscover their national mojo, rather like being bombed to pieces by the US Air Force did all those years ago.

There's been an amazing amount of guff along these lines in the past few days, far more than you usually get following a national disaster. The earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown has provided a convenient excuse for what seems to be an ever-present need to psychonalyse the Japanese. Lesley Downer is at it in the Telegraph, waxing lyrical about the low crime-rate, the socially devastating implications of standing up to take a shower and "Mount Fuji, eternally smoking." Since she's one of very few Westerners ever to train as a geisha, I assume she knows something about Japan - but as various commenters point out, it's almost impossible to find a photo of Mount Fuji fuming. Perhaps it just looks as though it should.

Never mind. The eternally (but invisibly) smoking Fuji is probably a metaphor for a people given to concealment, who make the allegedly uptight British seem like a nation of emotionally incontinent over-sharers, like the Italians. (Did you see what I did there?) Who knows what these people are really thinking? Inscrutability, the preservation of "face", stoicism, obedience to strict social disciplines - the natural consequence of living in tight confinement on a volcanic island. Perhaps it's all down to Shinto, with its acknowledgement of the animistic power of the natural world (and, unlike Christianity, no expectation that nature will respect human rationality) or Zen Buddhism with its attachment to the transience of things. Or perhaps it's the Samurai tradition, or there are lessons to be found in the tea ceremony. Or failing that, karaoke.

Alternatively, try Hokusai, the woodblock artist whose evocation of The Great Wave Off Kanagawa has been reproduced and discussed everywhere during the past week. The Wave threatens disaster, indifferent to the fate of the fishermen desperately rowing for shore. It is magnificent but deadly, and its magnificence and deadliness are of a piece. What a quintessentially Japanese idea.

But it's another Hokusai image I have in mind - the one that hangs in Brendan Cooper's office in Mad Men, the one known in the West as The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife. Though actually she's meant to be a pearl diver. You know the one. It's the one with the octopus. This one:


Now there's a metaphor for current situation: a huge mutant monster sucking lasciviously on a human body. She is, in this fantasy, orgasmic. But does the cephalopod actually care? Or is it - he? - about to engulf her, to eat her out literally as well as figuratively? Hard to tell. But either way, and whatever strange impulse brought her into the creature's lair, she is now totally at its mercy. The woman is obviously Japan, dangerously hooked on a transgressive form of energy generation, thinking only of its physical pleasures, oblivious to the precariousness of its situation. The octopus - a natural force, but one monstrously deformed by the human imagination - is a reactor about to blow. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 14 March 2011

When Gaddafi wins

Andrew Rawnsley asks if we are "content" to let Muammar Gaddafi triumph in Libya. Clearly he thinks not. The liberal interventionist instinct remains as strong as ever, despite what we learned (or ought to have learned) in Afghanistan and Iraq. But let's face the possibility - which increasingly looks like a probability - squarely in the face. Let's grant that Gaddafi's willingness to shed blood in order to cling onto power is contrary to most people's idea of decent dictator-behaviour when faced with popular demonstrations (which is, Mubarak-style, to accept the inevitable and go with a modicum of grace). Let's admit that morally (and, as Alex Massie points out) aesthetically, sitting on our collective hands and letting him get on with whatever he needs to do to stay in power is not a particularly attractive option. Practically, politically, financially there may be no other choice. And doing nothing is less embarrassing than doing something only to find out that it is not enough. In any case, even with his tanks and aerial bombardments, even without the no-fly zone, Gaddafi's ability to kill people looks somewhat puny compared with what a big wave can accomplish in Japan. As the world's media has quickly discovered.

Here's a question our armchair warriors should be considering. Would Gaddafi's survival and victory actually be such a bad thing? Would it really be worse than the alternative - which might just be the glorious and trouble-free dawn of democracy but could just as well be a messy, drawn-out civil war?

Gaddafi, eccentric and occasionally unpredictable as he undoubtedly is, is a known quantity. The world has had 42 years to get used to his foibles - and in his post-Iraq incarnation has been an increasingly useful business and intelligence partner for the West. Even during his days of IRA-supporting international roguery, his oddly-constituted regime was relatively stable and (thanks to oil) prosperous. We laughed at his drag-act costumes, his revolutionary pretensions and his female bodyguards - but such peculiarities made the international community a more colourful, less conformist place. And is not Gaddafi's insistence on surrounding himself with gun-toting Amazons a more progressive, forward-looking gesture than the fully elected Berlusconi's desire to surround himself with an altogether different sort of female corps de garde? Tony Blair may have ingratiated himself with the Tripolitan Tinpot - but his other friends included Nelson Mandela, a man whose judgement is usually deferred to in such matters. Gaddafi, in short, was never entirely mad, not inequivically bad, and rarely dangerous to know. He was a man with whom we could, and did, do business, and will do so again.

