Monday, 23 November 2009

Health of the nation

Best wishes for a speedy recovery to my fellow blogger, Brigada Flores Magon, who's feeling rough after a spell in hospital. I heartily concur with Brigada's words of praise for the National Health Service: 'Yet again I was bowled over by the hard work, professionalism, cheerfulness, concern and sheer love shown by the people working at its front line.'

By coincidence, I too had a brush with the health service at the weekend: nothing to compare, really, just a trip to A & E for treatment of a very minor injury. But I, too, was struck by the dedication of those on duty. While I was in the treatment room, ambulance staff wheeled in a woman who had been in a road accident, strapped from head to foot on a stretcher, together with her baby daughter who had been asleep on the back seat of the car. Thank goodness neither was badly hurt, but I was mightily impressed by the care and attention lavished on them by the nurses and ambulance workers: they dealt with the situation with professionalism, care, and an appropriate dash of humour (even managing to make the injured parties laugh, which was quite something in the circumstances).

This was, of course, the weekend when the US Senate voted to proceed to a debate on the health care reform bill (well done, conservative Democrats, for stepping up to the plate). Googling my injury while deciding whether I needed to go to A & E, I came across a number of US-based forum discussions in which contributors urged their fellow sufferers to treat themselves at home and avoid a costly visit to the Emergency Room. Another reason to give thanks for the NHS. Come on, you Democrats: face down the turncoat Lieberman and go full-out for that public option.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Turn it up!

At last, it's on Youtube. Those who control the Van Morrison brand have finally overcome their copyright objections to sharing this electrifying performance of 'Caravan' with the world. But they still won't let you embed it. Never mind the uncool side-parted and blow-dried hair, the portly appearance, the naff fashion sense, the surly demeanour: this is Van the Man at his best.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Frank talk about education

Here's Rafael Behr recalling a visit to a school in the Midlands:

A few years ago, I visited a school in Leicester that inspectors had declared to be outstanding in the provision of classes in "citizenship". This was a subject only recently invented by government in response to nagging national anxiety over "social cohesion". No one seemed to have any idea how, pedagogically speaking, to make citizens. Except, apparently, in the Midlands.

I was told how the citizenship "agenda" was woven through the rest of the curriculum – sequins of political liberalism sewn on to the fabric of other subjects. One history teacher explained to me how she had met her citizenship obligations by placing al-Qaida terrorism in the context of CIA support for Afghan mujahideen during the cold war. A 14-year-old pupil proved he had internalised this long view by explaining that, while the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist attacks were bad, they were also, in a sense, "payback". A statutory duty to inculcate civic mindedness had somehow equipped British teenagers with a pseudo-jihadi notion of terrorist murder as historical quid pro quo.

The anecdote is by way of an introduction to Behr's review of Frank Furedi's new book on education which 'devotes several pages to the ill-conceived citizenship agenda, but as just one example of the way our classrooms have become inadvertent laboratories in queasy liberal social engineering.' It's not that Furedi necessarily disagrees with the liberal values being thus inculcated: 'His core argument is that the aspiration to fashion children's souls according to political criteria is not really education at all; at least, not as he thinks that word should be understood.'

I haven't had a chance to read Furedi's book, but if Behr's summary of its argument is at all accurate, then it echoes some of the themes I was banging on about in these posts. This paragraph from the review goes to the heart of it:

The curriculum, in Furedi's analysis, has come to be seen by policymakers as an easy tool for the correction of wider cultural and behavioural problems. Obesity epidemic? Teach children about healthy eating. Too much teenage pregnancy? More sex education. By extension, teachers have become mediators in a process of socialisation – policing "values" rather than directing thoughts; a secular political clergy with the education secretary as pope. Pedagogy, meanwhile, has come to look more like therapy, with motivational and psychological techniques coming to the fore, along with a fashionable horror of allowing children to get bored. Everything must be "relevant".

Of course, those who advocate this kind of utilitarian, therapeutised form of education claim that they are being 'progressive' and that the defenders of a subject-based curriculum are reactionary and elitist, when in fact the opposite is true:

Furedi admits it is a small "c" conservative view, but he rejects the charge that it is elitist. If, in the past, only the elite had such an education, the policy challenge is how to extend it to all, not how to make it seem worthless by denouncing it as irrelevant in order to teach something easier instead.

