Thursday 31 January 2008

Matt Santos for President?

Andrew thinks that Obama 'has a little of the Matthew Santos about him'. There is something very West Wing about his candidacy, with Hillary currently playing a similar role to Vice President Russell, the safe, experienced presumptive nominee to Obama's Santos-like outsider. For first Latino candidate read first African-American candidate. 

If the real-life campaign were to follow the fictional script, then Barack's campaign would begin to gather unstoppable momentum about now, and Clinton's supporters in the Democratic Party would start to jump ship and turn to the young, charismatic candidate who represents a new kind of politics. 

The November election would then see Obama facing a Republican candidate who resembled Arnie Vinick, the character played by Alan Alda in the series - decent, socially liberal, mistrusted by the conservative 'base'. Hang on - isn't that John McCain?

Cynics have often dismissed The West Wing as political escapism for liberals. But maybe life will now begin to imitate art - who knows?

In the meantime, whatever you think of Obama's policies, you have to admit his campaign has produced some stunning, succinct TV ads. Here's one from a couple of weeks back that neatly countered the negative attacks of the Clinton team:

And here's the new ad featuring Caroline Kennedy:

Monday 28 January 2008

The passing of the torch

Ted Kennedy endorses Obama:

Obama responds:

Amis on jihadism, masculinity and resentment

I heard Martin Amis on Radio 5 Live this afternoon, talking about The Second Plane, his newly-published collection of articles written in the aftermath of 9/11. I found his diagnosis of jihadism in terms of threatened masculinity particularly interesting, especially as I have an academic interest in issues of gender and identity. Amis suggested that fundamentalist men in the Muslim world might experience the liberation of women in the west as a threat to their last, patriarchal vestige of power, in the context of the diminishing influence of Islam: thus fuelling a generalised anti-western rage. And although I remain suspicious of the use of psychoanalysis in political argument, I liked Amis' suggestion that anti-Americanism, whether of the psychotic Islamist variety or the milder European kind, might derive from an unconscious resentment/envy of the new superpower, against the background of the decline of both the Islamic and European empires (echoing something I wrote here).

Oh dear. The Sunday Times has root-causer William Dalrymple reviewing Amis' book. According to Dalrymple:

The Second Plane is a compilation of second-hand views, in this case lifted from Islamophobic neocon primers (the works of Bernard Lewis, VS Naipaul and Paul Berman).

Phew. If one all-purpose debate-stopping insult doesn't do the trick - then why not try using two? So a writer with impeccable liberal-left credentials, like Berman, is not only a 'neocon' but an Islamophobe to boot! 

Dalrymple argues that  'Amis' simplistically Freudian explanation of terrorism ignores the stream of explicitly political statements issued by Al-Qaeda' and he writes that Osama bin Laden has 'made it clear that his grievance against the West was not cultural or religious, or indeed sexual, but political.'  Oh well, if Osama has 'made it clear', then it must be true. Dalrymple's willingness to take the statements of mass-murdering religious fanatics at face value is naive in the extreme. And he has the cheek to call Amis 'simplistic'.

Sunday 27 January 2008

Reasons to be cheerful

Part 1:

Obama wins South Carolina by a wider than expected margin, giving his campaign a much-needed burst of momentum.

Part 2:

Obama gives his best speech so far, tackling head-on the accusations levelled against him by his opponents.

Part 3:

JFK's daughter Caroline writes this moving endorsement of Barack in the New York Times, concluding:

I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them. But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president - not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans.

Update: Monday 28th January

And he's a West Ham fan! It just keeps getting better...


Friday 25 January 2008

A case of neoconitis

You couldn't make it up. Barely a week after Alan Johnson's deft analysis, on the Guardian's 'Comment is Free' site, of 'neoconitis' - the use of 'neocon' as an all-purpose insult that 'stops us thinking straight' - in which he cited Seumas Milne as one of the worst culprits - we find Milne, writing in the same paper, condemning the current attacks on Ken Livingstone as (you guessed it) 'driven by a neocon agenda'.

