Monday, February 13, 2012

Comment on Comment: Council Prayers

As is the practice in a number of Councils, Bideford Town Council put a prayer at the start of the agenda for its Meetings. A Christian minister of some sort was invited along to lead the prayer, and the councillors were expected to go along with it. Until one refused.

The Guardian editorial tells the story of what happened next:

In court on Friday, Mr Justice Ouseley ruled that the saying of prayers during Bideford council meetings was unlawful. Though the judge was at pains to stress the narrowness of the legal point on which he ruled, the case was being widely watched. The communities secretary Eric Pickles was quick to condemn the judgment. Diametrically opposed responses from the National Secular Society, which supported Mr Bone's complaint, and the Christian Institute, which underwrote Bideford's costs, were nevertheless both agreed that something of more general importance was at stake.

Thank God Eric Pickles was on hand to give his well-informed opinion!

The judgement is here if you're interested. Actually, despite my lawyerly ways, I think the legal arguments are far less interesting than the arguments of principle. To recap, Christian prayers were a formal part of the meetings in which important public business is decided. Councillors uncomfortable with those prayers either had to stay silent and pretend to go along with them or leave the chamber. Honestly, I don't think you have to be a militant secularist to see what's wrong with this scenario.

Giles Fraser, a minister for whom I have a lot of respect, basically admits this in his Comment, "Banning council prayer sessions is just the start – what about parliament?" Giles suggests that it might not be such a bad thing if this was the start of a movement towards full disestablishment. We can but hope.

Of course, we couldn't have commentary on something involving the National Secular Society without someone bashing them, despite the fact that they're manifestly in the right on this one. "Why the Bideford ruling on council prayers is a setback for secularism" by Jonathan Chaplin admits that the prayers should probably go:

Dare we hope that, in the aftermath of the ruling, councils will quietly and sensibly opt to leave prayers off their official agendas and allow them to be held prior to council meetings on an entirely voluntary basis? That would seem an obvious instance of the "reasonable accommodation" called for in a religiously plural society, and there is no loss of religious freedom involved. It's hard to see how this would amount to any kind of defeat for authentic Christianity: aren't the sincere but unofficial prayers of genuine believers of greater worth than the official ones of the religiously indifferent or reluctant?

But at the same time he takes delight in crowing about the fact that the NSS didn't succeed in showing that the prayers amounted to discrimination:

NSS certainly takes home a point, but their lead arguments – that such prayers, lasting about three minutes and allowing an opt-out, are so imposing upon nonbelievers as to violate their human rights – didn't make it past the halfway line at this particular meeting. Mr Justice Ouseley concluded that the mere fact that non-religious councillors like Clive Bone might feel "uncomfortable" during council prayers did not constitute a discriminatory disadvantage serious enough to warrant the protective intervention of the state...

The ruling is not an "important victory" for secularism, as NSS's Keith Porteous Wood crowed, but actually a long overdue setback in their ongoing campaign to manipulate the legitimate principle of non-discrimination so as to bring religion to heel.

If I may, I'd like to make a few points here:

1. The NSS won. That means that councils across the country are likely to start looking again at their practices. That sounds like a pretty heavy victory to me.

2. Apparently being able to leave during the prayers prevents them from being sufficiently detrimental to amount to discrimination, even if leaving is quite naturally embarrassing. Does Jonathan support this principle? So if instead of prayers, atheists were invited to speak against religion at the start of council meetings, would he feel that the ability to leave the room stopped it being discriminatory? Pillock.

3. He also comes out with this gem:

When a senior judge acknowledges that mere temporary subjective discomfort in the presence of religious or other beliefs or practices we happen to dislike isn't enough to justify the blunt instrument of legal proscription, religious freedom is strengthened.

The religious freedom of the majority, yes. Which, of course, is the only important kind. Bear in mind that this is a public body performing a public function.

Ah well. Not all Christians can be expected to see the crumbling of their age-old special privileges as a good thing. Onward Christian Soldiers! And let the rest of us get on with our jobs.

Comment on Comment: Those Pesky New Atheists

Those who know me, know my position on religion: I'm not a fan. That said, I'd like to think that in my own special way I'm fair to religion, and I certainly don't appreciate any suggestion that I'm particularly ignorant of religion. It's an accusation so easily tossed at 'New Atheists', a term which translates roughly to 'non-academic (or insufficiently academic) atheists who aren't ashamed of being so'. It's also pretty ludicrous: Studies tend to show that self-described atheists know more about religion than self-described believers. It kind of comes with debunking it, I suppose. It is true that the famous 'New Atheists' tend to pay little attention to theology, but probably for that reason they tend to be much more in tune with what the average person in church believes than most theologians.

A bit of a digression, of course, but it leads up for the first link of the day, "Even atheists must recognise the importance of a sociological study of religion" by Philip Ball. Comment is Free seems to love bashing atheists, both new and old, and this is a perfect example:

The research reported last week showing that American Christians adjust their concept of Jesus to match their own sociopolitical persuasion will surprise nobody. Liberals regard Christ primarily as someone who promoted fellowship and caring, say psychologist Lee Ross of Stanford University in California and his colleagues, while conservatives see him as a firm moralist. In other words, he's like me, only more so.

Okay. Well, atheists have been saying that pretty much forever, so chalk that up to the atheists, right?

Yes, it's pointing out the blindingly obvious. Yet the work offers a timely reminder of how religious thinking operates that has so far been resolutely resisted by most noisy atheists.

Wait, what?

