Thursday, November 30, 2006

Cystic fibrosis

A rotten, rotten piece of luck for the Browns.

CF is the most common life-threatening inherited disease in the UK. There’s no cure, but the prognosis for people diagnosed with it is much better than it used to be. Partly thanks to research funded by the Cystic Fibrosis Trust.

ONE! Ha ha ha… TWO! Ha ha ha…

“I love to count!”

Well, I know I said that I was happy not knowing how many visitors I get here, but curiosity has finally wrapped its felicidal fingers round the neck of my lofty disdain. So I’ve signed up to Site Meter and, since yesterday evening, I’ve had an encouraging 24 hits. Although a few of them were me. Had to check it worked, you see.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

‘What makes a Muslim radical?’

This is the headline of a piece in Foreign Policy. I haven’t read it yet, so apologies for the link if it’s crap. But I cannot in all honesty apologise for the following, crap or otherwise:

Q. What makes a Muslim radical?
A. His totally excellent skateboarding, dude!

Nyuk nyuk nyuk.

(Ahhh, the International Criminal Court’ll be after me for that one…)

The stupid party is still the nasty party

Lovely Mr Cameron’s licensed attack dog and Notting Hill soulmate has been proving yet again what the Tories are really like, with a “handwriting analysis claiming that the Chancellor’s judgment is flawed”:

“George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor, said that he had hired a handwriting expert to analyse Mr Brown’s character — and the conclusions were far from flattering. It was Mr Osborne’s revenge for a typically ferocious assault on the Conservatives’ economic policy launched by the Chancellor when the two clashed in the House of Commons last month.

“During the excitement of their clash at Treasury Questions in the Commons, Mr Brown hurled a document from the Conservative’s policy group across the dispatch box at the Shadow Chancellor. To the delight of Mr Osborne, once the hubbub had subsided he noticed that the Chancellor had jotted some brief handwritten notes on the document in his characteristic giant, markerpen scrawl. Although amounting to just 14 words, the Conservatives believed that they had enough to extract their revenge and gave the note, without identifying its author, to Sarah Mooney, principal of the London College of Graphology.

“Two months ago Mr Osborne triggered a row when he joked at a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference that the Chancellor was autistic.”

You can probably form your own opinion of this little toerag who fancies himself as Chancellor, and of the party leader who lets him act like this while promising “a new kind of politics”, but let me add one observation: even in his working eye, Brown’s vision is not that great. If he wants to be able to read something easily, it generally needs to be in large, bold writing.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Groupies, freedom and diversity

I hope nobody will think any the less of me for saying this, but following my previous post and this discussion that Andrew started at B4L, I thought I might mention it.

I don’t actually celebrate diversity all that much.

I mean, I like having the opportunity to eat all sorts of different food, and I think that it’s definitely a good thing to encounter different ways of doing things and looking at life. But I have to say that, when I’m walking down the road and I pass a couple of people chatting in Farsi or Japanese, I don’t in all honesty stop and dance a little jig about how, even though they and I are different in many ways, it’s great that here we all are, on the same potholed pavement, breathing the same taxi fumes in the same bloody rain.

Let me put it another way. Of the people I know, some are quite like me in terms of demography and/or lifestyle and others are less so. And as a good liberal-minded type, I don’t like any of them any less for being different from me in various ways. But the thing is, I don’t like any of them any more for being different from me, either. I’m not really interested in having a colourful, box-ticked portfolio of acquaintances. To paraphrase the racist-in-denial, many of my best friends are kind, witty, fun, trustworthy and interesting to talk to.

So while I’m glad to live in a diverse society, I don’t so much rate the actual diversity itself as an intrinsic good. What I rate, as a basic political value, is the freedom that we all have to do our own thing – and, on the unarguable assumption that our preferences vary, then the diversity will arise as a product of universal individual liberty.

What annoys me is when people push diversity as a value for its own sake, which in practice boils to thinking that people who can be identified as being from a particular (ethnic/religious/linguistic/whatever) type should be understood in terms of the defining features of that type – and others within that group are quite proper to pressurise them to conform to ‘traditional’ ways, while ‘outsiders’ should stay out.

This gives us a view of society as a diverse collection of groups, each of which is comparatively homogeneous. One may well strive for good relations between the groups, but the differences between them are what the interactions are premised upon. And celebrating these differences for the sake of the group identity can actually harm personal freedom.

The view of multicultural society as a ‘patchwork quilt’, with each of us living within our own patch (bar the occasional ‘cultural experience’ visiting another), stinks. Better to think of cultural diversity as a dynamic tapestry, constantly being woven anew, with each of us having any number of different strands running through our individual identity.

Here’s an utterly depressing comment about the New Generation Network by Soumaya Ghannoushi, reflecting a contempt for human nature and a belief that ordinary people need to be kept in separate groups under a leader who know better:

“This obsession with an absolute notion of citizenship is precisely the manifesto's chief intellectual weakness. Outside the realms of legal doctrine and philosophical theory, the notion simply has no existence. …
“Undermining existing community-based organisations is a risky game to play. The bloody events unfolding in the Muslim world is proof that those who stand to benefit from the religious and institutional vacuum these structures' erosion would generate are the forces of extremism. …these organisations are capable of keeping some form of check on the reactions of uprooted young men, lacking in sound religious understanding or sufficient political experience, daily growing more frustrated at misguided policies at home and abroad. …
“The only way we can achieve an actual and concrete embodiment of the lofty principle of citizenship is through the activation of ethnic and religious minority-based organisations and engagement in a common struggle on the ground bringing together a diverse broad coalition of different forces, ethnic and religious groups, civil liberties and human rights organizations and political currents.”

And here’s the exact opposite from Hari Kunzru:

“Underlying much of the current hot air about ‘respect’ and ‘offence’ we find implicit the idea that as BME's (or whatever the current jargon is for those of us who don't trace our descent back to Nick Griffin), we’re somehow more determined by our culture than our flexible white co-Britons. Certain things have to be excused us. Our views on the usefulness of the clitoris, evolution, ladies fashions or the relative merits of other ethnic minorities are off limits, particularly to white politicians, because such questioning might constitute a form of racist pressure. …
“Instead of asking us as individual British citizens what we think or feel about contentious issues, our views are too often inferred from a dialogue conducted with so-called ‘community leaders’, who are frequently self-appointed, and almost always cultural conservatives, with every incentive to take offence on our behalf in order to preserve their own access to funding and influence. This odd coupling of white liberals and brown conservatives has produced a form of multiculturalism in which culture appears as fixed and fragile as a dried flower, something to be preserved, in danger of being shaken apart by the slightest breath of criticism, rather than something being made and remade every day on British streets…
“This ossified form of multiculturalism creates casualties within the ethnic minority communities its proponents believe they are protecting. Women, homosexuals, religious, social or political dissidents and artists must all contend with a political environment in which their freedoms are considered less important than the ‘representative’ power of community leaders, who will zealously wield the weapon of offence when their authority is challenged.”

