"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Fisking the doctrine of eternal damnation

Back briefly. Read this essential piece from Norm, which immediately struck me as being long-overdue because it gets to the core of what salvation religions are all about.

For them, in this world there are the wheat and tares, sheep and goats, clean and unclean, the elect and the reprobate - the saved and the damned.

Western Christians have learned to be diplomatic, evasive and generally polite about this theological detail - but if they are remotely orthodox, this is what they believe.

It's why politicised salvation religions are intrinsically dangerous. Secular societies have no problem accommodating those who believe their inner-worldly piety will be vindicated when we leave this vale of tears.

The problem arises when this belief is combined with political power because it always and everywhere represents, even if only in small ways, an attempt to order this world according to a vision of the next.

And for those of us who are of the wider communion of the doubtful and the unbelieving, under these circumstances the best we can hope for is disadvantage, inconvenience and discrimination; at worst, oppression or annihilation.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible

I'm takin' a wee break. Going off on holiday, amongst other things. Back in about three weeks or so.

Monday, March 19, 2007

A little night music

For no other reason than I've worked out how to post from YouTube.

When you were listening to Morrisey, or Kraftwerk, or were busy trying to convince yourself Paul Weller was an original artist or whatever, I was into this sort of thing.

I feel history has vindicated me.

Blogs wot make you think

Chris Dillow has kindly nominated me as a "thogger".
While this makes me fall foul of the criterion he used to exclude others from nomination, any honest list of thinking bloggers would for me have to have him at the top of my list so I hope that's ok? My choices would be:

Chris Dillow

Paul Evans

Norman Geras

Oliver Kamm

Ophelia Benson

Friday, March 16, 2007

Binge-drinking in Europe

The Irish are the worst for it. Or the best at it, depending on your perspective.

The Flying Rodent rightly considers this a slur on our national character but forgets that these statistics haven't been controlled for lightweights south of the border who clearly aren't pulling their weight.

Have to say this puzzled me slightly:
"In recent years there has been much concern about underage drinking on Irish streets on Saint Patrick's Day and some of the resulting problems, including violence, our correspondent says."
That's only one day! What does this mean, exactly? Is this a concern time-limited to the 17th of March? Is nonchalance the attitude towards teenagers getting ripped out of their tits the other 364 days of the year?

Or is it that having started on St Patrick's day, the average Irish adolescent says, "Fuck it - might as well keep this going until Christmas."?

Spotting cannabis factories

These are the tell-tale signs, according to this piece from the beeb:
1) Windows are permanently covered from the inside

2) Visits occur at unusual times of the day or night

3) People often do not live in the premises and only visit

4) Cannabis or used fertiliser will be removed in bin bags or laundry bags

5) Compost bags or gardening equipment may be left outside

6) There may be a pungent smell
I'm not happy about this.

Pungent smell? Ok, maybe my hygiene isn't always as it should be.

And I really should open the curtains more often.

It's my neighbour that's into gardening, ok?

I agree I sometimes keep odd hours.

But the point is, the only one that never applies to me here is 4, which is the only one that pertains to a crime being committed.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

SNP unveils scheme to replace council tax

Couple of things of interest in the SNP's latest version of what they've been promising to do for some time.

1) By Nicola Sturgeon's own admission, the 'local' income tax isn't going to be local at all but national in the "short and medium term". I would tend to agree with those criticising this on the grounds that it would reduce local accountability. There's precious little of this just now; we can't really afford to be losing anymore.

2) It's designed to be a handout to the median voter. Sturgeon even used the phrase 'middle Scotland'. Didn't know there was such a place.

3) Some of Labour's criticisms struck me as being a little odd. Tom McCabe, for example, said:
"[T]hey are now reintroducing elements of Margaret Thatcher's poll tax, in that every worker in a household will now pay this tax."
True - but this wasn't, I don't think, what people felt was unfair about the poll tax. The idea that every worker should pay a local tax seems reasonable since it is not bricks and mortar but people who consume local services, whereas the council tax works on the assumption that they do. Or at least that the value of someone's house is reasonably closely related to their income - which, as many pensioners will tell you, ain't necessarily so. Rather, what most people thought was unfair about the poll tax was its regressive nature.

