politics

This bloke in The Observer and Drink-soaked Trotskyite Popinjays for WAR both argue that a politicised form of Islam, which they call Islamism, is the new facism. They’re both careful to differentiate this from the views of the majority of Muslims in this country, but scornful of the excuses made for Islamism by their fellow left-wingers. I find them pretty convincing.

It’d be easy (especially for me) to say something like Richard Dawkins said after 9/11, blaming revealed religion for terrorism. Certainly, people who believe they’re going to heaven will be more prepared to die for a cause, and I cannot understand those whose human conscience takes second place to ancient writings or religious leaders, but the fact is that as yet, there’s no Black Ops division of CICCU blowing up atheists. Something else is going on. I wish I knew what it was, but the mentality of people who would blow themselves and others to bits for God is more alien to me than it ever was.

That said, after all this, I’m more sympathetic to tornewuff‘s quest to make the world a better place by doing away with religion (which you’ll need to join cantabrigiensis to read about, but anyone can do that), but that’s a long game, not a helpful suggestion for what to do now.

It seems it’s time to bring out an old classic, which I feel we will be seeing a few examples of in the coming weeks. So: Why the Bombings Mean That We Must Support My Politics.

My London friends have all checked in. Some of them might have trouble getting home, but all are safe and sound. Like many people here on LJ, I am proud of the reaction of our emergency services and of the sanity of the reporting by the BBC.

More when I’ve decided which of my policies you should now support…

From my Bloglines feeds, I give you a bunch of links I’ve been meaning to write about.

Where America is going, and the next generation of leaders who will take it there. Scared yet?

I also came across Private Warriors, a documentary on the use of mercenaries (excuse me, private military contractors) in Iraq. On PBS’s site, you can watch the documentary and also read background material.

theferret gets into an interesting discussion of the intentions behind the way women dress. Interesting for what I think is a common male perspective. I can see his point, but with the caveat that all this straightforwardness would be fine in an ideal world where all men are bright enough to realise when their attentions are not welcome (dealing with the non-ideal world in which we live is the subject of his followup article). This comment seemed a pretty sensible response from a woman.

And so to bed.

Moral reforms and deteriorations are moved by large forces, and they are mostly caused by reactions from the habits of a preceding period. Backwards and forwards swings the great pendulum, and its alternations are not determined by a few distinguished folk clinging to the end of it. — Sir Charles Petrie, The Victorians

This weekend, I’ve watched Robert Altman’s Gosford Park and skimmed through Melanie Phillips‘s All Must Have Prizes.

Gosford Park is an entertaining comedy/murder mystery set in an English country house, with a cast of just about every British actor you’ve ever heard of. The film is set in the 1930s, when the country houses in England had already begun their decline, and is interesting for its accurate portrayal of the relations between the servant and landed classes at the time. It’s a little long, but is gorgeously filmed. Recommended.

The title of All Must Have Prizes comes from the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland, who, after a nonsensical running race in which the participants stopped and started as they pleased, declared that “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes”.

Phillips’s burden is the decline of the educational system in the UK, which she places in the context of a wider moral decline. Phillips herself is quite a character. During her career as a journalist and columnist, she’s made the transition from newspapers traditionally associated with the political left to the Daily Mail, a nasty right-wing tabloid. But fear not, for the book was first published in 1996, before this transition, and, on the subject of the decline in educational standards, she’s right.

What strikes me as odd is that employers and university teachers (or indeed, anyone who has looked at old O-level papers) know that GCSEs and A-levels have been reducing their content for years, and yet apparently nobody is allowed to say so because it would devalue the work put in by the children taking the exams. Unfortunately, the time spent on work isn’t necessarily proportional to how much a child learns, especially with the amount of make-work kids are given (things like project work, making posters, and often coursework fall into that category).

Phillips places the blame for this on a politicised educational establishment in the Department of Education and in teacher training colleges, who are more interested in making ideological points than in preparing children for work or university. As the title of the book suggests, she believes that their main errors are to insist that children should direct their own learning, that they should not be given work which they may see as hard or boring, and most of all, that they should never be allowed to think they have failed at anything. This leads to everyone being equally mediocre, like in that Kurt Vonnegut story.

But Mom broke up with Brad; she didn’t like craftsmen, she said, because they were too much like actual Victorians, always spouting all kinds of crap about how one thing was better than another thing, which eventually lead, she explained, to the belief that some people were better than others. — Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age.