The reasoning behind this absurd accusation? The fact that some of the criticisms of Livingstone focus on his 'dialogue with non-violent Islamist groups' and that his critics include Martin Bright and Nick Cohen who 'share a broadly neoconservative agenda on Islamism and the "war on terror'''. As Johnson pointed out in his article, introducing the neocon label in this way 'blocks off any proper consideration of the social democratic antitotalitarianism' of these writers. In Milne's worldview, anyone who takes up a position hostile to Islamism or supportive of any aspect of American policy, however leftwing their credentials, is automatically a 'neocon' and their views unworthy of consideration. This kind of labelling is also a diversionary tactic designed, as in Milne's Livingstone piece, to distract attention from the real question as to whether the accusations being levelled against London's mayor have any substance.

It's perfectly legitimate - and certainly not a case of doing the Tories' work for them, as Milne implies - for socialists and liberals to question Livingstone's policy of dialogue with Islamists. After all, why should a Labour mayor who has traded on his support for feminism, gay rights and anti-racism, give a political opening to a movement that is openly misogynist, homophobic, antisemitic and anti-democratic? Would Milne be so supportive if Livingstone were to enter into dialogue with 'non-violent' white reactionaries, such as the BNP, with whom the Islamists have so much in common?

On a lighter note, Milne's tortuous attempt in the article to square his support for Livingstone as the clarion voice of the working-class, whose actions must not be questioned for fear of giving comfort to the class enemy, with his dislike of Ken's support for police chief Ian Blair, cries out for a Dave Spart-style parody. He may think that the campaign against Livingstone risks taking us back 25 years, but Milne is the one living in the past if he really thinks that Ken's defeat would represent 'a wider defeat for progressive politics, in Britain and beyond'. 

A marginal lead

Guardian music critic John L Waters praises new digital radio station theJazz here. But you read it here first - three weeks ago to be precise. Specifically:

Trying to find jazz on national radio used to feel like an obstacle course. (Waters)
As any British jazz fan will tell you, trying to find jazz on UK radio has been a pretty thankless task until recently. (Martin)

Of course, we had the false dawn of Jazz FM...In 2005, the station rebranded itself out of existence, and was profitably reinvented as Smooth FM. (Waters)
The first attempt at creating one was Jazz FM, but that..soon mutated into the bland Smooth FM. (Martin)

So is the difference between theJazz and Radio 3 analogous to that between Classic FM and, erm, Radio 3? (Waters)
I was tempted to snobbishly dismiss the new station as the jazz equivalent of the soporific Classic FM. (Martin)

However, there are signs that theJazz is broadening its base. (Waters)
But during the year things began to improve...the range of music played increased. (Martin)

Just goes to show that where the blogosphere boldly goes, the print media eventually follow.

Friday 18 January 2008

On reading 'The Looming Tower'

I'm reading Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda's Road to 9/11. To judge by the quotations on the cover, the book has garnered praise both from implacable critics of Islamism, such as Martin Amis, and from root-causers such as William Dalrymple, John le Carre and Tariq Ali. 

It's hard to see why the latter like it, since from what I've read so far (I'm about half-way through) Wright's book represents a pretty devastating refutation of blowback theory. Certainly, having read Wright's account of the rise of al Qaeda, it's difficult to maintain the view (still common among many on the left) that radical Islam is 'really' an anti-colonial liberation movement that just happens to dress up its demands in religious language. Instead, al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, the Algerian GIA and all the rest come across in this book as having more in common with murderous/suicidal cults such as Jim Jones' People's Temple than with (say) the Sandinistas. 

It's abundantly clear from the book that the aims of al Qaeda have always been fundamentally theological rather than political: the imposition of a joyless and puritanical version of Islam on both the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, rather than the advancement of democracy and self-determination. In fact, what emerges strongly is the implacable hostility of bin Laden and his associates to any movement towards democracy (since it threatens the rule of God), pluralism or equality.

