Friday, 28 January 2011

Licenced jester

What's the difference between a dead cat on a motorway and a dead banker on a motorway?

There are skid marks around the cat!

Says Vince Cable, who seems to have two jobs. Wearing his Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills hat, he's only allowed to utter anodyne half-truths and unconvincing defences of policies he formerly opposed. But he's got another hat, with bells on, for playing the fool. As the world in general knows, it's the fool's privilege to say the unsayable:

In Renaissance times, aristocratic households in Britain employed licensed fools or jesters, who sometimes dressed as other servants were dressed, but generally wore a motley (i.e. parti-coloured) coat, hood with ass's (i.e. donkey) ears or a red-flannel coxcomb and bells. Regarded as pets or mascots, they served not simply to amuse but to criticise their master or mistress and their guests.

Originally from the Royal Shakespeare Company's Notes on the Fool

In other news:

The report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission is out on what caused the 2008 economic crash and the current Great Recession. Although the commission is not unanimous ... the report says that the crash was foreseeable and preventable.

The report by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission draws on more than 700 interviews, millions of e-mail exchanges and other records that have not previously been disclosed....

The report examined the risky mortgage loans that helped build the housing bubble; the packaging of those loans into exotic securities that were sold to investors; and the heedless placement of giant bets on those investments.

Enabling those developments, the panel found, were a bias toward deregulation by government officials, and mismanagement by financiers who failed to perceive the risks.

Via. I don't care if it takes a 633 page report or a just a tasteless quip to remind us, so long as we never forget exactly who triggered this crisis. After all, the people being asked to take the pain - public sector workers, the unemployed, students, workers clinging on to insecure, unsatisfactory jobs with eroding benefits, ordinary people whose public services are being dismantled - don't share the blame. And that's no joke.

Thursday, 27 January 2011


A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him discusses all sorts of subjects at random as though he knew everything.

From a list of "hateful things" in The Pillow Book of  Sei Shōnagon

That would make quite a good strapline for my blog. But I think I'll donate it to James Delingpole's blog, where it would look even more at home, after his richly-deserved public humiliation on Horizon.


To paraphrase his fellow libertarian Chris Mounsey's no-holds-barred attempt to eviscerate the splendid Laurie Penny:

It is about time that people — by which I mean commissioning editors — realised that James Delingpole is not only a pig-ignorant self-serving nutcase, but also a bigoted, shallow lackwit living in a fantasy world in which an understanding of complex issues is not the result of diligent study and hard work, but of his magical ability to divine the unassailable truth, based on a combination of whatever happens to pop into his head, interpretations of interpretations, a complete lack of scientific expertise and not having the time to read peer-reviewed papers. 
Laurie Penny is still standing, dignity intact. The sneering, self-styled libertarians, in contrast are looking like pitiful bullies who like to dish it out, but can't take it. It's time to man up or shut up, boys.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Hey, big spender!

A Conservative government would match Labour's projected public spending totals for the next three years, shadow chancellor George Osborne has said...

Mr Osborne said: "The result of adopting these spending totals is that under a Conservative government there will be real increases in spending on public services, year after year.

"The charge from our opponents that we will cut services becomes transparently false."

BBC, September 2007

As any fule kno, the economic mess we're in was exclusively caused by Labour spending money like a drunken sailor on shore leave and not spotting the crisis looming on the horizon. George Osborne would never have considered spending our money like that in the good times. You wouldn't have caught George irresponsibly promising to match such profligacy. Seriously, no way.

This old BBC article is giving me severe cognitive dissonance. It's almost as if the Tories were just as complacent as Labour. As if they were all in this together. But that's just crazy talk. We know it is, because all those angry right-wing swear bloggers have endlessly, patiently, explained, in great detail, just how that one-eyed freak, Gordon Brown, single-handedly crashed the entire global economy by being autistic. Or Scottish. Or something like that.

I guess the article is just part of a huge conspiracy hatched by those alien Marxist lizard-people who secretly control the BBC.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

We know how it feels to be free

The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain considers Baroness Warsi's recent comments about Islamophobia as an attempt to stigmatise critical scrutiny of Islam and stifle genuine debate. All religions should be scrutinised and do not deserve special treatment over any other beliefs, ideas or philosophies. Of course the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain strongly condemns all forms of racism, bigotry and violence, however we utterly reject any attempt to conflate these issues with valid criticism and debate about Islam and Islamism.

Recent press release from the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain

"Islamophobia" is a word I can do without. Some people think it's a useful way of describing the inaccurate, venomous stereotypes created by professional bigots like Richard 'I'm not a racist, but...' Littlejohn. Personally, I don't think "Islamophobia" brings anything to the party.

There are already enough words to describe people like Littlejohn. I've already used "bigot" and everybody knows what "prejudice" means. Once somebody has used the phrase "indigenous population" enough times it would only be fair to add the word "racist" to the list.

"Islamophobia" isn't merely superfluous. It's also unclear. Say that something is prejudicial, bigoted or racist and I'll have a good idea what you're talking about - hatred for, or discrimination against, a person, or group of people, based purely on ethnic origin, skin colour, not being from round here, etc, etc. Which, as far as I'm concerned, is completely unacceptable.

