Thursday, June 28, 2007

An interregnum and a honeymoon

The BBC lists the crises that struck a fragile nation during our 68 minutes without a prime minister yesterday, including the announcement that Chantelle and Preston Bigbrother were divorcing, and a Scotsman being attacked by a buzzard (no, not that Scotsman). (Hat tip: The Virtual Stoa.)

And in the Guardian, Tim Dowling gives a blow-by-blow account of Brown’s first 100 minutes in power:

2.50pm The BBC reports that Brown's car is making "slow progress" towards Downing Street. Does this send out the right message?

Pointless historical PM pedantry

Tom Hamilton picks factually sound yet arguably unimportant holes in some of the media commentary on Gordon Brown’s accession to No. 10. I thought I’d join in the fun.

(I realise that I can’t expect too many readers for a blog post with ‘pointless’ in the title, so thanks to any of you who have made it this far. It’s still not too late for you to go and find some as-yet-unwatched drying paint…)

It’s been said several times (I can’t be bothered to look up an example) that while both Brown and John Major became PM without a general election, Major was at least elected by his MPs and so had the advantage in terms of legitimacy.

An unappreciated fact is that John Major didn’t win any such election.

In the first round of the election, Margaret Thatcher got 204 votes to Michael Heseltine’s 152. Under Conservative Party rules, this wasn’t a big enough winning margin, and so the contest went on to a second round.

Thatcher, weakened by her worse-than-expected showing, dropped out, and Major and Douglas Hurd joined in. The second round result was: Major 185, Heseltine 131, Hurd 56. Major’s lead also did not count as a winning margin, so a third round beckoned. However, at this point Heseltine and Hurd judged that they lacked the support to win and dropped out, and no other candidate came forward.

Major was declared the winner unopposed. Just like Brown.

Although there is one notable difference: Major only had the support of 185 of his party’s MPs (just under half); but Brown was nominated by 313 Labour MPs (89%). So the comparison reflects well on Brown – as, indeed, do many other Major-Brown comparisons.

Anyone still awake?

Bad service

I would like, with all the mildly injured harrumphing pomposity I can muster, to record my contempt for BBC2’s decision to cut Tony Blair off in mid-sentence yesterday.

Rather than continuing to broadcast his last couple of minutes in Parliament, they cut away to bring us the vital second game of the second set of the first-round match between Anna Ivanovic and Melinda Czink.

Actually, that’s not quite true. They cut away from the PM’s final remarks to bring us half a minute or so of Andrew Neil and the closing credits for The Daily Politics, then two trailers for future programmes, then about a minute and a half for the tennis opening credits and chit-chat from Sue Barker about the previous day’s play and matches that were coming up later, plus wry remarks on the weather.

Then they got straight to the third point of the second game of the second set of the match.

Czink held her serve to love, although in the end Ivanovic won.

(Ahem) Helloo-oo? Sense of occasion, anyone?


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

It’s Gordon Brown – shocker

Well, who’d have thunk it? My flabber is well and truly gasted.

Labour leader Gordon Brown is the UK's new prime minister after being asked to form a government by the Queen.

In an obvious way, this was the easiest question of his life – even easier than the ‘may I congratulate my right honourable friend on his prudent handling of the economy’ type from lickspittle backbenchers.

But, as Tony Blair can tell him, it’ll turn out to be the hardest thing he’ll ever be asked.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Davies defection

So what’s the significance of this? Nobody outside the anorakariat knows who he is, but the mere fact of a Tory-to-Labour convert – just when some of the Tories might have been hoping for disgruntled Blairites to come their way – creates a sense of momentum.

Davies has a record as a Europhile, so this will refresh the Tories’ 1990s image as a bunch of phobes just as they’ve been wondering how hard they dare push against the new EU treaty. This makes it tougher for them to make a big issue of it.

Of course, it’s a media boost for Brown as he takes over. Is Davies part of ‘all the talents’ that Brown wants in his government…?

Davies also said in his letter to Cameron:

"Although you have many positive qualities you have three, superficiality, unreliability and an apparent lack of any clear convictions, which in my view ought to exclude you from the position of national leadership to which you aspire and which it is the presumed purpose of the Conservative Party to achieve.
"Believing that as I do, I clearly cannot honestly remain in the party. I do not intend to leave public life."
Mr Davies said he had "found increasingly I am naturally in agreement" with the Labour Party and praised Mr Brown as "a leader I have always greatly admired, who I believe is entirely straightforward, and who has a towering record, and a clear vision for the future of our country which I fully share".

Update: Davies goes on (and on):

You are the first leader of the Conservative Party who (for different reasons) will not be received either by the President of the United States, or by the Chancellor of Germany (up to, and very much including, Iain Duncan Smith every one of your predecessors was most welcome both in the White House and in all the chancelleries of Europe).

It is fair to say that you have so far made a shambles of your foreign policy, and that would be a great handicap to you - and, more seriously, to the country - if you ever came to power.

One day in January, I think a Wednesday or Thursday, you and George Osborne discovered that Gordon Brown was to make a speech on the environment the following Monday.
You wished to pre-empt him. So without any consultation with anyone - experts, think tanks, the industry, even the Shadow Cabinet - you announced an airline or flight tax…
The PR pressures had overridden any considerations of economic rationality or national interest, or even what would have been to others normal businesslike prudence.

You regularly (I think on a pre-arranged PR grid or timetable) make apparent policy statements which are then revealed to have no intended content at all. They appear to be made merely to strike a pose, to contribute to an image.


Quentin Davies MP defects to Labour


The MP for Grantham and Stamford, made his decision public in a letter to Conservative leader David Cameron.
He wrote that under Mr Cameron the party "appears to me to have ceased collectively to believe in anything, or to stand for anything".

"It has no bedrock. It exists on shifting sands. A sense of mission has been replaced by a PR agenda."

Monday, June 25, 2007

Spindependent news

Some people think that:

Opinion and fact should be clearly divisible. The truth is, a large part of the media today not merely elides the two but does so now as a matter of course. In other words, this is not exceptional. It is routine. The metaphor for this genre of modern journalism is The Independent newspaper.

