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)

Friday 28 November 2008

You couldn't make it up (?)

This sounds too much like a Private Eye parody to be true. It seems that an 'alternative' carol service was held at St. James's Piccadilly on Wednesday evening, in support of the Palestinian cause and in protest at Israeli policies. The words of some traditional Christmas favourites were apparently adapted for the occasion, as in this example:

While shepherds watched their flocks by night
All seated on the ground
Some occupying soldiers came
And bulldozed all around

'Fear not,' said one, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind
We will not do any harm
For we are good and kind

We're forced to confiscate your land
To build ourselves a fence
To keep our people safe from all
Your people's violence

Some fields will stay, although cut off
But access won't be banned
Yes, permits we will give to you
To visit your own land.

As I say, it's just the kind of nonsense you might find in a Dave Spart column or the Alternative Rocky Horror Service Book, so I'm wary about taking it too seriously. I couldn't find any mention of the service on the church's website, and there's a danger of being taken in by left-wing, secular versions of all those 'Post Office bans Christmas'  kind of stories. But I did wonder why there wasn't a verse about the shepherds being disturbed by a Katyusha rocket attack...

On the other hand, if the story has any truth, it's yet another example of the willingness of well-meaning but naive progressive-religious types to be taken in by pseudo-leftist posturing, and to adopt one-sided positions on the Israeli-Palestine question. Thankfully, not all Christians are amused.

(Via Red Maria, whose blog I discovered today by way of Shiraz Socialist)

Mumbai and the theology of death

What on earth can one say about the horrific events in Mumbai? Reading accounts of this latest massacre of the innocents, I was struck above all by the nihilism and sheer inhumanity of the terrorists. Never has the Al-Qaeda boast, 'You love life and we love death', seemed so fitting. While British and American passport-holders appear to have been targeted in at least one location, and the assault on a Jewish centre can hardly be accidental, it's the indiscriminate nature of the attack that stays in the mind. Indians and foreigners, Hindus and Muslims, Christians and Jews - all were regarded as legitimate targets by these coldhearted  fanatics.

At the Leopold Cafe, 'five men wielding AK-47 rifles charged in and opened fire without asking anyone to identify themselves. They lobbed hand grenades at the horrified onlookers'. At a busy railway terminus, 'gunmen shot up the reservation counter of the station, randomly sprayed passengers, believed to be entirely composed of Indian travellers and commuters, and fled.' In the lobby of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, according to Conservative MEP Sajjad Karim who was there, 'a gunman appeared in front of us, carrying machine-gun type weapons. And he just started firing at us'.

At lunchtime today, I listened to an insensitive, boneheaded Radio 4 presenter asking the Indian ambassador whether, given that the Mumbai attackers were probably Islamists, his government should now start attending seriously to the grievances of its Muslim population, as Britain had to do after 7/7.  It's enough to make you weep.  In something he wrote after 9/11, but which I can't find right now, Christopher Hitchens recalled asking some Chilean exile friends whether they were tempted to launch a similar attack on America, after the CIA-backed overthrow of Allende. They were horrified at the thought. Genuine radicals, those whose radicalism arises from a love of humanity and rage at inequality and injustice, don't tend to see the mass murder of innocent people as a legitimate tactic. The murderers of Mumbai, like the Baader-Meinhof killers that I wrote about the other day, were not reacting to 'grievances', unless they were grievances imagined in their twisted theology of victimhood, but acting out the logical dictates of a nihilistic and death-loving ideology. 

Wednesday 26 November 2008

The delusions of Father D'Escoto

Further evidence today of the tendency among some 'progressive' Christians to identify with the more extreme stances of the pseudo-left. Harry's Place reports that UN General Assembly President Miguel D'Escoto, a former Roman Catholic priest, Nicaraguan foreign minister and holder of the Lenin Prize, has described Israel as an apartheid state and called for a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions. This is the same Miguel D'Escoto who rushed to embrace Ahmadinejad after his antisemitic speech to the Assembly back in September. And if you were a Christian priest with any awareness of the history of Catholic antisemitism, would you be so crass as to use the word 'crucify' to describe Israel's treatment of the Palestinians?