If you say that something is "Islamophobic", you might be talking about blanket prejudice towards people who were born into Muslim households and/or believe in the tenets of that religion, which, to my mind, is unfair, indefensible and just plain stupid. But you might equally be talking about criticism of the Islamic religion and/or how its practitioners interpret or act on it, which is an entirely different thing. Islam, like many other belief systems, makes claims that certain things are true and advocates particular views about morality and how society should be organised

Other people have feelings, just like you or me and, regardless of background, deserve just as much fair treatment, courtesy and consideration as we do. Of course, this doesn't stop us judging individuals by their words and actions. If somebody behaves badly, we might withdraw some of that respect and  consideration. Pre-judging other human beings or groups of human beings by irrelevant factors like ethnicity, though, would be unfair and senseless . That's why prejudice is a Bad Thing.

Systems of belief aren't people, though. Being to asked to unquestioningly respect a huge, abstract system of metaphysical beliefs and moral precepts isn't the same as being asked to treat a person with consideration.

There's no compelling evidence that the universe was created by a supernatural being. There's even less evidence that such a hypothetical being sent His personal assistant down to one guy named Mo, in order to dictate a handbook on how the human race should live, (if you're satisfied with circular reasoning, then the assertions contained in the book itself might count as evidence, but they don't do it for me).

It's way more probable that the rules and regulations contained in Mo's handbook are just the social norms of a particular society, written down by a tribal elder, who created a god in his own image. The prophet may have sincerely believed that God's representative had been talking to him. Or maybe he just made the whole revelation thing up, in a conscious attempt to give divine authority to his own wishes.

That's more or less what I believe about that particular subject. It's not particularly clever, original, or relevant to my to my day to day existence, but it's a conclusion I've come to freely. I'm perfectly happy to rub along in a diverse society, alongside many other people who freely believe different things about the metaphysical nature of the universe and stuff that allegedly happened centuries before I was born.

As I'm not particularly brave, I also realise that I'm privileged to live in a society where it's safe to voice an opinion like this. Because what I've just written is, to some people, blasphemy and I am an infidel. Salman Taseer, remember, was murdered for saying something far less controversial than anything I've said. He needed more courage than I'll ever have just to suggest out loud that a woman shouldn't be killed on the hearsay of people who suggested that she'd disrespected the Islamic religion. For daring to say that, some treacherous bastard of a bodyguard decided he deserved 26 rounds from an automatic rifle at point-blank range. Spiteful, block-headed fanatics showered Tanseer's murderer with rose petals. Tanseer saw such people for what they were. When advised to tone down his criticisms of extremists like the one who would eventually kill him, Tanseer replied 'you have to stand up to bullies.'

According to Baroness Warsi's bizarre formulation, if I described a blameless Muslim in the street as more moderate than the fanatic who shot Salman Tanseer, I would be making an "Islamophobic" statement. I don't know if she thinks that Tanseer himself was an Islamophobe for disrespectfully calling violent Islamist reactionaries 'bullies.' 

Charles Moore called Baroness Warsi 'muddle-headed', which is a charitable interpretation of her choice of words (it's a sure sign that things are getting bad when Charles Moore sounds comparatively reasonable). I'm irritated, but not worried by sloppy use of the word "Islamophobia" by people who can't quite grasp the difference between reasoned criticism of an organized system of beliefs and unthinking prejudice against people because their families happen to come, say, from the Indian subcontinent.

It does worry me when the term "Islamophobia" is used to stifle criticism of autocratic clerical authority, repression, misogyny, hatred of other religions, the persecution of apostates, oppression of gay people and even murder, by people like the ones who run the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), a lobby group representing a group of Islamist states, including some of the most disgusting human rights abusers on the planet.

The OIC has for a long time been leaning on the United Nations to pass resolutions proclaiming, for example, that 'defamation of religious is a serious affront to human dignity', a hypocritical statement, given that religious language such as "infidel", "heretic" or "apostate" automatically defames all religions but one's own and that behaviour like this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, or this, is a more 'serious affront to human dignity' than the curses of the most inventive blasphemer.

The OIC, and other hard-line religious reactionaries love words like "Islamophobia." Many of their opponents in the culture wars are tolerant, thoughtful, articulate people, living in liberal societies where open debate and freedom of expression are valued above blind faith and obedience to authority. It's hard to shut people like that up when they don't fear or respect you very much, but a clever propagandist can use liberals' general niceness against them. When people who are genuinely not racist or intolerant dare to criticize anything relating to Islam in any way, "Islamophobia" gets thrown back in their faces. Suddenly the liberals are the ones on the defensive. Being nice people, they have to go off topic, reassuring the world that they're not prejudiced, racist or intolerant, before they can get on with making whatever reasoned criticism they were trying to make.

As an argument-killer, "Islamophobia" is up there with the popular American neologism "hater." Both terms sound bigoted and prejudicial - "Islamophobia" sounds like "homophobia" and "hater" sounds like ... well ... "hate." And both terms can be fired back at liberal critics to stop an argument in its tracks, forcing the critic to go onto the back foot to refute the assertion of prejudice. As Mark Dery writes in his essay, Hate is All Around: The Politics of Enthusiasm and its Discontents:

Worst of all is the inability of the reflexively positive to distinguish between critical thinkers and haters (succinctly defined as Anyone Who Hates One of My Favorite Things). The concept of a “hater” is a fascinating one, and bears closer scrutiny...

At their wound-licking, hater-hatin’ worst, the politics of enthusiasm bespeak the intellectual flaccidity of a victim culture that sees even reasoned critiques as a mean-spirited assault on the believer, rather than an intellectual challenge to his beliefs.  Journal writer Christopher John Farley is worth quoting again: dodging the argument by smearing the critic, the term “hater” tars “all criticism—no matter the merits—as the product of hateful minds.” No matter the merits.