Other people think that:

the need to interpret and comment upon the official version of events is more important than ever. And we are confident that our readers can differentiate between news and opinion.

Now, of course the Independent and the Independent on Sunday are different newspapers, edited separately. But the front-page story in yesterday’s Sindy does rather exemplify the flaws that Tony Blair identified and that Simon Kelner (Indy editor) shrugged off.

The Indy’s readers may perhaps be able to tell the difference between news and opinion, but the Sindy’s reporters seem to either not know or not care. Here’s the summary of their report:

An astonishing confidential document… proves that Tony Blair planned to sack Mr Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer immediately after the last election.
The Cabinet Office document… shows that… the Prime Minister… planned to scupper his [Brown’s] career and break up the Treasury just two years ago.

So, we are entitled to expect details of a document that “proves” Blair “planned” to “sack” Brown.

A couple of paragraphs in, we get:

The top-secret paper confirms talk at Westminster that Mr Blair intended to sack Mr Brown after the 2005 election and move him to another post to loosen his control over the domestic agenda.

This actually firms things up a bit. You could technically (if sophistically) argue that ‘planning to do X’ might only amount to ‘preparing plans for how X could be done’. But the Sindy obliterates any wiggle room by saying that Blair “intended” to do this.

It’s arguable that moving a minister from one Cabinet post to another isn’t the same as “sacking”, but let’s let that slip by. For the following paragraph stresses that this paper “provides the first concrete proof” that Blair planned to get rid of Brown as Chancellor. This is clearly strong stuff.

So what is this paper?

The paper was prepared by a trusted team of advisers in the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, in close co-operation with John Birt and the Economic and Domestic Secretariat in the Cabinet Office…
Downing Street sources have told The Independent on Sunday that Mr Blair wanted to be kept closely informed of its work and watched presentations of the plans as they developed. As proof of how closely involved Tony Blair was, The Independent on Sunday has seen the Prime Minister's own personal copy, drafted for him in March 2005, weeks before the election.

Hmm. So this paper wasn’t written by Blair but “drafted for” him. Both of those words suggest distance from something he actually planned to do.

The Sindy gives some concrete details of the contents of the paper:

It proposes boosting the role of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who would head a new Office of Delivery and Expenditure within the Treasury, which would be responsible for public service delivery and control of spending. …
The proposals suggest that Mr Brown was to be kept in the dark about the changes afoot, while his own civil servants would be asked to work on the plans without telling him.

“Proposes?” “Suggest?” My, how quickly have we retreated from “planned” and “intended”.

Surely there’s some sort of killer quote from this document that actually illustrates the claim that the Sindy is making? Well, not quite. This is the very best we’re offered:

"There were all sorts of presentations to the Prime Minister. He was definitely aware this was going on - he wanted it. There was a big thing about how Mr Blair was going to make a big comeback after the election. His basic command was 'I want to refresh my government'. It was about Mr Blair being so sick of the in-fighting with Brown," said one source.

Marvellous. A vague quote from… “one source”.

I don’t care whether Blair really intended to sack Brown. I care that this newspaper is splashing this story the way it has without showing the “proof” that it claims to have. I care that the report gives us nothing to establish the status of this document: proposals for consideration or established prime-ministerial intentions? I care that lazy assumptions are being made that fit with received media wisdom. I care that a proposal/plan/whatever for massive changes to the structure of government departments has to be filtered through the ‘Blair vs Brown’ narrative.

(It might be replied: ‘Everyone knows the two hate each other and Blair would have loved to get rid of Brown… it fits. Stop being so bloody nit-picking.’ But if this is common knowledge, the news value evaporates; and this has no bearing on the uniquely “concrete” nature of the proof supposedly on offer. If you don’t pick the nits carefully then your cutting-edge investigative journalism becomes pedestrian punditry.)

And I also care that the Sindy has the temerity to report not just on the document they’ve read and the “sources” they’ve spoken to, but on the reaction that their story will – as a matter of fact – provoke:

The revelations will shock Labour Party delegates assembling in Manchester for the formal announcement of Mr Brown's succession as Labour leader.

I wasn’t there, but I didn’t hear any reports of tabloid-induced shock. I think there was some other stuff going on that people were more concerned with.

Spin-doctoring is trying to influence how a story is reported; spinning is taking a particular angle in reporting a story. But a report that tries to influence how it itself will be received – I’m not sure there’s a word for that, other than arrogance.

Two messages for…

…Harriet Harman

(1) Congratulations.

(2) You don’t need to keep telling us that you’re a woman.

…Gordon Brown

(1) Congratulations.

(2) Don’t you dare screw this up.

…Tony Blair

(1) Thank you, and goodnight.

(2) Behave yourself.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Putting a face to the name

Shiv Malik has a remarkable article in Prospect magazine about Mohammad Sidique Khan, the 7/7 ringleader. It’s a carefully researched narrative of Khan’s life in Beeston and his journey to becoming a suicide bomber, drawing on interviews with his brother and with Hassan Butt, a former terrorist recruiter, among others.

There’s no ‘aha’ moment when you suddenly realise why Khan did it, but then life is rarely like that. And from the account it remains hard to tell why (beyond his falling in with ‘the wrong crowd’) he chose to become a murderer while others don’t. But it paints a picture of him as a human being – which is, alas, exactly what he and every other fanatic is. If you think ‘understand’ is a dirty word, this piece isn’t for you. If you value knowing your enemy, it’s worth a read.

Malik describes: how Khan was drawn to violent jihadism before 9/11, let along Iraq; Khan’s defiance of his father in marrying outside the extended family; the broader clash between Wahhabi Islamism and the more traditional Pakistani religion in the context of Western modernity; Khan’s strong community connections, helping to cement rather than dissolve his extremism; and that most of his final video is concerned with attacking mainstream British Islam rather then the government.