It's salutary to be reminded that al Qaeda and similar movements began as deeply conservative religious reactions against socialism and communism, not western capitalism (so the analogy with fascism in Europe in the 1930s is not so far-fetched). It was bin Laden's horror at the communist takeover of 'Muslim' Afghanistan that turned him from an eccentric (and fabulously wealthy) religious fanatic into a funder and supporter of jihad (though why the Soviet invasion was seen as quite so shocking by the jihadists remains a mystery, given that 'Muslim' republics had been part of the Soviet Union for decades). At that stage, America was gratefully acknowledged as a powerful ally in the struggle to roll back atheistic communism.

It was only after the Russian flight from Afghanistan that America became an object of hate for the jihadists. In part, this can be attributed to the need for such fanatical cults to have an enemy they can blame for all the ills of the world. The ostensible reason for turning against America - the presence of US troops on Saudi soil following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait - is sometimes seen as justifiable opposition to foreign 'occupation'. But Wright's account makes clear that bin Laden's rage against this development was derived not from Saudi nationalism but from a fanatical religiously-motivated opposition to the presence of any Christians or Jews on 'sacred' Muslim soil, as well as from fundamentalist misognynist horror at the presence of female army personnel.

I wondered also, reading the book, whether bin Laden's rage against America might be the product of a repressed sense of humiliation at his own dependance on the secular US. Wright describes the indebtedness of the Saudis to American expertise and investment in both the discovery of Saudi oil and the development of the Saudi oil industry, which turned the country from a poor and unproductive backwater into one of the richest nations in the world, and the bin Laden family into billionaires. Wright informs us that the young Osama grew up loving Bonanza on TV. (I sometimes wonder if a milder version of this resenment against economic and cultural dependance on the US lies behind the routine anti-Americanism that infects many European liberals, even as they sip their Starbucks lattes and discuss the The Sopranos).

Wright is perceptive on the roots of Islamist terror, not in western misdeeds, but in the peculiar conditions pertaining in some Arab and majority-Muslim countries:

Radicalism usually prospers in the gap between rising expectations and declining opportunities. This is especially true where the population is young, idle, and bored; where the art is impoverished; where entertainment - movies, theatre, music - is policed or absent altogether; and where young men are set apart from the consoling and socializing presence of women. Adult illiteracy remained the norm in many Arab countries. Unemployment was among the highest in the developing world. Anger, resentment, and humiliation spurred young Arabs to search for dramatic remedies. Martyrdom promised such young men an ideal alternative to a life that was so sparing in its rewards.

In the face of this kind of evidence as to the real roots of Islamist terror, it's astonishing that the Guardian is still printing simplistic 'root cause' arguments, like the column by Khaled Diab that appeared on Wednesday. Writing about the murderous 7/7 attacks, Diab claims:

If Britain had not invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, then Khan - and the other attackers - would have found no clear channel for their disaffection and he would have continued to teach and be a conservative Wahhabi fundamentalist in private.

I suppose we should be grateful that Diab describes Mohammad Sidique Khan as a conservative fundamentalist rather than as some kind of freedom fighter, but his argument is still deeply flawed. The attempted massacre of London nightclub-goers last year confirmed that it is western secular culture in general - rather than particular expressions of western policy - that the jihadists despise. You might as well say that if the UK repealed its gay rights and gender equality legislation, or banned the sale of alcohol - all things that provide a 'clear channel of disaffection' for fundamentalists - then we'd be free from the threat of Islamist terrorism. In the words of Asim Siddqui, who I quoted here: 'It's not foreign policy that's the main driver in combating the terrorists; it's their mindset'. And here's former jihadist Hassan Butt:

When I was still a member of what is probably best termed the British Jihadi Network, a series of semi-autonomous British Muslim terrorist groups linked by a single ideology, I remember how we used to laugh in celebration whenever people on TV proclaimed that the sole cause for Islamic acts of terror like 9/11, the Madrid bombings and 7/7 was Western foreign policy.

By blaming the government for our actions, those who pushed the 'Blair's bombs' line did our propaganda work for us. More important, they also helped to draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamic theology.

It hurts to say this (yet again) about a once-great liberal newspaper, but by consistently giving voice to columnists such as Khaled Diab (and he's by no means the worst offender), the Guardian is, in effect, doing the terrorists' propaganda work for them.

