Saturday 26 July 2008

Gloom after Glasgow, but Miliband sitting it out?

No time for a detailed post-mortem on the terrible Glasgow East result (we're about to leave for a week in Cornwall, so things will be quiet at this blog for a while), so instead I'll link to analysis by others.

Read Oliver Kamm's take on the political earthquake here and here

And here's Shuggy's apocalyptic reading of the result.

Finally, here's Chris Dillow on why, despite the fervent wishes of some of us, David Miliband will probably sit this crisis out, and may be hoping to be Labour's next-leader-but-one.

Thursday 24 July 2008

Obama 'compelled' to back Israel, says Guardian

In an earlier post I noted the contradiction in Jonathan Steele's view that, while Barack Obama's approach to Iraq and Iran was evidence of his independent judgement, the Democratic candidate's attitude to the Israel-Palestine issue apparently revealed him to be nothing more than a passive tool of the pro-Israel lobby.

Maybe Steele was responsible for today's Guardian leader which suggests that, during his visit to Israel this week, Obama was 'compelled to call the country a miracle, to visit the Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem and to link the memory of the 6 million Jews who died in Europe to Israeli victims of Palestinian violence today'. Note the sinister, conspiracy-theory overtones of that word 'compelled'.

Or perhaps we should see the hand of Seamus Milne behind the piece, given its attempt to diminish the responsibility of Hamas for recent attacks on Israeli civilians. Referring to Obama's visit to Sderot, which has borne the brunt of such attacks, the leader writer mentions the recent ceasefire 'which is why Mr. Obama was able to hold a press conference in Sderot without rushing for the bomb shelter.' How nice of them to stop shelling kindergartens in time for the visit. The word 'ceasefire', with its suggestion of shared responsibility, obscures the reality that the Hamas attacks were unprovoked and came after Israel's withdrawal from Gaza.

Norm skewers the 'oozing cynicism' of the leader column here.

Update: Saturday
Confirmation that the leader probably was written by Jonathan Steele comes in the latter's column in today's Guardian which uses very similar language to criticise Obama's Israel visit.

Wednesday 23 July 2008

Obama and anti-Americanism

Anti-totalitarian progressives who support Barack Obama have often had to swallow their reservations about aspects of his foreign policy, particularly his unconditional promise to withdraw swiftly from Iraq, so will broadly agree with John Rentoul's hope (and expectation) that he will tack towards a more pragmatic approach as the election nears. Here's the nub of Rentoul's argument for lending critical support to Obama:

I think McCain is right about Iraq - that the surge has been a success, and that eventual troop withdrawal should depend on that success continuing. But I think it is more important, for America and the world, that Obama should be the one who learns the truth of this the hard way.

In office, he would be forced to use his eloquence and his global popularity to make the case for what is left of the coalition to see its responsibilities to the Iraqis through. Many of his supporters, especially outside the US, would see it as a betrayal. I think it would be a necessary one, by which he could at last heal the suspicion of American power that provides so many around the world with easy excuses.

Oliver Kamm endorses Rentoul's conclusions here, as does Shabba Goy here. The latter also links to a fantastic piece by David Aaronovitch on Obama and anti-Americanism. It's not often I say this, but I agree with every single word in Aaronovitch's article and recommend you read the whole thing. I particularly liked this analysis of the roots of British and European anti-Americanism:

In part I think that anti-Americanism is linked to a view of change as decline. The imagination is that dynamic capitalism, associated with the US, is destroying our authentic lives, with our own partly willing connivance. It is a continuing and - at the moment - constant narrative, uniting left and right conservatives, which will usually take in the 19th-century radical journalist William Cobbett (conveniently shorn of his anti-Semitism) and end with an expression of disgust over the Dome, the Olympics or Tesco. Just as bird flu is a disease from out of the east, runaway modernity is a scourge originating to the West.

This is spot on. You can find this pessimism and disgust with western modernity reproduced in the Guardian comment pages every other day (from the assembled Buntings, Milnes, Steeles et al), and in the tired and facile anti-American 'humour' of every other BBC TV or radio comedy programme. And that sense of a loss of 'authenticity' neatly links the anti-Americanism of many on the left with their indulgence of religious fundamentalism - as long as it originates in the more 'authentic' East.