Yes, apparently atheists doggedly refuse to recognise a correlation between one's politics and one's religion beliefs. I'll admit, that's news to me. It sounds like the kind of thing atheists would be pretty comfortable with, actually. In fact, I'd imagine that religious people would be rather more upset than atheists.

Our author then goes on to explain why atheists resist this conclusion:

For one thing, regarding religion as a social phenomenon would force us to see it as something real, like governments or book groups, and not just a self-propagating delusion. It is so much safer and easier to ridicule a literal belief in miracles, virgin births and other supernatural agencies than to consider religion as (among other things) one of the ways that societies have long chosen to organise their structures of authority and status, for better or worse.

Again, what? What is this distinction between self-propagating delusion and social phenomenon? We don't have any trouble seeing belief in UFOs or horoscopes or homeopathy as both, so why not religion? Actually, I'm confused how you could have a self-propagating delusion which wasn't a social phenomenon!

All of this leads up to the following conclusion:

The Stanford research reinforces the fact that a single holy book can provide the basis both for a permissive, inquiring and pro-scientific outlook (think tea and biscuits with Richard Coles) or for apocalyptic, bigoted ignorance (think Tea Party with Sarah Palin). Might we then, as good scientists, suspect that the real ills of religion originate not in the book itself, but elsewhere?

Ah, a sneaky clever conclusion! Religion is not responsible for the evils done in its name!

Of course, by that logic it's also not responsible for good done in its name, making it utterly neutral in impact. I somehow doubt the author intended that conclusion. But more tellingly, his implications are simply wrong. Religion does, in fact, tend to push people to become more reactionary. Of course it's often co-opted by the cause du jour, but that's done so much more easily when that cause is a reactionary one. Witness the embarassment of St Paul's Cathedral when challenged to support the Occupy Movement; a few brave souls spoke out and the Cathedral was pretty much shamed into doing what you might have hoped would come naturally.

Of course there are examples of religion speaking truth to power, such as liberation theology (although remember which organisation pretty much crushed that movement). Jesus was a radical even if he was also a moralist. Organised religion, on the other hand, tends to manage only one of these.

I only highlight this article as an example of a ludicrous attack on New Atheists on CiF. Don't go thinking that's the worst, though! Just thank your lucky stars that Andrew Brown has been quiet for a while...

Comment on Comment: Introduction

I love Guardian's Comment is Free. I love the fact that it aspires to provide interesting and provocative commentary from a range of different viewpoints (including those anathema to the Guardian's political viewpoints). I love that when someone writes a column that is, actually, nonsense veiled by fancy words, the chances are that someone else will write a column to point it out. I love it.

What I loathe are the comments beneath the Comments.

Usually I have enough willpower to stop at the end of the article without scrolling down. That way madness lies. A seething mass of hatred and resentment. Peculiarly apolitical, loathing in equal measure capitalism and communism, feminism and religion. It seems to be the law of popular websites that intelligent feedback is drowned out in a sea of bile (see also BBC Have Your Say, where the comments are similar but much less literate). It is the law of the jungle down there, an that law is cynicism; anything less is treated with mocking disdain.

So rather than futilely post my thoughts on the topic du jour below the Comment, I thought I'd start putting them here. Comments on my comments on the Comments are, of course, welcome, but for the love of Pete, please don't seek to replicate the state of the comments on the Comments on Comment!

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Labour's Last Hope (Sketch)

Scene: Gordon Brown's Office, 10 Downing Street.

[Brown is sitting behind his desk. Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt enter, nervously.]

Brown: Well well, if it isn't my old friends. Looks like all that plotting and scheming was for nothing, doesn't it?

Hoon: But, but Prime Minister, please understand!

Hewitt: It was nothing personal. We're great admirers of your work!

Hoon: It's just'll never win an election. Unless we get a new leader soon, we'll be utterly obliterated!

Hewitt: We just thought that the Party needs someone else, someone charismatic, someone who might give us a chance at a fourth term...

Brown: [Incredulous] What, one of you two?? Oh, I can really see the electorate turning out in droves for that.

Hoon: Well, uh, no, we did discuss that, and you're completely right.

Hewitt: We need someone else in charge, and we do have a possible solution...

Brown: Oh, and who is it? No, don't tell me. I can just imagine. Johnson! Miliband! Balls!

Hoon: [Affronted] No need to be rude, Prime Minister.

Hewitt: No no, we have found someone who would really appeal to the electorate, and we even persuaded him to leave behind a very promising career to go into politics. He's young, dynamic and almost universally loved.

Brown: [Perplexed] Who could you possibly mean??

[Enter David Tennant, grinning.]

Tennant: Hello!

Brown: What? Wait, I recognise you! You're...Captain Kirk, or something.

Tennant: Eh...close enough.

Hoon: Don't you see, Prime Minister? With Mr. Tennant as Labour Party leader, we would absolutely thrash the Tories at the polls!

Hewitt: With his departure from Doctor Who, his popularity ratings are through the roof! He's more popular than Jesus!

Hoon: It's true; my research shows that a higher percentage of the electorate identify him with Christmas than Christ himself...

Tennant: [Looking around the room] This place is a bit fancy, isn't it? [Looking out the window, suddenly alert] Look out! The Daleks are attacking!

Hoon: What??

Hewitt: Where??

Brown: Is it time for me to save the world again?

Tennant: [Cheeky smile] Nah, just kidding! [To himself] No Daleks until next Tuesday.

Brown: But you can't run the country! You have no experience! You aren't even a politician!

Hoon: Exactly! People hate politicians at the moment; Mr. Tennant is free from the taint of the expenses scandal!

Tennant: Plus, I still have my sonic screwdriver!