Baader-Meinhof, terrorism and antisemitism

The release from prison of Christian Klar, one of the leaders of the Baader-Meinhof gang, and the appearance of a new film about the German terrorist faction, have focused renewed attention on a dark chapter in the history of the European left. The New Centrist links to a timely article by Jeffrey Herf, 'The Age of Murder: Ideology and Terror in Germany', which is worth reading in full. Herf enables us to see the Red Army Faction not only in the context of the development of the '60s New Left, but also in the specific context of German political history, with its repeated themes of antisemitism and totalitarian violence.

It's ironic, to say the least, that far left sects such as Baader-Meinhof justified their use of revolutionary violence on the basis of the supposed fascist tendencies of capitalist postwar Europe, when (as Herf shows) their own ideology and actions exhibited many of the symptoms of fascist reaction, including a love of symbolic violence and an increasing tendency towards antisemitism, demonstrated in their alliance with Palestinian terror groups and their notorious treatment of Jewish passengers during the Entebbe hijacking.  Herf suggests that the antisemitism of the German far left, and particularly its caricature of Israelis as 'new Nazis' in their treatment of the Palestinians (sound familiar?), can be seen as part of the complex and tortuous process of expunging collective national guilt about the Holocaust.

I haven't seen The Baader Meinhof Complex but, if the reviews are to be believed, it conveys a rather heavy-handed message about the need to understand the underlying causes of terror, and draws predictable parallels with contemporary responses to Islamist terrorism. However, Herf's article is a reminder that the terrorists of the Red Army Faction and the perpetrators of 9/11 and 7/7 were similar, not in their experience of injustice and an idealistic desire to liberate oppressed humanity, but in their shared background as educated, middle-class ideologues, driven by an inflexible dogmatism and without a scintilla of human feeling towards those they were 'liberating', many of whom were among their victims.

One of the most poignant features of Herf's piece is his detailed listing of the innocent victims of Baader-Meinhof violence, something he argues has been missing from many accounts of the events, with their tendency to glamorise the perpetrators. This quotation from Gabriele von Lutzau, a stewardess on the hijacked Lufthansa flight to Mogadishu, when asked if she wished to meet one of her former captors in order to discuss her motives, can stand as a riposte to all those who urge us to try to 'understand' terrorism:

I'm not interested in the background, in her history or in understanding her. This woman acted without a single moment of humanity. Her attitude was 'we are better than you. We're going the righteous way against Western imperialism'. Her distorted view of reality is not one I ever want to face again.'

Tuesday 25 November 2008

Rhetoric vs. reality in Venezuela

It appears that Hugo Chavez might not be as wildly popular as we had been led to believe. According to a New York Times report from Caracas:

From the hardened slums of this city to some of Venezuela's most popular and economically important states, many of President Hugo Chavez's supporters deserted him in regional elections, showing it is possible to challenge him in areas where he was once thought invincible.

And this wasn't a revolt of the privileged. Chavez did badly in some of the poor urban areas that might have been expected to support him:

In Petare, a sprawling area of slums on the eastern fringe of Caracas, long lines at polling stations snaked into alleyways on Sunday as voters delivered the area, part of a municipality long considered a Chavez bulwark, to Carlos Ocariz, a mild-mannered 37-year-old engineer.

'We punctured the myth that only Chavez can be a champion of the poor', said Eduardo Ramirez, 61, a political activist in Petare who campaigned for Mr. Ocariz.

'Chavez's rhetoric is one thing,' he said, 'but the reality is another when he  does nothing to stop the bloodshed on our doorstep.'

Among the losers in the elections was Mario Silva, the host of a programme on state television 
that regularly attacks Chavez's opponents. It was Silva who was in the news recently for his habit of broadcasting the cellphone conversations of opposition politicians.

