Sunday, February 20, 2005

Next Issue: More Theology

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.








The Guardian has taken to printing articles by the Vicar of Putney.

Don’t worry: it gets more interesting. Well, slightly more interesting.

Last month he, like every other pundit in the country, wrote a piece about the tsunami disaster. It turns out that a lot of people have spotted that this was a very terrible event, and concluded that therefore God doesn’t exist.

So far as I can tell, it is only the people who already thought that God doesn’t exist who reached this conclusion. If some journalist had managed to track down a Bishop who was also a Christian, and who had looked at the big wave and said “Well, what do you know? Materialism was right all along!” that would have been interesting. It would also have been interesting if you could have found a Dawkinsite who had looked at all the people being compassionate and said “Good God! Human life does have some purpose after all.” But no-one has managed to produce a single such person on either side. Just a lot of morgue-chasing essays by people saying “Hey! You see this big earthquake thing in all the papers. Well, guess what. It proves that I was right all along.” Major international event confirms people's philosophical prejudices, shock.

It is always thus. If a child is murdered, or a terrorist bomb goes off, or an old lady of sixty six has a baby, it is always excuse for people to say “I told you so.” Never for them to say “Gosh. I shall have to revise my whole theory of crime and punishment, or medical ethics”

(Come to think of it, there were a few pundits who said “We support the war on Iraq because of the Weapons of Mass Destruction” who subsequently said “Since there weren’t any weapons of mass destruction, we were wrong to support the war. Sorry.” I wonder if any of the pacifist types would have changed their mind and said “mea culpa” if the bombs had been found?)

The Rev Giles Fraser, Vicar of Putney and professor of something or other, approached the tsunami, reasonably enough, as an instance of the general question of divine goodnesses and human suffering. He starts with a painful story about the first time he, as a young clergyman, had to conduct the funeral of a baby and how this almost made him lose his vocation. However, even in the face of this awful event, he somehow carried on believing in God. The article then jump cuts to the “endless under-graduate tutorials” he has attended on the “so-called problem of evil.”

He says

“The essays that are the hardest to stomach are those that seek some clever logical trick to get God off the hook, as if the cries of human suffering could be treated like a fascinating philosophical Rubics cube....Of course, none of them work, and one has to question the moral health of those whose only concern in the face of great tragedy is to buy God some dubious alibi”.
He waffles for a bit longer, and then asks us to think about the infant Christ.
“What is terrifying about the Christmas story is that it offers us nothing but the protection of a vulnerable baby, of a God so pathetic that we need to protect Him. The idea of a omnipotent God who can calm the sea and defeat out enemies turns out to be a part of the great fantasy of power that has corrupted the Christian imagination for centuries. Instead, Christians are called to recognize that the essence of the divine being is not power but compassion and love...”
There is quite a lot that can be said about this drivel.

First, Fraser has decided that he is free to be as selective as he wishes about which Biblical stories and Christian doctrines he will believe in. He approves of “the Christmas story”, which is told in different forms, by St Matthew and St Luke; but disapproves of the story about Christ calming the seas, which is told (in very similar forms) by Matthew, Mark and Luke. The four Gospels are full of stories in which Jesus is a figure of power (“what manner of man is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”) If, when Matthew and Luke report stories of Jesus working miracles, they had been "seduced by a fantasy of power" which is not merely irrelevant to Christianity, but actually antithetical to it, why trust them when they talk about the Bethlehem baby? Why trust anything they say about Jesus? Why read the New Testement at all?

(On Christmas Eve, Fraser got very angry, albeit about seventeen hundred years too late, about the emperor Constantine because the Creed of Nicea mentions that Jesus was born of a Virgin, and that he Died, but misses out everything that happens in between. The in-between bit is, apparently, the important bit, because the true message of Christianity is that the adult Jesus preached that we should all be pacifists. Or something. But now he wants us to concentrate on the baby-in-a-manger bit, and ignore all the adult-jesus-does-miracles stuff. )

Second, it is very hard to find anything in his religion which is recognisable as “Christiantiy”. He tells us that Christains “cannot go on speaking about prayer as if it were an alternative way of getting things done” (even though Jesus is reported as having told his disciples that they would get anything they prayed for.). He rejects the idea of devils as risible (even though the gospels report Jesus as functioning as, among other things, an exorcist). And as noted, he rejects the idea of Jesus as a miracle-worker.

