Wednesday, 28 December 2011

David Cameron's fatal addiction

It's a general rule of policy-making in a state run by the medical-bureaucratic complex (which is most Western states these days) that the sledgehammer is only brought out once the nut has already been cracked.

Thus it has been with smoking. When a high proportion of the population smoked, measures aimed at tackling the carcinogenic habit were relatively benign: small health warnings on cigarette-packets, no-smoking areas on trains, a ban on prime-time adverts for cigarettes (but not, interestingly, cigars called Hamlet). Once the numbers of tabacco-addicts (for no-one could possibly want to smoke for any other reasons) had been reduced to a small but stubborn hard core - largely as a result of changing social mores and the spread through the population of awareness of the health risks - it was time to bring out the Big Bazookas: complete bans on smoking in public places, plain packaging, under-the-counter transactions, intentionally prohibitive levels of taxation.

The official discouragement of smoking has now gone way beyond anything necessary for the protection of health and amounts to the persecution of an increasingly unpopular minority. But of course. As the harm reduces, so the zeal of the harm-reducers increases, as they focus all their energy and determination on ever-smaller numbers of the recalcitrant. At the same time, new targets come into their sights, as though in compensation.

So it now is with alcohol. Alcohol consumption in the UK in fact peaked in 2004 and has been declining ever since. It's now 11% lower than it was. There was an especially large fall in 2009. The UK ranks also below the European average in terms of consumption, an underreported fact that may have something to do with Britain's having the second-highest level of alcohol duty in the EU. The fall in consumption has been most dramatic among young people (the same is true of smoking) as a combination of draconian ID-checks (these days, you're lucky to be sold a bottle of wine no questions asked if you're under 40), rising prices and a media obsession with teenage drunkeness has made the traditional slow transition to the adult world of social drinking far more difficult to accomplish. This, of course, may help to explain why, when they finally are allowed to drink, so many young people seem unable to handle it.

And what of the commonly bandied-about claims about ever-increasing rates of "alcohol-related" disease and hospital admission? We may, of course, be dealing with the legacy of a former wave of alcohol consumption that has largely passed. The most serious impact of alcohol on health is gradual and reflects a lifetime of immoderate drinking and can take decades to manifest, for all the media's enthusiasm for scare-stories about (very rare) 25-year olds with cirrhosis.

"Britain’s problem with alcohol is not due to price, but a culture of excessive consumption," says the Telegraph. Actually, excessive consumption isn't the problem (by European standards, it is not excessive). Culture, though, is. What causes the Hogarthian scenes that disfigure town centres of a Friday or Saturday evening? Not alcohol, but rather a set of cultural beliefs about alcohol that produces (prompts, encourages, excuses) loutish behaviour. Read Kate Fox's Watching the English if you don't believe me. She discusses psychological experiments that show people will get drunk on placebos while staying sober on alcohol that they believe to be water, and notes that "many other nations manage to consume much larger quantities of alcohol without becoming rude, violent and generally disgusting." She writes:

These basic facts are, among my fellow cross-cultural researchers, so obvious and commonplace as to be tedious. We are certainly all very weary of repeating them, endlessly, to audiences who either cannot or will not accept their validity. Much of my professional life has been spend on alcohol-related research and my colleagues and I have been trotting out the same irrefutable evidence for over a decade, every time our expertise is called upon by government departments, police conferences, worried brewers and other concerned agencies.

Everyone is always highly surprised... and politely determined to let nothing shake their faith in the evil powers of the demon drink. It's like trying to explain teh causes of rain to some remote mud-hut tribe in thrall to the magic of witch-doctors and rain-makers.

As for those figures about hospital admissions, Tim Worstall explains why they cannot be trusted here. You really must read it.

A second general rule also applies here: the more alarming the statistics appear to be, the less alarming the statistics actually are. I suspect there are two reasons for this. First, because of the sledgehammer rule: the less serious the problem, the more motivated the campaigners (who are never satisfied) will tend to be. Second, because where statistics speak for themselves (because they are truly alarming), they speak for themselves. When they aren't actually too bad, the campaigners can only get their point across by shouting loudly, exaggerating, talking up the worst case scenario and playing down the good news. So they present the media with generous dollops of juicy alarmism.

Two media organisations in particular enjoy scaring their audience with exaggerated levels of gloom. The Daily Mail and the BBC. Draw your own conclusions about that unholy alliance.

It's not just alcohol and tobacco that regularly get this level of alarmist coverage. It's also... illegal drugs, obesity, sex-trafficking, climate change, internet porn and the "sexualisation of childhood".

Which is where David Cameron comes in. Today the Telegraph reports that he "has ordered officials" to draw up plans for minimum pricing of alcohol, against the opposition of the Buisness Department (which worries that it might be illegual under EU regulations) and the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, who favours a voluntary approach. This is being presented as part of a personal moral crusade by the prime minister, who (the Telegraph ominously reports) "is thought to have opted for a big bang approach to the alcohol problem after noting the success of the ban on smoking in public places."

This comes days after Cameron's plans to implement to the max the recommendations of Reg Bailey's seriously flawed review into the "commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood" - including, I note, a ban on allowing under-16s to earn money as "brand ambassadors" in peer-to-peer marketing. This idea has long been a particular obsession of David Cameron's. Rumour has it that he had specifically asked Bailey to recommend such a ban when he set up the review - and Bailey duly obliged, although if you read the report carefully you'll discover that the proposal attracted almost no support among parents.

Nanny statism, of course, is what happens when the government takes the regulation of morality away from bishops and gives it to doctors, social workers and professional experts. Cameron champions personal responsibility, but proposals like these suggest that he instinctively doesn't trust people to make their own decisions. His clumsy, ill-directed moralism is increasingly irritating, even to many Conservatives.