4) But the SNP's assumptions do seem to echo those of the Thatcherites in that they are banking on the tax being held low. There doesn't even have to be a 'black-hole' in their present spending plans for there to be some doubt as to whether the SNP are wise to assume only those in the top income decile would pay more. It's a very rough and ready calculation I've done but at 3 pence in the pound, a couple who earned the median wage and lived in a house in the same council tax band as me would find their bill would be a hundred quid or so more than it would be if they paid the council tax at the rate it has been set for 2006-7. And Glasgow has the highest council tax in the country.

You could argue that a couple on the median wage should pay more but this isn't the basis on which the SNP are selling this tax.

They deny that there's a 'black-hole' in their spending plans, claiming any shortfall will be met by 'efficiency savings' in the Scottish Executive. Efficiency savings? Yeah, that's gonna happen.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

On Nick Cohen's "What's Left?"

Bit late with this, I appreciate. Paulie kindly sent me a copy of Nick Cohen's "What's Left?" ages ago. In my defence I'd say at least I've taken the trouble to read the book all the way through, which is more than can be said for most of its critics. Paul Anderson doesn't waste words but fairly summarises them here. I doubt I've anything particularly original to say but I'll make a couple of observations anyway.

There was much I recognised in Cohen's account of growing up in a leftwing family. I can't say my own got quite so worked-up about citrus fruit but the the key elements of the traditional anti-fascism of this generation were well-described. Franco's regime, for example, was fascist - end of story. I mention this, not only because it is familiar but because the use of the term 'fascist' has been disputed when it has been applied to Baathist Iraq and Al-Qaeda by Nick Cohen and others. Take Peter Osborne, for example:
"Cohen grabs key Western concepts and applies them very loosely in a Middle-Eastern context, where they have a problematic application. For him Saddam Hussein's Baath Party is 'fascist' and so are the Islamic movements that it suppressed. There is no doubt that the word 'fascist' adds power and apparent clarity to Cohen's polemic, and it is of course the case that Saddam borrowed some of the most loathsome Nazi ideas. But the use of such a specific and emotive Western term to describe a variety of complex and distinct phenomena hinders rather than enables genuine understanding."
Peter Osborne does not, of course, belong to the left that Cohen suggests has lost its moorings but I use this to illustrate the argument. One could make a case that neither Franco's regime nor Baathist Iraq were fully-fledged fascist regimes but the point is that by the very criterion they used to use, Baathist Iraq - with its secret police forces, the monopoly over the means of communication, its party elevated above the state, and the cult surrounding the personality of the leader - certainly was. Certainly it was a more clear-cut example than Franco, so why did we, and do we, hear these appeals for a nuanced understanding of a term that hitherto was used with a promiscuity that threatened to empty it of all meaning?

In this sense, Cohen is right on target when he describes the grotesque behaviour of the tyrant-appeasing sycophant George Galloway. The central thesis of the book though is more controversial because it is that the behaviour one finds on the fringes of the present totalitarian left 'magnify' more general trends. Few have the stomach to actually grovel before dictators, for example, but many more make excuses for them. Few are stupid or vicious enough to explicitly glorify Hezbollah and its leader but many more march in docile fashion apparently unconcerned, or maybe unaware, that when they walk under banners that declare "We are all Hezbollah", they are aligning themselves with terrorist murderers with an explicitly anti-semitic programme.

Cohen's thesis is that this reflects a new strain of an ignoble tradition amongst sections of the left that were always willing to sacrifice the principles of democracy and liberty should they collide with the need to keep one's anti-Western, anti-capitalist and specifically anti-American credentials in a pristine condition and further that it is this that has gone mainstream, albeit in diluted form, amongst the mainstream liberal-left.