One slightly wonders what they do in churches in Putney. If you can't use passages from the Bible which refer to miracles, Satan, or an omnipotent God, and if you don't believe in prayer, then what do you find to do for an hour and a half on Sunday morning?

(Question: Why is the idea of devils so often assumed to be medieval or supersititous, when the idea of God is treated with at least a modicum of respect? Is there anything inherently less sensible about believing in bad supernatural beings than believing in good ones?)

I am reminded of a lecture given by Don Cupitt while I was at York University. A guy I knew from the anarchist club stuck up his hand and said “I agree with nearly everything you are saying, but I don’t understand why you put it in terms of this reactionary Christian bullshit.” I’ve always thought he had a very good point. Fraser gives very cogent reasons for rejecting the religion which has always been referred to as Christianity; having done so, I can’t see why he wants to carry on referring to himself as a Christian.

Third, his doctrine of the incarnation is distinctly wobbly. He says that God “is” a pathetic baby, and that the divine essence “is” compassion and love. I actually don’t know what “is” means, here. Christians say that the God who made the universe was in some way was transformed into a baby. (Subject to a thousand years of hair splitting about what you mean by “God”, “baby” and “transformed”, obviously.) They see this as a paradox. (“Our god contracted to a span/incomprehensibly made man”...another hymn they presumably can’t sing in Putney.) Fraser appears to be saying that “helplessness” and “babyness” is in some way what God has always been like. Those silly, silly Jews made another mistake which the Christian story corrects.

He has a nice line in sending barbed nasties at people he doesn’t quite agree with. “Thus spitte I out my venym under hewe/of holynesse, to semen hooly and trewe” as the fellow said. It isn’t sufficient for Fraser to say that the standard theological answers to the problem of evil are inadequate. The people who put them forward have to be bad people. (“and one has to question the moral health of those whose only concern...”) Is it really likely that those who he has heard propose solutions to the problem of evil are doing so because they have no other concerns? Isn’t it more likely that they are undergraduates attempting to answer a question that has been set them? And are they really trying to “find God an alibi” or “let him off the hook”? Isn’t it more likely that they are asking whether it is intellectually or morally possible to believe that there is any such being as God in the first place? Fraser doesn’t seem to mind us asking these question: but if you try to answer them, you aren’t merely foolish -- you are morally sick.

I also like the bit about the “ ‘so-called’ problem of evil”. Reminds me of Dorothy L Sayers reference to a war-time leading article which referred to Hitler and his dupes as “these so-called Germans.”

Fraser appears to be saying that knowing the answer to the Problem of Evil would be of no help in councelling a bereaved mother. He’s probably right. He concludes that it is silly, or futile, or pointless or actually bad to ask the question, which seems to me to be a non sequitur. The “problem of evil” is a logical problem. So it is not very surprising that people try to come up with logical answers to it. And it is not very surprising that answering a logical problem doesn’t help you solve a pastoral one.

The"problem" of evil itself is actually very simple. It’s a bit like the old business proverb: “You can have it cheap. You can have it quick. You can have it good. Pick any two.”

Similarly, you are welcome to pick any 4 statments off the following list:

1: God exists
2 God is good
3: God knows everything.
4: God can do anything.
5: Bad things happen.

But you can’t logically believe in all 5.

If God doesn’t exist, then there is no problem. Bad things happen: they just do. (It’s probably even a fallacy to call them bad. One baby dying, or a lot of people dying in a natural disaster, is not “bad” in any cosmological sense. We just happen not to like it very much. It would be better to just say “stuff happens” and leave it at that.) But if you were prepared to say “God doesn’t exist”, then you wouldn’t be a vicar, even a Church of England vicar. If you want God to carry on existing, you have to chose one of the remaining four lines to delete.