"Islamophobia" is another linguistic product of  'a victim culture that sees even reasoned critiques as a mean-spirited assault on the believer.' Salman Rushdie has had reason to know that culture better than most:

I think that we live in a very timid age, and part of our timidity arises from our unwillingness to offend people. And as a result there are whole tribes of people now who define themselves by their offendedness. Who are you if you are not offended by anything? You're nobody, you know? Or even worse, you're a liberal.

No doubt the people who burned Rushdie's books, tried to intimidate publishers and booksellers with threats of violence and called for his murder would have called him a "hater", had the term been current then. But then the BNP are always whining that the "liberal elite" are trying to stifle their freedom of expression (as if they had a clue what the term meant), so we don't need a hypothetical example to work out that knuckle-headed bullies in general don't do irony.

As I don't like "Islamophobia", I feel that I should offer some kind of alternative. Because "Islamophobia" sneakily smuggles two entirely different concepts into one word, I think that the word is too risky and needs breaking up, in the same way that people have suggested splitting safe and steady retail banks from their high-risk, high-return, potentially economy-trashing investment arms. I'm quite happy for "prejudice", "bigotry" or "racism" to stand in for "Islamophobia" when that's what the term denotes. But what about "Islamophobia" in the sense of failing to uncritically approve of the Muslim religion or some aspect of it? I think history can help us with this one.

A few paragraphs back, I listed some aspects of Islam that perfectly well-meaning people might reasonably object to - autocratic clerical authority, repression, misogyny, hatred of other religions, the persecution of apostates, oppression of gay people and even murder. These aspects of organized religion aren't unique to Islam. All of these abuses existed in Christian Europe in the medieval and early modern periods (overlapping with the period when the Islamic World was, by the standards of the age, realtively learned, tolerant, liberal and cosmopolitan). It's not even an exhaustive list - the pious also had enough holy wars, torture, persecution of freethinkers, wich-burning and forced conversions to keep themselves amused for years. The Christian church hasn't gone away, it's just that Western societies have evolved away from being theocracies that defined people by their religion, in which religious authorities could command obedience by fear.

During the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, as the power of the church waned, there was a word for secularists who challenged and questioned the power of organised religion and the authority of clerics. Anticlericalism. It's not exactly an obscure word, but it's not very popular these days, either. It'll do me, though. Anti-clerical will go nicely on my mantelpiece next to anti-racist. Because I believe that people of all races and backgrounds deserve to be treated with consideration and deserve to live free from bigotry and bullying, even the bullying of hypocrites and cowards who call their hateful words and actions "faith" and turn the accusation of bigotry back on anyone who dares to stand up to them.

As I said, I'm lucky. At least in terms of freedom of conscience and religion, I know how it feels to be free.

Here's Nina Simone singing I wish I knew how it would feel to be free (link to YouTube added because embedded links don't seem to appear when blog posts are re-posted to Facebook)


I'm too old to even even pretend to know what sort of music young people are jiving to in the dance halls these days, (my son's still too young to educate me in this regard), but I heard a wireless presenter who goes by the name of Judge Jules playing this on the BBC Light Programme other night and I rather liked it.*

* link provided for the benefit of anybody seeing this re-posted on Facebook, where embedded videos don't seem to work (at least for clueless old fuddy-duddies like me)..

Friday, 21 January 2011

Choosing sides

Now you believe either that George Osborne’s deflationary policy to reduce the deficit is a disaster falling on those least able to bear it or that it is a necessary response to a national emergency. You believe that the recession was caused either by the folly of the bankers or the extravagance of Gordon Brown. In short, you are either left-wing or right-wing. You must choose, for you cannot be both.

Nick Cohen

I'm moderately cheered by Ed Balls' unexpected accession to the Shadow Chancellorship.  I can see a couple of reasons to be cheerful:

1. The coalition have a simple message that they want and need the public to hear and believe - that there is no alternative to massive cuts in services, immediate job losses and dismantling as much of the public sector as possible, as quickly as possible.  Labour front benchers who fail to challenge that message and don't propose anything other than slightly watering down what the coalition are already doing might as well give up, go home, and not come back until they've worked out what they went into politics to achieve. At least Ed Balls still believes there is an alternative:

Mr Balls said Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne were damaging the economy with their deep cuts to public spending to try to erase a deficit of more than 10 per cent of national output.

"Our task ahead is to take on George Osborne and David Cameron's decision to cut too far and too fast, recklessly putting jobs and growth at risk," Mr Balls said.

"We will hold them to account for the decisions they have taken. There is an alternative: A fair economy which puts jobs and growth first."
Today online
2. Ed Balls seems capable of mastering his brief and giving George Osborne a seriously hard time:

The good news for the Labour Party is that they've got themselves a new, combative, economically literate shadow Chancellor, a man who was put on God's good green earth to make George Osborne's life intolerable.
The Independent

Not before time - bring it on. 
My cheerfulness is moderated by a few other considerations:

1. We're told that Balls was an enthusiastic participant in Labour's civil wars, industriously briefing against rivals and not above stabbing a few backs. He also has a reputation as a bit of a bully, which wouldn't raise him in my estimation. How much of this is true and how much is just gossip and smear, I have no way of knowing. A swift reading of the comments thread on this post at Harry's Place confirms that some people out there do really hate him. All this internal bickering sounds worryingly like the Judean People's Front v. the People's Front of Judea to me.

