Monday, January 31, 2011

Dear Mel, 

I don't want you to die. But I do want you to slip over on a banana skin, fall down, hurt your bottom really, really badly, and spend the rest of the day feeling very stupid.

Or be arrested for hate crimes and held over night in one of those nice "holiday camps", with only a smelly bucket and two big, butch lesbians for company.

Heterosexual love and kisses

Andy

Sunday, January 30, 2011

v

American readers should probably be reminded at this point that the Daily Mail isn't a mere supermarket tabloid. It's the second best selling newspaper in the UK. It has influence: even, astonishingly, on what used to be called the left-wing of British politics. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Jack Straw and David Blunkett read and cultivated the Daily Mail. They feared it. Melanie Phillips appears on the radio and the tellybox -- on respectable programme like Question Time and Any Questions and the Moral Maze: not, like Nicky Griffin, as part of a freak show, with demonstrators screaming outside and the chairman not allowing anyone to get a word in edgeways -- step right up folks, and see the amazing performing fascist -- but as a normal, non-controversial talk-show pundit. And every word she writes – and very nearly every word that appears in the Daily Mel – is dedicated to a proposition. That the white, male, Church of England, middle class heterosexual is an oppressed and endangered minority.

This is a nasty, nasty, nasty tendency in political discourse, and it needs to be knocked on the head before someone gets hurt. Everybody is at it. I don't know whether it's a post-Christian thing – the Archbishop of Canterbury has long since ceased to preach Christ Crucified, but something in the culture still tells us to fetishize victimhood. Or if its a hangover from the collective trauma of the holocaust. Or if it's just like one of those abusive relationships where you deliberately provoke your partner into hitting you because you enjoy the make-up sex. ("I wish someone would oppress me – then everyone would have to be nice to me, like the Jews.")

But if you want to get a political movement going, you have to start out by pretending that you are victims. That's why the Dawk makes the risible claim that Chaps Who Think Like Me are worse off than Homosexuals were in 1950s America. (Homosexuals: Beaten up; murdered; barred from adopting children; sent to jail; subjected to chemical castration; lynched. Atheists: Not allowed to appear on Thought For The Day.) That's why the appalling Sarah Palin quite deliberately and consciously applied the word "blood libel" to herself. We, white conservatives, are in a position directly analogous to the Jews of Medieval Europe. And while it's actually a very good and clever song, Yoko used the same dubious tactic many years ago when she made John say that  woman was the nigger of the world.

I am, as a matter of fact, still very angry that the BBC cancelled my favourite radio show. I do, as a matter of fact, think it absurd that at a time when Bellowhead and Show of Hands can sell out big venues overnight, the BBC can only muster one hour -- one hour -- of folk music per week. And won't play folk on mainstream shows. I can join in as loudly as anyone else when Steve Knightley protests about Kim Howells and the 2003 licensing act. But when people on the Facebook "Save Folkwaves" group start to use expressions like "cultural cleansing" and wondering if there is a systematic attack on the culture of us, the English, I politely take my finger out of my ear and leave.

Unlike certain Guardian columnists, I don't think that religion should be banished from public discourse. I don't think that members of the House of Commons should be forbidden from referring to their beliefs. I don't understand how you can talk about abortion or the death penalty or telling lies about weapons of mass destruction without appealing to your core, bottom level beliefs, and for many people, those core beliefs are religious. I don't even have too much of a problem with religious schools (including schools for religions I don't particularly like) although I'm prepared to debate that. But it is perfectly obvious that my own religion, protestant Christianity, has massively disproportionate influence in this country, compared to the number of actual churchgoers. And that it's likely to carry on having massively disproportionate influence even as the formal and legal advantages given to Christians are (inevitably and rightly) reduced. People are going to carry on paying attention to Bishops long after we kick them out of the House of Lords. Of course it annoys me when some half-wit unfunny comedian does a sneery look-how-clever-I-am sketch about Jesus. But "ooo poor ickle sunday school boy now I'm an oppressed minority. like the Jews"   Do me a favour, Carey. You should be ashamed of yourself. 

But that's what the Daily Mel implies every time it uses terms like McCarthyite . They, the boys who have boyfriends and the girls who have girlfriends, are or soon will be, in a position of power analogous to that of white, conservative, anti-communists in 1950s America. We, the boys who have girlfriends, and the girls who have boyfriends, are in the position of the minority of communists and communist sympathisers and alleged communist sympathisers in 1950s America.

And what do oppressed minorities always do? What is the only thing an oppressed minority can do in the face of Big Brother?

When anyone else tries to make a group of people feel like victims, and tries to stir them up and make them cross and provoke them into doing something they might regret in the morning, he Daily Mail has a word for it. They call it "radicalisation".

I call it, to use the Daily Mail's favourite word, evil.

Being seen in posession of a copy of the Daily Mail should  now be  unacceptable in decent society, in the same way that no-one civilized would admit to being a member of the National Front or the BNP.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

iv

What gay people, like Jewish people and disabled people and Christian people and Doctor Who fan people chiefly want is for everybody else to go away and mind their own business. They want to be able to live where they want and with whom they like, and get the jobs they want. They'd also just as soon not be pelted with rubbish in the street or have petrol bombs let off in the pubs they frequent, and it irks them a good deal when they are arrested, imprisoned, chemically castrated or hanged. They'd rather not have the mickey taken out of them on the TV, or have their name used as a playground insult. They don't think it's fair that they are turned down for jobs on the basis of being gay; and they think that if it turns out that there are disproportionately few gay people working on hovercraft, then the hovercraft captains must be, consciously or unconsciously, discriminating, and they should be encouraged  not to.

