Friday, July 27, 2007

The mongering of wars

Re: Johann Hari’s review (longer version) of Nick Cohen’s book, and the critical responses from Oliver Kamm, Gene at HP, Norm Geras and others.

I don’t have much to add, but what I do follows on from Norm’s comment that Hari “simply repeats the falsehood that the Euston Manifesto is a document of 'the pro-war left'. This has been answered many times… Perhaps the best-known signatory of the manifesto was Michael Walzer, and he opposed the war.”

This is quite true; indeed the EM specifically states that its signatories hold differing views on the Iraq war. But, aside from the perhaps niche arguments about the EM, Hari makes an even more basic mistake in his opening sentence:

The pro-invasion left was always a small battallion, comprised almost entirely of journalists and intellectuals who believed toppling the Taliban and Saddam Hussein was a good idea - even if the only President available to lead the charge was George Bush.

There were certainly people on the left who thought toppling the Taliban was a good idea; there were people who thought toppling Saddam was a good idea; and there were people who thought toppling the Taliban and Saddam were two good ideas – but not that they were one single good idea.

A phrase like “the pro-invasion left” is meaningless without reference to a specific invasion. Would someone who supported Afghanistan but not Iraq count as a member? What about someone who opposed both, but supported Kosovo and would have supported Rwanda? What is the “pro-invasion left” position on Sudan, Zimbabwe, Iran, North Korea, Russia, China…?

The phrase is fatuous and facile, serving to conflate different opinions and turn a debate about policies to one about factions, so that Hari can damn Cohen and others as joined to a “neoconservative” crusade to further US oil interests under the guise of saving the world through force.

Another small point: those who were on the left and favoured invading Iraq were far more likely to be working class than members of the intelligentsia. But they tend not to write about it quite so much.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Construal denial

In a post on the BMJ’s witless online poll about the academic boycott of Israel, Eve Garrard mentions a resolution [PDF] passed by the University and College Union:

Congress notes that Israel's 40-year occupation has seriously damaged the fabric of Palestinian society through annexation, illegal settlement, collective punishment and restriction of movement.
Congress deplores the denial of educational rights for Palestinians by invasions, closures, checkpoints, curfews, and shootings and arrests of teachers, lecturers and students.
Congress condemns the complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation, which has provoked a call from Palestinian trade unions for a comprehensive and consistent international boycott of all Israeli academic institutions.
Congress believes that in these circumstances passivity or neutrality is unacceptable and criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-semitic.

There are many things one could say to this; I’ll limit myself to four.

First, the occupation is unjustified – although the behaviour of Palestinian political factions does suggest that “the fabric of Palestinian society” is quite capable of damaging itself.

Second, what do the UCU’s members judge the scope of this academic “complicity” to be? Is it “comprehensive and consistent” across all of “Israeli academia”? If not, then why does the motion complain about “collective punishment”?

Third, does the Israeli body politic have a record of responding in a conciliatory manner to outside pressure? Is the UCU expecting somebody to rush breathlessly into the Knesset with the news that “The international community is condemning our 40-year occupation – and the middle-class European lefties are leading the charge! We must mend our ways immediately before we become unpopular!”

Fourth, how can the UCU possibly mean that “criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-semitic”? Certainly, criticism of Israel (which I assume to mean ‘criticism of certain Israeli policies’) need not be anti-semitic; indeed, it can be very well justified. But far too often, it can be and it is anti-semitic.

Criticism of China can be racist, criticism of Iran can be anti-Islamic and criticism of the USA can be, well, anti-American. None of this means that the governments of those countries do not richly deserve a lot of criticism for (some of) their actions. But to deny that there is bigotry in some of the criticism they do attract would be factually ridiculous and morally blind.

Israel seems to be a popular moral blind spot.

New BBC phone-in shocker

I’m too tired to write at the moment, so I’ll just copy and paste this:

Andy Coulson, the new Conservative head of communications, phoned the BBC over the weekend to remind them that David Cameron was in Witney visiting constituents caught up in torrential weather and asked why they were not covering this. The BBC said they were filming in the areas of England that had been most badly hit. In a move that surprised the Beeb, Cameron himself then phoned up wanting to know why he was receiving no coverage. It is quite unusual to have a call from a party leader.

Bless. He only does it because he cares, you know.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Squeaky clean

Is there a name for the gunk that accumulates on the underside of a mouse?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Après la déluge, nous

Here’s something (perhaps coincidentally) topical from Imperial College:

A catastrophic megaflood separated Britain from France hundreds of thousands of years ago, changing the course of British history, according to research published in the journal Nature…
At its peak, it is believed that the megaflood could have lasted several months, discharging an estimated one million cubic metres of water per second.

That’s a lot of water: about four times the average discharge of the Amazon, and almost equal to the rate at which sweat came off Nixon’s forehead during the debate with JFK.

But “catastrophic”, though? Something that separated us from France?

Monday, July 23, 2007

Social responsibility

Nothing can stop David Cameron!

Progressive alcohol duty

We’re drinking too much. Not just me personally, although I’m certainly doing my bit to keep the next generation of hepatologists in work, but all of us: we’re becoming a nation of puking, brawling bingers doomed to cirrhosis and/or heavy machinery operation accidents. It’s a grim enough prospect to drive you to drink. Something Must Be Done.

Some TV coverage of the Chief Medical Officer’s call to increase alcohol duty featured a few vox pops with ‘people in the street’, who may or may not have arrived in said street by means of being thrown out of a pub. One of them said: “They can put the price up but it won’t do anything, people will still want to drink. Are you looking at my bird?” or some such.

And he had a point. Not about looking at his bird, who wasn’t featured on screen, and anyway he didn’t actually say that bit, but about trying to price booze out of people’s shaking yet jealous hands.

Drinking in hefty quantities is highly esteemed by many people, and it would require really huge tax rises to have much of an effect; it’d be easier to deter the people who can take it or leave it, but they’re not really the problem.

So what about this: don’t try to make heavier drinkers cut back on how many they have, but use the duty system to encourage a shift towards weaker drinks.

HM Revenue and Customs gives duty rates for beer as £13.71 per hectolitre per cent of alcohol in the beer – i.e. one flat rate, with the amount payable increasing in line with the strength of the beer.

What about introducing a number of bands, where the rate payable increases with strength? Anything below 4% abv could sell at the existing £13.71; 4-4.5% at a higher rate, and so on. This would annoy the fans of stronger stuff (and the brewers of stronger stuff), but the behavioural change involved in switching one’s usual to a different brew is far smaller than that involved in significantly cutting down, and so more amenable to fiscal manipulation.