Tuesday 15 January 2008

On standing above the fray

Tony Blair has described the notion of left- and right-wing politics as 'redundant'. In a speech widely seen as launching his campaign to become the first fully-fledged EU president, the former PM argued that 'Europe is not a question of left or right, but a question of the future or the past, of strength or weakness'. He added: 'It's about today versus yesterday. Less about politics and more about a state of mind; open as opposed to closed.'

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Barack Obama is being hailed as a 'liberal Reagan' who can unite Americans across party lines.  Here's Andrew Sullivan:

What has long been remarkable to me is how this liberal politician fails to alienate conservatives. In fact, many like him a great deal. His calm and reasoned demeanour, his crisp style, his refusal to engage in racial identity politics: these appeal to disaffected Republicans. He is particularly attractive to those on the American right who feel betrayed by the Bush administration's version of conservatism, just as many Democrats felt betrayed by Jimmy Carter's liberalism.

Others are less sanguine about Obama's strategy of standing above the partisan political fray. The Clinton campaign has interpreted his tendency to vote 'present' (rather than 'yes' or 'no') in debates in the Illinois State Senate as a way of sidestepping sensitive political issues and avoiding decisions that might come back to haunt him - in a presidential campaign, for example.

And writing in Dissent about Obama's book The Audacity of Hope, David Greenberg concludes that its 'dominant quality' is 'its caution, its painstaking desire not to offend':

Ideas are mulled, not argued, with a studied thoughtfulness conspicuously on display. Like a metronome, the line of reasoning shifts back and forth between one side of an issue and the other, alternative paragraphs beginning with 'Nevertheless,' 'Still', 'I don't want to exaggerate...', 'The critics have a point...' This diligent recognition of all sides of an argument usually leads Obama to moderate-liberal positions on the issues - most of them thoroughly inoffensive as policy prescriptions. It also locates him a high-minded tradition within Democratic politics, embodied by such men as Adlai Stevenson and Gene McCarthy, that prefers to transcend conflicts rather than win them.

As someone who rejoined the Labour Party when Tony Blair became leader, and who was a consistent if critical supporter of his premiership, I've always found his advocacy of 'big tent' politics rather unsettling. (And of course it's easy to parody those simplistic binary pairings: today not yesterday, forward not back, up not down.) In his approach to foreign policy, where I've been most supportive of him (not a common position, I admit), Blair's actions have belied this apparent belief in finding a compromise between opposing positions, and have instead been marked by passionate conviction allied to a determination to argue his case and persuade others of its rightness. 

I'm not sure yet whether Barack Obama is the same kind of conviction politician, prepared to take a risk and endorse an unpopular position if he passionately believes it's the right thing for the country. I can see the appeal, particularly after 8 years of divisive government, of a presidency that is able to unite people of goodwill in all parties. But as I've said before, I tend to think that 'consensus politics' is a chimera and that conflict, disagreement and persuasion are the essence of an open and democratic political process. 

Like many European liberals and social democrats I've been excited and inspired by Obama's campaign and wish him well. But at this difficult moment, the world needs an American president who has a clear sense of direction and the judgment to make difficult decisions, even if they are unpopular. I hope the remaining months of the campaign show Obama to be that person.

There's more on this from Snarksmith here.

Friday 11 January 2008

A sartorial sidelight on the campaign

Obama may have lost the New Hampshire primary, but if this were a fashion contest, he'd have won hands down. Here are a couple of sartorial rules for candidates hoping to come across as presidential:

Rule Number 1: Even if there's two feet of snow and it's freezing outside, never ever wear a sweater under your jacket. John McCain was the worst offender here:

I'm sorry John, you may have won the Republican vote, but to me that sweater just screams 'grandpa'. If it's cold, and you want to look presidential, why not wear an overcoat? (And it's not as if McCain hasn't had problems with sweaters before.)