But then who ever became a politician because they disliked telling other people what to do?
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Thursday, 22 December 2011

The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of Kim Jong-Il

According to tradition, the assassination of Julius Caesar was attended, both before and after, by frightening and mysterious portents. Suetonius records that an ancient prophecy had been unearthed warning that "a man of Trojan stock will be murdered by his kindred"; that a herd of horses released by Caesar when he crossed the Rubicon had run amok; that a wren clutching in its beak a sprig of laurel had flown into the senate house pursued by a flock of other birds which tore it to pieces. And after his funeral a comet appeared, interpreted by many as representing the soul of Caesar ascending into heaven and taking its place among the gods.

Plutarch's catalogue of wonders is more dramatic still, featuring "lights in the heavens, crashing sounds borne all about by night, and birds of omen coming down into the forum". Shakespeare put these and other portents into the mouth of Calpurnia, Caesar's wife:

A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawn'd, and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.

Calpurnia is sure that these events portend some dire event affecting her husband, because the gods take special notice of the passing of great and powerful men:

When beggars die, there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.

Perhaps it's only to be expected that the passing of North Korea's Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il should in a similar manner be reflected in strange natural phenomena, as the North Korean news agency KCNA reports.

On Saturday morning when Kim died, we learn, layers of ice ruptured with an unprecedented loud crack at Chon Lake on Mount Paektu - the place where the country's founding father Kim Il-sung established a secret base from which he fought a guerilla campaign against the Japanese during the Second World War - and a snowstorm and strong winds hit the area.

In official histories, Mount Paektu was also the birthplace of Kim Jong-il in 1942.

The snowstorm is said to have ended suddenly at dawn on Tuesday and the sunrise lit up the horizon and the mountain peaks - no doubt suggestive of the Dear Leader's blessing upon his anointed heir, Kim Jong-Un, and of the bright new dawn awaiting the nation under the wise leadership of the Great Successor. Indeed, we're told that a message from Kim Jong-il carved on the rocks - "Mt Paektu, holy mountain of revolution. Kim Jong-il" - glowed brightly in a phenomenon that lasted until Tuesday evening.

A glow was seen atop the mountain's Jong-il Peak for half an hour on Monday when the death was announced by Pyongyang, while on Tuesday a crane was observed flying three times around Kim Il-Sung's statue on Tonghung Hill in the northeastern city of Hamhung.

The crane stayed there for quite a long while with its head bowed and flew in the direction of Pyongyang. Observing this, the director of the Management Office for the Hamhung Revolutionary Site and others said in unison that even the crane seemed to mourn the demise of Kim Jong-il, born of heaven, after flying down there at dead of cold night, unable to forget him.

The phrase "born of heaven" interestingly recalls the traditional title of the Chinese emperors, "Son of Heaven".

If the official reporting of omens seems bizarre, it also seems of a piece with the peculiar cultlike atmosphere of the North Korean state. Officially the country is a people's republic founded on the Communist principles of Marx and Lenin, but the accession of the grandson of the founder is no less monarchical an event than was the succession of Roman emperors (who also claimed, for several centuries at least, to be merely the first citizens of a republic - while at the same time being worshipped as gods). The Kim is dead, long live the Kim.

The contrast between the pretensions of the Kim dynasty and the reality of the creaking, poverty-stricken and miserable country over which they preside (about which even Noam Chomsky was unable to say anything complimentary) makes the effusion of grief for the Dear Leader seem risible as well as sinister and sad. It is orchestrated, compulsory, suspiciously over-the-top grief. In such a climate, hyperbolic claims that nature itself is mourning appear as yet more evidence of the regime's detachment from reality, its absorption in a bonkers cult of personality. Kim Jong-Il himself seems to have been more Caligula than Augustus.

But are we looking at superstition or manipulation? The omens that were said to have attended the passing of Julius Caesar may have had their basis in rumours that were circulating at the time (with or without official encouragement) but there's no doubt that belief in Caesar's cosmic significance played an important part in rallying support to his official successor, Octavian (later Augustus). After Octavian won his struggles with Brutus and later Mark Antony and sought to consolidate his own dynastic rule, building up the cult of a deified Julius Caesar was a means of establishing his own legitimacy as ruler. That celestial events attended his death was evidence not just of Caesar's own greatness but of his successor's reflected glory.

All three generations of Kims play their part in these reported omens. Mount Paektu was the scene of Kim Il-Sung's heroic wartime battles and one of its peaks was named after his son, while the bright glow that was seen there is suggestive of future promise. And it's surely significant that the crane was seen to fly three times around the statue of Kim Il-Sung - once for the father, once for the son, and once for the grandson. The crane may have been "mourning", as the official account claims. But in Eastern mythology, cranes are symbols of prosperity and good fortune - and also of long life. The message is clear. Heaven smiles upon the House of Kim, and will continue to do so for many years to come.
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Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Book Review: This Saint Will Change Your Life

This Saint will change your life by Thomas Craughwell (Quirk Books £13.99)

This sometimes fascinating, often bizarre collection of 300 patron saints is written in an light but not overly sceptical style: just pious enough to satisfy believers without quite concealing the far-fetched and accidental nature of many of the saintly affiliations. Dark humour abounds, especially in the gruesomely baroque tales of martyrdom. St Barbara was beheaded by her own father, who thereupon exploded: she is now the patron saint of gunpowder. St Quentin is patron saint of coughs, because according to legend his torturers poured a mixture of lime, vinegar and mustard down his throat (which makes one wonder, adds Craughwell, why he isn't also invoked against gagging).