(There already seem to be a number of wine bands: 1.2-4%, 4-5.5%, 5.5-15% and 15-22% abv. The principle’s there, but surely the main action should be going on around the 9-13% range?)

Friday, July 20, 2007

A moment of clarity

Guess who said, just 11 days ago:

I think it is a really important moment for Ealing Southall, but also an important moment in British Politics. This is the clearest possible indication that the Conservative Party, having been changed and modernised, is now a voice for everybody.

The clearest possible indication? (He was talking about the five councillors who defected for absolutely no reason other than their sincere desire to build a better Britain.)

Now, I’m not a clearologist, but I think it might have been ever so slightly clearer that the Tories had become a voice for everyone if they had actually won the election. Or maybe come a close second. Or come second at all. Or even come a reasonably close third. But what would I know?

Definitely an important moment for Ealing Southall, though, and very possibly one for British politics too. We’ll see.

(Today Cameron said: “Our vote held up.” Which I think was what William Hague said on 8 June 2001. And Michael Howard on 6 May 2005.)

Why the f***?

Excuse the asterisks: I don’t want to lower the tone. That said, though…

Psychologists have identified 237 reasons why men and women have sex.
While love and attraction remain the clincher for many, for others it is about getting closer to God; gaining a promotion; revenge; or a way to get rid of a tension headache. Some of those asked said it was a reasonably effective way of overcoming boredom or burning up calories, while a few were attracted by the idea that it kept them warm, helped them fall asleep, or eased the stress of the day.

(Hat tip to Stroppybird – “Well call me a shallow floosie, but what other reason is needed other than its the most fun you can have with or without your clothes (or fishnets) on”.)

And at least now I can protest that no, I actually have a full 237 things on my mind.

I can’t find the full list of the reasons online, so I’m forced to guess at what it might include:

  • Because we had to keep the Romanov bloodline alive.
  • Because it says in the contract that I have to honour him with my body.
  • Because I have no self-control or emotional maturity.
  • Because I needed some excuse to leave a really boring party, and she looked like she probably did too, and then it would have been awkward not to.
  • Because after my 71 sisters, I was the only virgin left in heaven. It was ironic: while he exploded very quickly, he didn’t take any of us with him.
  • Because I’d accidentally taken two Viagra instead of aspirin.
  • I’m not really sure, I was a bit drunk.
  • Because I needed to distract her from my failings as a conversationalist.
  • Because I needed to shut him up somehow.
  • Because I needed something to say for this survey.
  • No, there must be some mistake. I did not have sexual relations with that woman.

But no. Fun is definitely enough. Any more daft reasons, anyone?

Tony Lit, but Dave Fizzled Out

David Cameron’s brand of celebrity-based ‘post-party-politics’ politics took a double kicking last night in Ealing Southall and Sedgefield.

Cameron had thrown everything he had at the Ealing campaign, visiting five times to campaign and aligning himself and his party makeover intimately with his slick, newer-than-new convert of a candidate, Tony Lit.

Third place. Admittedly, the Tory vote was up, by a whopping 0.9 percentage points, but this was a rejection of Cameron’s whole approach to politics. The Tories may whine that they’d been in third place to start with, and so couldn’t be expected to make an advance. But this can’t explain away the vast, failed effort they put in.

And it can’t explain why, in Sedgefield, the Tories fell from second to third place (although to be fair, their vote share did increase – by a magnificent 0.2 percentage points), as the Lib Dems leapfrogged them.

As for Labour’s performance – yes, its vote dropped in both seat. But that usually happens to governing parties in by-elections. A quick historical comparison might give some perspective on this.

John Major’s Tories defended two seats at by-elections in 1991 (Ribble Valley and Monmouth). This was after he had replaced the increasingly loathed Margaret Thatcher and his triumph in the first Iraq war, and before he went on to a general election victory. The Tories lost both seats, with an average fall in their vote share of 17.9 percentage points.

Labour held its two seats last night, with an average fall in their vote share of just 10.7 percentage points

For the mood today among Tory activists, it’s worth a peek at the angry comments on ConservativeHome about “the Ealing gamble” and “the bigger gamble at the heart of Project Cameron”.

For the Labour mood, we may consult the smiles on the faces of Virendra Sharma MP and Phil Wilson MP.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Endowing rights

According to Ramesh Ponnuru:

President Bush has kicked off a bit of one in the blogosphere by telling Rich Lowry, David Brooks, and some other conservative columnists that “a gift of [the] Almighty to all is freedom.”

(Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan, via Norm.)

Well, Bush wouldn’t be the first to take such a line. Thomas Jefferson and colleagues independently declared:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Victor Reppert has been wondering what an atheist could make of this. He suggests an atheist version would say: “all men have evolved equally, and that they are endowed by Evolution with certain Inalienable Rights”. But that seems absurd: “Evolution doesn't make people equal, it doesn't endow anyone with inalienable rights”.

A political document, though, doesn’t need to get involved with evolutionary science or theology. You could perfectly well say “all people [it’s the 21st century, chaps] are born equal, having certain unalienable rights” and then leave questions about origins and meta-ethical foundations open for debate.

But Victor wants that debate: “The idea here is that it is a function of how we came to be what we are that gives us those rights. …if you supplant the creator with an evolutionary process, then couldn’t we say ‘It's a dog eat dog world, and we're top dogs,’ and on that basis deny someone those rights.”

Thing is, you can leave the creator in and still have a certain group of people as top dogs with others denied rights. Women might be prevented from voting and blacks might be enslaved… I’m afraid my American history is a bit sketchy here. But the point is that the mere hypothesis of a creator doesn’t say anything about what that creator might want.

Furthermore, even if we add to the hypothesis that this creator is a fan of equality and of us being alive and at liberty to pursue happiness, this just crashes us into yet another Euthyphro-style situation. Why exactly does this creator have the right to bestow certain rights upon his creations?

A couple of other unrelated remarks:

(1) It’s obviously not “self-evident” that we have a creator. It might be evident from reading scriptures, from examining the complexity of the world or from considering a philosophical argument (although I don’t think it is), but it certainly isn’t self-evident. If it were, there wouldn’t be atheists or agnostics.

(2) Do we actually have the right to life? If I die after being struck by lightning or suffering a sudden brain embolism, have my rights been infringed? Can my bereaved relatives sue anyone? It would make more sense to say that we have the right to reasonable protection from death.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Great Britishness

A recent Government green paper [PDF] says:

A clearer understanding of the common core of rights and responsibilities that go with British citizenship will help build our sense of shared identity and social cohesion. …
There is room to celebrate multiple and different identities, but none of these identities should take precedence over the core democratic values that define what it means to be British.

This is one of the more fraught areas of politics. Trying to define Britishness can lead to all sorts of pitfalls – but that tells us something. We’re uncertain (but not necessarily anxious) about what it means to be British these days, and we’re sceptical of official attempts to write in stone our ‘national character’.