[He points his sonic screwdriver at Brown's desk and activates it, causing a high tech control panel and screen to rise out from it.]

Brown: [Shocked] What?? I've never got it to do that before!

Hewitt: Do you see, Prime Minister? He's perfect for the job! We've even persuaded him to keep putting on his English accent while doing the job. Research suggests that his native Scottish accent would remind people too much of, well, you.

Hoon: And I've already got the electoral broadcast planned out! It's like the opening to Doctor Who, see, which is brilliant because it's already mostly in red. Then we have the logo fly towards the screen, but rather than Doctor Who it will just say 'Labour'. And then once it flies off we show your face, Prime Minister, and then we'll have a voice over say "The leader of the Labour Party is regenerating again..." And then your face will morph into Mr. Tennant's! The public will lap it up!

Brown: Well, um, I suppose it makes some sense. But I'll still have to run it past Peter Mandelson.

Hewitt: [Groaning] Oh no, not Mandelson...

[Enter Peter Mandelson.]

Mandelson: You called?

Brown: I was just saying that-

[Tennant notices Mandelson.]

Tennant: [Shocked] It can't be... It is! [Angry] Davros!! I knew it was you!! I won't let you drag this wonderful country down with your manipulations!

Mandelson: [Horrified] No! My cunning schemes have been revealed!

[He runs away.]

Brown: [To Tennant] Wait, did you just chase away Peter Mandelson? That's it, you're hired! You'll be the best Prime Minister the United Kingdom has ever seen!

Hewitt: Oh, raptures! But what will you do, Mr. Brown?

Brown: [Airily] Oh, you know, go on the lecture circuit, try to bring peace to the Middle East... Hey, if it worked for Tony, it's got to work for me, right?

Hewitt: Um, yes, of course. I'm...sure it will.

Brown: Right, we'll just have to announce the news to the party. I'm sure there will be no need for a leadership election; we'll just have another coronation like last time.

[Hoon has been looking at the monitor on the desk.]

Hoon: Um, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it looks like the Tories have pipped us to the post again. They've just announced that they've also got a new leader to take them into the election.

Brown: [Outraged] What??

Tennant: [Concerned] Who is it? Geoff, who is it? This is very important, Geoff, I need to know who it is!

Geoff: It's...John Simm.


[We hear the drumbeat of four as it gets louder and louder...]


Sunday, September 13, 2009

In Which I Agree With David Cameron

David Cameron has announced that he wants to cut the salaries and perks of MPs, and David Mitchell here attacks this as a crowd-pleasing but ultimately hollow and counter-productive measure.

Now I don't particularly like either David, but Mitchell makes some good points here so I am tempted to go along with him. But, regrettably, I feel that I have to stand up for Cameron on this one, albeit that I agree that his reasons are entirely crowd-pleasing rather than well thought through.

Mitchell brings out the old truism about better salaries and perks leading to better of MPs. But this assumes that 'better MPs' is synonymous with 'MPs with the best prospects in big business and other high-salary jobs'. It assumes that it is crucial to compete for such high flyers against the investment banks, law firms and PR companies. But is this actually true?

Of course the salary for MPs should be set at a reasonable level. But last time I looked, wanting a high salary was not a good reason to go into politics. There was once this quaint idea that MPs were public servants, and that you went into politics because you wanted to make things better, not because it paid nearly as well as the corporate world and had better hours. Honestly, if your primary objective is to get rich, I simply do not want you as an MP.

'But the best and the brightest!' I hear my friends cry. 'They go for well-paid jobs, and we will lose them from political life!' Nonsense, says I. Nonsense stemming from the idea that everyone cares only about money. Even looking only at the graduate world, plenty of us do not go into jobs destined to make us fabulously wealthy. Does anyone genuinely believe that the teachers, nurses, social workers, scientists and writers are doing those jobs only because they couldn't get higher paid ones?

Cutting the salaries and perks of MPs may discourage those earning mega-bucks, but if it does then it will only leave the way open for those who care more about public service than their wallets. There is no lack of clever, motivated and well-educated people out there who do not need the lure of wealth to get them into politics. And if we end up with a class of politicians who actually care more about improving the state of the nation and the world, then that can only be a good thing, right?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Wanted: A (Rather) Critical Review

WARNING: Loads of spoilers for the film 'Wanted'.

I saw Wanted for the second time over Christmas, and I was able to piece together just what had bothered me the first time round. That time, my view of it was rather overshadowed by disappointment at what it wasn't: It clearly wanted to be the Matrix, and thoroughly failed. However the second time, expecting somewhat less of it, I realised just how pernicious and destructive the film's core message is: Modern society turns men into pussies (women). Real men (and real heroes) are those who refuse to bow to this and instead live their lives in an orgy of violence, vengeance and hedonism.

Bear with me, I'm going to try to justify all of my comments above.

So, I said that Wanted fails to be the Matrix. This is despite the fact that it follows closely to the structure of the Matrix, at least for the first half: We start with an action packed opening involving incredible physical feats. Then we meet our protagonist, a schmuck stuck in a dead end white collar job. This all changes when he meets a mysterious and beautiful woman who takes him to meet her boss, a mysterious and knowing black man who opens his eyes to the abilities he has inside himself, and trains him to use them. Once this is done the protagonist goes out into the world to fulfil his true potential.