One way of stopping hovercraft captains from being prejudiced to to encourage them to read books and do maths examples which happen include gay characters (and black characters, and Methodists, and people in wheelchairs.) Because then they are less like to think of black wheelchair using Methodists as weird, exotic furriners but as, you know, people.

This, you would have thought, is a basic democratic belief shared by pretty much everybody in the world: "Everybody should be treated the same as everybody else." Doubtless, from time to time, my  right to be left alone comes into conflict with your right to be left alone, but, hey, that's what laws and courts and judges are for.

The Daily Mail has a problem with "everybody should be treated the same as everybody else". And it's not hard to see why. Their readers are rich white middle class Christians, and rich white middle class Christians are used to being treated better than everybody else. So any claim by (say) a wheelchair user that you ought to design buildings in such a way that he can get into them is instantly perceived as a vile attack on the rights of the bipedal majority. (This  week's comedy masterpiece was an article claiming that the only real sexism in modern society was that perpetrated by women against men.)


But the threatened hegemony doesn't merely lament the passing of the good old days when the black folks tipped their hat and said "Sir". Oh no. They have discovered up a scary conspiracy in which the lower orders really are Out To Get Us.



It happened like this. Some years ago Melanie Phillips was waiting in the Gay Lobby on Victoria Station (the line is immaterial) and found a copy of a sinister and incriminating document which someone had carelessly left there. In a handbag, very likely. This blog is most happy to be able to publish the entire text:

THE GAY AGENDA

1: Apologies for absence
2: Minutes of last meeting
3: Matters arising
4: Destroy the very concept of normal sexuality
5: Bring down western civilisation

6: Arrange trip to hear John Barrowman singing show tunes.
7: Any other business.

We have seen that those who take the idea of Political Correctness seriously believe in a sinister organization ("the Frankfurt school") that deliberately invented P.C (and Climate Change) as part of a plot to undermine western civilisation and make it ripe for a Communist take over. (This is what they actually believe, and is not a comical exaggeration on my part.  Melanie Phillips has herself argued in so many words that the liberalisation of sexual laws and attitudes in the 20th century were part of a Marxist Plot to destroy civilisation.  "For years we have watched helplessly the undermining of the traditional family, which has been relentlessly attacked by an alliance of feminists, gay rights activists, divorce lawyers and ‘cultural Marxists’ who grasped that this was the surest way to destroy Western society."`  The reference to "cultural Marxism" is a pretty clear indication that she believes in the Frankfurter conspiracy theory.)
 
It seems clear that her Gay Lobby is a different manifestation of this conspiracy. The Gay Lobby isn't just a way of saying "gay people", any more than Political Correctness Brigade is just a buzz word for "polite people". Melanie Phillips' Gay Lobby doesn't just want toleration and equality. Oh, it may say that that is what it wants, but it has an ulterior motive. In the name of equality, it wants to brainwash our children into rejecting the very concept of normal sexuality. This will undermine the family, which is the very bedrock of civilisation. Once the family as an institution has been destroyed, Western Civilisation will collapse and the Communists can take over. 

She  also appears to believes, along with certain members of the Teapot movement, that in the United States this has already happened.


continues

Friday, January 28, 2011

iii

I mean, if you or I were briefed to take her side in a debate, any one of us  could construct a better argument than Mel

"This house disapproves of homosexuality"

"If you've got a choice, it would be better to to be heterosexual than homosexual, because heterosexuals get to have kids, and have a wider choice of potential partners, and because the boffins are better at curing the sexually transmitted diseases of straight people than of gay people. So don't saddle children with those sort of problems by encouraging them to be gay. You might just as well encourage them to choose to be women. No-one would want to be woman if they could help it. Er...."      
Sexuality isn't a choice, any more than gender is. Any more than race. I can learn to dance and wear one of those hats that the cool kids in St Pauls wear, but I won't suddenly become black. We can fill the school libraries with children's books full of black faces, and we won't suddenly find an epidemic of negro  among the Caucasian population.

Surely this doesn't still need to be spelled out?  Surely Daily Mail readers don't really think that gay is a club that is always looking for new recruits. Mel seems to live in that bizarre 1980s version of reality in which people catch gay off text books, in which "teaching about" is equivalent to "promoting".

I work in a library. We have sex-ed books for very young children. Unlike proper sex-ed books (the ones we had in our library when I was a very young children) they are not just about mummy cats and daddy cats and where kittens come from, but about feelings. They acknowledge that even quite small boys have embarrassing swellings in the trouser area. And they say things like "Sometimes, boys have boyfriends and girls have girlfriends: those people are called 'gay' or 'homosexual'."  

This is the kind of brainwashing material with which children are being bombarded and will eventually destroy all sense of a normal etc etc etc. 

(The same books also cover "OK touching" and "Not OK touching". In tabloid speak, this equates to "masturbation lessons.")

OK: lets assume that Mel has something stronger in mind. The picture book about the two male penguins which hatched and reared a chick. The picture book about a child who happens to have two mummies instead of a mummy and a daddy. Or for slightly older children, a book which acknowledges the possibility that a famous male playwright who wrote love poetry to pretty boys was not exclusively straight. One which mentions that Jews like Anne Frank weren't the only people who went into the concentration camps. The Importance of Being Earnest.

