Monday, 30 April 2012


I notice that Mary Beard has a post up on the peculiar tombstone (or perhaps just pseudo-tombstone) that was one of the highlights of last week's episode of Meet The Romans. If you missed it, this remarkable stela was erected allegedly by one Calidius Eroticus, identified as an innkeeper, and features a joke about a customer who spends so much of his budget on a prostitute that he can't afford the hay for his ass. I think that's what it's about, anyway. It's a trifle obscure, unlike Calidius Eroticus's own name.

Beard translates it as "Mr Hot Sex". Does it really need translating, though? Any attempt to render the name into English can only be a diminishment, I think. This applies even more strongly to Mrs Eroticus, whose name (titter ye not!) is inscribed as "Fannia Voluptas". I'm sure the metrosexual baboon-slayer would have enjoyed that, if he's still watching.

About him, the less said the better, except that I don't really buy the assumption (which his victim clearly shares) that Gill's uncomplimentary remarks about Professor Beard's appearance were motivated merely by sexism or by his fear of intelligent and educated women. As Bryony Gordon noted, he's got a long history of making similar remarks about men. (He once likened Tony Robinson to Gollum.) Rather, he's a professional troll. Being outrageous is his gimmick, as it's Jeremy Clarkson's gimmick or (in a different journalist genre) Liz Jones'. Someone I know on Twitter tutted that Gill was "influential", which I seriously doubt. The most likely outcome of the row will have been higher ratings for Beard's show, which is all to the good. (I also note she has twice as many Twitter followers as she did a week ago.)

The other thing I would say (and I hope Mary Beard will forgive me) is that having a female presenter who doesn't look like a supermodel is a huge relief, not least because it makes it easier to concentrate on the subject being discussed. (The sexual objectification of TV historians isn't confined to women, of course. I seem to remember female critics getting very excited, back in the day, about the tight jeans and chiselled jaw of another televisual interpreter of the ancient world, Michael Wood, as he strode around the ruins of Troy. These days there's Niall Ferguson.)

Is Mary Beard now this country's top media don? There's David Starkey, of course, but he isn't really in academia these days (and his own brand of professional trollery has started to wear a bit thin.) Otherwise (ignoring, for these purposes, the scientists) her main challengers for the title are Simon Schama, grandly transatlantic and above the fray, and Ferguson, now absurdly rich and vain. By contrast Beard looks and sounds like a normal human being, the sort of person one might just bump into in Heffers on a wet afternoon.

Except that she's probably way too busy to spend much time pottering around bookshops. The long hours and unremitting grind of modern academic life is one of the principal themes of her always entertaining blog, which has now yielded a second volume of highlights entitled All In A Don's Day. It's a slightly less eclectic selection than last time, I found. This might have something to do with the blog's return to the bosom of the TLS since the Times proper disappeared behind the great Murdoch paywall. Or it may be a symptom of the current crisis in higher education, with its constant soul-searching about fees and funding, cuts and admissions policies, which have all rendered the university sector more newsworthy and controversial as well as more fraught. On the other hand, Beard's publisher apparently advised her that prospective readers would be most interested in inside information about exam-marking and Oxbridge intervews, so perhaps it's just that.

Many of Beard's complaints will find resonances outside the rarefied (or not-so-rarefied, these days) world of Oxbridge colleges or the wider world of higher education, however. She describes academic versions of some of modern Britain's chronic ailments. A professor writes a satirical article about sex with students, is taken literally and denounced as a sexist (or worse). Plagiarism has ceased to be a moral offence (cheating) and has become a nebulous "risk" to which any hapless researcher might accidentally fall victim. The administrative burden grows daily. Threaded through it all is a lament for the way that bureaucracy has increasingly interposed itself between dons and their students, as it has interposed itself between nurses and their patients, or between parents and their children's schools, or between firemen and people they might otherwise be rescuing.

But if gripes about the box-ticking nightmares of Research Excellence Assessments aren't your thing there's plenty more to tempt the fancy, from the politics of Alexander the Great's nationality obscenties to some pointed remarks about Dr Starkey. There's an amusing account of how a post about the possible revision of her college's Latin grace got turned into a "Christianity banned!" scandal in the Daily Mail, a lucid analysis of one of Catullus' more obscene remarks and thoughts about the anthropology of Christmas. I particularly enjoyed a story about how a member of the Scipio family lost an election by cracking a snobbish joke at the expense of a lower-class voter. Arrogant posh boys are nothing new in politics.
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Monday, 23 April 2012

A pointless referendum

Should there be a referendum on reforming the House of Lords?  The argument that there should be is easy to make: the topic may be one to which most people in this country are yawningly indifferent (unlike, say, our continued membership of the EU, which merely makes some people bored rigid, which is different), but it is constitutionally quite important. 

The British people as a whole (as opposed to the Scots, the Welsh and the people of Northern Ireland) have never in history had an opportunity to vote on the manner in which they are governed and how legislation is passed.  Parliament long preceded the advent of democracy.  Extensions of the franchise, and changes to the powers and composition of the House of Lords, have always been made by Parliament itself with scant reference to the people.  The only partial exception was last year's sad little referendum on the voting system, which evinced enthusiasm only among Westminster chatterers and in a few weird, out-of-the-way places like Cambridge.  So you could say that a referendum this time is long overdue.

Daniel Hannan worries that without a referendum the House of Lords reform will be a cross-party stitch-up.  The proposals currently on the table certainly look rather like that.  Neither the Coalition nor the Parliamentary committee that has been looking at the issue have even plucked up the courage to get rid of the bishops, for example, despite the obvious absurdity of having a small group of religious leaders made ex-officio legislators -- an anomaly that will look all the more absurd in a predominantly elected chamber. 