So: cross out line 2, and there is no problem. God exists, and knows about all the bad things which are happening, and could stop them if he wanted to, only he doesn’t want to, because he isn’t good, not in the sense that we usually mean. Maybe we are so Totally Depraved that we couldn’t possibly know the difference between Goodness and Badness, and all our arguments are therefore invalidated. Maybe God is like Galactus or the Force, totally above “good” and “evil”. Maybe the God who is running this universe is actually a Baddy. There have been wacky forms of Christianity which say that an evil demiurge created the universe against God’s will; or that for the time being, God has delegated the running of this world to Satan.

Not happy with an evil or amoral God? Then cross out line 3. The reason that so many bad things happen in the world is because God doesn't know about them. Either he created the universe and then left it running like a clockwork thing, with a view to coming back and checking up on it in a few billion years, or else he just happens to be looking the other way at the moment. Maybe it's our job to draw his attention to the problems down here, and the reason bad things happen is that we aren't all praying hard enough. This was the line taken by the Diests and some Country and Western singers.

You’d rather God was omniscient? All right then, dispense with line 5, and say that in actual fact, bad things don’t happen in the world, so there is nothing surprising about the fact that God doesn’t stop them. If you go down this path, you’ve got lots and lots of options. You can either say that, in actual fact, things like earthquakes and AIDS don’t happen at all: that they only figments of our imagination. Or you can say that they certainly happen, but they aren’t actually bad. Maybe they are a divine punishment, and therefore a good thing. Or maybe they are less bad than the alternatives, because we live in the best of all possible worlds. Maybe living in a place where bad things happen is a necessary part of the process whereby we grow into sons of god. Or maybe dying isn’t actually an evil, because you go to heaven (or hell, if you deserve it, which is still good in the long run). Maybe dying in a disaster is actually an advantage, because it concentrates your mind wonderfully so you have got more chance of making a good end, getting saved, and going to heaven.

Does this sound callous to you? Then reject point 4. Bad things are bad, and God knows they are bad, and God wants to help...but he can’t. Because he isn’t omnipotent. This one is harder work, but you could say that God is one of two or more forces in the universe, and right now, the Devil has the upper hand. Or you could say that it just so happens that God is powerful enough to bring the universe into being, but not powerful enough to control everything in it on a day to day basis. Or that God’s omnipotence doesn’t stretch to doing things which are literally impossible (like making four sided triangles, or two hills without a valley between them) and “a world in which nothing bad ever happens” is one of those literally impossible things. Or that when he created the universe he said “I am going to waive my omnipotence: there will be lots of things in this creation that I can’t influence.” ("Human free will" is often invoked in this context, although I have never been quite sure how it helps.) Or maybe, in some complicated way, God just happens not to be omnipotent. Maybe he is more like a vulnerable baby in a manger. Maybe the essence of the divine is not power but love. Maybe...

You will, of course, have spotted, that this is precisely the line taken by the Vicar of Putney. Granted, he wraps it up in a lot of thought-for-the-day-Latin which, frankly, has no meaning that I can discern. (“Far from being a reason for people to to take their leave of God, many find that the language of God is the only language sufficient to express their pain and grief” ... what?), but what he actually does is deny, at length and repeatedly, God’s omnipotence. Which is, as long as we are talking about the problem of pain, is perfectly good answer. His theory of a God who never answers prayers or does miracles or so so far as I can tell, does anything at all just as much a logical solution to the logical problem of pain as any other. “How can an omnipotent God let bad things happen.” “Because he is not omnipotent.” (And, I suspect, just as un-helpful in an actual pastoral situation. "Why did God let my baby die?" "Because he's a helpless baby in a manger and can't do anything about it.")

It seems that Giles Fraser is just as much of a moral sicko as the rest of us.

How movies work

"I'm sure Tolkien might have probably turned in his grave, but it was in keeping with the vision that Pete had for Legolas and stuff which, you know, was very important."

