Thursday, December 25, 2008

A better tomorrow

Two things that taken together would, I think, change the world for the better:

First, that each person should wear two badges, one showing their total annual income, and the other their total capital wealth.

Second, that all police officers should be dressed in pink.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Pope attacks blurring of gender

This (as David T reminds us)
from a man who WEARS A FUCKING DRESS!!

Memo to Catholics

Your leader is a hate-mongering lunatic.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Killing gay people is not funny

Many people were recently amused by the shoe throwing antics of journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi. According to his brother, al-Zaidi’s actions were ’spontaneous’ and meant to ‘humiliate the tyrant’ George Bush. The New York Times reports that al-Zaidi has become a ‘hero’ in the Arab world.

But once again, has Azarmehr of the excellent ‘For a democratic secular Iran’ blog hit the nail on the head:

What would have happened if the Arab so called journalist who threw his shoe at President Bush, as he claimed ‘for all the mothers and orphans of Iraq?’, had thrown his shoe at Saddam Hussein? For Saddam certainly made thousands of mothers mourn for their sons and thousands of Iraqis had become orphans as a result of Saddam’s massacres.
If Muntazer al-Zaidi was critical of Bush’s policies, as he had a legitimate right to, he could have posed them as questions during the press conference in a civilised manner, something he would have never dared under Saddam.Al-Zaidi is apparently a supporter of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Islamist extremist.
Al-Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, is a disgusting clerical fascist outfit with a particular love for killing gay people, as Peter Tatchell reported in 2007:

The Madhi Army has been involved in the torture and execution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Iraqis – and many other Iraqis, especially women, who do not conform to its harsh, perverse interpretation of Islam … Muqtada al-Sadr’s men have adopted a new tactic, borrowed from the Iranian secret police. They are posing as gays in online chatrooms, in order to lure gay men, arrange dates and kill them.

Monday, December 15, 2008

This could smart a bit

You may remember how a few weeks ago Mrs goodfornowt announced that she didn't mind me having a little prick. Well how that woman has changed! She now wants me to have a second prick.

So it's back to the doctor today. Wish me luck!

Monday, December 08, 2008

Sweet relief

The guest of our soul knows our misery; He comes to find an empty tent within us - that is all He asks.
St Therese of Lisieux

The power of story

Went to a debate last week at Manchester University. Martin Amis was in the chair. Also taking part were John Gray and Adam Phillips. Deep stuff.

John Gray was mourning the passing of reading books. He quoted research which suggests that the very act of reading alters the brain, presumably in a good way. It seems that digital technology is likely to lead to other, less welcome, cerebral developments. The feeling was that we are in danger of losing a great literary tradition upon which our whole civilization had been securely founded.

It occurred to me though that literacy has itself only lately been added to our cultural landscape and has until recently been the preserve of a privileged few. Oral tradition and the art of story-telling have been more formative of our enlightenment.

Andrew Spurr reminds us of the need to offer counter-stories to the Playstation generation.

There is an old saying that God invented humanity because God loves stories. In the tradition of the Hebrew people, there was a prohibition against rendering their God in the plastic arts and so they went to town on narrative and thoroughly delighted in it. The Hebrew sacred texts are story and counter-story describing worlds and the God who is active in those worlds. If you are familiar with the world painted by the Deuteronomist, that you get what you deserve, and God rewards the righteous, then the Book of Job comes alive as a counter-story, protesting that ill-fortune falls on the righteous too, and the reasons are hidden in the depths of God.

The Christmas stories are counter-stories. They are stories which are holding out for a God and a world which will work differently to the one in which the storytellers live. Matthew uses the Moses story, and Luke the call of Samuel, to tell their listeners that the God who was present in these classical tales is present in Jesus of Nazareth. We know that the Christmas stories are counter-stories because they use words for Jesus of Nazareth which the early audience will have associated with Augustus Caesar. Caesar was Son of God, Prince of Peace, and our Christmas birth story writers are say that Jesus is these things, in other words, Jesus is, Caesar is not. Caesar’s Roman Peace is fine if you are Roman, and so long as Caesar has the biggest army. The peace of Jesus of Nazareth is about seeking out those who do not benefit from Roman peace, and including them at life’s table. Our Christmas stories are asking us whether our God is more likely to be found in a Roman palace, or a cow’s feeding trough.

All of this is commonplace for first year students in Biblical studies, I’m saying nothing new. But over the last several years my worry has been that we have lost our grip on the power of story. When you clear our public spaces of religious stories (particularly those pressed into
the service of worldly interest) you are not left with a pristine post-Enlightenment space. The power of stories is that they are ways of inviting us to consider who we might be, they invite us to make lives in the worlds they describe, and they invite our loyalty and our resources. This is too much power to be left unfulfilled.

Into this space come the storytellers we know, news organisations, spin doctors and advertisements, each seeking to frame the world and our place in it. With the technological gap between generations, the worry is that our children are being formed by stories told by Nintendo, Sony and the like. After school our children step into virtual worlds which are laid out before them. They can progress through these worlds with the purchase of each upgrade, and they are being encouraged to acquire skills which will help them be promoted through the moral universes the games companies have described.

All of this goes by stealth because this happens unsupervised. Work-weary parents may even be grateful for the diversion. Narratives are being quietly assimilated, and these are shared in the schoolyard, and young friends measure each other by their skill and knowledge in worlds barely guessed at by those who have the care of developing the next generation.

We need to dispense with the tinsel-and-teatowel Christmas and recover its visceral power in the world where the story was first told, a world which was about brute force and malnutrition. We need to rediscover the power of telling stories of a God which runs counter to the prevailing
values of the day.

If we can recover Christmas as a counter-story in its own day under Rome, we might want to start telling new counter-stories about the God we believe in, in our own day, to the Playstation generation.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

God in ordinary


doesn’t have to knock

use the front door key

doesn’t check how clean the house is

knows how to use the kettle

and where the spoons go

washes up

is content to sit

and chat about issues

of no importance

or just be quiet

Andrew Rudd

Thursday, December 04, 2008

We, the ordinary people of the streets

I have Sue at Discombobula and Barbara at Barefoot Toward the Light to thank for this. It's a quote from Madeleine Delbrel. I have spent most of my life and a great deal of effort trying to escape ordinariness of one kind or another, but chiefly in myself. Religion and spirituality have often been my means of escape. But these words remind me of something that first drew me to Christ a long time ago.

"We, the ordinary people of the streets, have the distinct impression that solitude is not the absence of the world, but the presence of God.

"Our solitude is the encounter with God everywhere. For us, being alone in a crowd is participating in the solitude of God.

"God is so great that there is no place for anything else., everything is within God.

"For us, the whole world is the meeting place with the One whom we cannot avoid. We encounter God's living plan right there on the busy street corners. We encounter God's splendor in the laws of nature and science. We encounter God's imprint on the earth. We encounter Christ in all these `little ones' who are his own, the ones who suffer in their bodies, the ones who are bored, the ones who are troubled, the ones who are in need of something. We encounter Christ rejected in countless acts of selfishness.

"How could we possibly have the heart to mock these people or to hate them, this multitude of sinners of whom we are a part?

"Godly solitude is the love of people, it is Christ serving Christ, Christ in the one who is serving and Christ in the one being served. How could such activity be for us a distraction from God or mere busyness and noise?

"We, the ordinary people of the streets, are certain we can love God as much as he might want to be loved by us.

"We do not think love will he something extraordinary, but something all-consuming. We believe that doing the little thing in union with God is as loving as our greatest activities. Besides, we are unaware of the size of the measurements of our own activities. We know that everything we do can only be small and everything that God does in us is always great. And so we go about our activities with a sense of great peace.

"We know that all our work consists of being at peace, one with God, while not avoiding the very things that need to be done. Basically it is letting God act through us. ...

"It matters little what we have to do, pushing a broom or a pen, speaking or listening, sewing a dress or teaching a class, taking care of a sic person or tapping away at a computer.

"All this is the meeting place of God, minute by minute, the very place where God's love is revealed."

Happy crappy Christians

Norm has been visiting his mum. But he can't stop blogging.