Looking for a thorough and rigorous definition is obviously futile owing to the dynamic complexity of the country, but maybe there are aspects that do allow reasonably crisp statement, and other parts where broad-brush sketching and constructive ambiguity will suffice for a working description.

Two related questions: what sort of thing is Britishness? And what do we want it to do?

The point of all this recent debate is that people worry about how united the country feels, and that it would be good to have some common understanding of ourselves that brings us together. So how do we couch Britishness in a way that could do that?

The green paper talks a lot about “British values” and “British citizenship”, but “British identity” and “British nationality” are barely mentioned; “British culture” appears not once. This is wise.

To explain Britishness in terms of a particular way of life is to risk pushing cultural conformity. This is not only factually wrong in light of the country’s diversity, but also betrays the liberty we so insist on. Differences in lifestyle and outlook are an inescapable consequence of social and political freedom. In fact, even in the absence of immigration, ‘British culture’ would change and grow more variegated with time, especially given technological change and the globalisation of media and communications.

Obviously, an ethnically or religiously based understanding won’t do either. ‘Nationality’ is tricky as so many associate that with being English, Scottish, and so on. ‘Identity’ can mean pretty much any aspect of how one understands and presents oneself, so naturally it applies here, but in what way?

People viscerally cherish the strands of their identities relating to religion and nationality (whether from the UK’s four constituents or family ties abroad). For people to feel comfortable and secure enough to value identifying as British too, there has to be space for these to flourish (not the same as letting enclaves stagnate or superiority complexes grow). Britishness must supplement, not try to supplant, these identities, or else difference will turn into division.

In this respect we should aim to be nearer the Canadian ‘salad bowl’ than the American ‘melting pot’. You can be yourself, and be part of society by contributing to it in good faith.

Civic virtues

‘Citizenship’ construed merely as legal status is clearly relevant too, but may not carry much psychological weight in itself. ‘Values’ are often cited, but usually in the abstract. These last two, though, are where the potential lies. Notions of citizenship and values can work to create a civic/political/moral sketch of what it means to be British, in a way that’s neither too dry and abstract nor too prescriptive and contentious.

The relevant values fall into two rough categories. First, those associated with liberal democracy, which is the cornerstone of the British polity: legal equality; holding power to account; guaranteed rights and expected duties; rule of law; freedom of thought, speech and action (consistent with the freedom of others); and the willingness to hear dissent and concede defeat without forming enmities.

Second, a set of values more in the realm of down-to-earth manners than overarching ideology. Words such as respect, tolerance, acceptance, courtesy, and civility are all in this area. It boils down to acting on the assumption that your fellow citizens have just as much worth as you, however different they might be – unless they positively cause harm to others. (This is why we queue.)

This is less about obeying the letter of the law than accepting the spirit of it. People should see that these premises are vital for Britain’s health as a country, and accept that Britain is legitimately theirs and that their fellow citizens are legitimately British. This “essential minimum”, as Ian Kearns and Richard Muir put it, still leaves vast room for differences of politics, religion, lifestyle and personality:

It encourages solidarity between citizens and a belief in a shared set of citizenship values on the one hand but its liberal nature defends and maintains respect for diverse beliefs and practices on the other.

There are two more key ingredients: language and history. The importance of speaking a common language is evident from the fact that a shared civic/political identity depends on communication. So Ted Cantle argues that:

much greater emphasis should be placed on how we actually relate to each other, allowing relationships to grow. … Society also grows from political interaction, between the state and individuals and between individuals themselves. … Social and political capital, and the sense of trust upon which they depend, can only be built by dialogue and exchange.

To understand each other as fellow citizens, we need to, well, understand each other.

Coming together

On British history, Roger Scruton and Billy Bragg (perhaps uncharacteristically) agree that having a common narrative matters for a country’s sense of unity. Scruton says that what’s needed “is not necessarily the truth – it is a bit of the truth with a lot of embellishment – but it is a loyalty-creating story that gives people a way of attaching their emotions to each other, and in particular to strangers”.

And Bragg thinks that there’s now a problem here, partly because “the classic British identity is based on the Whig interpretation of history: the idea that we were chosen, and that the empire was an expression of that. But what that history can't do is deal with decline, because it is all about greatness.”

So we need a story to tell ourselves (and our children) that renders the ‘values’ we wish to promote intelligibly British, that narrates progress and demands more, that isn’t too ethnically or culturally exclusive or politically biased, and that has enough grains of historical accuracy. Bragg suggests:

Less than a century ago, most British citizens were excluded from fully realising their individual potential by class barriers; excluded from expressing their democratic will by gender; excluded from good health by poverty. All the way back to the Magna Carta, our history has examples of people standing up for their right to be treated fairly. It is this struggle for belonging that connects the majority of English people with the minority of recently arrived immigrants - a struggle to be accepted as part of society, as respected, responsible citizens.

(He also reminds us that, as the majority of postwar immigration has been from Commonwealth countries, most ethnic minority citizens can say as surely as the BNP’s target voters that they are descended from subjects of the British Empire. Vast numbers from Africa, the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent fought and died in World War II. So when anyone sneers that being British is about the blood that pulses under white skin, we must recall that Britain’s freedom and survival owes much to that transfusion of spilt blood from its dark-skinned subjects.)

This feels workable: a shift from Britain as ‘a free country’ to a country whose people progressively seek and earn more freedom; from a world power (now enfeebled) to a land where power flows increasingly to the people.

We do have a story now about “greatness”. Having been an engine of empire, projecting power across the globe, the only future for Britain is as a network that smoothes and manages the relationships among the people that live here. Today, the ‘common purpose’ is to hold the people of this land together, allowing them to make it theirs and to constantly remake the many strands of Britishness.

And this is supremely worthwhile: it’s better that the state exists for the benefit of the citizens than the citizens for the glory of the state. We do, though, still make Britain what it is – and it’s a better society now then 50 or 100 years ago. Greatness, in the only sense really worth aspiring to, isn’t a measure of might but a quality of the heart. And together, we can make the British character great.

Of course, this is pretty simplified and idealised, powered by emotion as much as fact. But a country’s story about itself must be a blend of the descriptive and the normative. We all sometimes fall short of our own standards; the same is true of governments and also of majority public opinion. The point is that those standards make some sense in light of our history and that they can be rallied around to judge the present and shape the future.

As Bhiku Parekh puts it: “To love [one’s country] is… to want it to be the best it is capable of, and to be proud or ashamed of it when it respectively meets or fails to meet one’s moral expectations of it.”