The Venezuelan leader's reaction to the results should give pause for thought to those, like Tariq Ali, who have faith in Chavez's 'commitment to a democratically embedded social process'. Appearing on state television on Monday night, Chavez warned the opposition: 'Don't think you control Petare'. And with Silva trailing in the polls in Carobobo state, the president threatened to mobilise tanks in the area in the event of his ally's defeat.

Previous posts on Chavez and his apologists here , here , here , here , here and here.

As if threatening to use tanks against those who refuse to vote for you wasn't evidence enough of illiberal tendencies: Mick reports that Venezuela was one of only two non-Islamic countries (the other was that shining beacon of democracy, Belarus) to vote for a new UN anti-free-speech resolution outlawing the 'defamation' of religion.

Thursday 20 November 2008

Blogroll update

Restored to the blogroll: Terry Glavin (removed some time back due to prolonged silence), if only for his impressive reporting from Afghanistan, and for photos like this which speak volumes:

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Michael Tomasky on the US Left

I've been reading Michael Tomasky's Left for Dead: the life, death and possible resurrection of progressive politics in America. Writing way back in 1996, Tomasky often comes across like an American version of Nick Cohen avant la lettre. Although the book was published pre-Bush, pre-9/11, and pre-Obama, it still has insightful things to say about the wrong turnings taken by the US left, which turn out to be remarkably similar to some of the wrong turnings taken by the British and European left. 

I particularly liked the chapter on identity politics, entitled 'E Unum Pluribus' (OK, so the Latin grammar is wrong when you reverse it like this, but never mind), and the book's main plea, as I read it, is for a return to a progressive universalism based on Enlightenment values. It remains to be seen whether the Obama victory represents the kind of political realignment and revival of liberal-left values that Tomasky was hoping for all those years ago.

In the meantime, I'm hoping that Tomasky will be among those tempted to write up his coverage of the recent presidential electon in book form. There's already a slew of hot-off-the-press volumes available at Amazon, but most of them are by hack writers you've never heard of. The only 'proper' journalist who's so far owned up to writing a book on the campaign is MSNBC's Chuck Todd (for British readers: he's like an American version of Peter Snow, but with a real understanding of politics, and without the histrionics), and a documentary film that has followed the Obama campaign for the last two years is due out in the spring. On the basis of his classic account of Hillary Clinton's run for Senate, which I wrote about in this post, if Tomasky were to decide to pitch in and publish something about the presidential race, it would definitely be the one to read. How about it, Michael?

More on Tomasky here and here.

Some disconnected (?) thoughts on education

The Fat Man links to a scathing article by John Holford about the British government's utilitarian approach to higher education, evidenced in their appointment of an HE 'user consultation group' dominated by employers and with no representation from either academia or the trade unions. As Holford says, the attitude of the current administration is a betrayal of the 'generous, human and liberal' vision of education advanced by Labour luminary R.H.Tawney. Key quote from Holford:

No 'user' will speak for local communities; none for schools or hospitals; none for the old; none for charities or the voluntary sector; none for social movements; none for ethnic minorities; none for ordinary working people; none even for local authorities.

All this is, I regret, in keeping with recent government approaches to the role of higher education. Universities must not just play a part in 'driving up' skills: serving the economy is now their raison d'etre.

Yesterday's You and Yours on Radio 4 had a phone-in discussion on access to higher education. There was much talk about the 'value' of a degree, in which the general assumption seemed to be that going to university was solely about improving your job prospects. Many of the calls were from parents, who (partly as a result of changed funding arrangements) seem increasingly to view themselves as the consumers of higher education. Along with this new consumerism goes a growing demand for value for money: many of the callers were irate about the (low) number of hours of direct tuition received by their offspring, and no amount of fine talk about education being as much about learning as teaching, or about the autonomous learner, was going to satisfy them.

Finally, last week I attended a briefing about the government's new Children's Plan. There seemed to be a shift towards viewing the task of the school as promoting children's 'wellbeing', and a general downplaying of the emphasis on standards and attainment. I felt a bit conflicted about this. While I agree that schools should be concerned with the welfare of the whole person, I worry about any dilution of their primary focus on learning. There was also a lot of emphasis on learning having to be 'fun', which is all very well, but students also need to discover that understanding often comes about as the result of hard work and struggle. As with the 'happiness' agenda, to which it's linked, I tend to think that a sense of 'wellbeing' is one of the by-products of the insight, understanding and skills that education brings, not its direct aim.