Don't make concessions to fundamentalists of other faiths

Of all the arguments against ordaining gay priests, the contention that it will adversely affect relations with Muslims must be one of the weakest. It's not enough that Anglicans have to worry about the reaction of sexual conservatives in the Vatican - now they have to take account of the feelings of fundamentalists of other faiths? According to the Archbishop of Sudan, Daniel Deng:

We are called infidel by the Islamic world...When they are hearing our brothers and sisters from other parts of the Christian global, when they are talking of the same sex to be blessed. Immediately it gives them the way out to tell the other people, these people are evil and they can even harm our people more.

You have to sympathise with Archbishop Deng: it's not easy being a Christian in a majority-Muslim country. But surely he's aware that Islamists don't need new excuses for persecuting Christians: they already regard them as infidels and no concessions will ever appease their intolerance. The Anglican church should not sacrifice its more humane instincts on the altar of a spurious multi-faithism.

Thank God for the end of sectarian voting

Following James Macmillan's prediction that Labour will lose Glasgow East because of a revolt by working-class Catholics against the party's 'lifestyle liberalism', which I posted about here, Geoffrey Wheatcroft tries to portray the by-election as a good old-fashioned Catholic vs. Protestant battle. The reaction of the (mostly Scottish) commenters on the Independent site has been pretty uniformly hostile. 

Paulie thinks Wheatcroft's argument might be a tad simplistic, while Shuggy concedes that 'not all the article is bullshit', but takes issue with the notion that Scots vote along sectarian lines, arguing that 'it is class that is the overwhelming determinant of voting behaviour - as it is in the rest of the country'. Shuggy's post is a riposte not only to English commentators like Wheatcroft who betray their ignorance of the complexities of modern Scotland, but also to Catholic nostalgics like Macmillan who yearn for a religious communalism that (thankfully) no longer exists. As Shuggy says:

There is precious little evidence that Catholics even agree with the Vatican on issues like abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research and the like - still less that their voting behaviour is influenced by them. Anyway, the convention is British politics - thank God, if you'll pardon the expression - is that Parliamentary votes on these questions are a non-partisan affair.

Monday 21 July 2008

The criminal negligence of the Bush administration

I've just finished reading George Packer's The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, which I strongly recommend. This is not an exhaustive account of the political shenanigans that led up to the war, nor it is it a blow-by-blow narrative of the campaign: those wait to be written by political and military historians with the benefit of hindsight. Instead, Packer offers a journalist's first draft of history, a series of linked vignettes, given immediacy and authority by the fact that he was there: with his friend Kanan Makiya and other Iraqi exiles in New York and London before the war, and with soldiers, politicians, administrators and ordinary Iraqis in Baghdad, Basra and Kirkuk, in the months after the invasion, when it was still possible for a foreign journalist to move around the country with relative ease.

Some of the quotes on the dust-jacket would have you believe this is a straightforward anti-war book. My copy includes this from Peter Watts of Time Out: 'A necessary and honest antidote to the ideological buffoonery Iraq has encouraged. Hitchens, Cohen, Moore, Jenkins et al:  read and learn'. Don't believe a word of it: the book is nothing of the kind. Rather, Packer is among those (and there are many of us) who could see the moral and strategic case for removing Saddam, were allergic to the simplistic slogans of the anti-war movement, but at the same time critical of the way the case for war was made, and of the incompetence of its execution.

It's the fact that Packer should have been a natural supporter of the war that makes his detailed critique of it particularly damning. The reader is left with an overwhelming sense of anger and frustration at the Bush administration for the sheer waste of lives, resources and opportunities that were the direct result of their incompetence. Once you've read this book, you'll find it hard to to dismiss Bush's laziness, incuriosity and lack of imagination as cute foibles. Together with Cheney, Rumsfeld, Feith and Rice, the president is shown to be morally culpable for a tragedy that need not have happened. At the same time, the book is full of examples of the dedication and initiative of ordinary US service personnel, shamefully let down by their leaders, and the resilience and optimism of ordinary Iraqis, despite the repeated dashing of their hopes.