Patron saints are probably, in essence, a diluted survival of paganism, where there was a god for everything, but they are still being awarded contracts today. There's a patron saint of blogging, apparently (it's St Augustine of Hippo, on account of his prolific and sometimes confessional output) and, believe it or not, of disputed elections. Though that one seems to be a little tongue in cheek: it's St Chad, as in "hanging" chad, and he's only had the job since the Bush/Gore stand-off in 2000. A better-deserved affiliation is that between St Bernadino of Siena and the advertising industry. Bernardino invented (or at least popularised) the IHS logo often found on altar-cloths and clerical vestments.

There's a strange specificity - and ingenuity - on display in such cases as that of St Elizabeth of Hungary, patron saint of those who get on badly with their in-laws, or St Dominic Savio, the patron saint of hoodies (who sounds from the account like he should really be the patron saint of swotty kids in glasses). The shortest straw may have been drawn by St Germaine Cousin, in life cursed with "a withered right arm and a disfiguring skin condition" and unsightly swellings on her neck, abused by her family for her whole life and dead at twenty-two. Even in death there's no escape for the poor girl, who now rejoices in the title "patron saint of the physically unattractive."

There are some signs of bowdlerism in this book. Mary Magdalene is listed only as patron saint of hairstylists, on account of her traditionally luxuriant tresses. "She was not a prostitute", insists Craughwell. But how does he know? There's more evidence for that than for the idea that she had good hair. And no implications should be drawn from the fact that hairdressers and prostitutes share the same patron saint.

Another puzzling one: St Thomas is listed here as patron saint of construction workers, on the basis of a bizarre legend in which he defrauded an Indian king, promising to build him a palace but actually giving the money to the poor. When the king understandably objected, and threatened to have Thomas killed, the saint explained that a glorious palace awaited him in heaven. That was good enough for the king, it seems: a more gullible character, obviously, than Thomas himself, who I always assumed was the patron saint of sceptics. But he should really be the patron saint of con-men.

There's plenty more unsaintly behaviour on show. St Vladamir was a rapist and murderer. Pope Callixtus I, as a slave, stole his master's money and spent it on dodgy investments. Saint Camillus de Lellis was an out-and-out con man who "liked whoring and drinking, and was blessed with a gift for gambling and swearing". The Blessed Angela of Foligno was a sort of Anna Nicole Smith figure who cheated on her rich but aged husband and, too embarrassed to confess, carried on going to communion. (That, from a Catholic point of view, was of course far worse than the adultery.) But they all repented in the end, so they got to be saints. No entirely fair.

St Sebastian is the patron saint of atheists. That sounds promising. But no, he is "invoked for the conversion, or at least the confounding, of atheists and all enemies of Christianity", which isn't the same thing at all.

This Saint Will Change Your Life is available on Amazon here.
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Sunday, 18 December 2011

Is carol-singing in pubs proof that we still live in a Christian country?

How do Christians get away with it? asks Rev. Julian Mann

It came home to me as a group from our church were singing Christmas carols in our local pub: profoundly counter-cultural words and socially subversive truth-claims are wrapped up in an acceptable packaging of nostalgia and collective memory.

The look on the face of the barman, though, made me suspect that the cultural wrapping paper might be wearing a bit thin. But that could have been my singing.

Consider the second verse of the Christina Rossetti poem ‘In the Bleak Mid-winter’, sung magnificently incidentally by Annie Lennox on her 2010 Christmas album: ‘Our God, heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain, heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign; in the bleak mid-winter a stable-place sufficed the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.’

The outcry if that were sung in a Hallal supermarket in Tower Hamlets would in a sense be more honest than the passive acceptance of a village pub. The drinkers there do not actively believe the astonishing claim of the Rossetti poem – that a human baby, born 2000 years ago, was God Incarnate, the exclusive self-revelation of the Divine.

Consider too ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, which is hardly flattering about human nature: ‘O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray: cast out our sin, and enter in; be born in us today.’

Phillips Brooks’s 19th century carol might not be highly favoured by anti-Israeli English clergy but it proved utterly uncontroversial to the Sunday evening crowd at a 21st century public house.

Perhaps the majority of the regulars ticked the Christian box in the census, but the truth-claims in carols like those certainly make little practical difference to their daily lives or even to their lives for an hour or so once a week.

They don’t even attend Sunday worship.

Arguably, the fact that English Christians can get away with carol singing in a pub is a sign of the weakness of English Christianity.

If we Christians were making more impact on our local communities for the counter-cultural truths the Christmas carols communicate, would the residents be quite so comfortable with us?

Is it because we pose no threat that they allow us to come and sing our beliefs in their social space?

A polite refusal from a pub landlord or at least a complaint might actually be a sign that a local church is making an impact for Christianity in its community.
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Friday, 16 December 2011

Farewell to the Hitch

When I woke up this morning it was snowing and a voice on the radio was saying that Christopher Hitchens was dead. We had all been expecting it, but it's still a shock. The world is full of tributes to today and I don't want to add to the pile, except to say that reading him, or (even more so) watching him talk, invariably left me feeling pointless and inadequate. He was, at times (to borrow Disraeli's famous put-down of Gladstone) inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity. But the world offered few sights more exhilarating than Hitchens in full flow.

On Radio 4 this morning, Hitchens' friend Ian McEwan gave us a moving glimpse of his last days, hooked up to morphine, lapsing repeatedly into unconsciousness, yet somehow finding reserves of strength to tap out his final articles. The mind was working at full capacity right to the end, still challenging lazy assumptions, still interrogating himself and the world.