Notes from the Holy Land

While I've been in Israel I haven't had time to do much blogging. Tomorrow I'm travelling back to England, so radio silence is about to set in at normblog. I hope to resume on Thursday. Meanwhile, leaving Israel, I give you a couple of Israel-related links.

1. Here's an item about some happy clappy Christians, evidently unfamiliar with some of the less salubrious aspects of the history of Christianity, teaming up with a group of Jews, evidently unfamiliar with some of the less salubrious aspects of the history of Christianity, to rewrite a few Christmas carols as attacks on Israel.

2. Then, here's a detail from Mumbai:

Asked specifically if he was talking of torture marks, he said: "It was apparent that most of the dead were tortured. What shocked me were the telltale signs showing clearly how the hostages were executed in cold blood," one doctor said.

The other doctor, who had also conducted the post-mortem of the victims, said: "Of all the bodies, the Israeli victims bore the maximum torture marks. It was clear that they were killed on the 26th itself. It was obvious that they were tied up and tortured before they were killed. It was so bad that I do not want to go over the details even in my head again," he said.

Put together a Christmas carol about that, why don't you? (Also here, here and here.)

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Dying is a bugger

NHS Blog Doctor has this to say:

Dying is a bugger.

It is unpleasant. It often involves discomfort. It is the loneliest experience you will ever go through. It is heart-breaking for you and your family.

It is a real bugger.

But let us not sweep it under the carpet and rush you off to the hospice where death can be processed and packaged. Out of sight. Out of mind.

Hospices remove death from life. They sanitise it. We have already removed birth from life in the UK. Obstetric medical services are currently set up so that no one in their right mind has a home delivery. It does not have to be like that. Now the same is happening to death.

Be realistic about dying. It is not pleasurable. It is not fun. There may be some physically painful times, though these can nearly always be controlled medically. There will be some emotionally painful times. These can not be controlled so easily. You will be sad. You will be lonely. Ideally, you will be at home, surrounded by your family, supported by the family doctor, the district nurses, the Marie Curie nurses and the local vicar or priest. If that is not possible, you will be in the hospice.

There will be some bad times. Times of deep sadness and despair. There will also be some good times, some quality times. Not in any transcendental and philosophical way, but in terms of precious time spent with family and friends.

Whatever else is going on, that is too good to miss. Do not throw it away. And do not ask me to help you throw it away.


Alert as I am to every opportunity to redefine negative stereotypes and champion the culturally despised, I was yet surprised to find that Enid Blyton and Barbara Cartland can be icons of liberal society.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalia born feminist writer was interviewed by Johann Hari.

Somali culture began to demand that Ayaan too become a submissive woman who scrubbed away her own personality and sexuality. When she was five years old, she was made "pure" by having her genitals hacked out with a knife. It was a simple process. Her grandmother and two of her friends pinned her down, pulled her legs apart, and knifed away her clitoris and labia. She remembers the sound even now - "like a butcher, snipping the fat off a piece of meat." The bleeding wound was sewn up, leaving a thick tissue of scarred flesh to form as her fleshy chastity belt. She could not walk for two weeks.

Ayaan soon realised that in a culture so patriarchal it could not tolerate the existence of an unmaimed vagina, "I could never become an adult. I would always be a minor, my decisions made for me. But I wanted to become an individual, with a life of my own." She heard whispers of a world where this was possible by reading novels. For her, even poring through Enid Blyton and Barbara Cartland seemed transgressive, because they depicted a world where boys and girls played together on the basis of equality, and where women chose their own husbands, rather than having them forced on them by their fathers. Imagine a world so patriarchal that Barbara Cartland seems like a gender revolutionary.

Is Richard Dawkins missing the point?

S O Muffin thinks so.

Religion doesn’t make you moral, and doesn’t make you immoral either. Religion (or, for that matter, any “sacred text” – Das Kapital will do) gives you an excuse to be what you anyway intend to be. If you want to be a complete bastard, kill the infidels, take away their land, fly airplanes into their buildings, stone 13-year old girls, hang gays off cranes at the market place, bomb abortion clinics – with little effort you’ll discover all the right sacred quotes to salve your conscience and persuade you that what you are doing is the will of god. However, if you want to spread peace and understanding, comfort the sick, help the powerless, build bridges, reach to your enemies, be a mentsch – well, also then you’ll discover, with equally little effort, all the right sacred quotes to “justify” your actions – if there was any need to justify them.

The true dividing lines are not between religious and atheists. They are between bastards and the mentsch, of all creeds and none.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

No brocade

We were talking with friends the other day about how some people of faith are able to face death with a kind of serenity, and how this somehow validates the claims of those who believe. Later I came to see how my take on religion is different from most others.

For me religion doesn't work - has never worked. Religion in my understanding is not effective; doesn't produce, let alone guarantee, benefits; it's not therapeutic, does not solve problems; makes life harder, not easier; it's not the bandage but the wound.

Religion, like love, hurts. It really hurts. It hurts me. How could it be otherwise?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Hero of the Year

Bishop Gene Robinson in Pink News:

. . . the thing that I would say to the people in the pews of the Church of England is: 'When are you going to stand up for your gay priest?

'Whom you know and love, you know his partner, you adore his partner, when are you going to demand of your church leaders who also know the sexual orientation of their priests and who will go to dinner at his house with his partner.'

'When are you going to demand that they support publicly what they support privately?'

One of the frustrating things about pronouncements from the Church of England for us in the States, is you would think from those statements that there are no gay priests or gay-partnered priests in the Church of England.

And that's a kind of living death for those priests.

It must be very difficult to feel any sort of worth if the church will let you work for them but not acknowledge you.

And let's remember that priests are called to get into the pulpit every Sunday and call people to a life of integrity. To not allow the priests themselves to live such a life of integrity is tragic.

What I most admire about Gene Robinson is his costly commitment to openness and honesty, and his refusal to hide.

Hiddenness is the divine prerogative, not a prerogative for divines.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

(S)layers of meaning

One of the most useful conceptual tools when interpreting a biblical text is contained in the question, 'What must the truth have been and be, that someone who thought in the way this person did should express it like that?'

Actually it can be applied to almost any form of human communication.

As in:

There are always two sides to every divorce. There's yours. And there's shithead's.

Fool, Philosopher, Sage

From Maverick Philosopher:

The fool is never satisfied with what he has, but is quite satisfied with what he is. The philosopher is never satisfied with what he is, but is satisfied with what he has. The sage is satisfied with both, with what he is and what he has. Unfortunately, there are no sages, few philosophers, and a world full of fools.

You can run

I have met people who, when you ask them how they account for the unexplainedness of life, the puzzle of it, the point of it, smile and say: “When someone raises questions like that, I turn away, sit down, and enjoy a good lunch.” Afterward, they think of it no more.

. . .the one contemporary whose life I most carefully tracked, from the beginning to at least The Fall, was Albert Camus. “A single sentence will suffice for modern man”, he wrote in 1956: “They fornicated, and they read the papers.” Well, that’s a way to avoid the nothingness.

Michael Novak, No One See’s God, ix-xx.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

What's left?

I used to see myself as on the left, the old left, old Labour. I'm still Labour. It's in me. Call it tribal, though it's not a tribe I was born into. More like the Church of England, it's one I joined.

But am I still left? Can I claim to be when I find myself, as I increasingly do, nodding in agreement with those, like a recent correspondent to the Church Times, who inveigh against "a culture in which honest and thrifty people subsidise . . the mindless random procreation of life by very young people who have no time for each other, let alone for their pitiable and blameless offspring"?

"Only laziness, down-levelling, and a perverted political correctness could allow that the lack of a high income or a high IQ or a stable background preclude recognition by the perpetrator that such behaviour is wrong."

"It is greatly to the credit of Jeremy Kyle and his team that they bring the culprits face to face with the enormity of their actions, and then bend over backwards to offer practical, professional, and costly help, and a sense of meaning to people disastrously ensnared, with the state's tacit assent, by their own selfishness and decadence."

Jeremy Kyle? Now after what I said in my last posting about unpopular minorities, can you think of anyone more unpopular, and more of a minority than Jeremy Kyle? And yes, I do feel sympathy for him.