Packer sums it up well:

I came to believe that those in positions of highest responsibility for Iraq showed a carelessness about human life that amounted to criminal negligence. Swaddled in abstract ideas, convinced of their own righteousness, incapable of self-criticism, indifferent to accountability, they turned a difficult undertaking into a needlessly deadly one. When things went wrong, they found other people to blame. The Iraq war was always winnable; it still is. For this very reason, the recklessness of its authors is all the harder to forgive.

Sunday 20 July 2008

Queer as (ordinary) folk

There was a fascinating programme on Radio 4 the other day (you can listen to it again here), in which Olivia O'Leary interviewed a man and a woman, both of whose spouses had undergone a sex change. What made the interview particularly interesting was the fact that, despite the emotional turmoil that they had clearly gone through, both had decided to stay with their partners. When questioned about this by O'Leary, the interviewees talked movingly about still loving the person they married, regardless of their altered gender.

I found the story of the male interviewee, a very down-to-earth ex-policeman, especially affecting. Despite initially recoiling from the prospect of sleeping next to a man (made more traumatic by the fact that he himself had once been a victim of male rape), he had now come to terms with it and was even able to consider resuming some kind of sexual relationship with his partner, at the same time as realising that his own sexuality might be more complicated than he had once thought.

For me, these people's stories were a challenge to a view of sexuality (which at the risk of being accused of po-mo political correctness I'm tempted to label 'heterosexist') which sees it as based simply on the attraction of polar opposites, and fails to recognise that individuals are often attracted to each other by qualities that have little to do with their belonging to the 'other' gender (and indeed might find appealing in members of the same sex, if they were able to fight free of heterosexual conditioning). I remember reading an interview some time ago with a female writer - someone who had been in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships, but was now single. The interviewer asked her which gender her next partner would be, to which the writer replied that she had no idea - it would depend on the person. Incidentally, the ex-policeman's experience is also a riposte to those who would dismiss gender and sexual quality as an elite, metropolitan 'lifestyle' issue (see this post).

Other good news on the gender/sexual equality front: the USA is about to get its first lesbian poet laureate, while it looks likely that the excellent and openly gay Rachel Maddow will soon be hosting her own show on MSNBC. Anyone keen to dismiss Maddow as a stereotypical leftie on account of her stint at Air America and background in HIV advocacy should note that her dad was an air force captain in Vietnam and that she describes herself as a defence-policy wonk and 'national security liberal'. 

Speaking of transsexualism: have you seen Hercules and Love Affair? Disco electronica is not usually my thing, but I love the way this band not only challenge gender stereotypes but also deconstruct the whole idea of what a band should be. Their core membership consists of a gay man, a lesbian and a transsexual, but audiences and critics have often got confused about who is which. What can you say about a band whose presiding genius is a geeky bearded guy who looks as though he's still playing in his bedroom, whose backing singer has virtually no stage presence, and who feature a celebrity vocalist (Antony of 'and the Johnsons' fame) on their debut album, but then replace him for their first world tour with the virtually unknown club singer Nomi? Incidentally - could the latter be the most convincing male-female transsexual ever? Judge for yourselves:

Saturday 19 July 2008

When far left and far right meet

A propos of this post about the Israel-Lebanon prisoner exchange: today's Guardian carries an interview with released child-killer Samir Kuntar, and Linda Grant comments here. It seems I was wrong to identify Kuntar with the quasi-fascist Hezbollah. Although they were happy to co-opt his cause for their own purposes, it appears Kuntar is actually a Druze and former member of Marxist-Leninist organisations. Far from being a homeless Palestinian whose crime could be 'explained' as a response to oppression, he's from a wealthy background and was educated at private schools. As Grant writes:

Kuntar fits no model of the impoverished refugee driven to despair by occupation. Nor can he be seen within the context of Iranian-backed Islamism. When he emerged from prison last week it was as a relic of a bygone age: of that era of self-appointed middle-class revolutionaries, like the Weather Underground and Baader-Meinhof Gang.

She continues:

Individuals like him - affectless, without empathy - have always played leading roles in revolutionary movements. Drawn to political organizations of the far left and far right, they are people who have the passion and the excitement for violence, the glamour of violence. Those who are motivated by a desire for the alleviation of poverty or the redressing of injustice, lack the thirst for blood.

