Thursday 25 February 2010

A swift half with Martin Luther

My car journey this morning coincided with Radio 4's In Our Time. I'm always glad to be driving somewhere on a Thursday morning, as Melvyn Bragg's roundtable discussion programme passes the time in a pleasant and often stimulating way. (On the other hand, I dread having to go places on Wednesdays: Libby Purves' turgid Midweek can make the journey seem twice as long.)

Today's dissection of the ideas of John Calvin sounded promising. But I groaned when Melvyn introduced religious historian Diarmaid McCulloch as one of the guests. McCulloch is one of those academics who seems to be consciously remodelling himself as a celebrity intellectual, complete with a sing-song 'isn't this exciting' tone of voice and a tendency towards vacuous populism. Whereas Bragg's other guest experts did what they were supposed to, serving up detailed information about Calvin's life and thought that was genuinely enlightening, McCulloch responded with bland generalities whose aim appeared to be to get listeners to 'relate' to or 'empathise' with the past. So Luther became the kind of person you might want to go down the pub with, and Calvin someone you wouldn't want on the other side in a crisis. 'Media classicist' Mary Beard has a tendency to do the same kind of thing, often served up with a patronising use of Estuarian (though this is, of course, the least of Beard's offences). So devoid of content were McCulloch's answers to his questions, that Bragg often had to repeat them, in a vain bid to get the historian to say something substantial and informative.

I find this approach at once deeply patronising, in that it assumes that listeners couldn't possibly grasp complex ideas if delivered 'straight', and anti-educational, as it's founded on the notion that it's more important to have a 'feeling' about a topic than to know something concrete about it. Presenting itself as populist, it is in fact elitist, since it involves experts keeping their hoard of knowledge to themselves.

Yes, I know all about Lev Vygotsky and the need for knowledge to be 'scaffolded' by teachers. But what faux-populists like McCulloch do is withhold understanding, rather than guide others towards it. By contrast, one of the joys of a programme like In Our Time (usually) is listening to specialists, often in areas with which one is totally unfamiliar, do their specialist stuff - speak their expert discourse, if you want to be technical. It's in the struggle to understand, the grasping of nuggets of new and surprising knowledge mediated by those 'in the know', that understanding dawns and learning takes place. Not in the shallow attempt to imagine having a swift half with Martin Luther.

Monday 22 February 2010

Groundhog day

Here we go again.

On Saturday the sun shone and it felt like the first day of spring. Yesterday, I even did the odd desultory bit of gardening.

Today, this is the view from my window:

Saturday 20 February 2010

Gosling, Glenn Beck and euthanasia

I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of Ray Gosling. I understand he’s been a great champion of gay rights, which I applaud. But to me, he’s always been one of those irritatingly quirky Radio 4 'characters' with the kind of regional accent that the Crispins at the BBC just adore, but whose quirkiness and regionalism often seem to be the sum total of his u.s.p. And the style of his programmes can best be described as whimsical. Whimsy is what Radio 4 does instead of humour: tune in any weekday evening at 6.30 and you’ll see what I mean.

At the same time, I have an instinctive aversion to euthanasia. Maybe it’s the lapsed Catholic in me, or maybe it's just the usual catalogue of fears about eugenics, the rights of the disabled, and slippery slopes. But I can’t help feeling a sliver of sympathy for Gosling, who has revealed in an interview that he once helped a lover who was suffering from AIDS to die. The veteran broadcaster has now been interviewed by the police, but has refused to disclose any further details. Listening to the news reports, I found myself silently cheering Gosling on, despite myself. You have to feel sorry for the detectives in this case, though: compelled to investigate an offence against an unnamed victim on an indeterminate date, at an unknown location, where the only evidence is the confession of a man who won’t say any more.

Or perhaps the ‘crime’ never took place, and the whole episode is a clever means of attracting publicity for the pro-euthanasia cause? Even if it did happen as Gosling says, there can surely be no selfish motive in coming clean now, and maybe the whole thing is motivated by a desire to advance the mercy-killing cause?

