Monday, November 20, 2006

Humbug (2)

But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse.

St Paul

Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake: for the Earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof. If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast, and ye be disposed to go; whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake.

St Paul

And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending upon him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, 'Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.' But Peter said, 'Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.' And the voice spake unto him again the second time, 'What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.' This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven.

The Acts of the Apostles

Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?


O.K. This one is completely off the wall.

A school decided to have a special Christmas dinner for its pupils. They decided it would be nice for the Muslim pupils to join in, so they decided they had better serve food that they were allowed to eat. First, they thought that they might serve a Muslim-friendly main course to everyone; but then, they decided to have a halal option, a non-halal option, and a veggie option. So far as I can tell, that's the whole story.

The Express – in fairness some of the grown-up papers covered it as well – reported the story in its usual measured tones:


PARENTS expressed outrage last night over a school’s plans to serve pupils a Muslim Christmas dinner.

The headteacher announced that she intended to replace the children’s traditional turkey meal with halal chicken.

She explained that eating poultry which had been slaughtered in the Muslim way would create an 'integrated Christmas'.

But furious parents accused the school of undermining the Christian faith.

They were backed by Labour MP Denis Mac Shane....

This is another example of the Baron M√ľnchhausen school of sub-editing. No halal Christmas dinner has or will be served. The Mail ran the story as School in U-Turn over 'halal only' Christmas meal; the Telegraph, which should know better, had School in retreat on 'halal-only' Christmas. But the Express allowed people who only look at page 1 to think that a halal dinner had actually been served. What we are dealing with here is thought-crime. Someone thought 'Let's have halal chicken' and then thought 'No, on second thoughts, let's not.' Nothing has happened. At all.

But parents are 'furious'. Well, the Express, the Mail, and the Torygraph between them can come up with one furious parent, a Mrs. Rachel Johnson.

It has really rocked my boat because I feel my culture is being stolen away from me. I have no objection to halal meat being on the menu so long as there is a choice of traditional Christmas fare. A lot of parents have been in touch supporting my views. Our culture and religion are being trampled on and it is not right.

So, the story depends on the opinions of one count them one person. (The rest of the Express piece consists of quotes from the usual reactionary pressure groups – Campaign Against Political Correctness; Campaign for Real Education, and -a new one on me- Christian People's Alliance.) But it isn't at all clear what precisey it was that rocked Mrs. Johnson's boat. From what she says, I think that she must regard Christmas Turkey as an important Christian principle -- like H.P Sauce. We've always done it, and if someone suggests that we should stop doing it, we feel that our culture is being taken away. (1) It's leaving turkey off the menu she objects to; she doesn't particularly mind that the chicken which replaced it may have worn a veil or been a terrorist while it was still walking around.

Confusingly, the Telegraph thinks that she also said:

Why can't the non-Muslim kids enjoy traditional Christmas fare. Why can't we have a choice of chicken which suits everyone, both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Surely this is just what the school was proposing: serving a meal that could be eaten by Muslim kids (who only eat halal) and also by Christian kids (who don't care what they eat, provided it has been attacked on prime time TV by Jamie Oliver )

Unless, unless....does she think that halal is a special sort of Muslim food that is somehow unsuitable for Christians? Did she think that, if halal food was the only thing on the menu, Christians would have to go without?

The Express also quotes Mrs. Johnson's daughter, who doesn't want to be named. (I would have thought that her anonymity is probably quite compromised by the interview with her mother.) Ms. Johnson Jnr. says:

I have no objections to including Muslims in celebrating Christmas but it is quite wrong to offer us only halal meat. A lot of my friends feel the same and say there should be a choice and they were thinking of boycotting the Christmas meal. I also think a lot of people will be horrified to know that halal meat is often served at school without a choice. I will not be staying for any more school dinners

So her problem is that she might be be forced to eat halal food, not just that she might not get turkey. She's prepared to take extreme measures and a packed lunch to avoid this possibility. It occurs to me to wonder whether Mrs. Johnson Snr. has totally missed the point, and that her daughter is in fact one of those animal welfare johnnies who for reasons of kindness to chickens wants to avoid nasty cruel ritually slaughtered meat in favour of the produce of good honest Christian battery farms.

Small theological aside: Mrs. Johnson Snr. thinks that eating halal chicken at Christmas is 'almost as stupid as serving up pork on Eid.' The nut-jobs in the Daily Mail on-line comment section wonder if we will soon have halal hot-cross buns and halal easter eggs as well. (I would be very surprised if it hasn't be possible to buy kosher Christmas puddings for decades.) Note how a particular local Christian tradition has been given almost the status of a koranic injunction. Rowan, you really need to work a bit harder at instructing your flock.