Incidentally, one of the best books on education that I've ever read (as I've mentioned before) is Harold Entwistle's study of Gramsci's pedagogy, which is subtitled 'Conservative Schooling for Radical Politics'. Behr ends with this:

None of that solves the problem of how to turn children into citizens. But then, perhaps, if they have a good enough education, they can work it out for themselves.

Precisely. Moreover, being introduced to, and made to feel participants in, the history, culture and knowledge of our society is what prepares children to be citizens of that society (not being encouraged to empathise with jihadists). In the past, it's what made working-class men and women into radicals and (who knows) if we had a truly democratic education system, rather than elite knowledge for those at private schools and skills and therapy for the rest, it might do so again.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Proposing and performing

There’s a fascinating debate about the nature of belief going on between Norm and Peter, prompted by something Richard wrote, and with a useful contribution from Chris. In brief, it all hinges on whether religious belief is best described as performative or propositional in nature, and the original spark seems to have been Karen Armstrong’s latest book.

Regular readers will know that this is a subject of continuing interest to this blog (see here, for example). I’m planning to make a proper contribution to the discussion at some point, but in the meantime here’s something I came across recently that might be of relevance:

The guest a couple of weeks ago on Radio 4’s The Choice (a programme that is occasionally worth tuning into, despite Michael Buerk’s irritatingly doomladen tones) was Paul Moore, the man who blew the whistle on HBOS. I was intrigued to hear that Moore’s actions were inspired, in part, by his newly-revived Catholic faith. Looking him up on the internet, I came across an article in the Catholic Herald which included this snippet:

Paul Moore's upbringing was deeply Catholic. He was a boarder from the age of eight at Ampleforth in Yorkshire. But when he left he lost his faith. He pursued a career in the City of London, where, he said, he led a life dominated by a futile quest for money and material pleasures. 

"I was very miserable and I was working very hard but I couldn't find any peace or any joy and so I was looking for a way to feel happier and more peaceful." He began to rediscover his faith and in 2002 he moved to the Yorkshire village of Wass to take a job with HBOS at the bank's office in Leeds.

Wass is just down the road from Ampleforth. "When we moved back up to my alma mater I said to myself: 'I'm going to try to have faith, to pretend that I've got faith.' And as I pretended to have faith, I got faith."

Now, some secularist commentators might be tempted to scoff at this apparent confirmation that religious faith is little more than wishful thinking. But not me. Instead, Moore’s words struck me as an accurate description of how faith tends to work. Personally, I wouldn’t have used the word ‘pretend’, but I find the idea of belief deepening through external practice – working, as it were ‘from the outside in’ – true to my own experience, and to a socially-situated / embodied / materialist view of the world (the ideas of Wittgenstein, Bakhtin and even Cardinal Newman come to mind – but they’ll have to wait for another time).

I haven’t read Armstrong’s book and I have to confess to an inbuilt resistance to anything she writes. (Her book on the Buddha made me realise why I wasn’t, after all, a Buddhist, and the only other volume of hers that I’ve read, her History of God, seemed shot through with a gnostic elitism which found ‘true’ faith in the ideas of a knowing minority and was dismissive of the beliefs of the humble masses. What’s more, Armstrong’s interventions in recent debates about faith have revealed her to be unwilling to apply to Islam the same critical perspective she casts on Christianity, and to be an apologist for fundamentalism and an enemy of freedom of expression.) However, I suspect that the problem with her defence of religion - as being more about ‘doing’ than ‘believing’ - is that it confuses description with justification. Yes, of course, as a description of most people’s religious faith an emphasis on everyday practice is probably more important than an analysis of their propositional beliefs. But as a justification for the validity of religious belief – and particularly of one set of beliefs over another – it’s a non-starter.

But more on all of this another time.

Facing facts about Fort Hood

It seems to be my week for disagreeing with Rachel Maddow. When news of the Fort Hood tragedy broke, the MSNBC presenter was quick to dismiss as 'right-wing' suggestions that suspected shooter Major Nidal Malik Hasan might have been inspired by Islamist ideology. This was rather like those annoying claims that Christopher Hitchens had somehow 'moved to the right' because he supported a war to remove a fascist dictator.