But would a referendum make that much difference anyway?  There's a chance that it could be lost.  Hannan writes that "the best incentive for supporters of change to come up with an improvement on the status quo is the knowledge that they will have to convince the country."  It does not seem obvious to me, however, that the government's proposals are intended to change the status quo, so much as to preserve it.  The new house will be smaller, and have a large elected element, thus making it more "legitimate".  But the party nominees will no doubt be the same type of political also-rans who can't get elected to the House of Commons (Baroness Warsi, for some reason, springs to mind) while Crossbenchers will continue to be appointed on much the same basis as before. 

This is, surely, deliberate.  It is a means of preserving the substance of the present house while changing its appearance, above all so as to preserve the pre-eminence of the House of Commons.  An elected Upper House, whatever it's called (my own preference is for "Upper House") risks unbalancing the present constitutional arrangements by being more "legitimate", and thus more difficult for the House of Commons to ignore.  Its perceived legitimacy, and hence power, would only be increased if, unlike the House of Commons, it could claim to have been voted into being by the people.

Of course Hannan is right that these proposals represent little more than an Establishment stitch-up.  But they would be no less of an Establishment stitch-up if presented to the people, merely one that is more difficult to unstitch.  Take the continued presence of the bishops, reduced in number but, ironically, increased as a proportion of the whole.  (And since the bishops never attend the Lords en bloc anyway, the reduction in their numbers will essentially mean that those who remain will have to neglect their diocesan duties so as maintain a visible episcopal presence in the chamber.)  Perhaps one day a government will finally conclude that the absurdity of the arrangement outweighs any benefit the bishops bring to debates; or perhaps the Church of England will finally be disestablished.  If the reformed house is merely a creature of statute, getting rid of the remaining bishops would present few difficulties: just pass a bill. 

But if the new arrangements have been voted in by the people, a good argument might be made that any changes equally would need a referendum.  Indeed it would be constitutionally, or at least democratically, improper for a decision of the people as a whole to be undone by a simple Act of Parliament.  So either an expensive referendum will have to be carried out regarding the status of twelve bishops, a question compared to which AV looks as popularly engaging as the final of Britain's Got Talent, or the bishops get to stay because it would just be too much trouble to ease them out.
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Monday, 16 April 2012

Tom Holland: a brave man?

Is Tom Holland brave, foolhardy even, to have written a book about the origins of Islam?  Charles Moore seems to think so.  Reviewing  In The Shadow Of The Sword in the Telegraph, Moore calls it "a brave telling of the Koran’s human stories".  Previous reviews, writes Moore, have "skirted around the key point" which is that "much of what Muslims believe about the Koran is incorrect."  Holland, he intones ominously, "is being brave."

I don't think this sort of language is at all helpful.  It should not be considered "brave", in any respect except a purely literary one, for a historian to attempt an accessible account of a complex but pivotal period in history. 

More to the point, the last thing we need is the idea getting around, among easily-offended believers who have not read the book (such people rarely if ever do) that Holland is being "bravely"iconoclastic, tackling taboo subject-matter or standing up to religious pressure.  Such prophecies can be self-fulfilling. "British historian defies death-threats" would make a good headline (it would, of course, be unworthy to imagine that that is what Moore wants to see) but it would scarcely advance historical awareness, mutual understanding or public debate. 

There's altogether too much fear-induced self-censorship as it is.  Moore's tribute to Holland's "bravery", moreover, betrays his own prejudices about easily-aroused Muslim anger.  A lot of "respect" based oversensitivity actually does: it's assumed that Muslims will be become upset or murderously inflamed by something or other without any evidence that any actual offence has been, or would be, caused. 

I went to hear Tom Holland talking about the book last week in Cambridge.  He admitted to having naively underestimated the sensitivities concerned when he first decided to tackle such a vast and contentious subject -- basically, the end of the ancient world and the origins of our own -- but there was nothing to suggest either that he feared for his life or that he had any reason to do so.  He made the very reasonable point that while all this may be sacred history to Muslims, who believe that the Koran was the direct word of God and Mohammed the pattern for all righteous lives, non-Muslims have the right and perhaps the duty to explore it historically. 

I think this is important to assert.  However much Mohammed means to Muslims, as a figure of history rather than faith there can be no intellectual copyright on him, no no-go areas.  And Holland has no desire to be inflammatory.  Happily there have thus far been no reports of angry mobs setting light to his latest book.  It's most unlikely that he would get away with it were he a Muslim writing in a Muslim country, but it says a lot about the paranoid intellectual atmosphere of the moment that it could be thought that a non-Muslim writing in a non-Muslim country for a largely non-Muslim audience would be running a risk.

On to the substance, which was fascinating (there's a lot more in the book, but as a space-limited skinflint I'm waiting for the paperback).  Late Antiquity seldom gets the attention its importance deserves. It tends to get neglected in the rush to get to the Middle Ages (Goodbye Romans!  Hello Vikings!)   It seems too far away, too complicated (it gave us the metaphorical adjective "Byzantine", after all), too alien to modern sensibilities, perhaps just too historically diffuse.   It began with the establishment of Christianity as the dominant religion of Europe and the Mediterranean world, followed not long afterwards by the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, and ended with the beginnings of the Middle East as we know it today.  Its most obvious legacy is religious, linguistic and cultural cleavage between Europe and Islam that has, over the centuries, flared up many times into violence but which has more often been characterised by mutual incomprehension, fascination and unease.