Khan may have felt indignant about western foreign policy, as many anti-war campaigners do, but that wasn't the reason he led a cell of young men to kill themselves and 52 London commuters. At the heart of this tragedy is a conflict between the first and subsequent generations of British Pakistanis—with many young people using Islamism as a kind of liberation theology to assert their right to choose how to live. It is a conflict between tradition and individuality, culture and religion, tribalism and universalism, passivity and action.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Titter ye not: ‘offence’ and ‘respect’

In an ordinary crime, how does one defend the accused? One calls up witnesses to prove his innocence. But witchcraft is ipso facto, on its face and by its nature, an invisible crime, is it not? Therefore, who may possibly be witness to it? The witch and the victim. None other. Now we cannot hope the witch will accuse herself; granted? Therefore, we must rely upon her victims – and they do testify, the children certainly do testify.
- Deputy Governor Danforth, The Crucible, act III.

The problem, of course, is that this gives anyone the power to claim victimhood and so to convict the accused by the mere act of accusing. This creates an incentive to make opportunistic accusations.

Just as there is no place for an unfalsifiable hypothesis in empirical science, so is there no place for an indefeasible charge in a system of legal (or moral) judgement.

And so to the issue of religious ‘offence’ and ‘respect’, which has so tediously flared up again following Salman Rushdie’s knighthood. The parallel is clear: there is too much acceptance of the idea that causing ‘offence’ – as defined by the ‘victim’ – is reprehensible.

Giving someone the (unreciprocated) right to determine how you should engage with them licenses an increasingly extremist narcissism. Here is what happens when you try to negotiate or compromise with a person who has such a right:

1. Give them a little of what they demand.
2. Repeat.

Surely we know by now that appeasing the unreasonable only increases their unreason. For this is just what happens when you start to suggest any sort of ‘balance’ between freedom of expression and a sense of entitlement to have certain sensibilities ‘respected’.

To take a notorious example: those Danish Mohammed cartoons were low-quality and ignorant (a Sikh turban?). The world would have been no worse a place had they never existed, and they – as distinct from the ensuing furore – will have influenced nobody’s opinion of Islam. I personally find such crude attempts to sneer and to provoke anger distasteful and boring.

But ridicule, mockery and insult of ideas and customs, mindless or not, should be protected as much as ‘serious criticism’. As Matthew Parris says:

Many faiths and ideologies achieve and maintain their predominance partly through fear. They, of course, would call it “respect”. But whatever you call it, it intimidates. The reverence, the awe — even the dread — that their gods, their KGB or their priesthoods demand and inspire among the laity are vital to the authority they wield.
Against reverence and awe the best argument is sometimes not logic, but mockery. Structures of oppression that may not be susceptible to rational debate may in the end yield to derision. When people see that a priest, rabbi, imam or uniformed official may be giggled at without lightning striking the impertinent, arguments may be won on a deeper level than logic.

Social progress comes about through criticising received wisdom. Sometimes, as old ideas become besieged, their adherents will be upset – but the alternative is intellectual and cultural stagnation. Sometimes the new ideas will turn out to be no good – but heaven forbid that some official body should adjudicate on which ideas should and shouldn’t be open to debate.

Things like the cartoons may act a little like lightning conductors: while lacking intellectual merit themselves, they attract so much ire that space is created for more measured criticism of certain doctrines and practices. If law or self-censorship meant that the most prominent disparagement of some group or tradition were of the calmer, analytical sort, then the apostles of the lightning gods would start to strike there instead.

Muslims (or rather Muslim groups) are notably ready to take offence. Is there something distinctive about the context in which ridicule of Islam takes place? Perhaps. There are good grounds for saying that Muslims across the world have been subjected to prejudice and discrimination because of their religion (although much mistreatment of Muslims is of course done by other Muslims). Given this, insults that might in themselves be trivial can be greatly magnified by being added to real injuries.

This is a fair point; but its importance is missed if it is taken to justify clamping down on mockery. If an insult becomes painful only in the context of broader discrimination, then why not focus on getting rid of the greater problem?

There’s a very basic question that cuts to the heart of this business: what attitude are we entitled to expect from each other?

‘Respect’ may suggest admiration (which must be earned) or deference (which in a context other than professional expertise is a morally dubious notion). ‘Tolerance’ may be the best bet: we are entitled to have others accept that we may go about our lives without their hindrance, assuming that we in turn do not hinder others. We don’t need to like each other’s lives, nor need we refrain from expressing disapproval.

But this business purporting to worry about ‘offence’ isn’t so straightforward. There are plenty of ways to offend someone: you can unfairly call them a miser, a coward, a hypocrite, a bad parent… People have all sorts of weak spots open to verbal attack. But nobody is calling for such ‘offence’ to be banned (where it falls short of slander).

Why not?

Put the question differently: have you ever heard of the Generous People Unfairly Called Misers Council of Britain? Or the Consistent People Maligned As Hypocrites Public Affairs Committee? Of course not. ‘Offence’ and ‘respect’ only become a political issue when it’s convenient for religious groups.

This isn’t about people feeling offended and thinking that they deserve not to be; this is about group identity politics, victimhood chic, community leaders and special treatment. Being able to claim ‘offence’ and to demand ‘respect’ is a bid for political status – and the more they get, the more they’ll want.

Unless we hold fast to the liberal principle of tolerance, the holy men will find more and more witches to accuse.

I’d have liked to close with that thought, but I really have to give the last word to Stephen Fry:

So you’re offended. So fucking what?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Blame where blame’s due

Eric Reeves offers a misdirected argument on the UN and Darfur, sharply criticising Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon:

The failures of the UN secretariat in responding to the Darfur catastrophe are among the many signs that the international body remains incapable of responding to crises that entail confronting sovereign nations engaged in genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
…almost 10 months after UN security council resolution 1706 authorised "rapid" deployment of a force of 22,500 civilian police and troops with a robust mandate to protect civilians and humanitarians in Darfur, a mere 200 UN technical personnel have been deployed…
And still the genocide continues, if with more chaotic violence and a fracturing of the rebel movement. Khartoum remains obdurate in its defiance…
In short, there is a highly embarrassing disconnect between the rhetoric of the UN secretariat, including the secretary general's various special envoys for Sudan, and the poverty of achievement in protecting millions of vulnerable Darfuris and acutely endangered humanitarian operations.