To be sure, the events at Fort Hood were the occasion for some predictable moonbattery from the usual right-wing conspiracy theorists, but as more information leaks out about Hasan, it becomes clear that a similar myopia has prevented some on the left (such as Maddow) from seeing things as they really are. Here's Ibn Warraq:
In the wake of the murder of 13 and the wounding of 38 soldiers at Fort Hood on November 5, media analysts, politicians, and other sundry experts scrambled to present the accused perpetrator of the acts, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, 39, as a victim. In so doing they served, knowingly or otherwise, as apologists for radical Islam. From CNN to the New York Times, NPR to theWashington Post, the killings were presented as a result of racism. They were attributed to fear of deployment in Afghanistan and harassment from other soldiers. Cited were Major Hasan’s supposed maladjustment to his life and his sense of not belonging, pre-traumatic stress disorder, and various personal and mental problems. All these explanations are variations on what I have called “the Root Cause Fallacy,” which has been committed time and again since the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001. The Root Cause Fallacy was designed to deflect attention away from Islam, in effect to exonerate Islam, which, we are told, is never to blame for acts of violence. On this view we must not hold a great world religion of peace responsible when individuals of that faith resort to force. We must dig deeper: the real cause is poverty, U.S. foreign policy, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Western colonialism and exploitation, marital problems of individuals, and so on. The present “psychological” interpretations in the case of Major Hasan are just the latest example of the Root Cause Fallacy at work.
Warraq argues that Hasan's 'jihadist intentions are there on the surface for everyone not paralyzed by political correctness to see':
According to CNN (Nov. 7), on the morning of the shootings Hasan gave copies of the Koran to his neighbors. According to the Associated Press (Nov. 6), soldiers reported that Hasan shouted out “Allahu Akbar” [God is Great] – the war cry of all Jihadis – before firing off over a hundred rounds with two pistols in a center where some 300 unarmedsoldiers had lined up for vaccines and eye tests. NPR informs us that Hasan was put on probation early in his postgraduate work at the Uniformed Service University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., for proselytizing about his Muslim faith with patients and colleagues. The Associated Press (Nov. 11) adds that classmates who studied with Hasan from in that postgraduate program reported Hasan making a presentation during their studies "that justified suicide bombing" and spewed "anti-American propaganda," denouncing the war on terror as "a war against Islam." Classmate Val Finnell and another student complained about Hasan, shocked that someone with "this type of vile ideology" would be allowed to wear an officer’s uniform. But, importantly, no one filed a formal complaint about Hasan’s views and comments for fear of appearing discriminatory -- in other words, out of political correctness. According to The Telegraph (Nov. 6), Army colleagues reported that Major Hasan had condemned U.S. foreign policy, that he clearly declared that Muslims had the right to rise up and attack Americans, that he expressed happiness when a U.S. soldier was killed in an attack on a military recruitment center in Arkansas in June, and that he said people should strap bombs on themselves and go to Times Square. It has been widely reported that Major Hasan attended the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Virginia Falls during the time that Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemen-based al-Qaeda preacher with extensive terrorist connections, was its main preacher. Awlaki even praised Major Hasan as a hero on November 9, four days after the Fort Hood attacks. The Times of London revealed (Nov. 10) that Major Hasan had been in direct correspondence with Awlaki, in connection with which Hasan had already been under investigation by the F.B.I. Almost every news source has reported that Major Hasan was also under investigation by federal law enforcement officials for his postings to an internet site speaking favorably of suicide bombing.
And Warraq concludes:

It is time to abandon apologetics, and political correctness. Not all Muslims are terrorists. Not all Muslims are implicated in the horrendous events of September 11, 2001 -- or of November 5, 2009. However, to pretend that Islam has nothing to do with 9/11 or the Fort Hood massacre is willfully to ignore the obvious. To leave Islam out of the equation means to forever misinterpret events. Without Islam, the long-term strategy and individual acts of violence by Osama bin Laden and his followers make little sense. Without Islam, the West will go on being incapable of understanding our terrorist enemies, and hence will be incapable to deal with them. Without Islam, neither is it possible to comprehend the barbarism of the Taliban, the position of women and non-Muslims in Islamic countries, or -- now-- the murders attributed to Major Hasan.

We are confronted, after all, with Islamic terrorists; and we must take theIslamic component seriously. Westerners in general and Americans in particular no longer seem able to grasp the passionate religious convictions of Islamic terrorists. It is this passionate conviction, directed against the West and against non-Muslims in general, that drives them. They are truly, and literally, God-intoxicated fanatics. If we refuse to understand that, we cannot understand them.