In his alliance of convenience with Hezbollah, Kuntar provides a further example of the far left and far right finding common ground in antisemitism, and (as I suggested before) a perverse and monstrous choice as a Lebanese national hero.

Friday 18 July 2008

No more (Greek) heroes?

Twenty or so years ago, when I was going through what I grandly term my Greek phase (basically, when the only holidays we could afford were in bare rooms over tavernas, with cold showers and hole-in-the-ground toilets, but which left me with an abiding enthusiasm for Greek history, politics and culture), I was quite keen on the music of Mikis Theodorakis. I don't mean all that commercial Zorba stuff, but his more serious compositions, and especially his settings of the great twentieth-century Greek poets. Having heard some of this music emanating from doorways on remote Aegean islands, I searched high and low back in the UK to find recordings of his work (this was in pre-internet days) and eventually came across a scratched and jumping LP in a little Greek secondhand bookshop on Charing Cross Road.

The album paired the compositional skills of Theodorakis with the magnificent, keening voice of Maria Farantouri. A particular favourite of mine was Theodorakis' setting of 'Epitaphios', a poem by Yannis Ritsos, a communist and, like Theodorakis, part of the resistance to the neo-fascist regime of the Greek colonels (underwritten, as I mentioned here, by the CIA). I remember asking an adult education colleague who had been born in Greece if she knew where I could find a translation of Ritsos' poems, at which she began to cry. His name brought back memories, she said, of the hopes that had inspired people like her after the defeat of the Nazis, before those hopes were trampled on by the colonels.

What has brought on this bout of Hellenic nostalgia? Over at Engage, David Hirsh has reproduced an interview with Theodorakis that appeared in Ha'aretz in 2004, in which the Greek composer responds to accusations of antisemitism that have been levelled against him. Despite his denials, it's clear that Theodorakis has bought into many of the conspiratorial myths that characterise contemporary antisemitism, and has no qualms about giving voice to the most offensive comparisons between Israeli policy towards the Palestinians and Nazi genocide (which is of a piece with his hysterical labelling of Bush's America as 'fascist'). Can this be the same person who wrote 'Mauthausen'?

What to do when an artist whose work you admire gives voice to political opinions that you find repellent? I've faced a similar dilemma with Jose Saramago, the author of one of my all-time favourite novels, who also made Nazi-Israeli comparisons on a visit to the West Bank. Can you separate the artist from the politics? And does an awareness of their political stance make you listen to their music, or read their books, differently? It's an issue I find myself struggling with more and more - perhaps an indication of how far my own views have changed, but I'd also argue it's a symptom of the extent to which some elements of the left have embraced ideas once associated with the far right.

Anyway: here, out of purely historical interest, is a compilation video of Farantouri performing with Theodorakis in the Sixties, including footage of a concert in Cuba (about which I would once have had fewer qualms, my Greek phase coinciding with my romantic-communist phase):

I'm not the only afficionado of Greek music in this corner of the blogosphere. The Plump has recently posted about rebetika, while Roland included in his seven songs for spring this great performance by Meslina Aslanidou (incidentally, if you're enchanted by the musical and - ahem - visual charms of the accordion player, her name is Zoe Tiganouria and you hear more of her here).

Thursday 17 July 2008

Don't blame social liberalism for Labour's decline

I wrote here about Catholic composer James Macmillan's attempt to draw a distinction between the socially conservative Christian socialism with which he grew up and what he termed 'the simplistic banalities of the modern progressive elites'. I agreed with some of what Macmillan said - particularly his criticism of the infantile anti-Americanism of many on the contemporary left. But I parted company with him when he laid the blame on liberalism, and tried to drive a wedge between liberals and 'real' socialists.

He's at it again, in an article in the Telegraph, on why he thinks Labour will lose the Glasgow East by-election. Again, there's a grain of truth in his analysis of why Labour is losing the allegiance of its traditional working-class base. But I think he's wrong to see the social liberalism of the party's agenda as the main cause, and I think he constructs a simplistic and stereotypical opposition between traditional working-class communities and middle-class, metropolitan party activists.

Macmillan too easily dismisses the social liberalism of New Labour (which is increasingly shared by the other main parties) as 'lifestyle liberalism' and 'recreational individualism'. He's not very good on specifics, mentioning only policies on embryo research and abortion as examples. But can these be easily reduced to lifestyle or recreational issues? And is it only social conservatives who care about 'the dignity of human life'?