(I’ll now be offline for a couple of days on an office team-building jaunt, where my individualism will be drummed out of me until I can conform to management’s ideal of a motivated worker. Or we’ll just get pissed and do some stupid exercises.)

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Signing up to left-wing individualism

I’ve signed two public statements this year: the Euston Manifesto and, this week, the New Generation Network’s agenda. I may not agree with every last dot and comma and emphasis and omission, but they’re both near enough what I believe in to get my thumbs-up. And, even though somebody could perfectly well agree with one of them but not the other, I think they do have a certain common theme that marks them out, for me, as being important.

Each represents (among other things) an attempt to champion, from the left, the universal value of individuals regardless of groupings. Too many on the left have bought into the politics of identity groups, and have defined themselves primarily as being against those with the most (Western) power. This relativises liberty and betrays equality.

Those who adopt this view only really have a ‘left-wing’ position in the sense of their romanticised dogma of resistance. It may have many of the mannerisms and forms of the genuine left, but in reality it’s all about adopting groups – within society or on the world stage – who can be cast as victims of ‘us’, fĂȘting their nominal leaders because they challenge the status quo, and excusing, ignoring or denying their moral shortcomings.

The EM argues that Western power is not the worst thing in the world, and that brutal, undemocratic regimes should not be sanctified because of their international legal sovereignty nor defended on grounds of anti-imperialism. The NGN argues that the UK Government and traditional white British culture are not the source of all social evils, and that self-appointed community leaders, too often reactionary and intolerant, should not be treated as legitimate representatives nor have their illiberal grandstanding excused on grounds of multiculturalism.

Very different issues, but for me both exemplify the fight against the double standards by which ‘our’ rights and freedoms needn’t apply to ‘others’, and against the related acceptance that the strong and the loud may dominate ‘their’ groups but ‘we’ may not campaign against this.

Thus, the EM rails against “left apologetics” such as “the excuse-making for suicide-terrorism, [and] the disgraceful alliances lately set up inside the ‘anti-war’ movement with illiberal theocrats”. It says that human rights violations “are equally to be condemned whoever is responsible for them and regardless of cultural context”. Equally, the NGN bemoans the “political paralysis… when addressing cultural ills such as honour killings, homophobia and forced marriages”. It argues: “The true purpose of ‘multiculturalism’ should be to help people from differing cultural backgrounds to understand each other better and overlap productively. Instead it has come to mean increasing separation.” The so-called community leaders “have helped to polarise the debate on community cohesion by taking extreme positions and failing to reflect more progressive opinion from those they claim to represent”.

Human rights are – inescapably, universally – human rights; repression and bigotry are wrong, whatever the source or ‘context’.

So my solidarity is with individuals, not cultures or ethnicities or religions or nationalities. We are social beings, and we naturally form groups; but groups are valuable only for how they benefit their members. Participation must be consensual, leadership must be accountable, and internal differences must be tolerated and defended – from outside, if needed. If solidarity doesn’t cut across group boundaries, then it’s nothing more than moral apartheid in the cause of knee-jerk oppositionalism. And playing ‘our son of a bitch’ has no place in decent politics – most certainly not on the left.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Tories promise impoverished public services

David Cameron’s been talking about relative vs absolute poverty:

“Even if we are not destitute, we still experience poverty if we cannot afford things that society regards as essential. The fact that we do not suffer the conditions of a hundred years ago is irrelevant. In the nineteenth century Lord Macaulay pointed out that the poor of his day lived lives of far greater material prosperity than the greatest noblemen of the Tudor period. But as Dickens observed, the poor of those days were still poor. Fifty years from today, people will be considered poor if they don't have something which hasn't even been invented yet. So poverty is relative – and those who pretend otherwise are wrong.”

Let me put aside for today the question of how good his analysis of the causes of and solutions to relative poverty is (it involves charities, don’t you know). Because I want to highlight something else.

This (ridiculously belated and probably opportunistic) Tory admission, that it’s possible to get materially better off in absolute terms yet still be in relative poverty because richer people are getting richer faster, and that this is bad, has an interesting and damning consequence for a key part of the Cameron platform: “sharing the proceeds of growth”.

George Osborne reminded us of it this week: “I want to see the share of national income spent by the state reduced over the period of an economic cycle. We want the economy to grow faster than the government. That's what sharing the proceeds of growth implies.”

So. The public sector, while it may grow in absolute terms, will grow less quickly than the rest of the economy. Do you see where this leads us? Yes: a Tory promise of an ever-widening relative poverty gap for the public sector. The quality of services such as state schools, hospitals, welfare, public transport, the police, even the armed forces, will decline relative to the increasingly better-resourced private sector.

Now, this is not just a slightly glib contrast between a couple of Tory statements (although it is that in part). There’s a vast flaw with their ‘slowly-shrink-the-state’ position, based on the way that different funding levels translate into quality of service. It’s utterly misleading to claim that the public sector will improve while its budget declines as a proportion of GDP, just because its budget is increasing ahead of inflation.

If the public sector shrinks relative to the private, so do the salaries it can afford to pay; recruitment becomes increasingly difficult. This leads to understaffing and underqualified staffing, and the quality of service in schools, hospitals etc. declining not just relative to the private sector but in absolute terms. The public sector will increasingly be seen as providing a poor-quality safety net for those who can’t afford to go private, and so momentum will build for greater tax cuts for the better-off, who will no longer touch public services with a bargepole.

If the Tories truly appreciated how relative poverty matters, then they’d know that their spending plans (such as they are) spell slow doom for public services. Or maybe they do know this, and it’s precisely what they want.

(Oh, and I’m too stricken by contempt to comment coherently on Cameron’s new ‘sort-it’ interweb down-wiv-da-yoof travesty: “To create an online home for a whole bunch of issues, with practical things that you can do to make a difference. … Take the Tosser Test.” Luckily, the Ministry of Truth has trashed it with vim and vigour. See also Ridiculous Politics for Cameron’s wriggling to justify it.)

Friday, November 24, 2006

A nation of humanists

In light of this wittering (which is too tediously dire to even be worth fisking), it’s great to see this poll:

Respondents were asked: ‘If you had to choose just one of the statements which one best matches your view?’

Scientific and other evidence provides the best way to understand the universe. (62%)
Religious beliefs are needed for a complete understanding of the universe. (22%)

Human nature by itself gives us an understanding of what is right and wrong (62%)
People need religious teachings in order to understand what is right and wrong (27%)

What is right and wrong depends on the effects on people and the consequences for society and the world (65%)
What is right and wrong is basically just a matter of personal preference (15%)
What is right and wrong is unchanging and should never be challenged (13%)

What a delight to find myself, proudly, in the moral majority.

(Hat tip: Humanists for Labour.)

10 things I would never do

Having been tagged by Dave, Liam, Paul and (sort of) Matt, there was no escaping this.