The later, and more controversial, chapters of the book link the decline in educational standards to a wider decline, characterised by an emphasis on rights rather than responsibilities and a lack of respect for authority. Phillips is especially concerned with the decline in conventional family life: while she does not make the mistake of saying that parental divorce always leads to delinquent children, she does argue that it makes such delinquency more likely. Phillips thinks of herself as a left-wing liberal, and pins the blame for shirking of responsibility on Margaret Thatcher’s “me generation”, pointing out that the name “Conservative Party” is a misnomer for an administration which was in fact dedicated to making sweeping changes.

It’s here that I part company with Phillips to some extent. She seems to have moved further to the right these days: on her website, she makes it clear that, for example, she does not approve of the Government’s moves to allow civil partnerships for homosexuals, despite the fact that people who wish to form such partnerships presumably wish to express commitment and responsibility, two of the things which she sees as lacking in modern Britain. Similarly, she laments the decline of the Church of England but doesn’t quite have to the courage to say that she supports religion as a source of social cohesion: if not, then why lament its decline? Phillips teeters on the edge of the faith-based community, somewhat worryingly for her readers in the reality-based one.

On her wider point, though, I find myself agreeing with her. As I’ve said before, people without a culture which makes value judgements are mightily screwed. The current backlash against chavs and suchlike is a reflection of a wider culture which is running out of patience (oddly enough, this entry from epsilon_moo appeared while I was composing mine). Almost everyone on my friends-of-friends list who lives in London appears to have been mugged or burgled at least once. Meanwhile the Government invests in the white elephant of identity cards (Phillips’s prediction that without corrective action we risk tribalism or facism seems quite prescient for 1996) and promises to make more laws which will not be enforced.

In many ways we are better off than we were in the days of Gosford Park, when the rich few lived like, well, gentry, and the lower classes were humble and Knew Their Place, and I know that Greek or Roman bloke also said that the youth of his day had no respect, but these days, talk of Stephenson’s phyles and burbclaves is also looking prescient (the Londoner I know who hasn’t been burgled lives behind a gate and a security guard). So, are we doomed?

Over at Political Survey 2005 you can answer a load of questions, and it will then place you on two axes, as determined by a clever statistical technique based on a much larger survey described in the Times. It turns out that what differentiated their sample of people was not conventional socialist/conservative economic politics, but rather their attitudes to crime and punishment and to internationalism. People who favour tougher punishment tend to be less internationalist, that is, anti-Europe and anti-immigration. A second, much less important, differentiating factor is a free market/socialist division, which is strongly correlated to attitudes to the war in Iraq. You can read some more technical details in Chris Lightfoot’s blog.

So, here’s where I am:


It seems I’m to the left of a lot of people on the most significant axis, but to the right of most people on the free market/pro-war axis (I’m not pro-war, as it happens, but I did say that businesses were more competent than government institutions).

The interesting thing about this survey is the correlations it shows, though: as the Times article points out, the thing that separates out people surveyed (and so indicates the battleground in the forthcoming General Election, if we believe their sample was representative) was the Europe and crime.

The BBC screened Jerry Springer – The Opera last night. It was musically brilliant and very funny. Although I thought the ending was weak, I can see how problems of theodicy aren’t going to be answered in a comedy opera. So, leaving that aside, a good time was had by all.

However, the broadcast attracted protests from Christians for scenes in the second half of the opera, in which Jesus and Satan swear at each other, Jesus is played by the same actor who played a nappy fetishist earlier (and wears a very similar costume) and Jesus is described as “a little bit gay”. Stephen Green, the leader of the hitherto unknown evangelical pressure group Christian Voice, has been extensively quoted in the press: you can read his arguments on the group’s website (along with his charming views on gay people), but in brief he objects to the BBC’s decision to broadcast something mocking his religion, and also points out that they would not dare do something similar to, say, Islam.

The BBC is a public service broadcaster funded by the TV licence fee, a tax on television owners (Americans always find this astonishing 🙂 The responses from the public on the BBC News site include many objections from Christians to being forced to pay for the screening of something so offensive to them. Of course, they’re not forced to pay at all: owning a television was not required by the Bible last time I looked, so their situation is similar to the National Innumerates Tax payers who object to how Lottery money is spent. That aside, like many other taxes, some of the money is bound to be spent on things we don’t agree with. We submit to taxation because the benefits seem to outweigh the downsides. Despite putting out an awful lot of tat about home decoration and cookery, the BBC still makes some of the best TV and radio in the world. I might object to paying for Songs of Praise (actually, I don’t, as I like old hymns), but I like Radio 2, Radio 4 (except The Archers, obviously, which is blasphemous and should be banned) and Strictly Come Dancing.