I notice that he's careful not to mention the main bone of contention between Catholics and New Labour: the party's entirely laudable and overdue promotion of equal rights for gay people. Again, this is an issue of social justice, not the frivolous concern of a metropolitan minority. Perhaps Macmillan realises that openly to oppose this policy would be an illiberal step too far in his journey away from the progressivism of his youth.

It can't be repeated too often: socialism without liberalism can too easily lead to tyranny, and we should be especially wary of religiously-inspired social movements, however 'progressive' they sound on economic issues, if they are also fundamentally intolerant and illiberal. 

Spirituality, science, etc: a couple of links

Following on from this post, in which I expressed my doubts about Jill Bolte Taylor's interpretation of her experience of stroke, and rehearsed my arguments with Buddhism and other kinds of New Age spirituality: here's an interview with Taylor which is refreshingly balanced, and a rather old piece (but I've only just come across it) by John Horgan articulating his own journey away from Buddhism, which says some of the things I was trying to say, but does it somewhat better.

Wednesday 16 July 2008

How much lower can Lebanon sink?

What can you say about a country that declares a national holiday, and whose president and prime minister join an official ceremony, to celebrate the release of five members of an antisemitic, fundamentalist militia, including the cold-blooded child murderer Samir Kuntar?

Friday 11 July 2008

Well all right!

A lot of people across the Atlantic are getting excited about Barack Obama's plan to move the ceremony at which he formally accepts the Democratic party's nomination to a vast 76,000 seat stadium. Now, there's not much we Brits can teach our American cousins about the art of political theatre, but someone really ought to whisper the following words to his advisers: Neil Kinnock. Sheffield. 1992. 

After the infamous rally, which the British public interpreted as Kinnock getting too bit for his boots and Labour taking them rather too much for granted, the party's  poll rating slumped and they went on to lose an election that most thought they would win. Perhaps American voters are more used to this kind of electoral hubris, but I wonder if, by late August, even they might be getting a little tired of seeing Obama presented as some kind of political messiah. It could all backfire and end up in a majority opting for John McCain with his town hall meetings and downbeat fireside chats. As someone who wishes Obama well, I hope I'm wrong. But if I'm not, remember: you read it here first.

If you can bear it, here's a rather poor video of the Sheffield rally, in all its squirm-making glory:

A matter of conscience, or pandering to prejudice?

What to make of the case of the registrar who refused to officiate at same-sex civil partnership ceremonies because it conflicted with her Christian beliefs, subsequently lost her job, and has now won a legal battle against her former employer? My initial response was rather like David Thompson's to the story of the headscarf-wearing would-be hairdresser. Religious beliefs are a matter of personal choice, as are decisions about the kind of work one feels comfortable doing, and an individual shouldn't expect their employer, or the state, to bear the burden of making one fit with the other. Performing civil partnership ceremonies is part of the job of being a registrar, so if you object to such partnerships (because you're a fundamentalist Christian or Muslim - or because you're just plain homophobic), then perhaps you should seek alternative employment.

On the other hand, I felt a slight, momentary twinge of sympathy for the sacked registrar. When she took on the job, civil partnerships were not yet legal, so she would have had no expectation that officiating at them was part of the job. Also, it could be argued that there is a precedent for excusing employees from certain duties on the basis of their beliefs. The most obvious example is Catholic doctors who can opt out of performing abortions. The main difference, I suppose, is that abortions can be seen as an unusual and exceptional part of a doctor's work, and as (arguably) a 'necessary evil', whereas civil partnerships are (now) a core element of a registrar's work, and society has decreed them to be a positive good. Presumably Jehovah's Witnesses choose not to become doctors, given their objection to blood transfusions?

Then I wondered if the employer couldn't have been more flexible and rotated duties so that this individual didn't have to do anything that conflicted with her conscience. Again, there's a parallel with another story in the news: about those conservative Anglican clergy who can't accept women bishops and have asked for special arrangements that accommodate their beliefs. But how far should an employer, or an institution, go to accommodate the prejudices of a minority, particularly when those prejudices disadvantage others? How would it feel to be a female bishop when a male priest is given permission to disregard your authority? And what about the feelings of the gay couple who are made to feel that their civil union is illegitimate because an official refuses to conduct it?