Now, Dennis McShane M.P agrees with the parents, sorry, parent, who thinks that the school is undermining the Christian faith. Well, up to a point. Mr. MacShane is quoted as saying:

No child should be obliged to eat food that is contrary to their personal convictions or religion. Schools should offer a choice and not allow the joyous celebrations of a Christmas dinner to become a divisive issue. I hope all the children can join in this fun and if I am invited I would be delighted to sit down with all the children for a Christmas dinner, halal, non halal or the healthy option, vegetarian.

Now, that sounds awfully as if he was asked the question 'How do you feel about schools serving halal chicken?' or 'How do you feel about a school offering a choice between halal chicken and haram turkey?' -- to which his answer, like any sane person is 'It sounds like a jolly good idea.' The only way I can make his answer come out as supporting the Johnson family is if the question was: 'Ms. Does-Not-Want-To-Be-Named refuses to eat halal meat because she thinks it is cruel. Do you think that the school should offer a choice of halal meat and humanely slaughtered meat?' Which is a long way from supporting the parents who said that the Christian faith was being undermined, which, in any case, none of them did.

Why does the Express believe this to be an important story? Is it now possible to catch Islam by eating a piece of halal chicken, in the same way that, in the 80s, it was possible to catch HIV by talking to a pooftah on the telephone? Or is the point that we should not make any accommodation whatsoever to people with dark coloured skins? We should serve them pork chops and tell them that they should either eat them, or else go hungry, as they would to us if we were in their country?

There certainly are those who object to state insitutions respecting religious taboos. A while back, the Sun got its hands on a non-story about how, during the routine refurbishment of a washroom at Brixton jail, some of the stalls were repositioned because some Muslims think it is haram to face Mecca while using the toilet. The Sun objected to this ('Loo kidding!') because if someone is in prison in the first place, he must have broken some rule in the koran, so he can't be a very serious Muslim. According to which logic, we would give pork sausages to Jewish prisoners, beefburgers to naughty Hindus and not have any services in the prison chapel on a Sunday.

But I think that the real problem that the Express had was this. The school, very reasonably, decided that if it was going to have a Christmas dinner, it should have a Christmas dinner that everyone could join in, and therefore came up with a menu that was acceptable to everyone. That's what you do if you are organising a dinner party. If there's only one meat dish, you make sure it is a lamb or chicken, which everyone can eat, and not pork or beef, which some people can't. If you can only offer a single choice, then it has to be veggie, because non vegetarians eat vegetables, but vegetarians don't eat meat. (Would Mrs. Johnson still have objected if the school had done the sensible thing and offered halal turkey?) The school's idea was to have an 'integrated' Christmas, where everyone was eating the same thing. But the Express doesn't like this. The point of Christmas is that it is Christian, and the point of Christianity is that it seperates people with light coloured skin from people with dark coloured skin. They want a world where all the children sitting down to dinner can see that the dark skinned children are Not Like Us. They want the dark skinned people to eat different food, or not to eat any food, or, (according to one Daily Mail headbanger) to stay away from Christmas parties altogether. 'Integration', like political correctness and multi-culturalism, is now a dirty word.

NOTE: Do you think that the free chocolate advent calandars they are giving away have pictures of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary on them, or nasty Islamic snowmen?

(1) We may, of course want to ask whether or not turkey is an authentic Christmas tradition. The most traditional Christmas rhyme I know says Christmas is coming/The geese are getting fat. In It was Christmas day in the workhouse the paupers are eating puddings, but it isn't clear whether this is the main course or the dessert. Scrooge certainly sends the butcher's boy to buy the prize turkey for Bob Cratchett's dinner, but the fact that he has to distinguish between the big one and the small one suggests that the butcher only had two in the shop. And since you could hardly cook a very large turkey in a couple of hours, they were presumably not going to have it for lunch. I am going to stick my neck out and say that, since a normal sized family aren't going to eat a turkey in a single meal, they can't have become ordinary people's dinner of choice before fridges became ubiquitous in the 1950s.


Mike Taylor said...


Much as I enjoy your usual deft analysis, it does seem to me that you're making a habit recently of conflating religion with skin-colour. Can it possibly be that it hasn't even occurred to you there are dark-skinned Christians and light-skinned Muslims?

Andrew Stevens said...

I wouldn't be too comfortable with my neck out on that one. The time before refrigerators was also the time of the extended family and it was common to get everyone together to eat Christmas dinner (still common in this country). It's not at all unreasonable to expect a dozen cousins to eat a whole turkey. (My family has done so on more than one occasion.) Americans have been eating Thanksgiving turkey since at least the days of Abraham Lincoln and it appears the tradition goes back much further. Turkey became the traditional American Christmas dinner as well since, in America, turkeys were both wild and plentiful. Turkey then spread from America back to the Old Continent (first arriving in the 16th century). I couldn't tell you when turkey supplanted goose as a traditional Christmas meal in England, but I don't think refrigerators had much to do with it. There was a Sherlock Holmes story in which a Christmas Goose Club figured prominently, so we can assume it wasn't the case yet during Victorian times, so it certainly seems like a 20th century innovation in England (though not in America).