One of Tom Holland's aims is to question the assumption that the Arab conquest of North Africa and the Middle East represented a clean break with the past, instead looking at the underlying continuities.  The study of history often centres on the tension between continuity and change: it's easy to overstate either.  Obviously the changes wrought on the region by the coming of Islam were vast and dramatic.  But the change didn't come overnight (Egypt, for example, retained a Christian majority for another five hundred years); and incipient Islam itself owed much to currents of thought that were already present and gaining ground in Late Antiquity.  It did not come "like lightning from a clear blue sky" -- or from the remote wastes of Arabia, outside the main centres of East Mediterranean civilisation.  Holland goes so far as to describe the new religion as the "culmination of Late Antiquity".

This is the controversial part, of course.  Much scholarship (most of it, for sadly obvious reasons, by non Muslims) has been done on such topics as the formation of the Koran and the historical sources for the life of Mohammed.  There's a good summary of it here.  Holland is however probably the first popular writer to bring these issues before a wider educated public. 

The lack of contemporary evidence for Mohammed's career may come as a surprise.  Mischievously, Holland began his presentation with a quote from Salman Rushdie contrasting the little we know about the historical Jesus with the vast amount that is apparently known about Mohammed: "We know where he lived, what his economic situation was, who he fell in love with."  Except that much of this biographical richness turns out to be an illusion.  The earliest accounts of the prophet's life date from more than two centuries after his supposed death.  And the author of the principal early biography explicitly stated that he had edited out any material that might be embarrassing or reflect badly on the founder of Islam (did he fear a Khomeini-style fatwa?).  Later biographies became progressively more detailed, increasing the impression of verisimilitude while getting ever further from source.  They were, in other words, largely fictional.  Karen Armstrong's biography certainly reads like a romantic novel; perhaps that's why.

The only possible contemporary reference to Mohammed --a text called the Doctrina Jacobi -- hints that "the prophet who has arisen in Arabia" personally led the Muslim invasion of Palestine.  Holland argues that the compilers of the official biographies may have killed Mohammed off early so as to reinforce the parallel between the prophet of Islam and Moses, who died before reaching the promised land.

Holland detonated a few more landmines.  Many of the Arabs who "invaded" the Byzantine empire in the early 7th century were already there, being paid as mercenaries to defend the frontiers -- rather as, earlier, the western Emperors had employed Goths, and with similarly catastrophic results when the money ran out.  The Koran emerges as less a divine dictation (or the product of one hyperactive imagination) than a compilation of older ideas; and its milieu not the desert but the world of Levantine religious disputation.  Forgotten debates about the nature of Christ, old-hat even by the fifth century, are preserved in its verses.  One chapter turns out to be an almost word-for-word transcription of a Syrian text. 

Most dramatically, perhaps, Mecca plays almost no part in the story.  On the contrary, there are references in the text to places in Palestine which "you walk past every day".  The original holy city of Islam was Jerusalem; and while traditionally it was Mohammed himself who made the switch, following a row with the Jews of Medina, Mecca only began to achieve prominence a hundred years later during the reign of Caliph Abd al-Malik.

Given the centrality of Mecca to Muslim religious practice -- as the direction towards which prayers are offered, as the home of the great shrine of the Kaaba, above all as the locus of the supreme act of Islamic devotion, the Hajj -- this is, to say the least, somewhat startling.  In response to a question, Holland said that there was nothing to suggest that Mecca was an important religious centre in pagan Arabia (there were cube-like shrines in many other parts of the Arabian peninsula), or even an important trading city.   It's certainly a very different perspective to that on display the British Museum's highly successful (and officially sanctioned) exhibition about the Hajj.  The Saudis will be delighted. 

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Thursday, 12 April 2012

Bettany Hughes: Gushing over goddesses

In advance of her new TV series on the subject of women in religion, Bettany Hughes has been hard to avoid, with interviews and puff-pieces (some written by herself) popping up everywhere. 

The overwhelming message was depressingly familiar  -- basically, that the history of religion is really the history of women (incarnation of the divine life-force, earthly channels of the sacred, mistresses of mystery and wisdom) being squeezed out and written out of the picture by jealous men.  It didn't exactly raise great hopes for the series, especially as Hughes seemed happy to play fast-and-loose with the (few available) facts.

In the Telegraph, she proclaimed as fact (rather than highly contested speculation) that there were female priests and even bishops in the early Christian church.  In the Guardian yesterday she claimed that Theodora, wife of the Byzantine emperor Justinian, was largely responsible for the legal reforms named after her husband.  She "incarnated the Biblical understand of wisdom as the ability to make sound judgements" and ruled "with wisdom's lilies woven through her crown."  This is, shall we say, a partial description of her known character.  Hughes also celebrates the little-known (in the West) 7th century Chinese Empress Wu Zetian:

Consider what Wu achieved. She invaded Korea and Tibet; reformed the administrative system of the Chinese empire; provided Buddhism with a warm embrace when its influence was waning across the Indian subcontinent; and, vitally, she was a patron of printing 700 years before it arrived in Europe.

She sounds like a powerful and fairly enlightened female ruler in the mould of Catherine the Great or or own Elizabeth I, holding her own in a male-dominated society.  Good for her, though it seems a stretch to regard her as the incarnation of female wisdom rather than as a successful political leader.  As for invading Korea and Tibet, is that really something to celebrate?