Then again, isn't it rather strange that the individual concerned chose this issue to make a fuss about? Presumably she already has to officiate at the weddings of divorced couples: doesn't that conflict with her Christian beliefs? Come to think of it, what's a person with such orthodox beliefs doing working in a registry office anyway: don't Christians believe that marriages should be conducted in the sight of God (i.e. in church), not by the state? Can we allow individuals to pick and choose which of their beliefs, or prejudices, they will bring into play in their employment (and demand that their employer makes allowances for), and which they will gloss over for the sake of convenience?

Thursday 10 July 2008

Enlightenment pros and cons

On my list of books that I plan to read in the near future are Kenan Malik's Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate, which sounds like a much-needed riposte to cultural relativism and racialised thinking, and John Gray's Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, not because I have any great sympathy with Gray's ideas, but because a friend recommended it, and I thought I should read it in the interests of fairness and balance. So it was interesting to come across a link at Butterflies and Wheels to a review by Gray of Malik's book. It's not a very good review: more interested in  ad hominem insults - sneering at Malik as a 'pious disciple of the Enlightenment' and a 'remnant of the old Marxist left' - than in intelligently refuting the book's arguments.

Let's see now: anti-Enlightenment cultural pessimist versus a defender of Enlightenment values of progress and universalism - I wonder which book I'll prefer? I promise to approach both with an open mind, and report back.

More on Gray from Norm here.

Appeasing Nazis, old and new

A propos of these posts, Roland reports that Pat Buchanan has been touting his retrospective argument for appeasing Hitler on a white supremacist radio show - and also links to this fine demolition of Buchanan's thesis by Christopher Hitchens. Reading about Buchanan cosying up to neo-Nazis in this way makes it difficult to be quite so indulgent of his  regular 'cuddly old school conservative' routine on MSNBC's Morning with Joe.

Monday 7 July 2008

Did they leave the left or did the left leave them?

Among the many things worth reading in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books is Jonathan Freedland's piece on Hitchens, Amis and the 'war on terror'. I like Freedland, and his article is insightful and generally sympathetic to its subjects, but I do wish he wouldn't copy the lazy trope of describing Hitchens as a former leftist. Former Trotskyist, perhaps, but anyone who has read Hitch's most recent work on Paine, Jefferson, et al, can't fail to acknowledge that his sympathies remain with the left-liberal-progressive tradition.

Believing that the neocons might have got it right about the need to confront radical Islam doesn't automatically turn you into a conservative. Nor does supporting the 'right' policy even if you believe it's being pursued by the 'wrong' side. I don't recall Hitchens suddenly coming out in favour of school prayer and tax cuts for the rich. I'm sure he would argue that it's the left that has changed, not him, and I think he'd probably be right (see this post). Falling into the trap of describing Hitchens, or Berman, or Cohen as former leftists is doing the devil's (or Seumas Milne's) work for him.

Saturday 5 July 2008

'We stand for something here'

Another (belated) video for Independence Day. Here's Barack Obama, celebrating in Butte, Montana, talking about what America should and could stand for:

Friday 4 July 2008

Barack and Iraq

I'm reading George Packer's excellent The Assassin's Gate: America in Iraq, which I might have more to say about at a later date. Although I've often found myself arguing with aspects of Packer's analysis in the book, I mostly agree with what he has to say about Barack Obama's policy on Iraq in the latest issue of The New Yorker.

Packer argues that Obama should, and probably will, veer away from his existing policy of early withdrawal, in the light of recent signs that the situation in Iraq is stabilising. And echoing something I wrote here, Packer suggests that it's not enough for the Democratic candidate to rely on the anti-war rhetoric that won him the nomination:

If Obama truly wants to be seen as a figure of change, he needs to talk less about the past and more about the future: not the war that should never have been fought but the war that he, alone of the two candidates, can find an honorable way to end.

Take time to read the whole article, and Jeff Weintraub's comment on it.

No Paine, no gain

This seems as good a way as any to celebrate the Fourth of July: by recalling the contribution of a great English radical to America's fight for independence, and his continuing relevance to the progressive tradition:

Sharia we go again

I was going to make the connection between the Lord Chief Justice's lamentable speech on sharia law and the case of Chorley Labour councillor Hasina Khan, who has been the victim of a hate campaign by some local Muslim men - but David T has got there first.

