Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Christmas post

Time to sign off for a few days, with seasonal pictures of two places that I visited for the first time this year. First, Val d'Orcia, Italy, in the snow, and then the Christmas tree outside Macy's in Union Square, San Francisco. Happy holidays.

Christmas music and movies, from New York to London

Bob recently linked to a great post at Cover Lay Down, which listed many of the popular Christmas songs written by Jews. There's more along the same lines here. It's also worth noting how many of these songwriters (Irving Berlin, Johnny Marks, Frank Loesser, to name but three) were born or lived in New York.

In fact, an argument could be made that much of our 'traditional' Christmas had its origins in that great city. I can almost hear British readers recoiling in horror, as they reach for their copies of Christmas Carol, preparing their arguments for Dickens being the founder of the modern festive season.  And I remember my own hostile reaction the first time I heard Phil Spector's Christmas album, with its voiceover reminding us that 'Christmas is such an American time of year' (or words to that effect).

But in addition to the catalogue of seasonal songs emanating from NYC, of which White Christmas, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, Winter Winterland and Let it Snow are perhaps the most famous, there would also be no red-suited Santa Claus, no reindeer, no descent down the chimney to leave presents for children, were it not for one Clement Clarke Moore, a Columbia professor and resident of Chelsea, Manhattan, who wrote A Visit from St. Nicholas, aka Twas The Night Before Christmas, whilst living there in 1823. 

The association between New York and Christmas has been reinforced in dozens of festive films. It's one of our family traditions to work our way through some of these in the days leading up to Christmas, and it's remarkable how many of them, from Miracle on 34th Street (we have to watch both versions) to Elf, choose Manhattan as their inevitable backdrop. (Incidentally, there's a post to be written - when I have more time - on Christmas movies as modern parables about faith, with Santa standing in as an ecumenical, sentimentalised substitute for God.)

The other night we revisited Love Actually, and it occurred to me that one of Richard Curtis' aims might have been to show that London can function just as well as New York as a 'Christmassy' setting. There are certainly plenty of lush, iconic views of the contemporary capital, and the film often seems to be acting out a love-hate relationship, fired by an alternating superiority-inferiority complex, with America. Watching it again the other evening, in the twilight days of the Bush presidency and at the dawn of the Obama era, I found the scene showing the visit of the US president, in which prime minister Hugh Grant gets cheered for standing up to the supposedly 'bullying' US, even more jarring and pathetic than usual. I wouldn't have thought it was a scene designed to win the hearts of audiences across the Atlantic.

To round off, and linking together the various strands of this rather rambling post, here's one of my favourite seasonal songs, Loesser's Baby, It's Cold Outside, as sung by Will Ferrell and the rather wonderful Zooey Deschanel:

Earth doomed: gays and feminists to blame, says Pope

I see the Pope has sent a Christmas message of compassion and understanding to gays and transsexuals, claiming (in his usual restrained style) that their behaviour is as much a threat to the planet as the destruction of the rainforests. While he was at it, Benedict condemned gender theory for blurring the distinction between male and female, something that might lead to the 'self-destruction' of the human race, no less.

What can the Pope possibly be afraid of? If he's worried that an increase in homosexuality might threaten the continuation of the race, has no one told him about the far greater threat of over-population? And where's the harm in breaking down some of the rigidities of traditional gender roles? Does he think that improved opportunities for women and a decline in machismo are bad things? Why is Catholicism so keen to sacralise particular, historically-contingent gender arrangements, and can't Benedict see that the day will come when his statement will sound as foolish as his predecessors' blessing of racial and class inequalities?

And, without wishing to be disrespectful, isn't the spectacle of a man in a frilly dress, accurately described by Andrew Sullivan as 'an effeminate, delicate intellectual', condemning gender-bending, just a little absurd? This isn't to 'out' the Pope (though wouldn't it be wonderful to have an openly gay pontiff - given that the number of gay priests is estimated to be around 30%?), but to suggest that the virulence of official Catholic hostility to non-heterosexual behaviour may stem in part from a certain unconscious defensiveness, coupled with the obvious desire to perpetuate a deeply patriarchal power structure.