Descent into smugness

I was kind of brought up with this idea that siding with the underdog is as much a Christian as an English character trait. An unpopular minority is an underdog, so I can't seem to help siding with unpopular minorities, even the ones I don't really approve of or agree with.

It's for this reason that I can't enjoy BBC Radio comedy, much of which, as Martin Kelner points out, is aimed at easy targets, from dubious politicians to self-obsessed celebs, but always the same ones over and over again, wheeled out for a cheap clubbable laugh.

There is no denying a tendency towards smugness. As Kelner says:

Jeremy Hardy on Radio 4's The News Quiz, for instance, is a funny man but there is something about his tone - maybe it is the approbation of the audience - that occasionally seems so self-satisfied that, even while you are laughing, you want to give him a smack round the neck with a sock filled with horse manure.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Most things happen by chance

. . . the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Ecclesiastes 9.11

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Anyone there?

God decided to hide himself so that we might have an idea what he's like.
Simone Weil

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

It's too easy to stuff Bush

As you may know by now, I can't help having a soft spot for any beleaguered minority, and not just ones that are Muslim or gay (lesbian, bisexual . . .).

Well here's another - and thanks to Norm for putting in a good word for him. He's talking about Oliver Stone's new movie about George W Bush, W, and the critical responses to it.

What Stone presents is a political downfall and his protagonist's consciousness of that fact. But this is evidently not enough for many critics caught up in a cultural moment in which Bush has come to stand as either pure incarnation of evil or a laughing stock, or both. There is no kind of wrongdoer today, or tyrant, or criminal, or enemy, who doesn't have someone to remind us of their humanity: of the fact that they came to whatever it is they did by way of impulses, temptations and weaknesses which they share with ordinary people living decent lives. The very architects and perpetrators of genocide are not denied this consideration. But a movie that shows George W. Bush in the figure of a man, though it shows him in the end in abject defeat - this doesn't fit with a certain dominant liberal consensus. It tells you some interesting things about that consensus that there is now no more hated figure than a democratically elected politician whose incumbency is about to end.

Bush does indeed have plenty to answer for: principally that he allowed a wholly necessary conflict - the much-maligned war on terror - to be morally tarnished and politically weakened by Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, by the practice of extraordinary rendition and forms of interrogation that are torture. But these facts, referred to in Oliver Stone's movie, do not explain the perception of some of the critics that W. is kind to George Bush. It isn't.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

There's one born again every minute

The trouble with most religious believers I know is that they are content to go through life on little more than a whinge and a prayer.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

BBC denies 'homophobia'

The BBC denied it had been "homophobic" after a complaint was made to police about Have I Got News For You.

After discussing Iran's failure to make the world's biggest ostrich sandwich, guest host Alexander Armstrong said: "On the plus side they do still hold the record for hanging homosexuals."

A BBC spokeswoman said: "The presenter never intended for this comment to be homophobic - quite the opposite."

Another aggrieved minority so determined to be offended that they can't tell the difference between an attack on them and one on their, and our, enemies. Very worrying.

Monday, October 27, 2008

First Impressions

You really had to get to know Mr Hillman in order to dislike him.

Straw Dogs

I've been looking again at John Gray's book.

Essentially the message is:

Humans are not central. Progress is a myth; freedom is a fantasy; the individual self a delusion; morality a kind of sickness; justice a matter of custom; illusion our natural condition; technology beyond our control; humans helpless; political tyrannies inevitable.

Or as someone has said, 'Not the best motivation for getting out of bed in the morning.'

It seems fair also to say, with another critic, that Gray mixes vital truths with half-truths, plain falsehoods, lurid hyperbole, dyspeptic middle-aged grousing, and recklessly one-sided rhetoric.

There are also glaring inconsistencies in the case that Gray makes.

He claims that morality is a fiction yet goes about morally denouncing everything from Socrates to science. And I've yet to meet a giraffe that gets anywhere near so worked up about genocide as Gray does.

But though he does manage to blur important differences between humans and other animals in this way, I'm not altogether dismissive of the case he makes in saying that humans are neither central to nor special in the scheme of things. The notion that human beings are superior to other life forms seems often to me to be circular in that humans are superior precisely at being human, and doing the things that humans do and value doing. We're good at what we're good at, and when compared with bacteria, we humans are better at writing poetry but not as good at surviving for millions of years in conditions of extreme heat or cold.

More later.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The impossible takes a little longer

I've asked before and I'll ask again. Why do people insist on doing things they can't do? It's the whole paralympics thing. Can't understand it. To me it's simple. If you're blind, you can't play cricket. Blind people are properly ruled out by cricket team selectors in the same way, and for a similar reason, that hydrophobics are not likely to make it as swimmers, or agrophobics to excel in the event of cross-country running, or legless people in any event or sport that involves any kind of running at all.

To accommodate these games to the individual needs and disabilities of all who should like to take part entails the same kind of flight from reality as that of a vegetarian who insists on eating only wafer-thin slices of ham.

This guy was sacked from Relate because he wasn't content to go on being a first class relationship counsellor but wanted instead to tell people with sexual difficulties how and with whom they they should and shouldn't have sex. He is of course taking his case to an employment tribunal, alleging unfair dismissal on the grounds of religious discrimination. But all they said in effect was, 'If you want to do that kind of thing, get yourself a soapbox or pulpit. If you want to stay with Relate, accept the limitations of your office.'

The After-Pill Morning

Since I stopped taking my anti-depressant medication,
my words have turned to tears.
Should I translate them into words again?
Should I even try?
Tears can be more honest
and thinking doesn't come into it.
To parody Wittgenstein, the greatest living philosopher now dead,
Don't think: Choke.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

What they never told us at theological college.

From now on I will be haunted by this image of The Second Coming.

I've just heard Jonathan Ross's account of why we eat turkey at Christmas.

It's because Jesus came into Jerusalem, riding on a turkey.

As he said, for God's sake READ YOUR BIBLE!

Softening the blow

I couldn't resist sharing a joke with my GP as he lurked needle-brandishingly by my left shoulder.

Man goes to the doctor with a cough.

Doctor diagnoses Upper Respiratory Tract Infection. Tells patient it's commonly called High Chest Cold.

Ah! says patient. "As in, High Chest Cold To Say I Love You?"

Moving on

My prick is now behind me.

Correspondence closed.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Being 65

My wife says that she doesn't mind me having a little prick.

So on Saturday I'm off for my first flu jab.

Monday, October 20, 2008

RC Bishops in Philippines oppose family-planning Bill.

Archbishop Oscar Cruz likened the 'contraceptive mentality' to excessive feasting in ancient Rome, when people would vomit after they were full, and then continue feasting: "Artificial contraception is like that: couples have sex, put it in, spit it out, have sex again," he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

What the Archbishop lacks in connubial experience he more than makes up for in unflagging imagination.

Scouts to be prepared about sex

It's 1955. I'm twelve years. In the local library. Wanting to know if masturbation is going to do me any harm, or whether I'd found the prototype of 'safe sex'. I'm a boy, at a boy's school, formerly a Cub Scout, trusting that a book published by the Scouting Association would offer the best advice.

I can still remember the repeated references to 'self-abuse' and the inevitable hideous consequences that would follow, each one a nail in the coffin of an innocent and carefree exploration of my sexuality.

The Scouting Association really does have a lot to answer for.

UK economy 'already in recession'

Has there ever been a time when so many of today's news headlines consist mainly of what certain people think will probably happen tomorrow?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Deal or No Deal

I'm still puzzling about what to do with this blog, and where, short of oblivion, to go with it. To be honest I haven't got much of a readership, numerically, to please. But I have this notion, which may turn out to be a delusion, that some worthwhile purpose may be served by it.

One of my fondest attachments is to the belief that evidence persuades people. What I mean by this is that I myself have always liked a good argument, have always tried to listen to different sides, and have been known in conclusion to change my mind and opinion about this and that.

One of the things that people like me are up against is the mentality of those who have no intention of ever having a change of mind or opinion about anything at all important. Such people are to be found presently in the BBC and the Iranian parliament. At the BBC the Director General has claimed that his programme-makers tackle Islam differently from Christianity, not because of fear of provoking radical elements, but because Islam in this country is a minority religion and we must therefore be particularly sensitive to the feelings of its followers.

