Monday, 28 May 2012

Word of the day


 n. A member of a church which uses unleavened bread for consecration in the eucharist; especially, a designation applied by controversialists of the Greek Church to a member of the Latin or Western Church, or to an adherent of the Armenian or of the Maronite Church, which also use azyms [Unleavened bread, or a loaf of unleavened bread, especially the bread eaten among the Jews at the time of the Passover].

Offended Catholic theophages apparently returned this bizarre insult by calling Greek Orthodox eaters of yeasty communion snacks Fermentarians or Prozymites.  

 Which two mighty powers [Lilliput and Blefuscu] have, as I was going to tell you, been engaged in a most obstinate war for six-and-thirty moons past. It began upon the following occasion. It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger end; but his present majesty's grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. These civil commotions were constantly fomented by the monarchs of Blefuscu; and when they were quelled, the exiles always fled for refuge to that empire. It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy: but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden, and the whole party rendered incapable by law of holding employments. During the course of these troubles, the emperors of Blefusca did frequently expostulate by their ambassadors, accusing us of making a schism in religion, by offending against a fundamental doctrine of our great prophet Lustrog, in the fifty-fourth chapter of the Blundecral (which is their Alcoran). This, however, is thought to be a mere strain upon the text; for the words are these: 'that all true believers break their eggs at the convenient end.'

Gulliver's Travels

Sorry, Pastafarians, I think your satire just become obsolete.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

The eyes narrow noticeably

More fallout from the Greekocalypse in the Torygraph
So will she promise that the “tens of thousands” promise will be met by the next election? Here, the eyes narrow noticeably. “Well, that’s what we’re aiming for.”

Today though, her focus is on those who are in Britain illegally, and her language becomes uncharacteristically vivid. “The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration,” she declares...

... And what if a eurozone collapse sent thousands of economic migrants heading north from Greece or Spain? Could she legally restrict their right to come to Britain?

This is another eyes-narrow moment. “As in every part of government, it is right that we do some contingency planning on this,” she says. “That is work that is ongoing.” But could you restrict entry in an economic emergency? “We will be doing contingency planning.”

Brief pause to let the Tory faithful take a cold shower to quell sinful thoughts of being strip-searched by the thrillingly stern Ms May, her cruelly narrowed eyes aglitter as she reaches for the latex gloves.

Now the kitten-heeled dominatrix has the bit between her teeth, the UK Border Force's staff must be feeling more than a tad nervous. Given what happened to Brodie Clark, I don't rate their chances, should they, for example, overlook some large, but innocent-looking, wooden horse-shaped object arriving on our shores from the eastern Mediterranean.

I do, however, rate Theresa May's chances of creating  "a really hostile environment for illegal migration" - given the ubiquity of casual xenophobia in large sections of the press and the coalition's success in creating a really hostile environment in Britain for the people who already live here, making things dashed unpleasant for Johnny Foreigner should be a doddle.

Moral blackmail, divide and rule BOGOF

With frightening rapidity, the notion of Greece as part of the Third World is becoming the new normal. Hot on the heels of 'humanitarian disaster'  we get this:

So when she [IMF hegemon, Christine Lagarde] studies the Greek balance sheet and demands measures she knows may mean women won't have access to a midwife when they give birth, and patients won't get life-saving drugs, and the elderly will die alone for lack of care – does she block all of that out and just look at the sums?

"No, I think more of the little kids from a school in a little village in Niger who get teaching two hours a day, sharing one chair for three of them, and who are very keen to get an education. I have them in my mind all the time. Because I think they need even more help than the people in Athens." 
The Guardian

As an example of how the unaccountable overclass talk down to the rest of us from their recession-proof ivory towers, this couldn't be bettered. So many subtle overtones in so few words. First, the language of 'tough choices', (tough choices are always easy to make, so long as you're making them on behalf of other people and are you can be sure that you won't ever be called on to make any personal sacrifice). Then there's the deliberate mention of a Third World country, with the implied threat that Greeks will end up like that if they don't knuckle down and vote for more of the same.

Then there's the moral blackmail - how very dare you be so selfish as to want midwives and life-saving drugs when there are babies going hungry in Africa (let's just gloss over the disastrous impact that the sort of the "structural adjustments" demanded by the IMF have already had on the economies of sub-Saharan Africa)? On the moral blackmail point, you get a buy one, get one free deal - buy the moral blackmail and get some divide and rule free, putting the interests of Africa in direct competition with those of Greece.