As a refreshing counterblast to this deeply depressing seasonal pontification, I recommend Polly Toynbee's thoroughly secular Christmas message in today's Guardian.

Here's Andrew Sullivan on Benedict's 'calculated affronts to the dignity of homosexual persons'.

Monday, 22 December 2008

My books of the year

It's that time of year again. Here's a list of the 10 books I most enjoyed reading in 2008, though not all of them were published this year. They're listed roughly in the order in which I read them - not of preference - and the hyperlinks will take you to the posts where I discussed them:

The Arab world needs a secular not an Islamic renaissance

Adam LeBor catalogues the political, economic and cultural stagnation affecting much of the Arab world:

No fully sovereign Arab state is a democracy with meaningful independent institutions where power passes peacefully by popular vote. Economies are sclerotic, but human-rights abuses are flourishing. The internet and globalisation are not opportunities, but threats.


Intellectual life is atrophying. More books are translated into Spanish in a year than have been translated into Arabic in the past 1,000, states the UN's Arab Human Development Report.


Should we care? Very much so. Already, poor economic opportunities, endemic corruption, education based on rote learning, state-sponsored Jew hatred, soaring youth populations and unemployment are a recipe for social catastrophe. Add the rise of radical Islam and the growth of Al-Qaeda and the mix becomes something explosive.

LeBor contrasts this sorry state of affairs with the intellectual ferment and cosmopolitan tolerance that seem to have been the hallmarks of Arab and Muslim culture, from Baghdad to Cordoba, in the Middle Ages. He believes this history proves that 'there are no contradictions between Islam and intellectual innovation, the motor of any dynamic society', and cites 'a growing number of Islamic thinkers and scholars' who seek to redefine jihad as 'the spiritual and intellectual struggle for knowledge, for self-enlightenment', demanding 'engagement with, not a retreat from the modern world'. Adam is hopeful that recent cultural developments in the Gulf states might 'trigger a new Islamic intellectual renaissance.' 

While I endorse any initiative to liberalise Islam (or any other religion) and undermine fundamentalism and reaction, I can't help thinking that this isn't nearly ambitious enough. Would we prescribe a new Catholic renaissance as the solution to the problems of (say) Latin America, or a reform of Judaism to breathe new life into the political and economic life of Israel? And would we look back a thousand years for models to guide the next stage in the development of Europe, or China?

A culture of low expectations seems to cloud western hopes for the Arab world. Is it really pie-in-the-sky to hope for a secular renaissance and for a decline in the influence of religion in the Middle East? Aren't the populations of those countries entitled to the same kind of flourishing, secular civil society, and the same kind of separation of religion and the state, that most of the rest of the world takes for granted - rather than the continuing dominance of their intellectual and cultural lives by religion, however 'revived' or watered down?

Other relevant posts:

Saturday, 20 December 2008


Just when you've suffered one too many columns by Milne, Steele, Jenkins and co., and decided to switch to the Times, the latter starts to publish articles that make you think you've leapt from the frying pan into the proverbial fire. First there was Jeanette Winterson, with her Buntingesque prophecy of secular doom and gloom (see here and here). Then along comes Melanie Reid to endorse the Archbishop of Canterbury's suggestion that, as a nation, we need to rediscover volunteering. Not only that, she wants to make volunteering compulsory (spot the flawed logic there?). Looks like Brownian paternalism is spreading. (Via)

Alan Johnson and Ingrid Betancourt on faith and prayer

The BBC News website features a fascinating and often moving conversation between Alan Johnson and Ingrid Betancourt about their experiences of being kidnapped, the former by Islamist militants in Gaza and the latter by the FARC in Colombia. Despite some similarities in the way they coped with the ordeal, they differed in one important way, as related by Johnson:

I am grateful to the many people who I know were kind enough to pray for me when I was lost in Gaza. But actually, I was not praying myself. I would hear on the radio of war and bloodshed in places like DR Congo, and I felt that if God was not intervening to spare the innocent there, I could not see quite why He might intervene for me.