Not a good way to go, perhaps, but a way to go well. What a contrast, though, to the iron constitution described by Toby Young in his poignant but clear-eyed tribute:

Alcohol had the opposite effect on Christopher that it has on most people. Instead of making him fuzzy and sentimental, it seemed to clear his head – and the drunker he got, the more accurate and deadly his mind became. He wasn't merely born a couple of gin-and-tonics below par. He was born a bottle of vodka below par – and I do mean a whole bottle. Quantities of alcohol that would leave ordinary mortals face down in their own vomit had the same effect on Hitchens as a strong cup of coffee. I remember one drinking session at the house of the journalist Nicholas Lezard in Shepherd's Bush. We sat up all night arguing – Hitch didn't really do small talk – and, at 7am, when I staggered out into the dawn, Christopher asked if he could share a cab with me. He was due at Television Centre to do an on-air review of the morning's papers at 7.30am.

Truly a creature from another age.

If God exists, I hope He won't be giving Christopher Hitchens too hard a time of it today. No-one less deserves an eternity of hellfire and damnation. Any God who sentenced Hitchens to such a fate would surely merit every last ounce of vitriol the writer ever flung at him, and more. There is, perhaps, a special place in heaven reserved for morally courageous atheists like Hitch, a place from which they can sit for eternity throwing insults at their creator.

It could be that the Almighty has a more ironic fate in store for one of his most eloquent critics - an eternity sitting in the divine chariot, perhaps, whispering "Remember, God, that You do not exist!" into the Sempiternal ear. A God like that would almost be worth believing in. Almost. Mind you, I don't think that Hitchens would have anything to feel embarrassed about as he approached the pearly gates. His main point, after all, was not that God did not exist but that He was Not Great.

Better for God that He does not exist than that He now has to look Christopher Hitchens in the face.
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Thursday, 15 December 2011

British Muslims and the politics of patriotism

This is a guest post by LibertyPhile.

The Daily Mail ran “Muslims 'are more patriotic than most British people'” The Sunday Times said “Muslim's prove to be Britain's greatest flag wavers”. And the Daily Star shouted “MUSLIMS TOP PRIDE CHARTS”.

All this sprung from survey results published in November by Demos, a think-tank that claims to be “focused on power and politics”.

If you visit the Demos website press release that was issued with the publication of the report, A Place for Pride, you will find the following:

One of the press releases …. made reference to the fact that 83 per cent of Muslims covered by the poll responded that they were 'proud to be a British citizen', comparing that figure to a baseline - drawn from the whole sample [of 2086 British people] - of 79 per cent. This aspect of the Demos report was widely reported in the press.

It should be noted, however, that the sample size for British Muslims was relatively small, just 48 people, and it is questionable whether confident statements can be made on that basis about one group being more proud of their British identity than another.

48 Muslims! Anyone with any knowledge of statistics or market research will cringe at this. Even people with a modicum of common sense might do the same.

Comparing 83% of 48 with 79% of 2086 is statistical nonsense. And statistics apart, there is the enormous difficulty of recruiting representative samples which Demos doesn’t mention. Exactly how representative of the British Muslim population might these 48 be!

Based on my personal experience of Muslims I am willing to believe that most of my Muslim fellow British citizens are as patriotic and as proud of their country as the next man.

There will be differences - different understandings of patriotism, and pride in one’s country, and people will come to it in different ways.

Various factors play a part. History is important for some; your country’s achievements, what earlier generations endured and came through, what individuals did. The character of its people and their social mores may be important. You can also be proud of your country because it is a decent place to live here and now.

And there is no reason why two citizens of equal patriotism, pride in their country, cannot still hold starkly different views on good and bad behaviour and what is best for their country.

The Demos report is all about patriotism and the role of personal and national pride and the “misreporting” concerning Muslims is a minor feature.

A more interesting result is 88 per cent of Anglicans (and Jews) agreed that they were “proud to be a British citizen” alongside 84 per cent of non-conformists (and the 83 per cent of Muslims already mentioned) compared with 79 per cent for the population as a whole (p39). One assumes there were more than 48 Anglicans. It is a fact that religious people are more likely that non-believers to be proud of their country.

It is a tedious read (a 90 page pamphlet!) but you can also hear one of the authors, Max Wind-Cowie, and Telegraph columnist Charles Moore discuss some of the issues here.

Amongst a range of findings which the report itself admits “your granny could have told you” and opinions, it criticises what it believes is the right wing attitude to patriotism.

…. the right’s pantheon of patriotism is largely determined by a narrow, historical and sometimes mythological set of beliefs about Britain, which are unbendable, unchanging and increasingly inaccessible. The royal family, spitfires, the Houses of Parliament and the Union Jack …. (p76)

Those on the right have insisted that people attach their pride to a set of institutions and persons that are less and less relevant to people’s experience of Britain or to the sources of their everyday pride. (p79)

This isn’t the result of dodgy sample analysis, it is the prejudice of the authors.

They should have specifically surveyed right wingers. They might have found that where symbols are concerned they symbolise something, more often than not what people have done, those spitfire pilots for example.

Indeed, the research for the report shows what people do is of paramount importance. Behaviours and actions make people feel proud of their community or country; volunteering, for example.

I didn’t know until I read this report that the British are among the most likely people in the world to give up our time to volunteer. We have significantly higher levels of social action – and a greater independent charitable sector – than most European countries.

They quote one respondent saying “When you ask about what’s best about being British I think of all the people that give up their time to help other people, or to do good things in the community. That’s what makes me proud of this country.”

Also on the positive side the report makes some useful recommendations highlighting the importance of oral history, what older people have to tell children about their experiences of events. Though one’s enthusiasm for what Demos have in mind is somewhat blunted by the examples they give.