The question is, how accurate is this? John Harris is one of many who accuses Nick Cohen of erecting straw-men, whereas Oliver Kamm, for example, is one amongst many who find in "What's Left?" a reasonable account of the state the liberal-left has got itself into.

Am I allowed to say I don't know? On one hand, Cohen is right, I think, to castigate those supposedly liberal-left journals like the Guardian, the Independent and the New Statesman for the often nauseating contortions they put themselves through with their invitations to understand the behaviour of homocidal dictators, nihilistic terrorists or more straightforward reactionary religious movements. On the other hand we just don't know the extent to which this sort of rubbish is taken seriously by the 'mainstream' left not least because - and perhaps it takes someone who isn't a journalist to point this out - not that many people actually read these publications.

On the mainstream liberal-left Jenny Tonge's explicit sympathy for suicide-murderers could be taken as evidence for the sort of phenomenon Nick Cohen is talking about - but then again, she was sacked for it. I could repeat the examples but wouldn't get any further than this: I think Nick Cohen is probably more right than wrong, which is the reason I thought it was worth signing the Euston Manifesto. On the other hand, I didn't think the book gave enough recognition to the other left that while opposing the invasion of Iraq nevertheless decline to make excuses either for fascism or ultra-reactionary religious movements. Where are the totalitarian left amongst the antiwar crowd? They are those who are presently supporting the 'resistance'. The bad faith of these can be demonstrated by the way they utilised essentially Hobbesian arguments to oppose the ouster of Saddam Hussein, then proceeded to negate this by supporting a 'resistance' that can be only subversive to any sort of order. Unless they won, in which case they would have a regime that would represent the antithesis of everything they profess to believe in. Everything, that is, except anti-Americanism.

How representative are these? One of the problems of Cohen's thesis is it is very difficult to quantify but I suspect that this group is not quite as large as he assumes. The Keep-the-War-Going objectively pro-resistance marches have, after all, been rather smaller than those held to oppose the war in the first instance. And the grouping on the left that opposed the war yet still remains resolute in its opposition to the Baathists, clerical fascists and ultra-nationalists presently tearing Iraq apart is probably larger than he allows for.

But what is prevalent, I think, is the mainstreaming of more straightforward conservative ideas amongst some on the left. Not objectively pro-fascism, rather a feeling that what goes on in far away places has nothing to do with us. Not pro-theocracy, rather the vague notion that cultures are different and perhaps not amenable to democracy. Not pro-dictatorship, merely the understanding that any order, regardless of how bad, is better than chaos. For example, for me one of the most shocking arguments against the overthrow of the Taliban is the idea that at least they kept Afghanistan's opium production in check. Never mind unveiled women having acid thrown in their faces; a price worth paying to avoid Western drug users being put in harm's way. What could be more insular than that? This too was a theme of Cohen's book which hasn't received the attention that other aspects of it have.

Critics will no doubt complain that this last point was the substantive one, that this is the one that has been vindicated by events and that this was what they were marching for all along. Perhaps this was true for many but I have reason to believe that this honest position was not held by, at the very least, a significant minority. I concede again it is practically impossible to quantify but there's been a couple of indicators. One is the indifference towards, if not a downright hostility to, the plight of those attempting to establish a democratic order in Iraq. The other is a question that formed in my mind as I witnessed the anti-war marchers, as I know it did with many others in much the same way. It goes something like this: if you really did, as you claim, only oppose the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, not because of anti-Americanism, or insularity, or indifference, but because you thought that as heinous as it was, any attempt to overthrow Baathism by military means would only make matters worse - why were your hearts not heavy with the knowledge of this hideous choice?

Update: Some fair criticism from Norm and Steven Poole makes a similar point in the comments below this post. Re-installed Haloscan so these have gone - sorry.