(Via Mick)

If this information about Hasan's Islamist inclinations proves correct, then (sadly) it disproves one thesis - that America is immune from the virus of home-grown jihadism that has taken root in parts of Britain - and provides further evidence for another: that terrorism, rather than being a response to social and political disadvantage, tends to infect members of the educated and privileged middle-class and is a product of individual pathology linked to ideological fanaticism.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Stupak simplifications

Earlier this year I dipped my toe in the controversial waters of the abortion debate, expressing my conflicted feelings, as someone who sees himself as pro-feminist and generally on the left, but gets queasy about a good deal of abortion rights rhetoric. Now, at the risk of alienating my liberal-left and secularist readership (with whom, on most issues, I am at one), I’m going to get my feet wet again.

Here at Margins Manor we’ve been following the US health reform debate quite closely, particularly as we were in Washington when some of the key breakthroughs occurred. This week, the successful passage of the health care bill through the House, thanks in part to the inclusion of the Stupak amendment restricting federal funding of abortion, has brought the issue back into the centre of political debate – and to the forefront of my mind.

On MSNBC’s Meet the Press last Sunday, Rachel Maddow described the amendment as a ‘poison pill’ that would alienate women from the Democratic Party. I’m usually a huge admirer of Maddow – watching clips from her show on the laptop at the kitchen table is a regular tea-time treat in our household – but on this issue I’m tempted to agree, if only for a swiftly passing moment, with those who criticise MSNBC as a liberal mirror-image of the execrably one-sided Fox News. Whenever Rachel discusses this topic, she always describes opponents of abortion as ‘anti-choice’, a phrase that is just as loaded as the equally partisan ‘pro-life’ (who isn’t?), and which rides roughshod over the complex and conflicted views of the majority of Americans.

Those on the left, like Maddow, who are up in arms about Stupak, characterise it as the denial of state funding for a perfectly legal medical procedure. In theory they’re right. But can abortion really be treated like any other medical procedure - except perhaps when it’s a matter of saving the mother’s life? Defending the gains of the women’s movement is of the first importance, but isn’t it a massive simplification to see federal funding for abortion as only a women’s rights issue? Isn’t the difficulty with abortion that it’s an issue that involves a balancing of competing rights – crucially, the right of a woman to make decisions about what happens to her body, and the right of the unborn child to life? Pretending that having an abortion is as morally straightforward as having your appendix out, or casting aspersions on the genuine ethical concerns of your opponents, is disingenuous.

Looking for a perspective on Stupak that goes beyond the shouting match between the partisans of left and right, I turned to Michael Sean Winters. In a comment on an earlier post of mine, Martin M. voiced doubts about the possibilities for a liberal Catholicism. But Winters, who has attempted to (re-) build bridges between the Church and the Democratic Party, represents exactly the kind of thoughtful, engaged, left-of-centre Catholicism that one had thought extinct, even if he is something of a voice crying in the wilderness.

Writing this week about the amendment to the health care bill, Winters denies that it’s a vote against women:

No, the members who voted for Stupak sent a message to the entire country that abortion is an issue about which most Americans evidence profound ambivalence. Even those who think it should be legal do not think it is something to be encouraged. "Safe, legal and rare" was the formulation Bill Clinton provided in 1996 and it captured the way most Americans feel still, especially those in the center of the electorate.

Like Clinton, Obama has pledged himself to look for common ground on abortion and has identified reducing the number of abortions as an aim that people on both sides of this contentious issue should be able to agree on. I don’t pretend to understand all the details of the Stupak amendment, but it seems to be a step in this direction, and a pragmatic concession that will ensure that the larger, historic project of providing affordable health care for all Americans finally comes to pass. As Winters writes:

What should be clear, crystal clear, is that many of us who support health care reform, who backed the President in part because of his pledge to accomplish health care reform, also cringe at the prospect of health care reform being hijacked by Planned Parenthood to increase abortion coverage with our tax dollars.

I'd encourage you to read the whole article. Even if you disagree profoundly with Winters' position, and are deeply suspicious of the Church's role in American politics, it's important to acknowledge that there is a perfectly respectable left-of-centre argument against unrestricted abortion.

While we’re on the subject, you may find this video (via Red Maria) a little cheesy, and take issue with its implicit message, but it’s good to see the Catholic Church making the positive ‘pro-life’ case for a change, rather than indulging in horror stories and negative rhetoric:

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Just go for it, OK?