Comedian Ben Elton is having none of it:

'There's no doubt about it, the BBC will let vicar gags pass but they would not let imam gags pass. They might pretend that it's, you know, something to do with their moral sensibilities, but it isn't. It's because they're scared. I know these people.'

Meanwhile, back in Iran, Christian Solidarity Worldwide is urging parliament to drop a draft Bill that would codify the death penalty for apostasy. It is estimated that more than 40 Christian converts are in prison for whom rather more than their moral sensibilities are at stake. To change your mind about Islam in Iran can land you in jail and, if the law is changed in accordance with a recent parliamentary vote of 196 to 7, to the gallows, or other equally unpleasant means of execution supported by holy scripture.

Down the road in Iraq the Christian minority are receiving similarly sensitive treatment at the hands of their Muslim majority hosts. In the northern city of Mosul over the past two weeks at least 14 Christians have been killed, and more than 1300 families have fled, many of whose homes have been blown up.

Now in the interest of balance I think a little joined-up thinking is called for. I don't think the deal the BBC has struck is good enough. 'Please stop killing our folks and we won't tell jokes about yours', doesn't quite do justice to the seriousness of the hour.

Because it is serious, of that I feel sure.

It could be worse.

There's one born again every minute!

The Islamic Republic of Iran is hosting a conference in Tehran, entitled “Religion in the Modern World“.

The conference is being attended by the great and the good:

Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, former Norwegian prime minister Bondevick, former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi, former French prime minister Lionel Jospin, former Swiss president Joseph Deiss, former Portuguese president Jorge Sampaio, former Irish president Mary Robinson, former Sri Lankan president Chandrika Kumaratunga and former UNESCO director general Federico Mayor as well as several other scholars are ALSO attending the two-day conference.

The host of the conference is the former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami

Azarmehr says:

Khatami has managed to gather major useful idiots, ex-world leaders and religious figures included, to attend a conference on ‘Religion in the Modern World’. During the conference Khatami has called for ‘religious leaders of the world to try ways to create a peaceful co-existence and invite the world to establish peace and security’.

Where are these fancy phrases said? In the capital of a state where dissident Shiite Ayatollahs like Ayatollah Boroujerdi are tortured and imprisoned, the likes of Ayatollah Montazeri are under house arrest, many Shiite clerics were ‘disrobed’ during Khatami’s term in the office purely because of political dissent, Sunni Muslims can not even have their own mosque in Tehran, Christian converts from Islam like Ramtin Soudmand are facing imminent execution right now and fact after fact which slaps the sheer hypocrisy of this spin conference and the useful idiots attending it, in the face.

Imagine if in South Africa during the apartheid years, a former apartheid president set up a conference calling for ‘ways to create a peaceful co-existence between races of different colours’, and speakers of international standing spoke about racial harmony in front of celebrated pictures of D.F. Malan, would you not have a belly ache from uncontrolled laughter?

I wonder if any of them pleaded for the life of Rashin Soodmand?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Thou hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more, - a grateful heart;
Not thankful when it pleaseth me,
As if Thy blessings had spare days,
But such a heart whose pulse may be Thy praise.
~George Herbert

Noblesse oblige

As Brownie says:

On a great day for the traditions of democracy and liberty in Britain, an upper-chamber of the privileged few subverted the will of the democratically elected parliament.

According to Liberty:

Common sense and common decency prevailed as the Government dropped plans to detain terror suspects for 42 days without charge.

Of all the adjectives one could use to describe the grandees filling the padded benches of the Lords and a vote which, according to almost all polling, ignores the will of British public, “common” must surely be the most inapposite.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Terms of trade

This was a key passage from the Chief Rabbi's recent Thought for the Day:

"The fault is not markets but morals. Markets remain the best way we know of harnessing human creativity for the benefit of all. Economic liberalization has taken 500 million people out of poverty in China, and 130 million in India. They're also the best antidote to war. As Montesquieu pointed out in the eighteenth century, when two nations come into contact with one another, they can either fight or trade. If they fight, both lose; if they trade, both gain."

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Aren't women human beings?

Asks Tahira Abdullah, a Pakistani feminist. Apparently not.

Acid burned women in Pakistan

Burned with acid for crimes of honour.

More reporting from Frédéric Bobin here, where he describes how three young women aged 16 to 18 were buried alive with a JCB for the crime of wishing to marry someone they had chosen.

I wonder if someone will write a play about them one day? says Neil D at Harry's Place.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

And me a descendant of master hairdressers!

Not very intelligent design

A C Grayling explains why ID theory would be hilarious if it were not such a threat to world peace. Actually I think he exaggerates the threat to world peace.

" . . . your average engineer, tasked with building a human being, would not separate the entrances to the trachea and oesophagus with a movable flap tagged with an instruction not to breathe while you eat, or the organs of generation not just next to but partially carrying the organs of excretion, or redundant bits of anatomy than can become infected and kill their owners, or permanent vulnerability to large numbers of invasive life-threatening organisms, or cells that constantly mutate in potentially life-threatening ways, or the origin of the optic nerve slap in the middle of the retina, or... and so endlessly on. Next time Fuller (an ID theorist) crosses a bridge or a railway line, let him note the way it allows for expansion and contraction of the materials from which it is made in response to circumambient temperature; and ask him why the soft tissue constituting the brain, apt to swell if bruised, is encased in a rigid box of bone. I take it, on the evidence of his book, he has never had wisdom teeth: had he done so, he might have contemplated the evidence they constitute, in connection with orthognathy, of evolution's blind gropings. Intelligent design? Look in a mirror for the horse-laugh answer to that one. Look at nature - in all its beauty, ugliness, sweetness, brutality, charm, indifference and immense variety - and the idea that it manifests conscious design or purpose, still less intelligent design, is seen for what it is: a little driblet of childish ignorance; a mark of mankind's infancy."


Neil D has this on Sarah Palin:

"There are some things about Palin that are worth examining, there are some that we might enjoy examining because it might engender righteousness, and there are things best left unexamined if you want to win the election. There’s a certain level of patronising arrogance [technically correct, snobby and mean: certainly] in Democrat-leaning blogs. You might find that a pathetic criticism, but your views don’t matter. What matters are the voters, and characterizing Palin as a simpleton George Bush in a dress is not going to win the election."

Monday, September 15, 2008

Painfully honest

Miranda Richardson (when asked to describe her most unappealing habit):

"I am a truth-seeking missile. A lot of people find that unappealing."

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Spiritual Viagra

The only time I ever prayed, it was for an erection.
Christopher Hitchens

A happy event?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Church Inside Out

As a student I read a book with this title. It has something to offer the debate about inclusivity.

In a nutshell, for me, the Church of England has always been problematic; the Church as England - now that I can work with!

Larkin about

Mark Lawson in The Guardian writes of P D James's latest novel, "Christian religious faith, a recurrent touchstone for James's characters, seems in The Private Patient no more than a comforting ritual: a suicide takes place on holy ground, and James's sentiments throughout feel closer to the atheistic philosophy of Philip Larkin - 'what will survive of us is love' - than any sense that the many corpses in her story are happy in paradise."

'What will survive of us is love.' Atheistic? What can this mean?

For the time being

We only have, know, and are anything or anyone for the time being. Religion can so easily be a way of denying this, of escaping into eternity or the present moment. But the passage of time is the necessary context of all our human experience, a necessary part of its uniqueness. Our history and biography is who we are. Can we not learn to love it, to love life, this changing, ambiguous, ephemeral mixed bag?

Letting go of Jesus

I wonder whether this is what I have to do.

It's nearly thirty years ago that Don Cupitt started to teach us that we should be 'Taking Leave of God'. Sheldon Kopp had already written his 'If you meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!' But letting go of Jesus, for a Christian, seems like spiritual suicide. Need it be?

Sunday, September 07, 2008

8 out of 10 cats

In last week's Channel 4 programme a member of the panel, a gay man, referred to Jesus as the hottest Jew on a stick. Funny perhaps. And anyway Jews and Christians are fair game.