Hughes is a good historian and a superlative TV presenter, but when it comes to the Eternal Mysteries of Female Wisdom and Power she does have a tendency to come out with sentimental, romanticised tosh.  Her book on Helen of Troy is full of it.  When it comes to someone like Helen, a figure of whom the only reliable thing that can be said is that she never existed, the temptation is probably too great to resist.  But it is dangerous to present it as history. 

Hughes is keen to tell us that "virtually all deities of wisdom, and their acolytes, are female"  (in the Telegraph).  More specifically, in the Guardian article,

Of all deities of wisdom across the globe and through known time, the massive majority – 97% – were (or are) female. Mankind, for the vast span of human experience, has worshipped at the shrine not of the god, but the goddess, of wisdom.

97% seems a remarkably specific figure.  I wonder where she can have found it.  Wikipedia has pages for 17 goddesses of wisdom or knowledge and 23 male gods; that list can scarcely be exhaustive, but to reach that 97% would require discovering another 727 goddesses of wisdom and then another 32 for each male deity subsequently found.  This is highly unlikely.  I haven't tracked any source for the 97% claim prior to recent publicity for Hughes' TV series.  I did however discover this, from the write-up to a Radio 3 documentary about Roman Britain that Hughes presented last year:

We love discoveries of forts and towns and baths, and we're lot less impressed by a nice British round house. Yet perhaps 97% of our ancestors would have been living in those roundhouses, many of them turning up their noses at Roman culture beyond the odd bit of bracelet or pottery.


As for last night's programme, it was more interesting for what it left out.  Hughes offered us a short history of goddesses from Catal Huyuk to Kali's Calcutta, taking in Cybele along the way.  The emphasis was on the goddess as the arbiter of life and death, giving birth equally to live and stillborn offspring and thus (as her Telegraph article put it) "a sexually powerful creature who delights in bloodshed."  Hence the goddesses selected. 

Hinduism reveres many female deities: Lakshmi, Saraswati, Parvati, Shakti. But only at Kali's temple in Calcutta are bulls still ritually sacrificed to appease the divine bloodlust.  Cybele -- the Phrygian import known to the Romans as Magna Mater -- took up almost half the programme's running time.  Much was made of the Galli, the eunuch priests of the goddess who would castrate themselves in a state of ecstatic devotion and thereafter wear women's clothing.  Much too was made of the taurobolium, the literal bloodbath (or blood-shower, I suppose) in which the worshipper stood beneath a grating above which a bull was being slaughtered.  Very primal.  But also, in terms of classical goddess worship, extremely atypical.

Concentrating on Cybele risks perpetuating the hackneyed (and surely deeply sexist) equation of Woman with Nature, the chthonian and the primitive.  "Mother cults," wrote Camille Paglia, "did not mean social freedom for women" because "nature's burden falls more heavily on one sex,"  a fact to which honouring the female-ruled mysteries of life and death can only draw attention.  I don't agree with Paglia that civilisation was invented by men as a defence against the oppressiveness of female nature.  But  goddesses like Cybele do embody a set of misogynistic assumptions; at the very least they represent a male way of thinking about, and failing to come to terms with, the Otherness of women.  There's nothing whatever "feminist" about them and little that modern women should be wanting to "reclaim".

Hughes could instead have chosen to explore Isis, a goddess most associated with healing and initiation, a deity of compassion, civilisation and, yes, wisdom.  Her worshippers didn't castrate themselves or bathe in bulls' blood; they sang hymns and shook rattles.  And many of them were women.  Or how about Athena -- Hughes' home ground, after all?  Athena was the goddess of the city -- and not just of any city, but of the city that, more than any other, lives in the Western imagination as the birthplace of rationality, civilisation and art.

Classical Athens was, needless to say, male-dominated; male-dominated, in fact, to an extent unusual even in ancient Greece.  The women were kept at home weaving.  A few really lucky ones (Phryne, Aspasia) got to be high-class hookers and went to parties.  But women were completely excluded from public life.  They couldn't vote.  They couldn't even go to the theatre.

Athena, or rather the spindoctors who created her myths, resolved this paradox by downplaying her femininity.  She was a virgin (and thus free from the cycles of pregnancy, birth and lactation).  She was born, fully-armed, from the head of Zeus.  She was depicted as Athena Promachos, fighting on the front-line with spear and armour in defence of her city.  She was "all for the father".  She has a walk-on role at the end of the Oresteia, where she turns up to cast her vote against the Furies, representatives of vengeance and ancestral irrationality: the old goddesses, in other words. 

A male creation she may have been, but precisely for that reason Athena is much more relevant to a modern world in which women are no longer confined to the domestic sphere, or to the biological realm of night, than the bloodthirsty goddesses that she replaced.  Women who are expected to compete on equal terms in the Academy and in the Agora have little to learn from the likes of Cybele; Athena, however, shows the way.

The developed Athena was exceptional, but the association of a female figure with civilisation and the city is not. Most ancient cities had a patron goddess.  And in the much older epic of Gilgamesh, it is a woman (a temple prostitute) who tames the wild man Enkidu, turns him into a civilised human being.  Here it is the woman who represents Culture and the man who represents untamed Nature; and sex, far from being the irruption of subterranean and primeval forces, becomes something civilising and humane.