Rule Number 2 (and the photo above shows McCain breaking this one too): Always wear a tie, especially if you're a man of a certain age. Going tie-less draws attention to those wobbly lines around the neck and, like the sweater, reminds people of your age. Bill Clinton was guilty of the same offence when he appeared open-necked for his notorious 'fairy-tale' speech in New Hampshire. For me, it drove home the message that here was an angry older man resenting the fact that his own time had come and gone:

By contrast, Barack Obama strode through Iowa and New Hampshire wearing a classy suit and tie and looking - well, presidential:

And of all the male candidates, only Barack can get away with the open-necked look. Note to candidates: if you're going to leave the tie at home, make sure you're wearing a tailored suit and expensive shirt - and it probably helps if you're under 50:

Mind you, Obama's easy sartorial image may not be all that it seems. Writing in last autumn's Dissent, David Greenberg described how Barack chose an outdoor setting to announce his candidacy in February and 'struck a Kennedy-esque pose by appearing in a thin topcoat on a freezing day'. What the audience didn't know was that his team had concealed a space heater on the platform. As Greenberg says, it was 'an act of benign contrivance, but contrivance nonetheless.'

Finally, spare a thought for Hillary. If the above rules make it difficult for male candidates to appear presidential, imagine what it's like being the first female candidate. There are no rules, so you have to make up your own. If she's made the occasional fashion error, it's not entirely her own fault:

Thursday 10 January 2008

Yes he can!

After the disappointment of the New Hampshire result, there's some comfort in the news that Nevada's Culinary Workers Union has endorsed Obama. This is a key endorsement: the union has a membership of 60,000 in a state where there are fewer than 500,000 registered Democrats. It's probably more significant than today's news that John Kerry is also backing Obama.

The endorsement speech by union leader D. Taylor is confirmation that Barack, besides being a first-class orator himself, can also inspire vision and eloquence in others, and at the same time puts paid to the post-New Hampshire myth that only Hillary speaks for blue-collar voters. Watch it here (via):

Monday 7 January 2008

We're all doomed

Another inspired pairing from the Guardian: Madeleine Bunting on Oliver James. One cultural pessimist reviewing another. In fact, Bunting is less fulsome about James' latest prophecy of doom than one might have expected, though she doesn't dispute his central thesis that people are generally less happy than they were a generation ago and that modern liberal capitalism is to blame. 

I find it difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is about Oliver James' ideas that I find so deeply annoying. Perhaps it's the de-contextualised positivist psychology which assumes that 'happiness' is an objective and quantifiable 'something' that you can measure scientifically, and with an unchanging meaning that means you can compare surveys taken 50 years apart in very different social circumstances. Or it could be the hint of class condescension - perhaps more evident in James' supporters such as Bunting - that seeks to deny the huge improvements in physical and emotional well-being experienced by the mass of the population, as a result of the material and social advances of recent times. (When members of my grandparents' generation told researchers they were 'happy' with their lot, they may have simply been reflecting the limited expectations that had been bred into them in an unequal society.) But it's probably just my irritation at hearing James recycle his non-analysis of the supposed sins of 'Blatcherism' (geddit?) in every interview, like a schoolboy repeating a joke that he's ever so proud of but which nobody else finds funny or original.

Anyway, it was heartening to see James' theories finally getting the drubbing they deserve from Oliver Kamm here.

Friday 4 January 2008

Obama wins in Iowa

Barack Obama has won the Democratic primary in Iowa, beating Hillary Clinton into third place. It's a small beginning, and there's a long way to go before he can secure the nomination, but nevertheless it's an important victory. Andrew Sullivan effuses about Obama's victory speech:

Simply put: he sounded like a president. The theme was not just change; it was a new unity. And as a black man, he helps heal the past as well as forge the future. This really was history tonight. To win so many white voices, and bring together so many minorities, and use the unifying language that leaves the toxins of race and partisanship behind: This was the moment America stopped being afraid.

This was the America we have missed and have found again.

Know hope.

George Stephanopoulos is reminded of Clinton in '92: 'It is all about you the people, doing what you want and giving you the lead and getting your priorities noticed.'

For me, having recently watched the DVD of Primary, Robert Drew's pioneering documentary about the 1960 Wisconsin primary battle between JFK and Hubert Humphrey, other comparisons came to mind. The similarities between these two midwestern contests, one on the cusp of the '60s, the other in the first decade of a new century, were striking: in both cases, a relatively young and charismatic newcomer was up against a candidate representing experience and continuity, and in both cases it was the former who excited and attracted new, younger voters to re-engage with the political process.