1. Use the phrase ‘could of’
2. Stand for election
3. Read a second Jeffrey Archer novel (it was a moment of madness)
4. Watch motor racing
5. Trust the Conservative Party
6. Buy a first class train ticket
7. Drink Cinzano
8. Betray my principles for less than a million pounds
9. Feign familiarity with the Arctic Monkeys or other polar fauna
10. While in the process of taking over the world, leave a captured spy in a slow-moving death trap to be overseen by one useless guard while I attend to other matters

So now you know.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Word games and number crunching

Ed Vaizey, Conservative MP, has produced a graph suggesting that the number of mentions of the word ‘climate’ in Gordon Brown’s Budget speeches took a huge leap in 2006; there is a tacit suggestion that this might be a matter of expedient political positioning (in light of David Cameron’s leading of the agenda?) rather than a consistent commitment to the environment.

I have two reactions to this, which unfortunately contradict each other. Pick your favourite and assume that that’s the line I really take.

The first is to leap onto my high horse and say ‘Dear oh dear, how typically Cameronite to imagine that how many times you use a word, rather than the policies you implement, is what matters. Just not serious, spin over substance, blah blah blah.’

The second reaction involves a bit of web trawling. On the grounds that politics is a team game and the environmental policies range well beyond the Treasury, you could compare the number of appearances of ‘climate’ in the 2005 election manifestos of Labour and the Tories (which, as you’ll remember if you’ve read my previous reminders, was the work of Mr D Cameron).

Labour 11, Tories 1.

You might also wonder who could be leading whom, in terms of the timing of Brown and Cameron’s association with the climate issue. This is pretty rough, but searching BBC News online for news stories containing the words ‘Cameron’ and ‘climate’ yields the following (no fancy graph I’m afraid):

Sep 2005: 3
Oct 2005: 2
Nov 2005: 0
Dec 2005: 9
Jan 2006: 6
Feb 2006: 1
Mar 2006: 7
Apr 2006: 17
May 2006: 4

So Cameron’s climatic profile varied from month to month, but for some reason leapt up in April. Why?

Brown delivered his climate-discussing Budget on 22 March.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

New Generation Network manifesto

This looks good.

Thirty years since the passing of the Race Relations Act, Britain faces a crisis of discourse around race and faith. These have always been sensitive topics, but the debate has hit new lows of simplicity and hysteria in the past few years. People want to talk. They need to talk. But how do they engage in a discussion which has been manipulated by recent governments to demonise minority groups, while being increasingly hijacked by self-appointed "community leaders"?

We need an approach that discards the older politics of representation through government sanctioned gate-keepers. One that rejects prejudice from both majority and minority communities, especially religious intolerance, and finds a common cause in equality and social justice with all Britons.

We need to wrest the debate away from the extreme ends of the spectrum and provide a voice to the silent majority. The true purpose of "multiculturalism" should be to help people from differing cultural backgrounds to understand each other better and overlap productively. Instead it has come to mean increasing separation. Sometimes this is a case of deliberate misrepresentation by the media. It has not been helped by the government entrusting power to so-called community leaders and other umbrella groups who claim to be the voice of minority groups. Such organisations should be working to put themselves out of business not expand their remits.

In a throwback to the colonial era, our politicians have chosen to appoint and work with a select band of representatives and by doing so treat minority groups as monolithic blocks, only interested in race or faith based issues rather than issues that concern us all, such as housing, transport, foreign policy and crime.

Unfortunately, many self-appointed community representatives have an incentive to play up their victimisation. This arrangement allows politicians to pass on the burden of responsibility to them and treat minorities as outsiders. MPs have increasingly sought to politicise problems of segregation, political apathy, criminality and poverty into problems of race and religion, and shift responsibility onto appointed gate-keepers rather than find ways of engaging with all Britons.

This brand of politics works against the very people it is meant to help. The gate-keepers have helped to polarise the debate on community cohesion by taking extreme positions and failing to reflect more progressive opinion from those they claim to represent. Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Jews all have long traditions and histories of progressive thought, self-criticism and change. Unsurprisingly a political paralysis has followed when addressing cultural ills such as honour killings, homophobia and forced marriages.

The struggle for equality and better access to public services is a struggle for all Britons not just ethnic minorities. White working-class families also face problems with deprivation, injustice and demonisation. Their concerns should not be ignored or blamed on other groups.

We need to foster a climate in which people can have private differences which include religion, language and culture, but also have a public space where such differences are bridged. The right to freedom of speech and expression of culture, faith and public debates must remain paramount.

Each one of us from this modern generation of Britons has multiple identities and we do not ask that anyone surrenders their heritage. Indeed, cultural and religious heritages are, in the main a source of empowerment.

The aim of this manifesto is to declare that too many discussions are framed as "them and us" by politicians, or dominated by reactionaries on all sides. To build a modern Britain at peace with itself we must also hear the voices in the middle that are interested in building bridges rather than stressing our differences.

(See also comment pieces by signatories Sunny Hundall and Sunder Katwala.)

Monday, November 20, 2006

A double-Jagload of deputies

At LabourHome, Paul has got going a poll asking which Labour blogger you would (hypothetically) support as deputy leader. The candidates are:

Antonia Bance
Andrew Regan
Neil Harding
Alex Hilton
Kerron Cross
Tom Freeman
Adele Reynolds
Luke Akehurst
Miranda Grell
Andrew Brown

Hmm. What can I say? If elected, I promise not to shag any of my staff on office furniture paid for by the taxpayer. Can’t rule out hitting blokes with mullets, mind.

At time of writing, Kerron has taken a decisive lead with 100% of the one vote cast.

(As regards this post title, see The Thimble’s new collective noun campaign.)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Living the good life without god

Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) has written a delicious post about the small pleasures in life:

“I love standing in the shower after all the cleaning is done, just rocking back and forth while the warm water massages my neck and shoulders. … I love the sound of a new can of tennis balls being opened: PH-SSSHHHT. … I love the smell of vanilla. I love the feeling of doing something right, no matter how inconsequential, such as guessing the exact right time it will take to warm a yam in the microwave. … I like being tired at the same time I have access to a comfortable chair and plenty of time to sit in it. … I like a pen that has good balance, opens easily, and leaves a clean line with no skipping, blotching or fussiness. … I like rubbing my head after I give myself a haircut. It feels good on my hand and my head at the same time.”

Great stuff. What interests me, though (with a hefty hat tip to Matt Murrell) is the puzzlement of a Christian commenter called Alex at how someone with an atheistic outlook (i.e. Scott’s) can find meaning in life at all. Alex says:

“This still leaves me with this question for the Atheists: How do you work around talking about meaning and beauty and purpose? How do you with honesty to your world view strive to do good things, treat people as you’d like to be treated, or try to make a difference in this joint? Please keep in mind that most every Atheist I have met has been generally very thoughtful, kind and concerned about living life ‘right’. Basically they are better than the world view they claim to hold. But I can’t understand why. …
“If we are from nothing, for nothing, to nothing, then nothing matters. The job you have, the hobbies you enjoy, the family you have, the way you treat people. It doesn’t matter at all. Sure, you can say that it does matter because you want to leave a good mark on the world etc... But what does THAT mean? Good? What’s that? It’s nothing! It’s an illusion. Your children will die. Your children’s children will die and they will all forget you. You don’t matter. You mean nothing. You count for nothing. You are an accident. An amazing accident beyond all odds. …
“…it seems to me that all the beauty, joy, love and happiness that we experience here is but a reflection of the one who put us here. Without God all the wonderful things we experience in this life really have no worth of value. Long after our species has passed from the scene and our planet ceases to exist, what will it matter weather or not we enjoyed the quality craftsmanship of a pen?”