There’s a lot more that could be said: about housing, education, welfare, policing, terrorism, voluntary groups and their funding, prejudice, areas where deprivation and exclusion can feed defensive insularity… but I’m not trying to write a book here. Public policies matter hugely, but that’s a different level of debate, taking us beyond the core of Britishness.

Liberal democracy, mutual acceptance, a common language, a story of moral progress: these are the fundamentals. The rest is up to us.

Black-and-white radio

John Humphrys on the Today programme this morning:

British troops are at war on two fronts: Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq gets more coverage, for obvious reasons.

What obvious reasons? The relative significance of events in each country? Or the relative ease with which each can told as a simple morality tale with clear implications?

You know the standard line on Iraq: it was wrong from the start; it has gone from bad to worse; we should get out ASAP. Afghanistan, on the other hand: it was justifiably defensive; it is now proving very difficult to handle; we should, um…

Monday, July 16, 2007

Beliefs and efficacy

Norm has replied to my comments about counterfactuals in relation to the motivating powers of religion. He clarifies:

I take the religious motivation to be a real cause, unless and until someone comes up with a powerful reason or piece of evidence to the contrary. But this is not to say that the same function as the ethical teachings of religion can't be fulfilled by a secular morality.

Which means, I think, that we’re on the same page.

Actually, ‘on the same page’ really doesn’t work so well in a web context. Not that it’s anything other than a cringeworthy cliché in a non-web context, of course. Maybe ‘we’re clicking on the same link’?

Oh, that’s awful. It sounds almost sexual, albeit in an extremely boring way. Maybe… no. I think I need to stop digging.

Quick! Go and watch Boris Johnson and/or John Redwood looking less than statesmanlike.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Making things happen

Norm Geras takes issue with AC Grayling on the motivational power of religion to do good and ill.

Grayling claims that “religion is, overall and by a large margin, a force for ill in today's world”. Norm stays agnostic on this but dislikes the way Grayling pushes his point, both in tone and in ignoring the other side of the coin: “the fact that religion has also been, and is, an influence for the good”.

I tend to agree with Norm on this, even though my judgement is that the overall balance sheet for religion isn’t good. But then he says:

there have been those who behaved with enormous courage in the face of grave danger, and those who made large sacrifices for others, and those who gave their energies to trying to make the world a better place, and those who tried to live good lives, because of their religion. The argument that they could have done such things without the religion may be true but it isn't relevant: if we are estimating what the effects of religion have been, then its beneficial effects are what they are even if they could have been obtained otherwise.

This seems to miss the point about cause and effect: if a religious individual’s act of heroism or lifetime of charitable effort would have happened even in the absence of their religion, then it isn’t a consequence of that religion. If Y would have occurred regardless of whether X had, then X didn’t cause Y.

Nonetheless, I do agree that religion can and does motivate acts both of good and of ill that wouldn’t otherwise have happened. Likewise, of course. for secular/political belief systems.

Assorted ramblings

I’m a little hung over today, so today’s blogging isn’t even trying to be intellectual or well-informed. A few idle comments and observations is all I can manage.

(1) On the way in this morning I passed a building site, outside of which there was a sign saying ‘DO NOT ENTER: STRIKING IN PROGRESS’.

It’s a sad day when even picket lines are made redundant.

(2) I hear tell that a family friend, aged I think 19 and on a gap year in South America – hitherto a sensible girl from what I know – has had an unusual tattoo. On her left buttock is apparently written ‘Woo’ and on the right ‘hoo!’

What I don’t know, and what I don’t want to know, but what my copy-editor’s brain can’t help but wonder, is whether there’s a hyphen.

(3) At the supermarket checkout the other day, after getting my items bleeped through, I was packing them into bags and the guy working the till asked: “And would you like anything else?”

This was at the checkout. There were no unclaimed products within about 20 feet – other than a few issues of Spend Money To Read About How You Can Spend More Money In Our Shop magazine. There were several other people in the queue behind me.

What would have happened if I’d said: “Yes, I’d also like half a dozen eggs and some washing-up liquid please”?

(I’m assuming it wasn’t a chat-up line.)

(4) Should theists who endorse the free will defence against the problem of evil be radical libertarians or even anarchists, on the grounds that freedom is always a greater good than the prevention of harm?

OK, that was a bit more highbrow than I’d intended this post to be. But hey, it’s not as if I’ve answered the question or anything.

(5) Scott Adams notes the difficulty in getting the super-rich to part with their money in tax:

What if the government could give something of value to the rich in return for paying higher taxes? It would have to be something that didn’t cost the government or its citizens any real money. How about extra rights? …
This concept depends on the fact that there aren’t many super rich people in the population. We could grant this tiny group of people some extra rights without even noticing the loss. …
The key is that those extra rights have to have no significant impact on other people.

I think I’ve got it: let them put their faces on the money. I don’t know how changeable US bills are, but in Britain we have varying designs. For instance, the new £20 note features Adam Smith; the previous one had a picture of Edward Elgar, and before that Michael Faraday.

If I had a vast quantity of cash, one of the few things that would really perk me up would be the thought of my vast quantity of cash being a vast quantity of portraits of me as well. And not just my cash: all over the country, ordinary people would carry pictures of me around in their wallets; they would treasure those pictures; they would associate my face with prosperity; indeed, they would feel as though they were sharing in my fantastic wealth – which, thanks to the higher taxes I’d be paying, is of course exactly what they would be doing.

That prospect would excite me a lot more than another billion here or there.

(6) Still bored? Yes, I thought so. Well, you could try the ever-reliable David Thompson’s Friday Ephemera.

Now I must away to the coffee machine. I need build my energy up so that I can start work in a few hours on tomorrow morning’s hangover.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Wedding bells and dog whistles

David Cameron’s Tories are turning right.

This is not about preaching to people about how they should lead their lives.

government has a responsibility to help people make the right choices.

We propose that government send a clear and unambiguous signal about marriage
– Conservative Social Justice Policy Group report

Why give taxpayers’ money to married couples (but not cohabiting couples) regardless of whether they have children? One might understand wanting to incentivise and/or financially help supposedly stable families for the benefit of the children involved, but what’s the sense in spending money on childless couples and couples that are already well off?

Here’s the Tory policy commission’s argument. First their report [PDF, p64] quotes an American researcher called Nancy Burstein:

Policymakers are prone to focus on marriage penalties and bonuses for low income families, because that is the most vulnerable segment of the population. I would argue, however, that these families do not make their decisions in a vacuum. They are affected by societal norms, reflecting marriage patterns of higher-income couples with and without children. Policymakers should therefore be concerned about these less vulnerable populations as well. While they may never need government assistance, their choices to marry or cohabit have cumulative effects. Marriage needs to be encouraged, honored, and rewarded for all.