It must be a sign of age. These days, despite my Eng Lit and Cult Studies background, I tend to find instances of linguistic innovation irritating rather than intriguing. Here’s a couple of recent examples that have raised my hackles:

A few weeks ago, at my place of work, I arrived early at a room where we were due to conduct some interviews, to find a young admin person setting out the furniture. When I asked if it was all right to come in, she replied – not ‘of course’ or ‘certainly’ - but ‘Yeah - go for it.’ Coincidentally, on another morning in the very same week, as I walked into the barber shop to have my hair cut, the equally youthful hairdresser invited me to take a seat with the same phrase.

What was it about the phrase that annoyed me? Partly it was the shock of the unfamiliar: hearing a saying I’d hitherto associated with the presenters of children’s TV programmes being used in ordinary adult conversation. Was it that my laconic middle-aged self simply felt exhausted by the phrase’s high-energy associations? Or maybe it was a cross-generational thing: the surprise of finding myself, a fiftysomething, being addressed by twentysomethings in the argot that they presumably use with each other. Perhaps I should have been flattered.

The second example occurred when I was travelling by train this week. Sitting across the aisle from me were two women, obviously catching up after not seeing each other for a while. As one of them recounted the familiar litany of children’s schools, holidays, new job, etc, the other punctuated her remarks not with the usual ‘really?’ or ‘I see’– but with a regular ‘oh - OK’. I’ve come across this conversational gambit before, and I’ve been trying to work out why it gets my goat.

I think it’s because I'm used to hearing ‘OK’ used as a response when one person is giving another a list of instructions, or inviting agreement. Used as my fellow train traveller was using it – to an interlocutor simply sharing items of news – it sounded as though she were giving her approval – ‘that’s OK, I approve of that’ – when it wasn’t asked for. Or perhaps the opposite was true. It’s difficult to convey tone of voice here, but there was a hint of questioning antipodean upspeak (maybe that’s where this useage originated?) in this woman’s ‘OK’, which made it sound like she meant ‘that may be OK, but I’m thinking about it before I give my approval’ . Either way, to me (as one not used to this conversational ploy) it came across as pushy and rude, as if the speaker were foregrounding her own (approving or disapproving ) response, rather than simply acknowledging her acquaintance’s statements - as would have been the case with the more usual – and more neutral - ‘really?’

I’d be interested to know if any of my readers – whether middle-aged grumps like me, or young things who recognise these verbal traits as part of their own repertoire - agree with my analysis of these neologisms.

Supporting Yoani

As a small mark of support for brave Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, who was seized and beaten by state security agents on Friday, I've belatedly added the indispensable Generation Y to my blogroll.

Breakfast at Tiffany's

We were in London yesterday to see Anna Friel in Breakfast at Tiffany's at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. The play was directed by Sean Mathias, whose Waiting for Godot we saw at the same theatre earlier this year, and it was characterised by similarly imaginative and innovative staging. Although this production goes back to the original Capote story (which I have to confess, I haven't read), which is apparently grittier than the universally-known Blake Edwards film, it's really difficult to get Audrey Hepburn's iconic performance out of your head - and to avoid comparisons.

Anna Friel turns in a spirited and energetic performance, and she is always (as they say) easy on the eye, but she lacks the magical elusiveness and lightness of touch of Hepburn. I'm no expert, but I'd say her accent was a little strained at times, and as often happens, you get the impression that studied attention to the externalities of the character has meant less work on the more internal aspects.

Playing opposite her as the aspiring writer, Joseph Cross (seen most recently alongside Sean Penn in Milk) was also impressive, but one of the problems with the production is that there is insufficient contrast between the two main characters. Whereas in the movie the wry, if naive urbanity of the writer contrasts with the many-layered mystery of Miss Holly Golightly, here they are too similar in their out-of-town newness, pushiness and emotional flightiness.

The cast members worked their socks off, with most of them playing two or three parts. Thank goodness they decided not to repeat Mickey Rooney's offensive cartoon Chinaman in the portrayal of landlord Mr. Yonioshi. Among the supporting cast, Dermot Crowley's performance as dependable but Holly-obsessed barman Joe Bell stood out as particularly memorable..