Andrew Stevens said...

Oh, as for Scrooge, I suspect the more luxurious turkey was a sign of wealth in Dickensian times. So getting a turkey instead of a goose highlights Scrooge's newfound generosity.

Brendan Moody said...

Can it possibly be that it hasn't even occurred to you there are dark-skinned Christians and light-skinned Muslims?

I think his point is rather that it hasn't even occurred to the Daily Express (or that they are ignoring it as inconvenient to their aims).

Andrew Rilstone said...

It is, I suppose, just possible that Nick Griffin sincerely believes that the Koran permits (even obliges) Muslim men to rape infidel women. Or perhaps he sincerely believes men from a Muslim background are committing a large number of assaults on Christian women, and has drawn the conclusion that there must be something in the Muslim faith that tells them to behave in this way. But I think it is much more likely that "Muslims rape Christian women" is simply a new way of saying "White men, you must defend your women from insatiable foriegners with big black cocks" -- a prejudice that has been popular with under-endowed white men at least since Othello. Griffin is clever enough to know that, at present, there is no specific crime of stirring up hatred against a religion. (If I say "All Africans are cannibals" I am breakign the law, but if I say "All Catholics are paedophiles" I am not.) So he has rebranded his racist party as an anti-Muslim party, and has established in court that you can say what you like about Muslims without breaking the law.

The entire point of my campaign agaisnt the Daily Express is that they are not in the least bit interested in "Christianity" as a spiritual practice or a collection of beliefs about God; they use the term "Christian" as a signifier for "White English People." (Note that when they talk about attacks on Christmas and Christianity, they talk about "this country's Christian heritgage" presumably missing the fact that "this country" isn't remotely interested in Christianity, and if not for Afro-Carribean immigrants, most protestant churches would go out of business, and if not for Irish and Italian ex-pats, you would hardly fill half a pew of a Catholic church.) Last Christmas, the Mail made up some lies about a town called Havant abolising Christmas, and claimed that this was a particularly bad thing to do given that the population there was 95% "white". It is my contention that what the Daily Express objects to is foriegn, dark skinned alien, imigrants; but that it stays on the right side of the law by spewing its racist vitriol at Mulsims. I "conflate" Islam with "brown people" and Christianity with "white people" because it is clear that the Express is using the one as code for the other. I am perfectly well aware that in any Mosque, there will be as many as six or seven white British converts to Islam.

I am sorry if this has been in any way unclear, and I promise to be less subtle and more strident in my attacks on the Daily Express in future.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I was actually hospitalised by a school dinner because the dinner ladies didn't believe that food allergies were real and insisted that I eat my peas anyway.

I am sure that "school dinners" come only slightly below "P.E lessons" in the league table of childhood trauma. It took me a long time to accept that there was no necessary connection between mashed potato and flagellation.

Phil Masters said...

I was actually hospitalised by a school dinner because the dinner ladies didn't believe that food allergies were real and insisted that I eat my peas anyway.

We might not be in a society that considers others as much as it really should, but we are at least moving in the right direction...

In relation to your childhood experience; bluntly, the obvious reason why it wouldn't happen nowadays is that schools are rightly scared sh*tl*ss that they'd be dragged through the courts and sued for about five years' county education budget if they did anything so stupid.

As with the idea that there should be a law about everything, I'm not at all happy with the increasing litigiousness of society. But one reason why such things are happening is that, sometimes, dragging people through the courts seems to be the only way to get them to pay attention - including, getting them to consider other people.

Phil Masters said...

(By the way, I never suffered too much trauma from school mashed potato. The discover that custard could be a really, really nice thing, on the other hand, was a very traumatic revelation.)

Tom O'Bedlam said...

I think that perhaps the worst thing going on here is that the Daily Express is hi-jacking a growing sense of discontent among the public for their own racist ends.

The exact nature of this discontent, its causes and its legitimacy, is a matter of debate. But I do think that, rightly or wrongly, your average Briton (even including a significant proportion of Muslims) are becoming irked by the hypocrisy involved in decrying the liberal democracy of the west as hopelessly corrupt while simultaneously enjoying the benefits it affords (free healthcare, education, freedom of speech etc).

Now, it is a particular muslim's democratic right to live under sharia law, or wish Britain to be an Islamic, or, indeed, for there to be no freedom of speech. But it is the Briton's right (muslim or non-mulsim) to have a sense of animosity towards these things.

Unfortunately, people like the Daily Express pick up on this inarticulate sense of unease and use it to their own ends.

Tom O'Bedlam said...

Of course, the penultimate paragraph should read:

Now, it is a particular muslim's democratic right to wish to live under sharia law, or wish Britain to be an Islamic state, or, indeed, for there to be no freedom of speech. But it is the Briton's right (muslim or non-mulsim) to have a sense of animosity towards these things.