Suppose that sort of seditious literature actually did become compulsory -- mandatory, as Mel puts it. What bad thing would follow? Would children become more accepting of classmates who did have "two mummies"? If so, why would that be a bad thing? Would they stop using homophobic words to bully their classmates? If so, why would that be a bad thing? Would there be a sudden outbreak of gay in classrooms? Even if there were, why would that be a bad thing, necessarily?

How would things work in Mel-world? Would "The Importance of Being Earnest" be taken down from the shelf and burned, along with all other books by boys who had boyfriends, or by boys who sometimes had boyfriends or might have had boyfriends, or boys who sometimes glanced at other boys cocks in the showers after gym, but only in a very manly, heterosexual kind of way? Or will children be allowed to read the play, but not to know about the life of  the author? Or will the teacher be obliged to say "Oscar Wilde was sent to prison for sondomy. And a very good thing to. We should bring it back. Along with the birch." Or what? 

Neil Gaiman recalls that when he was a child, no-one would tell him what Wilde went to gaol for. He formed the impression that he must have been some kind of dandy pirate or highwayman. He was very disappointed when he found out.

I can't parse it any other way. When you talk about homosexuals brainwashing children, you either mean that gay is catching, that gay books make you gay; or you are saying too many books about gays will make straight people less prejudiced, and this would be a bad thing because....because... Because prejudice is a good thing and we want more of it.

Is there another, more benign reading that I've missed?

continues

Thursday, January 27, 2011

ii

I don't, personally, believe in magic. On the other hand, I am not 100% confident in my disbelief in magic. I could be quite tolerant of a devout wizard who tried to sell me a magic potion. I don't think such things work, but I don't know that they don't. The reason that homoeopaths are scumbags is that they are selling their magic potions on the basis of scientific claims which are just. not. true. Eye of newt and gall of bat might summons up the ghosts of all the kings of Scotland, for all I know. But atoms do not remember things which used to be dissolved in them. They just don't. 

If I'd spent longer planning this essay, there'd  have been a clever pun on "homophobic" and "homoeopathic" in there somewhere.

It is one thing for a Muslim to say "I don't drink wine because it's against my religion to drink wine". It's another thing to say "You shouldn't drink wine because it's against my religion for you to drink wine." But it's different again to say "No-one should drink wine because everybody knows that the infidel introduces special cancer inducing chemicals into the grapes." The first two claims are matters of opinion and conscience; the third is just.not.true. Same for the Pope saying that the magic HIV worms can swim in between the atoms in the condom as -- opposed to "Using birth control is a mortal sin worth a century in purgatory or two hundred hail Marys."

Yes, I know the indulgence system was largely abolished after Vatican II.

So: is Mel claiming that homosexuality is wicked because it hurts people and causes pain, like getting drunk and telling lies about weapons of mass destruction? Or is she claiming that it is immoral because it makes little baby Jesus cry, like playing with your thing and eating flesh on Friday.? (Yes, I know the compulsory weekly fast was largely abolished after Vatican II. The Guardian has recently developed a thing about playing with your thing but so far as I can tell it's only wanking over pictures you found on the Internet which makes C.P Scott cry.)

So far as I can say, she says neither. She says instead that homosexuality is not "normal". Or, at any rate, she says that if children are bombarded with homosexual propaganda they will be brainwashed and lose their idea of "normal" sexuality. That sounds to me like a scientific claim, not a religious one.

But what does "normal" mean? If it means "natural" then homosexuality is perfectly natural, in that is occurs in nature: human beings, and indeed penguins, do it, and have always done it. If it means "consistent with social norms" then again, it is pretty normal, because lots of people do it it and most people don't mind other people doing it.

But that usage gets you into horrible circular arguments. I could say that public nudity is not "normal" because most people don't do it, and most people are freaked out when somebody else does it. But if I was advocating that we should get over ourselves and leave our pants off on hot days, there wouldn't be much point in appealing to the present "norms". It doesn't mean very much to say "We mustn't change our norms because that would involve changing our norms." Norms change all the time. I am reliably informed that in olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. 

I suppose a traditional conservative says "We developed our norms gradually, over a series of centuries, and if you change them suddenly, the whole mechanism might come crashing down." That comes into Mel's thinking. She has a theory that Western rationality is based on the Bible (sort of possibly maybe true, debatably) and that it follows that if we depart from Biblical principles we will descend into irrationality and chaos. But this doesn't seem to involve reading the Bible and saying "How does Deuteronomy 23 apply to issue of detention without trial?" It seems to involve using the Bible as a fetish-object which makes the ways we do things right now the only ways that things can be done. And that the state of Israel is always right about everything. How she gets round the fact that, until very recently indeed, letting women vote in elections and work on newspapers was not considered "normal" I am not quite sure.

If you are going to sell me a magic potion, sell me a magic potion. If you are going to preach traditional morality then preach traditional morality. Don't wrap it up in weirdo language about what is and isn't normal. 


continues

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

i

Sorry: I decided I really needed to write down why Melanie Phillips is so uniquely hateful. There is probably no need for you to read it, though. Go away for a few days, and I really promise to write something about children's books when I'm done. Or comics, maybe. Going to hear the miserable one from Show of Hands on Saturday, and everything, so I'm bound to write about that. Even got some follow up notes on Baby Jesus, but I'm thinking maybe hold them over til next Christmas?