Orlando Bloom

Monday, February 14, 2005

British Constitution Explained

The Church doesn't approve of re-marriage, and doesn't really like the idea of civil marriages very much, however, they are quite happy to "bless" the civil marriage of their divorced future defender of the faith to his divorced spouse, because, er...

I mean, really, Bish. Either take the Catholic line and say no re-marriage at all ever, which puts you on the moral high ground but loses you some compassion points, or do what every other religious denomination has done and accept that life and marriage is messy and divorce happens sometimes. But don’t try to have it both ways.
*

Journalists please note

1: The Queen is not the head of the Church. Jesus is.

2: If I hear one more person say “ I thought that the whole reason the Church of England got started was so the king could get divorced and remarry" I shall cut off their heads, or nail some theses to their door, or annul them, or something.

*

The fact that he may have been a bit of a cad to Lady Di doesn't effect whether Charlie-boy is worthy to be king one way or the other. The minute you start talking about "worthy" or "qualified" you've pretty much given up on the idea of monarchy. Well, unless you live on Naboo, where they apparently elect young girls on the basis of their hair styles. What makes you worthy to be king is being the next in line to the throne. That's what "monarchy" means. Charlie doesn't seem to be as worthy, as, say, Elizabeth the First, (third greatest Englishman after Winston Churchill and Lady Di), but he's a good deal worthier than Mad King George or Bad King Richard.

He might just as well be seen as the victim of this little tragi-comedy as the villain. Unable to marry his true love because she wouldn't be appropriate for a man in his position; bounced into a marriage with a flighty wench far to young for him... There's even something quite noble in being married to England's Rose and dreaming of your (let's be honest, here) rather plain true love.

But that's neither here nor there. Unless he becomes a catholic or we become a republic, Charles is going to be King. That's what it says in our constitution, ancient and unchanged since, oh, since the last time we changed it.

Call me old fashioned if you like, but if it is true that Charlie married Di out of a sense of duty rather than for love, I find it hard to regard that as very wicked. Up to a point, I regard it as quite admirable.

*


We should abolish the royal family because everyone is totally obsessed with it, and a royal wedding like this fills the papers up with stories about wedding dresses and palace gossip when they should be worrying about the great issues of the day, like hare coursing and who Ken Livingstone was rude to. If we abolished the royals, no-one would pay any attention to the doings of the rich and famous ever again, as evidenced by the fact that, once she was kicked out of the royal family, the papers stopped printing stories about Princess Di.

Furthermore we should abolish the royal family because it is an archaic and remote institution, and no-one is interested in it any more.

*
How many people in the Church of England actually believe in the apostolic succession (the theory which states that Jesus chose Peter, Peter chose Cardinal Woolsey, Cardinal Woolsey chose Henry VIII, Henry VIII chose the Queen?)
Do they actually believe that if the monarchy were abolished and the line of succession from Jesus to Rowan Williams broken, the C of E would cease to be a church? Is this a problem only for the very highest Anglo Catholics, or would it worry some low church happy clappy types as well? Is the Establishment of the C of E simply a matter of tradition, we've alway done it this way so we'd just as soon carry on, or does it actually effect something central in some people's religion?

If so, is there a human rights issue regarding the right of indigenous Anglicans to continue to practice their traditional native religion without interference?

At moments like this, I always take the opportunity to say "antidisestablishmentarianism".


*


I admit it, so long as the monarchy isn't doing any harm, and of all the silly things there are in the British constitution (first past the post elections, the house of Lords, no bill of rights, Tony Blair, etc) the monarchy seems to be one of the most harmless, I like the absurdity of it all.

I like the fact that we have had it for at least several hundred years and arguably at least a thousand.

I like the fact that parliament is formally opened by a queen with a real crown and a real golden coach.

I'd much, much rather that all the bowing and scraping and ritual of state were directed at a rather horsy upper crust old lady who sometimes seems rather bemused by the whole thing than at a politician. Can you imagine them playing "Hail to the Chief" at Tony? At Maggie, even? (And yes, I'd still, on balance, take that view if some horrible outbreak of food poisoning at Windsor castle meant that parliament was going to be opened by, say, an oafish teenager who doesn't know what fancy dress outfits are in good taste and which aren't.)