After this, the plots diverge somewhat, and credit is due to Wanted for this. However the whole time Wanted attempts to maintain the same mystical feeling of wonderment that the Matrix pulled off with style. That it can't do so is largely due to the story: In the Matrix, the big secret is world-shaking, and Neo's power is curious and exciting - is he The One? In Wanted, the secret will have little effect on the world as a whole - there's a secret order of assassins who apparently take their orders from Fate, and Wesley has heightened - but mostly human, and quickly explained - abilities. Okay, so bending bullets is odd, but it comes off as more ridiculous than miraculous. The result is that no matter how well it was done, Wanted could never have been the Matrix, and really shouldn't have tried. It just isn't deep enough.

But hey, not everything can be the Matrix. And despite that, the visual and sound effects, the direction and the pacing were all excellent. So if that was my only complaint, there would be no need for this review. What's more interesting, and disturbing, are some of the ways in which it differs not only from the Matrix but from almost every heroic action film.

As mentioned, Wanted goes down the somewhat standard route of setting out how modern life can be soul crushing and depressing. So far so good - it's a rich seam to mine: The suppression of imagination and individuality is widely identified, and may be a large part of the popularity of 'escape from reality' stories like this. But most other such stories, at least the relatively straightforward ones, will have the protagonist end up fighting the good fight, so to speak. Perhaps saving the world, or some section of it, or at least unambiguously helping people. Think of any superhero film, or most films where people end up in another world, as well as any number of more mundane stories. Here however, Wesley's new vocation has only a tenuous connection to helping anyone, and he doesn't care anyway.

Sure, the Fraternity apparently get their killing orders from Fate. But Wesley doesn't seem to find this out until he has gone through the whole grueling training ordeal, and is deeply enmeshed in it. All he appears to know when he giddily signs up is that they are a group of elite, highly skilled assassins. Wesley doesn't join to save the world or fight the good fight (even if he implies this at the end of the film). He joins because he gets a taste of power over other people (telling off his boss and smashing in his friend's face) and loves it. He wants to be better than others, to hurt people and to revel in it.

Doubtless, he also wants to avenge his father. But it's quite clear that this is only in the back of his mind until he is first given targets, when he wants to settle his score quickly. After his initial doubts Wesley seems to love his new job: The evil smile on his face as he shoots the man in the limo is meant to contrast favourably with his 'cowardice' in an earlier scene, showing that he has become 'a man'. The implication of the film is quite clear: Wesley never feels as alive as when he is involved in the hunt and the kill.

Even once he knows about the Loom of Fate (or, as I prefer, the Loom of Doom), he doesn't seem to care much: He never seems worried about the possibility that his name might indeed have come up. In fact, there is only one glimmer of Wesley's ethical side in the entire film: His hesitation before shooting his first target. How does he know that it's right, he wonders. He is, however, very easy to convince. Fox relates the story of how she was tortured as a child by a man whose name had come up and yet hadn't been killed. It's clear how this experience would lead to Fox's devotion to the Code (about which, more later). However, to anyone more objective, it would have to give pause for thought. That one piece of data is supposed to make it not only acceptable but desirable to kill every name that comes out of a dusty piece of weaving equipment? It's certainly enough for Wesley, however, who just wants an excuse to shut off his conscience and revel in his new lifestyle. No good fight for him: His new purpose is hedonistic and destructive.

Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing in a film. Wesley appears at best morally grey, and this could have been very effectively dealt with. The whole idea of assassins acting on the whims of an apparent instrument of fate, and furthermore escaping their humdrum lives to engage their inner bloodlust, could lead to a brilliant anti-hero picture. Wesley is the ultimate anti-hero: His actions may inadvertently save people's lives (although quite often they do the exact opposite - note the train sequence), but he is so damaged an individual that what he cares about are the monstrous methods he uses. Like in Dexter, the TV show where the man with murder in his soul diverts it to the purpose of killing murderers and so inadvertently saving lives. Dexter is an anti-hero, and a very effective one.

The problem is that Wesley is never recognised by the film as an anti-hero. It paints him as a white knight, blowing away the rot at the heart of the Fraternity (which he claims at the end was an act of saving the world). His single, rather frail conscience pang is set up to confirm this image, suggesting that he does fit the protagonist mould, but everything else about his character suggests otherwise. And, critically, the last lines of the film confirms his view: The most important thing that he has done has been taking back his life for himself through his indiscriminate killing spree and by cutting himself free of his old life. Then he turns to the camera: "What the fuck have you done lately?" His challenge to the viewer is not to better themselves in the usual sense of doing something to make the world a better place, but to break free of society and become like him, ruthless, violent and virtually amoral. There's more than a hint of Nietzsche about the whole thing: Morality and society constrain us - our destiny is to exert power over others and bend the world to our will.

I also claimed in the opening paragraph that there was a gender element to all of this. This may be a controversial reading, but I think it was made quite clear in the film. As far as I can tell, there were a total of three female characters in the film: The first was Wesley's bullying and oppressive boss Janice. Well, there's nothing wrong with playing with the gender of the standard oppressive boss stereotype. The second was Wesley's girlfriend Cathy, who managed simultaneously to be the epitome of the whining girlfriend stereotype - emotionally blackmailing him to try to force him to change his life, talking when he was trying to get well-earned sleep, constantly emasculating him, and ignoring his own numerous problems - and to cheat on him with his best friend in their house, further emasculating him. The third was Fox.