There's probably a connection between these thoughts, but I don't have the time or energy to join the dots right now...

I've just come across this piece on the politics of 'wellbeing' by Pat Kane, from back in February 2007, in which he joins up the dots between the Gradgrindian 'appplied Presbyterianism' of Gordon Brown, evidenced in the government's vision of work as the solution to all social ills, and the paternalism of the 'happiness' agenda pushed by 'bureaucrat of bliss' Lord Layard. Couple of nice slogans from Kane: 'support our autonomy, don't prescribe our happiness', and 'get your hands off my soul'.

Monday 17 November 2008

The limits of blowback theory

It would appear that the election of the first African-American president has been followed by a 'white backlash', with at least 200 'hate-related' incidents being reported.  According to the Christian Science Monitor:

In rural Georgia, a group of high-schoolers gets a visit from the Secret Service after posting 'inappropriate' comments about President-elect Barack Obama on the Web. In Raleigh, N.C., four college students admit to spraying race-tinged graffiti in a pedestrian tunnel after the election. On Nov. 6, a cross burns on the lawn of a biracial couple in Apolacon Township, Pa.

To be consistent, the Guardian's comment pages will need to cover this story in the following manner. Madeleine Bunting will have to write a hand-wringing explanation of how the attacks are an inevitable reaction to the 'provocation' of Obama's election, while urging us to understand the hurt feelings of a minority that has experienced systematic discrimination against its white supremacist beliefs. Jonathan Steele will surely need to remind us that these incidents have nothing to do with a supposed racist 'ideology', but instead have their root cause in the complex interplay of disadvantage and prejudice suffered by white people. And Seamus Milne will conclude that we shouldn't blame the perpetrators of the attacks but rather the American people, for having dared to elect a black president: in other words, as always, America is to blame.

Friday 14 November 2008

'The stink of a looming betrayal'

At the Guardian/NYRB event that we attended in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, there seemed to be general approval among the panel for the idea of negotiating with the Taliban, and a welcome for news that the Bush government appeared to be  considering this path. At the time, this made me feel distinctly uncomfortable, though I couldn't quite say why. 

Now Terry Glavin's compelling report from Afghanistan has spelt out in stark terms why talking to the fundamentalist sect that oppressed the Afghani people and provided a safe haven to the perpetrators of 9/11 would be a mistake:

Among Kabul's human rights activists, student leaders and women's rights groups, the big fear isn't the spectre of Taliban militias rolling back into Kabul. The much greater threat comes from places like Washington, Tehran and Islamabad. It's the clamour for a backroom deal with the Taliban (with President Hamid Karzai's signature on it for the sake of appearances). The stink of a looming betrayal is everywhere, and Kabulis, betrayed so many times before, can smell it a mile away.

Glavin goes on to describe the emerging civil society that would be put at risk by any accommodation with the Taliban. He acknowledges that the security situation in Kabul is still far from ideal:

But there is also the new, real-world Kabul, out in the streets, where the bazaars are bursting with life and commerce, and raucous laughter erupts from back alleys where men sit around TV sets watching Afghan talk shows. This is the Kabul the Taliban hates so bitterly. Every morning, the streets are filled with schoolchildren. Even in the dingiest parts of this bomb-blasted metropolis, among the rickety vendors' stalls that sell cow heads and sheep guts, you can't turn a corner without coming upon another newly opened computer school, or a long line of unveiled women waiting for their literacy classes to open for the day.

Writing in the Guardian two days after the US election, Jonathan Steele urged Barack Obama to go back on his campaign promise to reinforce the fight against the Taliban: 'Nato's tentative new policy of talking to the Taliban should be expanded, so that foreign troops can be withdrawn from the south', he wrote. 'The trend should be to bring troops out, not send more in'. But then Steele also believes Obama should repudiate the war against terrorism, which he maintains is merely a 'technique...not an ideology'.