My grandson, he doesn’t know anything really about my life. The Miner’s Strike, the Winter of Discontent, even the referendum on Europe – he’s never been taught about any of it. Ask him about the Victorians and he could tell you though. (p56)

The research work for the pamphlet, the poll of 2080 citizens and an (unspecified) number of focus groups, produced several findings which Demos have not publicised, though in the body of the text they say “This is a worrying set of results”.

They concern integration and the poll result that “Only two in five people believe ‘immigration contributes to Britain’s culture’.

…. they too [the focus groups] highlighted genuinely held concern that local and national pride are being damaged by mass immigration and, particularly, by a perceived failure of arrivals to fully integrate into British life and the communities to which they move. (p30)

British people associate their pride heavily with actions and behaviours rather than with esoteric concepts …. social action, common manners and customs are vital to British people understanding and celebrating their communities and national sense of self: the perceived lack of integration among migrant communities therefore is a real threat to collective pride: (p32)

In a report summary Demos say “…. patriotism does not, and should not, come from either top-down narratives about Queen and country nor from so-called ‘progressive’ notions based on values.” Demos seem to have mixed feelings about values.

But, values do come in to it. The report reveals “82 per cent of respondents agreed that the naturalisation process should include a ‘values test’. Our qualitative research reinforced this. …. Far more important, they argued, was that the [citizen] test should ensure a person shared British values and was involved in British society. (p53/54)

Regarding integration and values we can return to those headlines at the beginning. The Gallup Coexist 2009 survey is quoted by some sources some sources as confirming them. The Gallup survey is based on a sample of 500 British Muslims, not an enormous number but a big improvement on Demos. Gallup also interviewed 1000 non-Muslims. It did similar Muslim non-Muslim surveys in France and Germany

The Gallup survey claims 80% of British Muslims are loyal. It doesn’t define or explain what is meant by loyalty. Patriotism, pride in one’s country, may or may not have been a factor. It comes up with other, quite specific, results too, that show there are serious differences between many British Muslims and their fellow citizens.

Even though hiding your face in public is considered rude unless you are ill, in mourning or it’s very cold, British Muslims don’t care. See here. Only 12% think not wearing the veil is a necessary condition of integration. For French and German Muslims, 32% and 29% see it as necessary.

British Muslims show less respect for other religions than Muslims in France and Germany. See here. Almost 80% of German Muslims strongly agree that they respect other religions but only 50% of British Muslims feel the same.

There is a striking difference between British Muslims and the British public over freedom of speech. See here. Only 9% of British Muslims agree that integration means accepting public comments they perceive as offensive about their faith.

British Muslims are the least integrated in Europe. See here. Using a battery of related questions Gallup determined that only 10% of British Muslims are “integrated”. Gallup give a definition of integration. In France and Germany Gallup found 46% and 35% of Muslims respectively are integrated.

Who’s proud of this?!

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Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Rowan Williams' response to the riots

Rowan Williams has been reflecting on the summer's riots in the Guardian. He asks:

How do we as a society back up good lessons in the home and show that we corporately want what a good family wants – mutual attention and affirmation, stability and emotional literacy, a sense of value that doesn't depend on accessories?

His answer is vague, indeed tautological, in the extreme:

We have to persuade them, simply, that we as government and civil society alike will put some intelligence and skill into giving them the stake they do not have.

More interesting is what he doesn't say, which is that religion might have any role to play in instilling a sense of values and responsibility in young people.

In the course of an eleven hundred word article, Williams avoids mentioning "God", "Jesus", "Christianity" or "religion" even once. There are no Biblical quotations, no drawing on the wealth of Christian social teaching, no examples drawn from the life of Christ or the writings of any major theologian. Nothing that could not have been written by a fully-committed atheist of similarly left-leaning persuasion. The archbishop mentions a report compiled on behalf of the Children's Society without hinting at the charity's close links with the Church of England.

Nor is there a single reference to the work of clergy in inner cities. Yet the churches have a good story to tell here. It's unlikely that many of the rioters were committed Christians or regular churchgoers. Many Christian clergy and leaders of other faiths have done remarkable work among the socially excluded, and have been doing so at least since the foundation of the Salvation Army way back in the 19th century.

Coming from a Christian leader - indeed, the country's most prominent and senior Christian leader, the religious head of the established church - these omissions are rather striking.

Rowan Williams' politics are one thing. Some will nod in agreement at the archbishop's characterisation of the rioters as disappointed, disaffected youth, whose "vague but strong longings for something like secure employment" have been thwarted by unstable families and a failed education system. Others will note that the commandment Thou Shalt Not Steal does not come hedged about with sociological caveats. But that's a different argument. The Bible and Christian tradition contain resources enough to support both conservative and socialist arguments. So why not use them?

Without any explicit religious underpinning, or any other, Williams' comments are mere verbiage. For he fails to offer the solutions that, presumably, he believes would make a radical difference to the lives of young people trapped in a cycle of inner-city deprivation. "Young people need love," he writes. Do they, perhaps, need the love of God? They need "a dependable background for their lives, emotionally and socially... that helps them take certain things for granted so that they know they don't have to fight ceaselessly for recognition." Might religion help to shore up such a background? Williams doesn't tell us. He appears not to have even considered the question. Surely one would expect a leading clergyman to argue, and think, that the hopelessness that blights so many lives is as much spiritual as economic.

It has been suggested to me that there is indeed a deep theological perspective lurking behind Williams' pop sociology. I've no doubt that there is - in, for example, his comments on the shallowness of consumerism and its "fierce Darwinian hierarchy of style" (great phrase, that). But it takes a theologian to spot it.