Recently my blogposts have been like buses. Isn't one for ages, then when they do come there's about five of them, all of which are shabby and disappointing.

I have no excuse for this.

Well I do - but it's not that interesting.

The strange case of Take That

Alex Needham observes that while Take That's star is in the ascendant, Robbie's wanes. He asks - co-incidence?

It is, I have to confess, largely beyond me. One of my colleagues, for example, attempted to buy Take That tickets, failed, was visibly disappointed and in all this made no attempt to conceal her shameful musical preferences. It may be the most positive interpretation one could give for this bizarre phenomenon would be to say no, it's not a co-incidence - and that this shows the British public do in fact have limits to their capacity to absorb shit music.

This is probably an over-optimistic interpretation but I'm going with it because it raises the possibility that the current popularity of Snore Patrol* will eventually reduce the present inexplicable demand for U2 recordings. I would favour this on the grounds that the lead singer - whose name I'm happy to say I don't know - does not to my knowledge think he's the Messiah, as yet.

Let's. Chase. Cars.

Yes, go and play in the traffic, why don't you?

Snore Patrol: Less interesting than a mashed-potato sandwich, yet more bearable than U2.

*Warning: turn down speakers. This link emits unsolicited noise.

Prince Charles - walking argument for republicanism

Max Hastings on Chuck's latest foray into topics he should, as heir to the throne, shut his gob about:
"It is hard not to sympathise with the prince as a man, driven almost mad by the frustrations of his role."
Speak for yourself, Tory boy. I personally find the whole not sympathising with Charles incredibly easy. Effortless, you could even say. The sub-title to the article says, "The prince mistakenly imagines he is equipped to sermonise. To succeed as king, he must replace activism with discipline."

Way to go Max - is that you speaking truth to power? Why not consider this instead? The guy's going to be sixty next year, ok? I've read me Burke, understand the concept of duty and all that but if this numpty hasn't been able to work out what his is after all this time when he's had SFA else to do, there's not much chance of him getting it now, is there?

Evidence that republics can produce equally dense heads of state is obviously copious. But provided said republic is a democracy, you don't have to put up with them for quite so long, now do you?

21/7 bombs 'not meant to explode'

From the beeb:
"The man accused of making bombs to attack London's transport network on 21 July 2005 did not intend to hurt anyone, a jury has heard.

Muktar Ibrahim, 29, conducted tests on hydrogen peroxide and chapatti flour mixtures to ensure they would only go "pop", Woolwich Crown Court was told."
Designed to go pop, were they? Ok - good luck with that line of defence.

How to lose friends and alienate people #1

Try making the case before an audience of Catholic teachers that faith schools should be abolished.

To say this doesn't make you exactly popular would be something of an understatement. We did a few detours into the history of the potato famine, Bloody Sunday and the collusion of British military intelligence with Protestant paramilitaries.

I took the view that they weren't actually my fault. I'm not sure they were convinced but in any event, we got to the heart of the matter with a line I'm sure you've heard before. Someone suggested that they would send their hypothetical children to a Catholic or Episcopalian school on the grounds that, "Faith schools have better discipline and better results because they instill in their pupils a set of values", I was told.

That academic success is a function of 'values' is an idea that is both counter-intuitive and contradicts my experience but we can park that one for now. What annoys me about this particular line is that it is repeated so many times it tends to be believed and not just by the faithful. But is there actually any evidence for this?

None that I'm aware of. Barring private schools, those topping the league tables in Scotland are not faith schools. Not even those who top the league in Glasgow are faith schools. First by a mile is the only school in Scotland that has opted out of council control. Running a poor second is one that happens to be in one of the wealthiest parts of Glasgow. [The worst-performing ones, you'll be astonished to learn, are in the poorest parts. Down to poor 'ethos', no doubt.]