This isn’t an uncommon view. And it merits a constructive response.

I’m an atheist: I think this life is all that there is and that we mortals are alone in the universe. We humans are intelligent and self-aware, which immediately gives us an advantage over the ants, the frogs, the sparrows and the daytime TV addicts: we can form our own purposes and make our own justifications. This counts for something – but why doesn’t it automatically lead to a self-centred nihilism?

I’ll try to explain. Justification or purpose, for a being like us, can come from two types of source: internal or external to them. Now, I quite accept that if all someone’s sense of purpose were focused internally, then they’d be utterly selfish and amoral. There’d be no scope for justifying anything they did other than ‘I want’. As a matter of logic, purely internal justification doesn’t take us anywhere beyond an individual’s own desires. Hold that thought.

But what about externally focused justifications? Religious believers would look outside themselves to god as a source of meaning and purpose. I can’t do that. But, even though I think humanity is alone, that of course doesn’t mean that each individual human is alone – we’re obviously not, there’s a planetful of us.

So I find my inspiration, my sense of moral purpose, in other people – my family, my friends, people I meet online or pass in the street, people halfway around the world I hear about on the news… That solves the immediate problem, if I can draw personal meaning from others. But then what makes them matter? Where do they get their purposes? You could trace lines from one person to another to another, but you’ll either go round and round in circles or eventually meet a dead end. The notion of a better world for my great-grandchildren is fine, but only goes so far. It’s not just that each human is finite – the whole species is as well. How there be an external justification for us collectively?

Let me reply with a different question. Say that our purpose derives from god. Where, then, does his derive from? (I guess this question is a little analogous to that other atheist staple: ‘If the universe must have been made by god because it couldn’t possibly just exist uncaused, then how did god come to be?’)

It won’t work here to say that he’s all-powerful, so he can provide his own ultimate purpose in a way that we can’t. Because we’ve already established, as a matter of logic, that purely internal justification doesn’t take us anywhere beyond an individual’s own desires – even for a god. Omnipotence may be able to create a physical universe and intelligent life, but it can’t break the rules of logic: it can’t draw a triangular circle, it can’t make a man who is taller than himself, and it can’t conjure non-subjective internal justification.

And it won’t work to say that god is morally perfect (one of his defining features), and that’s why he can act as the final source of purpose. Because if so, if we’re defining god in terms of morality rather than the other way round, then the morality we’re appealing to is something more basic, transcending even him in the same way that logic does. A moral principle isn’t the sort of thing that could be deliberately created.

Now, I don’t really know how to approach the notion of such an absolute, objective, foundational morality – but whatever we might think about that, if god doesn’t create right and wrong, then those ideas are something that an atheist can lay an equally legitimate claim to.

So the theist and the atheist are really in the same boat here. Whatever purpose we look for outside ourselves, we can only criss-cross through a network of beings with their own personal interests and attachments to others (whether or not this network includes god, the principle is identical). Whatever morality we aspire to, others – even divine others – can only advise and inspire us, not act as its creator.

This means that the choice isn’t between selfish, meaningless atheism and moral, purposeful religion. Rather it is, god or no god, between individual selfishness and reciprocal decency. I’m not going to try to argue against anyone inclined towards the first option; my aim is to suggest that this choice is the one we all face, and that the existence of god doesn’t affect the logic of this.

It’s true that believers in god very often do feel that they have a more secure moral basis than atheists, and (even though I’m arguing against this) I think I see why this feeling does have, for them, a kind of legitimate justification. This is rooted in the idea that god is omniscient. As such, then whatever ultimate, objective morality there may be, he understands it all and can therefore give the best possible advice – which can provide certainty. On the other hand, if we’re awkward about the idea of a metaphysically absolute morality, then our ideas about right and wrong will have to be forged through shared wisdom. And in this case, if we have a supremely wise being to guide us, that’s a reason for strong confidence too.

So perhaps these considerations make my case a bit less counter-intuitive for people coming from a different religious viewpoint. Indeed, in my experience, people who believe in god (whom I generally find to be no better or worse than atheists) do think that he knows what’s best and that his commandments are genuinely good moral guidance; they don’t at all take the sort of ‘might-is-right’ view that any arbitrary whim of a decree is worth obeying just because it comes from on high. (Some extremists seem to corrupt themselves by worshipping power alone, but I have nothing to say to them.)

Now, from my perspective, my existence is a spectacular fluke; so is the whole human race’s existence. Well, so be it. Here I am and here you are. I can either scowl and turn in on myself or smile and use you as the only kind of moral compass there could be – you and the billions of others. We have purpose not because we have ‘Made in heaven’ or ‘Property of god’ stamped on our backsides, but because it’s in our nature to make purpose: we have it because we can. There’s as much meaning in life as we make for ourselves and for each other (and the existence of god would only add one more other to the network). To demand more than this of an atheistic or humanistic worldview – but not of a religious one – is like one mechanic criticising another for failing to build a perpetual motion machine.

My attitude is that because this is the only life I get, it’s all the more important to live it well: to do right by myself and to do right by the people I come across. Saying that there’s nothing at the end is true enough, but for me the point of life is not the destination: it’s the journey. I can enjoy the beautiful scenery and the fascinating company, and help other people along when I can, and ask for directions now and again. The going may sometimes be tough, and many of us may not travel as far as we’d like, or in the direction we’d expected, but at least we can travel as best we can.

The journey is finite, but the limited quantity doesn’t mean a lack of quality. If you doubt this, if you feel that you need eternal life – go to hell. See if that enriches your existence. Me, I’d take oblivion.

And this finitude ties up with Scott’s small pleasures. They are fleeting, but I don’t think that invalidates them. I, too, love the smell of vanilla. But if I had to smell it all the time, I’d feel sick. A momentary sniff, though – that’s real. It counts. Even if I’ve utterly forgotten it the next day, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t great when it happened. Or a small act of helpfulness to someone with Alzheimer’s: even if they won’t remember it, it matters while it lasts; it’s a piece of goodness there wouldn’t otherwise have been.

One might say that such things as these don’t matter, because they don’t stand the test of time. But time is a constant series of tests. There doesn’t need to be an official point where the score is totted up and rewards or punishments dished out.

Happiness and goodness and purpose come in finite chunks. In a million years, it may well not matter whether I enjoyed some vanilla today, or helped out someone who was in trouble. But conversely, it doesn’t matter now that in a million years these things won’t matter. We’re chained to our own time. This means that we can’t inherit the distant future, but it also means that the distant future can’t disinherit us of our present.