It's been said many times over the past week or so that if Gaddafi prevails, the region's other despots, dictators and autocrats will take the message that the way to prevail is to employ overwhelming force against one's own people, to win through intimidation and violence, to face down the posturing of the "international community." Not to go quietly, as Mubarak did. But what dictator worth his salt has ever thought any differently? Mubarak stepped down, it's true - but he was told to go by Egypt's real power-brokers, the generals, who calculated (rightly, as it will probably turn out) that the both their power and their international credibility could best be preserved by giving the crowd an easy sacrifice. Nor did he want to be remembered as the man who bathed Egypt in blood. Very different considerations obtain in Libya. Besides, the message was already clear after the brutal suppression of Iran's Green Movement in 2009. Most attempted revolutions fail. Only regimes that are already tottering, that have already lost the will to rule, fall to "people power". A regime that wants to stay in power, that is ruthless enough to enforce its will, generally can - or at least, like Apartheid South Africa, survive long enough to negotiate the most favorable terms of surrender.

Gaddafi's survival will not be a betrayal of Libyan rebels of whose existence the world was unaware until a couple of weeks ago. It will be little more than the reassertion of international normality. And it will go some way towards restoring stability to a region vital to the world economy. If it stalls the toppling of the Arab dominoes, it wil also help to stabalise the oil price. It will be bad news for Al Qaeda and others who dream of a religious caliphate, who have in Gaddafi an effective opponent. It will save the need to rewrite foreign policy or redraw the map of the Middle East - especially if its effect is to embolden the even-less-democratic governments of other key players in the region (many of whom are now hypocritically denouncing the Libyan regime as "illegitimate").

No-one, of course, wants to see a massacre. But the way to prevent one is to offer Colonel Gaddafi carrots instead of sticks, to promise him the unfreezing of his assets and a swift return to business as usual provided he shows some measure magnanimity in his triumph. Perhaps his friends in South America are better placed than Western governments to appeal to his better instincts. But since the world community will soon be welcoming him back - if not with open arms, then with a forced smile - it is in all our interests (and especially those of the Libyan people themselves) to ensure that the process is as made pain-free as possible.
Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Sex discrimination and insurance

Even a broken clock is accurate twice a day, and this morning's European Court ruling on the legality of sex discrimination in insurance claims was welcome and right.

It is of course true that male drivers - especially young male drivers - cause more accidents than female ones. On that basis, many people (most of them, strangely enough, men) seem to have bought the insurance industry's self-interested case that offering women lower premiums is somehow fair. It isn't. Men are not, generally or on average, more dangerous drivers than women. The majority of drivers, male and female alike, do not cause accidents. It's just that, of the minority of drivers who are reckless, most of them happen to be men, and a high proportion of those are young or inexperienced. Culture or testosterone may be relevant factors for those drivers, helping to explain the differential. But even young male drivers are more likely than not to drive safely. Penalising half of all drivers on the basis of their genitalia is thus not fair at all.

Insurance works by spreading risk among a large number of people: in motor insurance the cautious subsidise the reckless, and since there are fewer of them, the reckless get by far the best deal (until, that is, they have demonstrated their recklessness by causing accidents, at which point they may struggle to find anyone willing to insure them at all. In life assurance and pensions plans the prematurely dying subsidise the long-lived, and centenarians scoop something of a jackpot. Women, on average, live longer than men, and on this basis have lost out in pension calculations. But all this means is that there are more older women than there are older men (and many more female centenarians). The gap, though, is narrowing, and may owe almost as much to lifestyle factors than to a biological predisposition. Even the fact that more men die in accidents skews the figures somewhat. The actuarial difference does not mean that any particular man is likely to die sooner than any particular women, or that any given male driver is a greater accident risk than any given female driver. Yet that is how the insurance industry treats people.

Imagine that it was discovered that statistically gay male drivers were less likely to cause accidents than heterosexual ones. Would it be acceptable for insurance companies to ask customers to reveal their sexual orientation, and to offer lower premiums to homosexuals? (It would be wrong forprecisely the same reason that sex discrimination is wrong: the low number of gay dangerous drivers would not cause any particular straight driver to drive badly.) What if being black turned out to be a risk factor for involvement in a car accident? I suspect few people today would defend penalising ethnic minorities in car insurance. Yet the principle involved is the same. I also wonder if the present scheme would enjoy such widespread assent if it was women who were charged more for car insurance - just try to imagine how the male equivalent of the Sheilas Wheels commercial would go down with the gender police.

Men are not dangerous drivers because they are men - if that were true, then the safe male driver would be in the minority. And if that were true, driving - for anyone other than a professional - would have been banned decades ago. Read the rest of this article