All in all, it was an absorbing and thought-provoking afternoon in the theatre. And London itself looked autumnally beautiful yesterday, with the newly-restored whiteness of St. Martin in the Fields gleaming in the afternoon sunshine, and Quakers and soldiers mingling peacefully in contrasting Remembrance weekend demonstrations in Trafalgar Square, as we walked to the theatre. The woman who does those imitations of Renaissance paintings in chalk was, as always, on the pavement outside the National Gallery - and, as always, we didn't catch her actually doing any chalking. My son has the idea of setting up a webcam in the square to prove that she doesn't produce the pictures herself - but instead arrives before the crowds, tapes down the finished product, scatters a few chalks around and waits for the beguiled tourists to fill her hat with coins.

Friday, 6 November 2009

A couple of quotes on humanism and secularism

First, Austin Dacey (via B&W) on the futility of seeing secular humanism as a replacement for religion:

Humanists are right to think that there is more to life than atheism, but wrong to think that they are the ones to provide it. It is not the job of religion’s critics to organize a replacement.

Just to show you how serious I am, I’ve christened a new fallacy to give a name to this mistake in thinking: I call it the fallacy of decomposition. The fallacy of decomposition is the mistake of supposing that as the estate of religion collapses, there must be a single new institution that to arises to serve the same social functions it served—that the social space vacated by religion must be filled by a religion-shaped object. Instead, it could be that in the lot once occupied by faith there springs up a variegated garden, a patchwork of independent institutions, each of which fulfills one of those functions. Out of one, many.

Thus, for our education, we attend the university; for cosmological clarity, we visit the planetarium; for therapy, the therapist; for beauty, the museum, the concert hall. Good stories? We read the Good Book, sure, but also the good books.

After all, it was something like this phenomenon that characterized the secularization of Western Europe. The dramatic drop in regular church attendance in Europe was not accompanied by a dramatic spike in the membership of organized atheism or humanism, which remains marginal. For post-religious Europeans, the point was to not show up anywhere once a week to seek absolution, but to stay out late on Saturday nights and sleep in late on Sunday mornings.

When you think about it, organized humanism is a hard sell. Do you like paying dues and making forced pleasantries over post-service coffee cake, but can’t stand beautiful architecture and professionally trained musicians? If so, organized humanism may be for you. Greg Epstein (the “humanist chaplain” at Harvard and the author of Good Without God) is a lovely person, but I’ve heard him sing, and I think I’ll stick to Bach, Arvo Pärt, and Kirk Franklin for my spiritual uplift. Do we really need an institution for people who find Reform Judaism and Unitarian Universalism too rigid? Yes. It’s called the weekend.

Dacey concludes:

The promise and the peril of the open, liberal democratic society lies precisely in the possibility of a civility and a solidarity untethered from any unitary philosophy or community—it doesn’t all have to hang together. The secular house has many mansions.

Second (and I missed this when it appeared earlier this year), Thierry Chervel on the canard of 'Enlightenment fundamentalism'. Responding to the pessimistic fulminations of John Gray, Chervel asks:

Is there such thing as Enlightenment fundamentalism, a mirror image of Islamic fundamentalism? Is there a danger that these fundamentalisms will drive one another into a spiral of violence until a clash of cultures ensues?

He takes on on the argument that utopian political movements of the twentieth century were as fundamentalist as some religions:

But if real existing socialism was a fundamentalism, it certainly wasn't Enlightenment fundamentalism. It practised dogmatic exegesis like religious fundamentalism. It just used a different book. Fundamentalisms try to model reality according to a truth pronounced in a text. Anything that doesn't fit the model is lopped off. They promise a return to original purity, redemption from the corruption of alienating market developments, proximity to God, care in the community instead of the sad, isolated recognition of one's own mortality. No responsibility is accepted for collateral damage on the path back to this blessed state. Some want to reach it through terrorism, others content themselves with isolating a particular community and directing the terror inwards.

There is nothing in the reaction of Western societies to Islam or Islamism which bears any resemblance to such discourse or behaviour. There is intolerance, certainly, and indifference, racism, discrimination and a whole repertoire of grievances which not only Muslims are forced to endure every day. These cannot be called enlightened.

How is it possible to equate the Enlightenment with fundamentalism? Its principles are aimed precisely against the belief in fundamentals. It is only by "thinking for oneself" that one emerges from self-imposed immaturity. By thinking for oneself one frees oneself of dogmas and seemingly eternal truths which are imposed by the clergy. Thinking for oneself also means thinking about oneself, self-reflection, self-relativisation in relation to others. This is why the motto of the Enlightenment is often paradoxical: "Freedom is the freedom of dissenters." The Enlightenment does not believe in any automatism on this path to self-awareness. That would make it a progressive philosophy which turns people into marionettes of some externally-steered process.