You could, I suppose, argue that all other things being equal, faith schools get better results than non-faith schools. The problem with this argument is that all other things are not equal for the reason outlined in Johann Hari's piece I linked in the previous post. The evidence would suggest that genuinely comprehensive schools do better than neighbourhood schools, if the neighbourhood in question happens to be a bad one. Therefore Catholic schools, because they always draw from a wider catchment, many do slightly better because there are so few of them that are neighbourhood schools in this way. But it cuts both ways. This also means they will do less well than the best performing schools because unlike them, the wider catchment means their intake is never as homogeneous as leafy-suburb neighbourhood schools.

Now if you're of a religious disposition and favour faith schools, I'm sure you'll disagree but you could at least concede it makes sense - which is more than can be said about this vague nonsense to do with 'values'. But there's a more substantive point and it is to ask, what is with these utilitarian arguments for religion? If you're religious, you don't believe in order to have better schools, or to uphold the institution of marriage, or to provide the 'social glue' that's supposed to keep our society together or whatever. You believe because you think it's true, and that this in turn will lead to the salvation of your own souls. Would it kill you to make an argument for your religion on these grounds?

And while you're at it, could you please stop propagating the lie that religion is the sole source of morality? Because as well as being fairly easily falsifiable from the historical perspective, the Bible doesn't even require you to believe this, for goodness sake.

There - feel better already. That's why I like blogging.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The education lottery

It's easy to criticise Johann Hari - but that doesn't mean it isn't worth doing. On this occasion, however, he has something resembling a good point when he says that most 'comprehensive schools' are anything but:
"[W]e have almost no comprehensive schools left. The children of the wealthy are educated in successful schools that select by mortgage price. The children of the poor are ring-fenced away in warehouse schools, where they mostly falter and fail. Because there isn't much academic selection, this system is called "comprehensive" - but only because because we have defined comprehensives down, accepting as a comp any school which doesn't have the 11-plus."
What he says is, I think much more the case in England rather than Scotland (there is no 11-plus here) but in general he's right: we don't really have very many comprehensive schools, certainly not in our cities; what we have instead is neighbourhood schools. If you live in a shit neighbourhood, your kids will go to shit schools and if you live in a good neighbourhood, chances are the schools will be much better too. Negative exceptions include Glasgow where even if you live in a good neighbourhood, your kids will still go to a shit school where they run the risk of having me as their teacher - but in general I think the pattern holds.

Johann is also right, I think, in discerning behind the hostility towards the Brighton school lottery a desire to insulate postcode selection against any element of chance:
"The parents in the most plush catchment areas will fight like lionesses to preserve their privilege, and the national Labour leadership will be queasy about taking them on with measures that look like a shift to the left. So it's up to the rest of us to lobby our councils to make sure Brighton is not only a burning beacon of real educational opportunity, but the start of a nationwide bushfire."
Indeed. But before attempting to initiate the 'brushfire', could we perhaps consider a couple of points?

One is, if the lottery principle was extended and this by chance produced a set of school placement results that were even more class-stratified than they are now, would anyone be happy with, or even accept, the results? I doubt it.

The other is, could we not give up quite so easily on the idea that, rather than devising mechanisms whereby people are given equal opportunities to escape shit schools, it just might be possible to make our shit schools less shit? I do appreciate this quaint notion will be insufficiently profound for the erudite minds on the pro-choice or pro-grammar school left of today.

The personalisation of politics

It gets a bit much sometimes, doesn't it? Like with the news that apparently our Gordy had his teeth drilled without anaesthetic:
"Mr Brown made the apparently painful decision because he did not want his mouth to freeze up just hours before he was due to deliver a speech.

The root canal work was carried out by Mervyn Druain of Belsize Park, London.

He told The Sun newspaper that Mr Brown had been "perfectly relaxed" and "did not flinch or grimace at any stage"."
He did this to avoid the old dentist face because, one assumes, he thought it would be a bit embarrassing to be caught on camera dribbling whilst outlining his plan for more press-ups for immigrants.