The report agrees, saying that this:

indicates the need to avoid the trap of only focusing on the most vulnerable families in this area. Support for marriage cannot be simply dismissed as giving money to those who are already comfortable.

Marriage is concentrated in these more educated… middle class… sections of the population. To acknowledge the enduring value of this institution is to shore up marriage in its heartland. It also sends the signal to the lower deciles, characterised by greater informality and therefore instability, that marriage, to which many aspire… is a social good.

Let me try to summarise this. It would be good to get poor people to marry, and offering them some money will encourage them to do so. However, as poor people look up to rich people for inspiration in their relationship decisions, it would be good to encourage the rich people to get married as well. So let’s offer them some money too.

A few things occur to me here. First, how paternalistically patronising can you be? Second, given that higher earners already have much higher marriage rates, where is the need to spend my hard-earned money on what they’re doing anyway? Third, if the lower orders – sorry, the “lower deciles” – already “aspire” to marriage, then they hardly need state-financed inducement, either directly or given to their better-off role models.

Fourth, will this have any effect? The report says (p71) that the proposed transferable tax allowance

would provide only modest financial support for marriage - £20 a week to those making use of it – encouraging rather than incentivising it. The main rationale for the allowance would be to provide symbolic recognition of the institution of marriage. It would indicate that marriage is valued because of its benefits to children and the wider society.

I’m not completely sure what the difference between “encouraging” and “incentivising” is, but I presume this means that the money itself won’t make any difference: it’s about sending a message. But if so, then why not, well, just send a message? That David Cameron’s got a lovely speaking voice and he comes across as ever so encouragingly earnest.

The report suggests that the policy would cost £3.2 billion a year. And this calculation doesn’t seem to anticipate any projected increase in the marriage rate resulting from this “encouragement”. As such, the idea seems to be an even more expensive and ineffectual piece of public relations than the new Olympic logo.

A fifth point is that it’s still unexplained why marriage is a social good even in the absence of children. There’s a fraction of a hint of an answer in the comment (p71) that there are “proven advantages to children and the wider society (for example, married couples play a key role in caring for elderly relatives)”.

Well wrap me in a red flag and call me a clunking top-down statist, but why not just target the financial help on people who are in fact caring for their children or for their elderly parents, or doing whatever else that might be beneficial to society?

What makes families stable?
There’s another key strand to the Tory case, which is that marriage is not just associated with but positively causes increased family stability:

Statistics indicate that cohabitation is inherently less stable, so there is not the same justification for recognising it in the tax system.

In this respect, the report relies heavily on the argument made in the policy group’s previous report [PDF] that married couples are less likely to split up than cohabiting ones. A study included as appendix 3 to that report by the Bristol researcher Harry Benson carries much of the intellectual weight.

It’s an analysis, carried out recently in the UK, of differences in family stability in the first three years of a child’s life. Benson finds that 6% of married couples split up during this period, whereas 20% of cohabiting couples do – thus a topline result that cohabitees are about 3.3 times as likely to separate over this period.

However, there are demographic differences between married couples and cohabiting couples: the latter tend to be poorer, younger and less well educated, all of which account for some of the difference. After accounting for these factors, and a couple of others, Benson calculates that a cohabiting couple remains about 2.2 times as likely as a married couple to split up in the first three years.

This seems suggestive. However, I’d venture two observations. First, in looking at income and age differences, Benson groups couples by income quintile and by decade of age (a 20-year-old mother is grouped with a 29-year-old and a household earning £5,000 a year is grouped with one on £15,000). These are fairly wide categories, and given that both factors have been established as causally relevant, their contributory role will almost certainly have been underestimated.

Second, there is no mention of relationship duration. If it’s the case that new relationships are more likely to end in any given period than more established ones, and that married couples that have new children have been together longer than cohabiting couples that do so, then that would be another contributing factor unaccounted for here. There may well be other relevant demographic factors.

Furthermore, Benson himself accepts that there are “selection effects” – pre-existing differences between the kinds of people that choose to marry and those that cohabit – which will affect the different separation rates. Most notably: “married couples have a higher level of commitment to one another compared to unmarried couples in the first place” (p127).

So the evidence for a specific causal link from getting married to staying together, independent of other factors, is uncertain at best.

One interesting question is whether the Tories are concerned to promote marriage instrumentally as a powerful engine of family stability or to promote it moralistically for its own sake. If the latter, we would expect a few flaky arguments for why marriage is good regardless of whether there are children. There are certainly those.

But if the former, we would expect that some non-marriage tools for promoting family stability might be promoted as well. If cohabitation really is less stable, then why not try to make it more stable? Ah, but remember, cohabitation is “inherently less stable” than marriage. So all hope may be lost.

There is a fascinating part of Benson’s paper that unwittingly packs a killer punch here. Table 3 (p124). compares the post-birth separation risk for married and cohabiting parents in different income quintiles.

Married couples in the bottom quintile have an 8% risk; in the second quintile a 6% risk. Cohabiting couples in the bottom quintile have a 23% risk; in the second quintile a 12% risk (disregarding other factors). Benson comments, correctly: “Across every income group, cohabiting couples are at least twice as likely to split up compared to married couples.”

But what he misses is this: the drop in separation risk for cohabiting parents between the bottom and the second income quintile is far greater than that for married parents (23% to 12% vs 8% to 6%). This means that prioritising financial help and economic opportunities for low-income cohabitees is a better way to increase family stability than prioritising low-income married couples.

This is not proposed. So, it seems that the aim in throwing £20 notes at married couples is to blow the ‘dog whistle’, playing to Tory prejudices and moralising at the rest of us. Hence the following two reactions.

The Child Poverty Action Group’s Chief Executive, Kate Green, said:

A marriage certificate does not end addiction, it does not cure a mental health condition, it does not cancel debt, it does not increase skills and qualifications and it does not provide employment. Addressing these problems will do more to support relationships and lift children out of poverty than using the tax and benefit system to penalise children for their family background.
… David Cameron must resist the temptation to squander the resources needed on tax breaks that will do nothing to help the majority of children living in poverty.

And the Daily Mail said:

Finally! After months of wittering about wind-power and the work-life balance - not to mention the spectacular own-goal over grammar schools - David Cameron has come up with something recognisable as a true Tory policy.
With his support for the family as 'the most important institution in our society', he's given great cheer to the mass of traditional Conservative voters who were beginning to despair of him.

Recall that the report said it wanted to “shore up marriage in its heartland”. No. The real aim is to shore up Tory support in its heartland. Where Peter Lilley had his “little list”, Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith have a huge report – but they’re creeping back to Tory basics all the same.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The tactics of the ‘moderate’

Inayat Bunglawa, Assistant Secretary-General at the Muslim Council of Britain, is a funny sort.