I struggle to believe that God closely manages our individual lives. But Ingrid's faith seems to have been a huge factor in her survival. She said that I had simply not asked the right questions about God, and that it was our connection with Him that made us human. He was not creating the ills of the world, she said. Mankind had been given free will, and it was to blame.

Johnson is articulating one of the major stumbling-blocks to belief in a personal God. The experience of the Holocaust is often cited in evidence: if God failed to heed the cries of six million, who were surely praying as intensely as it is possible to imagine as they went to their deaths, why should we presume He would listen to our petty prayers for good health or a safe journey?

I remember reading an interview with an Anglican woman priest whose daughter was killed in the 7/7 bombings, as a result of which her Christian faith was deeply shaken. Friends tried to comfort her by reassuring her that, wherever her daughter was now, God would surely be looking after her. But why, the mother responded, wasn't He looking after her on that terrible morning, on the London Underground?

In the light of God's apparent silence through the horrors of the past century, the capacity to go on believing in Him depends on the extent to which one finds Ingrid Betancourt's response convincing.

Thursday, 18 December 2008


Reasons for secularists to be cheerful this holiday season:

Barack Obama hasn't been to church since election day, thus undermining the view that US presidents have to put on a show of religious devotion in public, whatever their private beliefs (though the President-elect slightly spoilt things this week by announcing that comparatively-liberal-but-still-stridently-anti-gay evangelical pastor Rick Warren will be doing the invocation at his Inauguration).

The Archbishop of Canterbury supports disestablishment of the Church of England. Well, kind of. In an interview with the New Statesman he says he 'recognises the case' for disestablishment, having seen the advantages of it firsthand as a priest and bishop in the Church in Wales.

But, as always with the dear old C of E, it's a case of 'on the one hand this, on the other hand something rather different', and Rowan Williams admits to some 'unease about going straight for disestablishment' because 'it's a very shaky time for the public presence of faith in society.' He elaborates: 'I think the motives that would now drive disestablishment from the state side would be mostly to do with...trying to push religion into the private sphere, and that's the point where I think I'd be bloody-minded and say, "Well, not on that basis"'. (Note to Dr. Williams: it's not necessarily up to you to decide.)

Elsewhere in the interview the archbishop repeats the usual platitudes about the apparent threat from 'secular fundamentalism', and gets a scandalously easy ride over his naive comments on sharia law from reporter James MacIntrye, who completely misrepresents the controversy as a conflict between the 'delicate' and 'complex' approach supposedly taken by Williams, and the 'feigned horror' and 'venomous attacks' of a 'rampant' and 'fickle' press. 

MacIntyre clearly supports Williams' approach to sharia, citing apparent evidence that it is now 'quietly' taking hold among British Muslims and claiming that the banking crisis has pointed up the merits of 'risk-averse sharia banking'. Anyone who is inclined to take seriously MacIntyre's and Williams' view of sharia as a rather benign method for solving family disputes and protecting one's investments, rather than an instrument of patriarchal control by unrepresentative fundamentalist elders, would be well advised to listen to what Muslim women such as Gina Khan have to say on the issue. 

Rowan Williams is obviously a big fan of The West Wing and towards the end of the interview he rather fancifully compares his own recent woes as Archbishop to those experienced by President Bartlet:

It's so consoling to watch those episodes when something goes terribly wrong - you know the president says something that is misinterpreted...and you think, 'Now what does that remind me of?'

West Wing devotees will recall that, in his very first scene in the opening episode, Bartlet has a group of self-righteous religious types thrown out of the White House, demonstrating that he has a much firmer grasp of the separation of church and state than Rowan Williams. To paraphrase: I know Josiah Bartlet. I've watched all seven series of The West Wing at least three times. Dr. Williams, you are no Josiah Bartlet.