When little Nicky Griffin sees two grown men holding hands, he finds it "creepy". This is on the same level as not wanting girls in your tree-house because they're smelly.

When America's favourite comedy bigot Fred Phelps says that God hates homosexuals he is pretty much just projecting his own gut-feelings onto the universe. He also thinks that God hates Hollywood, television, America in general, the media in general, soldiers, children who have been killed by gunmen, and Methodists. (Especially Methodists. Methodists are even worse than homosexuals.) Doubtless very distressing if it's your funeral he decides to yell at, but not really something you could describe as a point of view.

Someone like Anne Atkins thinks that homosexuality is taboo and would rather the priests of her religion didn't openly engage in taboo practices. (Priests who say "I know, tobacco is my besetting sin, I'm trying really hard to quit, and I would urge everyone else not to start" would be another matter.) One can quarrel with her exegesis, of course,  but I'm guessing that most gay theists wouldn't want to go to that kind of church in the first place, although Anne says they'd be made perfectly welcome if they did. 

Melanie Phillips is in a completely different class. The common or garden bigot makes a lot of noise, but is completely ignored by everyone who doesn't already share their prejudices. You can't argue someone into having a gut feeling. Or out of it. They don't matter. The Daily Mail is systematically using sleight of hand to trick people into believing in things which don't make sense. And people pay attention to it. Including powerful people. It matters.
 
Your average white, middle class Brit is not particularly homophobic. He doesn't mind what people get up to behind closed doors, although he'd probably just as soon the doors stayed closed. Phillips is not trying to infect these readers with a Fred Phelps style revulsion against homosexuals. She's too clever for that. She's not even presenting an argument that homosexuality is immoral or contrary to holy scripture or fattening. (Your average white middle class Brit thinks that religion is another thing that you should really only do behind closed doors.) She's trying to smuggle into their mind a theory that "gay" is out to get them.

And she's doing this, I submit, not because she is herself homophobic, but as a tactic in a wider political game. 


The article was published on January 24th. On January 23rd, the Daily Mail had run two substantially fictitious anti-gay stories: Governments £30 million to find out if hovercrafts discriminate against gays and Gay messages built into maths lessons for children as young as FOUR  Both of these stories have been substantially debunked elsewhere on the web. There was no big investigation into homosexual hovercrafts: there was a footnote about gay equality in the section on sea transport in a general report on the implementation of the governments equality laws. (It said there were no particular issues to worry about.) There is no secret plot to insert homosexuals into maths books: a gay/lesbian group has put some free lesson plans on the web which teachers could download and use during gay/lesbian awareness week, if they want to.

It's quite common for junior schools to use thematic integrated study programmes. The class might spend two weeks learning about Ships, which would include learning about the Spanish Armada in history, reading sea adventures in English, and making model boats in art.  Obviously if you look at  it objectively, this is a bad way to teach children. The only objectively good way to educate children is "Like what it was when I was at school". (Apart from gym teachers. First thing we do is hang all the gym teachers.) But what we're talking about here is clearly "ways in which you might incorporate maths lessons into  your Gay People In History week". That's not the same as smuggling sex education into general maths books.

This is how the Daily Mail works. It makes shit up and puts it on the cover as if it was news. The next day, its columnists write opinion pieces, which repeat the same points made in the original, fictitious, articles. Members of the public then write outraged "Won't someone think of the children" letters based on the columns. With any luck, one of the qualities takes the story up. And before long, you have a huge pseudo-fact and anyone who says "But no-one has banned Christmas" sounds like a whinging pedant or a denialist.

All newspapers print opinion as well as news. All newspapers print chit chat about actresses and footballers alongside the important bit about how this years manglewurzle crop is up 1% on last years manglewurzle crop due to a new type of fertilizer devised by local man Mr Smith, 45, pictured left. Polly Toynbee and Germain Greer are not always notably less unhinged than Melanie Phillips. But "comment is free but the facts are sacred" remains a pretty good rule. In the Guardian, despite its many sins, you can usually still tell one from the other.


continues
No.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Though for the Day

"In a priggish or self-righteous society Cleon [a tabloid journalist] would occupy the same social status as a prostitute. His social contacts would extend only to clients, fellow professionals, moral welfare-workers, and the police. Indeed, in a society which was rational as well as priggish (if such a combination could occur) his status would be a good deal lower than hers. The intellectual virginity which he has sold is a dearer treasure than her physical virginity. He gives his patrons a baser pleasure than she. He infects them with the more dangerous diseases. Yet not one of us hesitates to eat with him, drink with him, joke with him, shake his hand, and, what is much worse, the very few of us refrain from reading what he writes....

"....Even when the rewards of dishonesty are strictly alternative to those of honesty some men will choose them. But Cleon finds he can have both. He can enjoy the sense of secret power and all the sweets of a perpetually gratified inferiority complex while at the same time having the
entrée to honest society. From such conditions what can we expect but an increasing number of Cleons? And that must be our ruin. If we remain a democracy they render impossible the formation of any healthy public opinion. If -- absit omen -- the totalitarian threat is realised, they will be the cruellest and dirtiest tools of government."
 
                                                                                                                       C.S Lewis

Monday, January 24, 2011

P.P.S

Is publishing this shit even legal?
 