Being human has its downsides, but it’s something. And something like this is enough.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Crisis and disaster: blogs vs mainstream media

Matthew Taylor, strategic advisor to Tony Blair, “fears the internet could be fuelling a ‘crisis’ in the relationship between politicians and voter,” according to the BBC. He said:

“At a time at which we need a richer relationship between politicians and citizens than we have ever had, to confront the shared challenges we face, arguably we have a more impoverished relationship between politicians and citizens than we have ever had. It seems to me this is something which is worth calling a crisis. …
“The internet has immense potential but we face a real problem if the main way in which that potential expresses itself is through allowing citizens to participate in a shrill discourse of demands. If you look at the way in which citizens are using technology and the way that is growing up, there are worrying signs that that is the case.
“What is the big breakthrough, in terms of politics, on the web in the last few years? It’s basically blogs which are, generally speaking, hostile and, generally speaking, basically see their job as every day exposing how venal, stupid, mendacious politicians are.
“The internet is being used as a tool of mobilisation, which is fantastic, but it only adds to the growing, incommensurate nature of the demands being made on government.”

Well now. I can only speak for myself, but I try to do various things with my political blogging. Sometimes, yes indeed, if I think a politician (or for that matter, a media pundit) is being venal, stupid, or mendacious, then I’ll say so; sometimes I try to poke fun. But if I automatically assumed they were all liars and rogues, I wouldn’t bother at all. Sometimes I look at a particular policy issue and try to explain some aspect of a problem and how, perhaps, it might be dealt with. Sometimes I discuss party electoral strategy. Sometimes I argue more abstractly about political philosophy. My blog is a mixed bag, and even if you think it’s a deeply third-rate mix, it simply can’t be defined as driven by hostility.

Actually, I was wrong above when I said that I could only speak for myself. Another thing I can do is to give a very few examples, picked from the Bloggers4Labour blogroll over the past couple of days, of political posts that are constructive and non-shrill. I’ve deliberately chosen ones that refer specifically to individuals, to show that this can be a way into raising an issue thoughtfully without being a prelude to a personal attack.

Dai on libertarian socialism and Peter Hain’s deputy leadership hopes; Aaron Heath on Central Asian power politics in light of Robert Gates’s appointment as US Defence Secretary; Paulie on how more politicians should put their persuasive abilities to the public test, as Tony Blair does; Bill Jones on Milton Friedman’s legacy.

Also, Nightowl, Brian Hughes and Mike Ion respond to Taylor constructively, taking his point as regards some political blogs (including some of the more prominent ones) but cautioning against overgeneralisation.

(A couple of idle hypotheses: [1] many of the more prominent political blogs owe some of their prominence to coverage in the mainstream media; [2] the mainstream media prefer to cover blogs that are personalised and hostile.)

The worries that Taylor has are really nothing to do with blogging. If you give an aggressive idiot a blog, you’ll get aggressive, idiotic blogging. If you give them a job on a newspaper, you’ll get aggressive, idiotic reporting. The medium is only a medium: it mediates between a source and an audience. The quality of the source is the determining factor. But of course, different media do mediate in different ways.

One thing to be said loudly and clearly in favour of blogs is that their great diversity means there’s a far broader range of topics covered, and perspectives taken on given topics, than in the relatively few outlets that dominate the mainstream media. There’s a fine example of personalising and simplifying herdthink in the MSM today that shows their tendency – even in pieces that are nominally news reporting rather than comment – to favour gaffe-chasing and playing the blame game over simply informing their readers.

It’s an example that Matthew Taylor should appreciate, as it concerns his boss. Tony Blair was interviewed by David Frost for the new Al Jazeera English service. One aspect of the interview was widely reported:

BBC: ‘Blair accepts “disaster” in Iraq’
Times: ‘Iraq war “pretty much a disaster”, Blair concedes’
Telegraph: ‘Iraq invasion a disaster, Blair admits’
Guardian: ‘Intervention in Iraq “pretty much of a disaster” admits Blair’
Independent: ‘Blair suggests Iraq has become a disaster but blames “terrorists”’
Financial Times: ‘Iraq war a disaster, signals PM on al-Jazeera’
Channel 4 News: ‘Blair admits failings in Iraq’
Sky News: ‘Blair admits Iraq “disaster”’

Gosh. Pretty unanimous. But dig into each of these reports and some fog emerges. They all make clear that Frost, not Blair, used this word in a question, and Blair replied:

“It has, but you see, what I say to people is, ‘why is it difficult in Iraq?’ It’s not difficult because of some accident in planning, it’s difficult because there’s a deliberate strategy - al-Qaida with Sunni insurgents on one hand, Iranian-backed elements with Shia militias on the other - to create a situation in which the will of the majority for peace is displaced by the will of the minority for war.”

Now, even though I agree that the ‘insurgents’ of various stripes are entirely culpable for the people they choose to kill, I disagree with him that failures of planning had no contributory role. But that’s beside the point. What does that opening “It has” mean? What exactly is it that was described as a “disaster”?

The BBC says that it was “the Western intervention there”. The Times says “the Western intervention in Iraq”. The Telegraph says “the West’s military intervention”. The Guardian says “western intervention in Iraq”. The Independent says “the western intervention”. The FT says “the western intervention in Iraq”. Channel 4 says “the West’s intervention in Iraq”. Sky says “the western intervention in Iraq”.

All the quotation marks here are because I am quoting the media, who seem to agree on the concept if not the wording; none of them quotes what Frost actually said. The BBC helpfully provides a two-minute video clip of the interview, but unhelpfully starts it with Blair’s “It has”.

I can’t find a fuller video or a transcript, but the nearest I can get to the horse’s mouth is the write-up on Al Jazeera, which says:

“Tony Blair, the British prime minister, has admitted in an interview with Al Jazeera English that events in Iraq since the US-led invasion have been a ‘disaster’. But he insisted it was right to remove Saddam Hussein, the country’s former leader, from power and he blamed al-Qaeda, Sunni fighters and Iran-backed forces for the ongoing violence. …
“Speaking on the Frost Over the World programme, Frost suggested that since the 2003 invasion of Iraq events there had been ‘pretty much of a disaster’. Blair replied: ‘It has, but …’”

We still aren’t told precisely what point Frost put to Blair. But it does say, twice, that Frost was referring to “events” in Iraq “since” the invasion as disastrous, which is not the same thing at all as the Western military intervention. This is at least fairly strongly indicative that Downing Street’s standard protests of ‘misrepresentation’ are justified.

But possibly not. Perhaps Frost really was talking about the Western intervention. But if so, why couldn’t any of the media just tell us what Frost asked? The universal refusal to quote, and the unanimity of the supposed paraphrases with some variant including the word ‘intervention’, don’t inspire confidence. They have, acting as a herd, spun the interview in a way that portrays Blair as having slipped up and ‘admitted’ that his policies were a disaster. And none of them has supported this with evidence.

You’d not get that in the blogosphere. Well, not the better parts of it…

[Update: Victory (partially)! The BBC story about Blair’s interview, in the version I read at the start of the day and then quoted, had said: “Mr Blair was challenged by Sir David over the violence in Iraq, saying that the Western intervention there had ‘so far been pretty much of a disaster’.” A later version (11.00 GMT) says instead: “Mr Blair was challenged by Sir David over the violence in Iraq, saying it had ‘so far been pretty much of a disaster’.” Good call, Beeb!]