It's very noticeable that almost the entirety of the way that modern society is presented as oppressive and mind numbing is through two women. Janice symbolised the rigid vertical oppression of the workplace, while Cathy symbolised the horizontal oppression of societal and personal expectations. The only other character to throw in is his best friend Barry, who indirectly partakes in the oppression. Notably, after Wesley's transformation, Barry enthusiastically shows his admiration, stating 'He's a man!' This is after Wesley smacks him in the face twice, and kisses Fox in front of him. Sex, violence and escape from office life are what impress Barry, who implicitly admits that he too is a victim of the oppression, and just too cowardly to escape it like Wesley. Cathy by contrast is sickened by Wesley, and expressly states it. The whole way through, the oppressive societal order is associated with women, and it is clearly implied that the great evil of this oppression is not so much conformity as feminisation.

During his training, Wesley is repeatedly chided as a 'pussy,' suggesting that that is what modern life has made him. A pussy: Not only does it literally evoke the very definition of femaleness, but it is a word inextricably linked with womanliness. No-one would call a woman a pussy, because it just wouldn't make sense (compare with 'cunt', which signifies instead a disagreeable personality and is gender-neutral). This womanliness has to be literally beaten out of him before he can become a member of the Fraternity, a society which in name and in fact is very much about being a man.

Ah, but what about Fox? Not only is she a woman, but she is a member of the Fraternity and a badass to boot. Does this not undermine my point? Well, not really. Unless I've missed something, Fox is literally the only woman in a massive secret society. And indeed, if there was no female presence, the rather closeted all-male world might give the wrong impression to modern sensibilities, somewhat: All that...weaving... And we can't have that, that would be even less manly! Moreover, Fox is quite clearly presented as psychologically damaged by the events of her childhood. She is an honorary man because her femininity has been irreparably damaged - this is the only way she could possibly break free of her gender and end up in the Fraternity. Because the Fraternity, and the entire film, is about men breaking free of the oppressive feminising influence of modern society and engaging in a masculinity characterised by violence and hedonism. Almost the only outward-looking value entertained by the film is vengeance, which is labelled as the only ethical concern to count as manly and acceptable.

I say almost, because the character of Fox reveals another value in a way which leaves me with just a glimmer of hope for whoever wrote this film. Fox is, to me, the only even vaguely principled character in the film (Cross might also be, but it is hard to tell). Sloan is hopelessly corrupt and Wesley is basically amoral. Fox however truly believes in the rightness of what she does. She believes that killing those whose names come up is for the greater good and indeed a moral duty. To that end, when their names come up not only does she kill a large number of (presumably) her friends in the Fraternity, but also herself. As mentioned above, such a course of action would never have occurred to Wesley, nor probably to any of the others (they were on the verge of throwing aside the Code). Fox showed a devotion to her beliefs notable in so amoral a film, and I give the writer credit for not taking the easy way out on that score.

Outside of her story arc, which is mostly played out in only two scenes (where she explains her past and where she kills herself), I find almost everything about this film grim. I haven't mentioned the gratuitous cruelty to animals (shooting the wings off flies, using huge numbers of rats as moving bombs) - after all, giving a damn about animals is distinctly unmanly. I also haven't mentioned the curious exclusion of Wesley's mum from the film, which is odd given the role of his father - perhaps she would have provided too much of a sympathetic, identifiable female figure? Finally, I do wonder why such an unashamedly hedonistic and adult film, - full of swearing, violence and some nudity - shies away from its protagonist actually having any sex. The only sex in the film is between Cathy and Barry, and may well be a way to spite Wesley, and the only kiss (between Wesley and Fox) is to evoke a reaction from Cathy and Barry. I wonder whether Wesley and Fox having sex would have reminded us too clearly that women are people to be respected, and that tenderness is not such a bad thing.

The film is misogynistic, hedonistic and heartlessly amoral, and wraps it all up in the trappings of a heroic fantasy adventure filled with "Fuck yeah!" moments. It's hardly a new idea that modern society is feminising and that men need to revolt and re-assert dominance, but I was surprised and rather horrified to see it propounded so vigorously in mainstream fare like this.

Fuck you, Wesley Gibson.

Monday, January 19, 2009

George W Bush: Not Exactly The Best President Ever

Why would anyone try to defend George W Bush at this point? There's nothing in it for liberals, and conservatives have overwhelmingly realised that the way to retain any credibility in the wake of his disastrous reign is to distance themselves from him as thoroughly as possible. So I found this article in the Independent rather baffling.

In it, Bruce Anderson accused Bush's critics of having a tenuous grip on reality. However he spends most of the article conceding massive errors on the part of his hero: Failure to plan for Iraq, failure to handle the situation after the invasion, willingness to undermine fair trial rights through the use of Guantanamo. It seems that he picked up on the rule of essay writing which requires you to set out the other side's case, but not the one that requires you then to knock it down with you own case.

He does try, however. He gives a triumphant anecdote about how a friend went to a cabinet meeting and Dick Cheney didn't say a thing. He seems to think that this means Mr. Cheney wasn't secretly the power behind the throne, because of course powers behind the throne always exercise their influence in the company of the entire cabinet.

Next, he comes up with something of an insight about Islamic terrorism: "Why do these people hate us? The Bush team came up with their answer: because they live in failed states, which offer their young no hope in this world and thus leave them open to the temptations of fanaticism and a better deal in another world." That's certainly part of the story, although he glosses over the extent to which the US has had a hand in damaging many of these states, leading to this resentment. The thing is, this is more analysis than Bush ever offered. In his speeches he would just go on and on about ideologies of hatred without even suggesting why they were popular. It was his opponents who tried to dig a bit deeper and understand the social causes of the problem - something which is anathema to 'personal responsibility' conservatives.

"Saddam had been trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction. We could not be certain that his quest had failed. So should we wait until the certainty of a mushroom cloud?" It makes you wonder whether he realises how excitedly he is rewriting history. Does no-one remember the weapons inspectors who were forced to withdraw because the US was impatient when they didn't find anything? Saddam did not have WMDs, and if Bush had really cared, he could have made sure of it.