...this is but the latest attempt to brainwash children with propaganda under the ­camouflage of ­education....abuse of childhood.... all part of the ruthless campaign by the gay rights lobby to destroy the very ­concept of normal sexual behaviour....just about everything in Britain is now run according to the gay agenda...anyone who goes against the politically-correct grain on homosexuality....must be considered a bigot and thus have no place in public life...seemingly all-­powerful gay rights lobby carries all before it... risks turning gay people from being the victims of prejudice into Britain’s new McCarthyites....

Don't click on this link. It will make you feel dirty.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

P.S

The reason that it's unfair to harp on about Lord Rothermere's relationship with the Furher is that the present day paper's attitude to minorities -- Moslems, gypsies, gays etc -- is so entirely different from that of "Adolf the geat" to the Jews.
 
Unfunny cartoon by Mac

(Note particularly the Swastika.)



Okay, experiment in blogging about politics didn't work out. Back to looking for the Oedipus complex in Winnie the Pooh, I think.  

Monday, January 17, 2011

Spent literally seconds trying to think of a witty reaction to this locally themed piece from The Paper That Supported Hitler. But since this blog is already blocked in my place of work (for "profanity") I decided to go with my first instinct:

You utter shit. 

Unbelievable. Literally unbelievable.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Public Service Announcement

But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitude that they should ask Barabbas, and destroy Jesus.

The governor answered and said unto them, "Whether of the twain will ye that I release unto you?"

They said, "Barabbas".

Pilate saith unto them, "What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ?"

They all say unto him, "Let him be crucified."

And the governor said, "Why, what evil hath he done?"

But they cried out the more, saying, "Let him be crucified."

When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, "I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it."

Then answered all the people, and said, "His blood be on us, and on our children."

Matthew 27 15-25

When St Matthew says that "all the people" cired out "Let (Jesus) blood be on us and on our children" he presumably means "all the people who were gathered outside Pilate's residence" -- "the multitude" who the Priests have persuaded to vote for Barabas and against Jesus. 

He doesn't, so far as I can see mean "all the people in the middle- east" or "all the people in the whole wide world."

If we read this dispassionately, we would infer that Matthew thought that the responsibility for Jesus death lay with the mob who actually called for his death, not with the magistrate who sentenced him to death or the soldiers who executed him. We would take him to be saying that the consequences of this guilt would fall either on them (the people who actually called for Jesus to be killed) or on the next generation (their children).

We would also note that in the preceeding chapter, Jesus warned of an earth-shaking apocalypse which would occur within the lifetimes of those who had actually heard him preach. We would conclude  that Matthew thought that Jesus thought that something very terrible was going to happen in Jerusalem within thirty or forty years of the death of Jesus. Say, around AD 70 or so.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Homosexual Frogs / Little Baby Jesus

   Then up spoke baby Jesus,
from in Mary's womb:
"Bow down thou tallest cherry tree,
that my mother might have some!"


Every year Rowan Williams spends lots of money that he hasn't got putting up posters to persuade people to go to Church at Christmas. Quite what the point of this is, I couldn't say. Christmas is the one time of year when people would go to church regardless of whether or not there'd been posters telling them to. Christmas is the one time of year when churches lay on extra services, when the cathedrals and the more picturesque parish churches have to turn people away at the door.

These adverts are universally embarrassing. There was Jesus drawn in the style of Che Guevara, and the Angels running a call center, and Mary having a bad hair day. I really, really want to punch the person who came up with the "Christmas Begins With Christ" slogan. And Thursday begins with Thor and July begins with Julius bloody Caesar.

I assume someone already thought of "Church is for life, not just for Christmas."

This year, they've got one of those ultra-sound pictures of a human foetus that you get in ante-natal clinics, with a halo over its head, and the slogan "He's on His way."

I can see how the focus group came up with that one. It's even quite clever, in a "not particularly clever" sort of way. Advent is the time when Christians look forward to the birth of Jesus, yes? So, what does the focus group associate with "looking forward" to the birth of a baby? Nowadays most familys' first sight of their ickle bubbie is one of those grainy ultrasound pictures. People even put them in family albums, before the picture of the wrinkly thing a few minutes after it has been born. Rather charmingly, it means that the question "What are you hoping for?" is largely redundant. (I'm told that in the olden days baby's first clothes  had to be yellow or green, because until it popped out you didn't know if it was going to be a blue one or pink one.)

So the poster is saying "If Jesus were born in England today, Mary would have had a free ultrasound scan, so we should all be jolly glad that we live in a country where poor ladies with donkeys get that kind of thing on the National Health, and not America, where if you get pregnant and you're poor, Barak Obama kills you with a panel." [Check this: Ed] It's like one of those modern nativity plays which says that if Jesus were born today, he'd be born in a garage, not a stable; he'd be laid in a shoe box, not a manger; he'd be visited by college lecturers, not kings, and he'd be a Muslim, not a Christian.


 Well, no. I think it's probably saying something more like: "Ultrasound pictures the kind of thing we modern people associate with waiting for babies. But Jesus is a special, holy baby. And painters used to use halos to show when someone was special and holy. So a modern ultrasound image of an unborn baby with an old fashioned halo over its head is a clever ideogram for waiting for the arrival of a very special baby."

However, this image has proven terribly offensive to the kinds of people who get terribly offended by images of this kind.

Some people say that Christians spend a lot of time deliberately getting offended by things which are quite harmless, largely because they do. (Wallace and Grommit stamps aren't an attack on our traditional Christian heritage. They just aren't. And did I mention that no-one has banned Christmas?) But just lately, atheists, secularists and biologists have adopted the tactic of pretending that they can get just as frequently and just as pointlessly annoyed as their opponents can.