Maybe I’m being paranoid: but not as paranoid as Glenn Beck, who exceeded even his own reputation for fearmongering foolishness on his radio programme this week, when he suggested that ‘progressives’ in Canada plan to kill off those with a 'poor quality of life’ and that the Obama administration will soon be following suit. If you can bear it, listen to the audio version for the full unhinged rant.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Gita Sahgal: defending human rights

Gita Sahgal, head of the gender unit at Amnesty International's secretariat, has been suspended for blowing the whistle on the organisation's shameful alliance with Moazzam Begg and his jihad-supporting outfit Cageprisoners. Sahgal is surely correct to see Amnesty's collaboration as motivated by fear of being branded racist or Islamophobic, and (as she said on the Today programme this morning) by a desire to find 'pure victims' , linked to a refusal to concede that the human rights abuses that they rightly condemn when committed by Islamists abroad might have supporters here in Britain.

Sahgal is herself connected with two fine feminist, anti-racist and anti-fundamentalist organisations that deserve your support: Southall Black Sisters and Women Against Fundamentalism.

How long, I wonder, before the likes of John Pilger label Gita Sahgal an Uncle (Auntie?) Tom and Seamus Milne dismisses her as a poster girl for neoconservatism?

You can catch up on the story over at Harry's Place: here, here and here.

There's more coverage and comment from Terry Glavin, Martin Bright, Kellie and Bob.

And there's more background on Begg and Cageprisoners at Harry's Place, plus this from David Aaronovitch.

Update 15.02.10

As usual, Nick Cohen nails it:

Only the atmosphere of phoney war can explain how Amnesty International, once the most principled defenders of human rights, has shown the truth of Robert Conquest's maxim that "the behaviour of any bureaucratic organisation can best be understood by assuming that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies". All it had to do in the case of Guantánamo Bay was stick to the idea that suspects should not be held without trial and without the protections of the Geneva Convention. Instead, it collaborated with former Guantánamo inmate Moazzam Begg, whose Cageprisoners organisation promotes the supporters of ultra-reactionary ideals. More disgracefully, when Gita Sahgal, head of Amnesty's gender unit, and one of the most principled feminist writers I have read, complained that her employers were treating "Britain's most famous supporter of the Taliban" as a "human rights defender", Amnesty suspended the feminist and stuck by the Islamist.

Assuming that the far left has not taken control of Amnesty, and that may be a generous assumption, its managers must believe at some level that messianic religion is not a threat to the liberal values of feminism, anti-racism and freedom from tyranny they think they hold. To put it another way, Amnesty is living in the make-believe world of a phoney war, where it thinks that liberals are free to form alliances with defenders of clerical fascists who want to do everything in their power to suppress liberals, most notably liberal-minded Muslims.

I worry about what will happen when they realise that promoting human rights isn't a one-way bet, and that the Islamists they embrace aren't nice metrosexuals who support women's rights and want an end to bigotry.

Monday 8 February 2010

The Pope, Cherie, and all that

I'm working up to a proper post on religion, secularism and the law, but I'm pushed for time right now and just wanted to splurge a few thoughts on the subject while they're at the forefront of my mind. I haven't even got time to find all the links but the people I refer to will know who I mean.

The occasion for my first ever post on this blog was my disappointment at finding a religious commentator whose work I liked, and who I had thought a reasonable and thoughtful person, using the label 'aggressive secularism' in what I considered a lazy and unthinking way. Nearly three years later, I had the same feeling last Friday, when I came across an editorial in the supposedly liberal Catholic weekly The Tablet (you should see how much conservative Catholic bloggers despise it) describing the National Secular Society as 'aggressively secularist' because of its response to the Pope's attack on Britain's equality legislation.

It occurred to me that the linking of 'aggressive' and 'secularism' by religionists has become one of those predictable combinations, rather like the pairing of 'militant' with 'feminist' or 'homosexual' a couple of decades ago. It has the same effect - of closing down any possibility of dialogue, since the individual or group thus labelled is viewed as motivated by anger and hostility rather than having cogent arguments worth debating. And it springs from the same sense of resentment, implying that secularists (or feminists, or gays) are to be tolerated, as long as they don't make a fuss about it. The same kind of rationale underlies the denigration of Dawkins, Hitchens, et al., as 'new atheists'. The implication is that the old atheists were all right, since they kept quiet and didn't raise awkward questions, whether about scriptural inconsistencies or the challenge posed to religion by modern science, that upset the status quo.