Bishops are expected (or assume themselves) to be experts on morality, but they derive that status from the ancient and still resonant association between morality and faith. Rowan Williams is posing here as a standalone moral philosopher, or, worse, as an opinionated columnist. He fails to make clear the connection with his views on society and politics with his Christianity. He seems almost to be embarrassed by it. Yet without God he is nothing. Just what is the point of an archbishop who doesn't do God?
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Tuesday, 6 December 2011

An Onion for Christmas

That hyper-modern news outlet the Onion has an old-fashioned seasonal book out, Christmas Exposed. A compilation of spoof Christmas stories from the past decade, it's rather a hit-or-miss affair (and somewhat adolescent at times), but there are some cracking entries, graced with such surreal headlines such as "Feds uncover secret Santa ring" and "Vatican employees unable to relax at party with pope around". Some of the topicality has faded, but a story such as "Christmas brought to Iraq by force" still retains much of its original bite.

The focus is overwhelmingly Stateside, but many of the situations it parodies are universal. In the Onion, it is an activist judge who has ruled Christmas to be unconstitutional, rather than a politically correct local council. One of my favourite headlines reads "fun toy banned becasue of three stupid dead kids"; it might almost have come from Jeremy Clarkson.

All told, an ideal stocking-filler for someone who won't be offended by jokes about masturbation and prostitutes. Available in the UK from Amazon. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 5 December 2011

Women driving means immorality, say Saudis. Could they be right?

The latest piece of nonsense from the parallel universe that is Saudi Arabia concerns a report - prepared for the government by a leading academic - on the possible effects of rescinding the country's iconic ban on women drivers. The news was not good. Allowing women behind the wheel, thought Professor Kamal Subhi would "provoke a surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce". It would also mean that, within ten years, there would be "no more virgins" in Saudi Arabia. Since Saudi is a country that smiles upon the forced marriage of nine year old girls, that prediction may be even more alarming than it at first appears.

Subhi's report comes with the authority of the kingdom's highest religious council, so the king would be mad, mad I tell you, not to treat its conclusions with deadly seriousness. And Subhi certainly did his research thoroughly. He described sitting in a coffee shop in another Arab state - one of the decadent ones, obviously - where "all the women were looking at me". "One made a gesture that made it clear that she was available," he said. "This is what happens when women are allowed to drive."

Indeed. One minute they're sitting at home, fully veiled, waiting for their husband to give them permission to have a cup of tea. The next they're eyeing up strange academics in coffee shops. I'm reminded of Bishop Richard Williamson, who once blamed Europe's moral decline on the perverse desire of women to wear trousers.

Subhi's message is a fairly simple one, it seems. Women need to be very fully repressed indeed, because once you allow them even the tiniest little bit of freedom society becomes awash with decadence and immorality. The minxes can't help themselves. It's in their nature.

Now let's conceed he may have a point, or at least examine the possibility that there might be a link between women having cars and the general decline of moral standards in society. After all, look at the West, where women have been allowed to drive ever since there were such things as motor cars.

In the beginning, a woman driver was quite a rare sight, since cars were expensive and manly things. Almost as rare as a female high court judge or member of Parliament. In those much-lamented days when men were men and women were housewives there was very little immorality. No hardcore porn on the internet, no "objectified" late-teenage slappers falling drunkenly out of nightclubs, few if any teenage mothers. Divorce was legal, but led to social death in most circles. There may have been prostitutes (when were they not) but they didn't write bestselling memoirs that became the subject of racy television adaptations. And of course (Subhi will be delighted at this one) there were no homosexuals. Or if they were, they lived in justified terror of being banged up in Wormwood Scrubs, and quite right too.

So the correlation works. Women having the freedom to drive is positively correlated with many of the things that Professor Kamal Subhi disapproves of. Coincidentally, most of these evils resemble things that feminists of the Gail Dines persuasion campaign against, everything from hardcore porn on the internet to Lady Gaga's costume preferences. Dines recently wrote (Guardian, obviously) that "hypersexualism" - which she blames on corporate culture, rather than women having driving licences - undermined "women's rights to sexual autonomy, physical safety and economic and social equality."

Her argument, being "politically progressive", should never be confused with "rightwing attempts to police sexual behaviour." Yet it's an easy confusion to make, because leftwing feminist anti-sexualisation campaigners and rightwing religious anti-sexualisation campaigners are by-and-large talking about the same thing, and it's much the same thing that Subhi fears will happen in Saudi Arabia if women are allowed to drive. To wit, an epidemic of overt public sexuality.

Why is it that when women become emancipated, so many of them use their new freedom to remove their clothes? Can it all be explained by corporate culture perpetuating the malign reign of the patriarchy, as Gail Dines would have you believe, or is it perhaps that Eve wasn't framed after all, that women's rampant and destructive sexuality will loose itself at the earliest opportunity unless kept under the firm control of men and religion? I wouldn't presume to know. But the correlation, if not the causation, is clear. A free society is a sexualised society. Where women are forced to cover their bodies their choices in other aspects of their lives will be equally circumscribed. In extreme cases, they might not even be allowed to drive.

Put it the other way, allowing women to drive would signal (and also in contribute to) a wider liberalisation of manners and morals that could lead eventually to Western-style decadence. The one may not lead directly to the other, although undoubtedly having a car makes it easier for both men and women to conduct illicit sexual relationships (and I don't just mean on the back seat). But why take the risk?