Also on the show was an item about the paralympics, potentially one of the richest sources of humour imaginable. No poking of fun whatsoever.

Why are we so selective in our squeamishness, so unequal in the distribution of our bad taste? Why is The Vicar of Dibley acceptable to the BBC but The Imam of Dibley no laughing matter to the lawyers of ITV?

No, Jesus! No, Jesus! No!

I have often found myself in a minority of one when exercising the human right of disagreeing with Jesus. That's because I do it as a kind of Christian talking to other Christians. We're not supposed to say that Jesus might have been wrong.

But the only other options are either blind obedience to the literal meaning of the scripture or subtle exegesis/eisegesis to ensure that the Lord's words always accord with our own prejudices.

Jumping off

The trouble with joined-up thinking is that there are so many different ways of joining things (thoughts) up. I find it attractive, as in a really persuasive speech, but increasingly unsatisfactory.

So I'm going to try the way of the desultory. A desultor was an equestrian acrobat who entertained the crowd by leaping from one swiftly moving horse to another. That's what I'm going to do in this blog - to jump randomly from one thing to another. One of the fears I shall have to face down in doing this is the fear of being, or seeming, disconnected or superficial. Still, no more detailed explanation or it rather defeats the object.

Friday, September 05, 2008

It can't be!

Yes it is the same George W Bush that the historian John Lewis Gaddis is talking about here:

"The President has surprised me more than once with comments on my own books soon after they’ve appeared, and I’m hardly the only historian who has had this experience. I’ve found myself improvising excuses to him, in Oval Office seminars, as to why I hadn’t read the latest book on Lincoln, or on—as Bush refers to him—the “first George W.” I’ve even assigned books to Yale students on his recommendation, with excellent results."

Don't you just love it when facts get in the way of popular prejudice?

Monday, August 25, 2008

A step too far

Taking the money from those who would find more oil and gas and giving it to those who will consume more oil and gas is an absurdity. And that's what Tim Worstall thinks a windfall tax on the energy companies would be.

67% of Britons in a YouGov poll strongly disagreed with him, and he fears that the government will be willing to pander to the ignorance of the populace in order to garner votes.

His counterblast though is a bit drastic:

Perhaps it's time to revive a saying from one of the good socialists (ie,
one of the dead ones), Bertold Brecht. Time to elect a new people

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Imam of Dibley

From Adam Sherwin:

Have you heard the one about the Islamic comedy sketch that ITV ordered its latest star to remove? Katy Brand was the victim of humourless lawyers who instructed her to delete a harmless-sounding spoof called The Imam of Dibley.

“It was not intended to be offensive,” says the comedian, whose Katy Brand’s Big Ass Show returns on ITV2. “A new imam arrives in a sleepy parish and the comedy arrives from the misunderstandings that causes. But the lawyers said it might be culturally insensitive.”

It’s no laughing matter, argues Brand, 29, an Oxford theology graduate. “The vast majority of Muslims are able to have a laugh at themselves just like everyone else.

Why should they be excluded from comedy? It’s funny that ITV had no problem with a new sketch about a pregnant Jesus’s girlfriend who has to deal with dating the Son of God.”

Rowan Atkinson has expressed similar concerns about comedy censorship. But Brand is particularly peeved to lose her imam of Dibley. “I really liked the outfit.”

Not only Rowan Atkinson. Ben Elton too has accused the BBC of being too 'scared' to allow jokes about Islam.


Cath Elliott wishes Julie Burchill well in her quest for enlightenment but insists that 'Christian feminist' is an oxymoron.

In any society where religion dominates it is women who pay the price: we can argue until we're blue in the face about whether or not any particular religion sanctions so-called honour crimes for example, but what's unarguable is that men's interpretation of religion, and the patriarchal values that religion instills, has led to the murders of countless women. Similarly, it's in the name of religion that girls are denied an education; in the name of religion that more than half a million women die every year because they cannot access safe abortions; in the name of religion that Aids continues its unrelenting progress across Africa, and in the name of religion that women throughout the world remain subjugated, impoverished and denied individual agency.

The Prince and the Paupers

Paul Collier defends genetic modification against Prince Charles and in the cause of famine relief.

Europe can afford romanticism, but the African poor cannot. The return to organic peasant agriculture is an appealing fantasy with disturbing consequences. The GM ban has already persisted for 12 years: how much more hunger must be endured before it is faced down?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

No sob story

I miss miJulie's regular column in the Guardian, but here she is taking a stick to them atheists - for the love of Christ.

The middle wall

“Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but it is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link.”
Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace (Lincoln, nb 1997), 200.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Good news from Baghdad

Given my history as an Anglican pacifist, I was hardly a wholehearted supporter of the Iraq war. What I did notice though was the number of people on the political (anti-American?) left, not otherwise committed to non-violence, who could see no possible good coming from the overthrow of Saddam's evil regime.

For them, and for me, this surely is good news.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Health care costs

Tim Worstall offers this to cheer up those who insist that health care costs are rising and will continue to rise evermore.

"It's worth remembering that in the 1940s penicillin was so expensive, because we didn't know how to purify it very well, that it was recycled from the urine of those receiving it. Today, well, "amoxicillin, 21 capsules, 87p; trimethoprim, 28 tablets, 45p".

Friday, August 08, 2008

Being Dead

Still not sure where I'm going with this here blog, but here's a quote from the latest novel we've been reading in our book club.

It's "Being Dead" by Jim Crace. I'll share my introduction with you later, but here's a taster:

'Whatever philosophical claims we might make for ourselves, human kind is only marginal. We hardly count in the natural orders of zoology. We'll not be missed.' Joseph, in a rare display of scientific passion, had told a student . . when she had been too dismissive of the earth's smaller beings. 'They might not have a sense of self, like us. Or memory. Or hope. Or consciences. Or fear of death. They might not know how strong and wonderful they are. But when every human being in the world has perished, and all our sewerage pipes and gas cookers and diesel engines have fossilized, there will still be insects.'

It has always seemed extraordinary to me that when human beings wish to insist on their superiority to other creatures, they invariably select for comparison those very human characteristics that they are naturally bound to excel in. The capacity for prolonged survival in the most extreme conditions is not one of them.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Thus saith MadPriest

"If you don't believe me, read that Bible thing people keep going on about."

Pure poetry!

Sunday, August 03, 2008

An old friend

In the Church Times, Prebendary Neil Richardson writes:

On the subject of homosexuality, the Archbishop of Sudan says that "Our Muslim neighbours view us as completely infidel . . . they think what we are doing in the church is completely evil."
What an opportunity the Archbishop has to witness before his Muslim neighbours to the Christian view of the ultimate worth and dignity of humanity made in the image of God, whether presenting themselves as homosexual or otherwise. I would urge him and the other African bishops to stand up to the sharia-driven punitive attitudes of Islam, and stand alongside those whose human dignity is denied and negated simply because they are not heterosexual.
The Archbishop will need great courage to do this, and support from all of us to face up to the storm. The time has come for Christians to make a stand in the name of the Christ who died on the cross to redeem the world, and embrace and welcome gay and lesbian people everywhere.

Sounds Christian enough for me!

Friday, August 01, 2008


I used to get panic attacks whenever I saw small coins, but the doctor said I was just afraid of change.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Don't remind me

On the birthday of the late Nobel economist Milton Friedman I have to admit that I find his insights more and more compelling. Here's one:

"The market gives people what the people want instead of what other people think they ought to want. At the bottom of many criticisms of the market economy is really lack of belief in freedom itself."

Like many Christian Socialists I have managed for most of my life to avoid and deny the obvious wisdom here.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Lest we forget

Why do I still take The Guardian? It doesn't even include speedway in its sports coverage.

Further to this post on the one-state solution: just one day after being offered a vision of a democratic and secular state in which the rights of both Palestinians and Israelis 'are equally protected', we learn from the Guardian that the two major organizations now representing Palestinian aspirations, Fatah and Hamas, routinely torture detainees, and hence each other's supporters - this according to Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights group, and Human Rights Watch. As the Guardian's reporter presenting this information is the slippery-tongued Jonathan Steele, you might expect - somewhere - an attention-shifting, mitigating note to be struck. Your expectation won't be disappointed:

The alleged abuse by PA forces appears to be aimed at convincing western donor governments, as well as Israel, that the authority is "clamping down on terror".