The series may improve next week.  I  hope so.  It has always struck me, however, that Bettany Hughes is more interesting, as well as more reliable, when talking about men: her series on the Spartans was fascinating, as was her book about Socrates.  It's rude (and of course facile) to try to psychoanalyse someone, but it could just be that she has an Athena-like ambivalence about her own sex and, when it comes to goddesses, tends to over-compensate by gushing.
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Wednesday, 11 April 2012

"More left-wing"? Demos and the Absolute Comparative

There's a slippery grammatical construction known as the "comparative absolute" (or the absolute comparative) in which the adjective of comparison (larger, bigger, better) syntactically expects a comparator, but does not get one. It remains implied, however. My copy of Fowler's Modern English Usage notes that "such implied comparisons are a feature of advertising language", and it's easy to see why: the construction allows the advertiser to make impressive-sounding claims without having to back them up.

"Persil washes whiter" is the classic example. Whiter than what? Whiter than other washing powders, the reader is invited to deduce, but Unilever doesn't actually say so explicitly. So if you can show that, in fact (and this is a pure hypothetical, you understand) Persil performs less well than other leading brands, the company can respond by protesting, "We never said that Persil washes whiter than other brands; we just says it washes whiter. Your clothes are whiter after they've been through the machine than when they were covered in mud, aren't they? Persil washes whiter. Can't you understand simple English expressions?"

I feel a bit like that disgruntled (and, I stress, entirely hypothetical) customer today, having been accused by Demos of "misunderstanding" their claim -- much bandied about in various media outlets over the past few days -- that religious believers were "more likely to hold left-wing or progressive opinions on key social questions around equality and immigration."

Or, as the Observer headline had it, "Religious people are more likely to be leftwing, says thinktank Demos".

Or, as "Daily Mail Reporter" (yes, him/her again) explained, "Christians 'more likely to be leftwing' and have liberal views on immigration and equality".

The natural reading of such statements is that there must be a comparator group (non-believers, perhaps) than whom religious believers are "more likely to be left-wing". But you'd be wrong! The report that Demos were pushing, entitled Faithful Citizens (available here) never actually says that. Indeed it can't, because a close reading of the report shows that religious believers were considerably more likely than the non-religious to call themselves right-wing.

The Demos analysis was based on figures from the European Values Survey and from the UK's National Citizenship Survey. The figures for political affiliation were as follows:

Religious ("exclusivist" and "pluralist") :

Right-of-centre: 44%
Left-of-centre: 56%

Non-Religious ("secular")

Right-of-centre: 35%
Left-of-centre: 65%

It's true that a majority of the religious described themselves as being left-of-centre, whatever their actual views (and a closer analysis of a number of basic political opinions presented a distinctly mixed picture). Indeed, the propensity of a clear majority of the population to identify themselves as being left-of-centre, even when they're not, is an interesting sociological phenomenon in its own right (and one that Conservatives would do well to ponder). But "secularists" (the term Demos used for those people who assented to the proposition that "none of the great religions have any truths to offer") were by a full nine points more likely than believers to call themselves left-of-centre, and similarly much less likely to call themselves right-wing.

It would have been more accurate for Demos to spin these results as "Non-believers more likely to be left-wing" or "religious believers more likely to be right-wing". But that wouldn't have suited the case that the think-tank seems to be putting across, which is that the Labour Party should cosy up to religion.

Being neither left-of-centre nor religious, I don't really have a dog in this fight, and I must say I was rather taken aback with the vehemence with which (in private correspondence) Demos attacked me for suggesting various flaws in their analysis and, most especially, for pointing out that the reports claiming that religious believers were "more likely to be left wing" were seriously misleading. Until I forced them into it, Demos did nothing to correct this misleading impression by publicising the true figures.

Publicly I was accused of being "dismayed" by their findings. I suppose I am rather dismayed to see yet another push to increase the profile of religion in politics, coming hot on the heels of David Cameron's calls for a Christian "fightback" against militant secularists. But I'm more bemused than anything. The rapprochement between religion and the political left is one of the most striking features of contemporary British public life, the more so because levels of religious affiliation continue to decline. Reports such as this one from Demos, or Giles Fraser writing in the Guardian about how the Occupy movement represents authentic Christianity, sit at the more benign end of this coalition. At the other extreme we find that weird love-in between the far left and radical Islam represented by the preposterous figure of George Galloway.

What's it all about? I tend to agree with Max Dunbar that it's part of" a definite intellectual slide towards earthy spiritual values and away from bourgois neoconservative constructions such as secularism, feminism and human rights." Now that global socialism no longer looks like providing a viable alternative to consumer capitalism and increasingly vertiginous social gaps, religions, with their communitarian traditions and critique (in Christianity's case, at least) of worldly success can indeed make common cause with disappointed Lefty liberals.

Indeed, a good case can be made (Michael Merrick makes it) that seemingly left-wing or "progressive" conclusions (at least on socio-economic questions, rather than, say, sexuality or abortion) are for many Chrisitians a logical "consequence of their orthodox commitment to faith". On the political compass, for example, Pope Benedict XVI comes out very strongly as "Authoritarian Left".

Ah, the Authoritarian Left. We had quite enough of that under New Labour, thank you very much.
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Tuesday, 10 April 2012

A True Heretic

The Guardian is shocked to discover that a member of the Crown Nominations Committee - the Magic Circle of Anglican insiders charged with selecting the next Archbishop of Canterbury - is a heretic.  Professor Glynn Harrison does not publicly doubt the divinity of Christ or the Resurrection.  It's worse than that: the emeritus professor of psychiatry at Bristol University is said hold the distinctly unorthodox view that homosexuality can be treated.  He has apparently written that "there is evidence that some people with unwanted same sex attractions can achieve significant change".