I don't think it's just the retro furnishings in this photo of Obama's campaign bus that prompt such comparisons:

(Photo: Carlos Barria, Reuters)

Thursday 3 January 2008

Has the world gone mad, or is it me?

Over Christmas I read Andrew Anthony's The Fallout: how a guilty liberal lost his innocence. Anthony's book covers much the same ground as Nick Cohen's What's Left and like the latter is a searing indictment, with plenty of examples to prove the point, of the capitulation of some sections of the Left to various forms of political and religious totalitarianism. What it adds to Cohen's account is a deeper analysis of recent events such as 7/7, the Danish cartoon furore, and the persecution of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Needless to say, the Pilgers, Milnes and Buntings of this world do not emerge from these pages covered in glory.

The book's key strength is its grounding in the personal experiences of its author, whether as a husband fearing for his wife's safety in New York on 9/11, a father worried about his family living in an increasingly crime-dominated area of north London, or a long-time leftwing activist concerned about the direction taken by some of the causes he once passionately supported. But that personal dimension is also the book's weakness, for it makes it possible for critics to charge that it is the author, and not those on the Left he lambasts, who has changed. In fact, a number of the reviews of Anthony's book in the liberal press have been along these lines: dismissing it as the story of a middle-aged man's move to the right with age. It has to be said that the book's sub-title encourages this reading, as does the inclusion of a chapter on crime, which does indeed chart the author's change of heart on this issue in response to the drug-fuelled violence and burglaries in his locality. Like Cohen's book, Anthony's story oscillates between personal and political change and brings to mind that immortal line in Hawkwind's 'Master of the Universe': has the world gone mad, or is it me?

Of course, there is a necessary confessional element to Anthony's story, and it is honourable and honest of him to admit where he was mistaken or deluded in his youthful beliefs. I identified particularly with his description of the way a close-up encounter with the Sandinista revolution first alerted him to the totalitarian tendencies of even the most idealistic of far-left movements. Like Anthony, I was a firm supporter of the Sandinistas, though my involvement only extended to subscribing to the international solidarity campaign, whereas he actually went as far as joining a Nicaraguan labour brigade.

Looking back, it was probably the Sandinistas who provided me with my own initial 'Euston moment' - my first experience on the road to Euston, perhaps? As someone actively involved in the adult literacy movement at home, I was fascinated to hear about the new Nicaraguan regime's mass literacy campaign, inspired (as all of us were in those days) by the ideas of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. But when I actually had the chance to look at what went on in those revolutionary literacy classes, and at the teaching materials the Sandinista educators had developed, I was appalled. Rather than the Freirean dialogical 'starting from where people are', approach I had expected, I saw instead dogmatic statements praising the revolution being used as the basis of teaching, with little room for dialogue or questioning. However, over the years I've found little criticism of the Sandinistas on the Left, where they are still held up as an example of a revolution that (unlike all the others) didn't go wrong, and would have been fine and democratic if the Americans had just left them alone. So it was refreshing to read in Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism that he had entertained similar doubts, and - as Anthony's book reminds us - tried to publish them in Mother Jones but had his piece rejected by the editor - a certain Michael Moore (someone else who doesn't emerge well from Anthony's book).

As a footnote - and it's no reflection on the quality of the book - I was pretty annoyed by its sloppy editing and frequent grammatical and spelling errors - and this from Jonathan Cape, supposedly a 'quality' publisher. I won't go on - otherwise I too will open myself to accusations of sounding like an angry middle-aged man...

On reading 'God Is Not Great'

I've just finished reading Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great. Like Dawkins' The God Delusion, which I wrote about here, Hitchens' book is an exhilarating and enjoyable piece of iconoclastic polemic. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism: none is spared the author's Voltairean deconstruction of sophistry and superstition.

My main criticism of the book, as of Dawkins', is that it attempts to do too much, and as a result can seem scatter-gun, rather than perfectly aimed, in its assault on its targets. The recent crop of atheist polemics seem to want to do a number of things at once (and in 300 pages): to prove the non-existence of God (or at least the unlikelihood of his/her/its existence), to expose the mythical or fabricated nature of much accepted religious 'truth', and to demonstrate that religion is bad for us, either as individuals or as societies - when any one of these would be sufficient ambition for a single book. 