Yes, I did notice what you just did there, Christine. It's easy to rubbish anybody's needs by comparing them unfavourably with somebody who's even worse off. It's called the race to the bottom. Funny how members of the overclass always use this trope to play the relatively poor off against the absolutely desperate.

After all, it would be in terribly bad taste to compare and contrast the very poor with the really rich and comfortably off. Imagine if she'd said 'I have the poor Africans in my mind all the time. Because I think they need even more help than French and German bankers'. No, that would never do.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Humanitarian disaster

Greek crisis: How to prevent a humanitarian disaster 

Headline from an article in New Scientist (registration needed). It's only one headline from one article, but even talking about a potential 'humanitarian disaster' in Europe, (except in the context of a natural disasters, or some hideous aberration like the Balkan Wars of the '90's), just sounds weirdly wrong. This is Europe, one part of the world that's moved beyond all that, a relatively stable, prosperous part of the planet, where we might have downturns, recessions, but not 'humanitarian disasters'. Humanitarian disasters are the sort of things that happen in desperately poor countries or failed states.

If this is even partly true, it's time for some serious back-pedalling. The Greeks might bear some portion of the blame for what's happening to them (a lot of the people for not paying their taxes, some politicians for failing to collect those taxes and for fiddling the figures that got them into the Euro with a fraudulent clean bill of health), but when the pain level gets into 'humanitarian disaster' territory, it's time to stop.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Lies, damn lies and anonymous briefings

Unattributable briefings are a dark art particularly appreciated by the British establishment, for obvious reasons. Being accountable is, frankly, a pain. You lie, you get found out, you get your facts wrong, you get found out, you defame somebody, you get sued, you propose something totally repugnant, people hate you.

Honestly, you just can't say anything nowadays without some ungrateful journalist, citizen, or citizen journalist wanting to know if it's true and calling you a liar if it isn't, when they should just stop worrying their pretty little heads about such things and be grateful for the carefully prepared the message you've taken such trouble to share with them.

It's clearly intolerable that people in positions of power and responsibility should be constrained by minor details like truth, when there are important news agendas to be manipulated, perceptions to be nudged, awkward facts to be buried.

Thank heaven, then, for unattributable briefings. Get your message out via a journalist who gets a scoop only on the condition that the source of the alleged fact or opinion remains completely anonymous. You might think your statement's uncontroversial enough for an official announcement:

Prime Minister Herod today announced that security contractors, Serco, will be deployed to massacre all first-born children who were born within the M25, on or after December 25th 2011, in order to enhance security at the 2012 Olympic Games. The Prime Minister insisted that these additional measures were 'necessary and proportionate' and followed 'credible intelligence relating to potential acts of terrorism' thought to have been uncovered by members of the security services working within the Magi community.

But what if it doesn't go down too well? If it might make you look bad, you don't want your name all over it. If you'd only floated your plans via an anonymous, deniable, source, you could have whipped out your "Get Out Of Jail Free" card:

The Prime Minister today insisted that the coalition had 'no firm plans' to slaughter London's first-born. The controversial measures were, he insisted, only one of a wide range of options being considered and no firm decision had yet been made. He described rumours of an imminent massacre as 'premature speculation' and said that vocal critics of the baby-killing policy should 'get their facts straight and wait for an official policy announcement, instead of scaremongering and spreading idle gossip'. Boris Johnson was unavailable for comment.


Anyway, this isn't new, but here's an excellent, if highly depressing, peek through the scary door into the murky world of unattributable briefings:

Alternative link here.

Remember if someone's trying to sell you a used "fact" but you don't know who it belongs to, buyer beware.

Via Boing Boing (related material here and here).

Monday, 21 May 2012

Sources close to the Prophet

Rome, as any fule kno, was founded by Romulus and Remus, twin brothers, abandoned by their parents as babies. The infants were found and nursed by a she-wolf, until a shepherd discovered them and raised them to adulthood. When Romulus and Remus grew up, they decided to found a city on the spot where the wolf had found them.