When it came to his shocking tale of being brazenly looked at by some hussy in a coffee shop, I don't know if Professor Subhi was referring to Egypt, where women are still (for the time being) allowed to drive. But a recent article by Yahia Lababidi, regarding the creeping Islamisation of Egyptian society, may offer alternative perspective on the sexually-charged atmosphere that made him feel so uncomfortable. She describes the remarkable transformation of the once "open-minded and cosmopolitan" Egypt of a few decades ago - where women could be found "happily prancing around in minis and bikinis" - to one in which "sexual repression is absurdly rampant", segregation and veiling has reached almost Saudi proportions and, in consequence, "seemingly innocuous everday activities acquire sexual connotations, such as: the slapping of slippers on a woman’s feet, the smacking of chewing gum, or smoking of a cigarette."

Lababidi argues that Islamisation is producing an unhealthy atmosphere of rampant innuendo, where soldiers ogle prepubescent girls, women wearing full veils shop in department stores for erotic lingerie "that in other countries you’d only find in sex shops" and people are unable to conceive of "a mixed crowd spending an innocent weekend at the beach or a night out dancing, without an eruption of dark depraved desire colouring everything." In such an environment, even a man like Kamal Subhi might find himself the unwitting object of a frustrated woman's transitory longing.

There was, though, something a little counter-intuitive about one of Professor Subhi's fears. How, precisely, might women driving lead to an increase in homosexuality? Has he been out and about in newly-repressive Egypt, perhaps, where as Lababidi observed:

With female flesh under wraps, and no promise of release in the near future, sensuality spills into unexpected spaces. In Cairo, the human need for physical contact often manifests in intense same-sex intimacy. It’s not the least bit unusual to encounter men holding hands, pinkies interlocked, hugging and kissing, while calling each other unusually sweet names: sokkar (sugar), a’assall (honey) or rohe albi (my heart’s soul). Equally common to witness men affectionately wrestling like scrapping puppies, or playfully grabbing each other like testosterone-maddened teens, well into middle age.

Nothing like that would ever happen in Jeddah.
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Thursday, 1 December 2011

Jeremy Clarkson: a public-sector worker speaks his mind

Clarkson was not "joking", as some of his defenders are suggesting, when he suggested that striking public sector employees (with their "gilt-edged pensions") should be shot in front of their families. He was employing hyperbole, just as (to take another example) Paul Chambers was employing hyperbole when he Tweeted the remark that absurdly left him with a criminal record:

Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!

That was no more a bomb-threat than Clarkson's expression of exasperation with public-sector strikers is an incitement to murder, or a call of the introduction of capital punishment for members of Unison. It was Clarkson being Clarkson; doing what he's most handsomely paid for, which is amusing one section of the populace by winding up another. That the BBC even employs him is an acknowledgement on their part that the Licence Fee cannot be an entirely arbitrary tax. That there has to be a quid pro quo for all the Euro-propaganda and institutional anti-Toryism.

Although of course it would be naive to suggest that his many detractors don't also get their kicks from putting the boot into the motormouth. Twitterstorms aren't merely an expression of genuine self-righteous indignation, though there's always a large element of that. They're also fun for all concerned, a sort of right-on group hug.

From Peter Serafinowicz: So sad to hear the news about Jeremy Clarkson. He's still alive.

This is all good clean fun. And Serafinowicz is a comedian, so he was obviously joking. But it ceases to be fun when you start arguing, as public sector union UNISON is doing, that Clarkson deserves to be sacked and, if possible, prosecuted form his characteristic remarks. Here's an extract from their press release, put into the mouth of general secretary Dave Prentis:

Public sector workers and their families are utterly shocked by Jeremy Clarkson’s revolting comments. We know that many other licence fee payers share our concerns about his outrageous views. The One Show is broadcast at a time when children are watching – they could have been scared and upset by his aggressive statements. An apology is not enough - we are calling on the BBC to sack Jeremy Clarkson immediately. Such disgusting statements have no place on our TV screens.

Jeremy Clarkson clearly needs a reminder of just who he is talking about when he calls for public sector workers to be shot in front of their families. Whilst he is driving round in fast cars for a living, public sector workers are busy holding our society together - they save others’ lives on a daily basis, they care for the sick, the vulnerable, the elderly. They wipe bottoms, noses, they help children to learn, and empty bins – they deserve all our thanks – certainly not the unbelievable level of abuse he threw at them.

It's all there. The presumption that the union boss is capable of reading the minds of millions of people, many of whom - even if they did go on strike - will have been laughing. There's the "think-of-the-children" kneejerk - for we all know that children are incapable of recognising the nuances of English idiom. There's the hysterical characterisation of Clarkson's words, quite bereft of their context - "aggressive", "disgusting", "unbelievable abuse." There's the sentimental invocation of selfless, low-paid public employees - "they save others’ lives on a daily basis, they care for the sick, the vulnerable, the elderly" (some do, but others are employed sending out diversity monitoring questionnaires). There's the demand for instant dismissal.

Above all, there's the refusal to view things in any kind of proportion, the earnest literalism that characterises so much of officialdom in modern Britain. By rights Prentis (or his press officer) should be taken out and hung, for the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.

Or as I wrote apropos the Twitter Joke Trial:

This is not about modern technology, but about the new threat to deep-seated English habits of mind. What has changed is officialdom's loss of a sense of proportion, or of their ability to use discretion and common-sense. That represents a more radical change than the coming of Internet. And the police, the CPS and the judges are on the leading edge of it. The old-fashioned traditionalist who doesn't get it is Paul Chambers, doing what comes naturally to almost any English person and finding himself in the kind of situation once described so eloquently by Kafka. Who wasn't English at all.