2. His voting record on asylum, ID Cards and anti-terrorism places firmly him on Labour's authoritarian wing.

3. He's yet another top politician who just happens to have been privately educated.* In these hard times Osborne and two thirds of his cabinet colleagues are vulnerable to the charge that they belong to a privileged, out of touch, élite, but if Balls attacks on that front, this is the sort of response he's likely to get:

Labour gives Osborne a load of stick from being an upper class, privately educated snob who wears a semi-permanent smirk. Now they have Balls, who is an upper class, privately educated snob who, err, wears a permanent smirk.
I have my reservations, but if Ed Balls has made the choice to actively and effectively oppose the coalition rather than just feebly bobbing along in its wake, we may yet see that smirk wiped off Osborne's face.

* At Nottingham High School, which may be a snip compared with Eton, but is still way beyond the means of most of Balls' constituents (I'm assuming he didn't win a scholarship).

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Horrible Histories - The Measly Middle Ages

The real Iron Maiden was a medieval torture instrument, a sort of boiler which was shaped like a woman on the outside and lined with spikes. The front of the woman was composed of two hinged doors. The idea was to put a criminal inside and then close the doors slowly. There were two special spikes where his eyes would be. There was a drain in the bottom to let out all the blood.

So it goes
That's the straight dope, according to a character in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, who got his jollies by creeping people out with tales of  sadism and torture. The real Iron Maiden was apparently first used on August 14th 1515, to punish somebody who'd been forging coins. At least that's what Johann Philipp Siebenkees wrote in a 1793 pamphlet. Others beg to differ:

There is, however, one small problem with Herr Siebenkees’ story; it isn’t true. The first known references to the maiden appear in the late 18th century – besides Siebenkees’ pamphlet, a 1784 tour guide to Nuremberg allegedly whispered of “the Iron Maiden, that abominable work of horror that goes back to the times of Frederick Barbarossa” (by which it meant the 12th century). That guidebook might have referred to the infamous Iron Maiden of Nuremberg, which was destroyed in 1944, during the Allied bombing of Nuremberg. A copy of the Maiden, purchased by the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1890 and taken on a world tour, found its way back to Germany, and is now displayed at the Medieval Crime Museum in Rothenburg ob der Taube. Modern copies can be seen at Ripley’s Believe or Not and a variety of wax museums.

The Iron Maiden was probably made up by Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century medievalists and has as much to do with the real Middle Ages as Ivanhoe, the Pre-Raphaelites, Nineteenth Century Gothic architecture or the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds.

These days, if you describe something contemporary as "medieval" it's rarely a compliment - the word carries connotations of barbaric cruelty and a sort of clunky crudeness. By modern standards the European Middle Ages really did have a crummy human rights record. It was an age that combined endemic warfare (those castles weren't just put there to look picturesque) with all manner of cruel and unusual punishments from impalement, death by burning, breaking on the wheel to hanging drawing and quartering. Not surprising if you buy Steven Pinker's compelling argument that the per capita of rate of violence has probably declined throughout our history in most places. With such an extensive buffet of real past horrors to choose from, it seems quite surprising that people felt the need to make stuff like the iron maiden up.

Another iconic medieval device is that spiked iron ball on a chain and stick that we've all seen knights bashing each other with in illustrations and and films. I haven't studied the various movie interpretations of Robin Hood and other medieval epics in any detail, but I get the distinct impression that when a character is armed with one of these in a film, it's a visual clue that "this person is a baddie" (the same seems to go for crossbows, unless your name's William Tell). The spiked ball and chain is popularly known as a morning star, although this is, apparently, incorrect and the term actually refers to a weapon that looks like a club with added spikes on the business end:

The morning star is a medieval weapon consisting of a spiked club resembling a mace, usually with a long spike extending straight from the top and many smaller spikes around the particle of the head. The spikes distinguish it from a mace, which can have, at most, flanges or small knobs.

The stick, chain and spiked ball affair is more properly called a military flail. According to Wikipedia, there's not much evidence that weapons like this were actually used in the Middle Ages although 'the weapon captured the imagination of later writers and illustrators, becoming a stock 'prop' in Victorian Era Medievalist literature and Hollywood movies set in the age of chivalry.' Wikipedia isn't always authoritative, but after a little light googling, I haven't found any killer article from an academic contradicting Wikipedia with hard proof of a real medieval weapon of the stick, chain and spiked iron ball-type. The nearest thing I've come across is the lash-ball, a ball of bronze or iron (without spikes)  attached by a lash to a stick  This weapon originated in Russia and was mainly confined to eastern Europe. So, the spiked ball on a chain was probably just another product of the overheated Victorian imagination.*

The real military flail was a bit more prosaic; often just a peasant's threshing flail, possibly souped up with a few studs or spikes on the end - the medieval equivalent of a nail-studded baseball bat. In an age when peasants were obliged to provide military service to their lords, it seems that sometimes they used whatever improvised weapons came to hand. When the peasants revolted, they took these crude weapons into battle on their own behalf - contemporary illustrations show Hussite peasant armies armed with flails and I'm sure that many a peasant grabbed the nearest flail during the English Peasants' Revolt.

If the Wikipedia article is correct, the agricultural flail must have been reasonably effective as a weapon, as modified versions were apparently purpose-built for fighting.