This is a minority view among psychiatrists, most of whom (and certainly the Royal College of Psychiatrists) uphold the modern consensus that sexual orientation is biological in nature, determined by genetic factors and perhaps embryological accident, and therefore nothing to do with one's environment or life history and certainly not something that can be changed.  More importantly, a view such as the one that Harrison is alleged to hold is very unpopular with the guardians of secular morality, who regard it as evidence of the most virulent and unredeemed homophobia, as it threatens to undermine the essentialism on which modern gay rights is founded.  Sexuality is not only not a choice, it can never be a choice.  Not for anyone.  Not even if you yourself want to change.  Don't even go there.

The Guardian reports that the Rev Colin Coward, director of Changing Attitude (which campaigns "for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the Anglican communion") said that Harrison's position on the commission appeared "cranky in the extreme".

It seems the church is trying to give equal weight to those against homosexuality as those who are for it. In 21st-century British society this is insane. I think the next archbishop needs to be chosen by somebody who is fully confident with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the church, because the church stance on this has to change radically. The presence of somebody like Glynn Harrison on the commission really is unacceptable.

The C of E released a statement (helpfully posted by Thinking Anglicans) denying that Harrison believes in "gay cure".   He merely "notes that there are anecdotes in the research literature, and in popular media, about individuals who have experienced some degree of change in either the strength or direction of their sexual attractions."  This is perhaps the most interesting (from my point of view) part of the statement:

In these publications, Professor Harrison challenges the simplistic binary model (‘either/or’; ‘gay’ v. ‘straight’) of human sexual orientation often assumed in popular discourse. He notes that the most reliable research evidence points to a spectrum of sexuality, with many individuals experiencing bisexual ‘orientation’ and varying degrees of fluid ‘orientation’ in their sexual interests. Thus, there is a range of ‘orientations’ and little reliable evidence to suggest that these are fixed and enduring in all people.

... In this context, there are issues of how to support people of faith who experience bisexual or same-sex attractions that conflict with their deeply-held religious convictions regarding sexual ethics. Professor Harrison recognises that some decide to revise their understanding of the ethical teaching of their faith to accommodate their experiences of sexual attraction, and choose a form of counselling support called ‘gay affirmative therapy’. He fully supports their right to do so. He notes that others want to manage and integrate their sexual interests within the framework of a religious identity grounded in the traditional teaching of their faith. Prof. Harrison supports the provision of sensitive and ethical counselling and pastoral support for such people too. He believes they should be free to receive this support without bullying or discrimination.

Now that might sound reasonable.  But it is in those weasel words that the heresy lurks.  The "simplistic binary model" which Harrison rejects forms the basis of much modern moral and legal thinking about sexuality.  Notice that he even puts the word "orientation" in scare-quotes.  This is dangerous stuff.  Once you start suggesting that sexuality might change, even for some people, even some of the time, you're on a slippery slope that ends with herding homosexuals into gas chambers.

What this story really shows, I think, is once again that the Archbishop of Canterbury should, like most leaders of most of the world's churches, be elected.  The Crown Nominations Committee, like most manifestations of the modern British establishment, mistakes openness for accountability.  Thus ever since Rowan Williams announced his departure it has encouraged scrutiny - for example, placing an advert in the Church Times offering suggestions for the "vacancy in the See of Canterbury".  On previous occasions very few people had a clue who the CNC were or what they did.  The name of the new Archbishop simply emerged one day, after the Prime Minister had made the final decision (something that is no longer supposed to happen) and the mysterious nature of the process added a touch of the numinous, as though the new Primate had been chosen by God.  But now the secret is out the members of the committee have to account for themselves; their records, all their previous utterances, are pored over as though they were candidates for the mayorality of London.  And in the fraught, ideologically riven world of Anglican politics there are bound to be got-up rows like this one.

There's a much better way: the General Synod should elect the new Archbishop of Canterbury in a special meeting, as other churches of the Anglican communion do, as many Orthodox and Protestant churches do.  Even the Pope is elected by the College of Cardinals.  Why can't the Church of England do the same?
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Thursday, 5 April 2012

A Gentlewoman of Fortune

It is a year, gentle reader, since last we met with the heroine of our tale, the fashionable and ingenious princess of letters Lady Laurelia Penworthy.  The sun has completed once more its immemorial circuit of the heavens... and what a changed scene now opens before us!  The intrepid Laurelia, tired of the crabbed and confined streets of old London, has turned over the faithful Sebastian Dullbore and his august but (alas) declining magazine.  Indeed, she has quitted these shores entirely, pitching up in the pulsating metropolis of New York, that misbegotten pearl in the oyster that is the United States, a city (the sagacious reader will surely reflect) altogether more suited to her indomitable temperament.

Giddily, voraciously has Laurelia tasted the delights and opportunities of the young Republic.  She has stood with the downtrodden masses, drunk in fashionable hotels, sat late into the night talking with poets of art and love, worn luminous hairpieces, enjoyed the anachronistic (it seemed to her) courtliness with which men and women of that land become acquainted, entertained all England with her dispatches.  Surely this was a brave new world indeed... yet Laurelia could not but reflect that if she needed America, how much more did America need her! 

A thousand ideas crowded inside the narrow space of her cranium: thoughts of radical social reform, of freeing women from the eternal dominion of men, of distant wars and unusual cloud formations, of books to be written, speeches to be made, friendships to be forged.  Of mundane concerns she thought but seldom.  She floated as though borne aloft on the thermals of her own consequence.  So it was that one fine morning Laurelia quite forgot in which city she was residing -- quite forgot the custom of traffic in that country, as though still in arrogant revolt against the just laws of good King George, to move contrary to nature.  Desirous of crossing the highway, the poor young lady stepped boldly into the path of a carriage that bore down upon her with full speed.