Assuming the sultans of spin had a hand in this story, you're left wondering what the fuck is the subtext here? Vote for Gordon because he has a lower threshold for pain or something?

Well I've got an alternative take. I've had root canal treatment. It's not fun. I would therefore take the idea that making some stupid speech is worth experiencing this without anaesthetic as evidence that you've went done gone lost your damn mind, ok?

Gordon Brown: possibly a mentalist.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Hand-wringing about 'chavs'

John Harris argues that the demonisation of 'chavs' has reached 'epidemic levels' and takes this as evidence that we are increasingly American in outlook - this being our very own version of the Yank expression 'white trash':
"What that says about modern Britain seems pretty straightforward. How else to understand it than as more evidence of our embrace of an increasingly American social model, in which there is opportunity for all - apart from the undeserving rump too feckless to seize it? In short, we've finally acquired our own equivalent of that dread term "white trash"."
There may be something in this. I personally hate the Americanism 'loser', a painfully simple term used to denote one who loses economically. And if there's anything more depressing than imagining what a 'meritocracy' would look like, it's having a conversation with unsympathetic human beings who imagine we live in one now.

On the other hand, methinks Mr Harris wrings his hands too much because while expressions like 'chav' or 'underclass' may be relatively new, in Britain the attitudes behind them certainly are not.

The Victorians distinguished between the 'deserving' and the 'undeserving' poor. William Booth used the expression 'residium' in much the same way people use 'underclass' today and in case anyone thinks only hard-faced capitalists or muscular Christians made this distinction, it should be remembered that it was Marx that distinguished between the proletariat and the lumpenproletariat and that of the latter he took a rather dim view of.

Whereas I wonder if it isn't John Harris's view that is the novelty in social history because whereas before Marxists railed against the injustice of capitalism, this didn't stop them from condemning bad behaviour, whereas today I think most leftists lack the confidence, worried, perhaps, of attracting that dread epithet - conservative. Take this for example, where Harris describes pupils' responses to his mother writing the word 'chav' on a white board:
"Chavs, the students said, are in the habit of "causing trouble, hanging round the streets, drinking and taking drugs". They are "working class, they live in council houses". Their parents "don't care, and they don't work"."
Hmmm, I'm sure the class in question was fairly obnoxious, unsympathetic, and lacked imagination for the plight of those less fortunate than themselves. But hey, they're teenagers. And the fact remains that we do have a problem in many of our cities with young people hanging around, causing trouble and taking drugs. Object to the terms 'chav', 'neds', the use of 'working class' in this context (you should, since it's obviously being used inaccurately) if you will but I don't quite get this contemporary notion that you demonstrate your liberal credentials by pretending this isn't happening.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Germans in space

From the Times:
"Germany is planning to land an unmanned rocket on the moon in an ambitious revival of a dream that has haunted the country since the 1930s."
There's a number of references in the article to Germans planning to lay their beach-towels on the moon - which is rather unkind. And inaccurate, surely? [stereotype] For should they succeed in this enterprise, they'd be uncharacteristically late, would they not? [/stereotype]

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Teachers and bureaucracy

Teachers frequently complain about the amount of paperwork they have to do. I reckon they shouldn't so much for two reasons:

a) I don't think many of my colleagues appreciate that today most people have to fill in stupid forms where they say what they are going to do, then do it, and then fill in more stupid forms describing what they have just done. It has something to do with 'management' and 'accountability', apparently. Call me old-fashioned if you must but personally I'd like the people responsible for dreaming up this shit to be accountable to a firing squad.

b) They should adopt my ingenious bureaucracy-busting strategy - which is simply not to do it. Instead file tedious documents in the cylindrical repository next to your desk.

Amongst the drawbacks of this strategy is you get into trouble for this sort of behaviour, especially when dealing with people with professional authority over you who choose the memo over conversation as the default mode of communication - even though you see them face to face every goddam day.

But I would sill commend this policy to you, because for the unambitious its advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
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