According to Virgil, Romulus and Remus were descendants of the Trojan hero Aeneas (who was himself the offspring of a liaison between a cousin of King Priam and the goddess Venus, no less). Aeneas and his followers had to flee Troy after the Greeks overran the city. After an eventful Mediterranean cruise, including an ill-fated holiday romance between Aeneas and Queen Dido of Carthage, the Trojan refugees wound up in Italy, where, after a bit of bother with the locals, Aeneas ended up founding the city of Lavinium, a little way to the south of what would later become Rome.

The Trojan legacy didn't end in Rome. According to Fredegar's 7th-century chronicle of Frankish history, the Franks traced their ancestry back to King Priam of Troy. 'And to prove it, we've still got place names like Troyes and Paris', said people who accepted the Merovingians' Trojan pedigree, knowingly.

The Icelandic Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson also contains this surprising claim:

... the Nordic gods themselves were human Trojan warriors who left Troy after the fall of that city ... According to the Prose Edda, these warriors settled in northern Europe, where they were accepted as divine kings because of their superior culture and technology. Remembrance ceremonies later conducted at their burial sites degenerate into heathen cults, turning them into gods.

Britain itself was, apparently, founded by a member of the Trojan diaspora, namely Brutus of Troy, the founder and first king of Britain, at least according to the medieval historians Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight kicks off with a brief account of Brutus' nation-building exploits before getting down to the serious business of chivalry at the court of King Arthur.

It ought to go without saying that nobody now believes this load of old cobblers about the Trojans turning up everywhere, (with the possible exception of the usual Holy Grail hunters and proponents of the giant-lizards-from-outer-space-have-been-secretly-running-everything theory of history).

Our ancestors, who once believed these stories, weren't stupid - they just didn't have access to the accumulated weight of conscientiously-accumulated historical, archaeological, and even genetic, evidence, research and scholarship that now enables anybody with a vague interest in the past to study more or less plausible accounts of what probably happened and to distinguish these from wildly implausible, evidence-free, fairy tales.

Up to a point, these stories still deserve our interest and attention, not as accounts of what actually happened, but as illustrations of how tribes, cities, nations and empires have concocted stories about their origins, often involving heroic deeds and pedigrees going back to a distant semi-mythical age, in order to bolster their legitimacy, status and sense of identity.

All this stuff about the myths of national origins was prompted by reading In The Shadow of the Sword, Tom Holland's fascinating account of the rise of Islam, set against the backdrop of the waning Roman and Persian empires. Holland's book includes some interesting material on how both Imperial Rome and its rival Persian Empire manufactured suitably ancient and heroic foundation myths and pedigrees to lend authority to, and reinforce, their own power and prestige.

It's interesting to note the parallels between national myth-building and the stories that religions tell about themselves and their origins. I've got a passing familiarity with Christianity and how the historical record either coincides with the Gospel stories, contradicts them, or is silent about what happened (in short, there seems to be precious little confirmation, some contradictions over things like dates and who ruled when and quite a lot of silence), but as somebody not brought up in a Muslim household, I don't know a great deal about the Qur'an or the historical context of Muslim scripture, so Holland's book is a bit of a revelation to me.

At first sight, it seems that we know a lot more about Muhammad than we do about Jesus. Holland starts off by quoting Salman Rushdie:

The degree of authority one can give to the evangelists about the life of Christ is relatively small. Whereas for the life of Muhammad, we know everything, more or less. We know where he lived, what his economic situation was, who he fell in love with. We know a great deal about the political circumstances and the socio-economic circumstances of the time.

Impressive. Until you begin to examine where this wealth of information comes from. It turns out that the evidence about people and places in the Qur'an itself is pretty sketchy - the text is too concerned with the doings of God, and of angels, demons and the old prophets of the Abrahamic faith to fill in the background of Muhammad's life and times. The name of Muhammad itself only appears four times in the whole text, the name of Mecca once, and there are scarcely any references to independently datable historical characters and events. We might have little evidence for the historicity or otherwise of the Christian Gospels, but at least we have a few historical names like Augustus Ceasar, Quirinius, Herod and Pilate and undisputed locations, like Jerusalem, anchoring the tales to a historical time and place (as well as occasionally calling the accuracy of the Gospels into question).