But what exactly is this “highly embarrassing disconnect”?* Is it between what Ban says and what he does? Hardly. The disconnection is between, on the one hand, what the Secretary-General has the power to say and do given what the Security Council has ruled, and on the other hand, what the Security Council can muster the will to make happen.

It’s pointless to shoot the secretariat because of mixed messages while the major powers are busy squabbling or not really caring. Tellingly, Reeves makes no suggestions on what Ban could do differently that would protect the Darfuris.

Reeves notes that desertification brought on by climate change is a mere aggravating factor within the context of the real problem: a cruel Sudanese government keen to foster and exploit ethnic hatred. This is true, and it is a pity that Ban has suggested otherwise. But while Reeves rightly makes sure the Khartoum regime doesn’t get off the hook, his focus on Ban serves only to take the pressure off the permanent five.

* Pedantry of the day: ‘disconnect’ is a verb; the noun is ‘disconnection’.

Tell you what

A comment on David Cameron’s speech, from Rachel Sylvester in the Telegraph:

The Cameroons say that Gordon Brown's relationship with the voters is like a triangle, with the state at the top and the individuals lined up in a row at the bottom. Labour, they argue, wants to create a direct relationship between individual and state...
The Conservatives, on the other hand, want the people at the bottom of the triangle to be looking out for each other, as well as looking up to the pinnacle at the top. It's the difference between reading a newspaper, which tells you what to think, and contributing to a blog.

Now, it’s not completely clear whether that last analogy is Sylvester’s view or that of ‘the Cameroons’ (such ignominy heaped upon a proud nation), but even if the latter, she reproduces it uncritically. Are newspapers really distinctive for telling people what to think?

They certainly tell us what they think, generally with a view to persuading; bloggers do the same. But only the most feeble-minded of readers could successfully be told what they should think, and only a newspaper (or blog) with the utmost contempt for its readers would attempt to do so with no interest in further exchange.

This may or may not say something about the Telegraph and/or its readers.

(Disclaimer for the slack-jawed and weak of will: you are not legally obliged to agree with me on this.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Quality control

The Guardian’s Comment is Free site has had a heading in its sidebar for the last day or so: “The best of the web is temporarily unavailable.”

No I’m not.

The Salmanic curses

How to make Islam look undignified in three easy steps:

  1. Be a Muslim (these things are always easier from the inside).

  2. Wait for an overrated writer to get a pointless award.

  3. Run around shrieking about ‘offence’, ‘Islamophobia’, ‘blasphemy’, ‘honour of the Prophet’, ‘suicide attacks’ and the like (you can do this on the streets with a burning flag, in a parliament while you should be scrutinising legislation, or in the comment pages of liberal newspapers).

Monday, June 18, 2007

Labour blogger counts to six – exclusive!

1. Johnson
2. Harman
3. Benn
4. Hain
5. Blears
6. Cruddas

I’m still not completely sure, but it’s too late now.

(This post is dedicated to Tom Hamilton, who unfortunately isn’t standing…)

Brown vs Cameron: redistributing power

David Cameron today makes what the Telegraph bills as “the most important speech of his leadership” (and if it’s even more important than his speech on ‘why grammar schools are bad, except the ones that actually exist, and we won’t create any more, unless we do’, then you can expect a treat).

So I’m going to contrast Cameron’s speech with a speech by Gordon Brown just over eight months ago. I think you’ll agree that Cameron embodies the Shiny New Politics and Brown the Clunking Old Politics.

Valuing people’s responsibility
Cameron, 18/6/07:
Social responsibility means that every time we see a problem, we don’t just ask what government can do. We ask what people can do, what society can do.

Brown, 12/10/06:
challenges can best be met only by bringing out the best in people, and in their individual potential, and we do so by rediscovering… ideas of liberty, responsibility and fairness
…the state is not master, but serves the people; and remember, also, that we will meet the challenges ahead best when individual, civic society and the institutions of government work in partnership.

21st century boys
Cameron, 18/6/07:
It’s the twenty-first century. It’s the age of “people know best.” … We’re living in an age where people want to control their government, not have their government control them.

Brown, 12/10/06:
The fact is, you cannot master the challenges ahead the old way with… a political class believing they were born to govern and a passive electorate.
…the 21st century insight is that each challenge needs not just investment by the community but also the active involvement of citizens, and so we need not just new policies but a new politics, starting from an active national engagement of the British people: the responsible citizen, empowered communities and an enabling accountable state.

Power to the people
Cameron, 18/6/07:
[People] want and need a government that’s on their side, that trusts them, that positively wants to put power and control in their hands.

Brown, 12/10/06:
We are now embarked upon transforming the culture of government from controlling to enabling, from directing to empowering, work in progress - work to be stepped up in the years to come.

What’s Top-Down Gordon ever done for us?
Cameron, 18/6/07:
That’s the big difference between us and Gordon Brown. His answer to crime, his answer to education, his answer to everything - is a top-down government scheme.

Brown, 12/10/06:
In developing policy for children’s centres with my colleagues I and others insisted that voluntary associations, parents and charities not only be involved but help run the new services, in other words that we formed a partnership of parents, civic society, and local and national institutions of government. …parents and the local community are at the centre, in the driving seat.

But Sure Start and children’s centres could not have happened without the investment and the catalytic and coordinating role of local and national government. And so, the way forward in encouraging the flourishing of the individual potential of children is not to assume a divorce between community action and government nor to assume that if you enlarge the civic space you need to diminish the contribution of the public realm, but a partnership where each helps the other: the active parent, the empowered community associations and an enabling government.

There are basically four differences between them. First, Cameron uses shorter words, and fewer. Secondly, Cameron is behind the curve. Thirdly, Cameron ignores the government’s record and talks in general terms, whereas Brown has a stock of examples to draw on.