As for the cultural-relativist argument that Enlightenment values are simply a 'western' imposition:

The ideas of the Enlightenment are [...] not meant as "Western values" that stand in opposition to Islam. For a start they presuppose a distance from one's own religions and traditions. Paradoxically, the democracy that was born out of the Enlightenment became the only regime which allows a coexistence of religions. Of course the Enlightenment throws doubt on beliefs of every kind, but it also allows them as a freedom of the dissenter. Belief becomes a personal avowal, quite separate from tradition or priestly compulsion. It is the freedom to lapse that makes belief real.

This freedom to practise religion – rather than "Enlightenment fundamentalism" – is what really attracts the hatred of the fundamentalists. They are not interested in religion but in the control of the individual. In the case of Islamism, the most powerful symbol of this will to power is the headscarf. Of course women are free to submit, as long as they do so of their own volition.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Four days in DC: final reflections

I've just been re-reading my posts about last week's trip to Washington, and I was disappointed to find them overly descriptive and stripped of my usual reflective asides about politics, history, culture, etc. Partly, I think this is because I was (and to some extent still am) jet-lagged and exhausted after a rather draining week.

But it's also because I was wary of making broad generalisations based on a few days' experience of a strange city in another country. However, I can't end my account of our stay without sharing a few of the thoughts that occurred to me while we there. So here goes.

Once again, I was impressed during our time in DC by the easygoing patriotism of Americans. Whether it was the habit of raising impressive monuments to their elected representatives, or the mingling of the Stars and Stripes with flags supporting the troops at the Marine Corps Marathon, this sense of an unforced, shared pride in the nation offered a jarring contrast with the apologetic and guilty nationalism of the British - and made me, for one, rather jealous.

Going along with this, Americans' continuing and largely unabashed faith in the democratic process, and general lack of cynicism about politics, was also much in evidence - whether in the reverential tones of tour guides at the Capitol, or the intense and mostly serious debates about health care reform and Afghanistan on TV (no, we didn't watch Fox while we were there). Americans themselves may not agree with this assessment - but they should come over here and spend a week imbibing the tired and cynical treatment of political issues in most of the British media.

As always, we found America and Americans extremely welcoming - from the guards at immigration through hotel reception staff to waiters, shop assistants and people we met as we moved about the city. On one ride on the DC Circulator Bus, an elderly black man looked up from his Sudoku puzzle to see us struggling with our map, and spent the rest of the journey explaining to us the best way to approach the Capitol, and what we could expect to see en route.

Which brings me to my final comment. It's only when you leave the mostly white enclave of Georgetown (but see this article), and especially when you ride the bus routes, that you realise how much of an African-American city Washington is. You only have to linger a while in the cafe at the downtown branch of Borders on a Sunday afternoon, watching a young black mother helping her son with his homework, or older black men poring over volumes on history and politics, to realise who makes up the true majority of this city's population, once all the interns and lobbyists have gone home to the suburbs. Maybe on our next visit, with the monuments and memorials now under our belts, we'll explore the black and civil rights heritage of the District.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Four days in DC: Part 3

On Tuesday we'd planned to visit Arlington National Cemetery, walking across the bridge that symbolically links the Lincoln Memorial with the former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. But we woke to a blanket of mist and drizzle that forced us to reconsider.

After some desultory wandering around Georgetown - which meant, however, that we got to see some of the smart houses on 'N' Street, including Jackie Kennedy's former residence - we hopped on the Circulator Bus and returned to the Mall for a visit to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

Then, en route back to the bus stop, we found ourselves outside the recently re-opened Ford's Theatre, site of Lincoln's assassination, where you can see an exhibition about the great man, as well as the box where he was shot. Across the road is the Petersen House, where we saw the room in which Lincoln passed away. For H. and me, having recently read Doris Kearns Goodwin's brilliant book, this was one of the highlights of our stay in Washington.

Our final morning in Washington saw a return to glorious autumn weather, as we took a final stroll down 'M' Street to Barnes and Noble, where H. bought Jon Meacham's biography of Andrew Jackson and I came away with Joseph Ellis' book on Jefferson. We then turned down towards the waterfront and came across the new Washington Harbour development, with its stunning views along the Potomac (including the Watergate, as seen below), before heading back to the hotel to catch our lift to the airport.