As to the issue under discussion in the Tablet editorial, it's obviously not a straightforward one. I'm a keen supporter of gender and sexual equality, but I'm not sure the state should get involved in determining who the Church ordains. On the other hand, I don't think anyone is suggesting that (as one Catholic blogger put it) the government is about to impose 'priestesses' on Catholics (though the sense of horror behind the use of that word tells you a great deal about the gender and sexual hang-ups of many opponents of women's ordination). And I think the Pope is playing a dangerous game, not only intervening in political debates in a sovereign nation, but also choosing this issue on which to pick a fight. Does the Church really want to cast itself as the enemy of equality and the supporter of discrimination and exclusion?

The other religion vs secularism issue that's been causing a lot of froth in the comment columns and on the blogs lately is Cherie Blair's decision, as a judge, to be lenient to an offender because he had shown himself to be a 'religious' man. Secularists are up in arms, while some religious commentators have (absurdly) seen this reaction as a threat to religious freedom. I happen to think Cherie Blair was wrong to do what she did - or at least to give the reason that she gave (I have no objection to judges using their discretion and demonstrating leniency, if appropriate). As critics of her judgement have noted, religious affiliation should not be privileged above other beliefs in such cases. How would we feel if a judge let someone off the hook on the grounds that he was a 'good socialist' or a 'good Conservative'? The privilege afforded to religious belief in this case appears to arise from a sense that being religious somehow equates to being 'good', and that faith inspires good works. But as recent history has shown - whether we're talking about Islamist or Francoist terrorism - the exact opposite is often the case.

I suspect Cherie was indulging in a bit of spurious multi-faithism - she's a Catholic, and the accused was a Muslim - and making some kind of point about how Islam can be a force for good, etc etc. But the courts are no place for such superficial and misjudged exercises in 'social cohesion', which, though apparently trivial, undermine the already fragile separation of church and state which is the basis of true religious freedom.

Oh, and then there was the Archbishop of Canterbury saying that Tony Blair was 'weak on irony' and hadn't done enough soul-searching. This, from the man who thinks sharia law would be good for Britain. I mean, come on...

Splurge over.

A propos of the Cherie case, this from Mr Bowie seems appropriate:

Tuesday 2 February 2010

Everyone's got talent

Amid all the doom and gloom about university funding cuts, there is one bit of educational good news today. According to Education Guardian, the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth is to be scrapped and its funds redirected to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds get into higher education.

And about time too. For those who are not parents of school-age children, or who remain unaware of this inequitable and divisive scheme, this is how it works (or rather, how this particular parent has witnessed it working over the past few years). Each year, schools select from among their pupils those they decide have a particular 'gift' or 'talent' - whether in music, science, sport, whatever - and use the funding allocated by government under the scheme to organise special activities for them. Various attempts have been made to reduce the appearance of elitism and selection-by-the-back-door: in some cases the definition of 'gifted' has been widened to include special educational needs, and some schools (such as the one our daughter attends) have invited parents to identify their children's special 'talents'. And there's a lot of empty rhetoric to the effect that 'everyone is gifted and talented, really' (try telling that to the children whose names are not on the list).

What you end up with, inevitably, is a group of children selected on the dubious basis of teachers' subjective judgements and parental pushiness. Like the current system of secondary school 'choice' (in practice, schools choosing the pupils they want, not vice versa), it looks open and equitable, but is in fact deeply divisive, favouring the precocious over the plodding, the already well-supported and resourced over those whose 'talents' are slow in developing or in need of nurture before they become apparent.

And once you've selected your elite group, you divert previous teacher time and resources to providing them with opportunities that reinforce their 'specialness' and are, inevitably, denied to those who didn't make the cut. One day last year, my teenage son came from school and told us there had been a special seminar on applying for Oxbridge. The trouble was, he didn't get invited, since (although he's bright and does well at school), it was only for members of the gifted and talented group, of which he's not a member. I was livid. Having been a shy, late-developing teenager myself, one who would never have been noticed by anyone drawing up a list of the 'gifted and talented', and coming from a family where no one had ever been to university, I would never have made it into higher education, let alone to the Cambridge college where I ended up, if this system had pertained in my day.

The diversion of money from this wrongheaded scheme into widening access to university is one of the Brown government's rare egalitarian moves, and almost (but not quite) makes up for Peter Mandelson's Gradgrindian comments on higher education last year.