No, I won't be afraid

After a slew of recent negative posts about religion and politics, I've been looking for something more positive and joyful to blog about, in keeping with the spirit of the season. Today, thanks to Norm, I came across this international version of Ben E. King's classic 'Stand By Me', which lifted my spirits. And it's all in a good cause, too:

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Noises, colours, shapes, feelings and flavours

A propos of this post, this made me chuckle. (Via)

Seasonal wailing from anti-secular pessimists

I was going to do a post about the wrongheadedness of all those predictable 'secularism has spoiled Christmas' articles that proliferate around this time of year, but Max Dunbar has saved me the trouble.  Max responds robustly to all the familiar nonsense about the rise of 'aggressive secularism' and religion supposedly being pushed out of the public sphere (ho ho), and scorns the 'parochial wailing' that characterises the fulminations of many religious commentators (as well as those secular liberals who don't have faith themselves, but think religion is all that stands between us and social collapse) about the state we're in:

Religion may not be based on truth but at least it kept people together. Now look at us. An empty, vapid, consumerist society obsessed with Facebook and the X Factor. The family's gone, our national identity has gone. We believe in nothing, we worship the false god rationality; we stumble around in our mindless hedonistic lives like characters in a Douglas Coupland novel, desperately searching for something to fill the void.


This sort of bullshit would have been laughed out of town in the liberal-left circles of the 1960s: now it's taken for wisdom, even radicalism.

Max's post is a welcome riposte to articles like this one by James Hanvey in a recent issue of The Tablet. Leaving to one side the article's annoying confusion of 'secular' and 'secularist' (the latter means a belief in the separation of church and state, so it's a nonsense to talk about a 'secularist' Christmas), the piece is full of the usual unexamined cliches about secularists who want a society free of religion, and about the intolerant 'high priests of secular modernity'. As I read Hanvey's piece, I began to wonder at what point in the recent past 'secularism' replaced sin and evil as the primary enemy of religious folk? As I've written many times on this blog, there was a brighter time, back in the 60s and 70s, post Vatican 2, when thoughtful Christians saw secular humanists as allies in the fight against the common enemies of poverty and injustice. These days, more and more people of faith seemed to be infected by a dangerously anti-modern pessimism, and more concerned with saving 'religion' from those nasty secularists than with looking for the good in contemporary society.

One Law For All: No To Sharia Campaign

Give your support to this new campaign which 'calls on the UK government to recognise that Sharia law is abitrary and discriminatory and for an end to Sharia courts and all religious tribunals on the basis that they work against and not for equality and human rights'.

According to campaign organiser, Maryam Namazie:

Even in civil matters, Sharia law is discriminatory, unfair and unjust, particularly against women and children. Moreover, its voluntary nature is a sham; many women will be pressured into going to these courts and abiding by their decisions. These courts are a quick and cheap route to injustice and do nothing to promote minority rights and social cohesion. Public interest, particularly with regard to women and children, requires an end to Sharia and all other faith-based courts and tribunals.

Of related interest:

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Night of the long knives at 'Today' programme

The truly shocking news  yesterday (at least for Radio 4 aficionados) was that Edward Stourton has been sacked from the Today programme. Apparently, he's being given the push to make way for Justin Webb, who's joining the programme after his stint as the BBC's North American editor. It seems it was a shock for Stourton too, who first heard the news in a phone call from a journalist.

I may be slightly biased, as Stourton was a contemporary of mine at Cambridge. We both read English there in the mid-70s and I vaguely remember him from university lectures, though otherwise our paths rarely crossed: he was an ex-Ampleforth minor aristocrat studying at Trinity, while I was a shy Methodist grammar-school boy at a much less illustrious college. But he comes across as a decent and likable person, and his warm, thoughtful tones make a pleasant change from John Humphrys' irritable harangue when you're getting up in the morning. And it sounds as though he's been badly treated by the BBC.
As for Justin Webb, I admit to some ambivalence about his appointment. On the one hand, he's been a useful opponent of the fashionable anti-Americanism that infects British public life. And at one time he was our main source of updates on US politics. But he didn't have a good election: he confidently called the election for McCain back in the summer and he's got a couple of important stories wrong since (the most recent example was giving far too much credence to ill-founded internet rumours of early liberal disillusionment with Obama).