"Largely because of the malign influence of that fraud and tautology, international law, we have grown squeamish about regime change." Tautology? What, is law by its nature international? That word - I do not think it means what you think it means. Anyway, of course he hates international law. And hell, there's plenty to criticise about it. But usually, the fact that it attempts to restrain countries from invading other countries just because they don't like them is seen as a good thing...

"After 2001, in both Washington and London, there was a split between those who knew Iraq, who were generally hostile to the War, and those who wanted war but usually knew nothing about Iraq." And what lesson are you going to draw from this fact??

"Instead, the direction of events was left to the neo-conservatives, most of whom were dangerous idealists who believed that democracy was an infallible political antibiotic." Yes, including the man you are trying to lionise here. Keep up!

"There was one unfortunate side effect of the war on terror: Guantanamo. At the time, it seemed a good idea: a cunning means of preventing American lawyers from undermining America's security." One?? One unfortunate side effect?? And notice how he effectively rewrites "A cunning means of preventing the rights guaranteed by the Constitution from getting in the way of protecting America's security" in order to get a dig in at lawyers. Because that's why people hate lawyers - they protect people's right to a fair trial. Bastards!

"On the economy, and like Gordon Brown, George Bush could be accused of failing to fix the roof while the sun was shining. But two years' ago, it all seemed to be working...George Bush did not foresee the crisis. Who did?" How about plenty of people who had a clue how this whole economy thing works? Good god, are they really prepared to claim ignorance this extent in order to get off the hook?

The whole article is almost self-parodying, and is taken to shreds in the comments. I suppose there will always be someone who will support the unsupportable. I just hadn't imagined that they would be this bad at it!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Time to Jump Ship

42 days. Hmm. Six weeks. Try to remember where you were six weeks ago, and all the time between then and now. Then imagine being imprisoned without for that length of time without any evidence being presented against you, nor any official accusations made. Quite a thought experiment.

But really, I'm not interested in the moral-political argument over 42 days, at least not here. I'm more interested in what to do about the fact that the Commons vote went in favour of it. The figures stand at 315 to 306, the former made up of Labour minus 36 rebels, the DUP and Anne Widdecombe. Seriously, does it not make the Labour government slightly uneasy when the only Tory willing to support their plan is Anne fucking Widdecombe??

Ahem. The Labour Party (or the bit with any power) has abandoned any real notion of civil liberties. We all know this. And in fact, we didn't need 42 days to show us this. But this has got to provide some kind of a watershed, if just because it shows how far Labour can successfully push these things. Emboldened by this, what is next for Brown? 90 days? Or perhaps something more imaginative? Why not ride the wave by getting through all that ID Card legislation he's been itching for? Why not plant microchips in everyone so the government knows where they are at all times? Why not make it illegal to be offensive (with some exceptions for MPs, of course)? Clearly enough of the Parliamentary Labour Party are happy to be cowed by such demands, and Brown feels that he's got nothing to lose and everything to gain by actually making a stand on something.

Apparently Brown and his followers believe both that they could never be corrupted by such power, and also that it could never be abused by any of their successors. Because it's certainly going to be a lot harder to get rid of these civil rights abuses once they have settled into the background of history (the exception being if the Tories actually promise to repeal them in their next manifesto). I'm not convinced that they have any care for civil liberties as such, only in terms of how far their actions could lose them votes. So, it's time to start hurting them.

So: Labourites, leave the god damned Party. If by some miracle it turns around then you can rejoin, but don't let them string you along by the name alone. I know that they've got the trade unions, but the only way that they are going to finally dislodge themselves from the rotting Party structure is if the membership disintegrates. Leave the Party and campaign to get the unions to do the same. Holding on and hoping that something's going to happen is not enough. Stop funding this nonesense with your subscription fee.

Members of other political parties, start asking yourselves whether your party represents you in anything other than name. If you're a Lib Dem, ask yourself if you would support a 'Conservative Party' with the principles your party puts into action, and vice versa. If you find your party wanting, fucking leave it.

*This is not to say don't vote*. I'm not at all advocating apathy. But nuance your vote a bit. If you still think that Labour is better than the Tories (and that's a reasonable viewpoint) then by all means, stop the Tory getting into your seat. But if it's between Labour and Lib Dem / Green, stop thinking about party loyalty and start thinking about what Labour have actually done. For anyone who cares about civil liberties, the Labour Party should now be *toxic*. Unless you've got one of the good ones (probably among the 36) then you should require a damn good reason (or awful opposition in the area) in order to vote for them. For me, in a hypothetical match up between Jacqui Smith and David Davies, I can't even say how I would vote now.

Vote your convictions, not your party! Show Labour (and the other parties) that they don't get your vote by name alone, and certainly not your membership. I can only hope that either the parties will eventually turn themselves around or alternatives will arise, and in either case there needs to be a critical mass of politically aware, frustrated voters refusing to align themselves with any particular party. Once those voters are crying out for a party with some principles which they can support, one (or more) will arise one way or another. The form it will take is far from clear: Does it make sense for the welfarist left and the communist left to remain in a single party? Does it make sense for libertarians and reactionary conservatives to remain in a single party? The fault lines already mean that the current party set up is hilariously inadequate. Changes are needed, and they are just not going to happen unless we reject the situation as it now appears.