Just a typical day in the columns of the Guardian newspaper.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

I couldn't put it better myself

From an interview with Pat Condell:

I’m a vegetarian and I strongly support animal rights. (I hope that’s OK with Jesus.)
I find it hard not to smile at religion’s conceit that we’re superior to animals on the basis that we have souls and they don’t, when five minutes in a slaughterhouse would convince anyone that, if anything, it’s animals who have the souls and human beings who don’t.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

No danger

Mission expert dismisses fears of Islamic take-over in the UK
Tuesday, 15th July 2008. 4:13pm

By: Nick Mackenzie.

The UK is not in danger of an Islamic takeover, according to Steve Bell, the National Director of Christian mission agency Interserve, who is an expert on Muslims issues.
Mission expert dismisses fears of Islamic take-over in the UK

Speaking at this year's Keswick Convention, a meeting of conservative evangelical Christians in the north of England, Steve Bell, the National Director of Interserve, pointed out that 'Muslim fertility rates are dropping noticeably in Europe, and dramatically in the Middle East and North Africa. Fundamentalism thrives in communities with large extended families and poverty and this pattern is diminishing among Europe's Muslim communities. A sub-replacement birthrate was one of the causes of the decline of Christianity in Europe and it looks set to do the same for Islam in Europe.'

Not only is an Islamic takeover in this country unlikely, but he also believes that the UK is providing a safe place in which Islam can change: “Muslims in the West are finding they can practice Islam without pressure from Islamic governments. So here in the UK both dangerous Islamists and freethinking reformers are emerging.

“The West is now the crucible in which Islam is being openly debated and modified for the 21st century. I suggest the outcome of the debate in this country that is going on between Muslims could well affect the outcome for the future of Islam worldwide. A reforming process is already painfully underway within the house of Islam.

In a mess

Something in me is still moved by words like these, from Prodigal Kiwis:

“…When Thomas Merton was a novice master at the Abbey of Gethsemane…He started off one class by speaking [the following] words to the earnest and pious would-be monks who’d been placed in his care: “Men, before you have a spiritual life, you’ve got to have a life!

I [Parker Palmer] treasure that line because it sheds the light of humor on one of the big problems of religion and spirituality: the assumption that the spiritual life is a life set apart from the “secular” life – which is to say, from the life one is living.

… Merton’s point, of course, is that we will find our spiritual lives in [the mess of our lives themselves], in [their] earthly realities, unpredictable challenges, surprising resources, [and] creative dynamics…

…If we stand in the middle of the mess assuming that the spiritual life will be orderly and pristine, linear and logical without complexity or contradiction, we will pray… for an extreme makeover, [and] of course, the ultimate extreme makeover is an embalmed and well-accessorized corpse, which is what we become in life when we try to defy [and reduce] the wideness and wildness of God…”

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Above board

We've just finished reading Beloved by Toni Morrison. Not an easy book. Not a book to enjoy. Excruciating in parts, but kinda beautiful too. It captures the way that slaves in America were at the mercy of their owners, like checkers on a board.

What she (a mother) called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Book Club

We have a Book Club that meets in our home. Once a month we get together with a few friends to discuss a novel we've agreed on in advance. Actually it needn't be a novel. It can be any book. We started with a meeting at which each member of the group was invited to nominate 'a good read'. From this we drew up a list of books and dates, the idea being that each member of the group in turn should introduce the volume of her choice.

Now I can imagine someone suggesting that we read one of the classics of world literature, but one collection I guess we would all steer clear of would be the bible. As far as religious commitment goes we are I suppose a fairly average English mixture, all of us having some, at least childhood, acquaintance with the scriptures. So why is it that people, like us, who love books, don't love the bible, and, in the same way, people who read books, don't read the bible?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A reality check

On the Newsvine:

A recent opinion poll conducted by Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government found that 77 percent of Israeli Arabs would rather live in Israel than in any other country in the world.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Getting better

Normblog has news of Afghanistan:

The education system that we take for granted in Britain is still a distant dream here, where the government struggles to find teachers and classrooms. But the girls at the Qala-e-Baig school in Shakar Darra are among 2m attending schools across the country. They are a visible sign of real progress.

When the Taliban fell in 2001 there were only 900,000 children in school, all of them boys. That figure is now 6m and rising.

And . . .
The minister for education told me that another teacher had been beheaded by the Taliban in the past week. Schools are burnt down and the populace terrorised.
Educating children, including girls, versus beheading teachers and burning down schools. Whatever you do, though, don't talk about a noble cause.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Without hope

Most forms of religion I've come across invite us to hope for the 'wrong thing', usually some kind of satisfaction beyond this world, and this life. In Sheldon Kopp I found a religious writer who had no place for such consolation. He described his work as a psychotherapist in "If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!"

The seeker comes in hope of finding something definite, something permanent, something unchanging upon which to depend. He is offered instead the reflection that life is just what it seems to be, a changing, ambiguous, ephemeral mixed bag. It may often be discouraging, but it is ultimately worth it, because that's all there is.

Why do I find this strangely comforting?

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Pounds of flesh

I'm back from Merchant of Venice and the British Speedway Grand Prix. Antonio was the clear winner at Stratford, while Jason Crump, of Belle Vue Aces and Australia, had a stunning victory at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff. Shylock and Nikki Pedersen turned out to be poor losers.

Both performances were excellent in their own way, both dramatic, exciting and entertaining. Very different audiences, apart from me and Big H, but equally well-behaved. Large contingents of children here and there. Quite why the two groups should otherwise be so mutually exclusive I'm not sure.

Nobody died on stage, but Chris Harris (not the actor) is nursing a broken nose.

A hero to some

From normblog:

A prisoner exchange between Israel and Hizbollah has led to the freeing of Samir Kuntar. If you want to know who Samir Kuntar is, you can read about him here and here: a man responsible for 'a murder of unimaginable cruelty', for smashing a child's skull against a rock with a rifle butt after shooting her father in front of her. This man, it would appear, is a hero to some.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A short break

Following my longish break from blogging (I just haven't got round to it) I am now taking a short break (a few days) after which I will resume with renewed vigour this preposterous enterprise of sharing with you, faithful reader, the collection of ambiguities and ambivalences that is my mind.

During my break I shall be visiting Shakespeare's birthplace to see 'Merchant of Venice', and the capital of Wales to shout encouraging words at Jason Crump of Belle Vue Aces in the British Speedway Grand Prix. I can't help wondering how many of you could pass so joyously from one of these spheres to the other. What an upbringing!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Jewish Humour

The President of Iran was wondering who to invade when his
telephone rang.

'This is Mendel in Tel Aviv. We're officially declaring var on

'How big is your army?' the president asked.

'There's me, my cousin Moishe, and our pinochle team!'

'I have a million in my army,' said the president.

'I'll call back!' said Mendel.

The next day he called. 'The var's still on!' We have now a
bulldozer, Goldblatt's tractor. Plus the canasta team!'

'I have 16,000 tanks, and my army is now two million.'

'Oy gevalt!', said Mendel. 'I'll call back.'

He phoned the next day. 'We're calling off the var'


'Well,' said Mendel, 'we've all had a little chat, and there's
no way we can feed two million prisoners.'


What, do you think, are the chances of this working? Some details:

More than two dozen young people who broke into Robert Frost’s former home for a beer party and trashed the place are being required to take classes in his poetry as part of their punishment.

Using “The Road Not Taken” and another poem as jumping-off points, Frost biographer Jay Parini hopes to show the vandals the error of their ways — and the redemptive power of poetry.

Many people think the arts have the power to make people better. Some think the same of education. The idea is that the more cultured you are, the better you will be. And the more education you have the better you will be.

But this is folly, is it not?

If you educate a thief you only increase his capacity to steal, said a once famous theologian. And I suspect that if you immerse a jerk in the poetry of Frost, you’ll get a jerk who knows the poetry of Frost, not a non-jerk.

Here’s the test. Think of the highly educated and highly cultured. Are they moral people? Are they more moral than the less cultured, and the less educated?