What's more, in the age of the internet, it could be argued that the role of the US correspondent, with the job of interpreting America to the British public, has become rather redundant. Why listen to Justin's slightly second-hand commentary, when you can watch MSNBC online or read the latest news and views at Huffington Post? Rather than looking for another Brit to replace Webb, perhaps the BBC should follow the Guardian's example and appoint a top US journalist to give an American view on what's happening across the pond? 

Should Blair have come out as a Catholic when he was PM?

Kind of following on from the last two posts...

The BBC's Robert Pigott has done an interview with Tony Blair, in which the latter explains his decision to delay becoming a Catholic until after he had left office. The former PM argues that there would have been a 'palaver' if he had converted while he was still in Downing Street, and feared that talking too much about his religious beliefs at the time would have led to people dismissing him as a 'nutter'.

Despite my own agnostic secular humanism (coupled with the odd flash of ex-Christian nostalgia), I think it's a shame that Blair didn't feel able to be open about his proto-Catholicism while he was still prime minister. For one thing, it would have blown a hole in the historical anomaly by which high office in Britain is assumed to be restricted to card-carrying Protestant Christians. For another, despite all the mutterings about Blair's piety, in practice I think he had a firmer grasp of the separation of church and state than his Presbyterian successor. This was evident from the cries of 'hypocrisy!' after he 'came out' as a Catholic, not only from the usual far-left anti-Blair suspects, but from conservative Catholics who despised his position on abortion and his refusal to exempt the church from equality legislation.

If Tony Blair had felt able to be more honest about his beliefs while he was PM, he would have joined the ranks of honourable, liberal Catholic politicians - less numerous here than in the US, where Joe Biden, Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry are notable examples - who regularly arouse the wrath of bishops and cardinals and in doing so act as a reminder that the faith is not owned by the hierarchy, that not all Catholics are political reactionaries, and that not all progressive Christians have sold their souls to the anti-American pseudo-left.

Labour: liberal or paternalist?

Stephen over at Don't trip up (newly added to my blogroll) wrote an interesting post the other day about the 'old question' of a possible merger between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, particularly in the light of the threat from a revived Tory party. He argues:

Labour is a party of moderate socialism and radical liberalism, a blend not dissimilar to the social democracy and liberalism of the Liberal Democrats. The philosophical differences between the mainstreams of two parties are probably lesser than the differences within the two parties.

Stephen mentions the 'increasingly authoritarian turn' of the government, opposed by many Labour MPs, as a possible problem. I don't know about authoritarianism, but I've become increasingly worried by the paternalism of New Labour, particularly since Gordon Brown took over, which I think casts doubt on the party's commitment to the 'radical liberalism' which has always been an element of its politics.

This week we've had Jack Straw (a politician whom I normally have a lot of time for) using the term 'villains' charter' to describe the Human Rights Act (even if it was in implied quotation marks, and even if it was in an interview with the Daily Mail), and trotting out the hoary old paternalist line that rights need to be 'balanced' by responsibilities. Unusually, I found myself cheering Shami Chakrabati, when she objected that Straw ran the risk of implying that rights had to be 'earned', rather than being the inalienable possession of all. And then there has been a whole raft of recent interventions in education, whose intention has appeared to be the moral moulding of children along lines dictated by the centre, rather than the development of free, empowered citizens (see also here, here and here.)

The British Labour Party often congratulates itself that its politics owe more historically to Methodism than to Marxism, as if this were an indisputably good thing. But the downside of this Nonconformist heritage, especially under the leadership of the dourly Presbyterian Brown, seems to be a growing tendency to micro-manage the moral life of the nation, based on an assumption that (as I've written before) Gordon knows what's good for us. Whether or not the prospects are good for a Lab-Lib realignment, Labour desperately needs to reclaim its radical liberal, as well as its social democratic heritage.