Just think, gentle reader, what dire calamity must have ensued... how our heroine must instantly have been crushed beneath the inexorable wheels of that chariot... had not fate, and fortune (ever Laurelia's faithful handmaiden) not at that very moment intervened.  For it so happened that Mr R__ G__, an actor whose performances both tragic and comedic were much applauded by the press, and whose manly features received daily the swooning compliments of ladies on two continents, was strolling along that same pavement.

Of course Laurelia had not noticed him, any more than her eyes had apprehended the approaching carriage that would have ended her earthly existence, and our tale.  Yet he had seen her; that was what mattered.  At once his strong and virile arm reached out and Laurelia was saved!

We breathe... she, however, still unaware of the danger, was affected most strongly by the indecent familiarity of Mr R__ G__'s spontaneous gesture.  To be thus unceremoniously restrained, dragged backwards -- and by a man! -- it was an indignity too great to be borne.

"Unhand me, sir!" she demanded.

"Madam", spluttered he, "I apologise most humbly if I have offended.  I sought only to preserve your life."  With that he pointed out to her the speeding carriage, which had already passed the spot upon it would have surely run her over.  She could not deny it... Mr R__ G__ had, quite literally, saved her life.  Perhaps she had judged him too harshly.  She looked now for the first time into the face of her gallant rescuer, noted the square cut of his jaw, his azure eyes, his open and manly demeanour... she must admit that he was not unpleasing.  Her cheeks flushed with colour, feelings of relief, of gratitude, perhaps of something more, suffused her frame: emotions which, she recognised, she must resist.  A battle raged in the turbid mind of Laurelia Penworthy.  The outcome was not in doubt.  She emerged victorious.

"You need not have troubled yourself, sir," she exclaimed.  "I can see you meant well, but I can assure you that I was in no danger.  It is not some fragile specimen of feminine weakness that you see before you, one whose only thoughts are of love and whose only end is marriage.  I am, sir, a gentlewoman of fortune, a creature of the modern age, indeed its very embodiment.  I am not in need of your protection.  I was not put on earth to be the passive object of masculine compassion.  Please do not bore me with your hackneyed tales of heroism and derring-do."

"But the cab was about to crush you!" protested Mr R__ G__ , who was beginning to wonder whether it might not have been more circumspect to have allowed cruel fate to take its course.

"Bah!" replied our redoubtable heroine.  "It would not have dared."
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Wednesday, 4 April 2012

NSPCC brings Brass Eye to Life

Revealed: the Paedophile Map of Britain, screams the headline in the Mail.  Actually, the headline is misleading: it's merely the paedophile map of England and Wales.  We'll have to wait for the paedophile map of Scotland.  The Mail didn't go for the obvious headline, PaedophIsles, perhaps because they remembered that Chris Morris got there more than a decade ago.  But otherwise it Brass Eye come to life.  "Why is it that we can no longer think of the British Isles, without the word 'paedoph' in front of them?"

The byline is "Daily Mail Reporter", an infallible sign that what we're looking at is a glorified press release.  And the story comes courtesy of the NSPCC, which has compiled the map based on figures obtained from police forces under the Freedom of Information Act.  The "shocking" figures refer to reports rather than convictions, and no contextual information is provided: for example, whether the incidence of reported child abuse is increasing, declining or remains fairly constant, or how many of the alleged offences were committed in the home as opposed to by strangers, or why only one in ten of the reports resulted in a conviction.

Nor do the figures set out in the Mail add up.  Of the 23,000 reports recorded by the 43 police forces, just under 5,000 (fewer than 20%) related to children under ten, we are told.  Around 15,000 victims were aged 11-17.  That leaves 3,000 unaccounted for.  The NSPCC asked for information on alleged sex offences committed against all children and young people under 18, including rape, incest and child prostitution.  Girls were six times more likely to be victims than boys.  From this it might be reasonable to deduce that a high proportion of the allegations relate to sexual assaults against teenage girls, including those over sixteen.  However serious, such crimes wouldn't fit into most normal definitions of paedophilia.

 The message the NSPCC wants to get across seems, though, to be one of generalised, pervasive fear: a message for which the Daily Mail, as so often, makes the perfect conduit.  We shouldn't be surprised.  The NSPCC has got itself something of a reputation for scaremongering about child abuse.  Frank Furedi has described the organisation as "a lobby group devoted to publicising its peculiar brand of anti-parent propaganda" and written that it is "shameless about its obsession with publicity."   A few highlights will suffice:

Last November it claimed that one in four babies in Britain were "at high risk" of being abused.  The charity was accused of gimmickry for supporting a campaign to get Facebook users to change their profile pictures to those of cartoon characters to raise awareness, or something.

In 2010 the NSPCC released a bizarre and creepy video warning music teachers not to touch their students while demonstrating how to play their instruments properly, lest it be construed as "inappropriate".  Michael Gove suggested that the video was "playing to a culture of fear among both adults and children" and "sending out completely the wrong message".

In 2009 the Advertising Standards Authority banned an NSPCC ad campaign which (based on out-of-date statistics) that one in six children are sexually abused.  The ASA noted that the presentation of the figures would lead people to infer that the physical abuse of children was far more prevalent than it actually was.

This came two years after the ASA censured the charity for using made-up stories of child abuse to solicit donations, in a hard-hitting mailshot that was liable to cause recipients "undue fear and distress". 