Jokes, light-hearted remarks, hyperbole, colourful language: such things are perceived as threats to the bureaucratic mind, and an example must be made of their perpetrators. Clarkson is not Paul Chambers, an unknown and powerless figure who can be pilloried with impunity. This row, indeed, is unlikely to do him much permanent damage. His popularity, as I suggested above, helps to justify the licence fee. He might even be described as a type of licensed rogue, empowered to keep the lower orders quiescent by saying what they'd like to say but would never dare. He's basically a safety-valve for the pent-up frustration that he articulates.

That said, he is lacking in self-awareness if he believes that while lollipop ladies are sitting pretty on gold-plated pensions while he - paid a huge amount of money to drone on about cars on BBC2 - has to "work for a living." Because he is, at least partly, a public sector worker himself. A significant chunk of his income comes from a flat-rate tax imposed on every household in the country, whether they want to watch him or not. He may not technically work for the state - but nor do employees of Serco and Capita, legal-aid solicitors or employees of fake charities technically work for the state, either. Or, for that matter, public-sector union leaders. There are many people in Britain who believe themselves to belong to the private sector who are in fact wholly dependent on the taxpayer to keep them in business.

I often wonder who exactly is paying all these taxes. And then I start thinking about the deficit, and conceive a sudden desire to go outside and shoot myself in front of my family.
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Taking money from the Gaddafis. And the rest.

It's obviously embarrassing for the London School of Economics, an institution that used to have some of the world's most outstanding dictators among its alumni, to have been caught out taking large sums of money from the Gaddafis around the time Saif al-Gaddafi was awarded a PhD. They couldn't have known that within a couple of years the regime, at that time a favourite partner of the British government, would have crumbled, that Saif's father, publicly embraced by Tony Blair, would have been tortured to death by a vengeful mob and that Dr Saif himself, who by all accounts was one of the nicer Gaddafis, would be facing a show trial in Libya (or, if he's astonishingly lucky, the Hague).

The gift was generous and was not offered until after Saif had written up his thesis. The LSE, like all institutions of higher education in this country, can always do with more money. It didn't come with any strings attached. Why on earth should they not have taken it?

There's always a risk when it comes to taking money from dubious regimes, of course: the risk that the regime might collapse and that all sorts of embarrassing human rights abuses be revealed, tainting its beneficiaries by association. But the potential advantages are likely to be more obvious at the time: not just financial, but in terms of building long-term links with the countries concerned, raising the institution's international profile and the advancement of learning that the money will facilitate. Even if a regime does bad things, funding an educational institution is not in itself a bad thing.

The silliest claim in the Woolf report into the LSE is that the money was tainted because it might have "come from bribes". The bribes in question would have been paid by international business to members of the Gaddafi family in return for favours. Some of the companies concerned might have been in the oil business and even have had British connections. So we're really talking about a convoluted form of corporate sponsorship. Henry VIII committed many crimes, but his endowment of Christ Church, Oxford and Trinity College Cambridge (with money stolen from monasteries) are not generally considered to be among his worst. Some of America's most famous universities were built on the proceeds of slavery. Pecunia non olet.

It is, though, a little bit strange that Middle Eastern governments, some of whom have been having a tough time lately, have been quite so generous to Western (and particularly British) universities. A few weeks ago Christopher Davidson (reader in Middle East politics at Durham University) tackled this question in the Times Higher Educational Supplement. He wrote of the "fascination in many of the Gulf monarchies ... with spending vast sums on overseas education projects, even if the domestic sector is left to languish."

It was reported in 2008 that eight British universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, had between them accepted more than £233.5 million from Arab sources since 1995, most of it from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies. Major donations included £20 million from the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia towards the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies.

Davidson writes:

The historic links between the UK and the region have meant that the Gulf monarchies have often been particularly attracted to funding new buildings in UK universities (often centres for Islamic or Middle Eastern studies or libraries), the endowment of chairs and postgraduate scholarships. In fact, it would now be difficult to find a top UK university that did not have examples of all three types of gift.

He suggests that UK universities are particularly attractive to autocrats with large chequebooks because they represent "a much softer underbelly, with less potential for embarrassment" that the United States. Several American universities have set up campuses in the region, with generous funding from their hosts, but when it comes to direct investment there have sometimes been problems.

In 2003, for example, the Harvard University staff and student body rejected a chair in Islamic studies from Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan on the grounds of anti-Semitism and well-documented human rights abuses in the UAE, including the use of child slaves as camel jockeys. Similarly, in 2007 the University of Connecticut pulled out of a relationship with Dubai for much the same reasons.

British universities are less squeamish, it seems. Perhaps they just need the money more, or are even disposed to be sympathetic ("Boycott Israel" campaigns tend to be popular with British academics, after all). Until this year, such concern as was expressed about Middle Eastern funding related to things like the Saudis' enthusiasm for spreading hardline Wahhabi Islam or the danger to academic freedom posed by too much dependence on external souces of income. Now the objections are likely to be more pragmatic. Davidson warns:

Having been badly wrong-footed by the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, and with Gaddafi's collapse exposing an awkwardly friendly British foreign policy towards a terror-sponsoring regime, there is an acute and perfectly understandable possibility that the people of the new Arab democracies, probably led by Egypt, will be distrustful of those Western institutions that continue to do business with the Middle East's remaining autocrats.

There's another way of putting it. The money flowing into British universities was both evidence of, and contributed to, the maintenance of the fiction that this country really mattered in the region. British influence has been based largely on personal links with rulers who, however unattractive and undemocratic, often suffer from a misty-eyed Anglophilia that leads them to want to fund our universities, buy Premiership football clubs or national icons such as Harrods. We will miss them when they're gone.
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