We know 'everything' about Muhammad and his world, only through a disparate collection of thousands of anecdotes, stories and maxims, or hadiths, compiled from a multitude of sources at unknown times in the centuries following Muhammad's death. One famed Muslim scholar, al-Bukhari,, was said to have collected and studied 600,000 hadiths, eventually concluding that all but 7,225 were fakes. Modern scholars haven't been able to come up with any convincing evidence that those anecdotes now accepted as valid by the faithful actually date back to the time of the Prophet. Yet this multitude of proverbial sayings and Chinese whispers of unknowable provenance, collated by later clerics and scholars, has produced the widely-accepted, apparently detailed, account of Muhammad's life and times.

Mixed in with the plausible-sounding biographical details and sayings of the Prophet are hadiths relating mythical stories that make the tale of Romulus and Remus sound quite believable by comparison. Here's the one about Muhammad having his body cut open and washed, before mounting a white, donkey-like, beast called the Al-Buraq, that takes him to heaven:

The Prophet said, "While I was at the House in a state midway between sleep and wakefulness, (an angel recognized me) as the man lying between two men. A golden tray full of wisdom and belief was brought to me and my body was cut open from the throat to the lower part of the abdomen and then my abdomen was washed with Zam-zam water and (my heart was) filled with wisdom and belief. Al-Buraq, a white animal, smaller than a mule and bigger than a donkey was brought to me and I set out with Gabriel. When I reached the nearest heaven. Gabriel said to the heaven gate-keeper, 'Open the gate'. 

From al-Bukhari's collection of hadiths.

 If this was history as we now understand it, nobody would have any difficulty in identifying this as an obviously made-up story, superseded by evidence-based scholarship, rather like those stories about kids suckled by wolves, or ancient aristocrats who sired heroes after bedding goddesses.

But this isn't history, it's religion, so instead of being taken seriously by nobody but a few barmy grail-questing Indiana Jones wannabes, and David Icke, Islam's founding myths, and the authority of those preaching them, are taken terribly seriously by some one and a half billion people.

The lack of any compelling reason to suppose that religion's founding myths have any basis in literal truth as it's commonly understood, seems to be unimportant to those who proclaim those myths loudly and frequently. And it will probably continue to be so, as long as important people's authority is tied up with self-serving stories of doubtful authenticity that were put together precisely to establish and embed such people's authority.

Which isn't really a very good reason why the rest of us should defer to the faithful and grant their quaint notions the sort of free ride we wouldn't give to any other set of ideas:

We try to persuade people that their ideas about science, politics, philosophy, art, medicine, and more, are wrong: that they're harmful, ridiculous, repulsive, or simply mistaken. But when it comes to religion, trying to persuade people out of their ideas is somehow seen as horribly rude at best, invasive and bigoted and intolerant at worst. Why? Why should religion be the exception?

Why, indeed?


Correction and update: "Sahih Bukari" changed to "al-Bukhari" (the "Sahih Bukhari" is the name of the collection of hadiths compiled by the scholar al-Bukhari not, as I'd mistakenly thought an alternative form of the guy's name.

Also, this was written quite a while before I finished Tom Holland's book. Having finished, I can see that I've oversimplified things quite a bit here - my main point, that the whole superstructure of religious tradition and commentary is built on the sand of fantastic tales that, in any other context we'd immediately recognise as being myth rather than literal truth. I contend that religion is similar to journalism, as portrayed in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ('When the legend becomes fact, print the legend').

Having finished In the Shadow of the Sword, I can see that this process of dogma-creation in Islam is far more nuanced and differs in some quite interesting ways from the way Christian traditions and dogmas evolved from their millenarian roots to serve the needs of an imperially-approved, status quo-maintaining religion - but more of that in a future post.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind

A statement including the words 'I cannot express my anger enough that those close to me have unfairly been dragged into this' has been released by Gordon Brown Anne Diamond Charlotte Church the grieving relatives Rebekah Brooks. Yes, that Rebekah Brooks. I don't know how she kept a straight face when dictating that one. 

As the tabloids are so fond of saying, you couldn't make it up...

Monday, 14 May 2012

Curiouser and curiouser

Has anyone else noticed that News International's surly, oddly forgetful, former CEO, with her tumbling mane of ringlets and sweet little girl's Sunday best outfit, looks like a malevolent, grown-up, version of  Alice in Wonderland's eponymous heroine, as drawn by Sir John Tenniel? They're like two vaguely sinister, sulky-looking, sisters. As they say in Private Eye's "lookalikes" column, are they by any chance related?