A proposition: the highly educated and the highly cultured have a more difficult time distinguishing good from evil, and decent from indecent. They seek to get beyond good and evil.

Monday, June 02, 2008


Rabbi Y Y Rubinstein addressed a recent meeting of university chaplains from all over the country, including some imams, on how to deal with anti-semitism on campus.

Here's an excerpt:

'...The New Anti Semitism is in reality the old anti Semitism. When I walk in the street or Campus and someone shouts "Jew" or "Palestine" at me, they have not asked me whether or not I am an Israeli or a Zionist, I am in fact neither, they simply see a Jew and one Jew is guilty of the crimes or perceived crimes of all the Jews… In medieval Europe I killed Jesus. In the New Anti Semitism I am guilty of every alleged crime of Israel, although I have never oppressed a Palestinian or a Muslim in my life… and that is Anti Semitism.

But let me here be frank. Since the founding of the State in 1948 it has created untold suffering. It has been responsible for a massive transfer of population and a huge refugee problem. It was carved out of an existing State and was set up specifically to be the home of one religious group. It is Nuclear armed and has been the cause of several wars with its neighbours, any one of which could have escalated and dragged the world into a third world war. It’s politicians and government are generally believed to be corrupt… But personally I wish Pakistan and it’s people well.'

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Susan Hill again:

Those who take THE TIMES - and it is all online too - will also have read the very sane coverage for Bjorn Lomborg’s latest Copenhagen Consensus. Here is the gist. We need to concentrate our time, energy and resources on feeding the poor of the world not on frivolous pursuit of some GW dream. Our earnest shovelling of every bit of our energy and resources into cutting carbon emissions shows in a different light after you read the following. The attitude of ‘well, even if it does no good, it can‘t do any harm can it ?’ simply will not wash. It can do harm. It diverts our resources and energies from feeding the world. It even, at worst, helps contribute to global poverty. (Use of land for bio-fuels not food.) It certainly helps directly to contribute to the high price of food, let alone of anything else.

What We Really Should Be Doing For People

The top ten most effective economic actions were agreed to be as follows:

1.1.Vitamin A and zinc micronutrient supplements for children. Cost: 60 pence per child. “For just $60m a year, it would be possible to provide capsules of both micronutrients to 80 per cent of undernourished children in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, with benefits worth more than $1bn. Each dollar does more than $17 worth of good”;

2.2.The Doha development agenda. “The economists’ second-place priority was removing subsidies and tariffs that exclude developing countries from western markets, as is currently being proposed in the World Trade Organisation’s Doha round of negotiations”;

3.3.Iron and salt lodisation (cost: 5 pence per person);

4.4.Expanded immunisation coverage for children;

5.5.Biofortification of plants. Estimated that every £5 spent will yield £60 of benefit;

6.6.De-worming of children;

7.7.Lowering the cost of education;

8.8.Improving the education of girls and women;

9.9.Community-based work on nutrition;

10. 10. Support for the reproductive role of women.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Plastic Baggage

Dr Eamonn Butler puts in a good word for the much traduced plastic bag:

Plastic bags use 40% less energy and generate 80% less solid waste than paper ones. Plastic bags are a quarter of the thickness they were when we started using them in the mid-1970s. They use hardly any oil, and recycling a kilo of plastic takes just 10% of the energy used to recycle a kilo of paper. Paper bags produce 50 times more water pollution. Recycling paper uses bleaches and other nasty industrial chemicals, remember.

And yet the humble, useful plastic bag is on the way out because politicians, for the best of intentions but the worst of reasons, are intimidating supermarkets into scrapping them. Now: which is the real rubbish?

Even better news is that a sixteen year old scientist has found a way of reducing the time it takes for plastic to decompose from thousands of years to - three months.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Who needs a Bible?

Announcing: The Logic of Life: Uncovering the New Economics of Everything by Tim Harford.

Harford's The Undercover Economist showed how ordinary economics explained everyday curiosities, such as the outrageous price of a cup of coffee and the traffic jam on the way to the supermarket. His new book shows how the new economics of rational choice theory explains much, much more. Drug addicts and teenage muggers are rational. Suburban sprawl and inner city decay are rational. Endless meetings at the office and the injustices of working life? Rational. Economics explains why your boss is overpaid, and whether we should build more prisons, even whether to have sex, take drugs, and be honest. Racy stuff.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Singer Solution to World Poverty

Peter Singer is a controversial philosopher. An article about him in The New York Times reveals that he gives one-fifth of his income to famine-relief agencies. "From when I first saw pictures in newspapers of people starving, from when people asked you to donate some of your pocket money for collections at school," he mused, "I always thought, 'Why that much — why not more?"'

Is it possible to quantify our charitable burden? In the following essay, Singer offers some unconventional thoughts about the ordinary American's obligations to the world's poor and suggests that even his own one-fifth standard may not be enough. It's a longish piece, but stay with it if you want to be deeply provoked.

In the Brazilian film "Central Station," Dora is a retired schoolteacher who makes ends meet by sitting at the station writing letters for illiterate people. Suddenly she has an opportunity to pocket $1,000. All she has to do is persuade a homeless 9-year-old boy to follow her to an address she has been given. (She is told he will be adopted by wealthy foreigners.) She delivers the boy, gets the money, spends some of it on a television set and settles down to enjoy her new acquisition. Her neighbor spoils the fun, however, by telling her that the boy was too old to be adopted — he will be killed and his organs sold for transplantation. Perhaps Dora knew this all along, but after her neighbor's plain speaking, she spends a troubled night. In the morning Dora resolves to take the boy back.

Suppose Dora had told her neighbor that it is a tough world, other people have nice new TV's too, and if selling the kid is the only way she can get one, well, he was only a street kid. She would then have become, in the eyes of the audience, a monster. She redeems herself only by being prepared to bear considerable risks to save the boy.

At the end of the movie, in cinemas in the affluent nations of the world, people who would have been quick to condemn Dora if she had not rescued the boy go home to places far more comfortable than her apartment. In fact, the average family in the United States spends almost one-third of its income on things that are no more necessary to them than Dora's new TV was to her. Going out to nice restaurants, buying new clothes because the old ones are no longer stylish, vacationing at beach resorts — so much of our income is spent on things not essential to the preservation of our lives and health. Donated to one of a number of charitable agencies, that money could mean the difference between life and death for children in need.

All of which raises a question: In the end, what is the ethical distinction between a Brazilian who sells a homeless child to organ peddlers and an American who already has a TV and upgrades to a better one — knowing that the money could be donated to an organization that would use it to save the lives of kids in need?

Of course, there are several differences between the two situations that could support different moral judgments about them. For one thing, to be able to consign a child to death when he is standing right in front of you takes a chilling kind of heartlessness; it is much easier to ignore an appeal for money to help children you will never meet. Yet for a utilitarian philosopher like myself — that is, one who judges whether acts are right or wrong by their consequences — if the upshot of the American's failure to donate the money is that one more kid dies on the streets of a Brazilian city, then it is, in some sense, just as bad as selling the kid to the organ peddlers. But one doesn't need to embrace my utilitarian ethic to see that, at the very least, there is a troubling incongruity in being so quick to condemn Dora for taking the child to the organ peddlers while, at the same time, not regarding the American consumer's behavior as raising a serious moral issue.

In his 1996 book, "Living High and Letting Die," the New York University philosopher Peter Unger presented an ingenious series of imaginary examples designed to probe our intuitions about whether it is wrong to live well without giving substantial amounts of money to help people who are hungry, malnourished or dying from easily treatable illnesses like diarrhea. Here's my paraphrase of one of these examples:

Bob is close to retirement. He has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure. The Bugatti is his pride and joy. In addition to the pleasure he gets from driving and caring for his car, Bob knows that its rising market value means that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably after retirement. One day when Bob is out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti near the end of a railway siding and goes for a walk up the track. As he does so, he sees that a runaway train, with no one aboard, is running down the railway track. Looking farther down the track, he sees the small figure of a child very likely to be killed by the runaway train. He can't stop the train and the child is too far away to warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the siding where his Bugatti is parked. Then nobody will be killed -- but the train will destroy his Bugatti. Thinking of his joy in owning the car and the financial security it represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch. The child is killed. For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents.