Fourthly, Cameron thinks that all government involvement is top-down controlling statism, whereas Brown thinks that as power and resources are distributed unevenly within society, the public sector’s involvement is crucial for allowing people a real chance to shape their lives and communities. As Brown said (back in December 2005): “Our voluntary organisations should neither be captured by the state nor used as a cut price alternative to necessary public provision…
 [F]airness… cannot, in the end, be guaranteed by charities, however benevolent, by markets, however dynamic, or by individuals, however well meaning, but guaranteed only by enabling government.”

Cameron’s priority is to give ‘responsibility’ to people. But to do so without giving them power as well – a redistribution that only the state can enable – would just create more and more ways for the strong to outpace the weak (at the taxpayers’ expense). Brown knows better, having a sense of social justice that stretches back decades; Cameron’s compassionate conservatism is a recent piece of expedient positioning.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Exploding the logic

According to jihadi etiquette, suicide terrorism has a major advantage over, say, US airstrikes: collateral damage is completely impossible:

In the typical car bombing, some Islamists say, God will identify those who deserve to die — for example, anyone helping the enemy — and send them to hell. The other victims will go to paradise. “The innocent who is hurt, he won’t suffer,” Dr. [Mohammad al-]Massari says. “He becomes a martyr himself.”
…children receive special consideration in death. They are not held accountable for any sins until puberty, and if they are killed in a jihad operation they will go straight to heaven. There, they will instantly age to their late 20s, and enjoy the same access to virgins and other benefits as martyrs receive.

In fact, they’re probably doing these kids a favour in helping them to avoid the awkwardness of adolescence. But just make sure to kill 72 girls for every boy or there’ll be supply-side issues in heaven!

(I’ve never understood this bit. If I were a frustrated wannabe martyr, I wouldn’t want 72 virgins as the reward – surely just half a dozen girls or so who really knew what they were doing would be a much better bet? These morons can’t even get their misogynistic sexual fantasies right!)

Anyway, it looks as though the logic of this, that innocents are theologically guaranteed to benefit rather than suffer from indiscriminate bombings, leads to a positive answer to this question: if you had a bomb that could destroy the whole planet, should you use it?

It’s an (extremely) extreme version of the view that ‘the next life’ matters more than the one we actually definitely have.

(Hat tip to Mick Hartley.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

They swallowed the spider to catch the fly


The US military has embarked on a new and risky strategy in Iraq by arming Sunni insurgents in the hope that they will tackle the extremist al-Qaida in Iraq.
The US high command this month gave permission to its officers on the ground to negotiate arms deals with local leaders. Arms, ammunition, body armour and other equipment, as well as cash, pick-up trucks and fuel, have already been handed over in return for promises to turn on al-Qaida and not attack US troops.

Obviously this is a gamble, and a somewhat desperate one at that. But there is a rationale to it:

One [US] commander… said that despite the risks in arming groups that have until now fought against the Americans, the potential gains against Al Qaeda were too great to be missed. He said the strategy held out the prospect of finally driving a wedge between two wings of the Sunni insurgency that had previously worked in a devastating alliance — die-hard loyalists of Saddam Hussein’s formerly dominant Baath Party, and Islamic militants belonging to a constellation of groups linked to Al Qaeda.

Sunni groups offering to fight Al Qaeda and halt attacks on American and Iraqi forces met a basic condition for re-establishing stability in insurgent-hit areas: they had roots in the areas where they operated, and thus held out the prospect of building security from the ground up.

If these groups do what their leaders say they will, and don’t just sell the weapons on the black market or use them against Shiites or Americans, then some good may come of it. That’s a big if.

But even granting this, there are wider implications. As has long been obvious, the US and allies (surge or no surge) lack the ability to stabilise Iraq; the Iraqi government, itself a gaggle of factions many of which have links to assorted militias, is in no position to impose order either.

There is nobody with anything like a monopoly of force in the country, and the government’s legitimacy is shaky and contested: it’s hard to call Iraq a functioning state by Weberian standards. Strengthening the state requires more than increasing the flow of resources to the centre. Despite the constitutional referendum, the national elections and the parties’ agreement to form the government, Iraq’s still some way off a lasting political settlement.

The balance of power in the land is not what the US (nor very many Iraqis) would like. Given this, they can either accept it and work with whatever main players emerge, or try to change the balance by weakening one group, strengthening another or plonking themselves in the middle. They’ve been trying all three ways of pushing change, with the national government as presently constituted their top dog of choice.

But if this new move is meant seriously, it suggests a change in political as well as military strategy. If it works in turning non-fanatical Sunni militias against al-Qaeda, then those militias will win popular appeal among their religious constituency. The logic of this (and I know logic can be hard to come by in US Iraq policy) is that more political legitimacy will accrue to these groups rather than to the national authorities. This would mirror the support among Shia populations for groups such as those linked to Muqtada al-Sadr.

So, instead of working to build a unified national polity, this would – largely in tune with reality – favour local, sectarian power relations. It’s impossible to know whether this would be a prelude to a new settlement driven by the Sadrists and the ex-Baathists (as, in Northern Ireland, the initial agreement between moderates broke down pending the ascent of the hardliners), or a way of getting Sunni groups to coalesce and compromise in advance of their co-option into the current army and government.

Or it could just mean more powder stuffed into the keg.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Boom! (Oops…)

I’ve just read that the 1995 Nato bombing of Bosnia and Herzegovina was codenamed Operation Deliberate Force.

Which is fine in itself, but it does sort of have bad implications for all the other military actions. You’ll note that we hardly ever hear about Operation Accidental Violence, Operation Mistaken Bombardment, Operation Blind Lashing Out At Anything and Operation Which One Of You Bastards Spilled My Pint, Come On, I’ll Take You All On.

Friday, June 08, 2007

The moral of the story

Religion and morality: I’m in the mood to get it all sorted out this afternoon, to find a bit of common ground. Are you with me? Cos I’ll throw you into an eternal furnace if you’re not… (just kidding).

Right. A few days back, Ophelia said:

Imagine a reliably knowable God whose rules are not incidentally or incompletely cruel but thoroughly and systematically so - the usual 'God' in every other way, but sadistic and merciless. Would anyone love that God? No…
It's not God that believers love - it's 'good.' It's Good, and they just conflate that with God.