So the iron maiden almost probably didn't exist, evidence for spiked iron balls on chains is patchy - what about that other iconic medieval artifact, the chastity belt? Not looking good:

There are, in fact, no genuine chastity belts dating from medieval times: all known 'medieval' chastity belts have been produced in the first half of the 19th Century. These fake-medieval chastity belts are too heavy and the workmanship is too crude, even for medieval standards. The oldest design for a chastity belt that can be taken seriously dates from the 16th Century - but it's just a design, with no real working models believed to have ever been constructed. The concept of a chastity belt itself is a lot older, but it was usually used in poems in a metaphorical sense. According to Dr Eric John Dingwall, who wrote a deeper study on the subject in 1931, 'the chastity belt probably made its first appearance in ordinary use among the Italians of the period of the Renaissance or perhaps somewhat later.'

Most of the 'medieval' chastity belts on display in museums have been tested to confirm their actual age. As a result, the Germanisches National Museum in Nuremberg (Nürnberg), the Musée Cluny (officially known as Musée National du Moyen Âge, or the Middle Age Museum) in Paris and The British Museum in London have all either removed the chastity belts from their medieval displays or corrected the date.

Again, probably not a part of real life in the middle ages, although a brief Internet search on the term "chastity belt" confirms that plenty of firms today are kept busy satisfying the demands of rather specialist consumers and are probably manufacturing more chastity belts and associated restraining garments than have ever been made in any previous period of history.

 Why do these sort of myths gain traction? They've got a passing resemblance to modern media myths of the "Immigrants Are Eating Our Swans" or "Local Authority Bans Christmas" type - if you make up something shocking or dramatic enough, somebody's going to believe it without bothering to check. But most of the myths that get reported in the papers have some sort of not-very-subtle agenda behind them, whereas there's limited propaganda value in claiming that medieval Europeans tortured each other inside spiked cabinets, or bashed one another with spiky iron balls, or crusaders locked their wives up in steel knickers while they were away on heathen-slaying business. These myths are closer to unofficial urban myths - not the overtly political "Obama is a Muslim" rubbish, or the plain silly "Apple giving away FREE i-Pods" sort, but weird or frightening stories about people having their drinks spiked by organ thieves and waking up minus a kidney, or  The Vanishing Hitchhiker, just made up to freak people out.

These sort of myths don't have any overt purpose. Maybe they exist for the same reason that ghost stories, horror films, grisly waxworks and programmes like Embarrassing Bodies exist - people seem to like being a little shocked, scared or even grossed out in a safe environment. And half a millennium or so in the past counts as a pretty safe distance for a cheap thrill at a distant danger. 'People like to be scared when they feel safe' said Alfred Hitchcock. There are a lot of pop psychological explanations of why people like to be scared or take their imagination to a dark place - some of them might even be true. From visitors to the London Dungeons, through role playing gamers brandishing fearsome-looking "medieval" weapons to couples getting a naughty BDSM thrill from a spot of chastity belt role play, it seems that people still are still furtively turned on by the idea of medieval barbarity.

I suppose that people fantasizing about torture, oppression and violence, rather than doing it for real, is an indication that we've progressed a bit since the real Middle Ages.

* the Wikipedia article itself includes a photograph of something that is purported to be a 14th century stick-ball-and-chain-type flail in a Russian museum, but I don't know whether this real or just a reconstruction

Friday, 14 January 2011

Not quite written by committee

The King James translation has been described as 'the greatest monument of English prose' as well as 'the only great work of art ever created by a committee'. Both statements are true. Fifty-four scholars worked seven years to produce the work from its extant texts in Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, English. Such an undertaking can be expected to produce great scholarship, but hardly writing as spare and sublime as the King James…

Charlton Heston

For once, I think that the received opinion is bang on the nail. The language of King James Bible is powerful and enthralling. As the recent anniversary reminded us, it still permeates the our language after four centuries and echoes back in the words people use today. It's like the Cosmic Background Radiation of the English language. When journalists use that truism about 'a famine of Biblical proportions',  this is what they mean:
The tongue of the sucking child cleaveth to the roof of his mouth for thirst: the young children ask bread, and no man breaketh it unto them ...
...they are not known in the streets: their skin cleaveth to their bones; it is withered, it is become like a stick.
They that be slain with the sword are better than they that be slain with hunger: for these pine away, stricken through for want of the fruits of the field.
 From Lamentations, 4

I would,though, take issue with Heston's assertion that it was 'the only great work of art ever created by a committee.' It's a snappy quote, and I'd like to know who he borrowed it from, but it may be almost - but not entirely - wrong.  The reason why is worth remembering:

The Authorized King James translation of the Bible wasn't, of course, the first English translation of the Bible.  John Wycliffe completed the first English translation in the 1380s. To the contemporary church hierarchy this was an outrageously subversive act - the language of the Latin Bible was accessible only to an educated priestly elite, which meant that the clergy had privileged access to the authority vested in sacred texts. Conversely, with no direct access to the source material, the laity were powerless to challenge doctrine and the authority of the Church. A host of vernacular translations would also have given the Church a severe administrative headache. It made very good sense for a multi-national corporation like the Catholic Church to keep all its internal communications and official documents in one language.

Having annoyed those in authority, Wycliffe clearly needed to be taught a lesson. At various times the Pope issued decrees against him, he was brought to trial before the Archbishop of Canterbury, charged with - although not convicted of - heresy and expelled from Oxford University for his efforts.

After Wycliffe's death, his Bible translation went viral among the proto-Protestant Lollard movement (or as viral as a document can go with quill-pen copying technology). Lollards read their Bibles, then went around telling people that doctrines like transubstantiation, the Eucharist, Indulgences, and a hierarchical church organization didn't appear anywhere in the Good Book. Then there was trouble.