Alice sighed wearily. 'I think you might do something better with the time,' she said, 'than waste it in asking riddles that have no answers.'

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Sonic attack

The Ministry of Defence has confirmed that a device that can be used as a "sonic weapon" will be deployed in London during the Olympics.

The American-built long-range acoustic device (LRAD), which has been used by the US army to control crowds in Iraq, can emit an ear-piercing beam of sound. 

The Guardian

All together, now ...

The time-honoured Christian tradition of gay marriage?

Now here's an interesting thing. When religious conservatives want to wheel out the heavy artillery in their last-ditch battle against gay marriage, one of their biggest guns is tradition. Personally, I'm not impressed by the argument that goes 'we've always done things this way, therefore we must always carry on doing things this way, because that's the way we do things around here', but people who oppose gay marriage seem to think that it's important.

Anyhow, it turns out that the early church may have been cool with same-sex marriage, and that the "tradition" of defining marriage as the union of a man and woman could be a later innovation:

Contrary to myth, Christianity's concept of marriage has not been set in stone since the days of Christ, but has constantly evolved as a concept and ritual. Prof. John Boswell, the late Chairman of Yale University’s history department, discovered that in addition to heterosexual marriage ceremonies in ancient Christian church liturgical documents, there were also ceremonies called the "Office of Same-Sex Union" (10th and 11th century), and the "Order for Uniting Two Men" (11th and 12th century).

These church rites had all the symbols of a heterosexual marriage: the whole community gathered in a church, a blessing of the couple before the altar was conducted with their right hands joined, holy vows were exchanged, a priest officiated in the taking of the Eucharist and a wedding feast for the guests was celebrated afterwards. These elements all appear in contemporary illustrations of the holy union of the Byzantine Warrior-Emperor, Basil the First (867-886 CE) and his companion John.

From When Same-Sex Marriage Was a Christian Rite at

 I don't know enough about the subject to know whether this is a clincher, but it doesn't seem wildly improbable, given the well-known sexual mores of the classical world (remember the Greeks' open enthusiasm for man-on-man action, the fact that our language for describing female homosexuality owes everything to Sappho of Lesbos and the readiness of many Romans to believe the rumours about Julius Caesar, no less, having been the catamite of King Nicomedes of Bithynia).

Ultimately, I don't care what the church thinks - tradition or no tradition, it seems like a no brainer to support a measure that makes the people concerned happy without inconveniencing anybody else who wants to get married in any way, but it would be amusing if the "tradition" that religious conservatives are so keen to uphold turned out to a flexible, changeable thing, adapted to accommodate same-sex unions in the Greek-influenced Mediterranean with its local traditions of open homosexuality, then amended to exclude such relationships in later European societies with less cosmopolitan mores.


Stakhanovites at the classroom coalface

Gove blathered out a list of famous persons who went to public school, including much of the Cabinet, the shadow cabinet and Gove himself; which certainly goes to show that a public-school education can be a step to success even for persons whose talents would, in a rational society, qualify them mainly for cleaning toilets under reasonable supervision. "More than almost any developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress," blathered Gove. "For those of us who believe in social justice, this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible"; which, by some leap of higher logic comprehensible only to Michael Gove and Nick Clegg, explains the tuition-fee hike and the farming-out of the state education sector to profiteers and the God squad. 

From a splendid deconstruction of Michael Gove's newly-found social conscience. Kudos for highlighting Gove's uncoordinated brain-fart, which is more revealing and significant that many of the other headline-grabbing own goals the Coalition have been scoring lately.

There's been the granny tax, the pasty tax, the fill-your-shed-with petrol-just-in-case-the-tanker-drivers-go-on-strike wheeze, the squillions wasted on scrapping jump jets, buying jump jets and ending up with aircraft carriers with no aircraft, the failing struggle to keep bomb-making, Daily Mail-terrifying bogeyman Johnny Foreigner out of the country without leaving our big-spending Olympics-visiting, friends from across the water fuming in the passport control queues, the Leveson Inquiry turning over a few rocks and sending swarms of highly-connected amnesiacs from the Chipping Norton Set scuttling for cover from the daylight, just to name a few. But there is a bigger issue than mere competence; namely, questioning what this lot are trying to do, not just how well or otherwise they do it.