This has echoes of an ‘evil god’ thought-experiment that Stephen Law put forward a while ago (as well as having echoes of Gnosticism and Euthyphro, which are a little older).

Several of us chewed Stephen’s idea over – notably including Alex, who felt that if there were a cruel god then there couldn’t be an anchor for a decent (i.e., non-cruel) standard of morality.

We’d all agree that none of us would like to live under a cruel god. That would stink. The question was whether we’d be in a position to say it was wrong.

Anyway, Alex reckons that all we can call morality has to be predicated on the standards of a supreme, unchanging creator. And, he thinks, we’re in fact in the happy position of having such a creator who is infinitely compassionate.

In much the same vein, Steve Lovell tends towards a view in which ethics is rooted in psychology, which is what a great many humanists do (getting labelled as subjectivists or relativists). But for Steve, “the defining agent is God not the individual”. This, he says, is different from ordinary relativism because: “(a) There is only one God not many
(b) God is infinite and unchanging
(c) There may be room to say that what is prescriptive for we humans is only descriptive of God”.

On (a) and (b), I’d say that this means the ‘moral’ code involved is indeed singular, consistent and eternal. But I don’t see why these three features of a code make it a moral one. As for (c), it suggests that Steve might see this point here: if we can only be descriptive of god when talking about this code, then in a pretty important way we’re not really saying that it is a moral code after all.

But if so, then I have to part company and say that this idea isn’t doing any work at all to suggest that ‘real’ morality would have to depend on god whereas ‘human’ moral codes are just preferences, rules, conventions etc. Steve’s approach might be a way of avoiding relativism (in a sense), but it’s subjectivist to the core.

If you think that morality has to be produced by some being whose character it then reflects, your account is subjective – even if the subject concerned is an omnipotent, eternal creator. And if you also think that morality has to be objective, transcending any opinions or preferences, then a theological account is going to run into the same sort of trouble as an atheistic one.

Earlier today, Richard Chappell put the vital point spectacularly clearly. He says that:

it's daft to think that God's existence is necessary to ground normative ideals, because the whole point of ideals is that they float free from the mess of our actual reality. The question of how things should be does not fundamentally depend on how things in fact are. Ideal standards can be grounded in counterfactuals, e.g. facts about what an ideal spectator would recommend; whether such an ideal spectator actually exists in the here and now is, quite simply, irrelevant. (This is a familiar point: one may ask, "What would Jesus do?" without requiring that Jesus actually be in that situation.)

The mention of Jesus is interesting. He was notable for preaching in the form of parables, which illustrated principles. Even a biblical illiterate like me knows a few of these: probably the best known is the good Samaritan.

We all get the point of this tale: that helping people is good, even if they’re very different from you, and that assuming different people will be uncaring is wrong; indeed, that things such as ethnicity are morally irrelevant. This is a great message, and very obviously it’s true and clearly communicated – whether or not the events in the parable actually happened.

(From Life of Brian: “There was this man, and he had two servants.” … “What were their names?” … “It really doesn't matter. The point is there were these two servants—” “He's making it up as he goes along!”)

And for people who are drawn to the reported teachings of Jesus more generally, or of Mohammed, or of the Buddha… finding value in these accounts can be done without needing to take a view on the supernatural aspects of these accounts. Indeed, most Christians will readily accept that they can’t prove the existence of their god, but they may nonetheless draw inspiration and wisdom from the scriptures.

Now back to Ophelia:

We only know God is good if the way God is good - even if God declares its own goodness itself - is what we ourselves think is good; we can't know it if God's idea of good turns out to be our idea of horrible wickedness.

Personally, I’m aware of bits I do and don’t approve of in the Bible; but even if I found all of it to my liking, that meshing of my intuitions with its teachings would still be something external to the text itself or to the character of the god it describes. Either way, I’m holding the purported source of morality to a moral standard.

As Richard says, the existence of a creator who embodies and promulgates a moral code is beside the point: moral standards point towards ideal states of affairs, not actual ones. But of course we can get moral guidance in all sorts of situations (including the reading of scriptures) and from all sorts of people.

This ties in to one of the most telling throwaway comments Alex has made in our months of chewing things over. It came when he was rejecting the idea of there being real meaning and morality without god existing:

If it [Christianity] is not true, to whom would I turn? Dualism? What's that? There's no name or face associated with a term such as that [my italics].

He has a fair and I think widely shared view: a person, with a name and a face, can be far more inspiring than an abstract theory, however well argued. You can relate to a person; you can rally round them; you can ask yourself what they’d say. This is part of human nature (and why politics can favour personality over policy).

Role models are fine; fictional role models are fine; role models of dubious and contested reality are fine. They illustrate virtues that strike us as, well, virtuous.

Alex is drawn to a god whom he believes to be supremely compassionate, with an associated morality. I’m drawn towards a morality based on compassion. The idea of a god who embodies this sounds nice, but I really don’t think there is such a being. (That’s another story.)

Given god’s disputed existence, perhaps we can agree on one thing: this general concept of god as supremely compassionate is one that does exemplify goodness, as a kind of super-role model (although of course there’s dispute about the moral value of many of the specifics).

Now, does it have to be so vast and furious a difference that, when talking of goodness, some of us emphasise the compassion and others the name and face?

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


I should really know better than to bother fisking Theo Hobson, but, well, he’s at it again:

Atheism is pretentious in the sense of claiming to know more than it does.

You mean, that there are no gods when actually there are? Nope:

It claims to know what belief in God entails, and what religion, in all its infinite variety, essentially is.

Um. I’ll come back to this.

And atheism is muddled because it cannot decide on what grounds it ultimately objects to religion. Does it oppose it on the grounds of its alleged falsity? Or does it oppose it on the grounds of its alleged harmfulness? Both, the atheists will doubtless reply: religion is false and therefore it is harmful.

You might think that a challenge that has a “doubtless” reply isn’t so much of a muddle. Oh well.

But this is to make an assumption about the relationship between rationality and moral progress that does not stand up.