And now, of all times, is not the time to talk about abolishing the monarchy. It would move us another step toward a Blairite Year Zero. Can you imagine a Blairite republic? A sort of constitutional millennium dome, in which the president swears allegiance to three different religions and none, and promises that he will do his best to be a good a citizen and recycle most of his household waste and keep the boy scout law.

The British empire may not have been anything to be particularly proud of, but I'd sooner be giving out medals called "order of the British Empire" that acknowledge that that part of our history existed than come up with some bland squeaky clean politically correct blank slate which fits in with that weeks politically trendy cause and pretends, that we don't actually have any history

Imagine if Thatcher had set up a Republic. We'd all be awarding each other the Order of Winston Churchill and Christmas would have been replaced with Trafalgar Day. Imagine if Harold Wilson had set up a Republic. "All You Need is Love" would probably be the National Anthem.

*
O gracious Prince, we thee implore
To go away and sin no more
Or, if the effort is to great
To go away, at any rate.
*


Congratulations, your Royal Highness and your soon to be Semi Royal Highness-ess. I wish you joy and gladness. May you rule wisely, or at any rate, slightly more wisely than your Home Secretary. May you continue to mean well, and occassionally make a bit of a fool of yourself. May you concentrate on organic gardening, which you know about, and keep your gob shut about medicine, which you don't. May your sons eventually come to their senses, and, if they don't, may you remember that it is part of the job of heirs to the throne to behave awfully. May slightly muted crowds line the streets of Windsor, and shout "God Save the Princess Consort Elect" with only a slight tinge of irony. May your mother live a long and happy life, but may she pop her clogs or abdicate while you are still young enough to open parliament without a zimmer frame. Speaking for myself, I shall not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand 'til we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land.

I may even buy a mug. Although, come to think of it, I don't think I bought a Golden Jubilee Mug, so the continuity of the Rilstone mug collection may be irrevocably broken.

Monday, February 07, 2005

I just realised that I haven’t written a review of Lord of the Rings in over a fortnight....

I learned one thing from watching the extended cut of Return of the King. Whatever else Peter Jackson may be, he is a very good editor. When he decides to consign something to the cutting room floor, the rest of the world should have the sense to leave it there.

The extended Fellowship of the Ring felt very much like, well, an extended Fellowship of the Ring. The same film, with a couple of new bits added. The opening “Bilbo does exposition” passage was a self-indulgent error, as was Sam’s recitation of his verse from “When evening in the shire was grey...”. But it was nice to get some back story about Aragorn’s mother, Beren and Luthien, and Elves going to the Grey Havens. The additional scenes also sorted out several point of internal continuity, such as “Why is everyone wearing elvish broaches in the second half?”

The extended Two Towers, on the other hand, was a very different film compared with the un-extended version. While most of my first order questions (e.g. “What the heck happened to Tolkien’s book?”) were left un-answered, most of my second-order questions, such as “What’s the deal with the horse?” were sorted out. The extended movie may not have had a great deal to do with the second volume of Lord of the Rings, but it did make sense on its own terms.

Digression.

One of the best bits of the extended Two Towers (hereafter X-TTT) is the flashback to Faramir and Boromir at the battle of Osgilliath. It is a very Good Thing to see Faramir and Boromir together as two brothers. (If they weren’t going to do a scene together, why not get Mr Bean to be do both roles?) It’s nice to see Denethor in a Daddy role to both of them. It established all the things we needed to know about the characters – Denethor is barking, Faramir and Boromir really love each other although they see each other’s faults; Denethor, quite unfairly, prefers Boromir. And it explains why Faramir speaks the line “A chance for Faramir son of Denethor Captain of Gondor to show his quality” as if it has some significance. (In the book, he’s quoting a remark made by Sam. In the theatrical Two Towers (T-TTT?) the line comes from nowhere and is pretty meaningless. But in X-TTT it turns out that he is remembering something his father said. Cool.) Of course, no such scene exists in the book, and arguably Denethor was never at Osgilliath. But that only demonstrates that you can be Very Faithful to Tolkien and still Make Stuff Up.