After the Rushdie knighthood was announced, he explained that he’d once been a fan of incitement to murder:

So on February 14 1989, when the Iranian Islamic leader, Imam Khomeini delivered his fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie's death, I was truly elated.

But since those heady days, he had recanted of these views:

I will readily acknowledge that we were wrong to have called for the book to be banned. Today I can certainly better appreciate the concerns and fear generated by the images of book-burning in Bradford and the calls for the author to be killed. It seems crazy now, but I really did believe that some committee of learned elders should vet all books before they could be sold to the public.

Yes, the book-vetting does sound crazy, although some would say that the incitements to murder – which caused actual violence and actual murder – were greater “concerns”. But never mind, that’s all in the past.

Last week, Bunglawa continued his campaign against violent extremism in Islam:

Al-Qaida inspired terrorists clearly seem to believe that their murderous actions can be justified according to Islamic teachings. They along with their potential recruits need to be left in no doubt that those beliefs are a lethal misrepresentation of Islam.

So when Ayman al-Zawahiri, the theological brains of al-Qaeda, pops up to promise retribution against Britain for the Rushdie knighthood, we can expect some no-holds-barred condemnation and an explanation of why such violence would be unIslamic. We can expect Bunglawa to denounce al-Zawahiri’s threats and incitements with the zeal of a convert. We get this:

To reward Rushdie with a knighthood was an ill thought-out decision. It was bound to cause outrage among many Muslims around the world, considering the way Rushdie portrayed key Islamic figures in his book The Satanic Verses. However, it was quite predictable that al-Qa'ida would use the knighthood to try to further their own goals of polarising Muslims and the West; it was not unexpected.

Well. It takes some nerve to triangulate between al-Qaeda’s politics of fury and peaceful common decency, but Bunglawa’s not afraid to play to his constituency’s prejudices. Stroke the grievances; nurture the group identity; express distaste for the violence where appropriate; but wave the hard questions away; and stroke that grievance.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Reward success and punish failure!

Chris Dillow is unimpressed with the Tory plan to give tax breaks to married couples:
I've got an idea to solve the so-called obesity epidemic. It works like this. Professional footballers are mostly slim and healthy. So, let's give a tax break to footballers. This'll give people an incentive to get healthy.

Fair call. But the principle behind this policy can be extended to generate a Tory way of abolishing poverty:

Poverty is bad and prosperity is good. Furthermore, research proves that poor people are more likely to be in poverty and rich people are more likely to be prosperous. So we need to devise some ingenious incentive for people to be rich rather than poor, because giving people ‘social responsibility’ always work whereas top-down ‘clunking’ state intervention always fails. Can we think of a system that means people who earn more are better off?

Yes: let’s give a tax break to rich people. We can finance this by raising taxes on the poor – after all, we should tax social ills rather than social goods. This’ll deter people from being poor and give them an economic motive to be wealthy.

The only downside of this policy would be creating a ‘wealth trap’ in which rich people find themselves dependent on the state. If that happens, though, we can just move the ‘wealth line’ higher and higher up.

“For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.” It’s in the Bible, people! You know it’ll work!

Layabout, GSOH, seeks wife (no kids) for welfare dependency

The Tories, bless their little back-to-basics cotton socks, have come up with the crafty wheeze of throwing taxpayers’ money at married couples, regardless of whether the couples are parents or not. A tax allowance of £20 a week – that’s over a grand a year! – will support couples where one partner doesn’t work.

So, ladies (he says, with all the charm of a Brylcreemed skunk): how’s about it? We don’t have to bother with children, we don’t have to like each other at all, we don’t even have to both keep working. And I promise I’ll be completely supportive of you continuing your career.

And in return, we’ll get £££s! (Paid for by the undesirable elements in society, such as single parents and cohabiting couples.)

Sounds pretty good, huh?

Monday, July 09, 2007

All politics is local

Does anyone else think this is a bit weird, even by byelection standards?

Five Labour councillors in Southall, west London, have defected to the Conservative Party.
The switch by Manjit Singh, Gurcharan Singh, Maninder Kaur Keith, Jarnail Singh Jandu and Jagdish Gupta comes before the Ealing Southall by-election.
Meanwhile, Kuldeep Singh Grewal, an independent candidate for the by-election, has urged his supporters to vote Labour instead on 19 July.
Another independent candidate - Golbash Singh - is now supporting the Tories.

The Official Monster Raving Loony Party candidate is John Sydney Cartwright. He seems to be sticking to his guns. Although nobody seems to be switching to support him, either.

Cat years

9 July 1989–21 April 2007

9 July 1989–29 January 2002


Saturday, July 07, 2007

The link between terrorism and imperialist foreign policy

The Telegraph really excels itself with a leader column titled ‘We must make Muslims loyal subjects again’:

Ultimately, though, the best way to overcome the nihilist ideology of the bombers is to posit something better in its place. Hundreds of millions of Muslims were loyal British subjects through the centuries because they believed in what this country stood for.

Yes! Bring back the Empire! Forcible colonial rule’s the only thing these pesky blighters respect.

Mohammedans: know your place!

Friday, July 06, 2007

Boris Johnson: two comparisons

Boris for mayor of London? Even disregarding his Toryness, I don’t think so.

(1) I cannot conceive that the Tories would ever dream of putting up as mayoral candidate a serial adulterer whose nickname rhymes with ‘ozza’.

(2) Boris is very much like the Queen: a much-loved national institution, but you wouldn’t want him to have any real power. (The analogy breaks down, though, as he doesn’t need a spouse to supply right-wing views and tactless comments.)

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The trouble with wanting to be good

Richard Chappell writes:

It seems plausible that a person should try to be the best that they can be, and that their "idealized self" serves as a normative ideal. But this runs the risk of self-idolatry, by which I mean a fetishistic concern for the mere image of virtue.

He gives the example of the way that “some conservatives to care more about looking ‘tough on terror’ than in actually achieving security”, and he quotes Laurence Thomas with another example of “conceited good intentions”:

it is about “Look how wonderful I am for having helped you”. With genuine good intentions, by contrast, the accent is on you — and not that I have helped you...
When I think of white liberals, I am stunned by how interested they (initially) are in helping me and how much they admire me just so long as I underwrite their image of a white who just adores people of color.

Richard concludes:

So, it seems, there's a sense in which we shouldn't fundamentally aim to be ideal agents after all. We should instead conceive of virtuous character as a mere means, a kind of guiding ideal that will help us realize true value in the external world (which is what really matters). This conception will hopefully make us less susceptible to 'image' hang-ups.

This is all true, but it’s only part of the story. Certainly, those whose prime concern is to look good people are acting out of vanity, which is less than laudable. But there are people who are concerned not with having an image of goodness but with actually being good.