It seems to me more an assumption about the relationship between falsity and harmfulness. And often it’s an explicit argument rather than an assumption.

Atheism is the belief that the demise of religion, and the rise of "rationality", will make the world a better place.

Does anyone mind if I just say “oh no it isn’t” here, so we can keep things moving along? Thanks.

Atheism therefore entails an account of history - a story of liberation from a harmful error called "religion".

If ‘the world would be better if there were less X’ entails ‘world history has involved (or henceforth will involve) a reduction in the amount of X’, then I’m very much mistaken about the nature of logic and/or history.

Some will quibble with the above definition. Atheism is just the rejection of God, of any supernatural power, they will say, it entails no necessary belief in historical progress. This is disingenuous. The militant atheists have a moral mission: to improve the world by working towards the eradication of religion.

Ah. So there’s something called ‘militant atheism’, which from the qualifier one might guess is something different from atheism per se. You know, if only there were some sort of word that meant disbelief in gods, then we could use it in articles and discussions without people wondering what the bloody hell we were on about.

What is this thing that the atheists hate so much? What is religion? Believe it or not, I don't know the answer. … If the atheist deigns to define religion at all, he is likely to do so briskly and conventionally, as belief in and worship of some species of supernatural power. It's a terribly inadequate definition.

Well, I don’t know if I can speak for atheists; I’m just someone who thinks there aren’t any supernatural beings. And what I hate is terrorism, malaria, jam jars that you can’t open, the excess of ad breaks on TV these days and waffly obscurantist third-rate sophistry.

In my terribly inadequate opinion, a religion is something that involves some sort of belief in the supernatural. Religion may also involve meetings, institutions, set texts, communal culture, architecture, arias, contemplation, charity and violence, but then you can have all of those things without religion. And I don’t really hate those things (except violence).

In reality, "religion" is far wider than a belief in a supernatural power. This is only one aspect of what we mean by "religion".

Agreed. And the supernatural aspect is that which is distinctive to religion; it’s what religion “essentially is”. And the belief that I’d like to but apparently can’t call atheism is distinctive for its rejection of a supernatural creator. Beyond this basic disagreement, there is indeed an “infinite variety” to the types of outlook held by religious believers – and the outlooks held by atheists.

The… relationship between religion, morality and politics is infinitely various and complex. The critic of religious abuses must be specific, particular. He must focus on particular practices, particular institutions, and explain why they have a detrimental effect on society. But the militant atheist cannot humbly limit himself to the realm of the particular; he necessarily lapses into sloppy generalisation. For he has to insist that religion in general is harmful, all of it, always.

Specificity is good for clarity. And everyone will agree that religions at times deserve specific criticisms. But acknowledging this doesn’t preclude the possibility of a general argument that the social effects of religion may be likely to be bad overall (no, not “all of it, always”).

I consider the atheist's desire to generalise about religion to be a case of intellectual cowardice. The intellectual coward is one who chooses simplicity over complexity and difficulty.

You might say the same about the desire to generalise about atheism. Is this guy being paid to satirise himself?

OK, fisking over. Undeserved substantive response follows.

There’s a Steven Weinberg quote that Richard Dawkins is fond of:

With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

There’s some truth in this, but there are two things wrong with it. First, religion can indeed make good people do evil things – but certainly not in all cases. In many cases it can make evil people (and we should really say ‘nasty’ rather than ‘evil’, which is a bit all-or-nothing) do good things. In fact, religious belief systems, once acquired, have general motivational power: they can make people do all sorts of things they weren’t previously inclined to.

The second point is that this isn’t just true of religion. Any belief system can have motivational power, for good or for ill or for whatever. Secular political ideologies, if held with uncritical zealotry, and pursued with disregard to the consequences, can be monstrous and catastrophic. If held with a scepticism about means and a willingness to question ends, they can motivate great good.

So, what characteristics of a belief system could lead it to tending towards intolerant, fanatical, unthinking closed-mindedness, thus producing bad results? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Being based around an authority (in the form of either a leader or a text); it may perhaps be acceptable to question the authority, but these questions are not permitted to lead to rejection.
  • Favouring believers over unbelievers, saying that the latter are less deserving of good treatment in this world and/or that the former will be rewarded and the latter punished in a subsequent world.
  • Relying on doctrines that resist empirical disproof.
  • Encouraging or demanding assent without clearly reasoned supportive arguments.

Of course there are other risk factors (ethnic tribalism, sanctioning of violence), but the above, I think, are likely to be more common in supernaturally based belief systems – particularly more organised and institutional ones.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Happy ‘National British Day’ Day!


A national day to promote a stronger sense of British identity, and prevent communities from becoming more divided, has been suggested by two ministers. Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly and Immigration Minister Liam Byrne say it could be a new bank holiday. Ms Kelly told the BBC: "The point of it would be to celebrate the contribution that we all make to society."

It would be easy to mock an idea such as this. So easy, in fact, that it would make falling off a log look like the kind of skilled work that we’d have to recruit eastern European migrant workers to deal with. But instead, I shall do my patriotic best to suggest possible themes for the new national day.

Post-Imperial Day: Inspired by Dean Acheson’s remark that “Britain has lost an empire, but not yet found a role”, excited townsfolk will spend the day hunting for rolls that the local baker has hidden. On other people’s land.

The Initia-nativity: The nation celebrates the birth of another spur-of-the-moment politician’s hare-brained scheme by going out into the woods and braining a hare.

Yank Holiday: Fourth of July festivities to mark getting rid of America.

Hog Man, Eh?: A day to mark the national obesity crisis by sitting at home with several kilos of ice cream and pie, making pigs of ourselves.

Who Do You Think You Are Month: A BBC production crew dressed as policemen will burst into a celebrity’s house and interrogate him or her without charge for 28 days about possible terrorism-related identity fraud. Viewers will have their own personal celebrations by sending each other brightly coloured Identity Cards (available at all good stationers and newsagents) with endearing messages such as ‘I love you cos you’re British’ and ‘Fellow citizens 4 ever’.