You shouldn't take that cruise, redecorate the house or get that pricey new suit. After all, a $1,000 suit could save five children's lives.

Bob's conduct, most of us will immediately respond, was gravely wrong. Unger agrees. But then he reminds us that we, too, have opportunities to save the lives of children. We can give to organizations like Unicef or Oxfam America. How much would we have to give one of these organizations to have a high probability of saving the life of a child threatened by easily preventable diseases? (I do not believe that children are more worth saving than adults, but since no one can argue that children have brought their poverty on themselves, focusing on them simplifies the issues.) Unger called up some experts and used the information they provided to offer some plausible estimates that include the cost of raising money, administrative expenses and the cost of delivering aid where it is most needed. By his calculation, $200 in donations would help a sickly 2-year-old transform into a healthy 6-year-old — offering safe passage through childhood's most dangerous years. To show how practical philosophical argument can be, Unger even tells his readers that they can easily donate funds by using their credit card and calling one of these toll-free numbers: (800) 367-5437 for Unicef; (800) 693-2687 for Oxfam America.

Now you, too, have the information you need to save a child's life. How should you judge yourself if you don't do it? Think again about Bob and his Bugatti. Unlike Dora, Bob did not have to look into the eyes of the child he was sacrificing for his own material comfort. The child was a complete stranger to him and too far away to relate to in an intimate, personal way. Unlike Dora, too, he did not mislead the child or initiate the chain of events imperiling him. In all these respects, Bob's situation resembles that of people able but unwilling to donate to overseas aid and differs from Dora's situation.

If you still think that it was very wrong of Bob not to throw the switch that would have diverted the train and saved the child's life, then it is hard to see how you could deny that it is also very wrong not to send money to one of the organizations listed above. Unless, that is, there is some morally important difference between the two situations that I have overlooked.

Is it the practical uncertainties about whether aid will really reach the people who need it? Nobody who knows the world of overseas aid can doubt that such uncertainties exist. But Unger's figure of $200 to save a child's life was reached after he had made conservative assumptions about the proportion of the money donated that will actually reach its target.

One genuine difference between Bob and those who can afford to donate to overseas aid organizations but don't is that only Bob can save the child on the tracks, whereas there are hundreds of millions of people who can give $200 to overseas aid organizations. The problem is that most of them aren't doing it. Does this mean that it is all right for you not to do it?

Suppose that there were more owners of priceless vintage cars — Carol, Dave, Emma, Fred and so on, down to Ziggy — all in exactly the same situation as Bob, with their own siding and their own switch, all sacrificing the child in order to preserve their own cherished car. Would that make it all right for Bob to do the same? To answer this question affirmatively is to endorse follow-the-crowd ethics — the kind of ethics that led many Germans to look away when the Nazi atrocities were being committed. We do not excuse them because others were behaving no better.

We seem to lack a sound basis for drawing a clear moral line between Bob's situation and that of any reader of this article with $200 to spare who does not donate it to an overseas aid agency. These readers seem to be acting at least as badly as Bob was acting when he chose to let the runaway train hurtle toward the unsuspecting child. In the light of this conclusion, I trust that many readers will reach for the phone and donate that $200. Perhaps you should do it before reading further.

Now that you have distinguished yourself morally from people who put their vintage cars ahead of a child's life, how about treating yourself and your partner to dinner at your favorite restaurant? But wait. The money you will spend at the restaurant could also help save the lives of children overseas! True, you weren't planning to blow $200 tonight, but if you were to give up dining out just for one month, you would easily save that amount. And what is one month's dining out, compared to a child's life? There's the rub. Since there are a lot of desperately needy children in the world, there will always be another child whose life you could save for another $200. Are you therefore obliged to keep giving until you have nothing left? At what point can you stop?

Hypothetical examples can easily become farcical. Consider Bob. How far past losing the Bugatti should he go? Imagine that Bob had got his foot stuck in the track of the siding, and if he diverted the train, then before it rammed the car it would also amputate his big toe. Should he still throw the switch? What if it would amputate his foot? His entire leg?

As absurd as the Bugatti scenario gets when pushed to extremes, the point it raises is a serious one: only when the sacrifices become very significant indeed would most people be prepared to say that Bob does nothing wrong when he decides not to throw the switch. Of course, most people could be wrong; we can't decide moral issues by taking opinion polls. But consider for yourself the level of sacrifice that you would demand of Bob, and then think about how much money you would have to give away in order to make a sacrifice that is roughly equal to that. It's almost certainly much, much more than $200. For most middle-class Americans, it could easily be more like $200,000.

Isn't it counterproductive to ask people to do so much? Don't we run the risk that many will shrug their shoulders and say that morality, so conceived, is fine for saints but not for them? I accept that we are unlikely to see, in the near or even medium-term future, a world in which it is normal for wealthy Americans to give the bulk of their wealth to strangers. When it comes to praising or blaming people for what they do, we tend to use a standard that is relative to some conception of normal behavior. Comfortably off Americans who give, say, 10 percent of their income to overseas aid organizations are so far ahead of most of their equally comfortable fellow citizens that I wouldn't go out of my way to chastise them for not doing more. Nevertheless, they should be doing much more, and they are in no position to criticize Bob for failing to make the much greater sacrifice of his Bugatti.

At this point various objections may crop up. Someone may say: "If every citizen living in the affluent nations contributed his or her share I wouldn't have to make such a drastic sacrifice, because long before such levels were reached, the resources would have been there to save the lives of all those children dying from lack of food or medical care. So why should I give more than my fair share?" Another, related, objection is that the Government ought to increase its overseas aid allocations, since that would spread the burden more equitably across all taxpayers.

Yet the question of how much we ought to give is a matter to be decided in the real world — and that, sadly, is a world in which we know that most people do not, and in the immediate future will not, give substantial amounts to overseas aid agencies. We know, too, that at least in the next year, the United States Government is not going to meet even the very modest United Nations-recommended target of 0.7 percent of gross national product; at the moment it lags far below that, at 0.09 percent, not even half of Japan's 0.22 percent or a tenth of Denmark's 0.97 percent. Thus, we know that the money we can give beyond that theoretical "fair share" is still going to save lives that would otherwise be lost. While the idea that no one need do more than his or her fair share is a powerful one, should it prevail if we know that others are not doing their fair share and that children will die preventable deaths unless we do more than our fair share? That would be taking fairness too far.

Thus, this ground for limiting how much we ought to give also fails. In the world as it is now, I can see no escape from the conclusion that each one of us with wealth surplus to his or her essential needs should be giving most of it to help people suffering from poverty so dire as to be life-threatening. That's right: I'm saying that you shouldn't buy that new car, take that cruise, redecorate the house or get that pricey new suit. After all, a $1,000 suit could save five children's lives.

So how does my philosophy break down in dollars and cents? An American household with an income of $50,000 spends around $30,000 annually on necessities, according to the Conference Board, a nonprofit economic research organization. Therefore, for a household bringing in $50,000 a year, donations to help the world's poor should be as close as possible to $20,000. The $30,000 required for necessities holds for higher incomes as well. So a household making $100,000 could cut a yearly check for $70,000. Again, the formula is simple: whatever money you're spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away.

Now, evolutionary psychologists tell us that human nature just isn't sufficiently altruistic to make it plausible that many people will sacrifice so much for strangers. On the facts of human nature, they might be right, but they would be wrong to draw a moral conclusion from those facts. If it is the case that we ought to do things that, predictably, most of us won't do, then let's face that fact head-on. Then, if we value the life of a child more than going to fancy restaurants, the next time we dine out we will know that we could have done something better with our money. If that makes living a morally decent life extremely arduous, well, then that is the way things are. If we don't do it, then we should at least know that we are failing to live a morally decent life — not because it is good to wallow in guilt but because knowing where we should be going is the first step toward heading in that direction.

When Bob first grasped the dilemma that faced him as he stood by that railway switch, he must have thought how extraordinarily unlucky he was to be placed in a situation in which he must choose between the life of an innocent child and the sacrifice of most of his savings. But he was not unlucky at all. We are all in that situation.