There's a pointless column in the Guardian in which pointless celebrities are asked to fill out a pointless questionnaire. Last year, one of them was pointlessly asked what historical period he would most like to visit. "The Garden of Eden", he replied. A pointless atheist sent a pointless letter to the next issue's pointless letter page pointlessly  pointing out that the Garden of Eden wasn't a real place so har-har aren't Christians silly? There was an apparently serious article on the Dawk's website pretending to be very cross indeed that guests on Desert Island Discs are still asked the question "Which one book would you choose to take to a desert island -- assuming that the works of Shakespeare and the Bible are already there?" This proves that atheists are worse off in modern England than homosexuals were in 1950s America. 

I guess this is how all political discourse works. If one side does something stupid, the other side's first reaction is to try to do something even stupider.

Now, if Polly Toynbee or someone had objected to the Archdruid's poster because it was quite clever and might encourage people to go to church, and that this was a bad thing because if people went to church they might come out thinking that God exists, and that would be a bad thing because he doesn't, that might have been a good point, in a "not a particularly good point" kind of way. I don't blame foaming non-theists for objecting to the Narnia books any more than I blame foaming theists for objecting to the Dark Materials books. I even sort of saw the point of the non-theistic bus campaign: if the worst kind of Christian can stick risible posters on the sides of buses saying that God exists, then obviously the worst kind of atheist is entitled to stick equally risible posters on other buses saying that he doesn't, or at any rate, probably doesn't. (The question about how, whether, and what kind of religious advertising ought to be allowed in a secular society is more interesting. But not much more interesting.)

But this isn't what the storm in a mulled wine glass is about. Oh no. No, some secularist bods came up with the wheeze of pretending that they thought that the ultrasound Jesus is part of a sinister pro-life campaign by the Church of England.

Ultrasound pictures of foetuses look like babies. And people who don't agree with abortion want people who do agree with abortion to think that abortion involves killing babies. People who do agree with abortion are more inclined to say that a foetus is not a baby, but a thing which happens to look like a baby. So people who don't agree with abortion sometimes show people who do agree with abortion ultrasound pictures of foetuses to make the point that foetuses look so much like babies that they probably actually are babies. So ultrasound images of foetuses are now so much associated with people who don't agree with abortion that publishing one of those images in any context leaves you open to the charge of not agreeing with abortion, and although quite a lot of people don't agree with abortion, saying you don't agree with abortion is very offensive to people who do.

I trust this is perfectly clear.

Hard to work out what terms to use in these sorts of discussion, isn't it? In the first paragraph, I very naturally typed "ultra-sound photo of an unborn baby" because that's the normal English way of talking about such things, but changed it to "human foetus" for fear of offending my feminist friends, of whom I will very shortly not have any left. But that's biased the other way. A person I otherwise respect and admire (he is related by marriage to an author for whom I have occasionally expressed admiration) once remarked in an Internet forum that "foetus" is an offensive term, like "nigger" or "gook", used to dehumanize people who you want to kill. And I just typed "pro-life", which is a completely meaningless term, like "pro-air". Stick around long enough, and I'll probably be saying that someone or something is "pro-choice".

See? Words do affect how you think.

Now, my usual line on such things is the same as that of Mr C.S Lewis, to wit, that since I am neither a woman, nor a married man, nor a priest, the best approach would be to keep my mouth very firmly shut about birth control, abortion, and all the other complicated messy icky stuff that happens in the months before the Christening Party.

Assuming that you are allowed to go to Christening parties . Christening a child is worse than sexually interfering with him, isn't it? I lose track.

Someone once made out a very convincing case for renaissance religious art having had a consistent, theologically significant iconography around illustrations of the infant Christ's penis. At least, I assume it was a convincing case. I didn't read the book. I'm not actually sure why I even mentioned it.

Last month I heard the folk group Kerfuffle doing a very good concert of traditional English carols. One of the songs told the story of how some older lads took the mickey out of the boy Jesus, because he was poor and his mother was no better than she ought to be. So Jesus drowned them. The boys' parents are bit put out by this, and complain to Mary. So Mary puts Jesus across her knee and gives hm a good whacking. Christian children all must be, mild, obedient, good as he.

I'm not sure why I mentioned that either, to be perfectly honest. I do like the way in which the long instrumental break wobbles between "John Barleycorn" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen".

If we saw the image of a halo placed over a picture of the adult Jesus, the boy Jesus in the temple, the baby Jesus being suckled by the Virgin, or the new-born Jesus in the manger, we would take that halo to indicate that Jesus was a very special person. And one might have supposed that it was pretty uncontroversial to say that Christians do, in fact, think that Jesus was a very special person indeed.

Pelagians like Charles Dickens and Geraldine Granger believe that "Son of God" is a descriptive phrase -- it refers to all the special things that the grown-up Jesus did. His followers were so impressed with his innovative suggestion that you should be nice to people that they invented the title "Son of God" to emphasise what a good and original idea being nice to people was. And then they pretended that Jesus had applied it to himself.  (Fortunately, the bits where they say he said that we should be nice to people are completely historically reliable, even though the bits where they say that he said that he was the Son of God aren't.)

But that's not what Christians think: and its a safe bet that at least some of the people paying for the Christmas Begins With Christ campaign are Christians. Christians think that some intrinsic Jesusness of Jesus was already there when he was a child and a baby -- before he'd had a chance to say or do anything at all. And that was what the person who photoshopped the halo onto the foetus was presumably trying to convey.