Christians don’t and should not have the right to prevent the screening of programmes to which they object: this isn’t America. An attempt to use Britain’s old blasphemy laws to prosecute the BBC (as some of the Christian groups have been threatening) will be the end of the blasphemy laws, not of the BBC’s ability to screen things Christians don’t like.

Green’s second point is more telling though. The BBC wouldn’t screen something which was offensive to Muslims (or Sikhs, obviously), for fear of violent repercussions. What Green has missed is that this is to the credit of British Christianity: compared to these other religions, it has fewer followers who are prepared to use violence to further their religious ends. As I’ve said elsewhere, I find Islam and American conservative Christianity worrying because of the violence they incite in some of their followers, and hypocritical in their whining about persecution and expectation of tolerance towards them when they do not practice tolerance. Let’s be clear: I am an atheist and believe all theisms to be wrong, but some are more wrong than others.

If Green wants some advice from an atheist, it is this: by all means protest, but not in the expectation that the BBC is morally obliged do as you say. Rather, protest to get across your message about what you think Jesus is like, and where the opera has it wrong. Play up the fact that your protests are non-violent. Get across your larger concern for this country. That’s how to be part of the tradition of free speech in this country, which is both your right and the BBC’s.

Singapore was a good place to visit. I’m not usually a fan of hot places, but since more or less everywhere is air conditioned, there’s always somewhere to retreat to if the 30 °C heat and 70% humidity become too unbearable.

A colleague today referred to what turns out to be William Gibson’s description of Singapore in Wired: Disneyland with the death penalty. Gibson’s article is over 10 years old now, but some of what he says still rings true. What makes Singapore a nice place to visit is that it is Asia-Lite: cheap (at least in Sterling), yet clean and safe, with ethnic areas laid out for the visitor to browse around. The people are friendly and pretty much all speak English to some extent. We saw few policemen about the place: the opinion of our party was not, as Gibson said, that the people had succumbed to the policemen of the mind, but rather that the policemen were among us, plainclothes. But who knows? We weren’t about to drop some litter and find out.

Wired is too hip to like the place, but for all the Disney, Neal Stephenson (him again) and Orwell resonances, I can’t help but admire the vision behind the place. I doubt I’d want to live there, but that’s not because of the problems Gibson has with it. I can imagine that after a while the island would start to seem very small and lacking in scenery. The beauty spots that exist are cheek-by-jowl with construction sites and container ships offshore, just out of shot. But given the choice between what seems a benevolent, if paternal, government and one which mucks around with foreign misadventures while people back home are getting murdered for their mobile phones (a headline to welcome me back, there), it’s not really obvious that the latter is the right one.

The hotel had a phone in the loo. What’s up with that?

The Register has a story about a new Nokia mobile device: a camera which can send pictures via SMS (or MMS, probably) and sound via a voice call. The camera can do motion detection too.

So, will Big Brother soon be watching us? (aside: how many people associate that phrase with bad unreality TV rather than 1984 now, I wonder?)

<lj-cut> I’d like to think not. It’s more like thousands and thousands of Little Brothers. If this thing is priced so that it’s accessible to businesses and homeowners, what you end up with is David Brin’s vision of a Transparent Society. Cameras in the hands of the citizenry are a good thing, since they enable us to watch both agents of government (Rodney King, anyone?) and also people who are up to no good. Brin’s argument is that cheap, mass produced, net connected cameras will be available. Our choice is whether we leave them in the hands of the government or let everyone have them.

This is all part of my grand theory that, what with the government being increasingly rubbish at dealing with social problems, what we’ll end up with is something which Neal Stephenson’s anticipated: burbclaves (we’re already getting there: one of my friends lives in a gated block of flats in London) and phyles (which are sort of tribes or groupings of people with common beliefs: in The Diamond Age there’s a phyle made up of people who follow Victorian social mores, for example). This will all have reached its logical conclusion when there’s a village for people who share a particular outlook on life, with a fence around it and a set of cameras to which all householders have access. Being a bit of a libertarian, I’m not sure this would be a bad thing, although you can’t help wondering what happens to the people who are left outside this arrangement. Anyway, I look forward to being able to point to this journal in 10 years and say “I told you so!”