In 1401, in a high-profile initiative designed to address the radicalisation of the Lollard Community, Parliament passed the statute De haeretico comburendo, (On the Burning of the Heretic). It sounds harsh, but I'm sure the authorities considered the measures tough, but proportionate. In 1415 the Council of Constance declared Wycliffe himself a heretic and he was duly burnt although, as he'd already been dead for thirty years, this constituted getting off rather lightly.

Fast forward a century or so. In the 1520s and '30s, William Tyndale translated large parts of the Bible  - the entire New Testament, the Pentateuch and the book of Jonah - into English. At first, it looked as if his translation would go the way of Wycliffe's, rejected by churchmen and the conventionally pious Henry VIII alike. The new printing technology ensured that more copies of his work could be disseminated, but Tyndale's translations were banned from England and any copies burnt. Tyndale moved to the continent, where he continued to work and be published. It looked as if the Tyndale version was destined to be just another samizdat Bible, passed furtively around among dissenters.

Then, Henry VIII began to have those marital difficulties for which he's famous. Tyndale made the career-limiting mistake of writing a pamphlet opposing Henry's attempts to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled. Henry asked the Holy Roman Emperor to have Tyndale seized. After a time spent on the run he was eventually betrayed, tried for heresy, strangled at the stake, then burned.

Tyndale's translation, though, fared rather better. As Henry's conflicts with the Pope over his marriages escalated, the centre of power in England shifted. The interests of the Pope in Rome and his trans-national organisation became irrelevant and, in England,  it was the King and his obedient English clergy calling the shots. For the first time, it was in the interest of the English Church and state to have an authorised, national Bible to assert national authority and undermine that of the Catholic Church.  Thomas Cranmer assembled a committee of ten bishops to produce the definitive English Bible, but the project went so slowly that by 1537 he was complaining that their Bible wouldn't be ready until the day after Doomsday.

Tyndale's partial translation, however, was already widely published and available. The Bishops' attempt to translate a new English Bible from scratch was abandoned and work started on a national Bible based on Tyndale's work. Miles Coverdale amended some of Tyndale's translations to make them less objectionable to the clergy, but left his work largely intact. He added his own translations of the remaining books of the Bible, to create the Great Bible, the first authorized Bible in English.

Fast forward another seventy years, to King James I, trying to reconcile High Church Anglicans with the Puritan wing of the English Church. He ordered a new, definitive national edition of the Bible to be produced. Forty seven* scholars, working in six committees were tasked with translating the Bible 'out of the original tongues, and with the former translations diligently compared and revised, by His Majesty's special command.'

So, 'created by committee', then? Well, not quite. The committees of translators were allowed to consult an approved selection of existing translations, including Tyndale's partial translation itself, along with the Great Bible, and the Sixteenth Century Matthew's Bible and the Geneva Bible - all translations that were substantially based on Tyndale's work. Scholars disagree on exactly how many of the words in the King James Bible are Tyndale's, but some studies suggest figures like 84% for the New Testament and 76% for the Old Testament.

Considering the raw deal he got, I think it's only fair that Tyndale should get a bit more of the credit. Mind you, 'the only thirty-odd per cent of  a great work of art ever created by committee' doesn't have quite the same ring to it.


If you have been, thanks for reading and here's a small YouTube treat for all you Charlton Heston fans out there...

*Fifty four scholars were originally approved, but only forty seven contributed to the translation.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

I is Alarm Clock Hero - I can haz medal?

Image: Gold Star Medal of the Hero of Socialist Labour (Soviet Union 1938-1991)

Woeful lunatic of the day

When Jared Loughner put a bullet through Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffard's brain and killed six bystanders including a nine year old child, some commentators suggested that the killer was inspired by the violent rhetoric of tea party gun nuts like Sarah Palin. This may or may not be true, but her counter-accusation that such a suggestion was a "blood libel" showed that she had no idea what the term meant.

To recap, a "blood libel" is a false accusation that religious minorities, usually Jews, kill children and use their blood in their religious rites. Sarah Palin saying something ignorant is only news in the 'dog bites man' sense but, in this context, here's something really jaw-droppingly crazy:

Gabby Giffords was both Jewish and a staunch defender of abortion rights, holding that abortion needed to be legal in all circumstances. In this regard, her political stance was perfectly in line with her religious beliefs.

She not only supported abortion in all circumstances, she supported embryonic stem cell research, was strongly supported by the pro-abort Emily's List and pushed contraception like it was going out of style.

This past Saturday, a man stirred her brains with a bullet in much the same way that an abortionist stirs the brain of unborn child with a knife during a partial-birth abortion.

In this case, the only major difference between Giffords and the babies whose death she supported is that medical professionals are trying to save her life instead of end it.

It's from  the rather disturbing  blog of one Steve Kellmeyer, which I've been following with morbid fascination for some time now. The blog goes by the snappily fascistic title of The Fifth Column ("Orthodox Catholic commentary on current events"). It started off pretty strange but those posts just keep on getting weirder and weirder. You can read the whole thing here* if you want a glimpse of life on the bizarre planet that extreme religious fundamentalists inhabit. Are there echoes of something really nasty here, or is the guy just two wafers short of a communion? You decide.

* I took a screen shot just to prove that he actually did say it, just in case this ever gets retrospectively edited.

Did you ever know that you're my hero?