If political discussion and comment is limited to arguing about these competence issues, then the political and social elite are effectively dominating the terms of the debate. The unspoken assumption here is that There Is No Alternative, that we've reached the end of history, arrived the best of all possible political and economic settlements and the only thing left up for debate is who is most competent to manage our obviously unimprovable system.

Which is why I'm more interested in the unpicking of Michael Gove's unspoken assumptions than by mere pointing and laughing when our rulers cock something up (tempting though it is, now they've hit such a productive losing streak). It's not particularly  interesting to listen to politicians or politically engaged bloggers asserting that the Party Opposite is a bit useless and a bit dodgy, so vote for the other lot, because they'd do the same things, only better. It is worth listening when somebody digs deeper and reminds us that there's an alternative to just doing the same old thing, but more competently. It's called doing something different, a simple idea, but one that sounds strange, novel and threatening to our current, narrow, allegedly post-ideological, triangulating political class.

I find it profoundly telling that Michael Gove can write this:

More than almost any developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress... Those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege in England than in any comparable country. For those of us who believe in social justice, this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible.

 Yet he doesn't have have anything to say about the roots of this systemic inequality:

They [the independent schools that we Brits confusingly call "public" schools] were originally charities by which poor but able boys could enter into careers, especially, in the days when the most important functions in government, administration and social organisation were held by priests, the Church. As the Church became less central to public life with the spread of literacy, and with the upheavals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries chiefly associated with the Reformation, these schools lost their charitable functions [but, crucially, not thier charitable status], and were adopted by the rich. In 1868, nine institutions (Charterhouse, Eton, Harrow , Merchant Taylors', Rugby, Shrewsbury, St Paul's School, Westminster and Winchester) were particularly recognized in the Public Schools Act which followed the Report of the Clarendon Commission in 1864.

Or about the roaring educational successes stories of countries that have championed straightforward, publicly financed education systems with widespread equity, easily outperforming the pointlessly complex, fragmented, uncoordinated, semi-contracted-out, test and competition-obsessed system that continues to fail British children (excepting the lucky few who either bag one of the rare-as-hen's teeth token scholarships that exist to allow independent schools keep their charitable status, or have parents rich enough to stump up the massive fees for a gold-plated education out of their own pocket). The only element of a of Scandinavian-style education that seems to be politically thinkable in Britain is the dubiously successful, but ideologically sound Swedish experiment with free schools.

There's something almost Stalinist about a rigid political orthodoxy that will go to any lengths to avoid coming to an ideologically unsound conclusion. We've got an expensively-educated  nomenklatura who insist that their success, (and the success of any other citizen), is down to their own merit and hard graft and has nothing whatsoever to do with the tens of thousands that their parents apparently wasted on having them privately educated, (when these paragons of meritocracy would clearly have risen the top of the heap whether they'd gone to Eton or a sink inner-city comp). The idea that the system is systematically and deliberately weighted in favour of a wealthy elite is, routinely but ironically, derided as politically motivated* class warfare (which is why Gove's unprecedented acknowledgement of this idea interests me, however poor and muddled his analysis is).

This sort of delusional thinking puts me in mind of that famed hero of Socialist Labour, Aleksei Grigoryevich Stakhanov, held up as a shining example to all Soviet citizens for over-fulfilling his coal mining quota many times over and digging huge quantities of coal in a single shift. Impressive, especially because the authorities failed to mention that 'Stakhanov had two co-workers, plus machinery in perfect working order, to help him achieve so much'. Workers without out the back up and the top quality kit were expected to try and emulate Stakhanov's achievements and were derided or punished as slackers or wreckers if they failed to keep up.

Likewise, the vast majority of kids who go into the working world from the comparatively under-resourced, chaotically overseen state schools are urged on to greater efforts by a minority who went to well-staffed, well-resourced independent schools that provided ready-made networking opportunities along with a privileged education. When the vast majority, predictably, fail to do as well as the cossetted elite, they are routinely condemned as lazy, winging, feckless chavs who believe that the world owes them a living (an ironic jibe, when it comes from the mouths of people whose education was carefully honed to instil a massive sense of overconfident entitlement to, not just any old job, but a fulfilling, well-paid living that probably involves ordering the plebs around).