Let's hope that the President Elect is not swayed by these siren voices, and maintains his resolve to 'finish our mission in Afghanistan', not run away from it - for the sake of those unveiled women students in Kabul.

Thursday 13 November 2008

Two new blog discoveries

One of the great things about the blogosphere is the endless chain of connexions that can lead to new discoveries each time you go online. Via this post at Harry's Place, I found my way to Marc Cooper's excellent blog, including this post which skewers Judith Butler's sniffy response to Obama's victory and also links to some great pictures from the campaign trail. And thanks to the blogroll over at On A Raised Beach, I came across Matt Sellwood's blog, Anglo-Buddhist Combine. Matt, a former Green Party councillor, describes himself as an Anglican Buddhist communist. He sounds just as mixed-up as me.

Tuesday 11 November 2008

America in the World

Don't know much about it yet, but this new British-based initiative to combat anti-Americanism looks like it's worth supporting. Shame they got David Cameron to do the launch, though.

More Mormon insensitivity

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has been criticised for using its considerable financial muscle to quash the marriage rights of gay people (latest updates here and here). Now the Mormons are under fire for trampling on the religious rights of the dead.

Despite being an undeniable boon to family historians, the Mormon habit of retrospectively baptising their ancestors has always seemed weird to outsiders. But when this extends to proxy baptisms of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, it becomes downright offensive. Ernest Michel, honorary chairman of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, speaking on the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, claimed that the practice played into the hands of Holocaust deniers:

They tell me that my parents' Jewishness has not been altered but...100 years from now, how will they be able to guarantee that my mother and father of blessed memory who lived as Jews and were slaughtered by Hitler for no other reason than they were Jews, will someday not be identified as Mormon victims of the Holocaust?

Seems like a good time to replay this little gem. The theology lesson starts around 4 minutes 45 seconds in:

A lifelong Mormon explains why Proposition 8 made her leave the church, and protestors rally outside the Mormon temple in New York. Best placard award: 'Brigham Young had 55 wives. I just want one'.

Olbermann on 'horrible' Prop 8 vote

Keith Olbermann's impassioned journalistic style is easily satirised, but I'm a fan and I loved the moment last Tuesday night when, his voice filled with emotion, Olbermann announced that MSNBC was ready to call the election for Barack Obama. 

Olbermann's latest 'Special Comment', directed at the supporters of Proposition 8, struck me as slightly lower-key than usual (perhaps he was stung by Ben Affleck's impersonation on Saturday Night Live) but it was still powerful and heartfelt, and I agreed with every word. Money quote:

This isn't about yelling, and this isn't about politics, and this isn't really just about Prop-8. And I don't have a personal investment in this: I'm not gay, I had to strain to think of one member of even my very extended family who is, I have no personal stories of close friends or colleagues fighting the prejudice that still pervades their loves.

And yet to me this vote is horrible. Horrible. Because this isn't about yelling, and this isn't about politics. This is about the....human heart, and if that sounds corny, so be it.

A marginal saint?

Today is St. Martin's Day, the feast of St. Martin of Tours, soldier, friend to the poor and, as I mentioned in this post, an early advocate of the separation of church and state. 

The feast of 'Sintmaarten' is a big deal in the Netherlands, apparently.In Portugal, according to Sarah at Cafe Turco, the period around St. Martin's Day is thought of as a time 'when the weather gets warmer and sunnier before Autumn definitely comes'. Even in Britain, if Wikipedia is to be believed, the term 'Saint Martin's Summer' was used in the past to refer to the 'brief warm spell' around this time of year, before the winter months began in earnest. 

Hmm. For the last few days this corner of the country has witnessed lowering skies and torrential downpours. Today is forecast to be 'windy with showers'. 

Update at 9.45 am
The sun is now shining, for the first time in days. Saints alive! But unfortunately it's not warm enough for the beach (see comment from Sarah below).