Just a couple of points to add. Lord Phillips may think he can make a clear distinction between what he regards as 'bad' sharia - all that nasty stoning and hand-chopping - and the 'good' sharia which he sees as an informal code of practice for sorting out family disputes. But this naively assumes that British Muslims who opt for the latter are doing so voluntarily, and on an equal basis. As Hasina Khan's case shows, it's men who wield power in many traditional Muslim families and communities. How easy would it be for a Muslim woman to refuse to participate in a sharia process, and how fairly would she be treated in such a process? It's shameful that a senior legal officer is prepared to countenance surrendering the rights of the individual in this way, rather than defending the equality of all under a universal, non-sectarian system of law.

One other point. Lord Phillips repeats the canard that poor old Rowan Williams was 'misunderstood' in his controversial comments on sharia earlier in the year. I don't want to knock the archbishop too much at this difficult time, when he's trying to hold the line against the misogynists and homophobes in his own ranks, but I don't see how you can 'misunderstand' this: 'An approach to law which simply said - there's one law for everybody - I think that's a bit of a danger'. On the contrary, it's the naive and careless attitude of national leaders, whether religious or political, to universal human rights that is the real danger.

Thursday 3 July 2008

Making others pay for your principles

A hairstylist has been awarded £4000 damages for 'injured feelings', after she was turned down for a job at an 'urban and edgy' London salon because she refused to remove her Islamic headscarf. David Thompson hits the nail on the head:

Isn't the cost of piety meant to be borne exclusively by the pious? Isn't that the whole point, such as it is? If a believer chooses to forgo certain pleasures and opportunities, isn't that meant to be a metaphysical test of some kind - a matter of self-denial - one of supposedly cosmic importance? And isn't demanding exemptions and compensations simply cheating to gain the approval of one's hypothetical deity? If a person avoids certain foodstuffs or swimming with infidels because he believes avoiding those things will please God for some strange reason, then that's a pretty mad formulation. But attempting to circumvent those self-imposed restrictions by imposing on others seems somewhat dubious even on its own, mad terms. Or doesn't God mind if someone else is forced to pick up the tab? And how convenient is that?

Only connect

In a recent post I described my conflicted feelings about the issue of Tibet, as well as my brief flirtation and ultimate disillusionment with Buddhism. A propos of this, and via Butterflies and Wheels, I recently came across an article by Donald Lopez at The Immanent Frame, about the apparent connections between Buddhism and neurobiology. If you follow the links back, you reach this New York Times piece about neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor's experience of having a stroke, and her comparison of her sensations with Buddhist descriptions of the effects of meditation. And from there you can link back further to the Youtube video of Taylor talking about her experience.
The way Taylor describes her experience is extremely moving and she has a great gift for conveying sensations and emotions, but some aspects of her testimony made me feel quite uncomfortable. It also helped me to pinpoint one of the reasons why, despite my own experience of the benefits of meditation, I eventually drifted away from Buddhism. 

The integrity of Taylor's experience is unquestionable, but the interpretation she constructs around it is, I think, open to challenge. She makes a great deal of the differences, and supposed separation, between the right and left sides of the brain, controlling our immediate sensory experience of the world, and language and communication respectively. Now I'm no neuroscientist, but I do find this kind of brain science, popularised in a thousand self-help books, overly simplistic. Taylor describes her experience of the first few minutes of a stroke as like having the left, rational side of the brain switched off, and basking temporarily in the immediate, sensory world of the right brain. Moreover, she describes this in the kind of mystical language that has got some Buddhists and New Age types all excited.

I found myself wanting to challenge some of the implications that Taylor drew from her experience. She suggests that our immediate, sensory, right-brain experience is what enables us to feel at one with the world and is the source of our connexion to each other and to the world - while it's our left brain's constant, rationalising chatter that is the basis of our individuality and thus our separateness from others. From this, it's a short step to arguing (as she does) that if we all spent more time in the former mode of being (and, by implication, less time being rational and critical), we'd be better people and the world would be a more peaceful and harmonious place.