I don't want to overdo the analogy. The less privileged members of society who fail to achieve don't actually end up on labour gangs in an ice-bound gulag, but they get a pretty raw deal, none the less. Worse job prospects, a failure to achieve their full potential, more chance of being unemployed, less chance of getting into higher education, more chance of turning down the chance of higher education for fear of accumulating debt, dead end jobs, worse housing and, worst of all, constantly being told that it's all your own fault. Not quite the Gulag Archipelago, although the some members of the overclass would clearly like to shift the Overton Window in a slightly more Stalinist direction by normalising forced labour for non-productive elements.

Michael Gove is too ideologically blinkered to look at the power structures behind this massive, systematic, deliberate, inefficient, avoidable unfairness, so his "solutions" inevitably avoid tackling the obvious unfair advantage enjoyed by divisive institutions that continue to enjoy charitable status, but haven't been charities in any reasonable sense of the word for centuries. Instead, state schools get endless random, totemic sprinklings of magic private sector fairy dust, along with a lot of pointless and destructive tinkering, accompanied by Stakhanovite injunctions to teachers in the state sector to work harder and dire warnings to those "failing" teachers standing in the way of the inevitable triumph of the glorious educational free market. I'm not actually that fussed about Gove's competence or lack thereof. It's his goals that worry me. It really doesn't matter how fast you run, if you're running in completely the wrong direction.

* Isn't it time interviewers stopped to question politicians who, of all people, love to use that stock phrase "politically motivated" as if it was some sort of an insult?  If political motivation's a bad thing, should we discount the views of those politicians who went into politics to enact ideas intended to change the world for the better and only listen to the ones who are in it purely to fiddle their expenses, go on fact-finding junkets to Barbados at the taxpayer's expense, network themselves onto three well-paid mornings a week on the board of a big corporation, or bag a knighthood? Just asking.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Interfaith dialogue

I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.

Stephen Roberts

Who says hairdressers aren't tough?

 We had to take a hill. How do we take a hill which is full of Egyptian infantry, backed by artillery? 04.30 one morning, a surprise attack. We were half way up the hill before they knew what was coming and we took it. I think it was a bloody miracle. We took it.

The next day they sent up four guys with two Besas, they were the big machine guns with bullets this big, you know, that could pierce armour. And the Besas got to work on the road and stopped the tanks and stopped the armour from coming through. They were just stuck there.

And, of course, they sent up troops every day and they dive bombed us with Spitfires, which I got crazed about. Spitfires were defending us in London.

That feeling of a homeland at last, where nobody could kick you out! It was yours! And it was a marvellous feeling.

Vidal Sassoon, anti-fascist, freedom fighter and king of the sharp, low-maintenance bob cut (17 January 1928 – 9 May 2012)


Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Being Jordan

  • Just fifteen countries worldwide use appointment as the predominant means of selection to the upper house, including Jordan, Belize, Trinidad and Tobago, and Burkino Faso. 
  • The only other country in the world where the hereditary element still exists is Lesotho.

Official LibDem statement on the Queen's Speech

It is hardly revolutionary in the modern age to decide the House of Lords should have an element of democracy in it, and that is what I think the government will bring forward ... If you look at Europe, you see very clearly one of the problems is that governments do not have the democratic support of their people to take the decisions which are necessary. That is why this is really important.

Lord Ashdown

There's not a syllable there I'd disagree with - especially the reference to Europe's democratic deficit. Take a look at some of the House of Lords Appointment Commission's criteria:

The Commission will be seeking to recommend nominees: 
  • with the ability to make an effective and significant contribution to the work of the House of Lords, not only in their areas of particular interest and special expertise, but the wide range of other issues coming before the House; 
  • with a record of significant achievement within their chosen way of life that demonstrates a range of experience, skills and competencies 
 In other words, unelected technocrats by another name. At least the Eurozone's political elite can cite a currency crisis as some kind of excuse for allowing unelected apparatchiks to challenge the actions of elected governments. Here in Blighty, having unelected technocrats and establishment cronies scrutinising and amending the work of the people we elect is just what we do as a matter of course, crisis or no crisis.

 The Lib Dems say they'd like to reform the Lords, But guess what ... apparently we can't have democracy yet, because there's an economic crisis on.



Apologies to the good people of Trinidad and Tobago, which the text cut n' pasted from the Lib Dem's site showed as "Trinidad and Tabago" - only just noticed and corrected. The Lib Dems apparently haven't noticed yet, as their web page remains uncorrected as I write...