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Oh, yes

I’m currently responsible for compiling the geography, London Underground and (inevitably) politics rounds for a forthcoming office quiz night. In my research, I’ve come across a real treat of a quote that I’d somehow never seen before.

Which prime minister said: “I can’t stop people sleeping with other people if they ought not”?

No googling, please – it ain’t tricky…

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A wake-up call

Now is the time for all good bloggers to come to the aid of Matt Murrell, aka ‘An Insomniac’. Matt is having a crisis of blogfidence, and I urge everyone to check out his blog if you haven’t already; reassure him that his presence online is a gift to us all, and that if he ran the world it would be a somewhat odder but much better place. Or you could just pick an intelligent fight with him.

(In other news: I’ve been a bit slack at posting at Fisking Central lately. Amends are being made.)

Monday, November 13, 2006


Today is the 1004th anniversary of a genocide on English soil. King Ethelred ordered the slaughter of all Danes in the kingdom.

All together now: “Never again.”

Sunday, November 12, 2006

‘Doing God’ – er, doing what?

After AC Grayling’s elegant trashing of it, I almost decided to ignore Theos, the new “public theology think tank” and its report, ‘Doing God’ [PDF]. But Grayling’s piece, good as it is, only relates to the report’s foreword, penned by a brace of archbishops. And the response from the National Secular Society is really very knee-jerk, consisting mostly of a general diatribe against religion and not quoting the report once. So I thought I’d have a read.

The report is seriously let down by inclarity. The lack of a summary and a conclusion make it harder to discern what it is actually arguing for (or against), and its failure to define terms is also a self-inflicted handicap.

Its title alludes to Alastair Campbell’s response to a question about Tony Blair’s religion: “We don’t do god.” The report uses this phrase, “doing god” (also “do god”) dozens of times, every single time within scare-quotes. No definition is offered, and so the overall impression is that the author, Nick Spencer, has allowed his thinking to become captured by this soundbite even as he rejects it. A catchy phrase is fine for a throwaway remark, but to make it the foundation of a think tank’s philosophy without fleshing it out is pretty shoddy.

The report does say at the start that the overall aim of “public theology” is “putting God ‘back’ into the public domain”. Theos “seek[s] to demonstrate that religion in public debate is not dangerous or plain irrelevant, but that it is crucial to enable such public debate to connect with the communities it seeks to serve”. It adds: “We… reject notions of a sacred/secular divide.”

This last is a little puzzling, as secularism is about promoting a sacred/public divide. What it presumably means is that Theos rejects this latter division – i.e., it rejects secularism. But it’s not arguing for theocracy. Rather, the most tangible proposal I can discern is that religious people should be allowed to be part of political life and make public comment – directly referencing religion, if they wish, and in their capacity as representatives of religious organizations, if they are.

A modest aim; I believe it was achieved long ago. Perhaps, then, the aim is merely persuasive: to encourage those secularists who scorn explicit religion in politics to calm down, and to encourage those religious believers who fear such scorn to take heart.

This is only my best judgement about what the report might be trying to say, though. The report doesn’t, for instance, say what it means by ‘secular’ or ‘secularism’. The closest it comes is on page 37:

“The word ‘secular’… was adopted in early Christian writings to mean ‘this age’ or, more precisely, ‘confined to this present age that is passing away’. The secular was Christianity’s gift to the world, denoting a public space in which authorities should be respected but could legitimately be challenged and could never accord to themselves absolute or ultimate significance.”

Disregarding the etymologically based bait-and-switch that predictably follows (“the secular public square, properly understood… requires an ongoing Christian presence”), we can see that indeed, theocracy is being rejected here. The “authorities” Spencer mentions as legitimately challengeable are the worldly, political ones, not Church leaders. But he does go on to state that “treating religious groups as valid participants within the identity debates to which modern politics is gravitating does not mean failing to scrutinise or criticise them” – so this challengeability will apply to all perspectives, with no one religion being favoured.

This sits very comfortably with secularism – indeed, the refusal to privilege one religion within the public sphere has been a key historical driver of secularism. Perhaps Spencer is really arguing against a Dawkins-style militant atheism, but confusing his terms. He wouldn’t be the first.

But there is a real problem about what Spencer actually means when he supports “religious engagement in public debates”. This arises because he rejects such engagement taking the narrow, sectarian, exclusive approach that it sometimes can. Say that a Catholic is asked to justify her proposals on abortion law reform. “If the answer is the ‘Holy Scriptures’ or ‘the Pope says so’, further public debate is stymied and the public square is divided.”

He endorses Julian Baggini’s view that religious contributions to public debate should be expressed “in universalist and not particularist terms”, arguing that “participation in the public square requires publicly accessible thinking”. In this context, that means that “religious groups… must be willing to defend themselves without recourse to sectarian or inscrutable reasons”.

Well… hear, hear, I think. But I’m a secularist and an atheist; my agreement should give pause for thought. Am I missing something? Is Spencer? Are his clerical backers?

He argues that religious participation in public debate should be publicly accessible, using terminology and indeed reasoning that does not create a divide between the exponent and other participants. But the logic of this is that we replace one form of secularism with another. Spencer opposes the view that people should leave their religious identification at the entrance to the public square, so that debate can take place between secular participants. He proposes instead a view that religious groups should be allowed to flaunt their allegiance in the public square, but before entering it they should, in effect, secularise their own political thinking. Religion can discuss public policy – but not religiously.

If this is really what is meant, then the proposal is a (presumably unwitting) Trojan horse that takes the principles of secularism into religion itself, while putting on a show of making the public square look more religious. On the other hand, if there is disingenuousness afoot, then this all amounts to a PR trick – a way of getting religious groups to make their demands in secular-sounding ways – and the Trojan horse is in fact trotting in the other direction. Stealth theocracy, if you like.

Given the inclarity of the report and its difficulties with terminology, I’m more inclined to think that Spencer simply doesn’t appreciate where his argument leads than to think that this is some sort of sinister, deliberate obfuscation. But that’s just my personal faith position.

Friday, November 10, 2006

BNP leader cleared of race hate

So does this mean that he has to resign in disgrace?

Nick Griffin said: “What has just happened shows Tony Blair and the government toadies at the BBC that they can take our taxes but they cannot take our hearts, they cannot take our tongues and they cannot take our freedom.”

Taking that oily little scumbag’s tongue?!?!? I feel ill at the thought…


It’s not just cabinet ministers being quizzed this week. Paul Burgin, who blogs splendidly at Mars Hill, has covered me in his ‘Twenty Questions to a Fellow Blogger’ series.