If this post reflects my frustration, I make no apologies. I'm a left liberal and proud of it, and I'm not going to let any party which does not serve my values manipulate me into voting for or supporting them any more.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Vaccination, Parents and Cynicism

I see that vaccination is back in the news, and for all the wrong reasons. To summarise, there was a suggestion made in the Fabian Society magazine that failure to vaccinate one's child could be punished by refusing to allow them to start school, and cutting off child benefits. Cue great outrage, mostly from parents.

(As an aside, I had to shake my head at the following comment from Sir Sandy Macara, ex-chairman of the British Medical Association: "One ought to recognise that mothers have a responsibility for ensuring their children are protected." Mothers? What world is he living in?)

As we now know, the autism scare over the MMR vaccine was completely unsupported by evidence: It is unclear how far Dr. Wakefield's controversial report was merely mistaken, and how far it was downright dishonest. In any case though, I have sympathy with any parent who chose to go for single jabs instead, given the dangerous uncertainty Wakefield caused, and I think the Government should have responded by ensuring that the single jabs were available to all parents with concerns. I also understand that as a result of the government's failures in this area, the difficulties of getting single jabs may have made it implausible for many parents, leading to them not having their children vaccinated at all.

What I do not understand is parents who still insist on refusing vaccinations for their children. The remaining hysteria surrounding the MMR, which seems to have leaked through to the very concept of vaccination itself, seems to be based on nothing more than crude anti-government cynicism: Somehow the overwhelming evidence that MMR is safe is actually some form of cover up. Why would the government perpetrate such a cover up, given that it would inevitably backfire in a major way? I don't know, but I doubt most opponents have thought about this particularly rationally.

Of course, this is not to say that a degree of scepticism is not justified. The effects of thalidomide showed that medical advances can have a dark side missed in clinical trials. For this reason, I say again that I sympathised with refusals to have MMR at the time. But the time has passed, and parents need to look past the cynicism to the best interests of their children.

But how should the government respond to this? Should the suggestion of compulsion be put into effect? To be honest, in a near-perfect world I would support sanctions for parents who refused, although I would balk at taking it out on the children (especially since logically the only ones who would be put in danger by their presence in school would be others who had not had the vaccination). Fines or worse for parents would not necessarily be inappropriate for failing to properly care for one's child.

(There is mention in the article of refusal to vaccinate for 'medical or religious reasons'. It seems wholly inappropriate to lump the two together. Medical reasons essentially mean that it would be worse for the child if they have the vaccine. Religious reasons essentially mean that the parents have values incompatible with the health and well being of their child, which should be treated exactly the same as Jehovah's Witnesses who refuse to allow their children to have blood transfusions.)

But this world is far from perfect. There is a widespread culture of giving parents near-ultimate control over their children (which I will call parential-prerogative), which can be dangerous. Certainly, it is exceptionally beneficial for each child to have one or two people looking out for their well being (as parents overwhelmingly do). But when their actions are in fact provably harmful, there is no reason for their wishes to be respected. Were it just a small minority who took such a parental-prerogative view, I would say that the problem could be solved through punitive measures. However, where there is as widespread support for the paradigm as now, such stark action would be counter-productive. I imagine that were the government to take this line, support for parental-prerogative would grow to embrace even more far-out views like the JWs on blood transfusion, cowing governments into doing less to protect children from bad parenting. On the flipside, it also may unfortunately further embolden the government to use more paternalistic mechanisms for enforcing standards on people against *their own* preferences (which is a very different issue that parents speaking for their children).

As a result, my feeling is that as a pragmatic matter, the government would be wrong to go down this line. It is too much of a leap from its current programme for protecting children, which mostly respects the wishes of parents. Maybe one day such measures would be seen as simple common sense, and that day is to be welcomed, but it is some way off. For now, the government needs to continue to send out the message that MMR is safe and that the medical profession is near-unanimous on this, along with the evidence. If necessary, it should ensure that single jabs are available as an alternative. But it cannot go much further without being counter-productive.

Maybe I am taking the whole thing too seriously. Many commentators on BBC Have Your Say are convinced that it's better to just let children have the diseases (recalling measles parties in past decades), claiming that they are not actually that serious. I am extremely sceptical of this claim, but I will leave it to my more knowledgable readers to respond more adequately.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Reasons for Believing

On his blog, Simon Barrow points to an intriguing post (by Kim Fabricius) about how Easter should be for Christians an opportunity to break free from the false comforts of religion - not Christianity, but *religion*. As he quotes from the piece:

"Lose your faith in the god that the cross exposes as a no-god, a sham god. Lose your faith in the god who is but the product of your projections, fantasies, wishes, and needs, a security blanket or good-luck charm god. Lose your faith in the god who is there to hold your hand, solve your problems, rescue you from your trials and tribulations, the deus ex machina, literally the “machine god”, wheeled out onto the stage in ancient Greek drama, introduced to the plot artificially to resolve its complications and secure a happy ending. Lose your faith in the god who confers upon you a privileged status that is safe and secure. Lose your faith in the god who promises you health, wealth, fulfilment, and success, who pulls rabbits out of hats. Lose your faith in the god with whom your conscience can be at ease with itself. Lose your faith in the god who, in Dennis Potter’s words, is the bandage, not the wound. Lose your faith in the god who always answers when you pray and comes when you call. Lose your faith in the god who is never hidden, absent, dead, entombed. For the “Father who art in heaven” – this week he is to be found in hell..."

This both fascinates and confuses me. It seems to me that it is exhorting Christians to give up on the idea of God as comforting or helpful in any way. That rather than rely on God's presence watching over you, hearing your prayers and guaranteeing a happy ending when you die, one should "manage our lives without him."