Vicar bans carol in empty anti-Israel gesture

Rev. Stephen Coulter is a man who knows. He knows that one side (guess which one) in the Israel-Palestinian conflict is responsible for all the problems, and he knows what's right for his parishioners. After a visit to the West Bank, Coulter has banned the carol 'O Little Town of Bethlehem' from all festive services in his parish of Blandford Forum, Dorset. He thinks that the words 'How still we see thee lie' are too far removed from life in today's Bethlehem, and is reported as saying that where shepherds once watched their flocks by night, security guards now watch over the people.

No doubt criticisms can be made of Israel's security presence in Bethlehem, but any balanced explanation of the situation in the city would need to mention the continuing threat of Palestinian terrorism, and the growing influence of militant Islam in the area.  At the same time, if you were one of Rev. Coulter's parishioners and were looking forward to a spot of carol singing this Christmas, wouldn't you be a little irked that your vicar had decided - not suggested, mind you, but singlehandedly decreed - that one of your favourites was off-limits?

We need to be a little wary about this story - it appeared on a page in yesterday's Telegraph that was packed with similar 'whatever next' stories about the supposed decline of the traditional Christmas - a staple genre of conservative papers at this time of year. However, if true, it confirms some of the things I said in these recent posts about the peculiar combination of absolute moral certainty, dangerous political naivety, and empty gesture politics (particularly where Israel is concerned), that characterise the words and actions of many on the Christian 'left'.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

What would Franco and Salazar say?

New genetic research has revealed that as many as 20 per cent of Spanish and Portuguese men have Sephardic Jewish ancestry, while 11 per cent have DNA that indicates Moorish forebears. These findings are interesting for a number of reasons. They suggest that the extent of forced conversions to Catholicism in the 15th and 16th centuries was far greater than previously imagined. They are also a reminder that we are all, to some extent, and to borrow Barack Obama's expressive term, 'mutts', and are thus a boost to pluralistic and cosmopolitan approaches to matters of personal identity. And they are a massive and welcome rebuff to the racial purism and exclusivism, cloaked in right-wing Catholicism, that has often plagued the Iberian peninsula. Franco and Salazar must be spinning in their graves.

R.I.P. Oliver Postgate

So farewell then, Oliver Postgate, creator of the Clangers, Pogles Wood and Ivor the Engine, and the sound of whose voice is inseparable from memories of childhood tea-times in far-off, gentler days:

Education as therapy

My internal alarm bells were set ringing and personal hackles made to rise by this news item:

Traditional lessons in history, geography and science should be removed from the primary curriculum and children taught their essential content through cross-curricular themes classes, the biggest enquiry into primary schooling in a generation will report today.

It seems that Sir Jim Rose, the government's chief advisor on primary education, wants to remove 'rigid subject areas' and replace them with project work that encompasses a range of skills. 

My blood pressure lowered a little as I read on, and saw that the six 'areas of understanding' which Rose wants to introduce are more or less the present range of subjects grouped under different headings. So perhaps there was nothing to worry about after all.

But then I saw that Rose wants government to impose a 'central requirement on teachers to encourage children's social and emotional well-being in an explicit recognition that schools must help cure some of the 'social ills' facing society'. Oh dear, here we go again.

So while private schools continue to impart the knowledge and understanding that will enable middle-class children to rise effortlessly to the top of the pile, state education is increasingly reduced to therapy for working-class kids, to compensate for rather than eradicate social divisions. The bright vision of radical and socialist educators down the years - of liberating children through knowledge, and giving all children a share in our common cultural heritage - seems to have got lost along the way.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Just a bit of empty symbolism?

Today's double-page spread in the Guardian was this photo of yesterday's State Opening of Parliament:

You really need to see an enlarged view to get the full effect. The paper helpfully provided a key, so you could work out where everyone was sitting during the Queen's Speech (she's the lonely white figure in the distance). The Commonwealth guests of the Lord Chamberlain are in the gallery behind the throne; ambassadors to the left of the monarch; bewigged judges immediately in front of her; clerks of the Lords and bishops just behind and to the left of them; peers (that sea of red with white bits) filling up the stalls, so to speak; peers' spouses and partners (very modish) in the kind of choir stalls either side; VIP guests in the raised gallery around the edge; and the media in the cheap seats at the back, nearest the camera.