Some of the questions were a lot harder than I’d thought at first glance, but luckily we didn’t get onto the subject of multimillion-pound loans. He’s also coaxed a mugshot out of me…

Thursday, November 09, 2006

“We have to listen more”

An interview with Hilary Benn in the Guardian today:

…he has a clear analysis as to what's wrong with Labour, calling for "a different kind of politics, a different kind of tone". In Benn's view, "a gap has opened up between the electorate and politicians. "We have to listen more." He wants a bigger role for the party in taking decisions: "One of the difficult things about being in government is that ministers become ministers, and the civil service machine takes you up, and the party sometimes feels that it's looking in from the window outside. I think it's really important that the party feels it's inside the conversation."

His big theme is the danger of cynicism - "not doubt, not scepticism, not querying, not criticism, not asking questions - all of those are absolutely legitimate - but if we fall prey to cynicism we are lost as a society." His answer is that politics has over-promised in the past, which is what has produced the cynicism among voters - too big promises followed by inflated expectations and then disappointment at the results. This pattern has been, he says, "profoundly unhealthy. I think it's unhealthy in personal relationships and I think it's unhealthy between government and the people.

"I think in life you should always be straight and set out what you are going to do, and how long you think it's going to take." It is a none-too-coded attack on the years of spin, and in saying this he sounds most like his father, nearest too to the radical non-conformist tradition of the Benn family generally.

Ask him what is the biggest challenge Labour faces and he replies without hesitation: "the challenge in my constituency is the same as the challenge in the world - it's to overcome the big gap between those who have and those who don't and that's what Labour came into being to do, and we've got a lot more yet to achieve. That's what I think."

I’m still some way away from deciding whom to support as deputy leader, but I could well end up as a Bennite.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Genocidal f***head is also hypocrite

“I call on all Iraqis, Arabs and Kurds, to forgive, reconcile and shake hands,” says convicted bastard Saddam Hussein.

Does that include those Iraqis who unaccountably misplaced their hands during his reign?

“The Iraqi government continued to punish its citizens under a series of brutal decrees first passed in June 1994. The decrees – which impose punishments constituting torture – ordered the amputation of ears and hands, branding of foreheads and the use of the death penalty for crimes such as stealing, desertion from the military, smuggling antiquities, engaging in currency exchange, organizing prostitution and car theft. The amputations and branding were sometimes carried out in non-medical facilities and without anesthesia. Human Rights Watch/Middle East learned that physicians who refused to perform these procedures, or attempted to repair or reconstruct damage done by such punishments, were themselves punished with amputation and even execution.”

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Three out of three

Unintentional accuracy abounds this weekend. First, I was walking along the road to the shops.

‘Bus drivers beware – low trees’

That’s what the sign said. And it was right: the trees went all the way down to the ground.

Then, when I got home:

‘The End Of False Religion Is Near!’

That’s what the pamphlet on my doormat said. And it was right: ’twas but a few short steps to the recycling bin.

And finally, on the radio:

‘The doors of hell will be opened’

That’s what Saddam’s lawyer predicted will follow his client’s execution. And (setting aside that I don’t believe in hell or in capital punishment) he was right: how else is the bastard’s dirty, stinking, murderous soul going to get in?

Friday, November 03, 2006

Secularism and the good fight

I’m adding my tuppence worth to the discussion involving Shuggy, Norm Geras, David T, Chris Dillow and Matt C, who have made good criticisms of Melanie Phillips’s latest philippic against secularism. She writes:

“[O]nly a strong indigenous faith has the capacity to resist Islamisation. That is why the collapse of Christianity in Britain and Europe and its steady replacement by secularisation is so catastrophic for the defence of the west. The useful idiots who believe that only a secular society can hold off the forces of irrational belief at the heart of the Islamic jihad have got this diametrically the wrong way round. Secularisation produces cultural enfeeblement, because the pursuit of personal happiness trumps absolutely everything else. The here and now is all that matters. Dying for a cause, however noble, becomes an absolute no-no.”

I can think of no greater intellectual decadence and moral cowardice than to advocate the state-backed spread of a religion that one believes to be false in order to reap its supposed sociological effects.

If the aim is to avoid falling under the control of “the forces of irrational belief” inherent in Islam, it is an equal and abject surrender to throw ourselves at the feet of another religion on the grounds that its particular doctrinal features are less bad. If human nature were so contemptible that it needed to be controlled by high priests, and mobilised in their war against rival preachers, then why on Earth would anybody think it worth saving?

Phillips approvingly quotes Paul Belien: “Secularists, it seems to me, are also less keen on fighting. Since they do not believe in an afterlife, this life is the only thing they have to lose. Hence they will rather accept submission than fight.” But this confuses secularism first with atheism and then with a selfish, hedonistic individualism – also slipping amoral relativism into the mix.

To believe that this life in this world is all that there is does not in any way obviate or undermine moral principle, personal virtue and good behaviour.

A godless morality asserts that we matter and that we must treat each other well – not because a supernatural superpower has decreed it so, not because of reward or punishment after death, not because our lives are the property of a creator whose rights must be respected. Our moral worth is inherent and not the sort of thing that could be bestowed or annulled in the name of a deity.

(If you want to raise philosophical quibbles about where right and wrong then come from, then these apply equally to religious moralities. Deities aren’t a secure foundation for morality, as we’ve known since Plato. And we’ve all know since childhood that one can ask “But whyyyy?” until hitting a wall. If we’re talking morality rather than obedience, then theists and atheists are in much the same boat here.)

To say that humanity is metaphysically alone is not to endorse the fiction that each human is socially alone. That we are psychologically bound to each other is deeply entrenched in our evolved nature. And it’s beyond factual dispute that we can and do morally value each other, and stand up to challenge cruelty or alleviate disaster, with or without the dubious benefit of religion. Those of us who know this mustn’t be afraid to shout it out, to give each other moral support that is universal and human; those who try to deny it as a means of promoting their sectarian politics must be exposed.

The fact that this life is my only life means that it’s also the only life of my friends, my family and all the people across the world whose mere existence grants them the right to live it as healthily, securely and happily as is feasible. The understanding that we all matter means that an atheist has much more than their own individual life to value and, if necessary, to fight for.

Norm thinks that the Phillips/Belien claim that secularists would rather submit than fight does at least gesture in the direction of a legitimate concern, that “there seem to be many citizens of liberal societies who can't imagine any serious threat to them, or that these societies may need to be fought for – literally. And that is a mistake.”

It strikes me that Norm’s point is right, but in a way that undermines the argumentative use to which Belien and Phillips wish to put it. Yes, there is a real challenge to tolerant, liberal secularism from militant Islamism, and this surely has been under-appreciated by much of the liberal left. And furthermore, there are some cases in which Islamists will have to be fought, literally, with the use of force.

But these are cases involving groups of jihadi terrorists (themselves a small subset of Islamists) and/or fundamentalist theocratic movements trying to tyrannise whole populations. Given the small scale of individual groups of the former sort, and the overwhelming likelihood that the latter threat will not arise in militaristic form in Western countries, the appropriate defence is immune to any cowardly hedonism among the public. Even if it is true that individual secularists/humanists/atheists are loath to go to war themselves to defend their way of life, this is beside the point. The nature of the threat is not such that Western societies will be engaged in a total war. There won’t be mass mobilisation and conscription. The fighting that does need to be done will be carried out by the professional armed forces, who are quite capable and courageous enough.