Both books tend to be stronger on the first two aims than on the third, with Dawkins as a scientist clearly in his element in showing how evolutionary theory has made the hypothesis of a divine creator unnecessary, and Hitchens with his background in literature and the humanities ably demonstrating the man-made character and historical development of many religious ideas. But my sense is that attempting to prove that religion is bad for people is a battle that can never be won: believers will always counter the atheists' catalogue of religious abuses with alternative instances of saintly individuals, or religion's involvement in progressive causes. Moving the debate on to this territory gives religionists the excuse to avoid responding to the much tougher questions in the other two areas: and indeed, much of the religious reaction to Dawkins and Hitchens has been in these terms - trying to show that it was, after all, Martin Luther King's Christianity that inspired his anti-racism, or that slavery would never have been abolished without religiously-inspired campaigns. (I've written elsewhere about my annoyance at the way that much contemporary argument in favour of religion is cast in these utilitarian terms - attempting to show that religion is a 'good thing', rather than to demonstrate its truthfulness or believability.)

As a former believer who wavers between fascination with faith, day-to-day agnosticism, and occasional outright unbelief, I think that it's the second area of contention that should be the main focus of debate. Scientists will never be able to prove conclusively the non-existence of God, any more than believers can prove his existence. But contemporary believers need to respond to the critique of religious ideas as man-made and historically contextual, of the kind put forth by Hitchens and made possible by modern methods of literary and historical investigation. Do modern Christians agree with Hitchens, and most impartial commentators, that many of the characters and events of the Old Testament/Jewish bible are legendary rather than historical? And would they also concede that many of the Gospel stories about Jesus were added long after his death, often to support a theological argument, and that much of what passes for received Christian doctrine is the result of all-too-human faction fighting in the early Church rather than divine revelation? And having accepted as much, will they tell us exactly what they still find believable in the bible, and on what grounds?

In praise of theJazz

As I sit here typing this first post of the New Year,  nervously awaiting the arrival of snow in our corner of eastern England, I'm working my way through some of the jazz CDs I was given as Christmas presents. They include The Quartet's Illuminated, The Triangle by Arild Andersen et al, and As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls by Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays.

Now the thing is, I wouldn't have known about any of these if it hadn't have been for theJazz, the UK's 24 hour national jazz radio station, which has just celebrated its first birthday. Not living in a major urban centre, and having a young family, means we don't get to hear much live music: which means we rely on the radio to find out about new stuff. And as any British jazz fan will tell you, trying to find jazz on UK radio has been a pretty thankless task until recently.

I first tuned into the station early last year. First impressions weren't entirely favourable: at the times I tuned in, there seemed to be no presenters and no information about track titles or performers, and the range of music played seemed very 'safe'. In fact, my impression was that theJazz was designed as an easy-listening soundtrack for restaurants trying to create a 'jazzy' atmosphere and I was tempted to snobbishly dismiss the new station as the jazz equivalent of the soporific Classic FM.  

But during the year things began to improve. Presenters were introduced, there were even one or two informative review programmes, and the range of music played increased - so that alongside the repeated plays of classic Miles Davis and Billie Holiday, newer and more experimental material could be heard. 

And so, at long last, Britain has a national radio station dedicated to jazz. The first attempt at creating one was Jazz FM, back in the 1990s, but that could only be heard in and around London, and under pressure from advertisers convinced that jazz was a minority interest, soon mutated into the bland Smooth FM (though it seems that a new internet station using the Jazz FM name has now started up). I once heard an interview with the original founder of Jazz FM. He described travelling to the States to do some research into jazz radio programming there. When he mentioned his plans for a British jazz station to a local DJ, he was asked what was wrong with the existing UK jazz stations. On being told that there weren't any, the DJ exclaimed 'But I thought you were supposed to be a civilised country?'

Now, thanks to the wonders of digital radio and the internet, perhaps we are.