Did you notice anyone missing from that list? It may be an editorial oversight, but I couldn't find any mention of members of the House of Commons, unless it's that huddle of figures standing in the bottom left hand corner, with the rest possibly below the press box, out of sight. OK, so it's only a picture, and I know it's a bit of ritualistic rigmarole which doesn't have anything to do with the 'real' business of running the country. But doesn't the symbolism of the picture speak volumes about our creaking constitution and our outmoded sense of who we are as a nation?

Here we have the spectacle of a hereditary head of state, setting out 'her' government's plans for the coming session, primarily to an audience of unelected legislators, with the only elected officials present - the only representatives of us, 'the people' - squeezed in at the back as if they (and by extension we) were an afterthought. The symbolism is the complete opposite of what it would be in any real democracy, in which government is truly by the people, for the people, and not loaned out to us as a favour by our betters.

End of rant.

Funding homophobia

A.C.Grayling has fun in this piece with attempts to show that religious belief is 'hardwired' into human nature. The research is funded by the Templeton Foundation - 'an organisation keen to find, or to insert, religion into science and to promote belief in their compatibility'. I'm as hostile as Grayling to this kind of misguided and reductive abuse of neuroscience. But I sometimes think that Grayling, like his fellow atheist Richard Dawkins, is a little harsh on the Foundation. If a rich man wants to spend his money trying to find scientific evidence for his religious beliefs, then that's up to him - and other, more sceptical scientists are free to refute the resulting findings.

On the other hand, I don't think that John Templeton (son of the Foundation's founder and its current president) has any business using his financial resources to influence democratic elections, especially those that affect people's civil rights. It emerged recently that Templeton (acting in a personal capacity, not on behalf of his Foundation) was one of the biggest funders (after the Mormon church) of the successful Proposition 8 campaign. I'm still at a loss to understand why these homophobic religious types are so keen to stop gay people marrying, when it would have no impact whatever on their own practices or beliefs. There seems to be a certain failure to understand the separation of church and state - the churches don't own civil marriage, and they are perfectly free to carry on restricting church marriages to heterosexual couples, if that's their wish.

Supporters of gay marriage may have lost the battle - for now - but they can still laugh at their opponents. I liked this response from some of Hollywood's finest (The West Wing's Alison Janney does a good impersonation of an uptight religious matron):


N.B.Having received advice from the Templeton Foundation since writing this (see comment below) I've amended the above post to make it clear that John Templeton Jr's donation to the Prop 8 cause was made in a private capacity and had nothing to do with the Foundation.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Read Hitchens and Mehta on Mumbai, avoid Dalrymple

Must-reads on Mumbai:

This column which, with its revelation that hostages were tortured before being shot, confirms the sheer inhumanity of the terrorists, and with its indication that Jews were singled out for particularly horrific treatment, is further evidence that the attackers weren't responding to some local 'grievance' but were motivated by an all-too-familiar transnational ideology of which antisemitism is a consistent feature.

Christopher Hitchens on what the terrorists thought they were attacking:

What's at stake is the whole concept of a cosmopolitan city open to its own citizens and to the world - a city on the model of Sarajevo or London or Beirut or Manhattan. There is, of course, a reason they attract the ire and loathing of the religious fanatics. To the pure and godly, the very existence of such places is a profanity.

Along similar lines, Suketu Mehta (author of Maximum City, a paeon to Mumbai) celebrating his home city, which he loves for all the reasons that the fundamentalists hate it:

Why do they go after Mumbai? There's something  about this island-state that appalls religious extremists, Hindus and Muslims alike. Perhaps because Mumbai stands for lucre, profane dreams and an indiscriminate openness.

Best avoided:

This inevitable and predictable attempt to pin the blame on anybody (America, Britain, India, even Israel) but the perpetrators, by the always reliable William Dalrymple, devastatingly deconstructed by Eamonn McDonagh.