Brand New Day: A solemn morning of contemplation and weeping to mark the unveiling of the London 2012 Olympic logo. In the afternoon, things move up a gear with the ritual burning of a branding consultant in a giant wicker torch. This idea may be one for the long term, as the contractors say the bunting won’t be ready until 2017.

Grumpily Mourning Mythical Past Day: The populace gathers together in village halls, pubs, post offices and asylum detention centres to moan about how life is so much worse than it was when they were younger. The staff of the Daily Mail will treat revellers to a rendition of ‘Things ain’t what they used to be’. Although last year the Mail on Sunday team was there as well, and there was a Victoria sponge cake race. But now Health and Safety says it’s not allowed.

Islam O’Faux Beer Weekend: Marking the contribution to national life of the British Muslim Community, the citizenry shall gather together in Irish theme pubs and swig pints together – alcohol-free, of course!! – until a moment of perfect cohesion is achieved.

Q-Day: Following the popular success of D-Day and VE Day, this continues the World War II theme by celebrating how people waited patiently in line with their ration books .

VD Day: Twenty-four hours of wanton, indiscriminate copulation to enhance public understanding of the growing spread of sexually transmitted infections.

TV Day: A dozen contestants are locked in a house where they will watch live reality footage of the remaining 60,776,225 members of the UK population (excluding Davina McCall) and send text messages to evict the least British.

Black Wednesday: To celebrate the UK’s racial diversity and leading role in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, the nation will (ironically!) black up and congregate on the White Cliffs of Dover (also blacked up), where they will symbolically drop pound coins into the sea. Norman Lamont will lead a chorus of ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’.

Slack Monday: Tired, bored and slightly hung over from the weekend, a proud nation doesn’t get very much done at work.

Shallowe’en: A 15-minute televisual extravaganza to stifle awareness of how the media have dumbed down. In association with ITV Evening News. Will provoke silent contemplation about whether the ad break in the middle will be long enough for a trip to the loo, or whether we’ll all just have to soil ourselves on our stupid flat-pack sofas and then be able to blame it on the dog.

Eff Off Back Where You Came From Week: On the proven assumption that people can only properly integrate when they feel secure in their own historical culture, all people of foreign extraction will be deported so that they can get in touch with their roots. Everyone remaining in the country will spend the week having a giant British National Party, with little sausages on sticks, morris dancing and gay-bashing.

Make History Poverty: In this summer party, youngsters congregate in Hyde Park where rock stars will discourage them from understanding the past properly.

Di Another Day: Diana, Princess of Wales, will still no longer be alive.

Any better ideas?

Friday, June 01, 2007

Bartlett quits White House

Couldn’t resist it.

Religious motives in politics

Johann Hari wonders:

when there are so many Murdochian pressures on a British Prime Minister dragging them to the right, pressing him to fellate the rich, isn't it good to have a counterveiling pressure to help the poor - even a superstitious one? If religion drives Brown's best instincts and whittles down his worst, should we still condemn it?
Hmmm. Perhaps the more important question is - can we have this benign, pro-poor element of some of Jesus' teaching, without all the other abhorrent lessons his religion brings?

Chris Dillow is sceptical:

First, religious-based arguments don’t permit the possibility of persuasion. If a Christian says: “the Biblical prophets tell us to help the poor” an opponent could reply: “the Bible has no authority, as God doesn’t exist.” And the debate stops there.
Redistributive policies then become merely a way of the Christian imposing his private beliefs onto others.

While I’m as firmly an atheist as Chris (and Johann), I don’t agree. True, religiously based arguments aren’t going to carry weight with people not of that religion. But they will work on people who are of that religion, who will nonetheless have a range of political views. Look at the USA, where in recent years Christians have used religious arguments for intervention in Darfur, increasing development aid, fighting climate change, intervention in Iraq, restricting abortion rights, weakening science education… it’s a mixed bag.

But religion has persuasive power and, given that it won’t be disappearing any time soon, I don’t see why progressive atheists should eschew alliances with those who support progressive policies on religious grounds.

As for whether this is “the Christian imposing his private beliefs onto others”, you could equally say that a left-wing atheist would like to impose his private beliefs onto others by voting for redistributive policies. Fortunately, in a liberal democracy, we all (ideally) have equal impositional powers. We’d all like the world to be the way we’d like it to be. Persuade. Organise. Compromise. That’s politics.

Chris continues:

Secondly, religiously motivated arguments assume that one party has superior access to a “truth.” This surely is a strange thing for an egalitarian to believe.
Thirdly, religious appeals undersell equality, as there are countless secular ways to argue for it

I don’t agree with the second point, either: it’s not inegalitarian to say that knowledge is meritocratic. Some people just are better informed about some, or many, things.

On his third point, though, I quite agree (in fact, I think religious appeals undersell not just equality but morality in general, by subordinating it to a god). But if the aim is to persuade, then you have to push the buttons that work. Certainly, exclusively overtly religious campaigns won’t get you very far in the UK, at least). But it’s quite a jump to then conclude that it’s not good to ally with people who are motivated to share your policies on religious grounds, and who may be able to reach people that you cannot.

Chris adds:
In an egalitarian polity, in which people should be persuaded rationally of policies, religion should have no place – even if it is true. Religion might motivate political beliefs, but it shouldn’t, and needn’t, be the public justification for them.

Needn’t, certainly. Shouldn’t, ideally. But in a liberal democractic polity, people should be free to air their views and their reasons for holding those views – whether religious or not.

The trouble, though, comes when a group presents a religiously motivated policy not primarily to succeed in making that policy more popular so that it will be implemented, but with the aim of boosting a group identity. ‘Ra-worshippers for lower VAT’ might well try to get people to vote for VAT cuts. But they might also use the issue to establish their status as a politically important section of society – and in doing so, society may fragment that little bit more. And then it will be that little bit harder to have open, rational policy debates.

And then, of course, ‘Ra-worshippers for child labour’ might carry more clout next time round. If a religion is a mixed bag, then strengthening the people holding it may not turn out well.

(See also Norm Geras’s and Jonathan Derbyshire’s responses to Chris.)