All too quickly, we were back at Dulles and our brief but enormously stimulating visit to Washington DC was at an end.

Four days in DC: Part 2

Our second day in Washington - last Monday - was just as bright and inviting as our first. We caught the DC Circulator bus all the way across town from Georgetown to Union Station - itself a white gleaming monument to rival any of its illustrious neighbours - and then wound our way around the Senate offices towards the Capitol.

Impossible, as we approached the east front, not to think of George Bush making his final forlorn departure from this very forecourt by helicopter last January. After a quick trip across the road to take a peek at the Supreme Court building, we entered the new underground visitor centre at the Capitol and booked ourselves on a tour of the Rotunda and the statuary hall. We lurked in the background as our excellent guide, Camissa, asked people which states they were from, and told how the vindictive British burned down the original Capitol building.

She managed to secure us tickets to the House gallery, so we handed over our belongings at security and followed the signs through a maze of offices - we saw the corridor leading to Nancy Pelosi's office, and passed by Eric Cantor's room, glimpsing the young interns and staffers hunched over their screens - to the empty chamber (the next instalment of the interminable health care debate wouldn't begin for another hour), where we lingered respectfully for a few minutes.

Then it was out on to the west front, to try to reconstruct in our imaginations the scene of Obama's inauguration earlier this year, before heading for Pennsylvania Avenue.

We found our way to the glass-fronted Newseum, where we visited their impressive collection of original newspaper front pages dating back to the Revolutionary era, saw the burnt and twisted antenna from the top of the World Trade Center, and peeped into the studio used by George Stephanopoulos for his weekly roundtable discussions on ABC (the bigger studio, used by MSNBC's Chris Matthews for Hardball, was curtained off).

Crossing the road, we found our way to the National Archives, for a glimpse of the Bill of Rights, Constitution and Declaration of Independence, which were surprisingly faded and difficult to read - much more so than the far older Magna Carta (one of the four originals, apparently) that they have on display. From there, we took another turn past the White House before walking back to Georgetown.

Four days in DC: Part 1

We arrived back early on Thursday morning from our trip to Washington DC. On the flight over last Saturday, I watched two films with a DC setting, one silly and tedious - Night at the Museum 2 - and one more serious and engaging - State of Play, with its coy references to All the President's Men (the bad guys had an office in the Watergate building, and there was a key scene in an underground car park).

We touched down at a wet Dulles International Airport on Saturday afternoon, then had a half hour ride through the autumnal north Virginia countryside to our hotel in Georgetown, arriving via the Thomas Jefferson Bridge and getting our first, simultaneous glimpses of the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial to the right, and the Watergate and Kennedy Center to our left. On Saturday night we ate at Papa Razzi, a cavernous and popular Italian restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue, almost nodding off over the pasta, as we tried to forget that, as far as our bodies were concerned, it was three o'oclock the next morning.

On a beautifully clear Sunday morning we woke to the sound of the first runners in the Marine Corps Marathon being cheered past our window. After breakfast we plunged into the crowds lining Wisconsin Avenue, enjoying the sounds of local band the Melonheads who were playing alongside the route.

Most of the main roads were closed, so we had to walk into downtown DC. We eventually caught up with the marathon as it snaked around the National Mall, and had to fight our away across the onrush of runners in order to get to the great white birthday cake of the Lincoln Memorial.

It was a perfect morning for sightseeing, with a clear blue sky, bright sunshine and the leaves of the trees a riot of reds and yellows, as we sat on the steps and thought of the crowds that gathered here for momentous moments in recent history, such as King's speech and the Obama inauguration. In short order we then took in the stark, simple Vietnam memorial, where we saw people 'brass rubbing' their relatives' names, the World War 2 memorial, and the Washington Monument, before a long walk around the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial.

In the afternoon we walked up 14th street, past government buildings, for a break in the Borders cafe (where the free Wi-Fi enabled our teenage offspring to tweet from their iPods), before our first encounter with the White House. We failed to catch a glimpse of the first family from the north side, and realised when we went around to the South Lawn, and were allowed to get up close to the fence, that the slightly relaxed security arrangements probably meant they weren't at home. But we did catch a glimpse of Michelle's vegetable garden. Somehow we had enough energy left, after this long day of sightseeing, to walk back up Pennsylvania Avenue to Georgetown, for a spot of shopping on 'M' Street.