I believe this to be profoundly mistaken and dangerous. As a humanist, I would argue that it's precisely our capacity to reason, articulate and communicate that makes it possible for us to escape from the prison-house of self and make connexions with other human beings. On the other hand, there's plenty of evidence that the quest for mystical oneness leads not to mutual understanding but to selfishiness and solipsism. Moreover, it can end up in an apolitical outlook that is open to all kinds of dangerous irrationalism. 

In the days when I used to browse Buddhist websites, I came across an account by a group of western Buddhists who, in the aftermath of 9/11, wanted to do something to heal the perceived rift between the west and the Arab world. They described visiting a Middle Eastern country and making contact with a group of intellectuals who seemed open to dialogue. The latter were eager to meet westerners, and wanted to know their opinions about the Arab world - its politics, history and literature. But the Buddhist group had to admit they knew nothing of these things, and had done no reading about them as preparation for their trip. Instead, following the logic of their Buddhist beliefs, they had hoped to connect with their Arab interlocutors on the basis of their 'oneness' as human beings - that is, at the level of feeling and emotion, rather than knowledge, reason and debate. Needless to say, the encounter was something of a failure, and a massive missed opportunity. 

One of the commenters on the Immanent Frame piece links to an article by Slavoj Zizek, who views western Buddhism as a contemporary opium of the people, the ideal spiritual gloss for global capitalism. Now, you can argue that Zizek is being overly reductive and make the obvious points about the complex relations of base and superstructure, but after listening to Jill Bolte Taylor and reading some of the commentary on her experience, I began to wonder if he had a point. He also has some insightful things to say about the place of Tibet in the western imagination, managing to be critical of western romanticisation of the country without falling into the trap of excusing the Chinese occupation.

Tuesday 1 July 2008

Primary proms and classroom homophobia

From today's Education Guardian:

It is prom night and the young people are dressed to the nines, the girls in elegant dresses, make-up and heels, the boys in tuxedos. As they step out of the stretch limos and Humvees their parents have hired, it is obvious that they are ready to leave school...

But these kids are leaving primary school - and their average age is 11. Apparently, the pre-teen prom is becoming an inescapable rite of passage across the UK. The article goes on: 'Boys in kilts and girls in diamante evening gowns are already dancing to the music of time north of the border, where term ends a month earlier than in England.'

The popularity among pre-teens of US movies, such as the ubiquitous High School Musical, seems to be partly to blame. But I think it's also a symptom of the increasing emotionalisation of everyday life (other signs include roadside shrines, crowds weeping at funerals of dead royals). One Scottish parent quoted in the piece says 'I am not sure where the hysteria starts, but when it does it spreads very easily and it is difficult to stop.' 

I can tell you where the hysteria started at our children's primary school: with the teachers. At the end of every year, they set up the Year 6 leavers' assembly so that it would turn into an inevitable weep-fest. Teachers, themselves often dabbing their eyes, gave emotional speeches about 'the best class I've ever taught', and the event wasn't considered a success if it didn't end with gaggles of girls in floods of tears. To watching parents, it often seemed as though it was the staff's separation anxieties, and not the children's, that were being dramatised, and imposing them on impressionable 11 year olds often felt like a form of mild emotional abuse.

I don't want to turn this post into a bout of teacher-bashing, but there's another good piece in the education supplement about combating homophobia in schools. There are some excellent ideas to help teachers deal with issues of sexuality in the classroom, but the assumption throughout is that prejudice against gays and lesbians is part of 'playground culture'. No reference is made to the fact that teachers might themselves exhibit signs of homophobia towards their pupils, and how this might be dealt with. Again, at my son's secondary school (and here's where blogger anonymity comes in useful), the only reports we've heard of homophobic language have been about a teacher who makes repeated remarks about what he perceives to be the effeminacy of certain boys' appearance and behaviour. This is something that was rife at my boys' grammar school in the '60s and early '70s (when even our left-leaning Liverpudlian politics teacher had a habit of referring to a particular pupil as a 'big girl's blouse'), but I had kind of hoped those days were over.

One more item to recommend in the Education Guardian: an interview with one of my favourite historians, Mark Mazower, which oddly omits to mention his bestselling book Salonica, City of Ghosts, which I wrote about here.