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Jolly voting weather

In the light of Jacob Rees-Mogg's latest pronouncement, I'm wondering whether anybody has him down as a dangerous security risk. Dangerous, that is, to the credibility and re-electability of his fellow old Etonian, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

It's difficult to imagine anything more damaging to Boris's credentials as a champion of the ordinary Londoner on the Clapham omnibus, than a leaked YouTube vid of Jacob Rees-Mogg and BoJo reminiscing about the jolly old alma mater and swapping Latin tags over a rather fine vintage port. With the election almost within his grasp, it's almost impossible to exaggerate the severity of the threat to BoJo's street cred. A last minute encounter with Jacob Rees-Mogg would be mayoral kryptonite. He'd be like Abu Qatada in bespoke tweeds. He clearly needs to be kept away from Boris at all costs.

Fortunately, the authorities are already moving some pretty impressive hardware into place to secure the Olympics against the Terrorist Threat. All they need to do is park a few missile launchers atop City Hall to defend Boris against the clear and present danger of Rees-Mogg dropping in for a quick sherry and take the Moggster out if he attempts to penetrate the exclusion zone.

Some might argue that blasting the Right Honourable Member to kingdom come with heavy ordnance might be something of a PR gaffe in itself, but desperate times call for desperate measures. For a start, we are so all in this together that members of the overclass need to muck in, get with the program and show a bit of noblesse oblige and self-sacrifice, for the good of the party. Besides, if you've got the security services on side, they could always conveniently fail to find the missing person for a week, and start to leak a few rumours to explain his untimely demise.

The only part of my cunning plan that I haven't quite thought through yet, is whether the cover story to account for the Moggster's death should be plausible (
'he died in a bizarre croquet  accident') or less plausible, but on-message with the important "we're all in this together" theme, ('he choked on his Gregg's pasty').

If David Cameron's looking for another blue-skies cunning plan-meister to replace Steve Hilton, his people can contact me via this blog.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

With friends like these...

 Correction - it's not only David Cameron and that weird little fecker, Michael Gove, who are now jumping to Jeremy Hunt's defence. Hunt also has the endorsement of that splendidly fogeyish eccentric old Etonian, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who condemned Ed Miliband's rush to judge Hunt with this wonderfully patrician interjection:

Only a socialist yahoo would make up his mind in 23 minutes.

I was sad to see the amusing spoof Rees-Mogg Twitter account closed down, but I needn't have worried - the real Rees-Mogg is becoming almost as entertaining.

On a slightly more serious note, the pairing of Gove and Rees-Mogg is a great example of how we Brits are conditioned to internalise class divisions. Without thinking, I automatically, and prejudicially, described Gove (educated at a state school, before winning a scholarship to the independent Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen) as a 'weird little fecker' whereas the silver-spoon-fed old Etonian Rees-Mogg got away with the almost complimentary 'eccentric'.  It just goes to show how even somebody on the left can absorb an almost unconscious bias in favour of the overclass.

After all, to be fair to Michael Gove, that scholarship proves that he actually worked hard and pulled himself up by his own bootstraps at some point in his life, as opposed to being too impeccably well-bred to do anything so irredeemably vulgar as working hard for his influential place in society. Yet it's easy to describe his oddball nature as 'weird' and just as easy to use the almost affectionate label 'eccentric' to descibe the oddities of an over-privileged, heiress-marrying toff who seems to have bumbled into the House of Commons after taking a wrong turning on his way to Bertie Wooster's Drones Club.

It's a strange, strained relationship we have with our great British eccentrics - under the laughter there's also deep anxiety about status and position - think back to the desperately, hilariously insecure snobbery of a Basil Fawlty, or the anxieties and conflicts behind Vivian Stanshall's comic alter ego, Sir Henry Rawlinson:

 It could be argued that Sir Henry was based in part upon his own father who came home from the war obsessed with mores acquired from mixing with the RAF Officer caste. Vivian had grown up in a working class environment in Walthamstow and later at Leigh-on-Sea, and he never resolved the conflict of life on the street with life at home and consequently never reconciled his relationship with his father.

I guess, "call me Dave" Cameron and his chums must be experiencing similar, but opposite, conflicts as they attempt to mimic the mores of ordinary folk - and wincing, every time Jacob Rees-Mogg lets the mask slip by opening his mouth.