I wouldn't even attempt to top the excellent job Justin McKeating just did of demolishing Nick Clegg's "Alarm Clock Heroes" PR offensive, but there are a few bits of Clegg's rancid sound bite that I'd like to take a belated swing at with my own wrecking ball.

As a media-savvy Public Relations Professional, Clegg must have heard of the high-profile Help for Heroes charity, set up to provide help and support for wounded members of the armed services. I think we can all see what he just did. Yes, he really did hijack the language of good causes, selflessness, sacrifice and undoubtedly genuine suffering for his political advertisement, using emotional trigger words to make media consumers think about his brand in a positive way.

I'm not going to argue that his PR offensive is ... well ... offensive. I'm not one of those people who 'define themselves by their offendedness' as Salman Rushdie would say. I'll content myself with saying that it's a cynical piece of manipulation from a mollycoddled rich kid who's completely out of touch with the lives of the people he's taking about.

First point - the Help for Heroes website clearly states that the organisation is 'strictly non political and non critical; we simply want to help.' Nick Clegg thinks it's clever to borrow their language to flatter, manipulate and polish up his political brand. He's presumably also pleased with the way he's managed to spitefully deploy the language of war to subtly imply that those who've lost their jobs are shirkers and hand them a metaphorical white feather. I'm not 'offended' by that. I just think he's being a complete git.

Second point - neither Clegg or Cameron have ever been woken by an alarm clock before dawn on a cold, wet winter morning to drag themselves unwillingly to a hard, boring, unfulfilling or badly-paid job, because it's their only alternative to being poor and workless, perhaps their only alternative to being homeless or seeing their family fall apart. They've certainly never woken up to that early morning alarm clock knowing they haven't even got that, that they're jobless and being dragged out of bed to compete in an interview for a boring, badly-paid job in a job market where employers can take their pick of over-qualified people with flawless employment records.

Nope, they went direct from being coached in expensive private schools to university, to jobs in PR which, although essentially useless, were prestigious and well-paid and, thence, into politics, reaping the rewards of the choices, opportunities and contacts open to people from an extremely privileged background. They might, rightly, claim that their present jobs are difficult and and involve getting up early in the morning, but they are in the extremely lucky position of having chosen exactly what they wanted to do with their lives, being more than adequately rewarded for doing it and never having to worry about paying the bills.

I respect people who get up first thing in the morning to go to an oversubscribed interview for a crap job, empty the bins or work in some godawful call centre for peanuts and no job satisfaction, just to feed their family and keep a roof over their head. It's just that Clegg's supremely unqualified to talk on their behalf. I'm not 'offended' by Clegg talking as if he was one of us. I just think he's being a complete git (note to Cameron; no we still aren't 'all in this together' - not even close).

Finally, talking about people who get out of bed to go to work as if they were maimed soldiers is a bit rubbish, isn't it? In a time of under-employment, I wouldn't want to make light of the years of low-level misery represented by people grinding away in hard, unfulfilling jobs, just to make ends meet. Even so, being woken up by the alarm clock and thinking 'oh hell, I've got to drag myself in to work' isn't really quite the same thing as having your legs blown off by a roadside bomb, is it? But, for the sake of argument, let me take you by the hand and together we'll visit Nick's wonderful world of elastic words, where the two things are somehow equivalent.

We've got a government that has deliberately chosen to go for fast deficit reduction, by way of massive cuts in jobs and public services, rather than balancing deficit reduction with the need to keep people in jobs, so that they've got up to date skills, are paying their taxes and can afford to spend money keeping the providers of goods and services in business. If we were to think of the working people of Britain as soldiers, fighting for their country, then who would be the ones blowing their livelihoods out from under them, leaving them in shock and fighting for survival? Seeing Nick Clegg pledging support for our "Alarm Clock Heroes" is as weird as seeing a Taliban bomber rattling a tin for Help for Heroes. When you think about it, Clegg's comparison is utterly bizarre, but I choose not to be 'offended' by it. I just think he's being a complete git.

Looking on the bright side, for paid journalists (or unpaid bloggers like me) who are occasionally inspired to write angry pieces about shamelessness, foolishness and deceit in politics, Nick Clegg is practically a one-man job creation programme. Thank God for Nick, the wind beneath our wings.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Lyric of the day

In my squirrel grandpa's brain
I'll invade when I get home
Overheard playing on the radio in my local Co-Op this morning. I've no idea what the song was called, or who the artist was and, given my propensity for mis-hearing song lyrics, this may not be precisely what the songwriter wrote, or the singer sang, but it's what I heard. I could blame it on the fuzzy hearing and synapses that afflict the middle-aged, but I've always had trouble with lyrics. As a child, I thought that Marc Bolan was singing 'Millie Gnu, is it you?' when I heard T. Rex's Metal Guru, supposing that Millie Gnu must be some sort of whimsical animal character like Nellie the Elephant.

Having said that, the real lyrics to Metal Guru are almost as surreal as 'in my squirrel grandpa's brain', so maybe I did hear right. In that unlikely event, I'd cheerfully welcome the return of psychedelic bonkersness to lyric writing, after the boring predictability of the safe, X-Factor-friendly doggerel that gets so much air-play these days.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

A no brainer

George Osborne is a pampered lightweight with a smug, punchable face, tasked with implementing policies guaranteed to infilict misery on millions. An easy target. His Labour shadow should be making mincemeat of him, but dear, oh dear:

Alan Johnson's inability to tell a Sky News interviewer over the weekend the rate of national insurance paid by employers was merely the latest in a string of unconvincing performances. Before taking up the job of shadow Chancellor, Mr Johnson seemed unsure whether VAT was levied on food. And since being appointed to his post in October, he has sent out confusing messages over how quickly Labour would cut the deficit and the party's attitude towards a graduate tax. It is unsurprising therefore that, even within his party, some are beginning to mutter about his suitability for the post.