If you are a Christian, this is all terribly uncontroversial. "Come and behold him, born the King of Angels", we sing. "The little lord Jesus asleep on the hay", we sing. "Veiled in flesh, the godhead see" ,we sing, hardly stopping to wonder if we are  unconsciously slipping into the docetist heresy. "Our God contracted to a span incomprehensibly made man". That's Christianity. If you don't believe it, you don't believe it, but there isn't much point in whining because some Christians still do.

(I suppose I have to allow the possibility that "Christians think that Jesus was special" is a completely novel idea to children and Guardian readers. Only a couple of years ago, we had a supermarket straightfacedly telling us that Easter commemorated the birth of Jesus. And before that, a surprising number of perfectly intelligent people seemed to be genuinely surprised that Mel Gibson regarded the Crucifixion as a central and iconic element in his faith. Perhaps the idea that Jesus, Mohammad and Bob Geldof are three roughly equivalent examples of People Who Have Helped The World is so entrenched in school R.E lessons that Rowan Williams really does need to take out an advertising campaign to counteract it.)

In Max Ernst's surrealist take on the Bitter Withy, the boy Jesus halo falls off while the Virgin punishes him. (Or maybe she punishes him because his halo has fallen off?)  No idea whatsoever why I mentioned that.


If we are say that Jesus Was Special, does it follow that Baby Jesus Was Special, and therefore that Baby Jesus Was Special Even Before He Was Born. If Baby Jesus Was Special Before He Was Born, does it follow that babies in general can b e special even before they are born? If Unborn Jesus had an intrinsic Jesusness, does it follow that Unborn Andrew and an intrinsic Andrewness? Does the mere attribution of qualities to a human shaped figure in an ultrasound photograph come dangerously close to saying the foetuses are human beings? And does that represent a tick in the box against abortion being a morally neutral act? Did, in short, the people who thought that the C of E Christmas poster was presenting a subtle pro-life argument actually have a point. Not so much because the pro-life brigade own all images of unborn children, but because there's something "pro-life" in the whole idea of the Incarnation?

A belief in the personhood of the foetus does not, so far as I can see, logically imply that abortion is morally wrong under all circumstances, much less that it should be prohibited by law. Nearly all of us accept that persons can legitimately be sacrificed to the common good. We all regard dead miners as a price well worth paying for coal-powered electricity stations. We all regard dead pedestrians as acceptable collateral damage in the cause of getting from point A to point B very fast. We may say that we don't, but we do. But if we could convince our self that the children being knocked over at pedestrian crossings weren't humans, but only human shaped objects, we'd feel less guilty about ignoring red lights when the road was quiet and we were in a hurry. Stupid people frequently claim that torture and executions don't violate anyone's human rights because the sorts of people who get tortured and executed don't really count as human. The noxious expression "feral child" is worth rolling around your tongue for a few minutes, too.

I'm sorry: I said I wasn't going to talk about this.

And of course, the extreme anti-abortion position is a mirror image of this: people who would like to see abortion prohibited under all circumstances fear that once you allow abortion to be a morally neutral act -- once you concede that a foetus is not a person, but  only a person-shaped object -- you may end up saying that babies are only person-shaped objects; children are only person shaped object; in fact, people in general are only people shaped objects. And that this will be terribly convenient the next time you want to start killing them.

I think  that this is what they must have in mind when they talk about life being "sacred" because people (even unborn people) have "souls". I don't think that they think that the "soul" is a funny little ethereal butterfly that lives in the pineal gland and needs protection. (Has anyone ever really believed that?  Did St Paul? Did Descartes? Plato did, I suppose.) They mean that they want us to think of "human beings" as whole, finished, things -- not lumps of meat, collections of atoms, bags of organs, but, well, people. They mean that "everyone is 'I' ". They mean that everyone has their own subjective experience, that you can and should and must imagine what it would be like to be a murderer, or a torture victim, or an infant, or a foetus -- or, in some versions, a fox or a whale  or a sperm -- and that you can never do to one of those little "I"s what you would not want done to you. And then they rather sacrifice the moral high ground by setting fire to clinics and assassinating doctors.

Some of them, I mean. One wouldn't want to blame a whole group for the behaviour of its most extreme members. Oh no.

There are times when its quite useful to think of humans as human shaped lumps of meat. Say, when you performing an autopsy, or when you  are dropping bombs on a school. (To preserve freedom of course; and we all agree that my freedom, by which we mean my right to read the newspaper of my choice and have a choice of which church to attend, is far more important than the lives of foreign children. We may say that we don't, but we do.) There are other times when it is very difficult to think of humans in that way: when the lump of meat is your own child, for example, or the person you want to marry, or the composer of Hey, Mr Tambourine Man.

Who was it who said "God isn't a thing you could find in the Universe: he's a way of thinking about the Universe"? The soul isn't something you could find by dissecting a brain or weighing a dying patient: it's a way of thinking about brains and dying people. Most people happily shift between the two ways of thinking. Extremists on both sides think that there's only one perspective and that the other one can be abolished. Along, very probably, with the people who agree with it. 