(Caveat: we can distinguish public image from self-image. Trying to look good is to focus on one’s public image; trying to be good isn’t. But if one knows that one’s efforts to be good are succeeding, then one’s self-image will change accordingly. In terms of wanting to be good and wanting to be able to think of oneself as good, motives can be hard to disentangle – although it’s unlikely, in this case, that one would consciously want the self-image with no regard to the reality. Rather, the self-image is taken as an evidential measure of how well one is succeeding.)

So what about wanting to really be a good person – are there problems with that? I think so, and for the same reason that Richard condemns ‘image’ hang-ups: it’s about oneself rather than an external focus on what really matters.

A moral outlook driven by a desire to be good may take the form of a self-focused virtue ethics but it’s really more an individualistic egoism for people of a certain disposition. On this view, what’s most important to achieve is not consequences for people’s lives and the wider world, nor adherence to general moral principles, but the fulfilment of a personal ambition for oneself.

Morality should be impartial, and this outlook is anything but.

A paramount concern with one’s own virtue can have two dangers. First, there’s the risk of avoiding difficult decisions in order to keep one’s hands clean: if lesser evils are eschewed as much as greater evils, then sins of omission beckon.

Alternatively, if one succeeds in becoming firmly convinced of one’s own high moral calibre, then that can result in a lowering of standards. Someone who is satisfied that they are a good driver, for instance, will stop regularly evaluating whether this remains so, and perhaps get sloppy. Likewise, we all know of people who are so assured of their personal virtue that they become arrogant and intolerant of disagreement; they may develop blind spots or self-serving rationalisations for their own behaviour, confident that as they are a good person, the things they do will be good things.

I think it was Henry Sidgwick who said that happiness isn’t something you can directly pursue with much success; instead, you must pursue other things – career, family life, friendships, interests – which will end up making you happy. The paradox, though, is that you have to pursue these things for their own sake, not because you intend for them to make you happy. Virtue, I think, is much the same.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

‘Bring hatred into the fold’

The shadow cabinet has made like a banana and split.

David Cameron’s new star Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion, Sayeeda Warsi, made a helpful suggestion on 19 July 2005, less than a fortnight after the 7/7 bombings:

Tony Blair needs to consider holding talks with Islamic extremists in the wake of the London bombings, the Conservatives' Muslim vice-chair says. Sayeeda Warsi says Mr Blair should follow the example of ministers' engagement with IRA representatives. …
Ms Warsi, 34, who failed to win the Dewsbury seat from Labour at the general election, says Mr Blair should consider talking to the very people he believes are linked to the London bombings. "We must start engaging with, not agreeing with, the radical groups who we have said in the past are complete nutters," she said.
"We need to bring these groups into the fold of the democratic process. As long as we exclude them and don't hear them out, we will allow them to continue their hate.
"It may not achieve results immediately, but it may stop the immediate violence."

The logical contradiction in the last sentence is, I think, the smallest fault of this position.

And today in Parliament: Cameron demanded that Islamic extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir should be banned.

There are too few young people in front-line politics; there are too few women; and there are too few Muslims. One can understand Cameron’s desire to kill three birds with one stone by appointing (indeed, ennobling) Warsi. But her views make her unfit for purpose.

When’s he going to sack her?

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Tories go for appeasement and reaction

David Cameron’s reshuffle includes a couple of interesting appointments. As he put it:

Two of the big challenges facing this country today are security and community cohesion and we now have two leading experts in these fields in Dame Pauline Neville-Jones and Sayeeda Warsi.

Neville-Jones’s experience is undoubted, but not all experience is good:

As political director at the foreign office and chairwoman of the joint intelligence committee during the Bosnian conflict, Dame Pauline was instrumental in opposing military intervention to stop "ethnic cleansing".
… She and [Douglas] Hurd looked on [Slobodan] Milosevic as a potential force for moderation who could be bargained with.

In July 1996, eight months after serving as Britain's representative at the Dayton peace talks, she was back in the Balkans, flying into Belgrade with Hurd to have breakfast with Milosevic. This time the British duo were in a new role, representing NatWest and selling its services in the management of a lucrative deal to privatise the state-run telecoms industry. At the time, the thousands of dead from Srebrenica were still being exhumed, and anyone with any access to intelligence would have be in little doubt over Milosevic's complicity.

For this, she picked up the nickname ‘Pauline Neville-Chamberlain’.

As for Sayeeda Warsi, I’d not heard of her until now, but she seems to have interesting views as well:

A Conservative activist has fuelled mistrust of the police in Muslim communities by making false statements on the detention of terror suspects. …
Mrs Warsi, 34, the Conservative vice-chairman with responsibility for cities, asserted that the tightening of anti-terrorist legislation had turned Britain into “a police state”.
The claims appear in an article that she wrote for Awaaz, a newspaper read by Asians that is distributed in the West Yorkshire towns and cities that were home to the July 7 suicide bombers. Readers were told by Mrs Warsi that the Government’s anti-terror proposals were “enough to tip any normal young man into the realms of a radicalised fanatic”.

Now, I accept that this is more apologism than appeasement, but try this:

Michael Howard, leader of the Conservative party, disagreed with comments made in a BBC programme on 20/07/2005 by Ms. Sayeeda Warsi, vice-chairman of the party, stating that new anti-terror laws following the 7/7 attacks in London should not stop support for "(the) freedom fight" in Kashmir. She had further stated that "It would concern me if … the definition of terrorism was to cover maybe (the) legitimate freedom fight in Kashmir."

Nice. I bet communities up and down the land are more cohesive already. But don’t worry – in some ways she’s just a very traditional Tory:

Sayeeda Warsi, Conservative candidate for Dewsbury in West Yorkshire, claims that Labour’s lowering of the age of consent from 18 to 16 left children vulnerable to be “propositioned for homosexual relations”, and that homosexuality was being peddled to children as young as seven in schools.

(Hat tips to Adrian McMenamin and Tom Watson.)

Wednesday morning update: Damn. I could have avoided writing all the above and just linked to Unity’s similar (yet more thorough) post. Oh well. Blogosphere, plurality of content provision, great minds link alike, etc.

Get out of jail free

Just when you think you couldn’t have any more contempt for George Bush, he goes and does it again.


Lewis Libby [a former aide to Dick Cheney] … was found guilty in March of perjury and obstructing justice in a case connected to Washington's decision to invade Iraq.
His trial stemmed from the accusation that the White House had illegally made public the identity of a serving CIA agent, Valerie Plame, in an apparent effort to embarrass her husband. Ms Plame's husband, a former US diplomat, had publicly criticised the basis for the invasion of Iraq. … He was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison, two years of probation and a fine of $250,000.