The sad thing is Johnson's general cluelessness was on display for all to see long before Ed Milliband made him shadow Chancellor. After all, this is the same Alan Johnson who believed that biometric ID Cards and their associated database were such a good use of public money that their introduction was a 'no brainer'. He went on to add:

Given the growing problem of ID fraud and the inconvenience of having to carry passports coupled with gas bills or six months worth of bank statements to prove identity, I believe the ID card will be welcomed as an important addition to the many plastic cards that most people already carry.

Why is anybody surprised that he's now sending out unclear, unconvincing and confused messages?
It's almost as if Ed Milliband doesn't want to defeat the coalition any time soon. Maybe his strategy is to give them a free hand to pile misery on misery until people are so demoralised that they'll vote for the opposition in desperation, no questions asked.

Maybe his masterly inaction will cause the coalition to collapse under the weight of its own stupidity, but I'm not holding my breath.

There must be quite a few things worrying Cameron and Clegg at the moment. The threat of leaks and scandals, headline-grabbing own goals, mass protests, riots and Lib Dem back benchers jumping ship when they realise that nobody will ever trust (or vote for) them again, to name but a few. But a Labour leader who resembles one of Nick Park's Plasticine characters isn't one of them.

Worse than that, Plasticine man doesn't even have a decent sidekick. Wallace had the smart, loyal, resourceful Gromit, whose unflappability and common sense got his master out of many a sticky situation. Hapless Ed Milliband has ended up with Alan Johnson. I'd trust Gromit’s judgment any day over Alan Johnson’s.

And Gromit's stern glare and exasperated eyes-to-the-sky expression would be far more effective responses to the nonsense coming out of George Osborne's self-satisfied mouth than anything Alan Johnson has yet come up with.


Monday, 10 January 2011

Always look on the bright side of life...

The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon. You can see it over millennia, over centuries, over decades and over years, although there seems to have been a tipping point at the onset of the Age of Reason in the Sixteenth Century. One sees it all over the world, although not homogeneously. It’s especially evident in the West, beginning with England and Holland around the time of the Enlightenment. Let me take you on a journey [of] several powers of ten from the millennium scale to the year scale to try to persuade you of this….

Steven Pinker, with an arresting claim, via.

Here, by the way, is the Biblical passage Pinker refers to in his talk:

And the children of Israel took all the women of Mid'i-an captives, and their little ones, and took the spoil of all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods.
And they burnt all their cities wherein they dwelt, and all their goodly castles, with fire.
And they took all the spoil, and all the prey, both of men and of beasts.
And they brought the captives, and the prey, and the spoil, unto Moses and Ele-a'zar the priest, and unto the congregation of the children of Israel, unto the camp at the plains of Moab, which are by Jordan near Jericho.
And Moses, and Ele-a'zar the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went forth to meet them without the camp.
And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle.
And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?
Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Ba'laam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Pe'or,  and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD.
Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.
Numbers 31, Verses 9-18

Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant -- they're quite clear -- that we would create law based on the God of the bible and the ten commandments.

Sarah Palin, interviewed by Fox News

Friday, 7 January 2011

Middle England outraged - geeks delighted

You've gotta love Radio 4. A lot of listeners got very upset about about the much-trailed 60th anniversary episode of The Archers. For those who don't follow the radio soap about the everyday doings of country folk, the episode in question contrived to create a sensational story line by combining a much-anticipated birth with a cliff-hanging ending, involving Nigel Pargetter, the nice-but-dim toff who owns of the local stately home (Lower Loxley), accidentally falling from the roof of his aforementioned country seat with a blood-chilling scream.

Eager listeners would, it was hoped, tune in to the next episode anxious to to discover whether Nigel had survived the fall. Unfortunately, in an interview that went out before the next episode was broadcast, the series editor, Vanessa Whitburn, accidentally let slip that Nigel's unexpected detour to ground level was terminal. Popular character killed off, important top secret plot details leaked on air, middle England said to be furious.

Today, Radio 4's marvellous programme about statistics, More or Less, picked up the story and took it to an exquisitely geeky place by attempting to calculate the height of the fictional Lower Loxley stately home from the length of Nigel Pargetter's falling scream, as follows:

Nigel's terrified cry was timed at 3.5 seconds.

The equation for a falling body is d=1/2gt² (distance equals one half times gravity times time squared).

1⁄2 x 9.8 m/s x 3.5² = 60.02 metres (we're reliably informed that air resistance makes no appreciable difference to falls of 5 seconds or less)

So, Nigel seems to have fallen about 60 metres (or 200 feet). That's the height of York Minster, or a typical 20 storey building. Now that is impressive - compared with the towering bulk of Lower Loxley, Blenheim Palace would look like a Barratt starter home.

Only on Radio 4...

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Wake up and smell the coffee

Unsurprisingly, I won't be buying a commemorative Royal Wedding souvenir mug. Even monarchist memorabilia collectors must find them a bit problematic after a while - for example, the Charles and Camilla mug must sit rather uncomfortably on the dresser next to the Charles and Diana one. Still, for a mug with a real sense of irony, even the royals couldn't beat this.