From an atheistic perspective, there is certainly something refreshing about a preacher urging people to give up the many parts of religion often described as a crutch. But it presents a mystery which, I think, dooms such efforts to failure: Why believe?

There are at least two types of reason for believing in a certain proposition. One is the truth-finding type of reason: It seems likely that it is true, based on the evidence we have. The other is the beneficial type of reason: It seems beneficial to us to believe that it is true. The two often coincide, perhaps more often than people realise. Although a particular truth (about the evils of which humanity is capable, for example) may well be depressing and so appear non-beneficial, in the long run having that greater understanding is likely to aid us in our interactions with other people and the world at large, (perhaps even allowing us to make up for some of that evil - it is rarely the naive that make great changes in the world for the better). It is possible that one of the two types dissolves into the other: Perhaps beneficial reasons tend to be a useful way of discovering the truth (although it seems unlikely in general) or perhaps truth-finding tends overwhelmingly to be beneficial (which seems more likely). In any case, I cannot think of reasons for belief which do not amount to one of these (although I welcome suggestions).

What of religious claims? I think (and here is where I must be tentative) the majority of religious people would accept that the normal truth-finding reasons for belief are rather weak in this field. Occam's Razor is usually accepted as a fundamentally useful principle of truth finding, yet it seems to go out of the window when it comes to belief in gods. Even though there are mysteries which such belief could solve, it always raises more, even trickier questions.

Most of the classical truth-finding reasons for believing in God look rather thin: The ontological argument (proving God through wordplay) is generally ridiculed. The arguments from miracles and religious experiences are embarrassed by the increasing (although far from complete) ability of science to explain such occurrences without reference to the metaphysical. The argument from design was once triumphant, but again scientific principles - especially evolution - have shown how it is unnecessary to solve some enduring mysteries, and it seems unwise to pin one's belief to the ever-shrinking remainder. The first cause argument is intriguing, but shows far less than it purports - at most that there was something that came first, not that it was self-aware let alone a person, or even a good person.

The Catholic Church maintains that rational evidence will lead to God, but tends to point to these same tired old arguments. The Protestant response, however, varies between this and the idea of faith. Many will say that in fact it is right and proper for there to be no clear rational evidence, since only this allows for faith in God, a quality to be praised. This is often a particularly frustrating argument for atheists, who tend to confront it from a truth-finding perspective. If we are not using truth-finding evidence, then why would one have faith, and in what?

The answer has always seemed to me to be clear. One has faith in one's religion, rather than in any other religion, or in new age beliefs, or in no supernatural entities at all, because of beneficial reasons. Religions tend to provide effective carrots and sticks: The latter is provided by the catch all of Hell (or lonely separation from God) while the former is myriad - not only Heaven, but a comforting presence at all times, someone to watch over you, "Someone to hear your prayers / Someone who cares." I could go on for a while about how these are manipulated to make people fit in with particular moral and political agendas, but the point is that it can make good beneficial sense to believe such things.

If I am reading Kim Fabricius correctly, Christians should let go of all of the beneficial elements of faith. Certainly the afterlife is not mentioned, but it would seem within the scope of what is written. After all, what could be more comforting than thinking that one is not only escaping Hell, but gaining access to Heaven? If I am correct, then the question is why one should retain belief at all. Without beneficial reasons, one has only truth-finding reasons. It may be possible to construct a truth-finding case for God, but it seems highly unlikely. It seems likely that most believers use truth-finding reasons to bring God within the realm of possibility, and then rely on beneficial reasons to bridge the gap to actually believe - the process often termed faith. It seems that a religion without such beneficial reasons, such carrots and sticks, is unlikely to attract many believers, since the rational gap is too far to leap without at least some incentive.

It may well be that I have misread Kim. Perhaps beliefs in the afterlife are excepted from what one should exclude from consideration (although I don't see why). Perhaps the point is to exclude these only during Holy Week, to suffer something of the aloneness of Christ and to fully appreciate one's relationship with God thereafter (although many things in the article seem to tell against that). But if I am right, I think there is a good reason why many people apparently found the sermon hard to swallow. I can't help but sympathise with the hypothetical parishoner who took the message to heart and now thinks "So what's the point in believing, and coming to Church every week, if it helps me none?" In no way am I condemning people for such thinking; nor am I advocating a fully self-interested view. But given the difficulty of relying on truth-finding reasons for believing, I cannot blame religion for emphasising the beneficial aspects of belief, not the religious for relying on them.

I am interested in anyone else's view of what the post is trying to say, and whether there are other reasons to believe once the beneficial is excluded. I'm interested in why people believe, so if you can help educate me then please go ahead!


Thinking about it, I'd like to clarify something. When I talked about beneficial reasons, I drew the boundary too narrowly at self-interest. I am quite happy to include within it other-regarding reasons; perhaps 'pragmatic reasons' would have been a better descriptor. If we continue to read Kim as excluding only self-interested reasons, then perhaps other-regarding interests could be enough to explain / justify a leap of faith.

I am doubtful about this though. No doubt there are people who think like this, although I don't imagine this is a major consideration for most people. Perhaps some people feel that they need to believe in order to be good to others, but this shows an odd (although not impossible) set of desires: If they wish to be good to others, why do they not just do so? Alternatively, perhaps they believe that their example will make others believe, which will be good for them (or for society as a whole). But here, pretence would be equally valid. Perhaps actual belief would be easier than pretence, however.

Therefore, it seems at least possible that one could exclude self-interested reasons and still have enough reasons for the leap of faith. However, I remain doubtful that this actually does have much of an impact on people, given the problems I've noted.