A report in the same year (2007) concluded that despite raising £250 in its Full Stop campaign the NSPCC had failed to make much if any impact on the actual abuse of children.  It noted the NSPCC's preference for high-profile PR campaigns drawing public attention to child abuse, something that had "very little bearing on whether a substance-abusing parent neglects their child behind closed doors, or whether a sexual offender chooses to abuse a child when they have the opportunity to do so in secret."

1990, at the height of the Satanic Ritual Abuse hysteria, the NSPCC fuelled the panic with a report that claimed that SRA was widespread in Britain.  The charity made much of the allegation that groups of ritual abusers were engaged in the systematic production of child pornography, something for which there was never a shred of evidence.
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Monday, 2 April 2012

Coalition falls in love with snooping: Disappointing but not surprising

I'm roused, just about, from my recent gloom-laden inactivity by the news, as depressing as it is ultimately unsurprising, that the government intends to introduce new snooping powers on us all.  When the news broke yesterday a few people naively hoped that it might be an April Fool.  But of course it wasn't.  National security is no joking matter.

This Coalition government isn't like New Labour, many of whose ministers gave the strong impression that they actively enjoyed hacking away at civil liberties.  The plans may have been none-too-subtly leaked, but ministers haven't exactly been all over the airwaves defending the scheme.  They could, presumably, have made our flesh creep with tales of what criminals, terrorists and paedophiles are getting up to and why they need to be stopped.  Why these new powers are really, really necessary.  But you can tell their hearts aren't really in it.

Both Lib Dems and Tories opposed these ideas when in Opposition, so effectively that the government was forced to back down and shelve the scheme.  Or at least to tone it down somewhat.  They are fully aware that they are betraying their promises and further eroding their reputation for straight dealing by bringing these proposals back to the table now.  Don't imagine that the sight of David Davis revisiting his past triumphs is anything other than excruciating for senior Coalition ministers (though it must be of some comfort to them to reflect that, not having been given a job in government, he's unable to resign in protest).
The likeliest explanation for this development remains Davis's, that the "securicrats" (or is it "securocrats"?) of the Home Office have worn down ministerial resistance (resistance which, in Theresa May's case, may well have been half-hearted at best).  In fact, the latest proposals are a far cry from the all-encompassing super-database of which GCHQ used to dream (and possibly still does), or which the US authorities have been busy building in Utah.  (Even if the British government isn't storing details of everything you've ever done online or on a mobile phone, Uncle Sam is.)  The onus will be on ISPs to keep hold of the data, who will no doubt transfer the costs on to their subscribers.  GCHQ will merely be able to demand to see anything they want, at any time; which probably achieves much the same practical effects as a giant database, but is considerably cheaper and sounds slightly less scary. 

The last time there was a big row about this, Henry Porter (who seems to have gone rather quiet since the Coalition came to power) made some rather perceptive remarks:

We should not be lulled into seeing this as change in the government's goal of knowing everything about every one of us. The civil servants behind the scheme have a very long horizon indeed – an agenda that is designed to survive cuts in public spending and any change of government.

They will argue the urgent necessity of the case with force and plausibility to inexperienced Conservative ministers, as they have done to the co-operative second raters in the present government. I pray that a future government will have the gumption, sense of history and political values to resist these arguments...

Fat, as they say, chance.

There may be a European dimension to all this; there usually is.  EU Referendum mentions that the Data Retention Directive (under which details of every email sent and website visited are already logged and stored) is currently being revised.  "Does anyone believe that, with data retention being an occupied field, the British government is working entirely independently, and has not consulted with the commission on this?" 

Probably not.  But the British security apparatchiks have long been among the most enthusiastic pushers of EU expansionism in this particular area, hoping (as is their way) that bringing in Brussels will enable them to get round political reluctance at home.  This is not some alien imposition.  There is in fact rather more concern for privacy and internet freedom at an official level in parts of continental Europe than in either Britain or the USA, whose security services remain institutionally paranoid. 

Note also that when the last government abandoned its plans for a Massive Database of Stuff, instead proposing that the ISPs retain the data, the accompanying consultation document spoke of the "need to ensure that UK companies collect and store additional types of communications data about their own services, which are not included under the EU Data Retention Directive. This includes data that communication service providers do not generate or process about their services."  The latest proposals are hard to pin down (no-one seems entirely sure just what is being proposed) but it looks a lot like that.

But while we're on the subject of Europe, do you remember (or have you heard of) the Stockholm Programme, a grand coming-together of internal security, immigration, criminal justice and surveillance systems across the EU?  Central to it is a secretive new Standing Committee for Internal Security, reassuringly known as COSI, to co-ordinate policy between national forces and EU organisations. 

The scheme was described European Civil Liberties Network in 2009 as part of a "paradigm shift" in policing, the economic motor for which was provided by the "security-industrial complex".  It went on:

We are now witnessing the political ‘securitisation’ of a whole host of complex policy issues, from food and energy supply to complex social and environmental phenomena such as climate change and migration. The result is an increasingly security-militarist approach to protracted social and economic problems. At times of heightened global insecurity, the danger is that the rule of law becomes secondary to the objective of threat neutralisation. 

At times like this I like to remember something Michael Portillo said in an episode of the Moral Maze a little over three years ago:

I having been been in government have every reason for believing that the government routinely abuses the powers it has. It's not a matter of the last resort, it's the first resort. It isn't something that happens exceptionally, it happens all the time.

 Worth hanging on the wall, I think.
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