Do the people who believe that everyone is special believe that because they believe that God really and truly historically became a baby, whatever "became" means? With the corollary that, if you could prove that the story of the Incarnation was completely unhistorical, they'd all suddenly say "Oh, well in that case, we're fine with euthanasia, assisted suicide, and capital punishment after all." Or have they embraced the story of the Incarnation because they already believe in the specialness of the human race? Or was the story only ever a way of saying a thing about the specialness of human beings that won't quite fit into ordinary language?

Well, it's no terribly big discovery that Christians think that Jesus' specialness conveyed specialness on everybody else? What was that hymn that Miss Walker taught us: "....and that a higher gift than Grace should flesh and blood refine: God's presence and his very self and essence all sublime." Not by the conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but the taking up of that manhood into God, as the fellow said.
Mr Richard Dawkins thinks that the  "soul" way of thinking about human beings is so wrong -- and so obviously the result of the "god" way of thinking about the universe -- that he wastes spends a whole section of his book-shaped -object on something he calls "The Great Beethoven Fallacy." (In biology, "great" has the specialised meaning of "a thing I read on the Internet and found irritating". A similar usage occurs in the Daily Mail, so that "Several people have complained about new arrangements for refuse collection" becomes "The Great Bin-Bag Revolt.")

The "great" fallacy is that Beethoven's mum was unmarried, poor, had lots of other kids, some of whom were sick, and that his Dad had multiple sexually transmitted diseases. Any proponent of legal abortion would have allowed her to have a termination and thus killed the second greatest composer who ever lived. Any fool can see the problem with this argument: you might just as well say that Mrs Beethoven had prevented the Fifth Symphony from being written if she'd told a horny Mr Beethoven that she was feeling quite tired and would just as soon curl up with a cup of cocoa and watch Vienna's Got Talent tonight, if that okay with him.

Dawkins thinks that one of the advantages of curing us all of the belief in God is that we'll also be cured of the belief that every unborn baby is a potential little Beethoven. We will stop regarding human life as sacred, and start permitting stems cell research, euthanasia, abortion, assisted suicide, infanticide, the death penalty for people who go to the Noah's Ark  Farm Zoo etc [Check this. Ed.]

The Beethoven paradox is, in fact, a joke: on the level of the one about the two fish in the tank. ("Do you know how to drive this thing?") It forcibly drags you from one way of looking at the world (humans are lumps of organic matter, tanks are a kind of small aquarium) to another (everyone is special  and some people are so astonishingly special that they write symphonies; tanks are a sort of military vehicle.) If you only believe in one perspective, then, of course, you won't "get" the joke. I doubt if someone raised in a nudist colony would understand why people laugh at nob jokes.

Images of foetuses wearing halos; legends in which Jesus is both the Messiah and a very naughty boy: poems about "the Word within the word unable to speak a word" are holy paradoxes  -- jokes even -- in very much the same spirit. So, come to that, are Renaissance paintings which draw attention to Christs'...er...manhood. Not "half god and half human" as the Guardian theatre critic thinks, but completely God and completely God and completely human. Try and get your head round the idea that Jesus was an eight year old and also God. Bet you can't! But try and get your head round the idea that the mind that wrote the choral symphony was embedded in a lump of meat -- bet you can't do that either!
 
Most of us do in fact believe in the sacredness of human life. We may say we don't, but we do. We think of unborn children as "he" or "she"; we say "she is carrying my son" or "my baby kicked". We expend huge amounts of love and energy on differently abled people who are never going to have a very high quality of life. We say "This is where Granny is buried", not "This is where the lump of matter that used to be my granny is buried" or  even "My granny stopped existing and so we chucked the remains in the dustbin." We get very cross indeed when doctors cut up dead people without asking permission.

And maybe we shouldn't. Maybe no baby can ever have a halo. Maybe no person can. Maybe there is no cosmic joke. Maybe here is only one way of looking at things. Maybe we should think of the thing in Mummy's Tummy as a very complex lump of matter that is in the process of becoming a person; but feel no sadder when it dies than if we had (say) had our tonsils removed. Or damaged a complex plasticine model of the Albert Hall that we'd taken a good deal of trouble over. That's a perfectly viable position. Some societies, have, I guess, been more callous or less sentimental about babies than we are. About children. About people.

It's a complicated philosophical question and there are good arguments on both sides. But the idea that Church of England is being a bit naughty by possibly alluding to one side of the complicated argument in public is a little bit worrying.  It's like, we're taking it for granted than one way of looking at things is always right and the other way of looking at things is always wrong.

Assuming a consensus where no consensus exists. "You can't sing the Cherry Tree Carol: it expresses an idea about un-born children which doesn't agree with my philosophical position. It is a pretty story but it is, how you say, politically incorrect." 



Dear Andrew

It is quite clear from the above that you are a [misogynist] [baby murderer] and wish to [perpetrate a silent holocaust] [reduce all women to the status of Gorean breeding machines]. At the very least, in trying to be even handed, you have pretended that the [deluded pro-life lobby] [deluded pro-choice lobby] have a valid point of view. Right thinking folks simply do not engage with [baby murderers] [misogynists]. But that is what I would expect from a [liberal] [fundamentalist] [Romanc Catholic] like yourself. If you were not surrounded by people like [Nick Eden] [Sam Dodsworth] [Phil Masters] who think you are a genius and agree with everything you say regardless, you would think more carefully before dashing off this sort of rubbish.

I agree, however, that Kerfuffle are excellent.

Anonymous [via Blackberry.]

Saturday, January 08, 2011

It is, I suppose, just barely possible that someone reading this blog hasn't seen this yet.