As for the more mundane (but still important) cultural challenge posed to secular societies by strident Islamism, the right response will be social and political rather than street-to-street combat. Perhaps I would indeed be defeated by my own fear in the face of physical violence, but – to mix clichĂ©s – in the battle for hearts and minds, the pen is mightier than the sword. This is a campaign of ideas and arguments.

Secularism is not about hating religion, nor even about promoting atheism; it’s about freedom. It comes from a recognition that religious diversity (which is inevitable) leads to either massacre and persecution or peaceful agreement to disagree. If we act as though we’re itching for a fight, then that’s what we’ll get. If we try to persuade others that tolerating difference is the only way to avoid a mutual bloodbath, then we can isolate and weaken those who really do want the fight. Phillips uses the fine phrase “the forces of irrational belief at the heart of the Islamic jihad”. And yet she tries to make all of Islam the enemy. In doing so, she alienates potential support for tolerance and freedom.

It has struck me from time to time that when you try to draw a line aggressively, you’re likely end up on the wrong side of it. On 9/11, al-Qaeda repelled most Muslims into sympathising with the US. The Iraq war (and to a lesser extent Afghanistan), Bush and others helped make extremism a more attractive form of resistance.

Violent fights are sometimes necessary. But if you’re careless in the way you pick them, your enemies will multiply. The greatest threat to extremist Islamism will come not from atheists or Christian, but from Muslims who would rather just get on with their own lives than control those of others. For secularists to deprive ourselves of these allies by acquiescing to strident Islamophobia would be to make the mirror image of the fatal mistake that Phillips mistakenly diagnoses.

[Update: I've also just spotted this from the Ministry of Truth.]

Quarterly report

Today, Freemania is three months old. To mark this, I’ll be having some cake with lunch; if it’s a really slow day, I may post on how tasty it is later on.

I’ve also commissioned Sir Nicholas Stern, Lord Butler, Lord Hutton and the ghost of Rod Hull to conduct a review of how much progress the blog has made towards achieving its mission statement: “I’m going to write some stuff and see how it goes, you know?”

I’ll spare you their full report, but the gist of the exec summary is that I have both written some stuff and seen how it’s gone. And they add that yes, they do indeed know.

According to the external auditors, I’ve produced 95 posts, of average length 370 words – a total wordcount of 35,204. Weekly average 7.3 posts or 2,708 words. (That’s about the rate of writing that I did as an undergrad. Sorry, no, that’s about the rate I should have done as an undergrad…)

Sadly, the figures evaluating the quality of the output have been misplaced.

One thing I have no numbers on is how much traffic comes this way. I presume it’s not very much, and I know I could find out without too much trouble – but I don’t think I want to. If it’s pathetically low, then that might dishearten me; if it’s surprisingly high, then I might become (more) big-headed and start playing to ‘my public’, which is a horrifying notion.

Basically, though, this blog is largely a selfish endeavour. Most of the people I know aren’t really into politics, and I fancied having some sort of outlet for my main interest. Also, I like to mull things over a bit before sounding off, and I quite like to be able to lay out a case without risk of interruption, so a written medium probably suits me better anyway. And because this allows me to go on at some length – to potentially any number of superbly informed readers – it forces me to whip my thoughts into better shape than they’d be in just bouncing around my skull. This is the main reason I blog: self-improvement. And if other people like some of what I post, then that’s great; if people have interesting comments to make, that’s even better.

Blogging, for me at least, is usually partly reactive. I try to avoid posting drivel just for the sake of posting regularly, but I do feel that I ‘ought’ (in some way) to be producing stuff reasonably often. This means that I take a much keener interest in what other people are writing on their blogs – as well as the mainstream media – and if I see something interesting (or outrageously wrong), then that’s a good starting point for corralling some of my own thoughts. So I find myself naturally being drawn into… I loathe the word ‘blogosphere’ but there you go.

Thanks for being there.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

NHS in crisis

RidiculousPolitics has a timely reminder of what a truly rotten government can inflict on the NHS.

Headlines from November 1996:

The Times
2 November: ‘Hospital crisis’

The Mirror
18 November: ‘Scandal of lost NHS operations...’
18 November: ‘One in seven operations… cancelled due to cutbacks in NHS’

The Record
15 November: ‘700 clinical jobs, from consultants to nurses, will be axed’ – at a single hospital

The Independent:
4 November: ‘Hospital trusts go broke as NHS is bled dry’
20 November: ‘Hospitals warn of worst fund crisis for years’ and warns of ‘“emergency only” service this winter’

People on the left sometimes complain that Labour has done too little to change the political culture. But it’s a sign of success here (albeit an inconvenient and frustrating sign) that people’s expectations of the NHS are now so much higher than ten years ago that its present condition is seen as inadequate. Not to mention the fact that the Tories no longer dare wave the axe around (not in public, at least).

And it’s worth remembering that people who actually use the NHS have a much higher opinion of it than people who base their opinions on what the media say.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Hizb ut-Tahrir: ‘terrorism is Islamic’

Imran Waheeb, media representative of the Islamist extremists Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain, writes on the Guardian’s CiF site about free speech.

Most of what he says is the usual sophistry, eliding measured criticism with abuse and violence. This can be disregarded. But here’s a snippet that caught my eye. Arguing that there is “growing hysteria against British Muslims”, he claims:

“Over the last year, we have seen the furore over the Danish cartoons, the Pope quoting descriptions of Islam as ‘evil and inhuman’, aspects of Islam labelled an ‘evil ideology’ by Tony Blair and the use of the term Islamo-fascism by George Bush.”

Take the Blair quote. This was from a speech he made about a week after the London bombing. What was it he described as an “evil ideology”?

“What we witnessed in London last Thursday week was not an aberrant act. … Senseless though any such horrible murder is, it was not without sense for its organisers. It had a purpose. It was done according to a plan. It was meant.
“What we are confronting here is an evil ideology. It is not a clash of civilisations – all civilised people, Muslim or other, feel revulsion at it. But it is a global struggle and it is a battle of ideas, hearts and minds, both within Islam and outside it.

“This is a religious ideology, a strain within the world-wide religion of Islam, as far removed from its essential decency and truth as Protestant gunmen who kill Catholics or vice versa, are from Christianity.

“From the mid 1990s onwards, statements from Al-Qaeda, gave very clear expression to this ideology: ‘Every Muslim, the minute he can start differentiating, carries hatred towards the Americans, Jews and Christians. This is part of our ideology. The creation of Israel is a crime and it has to be erased. You should know that targeting Americans and Jews and killing them anywhere you find them on the earth is one of the greatest duties and one of the best acts of piety you can offer to God Almighty.’”

So, let’s be crystal clear: when the Hizb ut-Tahrir spokesman defends “aspects of Islam” against this criticism, he is endorsing murderous terrorism as Islamic. His group is championing al-Qaeda and, by extension, stealthily damning the majority of Muslims who oppose violent extremism - even as it purports to stand up for them.

Why is the Guardian providing a platform for such third-rate apologistic sophistry?