More must-reads:

This from David Aaronovitch, wondering why, if the terrorists were motivated by local, communal grievances, they went out of their way to target 'the small headquarters of a small outreach sect of a small religion, which far from being a big symbol of anything, you would almost certainly need a detailed map and inside knowledge even to find'.

As he says, the treatment of the hostages at Nariman House gives the lie to root cause 'explanetics'. And Aaronovitch wonders if it's coincidental that the area that gave birth to some of the Mumbai murderers (the south Punjab) has one of the highest levels of acid attacks on women anywhere in the world. The terrorists, he concludes, represent 'a political-religious movement of men espousing violent self-righteousness, impossible purity and hatred of human complexity. No wonder the target was cosmopolitan Mumbai, with its foreigners, minorities, its maddening mix of people and moralities, all of them diluting the one, true, narrow way.'

And although I don't agree with its author's conservative and anti-secularist politics, this piece by Dennis Prager, on the centrality of antisemitism to the Islamist mindset, is also required reading:

Why would a terrorist group of Islamists from Pakistan whose primary goal is to have Pakistan gain control of the third of Kashmir that belongs to India and therefore aimed to destabilize India's major city devote so much of its efforts - 20 per cent of its force of 10 gunmen whose stated goal was to kill 5,000 - to killing a rabbi and any Jews with him?

The question echoes one from World War II: Why did Hitler devote so much time, money, and manpower in order to murder every Jewish man, woman, and child in every country the Nazis occupied? [...]

From the perspective of political scientists, historians, and contemporary journalists, the answer to these questions is not rational. But the non-rationality of an answer is not synonymous with its non-validity

For the Islamists, as for the Nazis, the destruction of the Jews - and since 1948, the Jewish state - is central to their worldview.

If anyone has a better explanation for why Pakistani terrorists, preoccupied with destabilizing India, would expend so much effort at finding the one Jewish center in a country that is essentially devoid of Jews, I would like to hear it.

Gramsci: secret Catholic humanist?

The story about Antonio Gramsci's deathbed conversion (or reversion) to Catholicism is fascinating, even if it turns out to be untrue. At least, it's fascinating to those of us (admittedly a tiny minority) who have found ourselves attracted at some time in our lives to both Catholicism and Euro-communism. 

The sceptics point to the absence of any mention of a return to faith in Gramsci's final letters, and to the fact that he is buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, traditional resting-place of unbelievers (the graves of Keats and Shelley can also be found there) as counter-evidence. And, on the face of it, a reconciliation between the greatest Marxist theorist of the twentieth-century, and the faith that he spent his life seeking to replace, does seem rather unlikely.

On the other hand, I've often felt that there are parallels between Gramsci's revisionist Marxism and the more sacramental, incarnational forms of Christianity. Just as Catholic theology views humanity as fundamentally good, and (at least in theory) seeks to 'go with the grain' of human culture and society - so Gramsci's Marxist humanism attempts to identify the 'good sense' in everyday 'common sense', and to build on existing social structures. And Gramsci had a great respect for tradition, believing that the new social order would incorporate the best of the old (see these posts). By contrast, you could argue that there are distinct similarities between extreme Calvinist Protestantism, with its negative vision of humanity and profound suspicion of culture, and the slash-and-burn revolutionism of the Leninist far left. So, whether or not the deathbed conversion story turns out to be true, perhaps Antonio was more Catholic (in a broad sense) than he, or his more secular supporters, would likely to admit.

I must confess to not having read any Gramsci for years. But there was a period in my life when the Prison Notebooks were my main political and intellectual reference-point. It's enough, now, to open the tattered pages of my Lawrence and Wishart edition, for me to be transported back, Proust-like, to the heady days of the mid-1980s, and I'm standing again in the Centerprise Bookshop on Stoke Newington High Street, leafing through the latest issue of Marxism Today or Red Letters, the smell of vegetarian food wafting through from the cafe, my 'Coal not Dole' badge proudly displayed on my donkey-jacket. Ah, memories...

(Via Dolphinarium, now added to my blogroll)