And now Bush has intervened, calling the punishment “excessive” and commuting the jail sentence.

The BBC's James Westhead in Washington said the president's decision was a compromise between pardoning Libby outright and allowing his sentence to stand.

Well, that’s one way of putting it; another would be to say that it was a compromise between justice and corruption.

There are no good reasons for a president to have this power.

Kylie Who?

Time travel back to the 80s? Two of my favourite things are coming together!

It could be brilliant – or it could be as hard to stomach as that time I tried mixing chocolate and steak, which are also two of my favourite things.*

Still, we do at least know she can act

* I didn’t actually do this. What sort of gibbering dope do you think I am?

War is a continuation of politics

William Hague has made three demands of the UK government on Iraq.

First, “to undertake a review of the progress of British strategy in Iraq”. Second, “to submit a quarterly report to Parliament on progress achieved in Iraq towards meeting goals”. And third, he renewed his party’s calls for the government to “hold a full inquiry into the origins and conduct of the war”.

These suggestions have some merit, although the timing of them is debatable.

In a speech that ranged across the Middle East and beyond, he also covered Afghanistan. He made comments about “creating an Afghanistan that can work for the Afghans, that can look after the security needs of the Afghan people”; he argued that we must “significantly improve the coordination of our aid and reconstruction efforts”; and he remarked that “we must be well resourced both internationally and nationally … we must ensure that our activities are coordinated effectively and efficiently … we must ensure that Afghanistan is not isolated from its neighbours”.

His comments on Afghanistan seem sound (if borderline banal), but there’s a curious omission. In fact, there are three curious omissions. If Afghanistan is so important, why no “review of the progress of British strategy” there? Why no “quarterly report to Parliament on progress achieved” there? And why no “full inquiry into the origins and conduct of the war”?

He notes: “While Afghanistan and Iraq are two different theatres, lessons learned from Iraq will benefit our efforts in Afghanistan.”

No doubt. But by the same token, could not lessons from Afghanistan help in Iraq – or, indeed, in Afghanistan? And isn’t learning lesson for the future a good thing generally? So why no progress review, quarterly reports and full inquiry?

A cynic might note that both the original invasion of and the continued UK presence in Iraq are more unpopular than in Afghanistan. This cynic might also suggest that calling for reviews, reports and inquiries is a crafty way of keeping criticism of the Iraq operation in the headlines without either having to risk a public U-turn yourself or having to think of your own alternative policies.

Pesky cynics.

Monday, July 02, 2007

‘My God is an incompetent homophobe’

The floods in Yorkshire and elsewhere are divine punishment for – well, you can guess…

The Rt Rev Graham Dow, Bishop of Carlisle, argued that the floods are not just a result of a lack of respect for the planet, but also a judgment on society's moral decadence. "This is a strong and definite judgment because the world has been arrogant in going its own way," he said. "We are reaping the consequences of our moral degradation, as well as the environmental damage that we have caused."

"The sexual orientation regulations [which give greater rights to gays] are part of a general scene of permissiveness. We are in a situation where we are liable for God's judgment, which is intended to call us to repentance."
He expressed his sympathy for those who have been hit by the weather, but said that the problem with "environmental judgment is that it is indiscriminate".

I want you to imagine for a moment that you’re all-knowing and all-powerful. There are some people in the UK who have been having The Wrong Kind Of Nookie, and a larger number of people who have supported The Wrong Kind Of Nookie Is Actually OK legislation.

This has made you mighty wrathful. And, what with your knowing exactly who these sinful people are and where they live, and what with your being able to do absolutely anything, you are in a perfect position to inflict precision punishment.

But instead, you send a load of rain to kill a few people and wreck hundreds of homes, “indiscriminately”. Although you do take care to focus your watery smiting on South Yorkshire and nearby counties (those renowned Hotbeds of Gayness).

To do this, you’d have to be a fool, and a morally bankrupt one at that – and that’s not even counting your homophobia.

But maybe, just maybe, this takes too narrow a view. Maybe the non-wrong-nookie-supporters on whom you inflict death and suffering aren’t really disadvantaged by this at all. Maybe the suffering helps them to develop greater stoicism and fortitude in the face of adversity and become better people. And maybe the ones that are killed, if they are suitably proper-nookie-having, will shoot up to heaven where eternal bliss awaits. Because of this, acts of God can have no collateral damage.

Which is, of course, the logic of the suicide bomber.

(Double) standards of proof

After a couple of careful paragraphs condemning terrorism and stating that a justification can be “to the wrong-headed, compelling” while still being “spurious”, the Guardian gives us this:
Can it be denied that the invasion encouraged a growth in al-Qaida's threat and influence?
… That techniques from Iraq - petrol and gas canisters placed in cars - seem to have been exported to the UK is more than symbolic. It is not proof of a direct link with al-Qaida, nor should it absolve the would-be bombers from condemnation. Yet it is wrong to claim there is no link to Iraq.

Are you clear about that? It’s really too soon to tell whether the failed London and Glasgow bombings had any link to al-Qaeda. But we can say with certainty and without hesitation that these attempts to kill clubbers in Soho and Scottish families going on holiday were, at least partly, because of Iraq (which, by a staggering coincidence, is one of the Guardian’s favourite bugbears).

Someone who knows whereof he speaks is Hassan Butt (ex-member of al-Muhajiroun):

I remember how we used to laugh in celebration whenever people on TV proclaimed that the sole cause for Islamic acts of terror like 9/11, the Madrid bombings and 7/7 was Western foreign policy.
By blaming the government for our actions, those who pushed the 'Blair's bombs' line did our propaganda work for us. More important, they also helped to draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamic theology.
…what drove me and many of my peers to plot acts of extreme terror within Britain, our own homeland and abroad, was a sense that we were fighting for the creation of a revolutionary state that would eventually bring Islamic justice to the world.

And also Ed Husain, another onetime jihad cheerleader:

Just as the IRA bombed and maimed, and Sinn Fein explained the motivations for mass murder, jihadists today plant car bombs and dispatch suicide bombers, while entryist Islamists from the Muslim Council of Britain and a host of other organisations explain their “legitimate grievances” to us. But unlike Sinn Fein’s demands, Islamist calls for the annihilation of Israel, overthrow of all Arab leaders, and changes in western culture cannot, and should not, be met.
The tone of British Muslim communal discourse in relation to national security and terrorism is worrying. Among young Muslims, there is a widespread Islamism-influenced belief in a bipolar world: a lethal them-and-us mentality. The police and intelligence services belong firmly to the “them” side of the divide. As do clubbers, Jews, gay people, Christians, atheists and even moderate Muslims who reject the extremists’ war call.