The X-TTT flashback shows Denethor sending Boromir to the Council of Elrond. This is also Good Thing. One of my complaints about FOTR was that none of the subsidiary members of the Fellowship are properly introduced. Legolas gets no back-story beyond “he’s an elf.” (Aragorn subsequently reveals that he comes “from the woodland realm” and Gimli calls him “a princling”, but that’s it.) So by all means, tell us how Boromir came to be at the Council. And ever skip over the “Seek ye the sword that was broken, at Imladris it dwells” part, if you like.

But, but, but, but, but.

In the flashback, Denethor already knows that Isildur’s Bane is a the One Ring; and he is specifically sending Boromir to Rivendell so he can bring it back to Gondor. This retrospectively changes Boromir’s character. The implication of the first film, as with the book, is that Boromir has major misgivings about the idea of destroying the Ring; but that he sincerely, albeit reluctantly, promises to fulfill the will of the Council, and in the end is tempted by the Ring and attacks Frodo. This new flashback implies that he was Denethor’s spy the whole time, under orders from Dad to pinch the Ring. When he promises that he will help Frodo go to Mordor; either he has his fingers crossed behind his back; or else he is consciously reneging on the promise he made to his father. This puts a whole different slant on the “Boromir picks up the ring in the snow” scene. He’s not a good man being tempted by the Ring’s intrinsic evil: he’s a hypocrite thinking “Should I obey Dad, or obey Elrond.” It means that Sam is largely mistaken when he tells Faramir that “He tried to take the ring from Frodo after he had sworn an oath to protect him.” It would have been more accurate if he had said “He tried to take the Ring from Frodo, because he had sworn an oath to his father to do so.” (Did Sean Bean know that this was his character’s motivation when he played out those scenes?)

Various people have compared Denethor with King Lear: both are old; both of them go mad; neither of them are blind; and both of them are Kings, except Denethor. But it occurs to me that the “mad-old-king who stupidly sends his good son away and puts his faith in his bad son” does have some resonance with the story of Lear and his daughters: more so with the Gloucester sub-plot. Is it possible that Tolkien had read Shakespeare?

End of digression. Back to Return of the King.

Nothing in X-ROTK radically changes the structure of the film. I was hoping that the extended version might clarify some of the grosser absurdities of the theatrical version, but I was mainly disappointed. The bit about “Arwen’s fate being tied to the ring” was gibberish in T-ROTK, and remains gibberish in X-ROTK. The new version adds a pointless scene in which Aragorn looks into the palantir and sees, first Sauron’s eye, and then Arwen lying mostly dead on the ground. I have no idea what this scene means. Neither, I imagine, does Peter Jackson. Some explanation must exist, because there is a bit in the trailer where Elrond says “You gave away your life’s grace...”, which was presumably going to tie Arwen’s illness back to her rescue of Frodo in FOTOR. But this doesn’t make it to either version of the movie. (Merry and or Pippin doesn’t ever get to say “We will see the Shire again!”, either.)

A couple of plot-lines are slightly fleshed out. There is an extra scene of Aragorn talking to Eowyn, which tends to confirm my impression that film-Aragorn is a bit of a cad. Book-Eowyn is basically living out an inverted courtly love story. She falls in love with someone far above her station; who is in any case promised to another: he does nothing to encourage her, but she pines and is devoted to him, until she finally transfers her love to someone else. Movie-Aragorn’s one true love has told him that she is sailing to the Undying Lands; and so he flirts with Eowyn on the rebound. He hears that Arwen has not left Middle-Earth after all and dumps Eowyn two minutes later. At least Faramir and Eowyn actually get to meet before falling in love, but the scenes are pretty perfunctory. It turns out that the wise women in the houses of healing like to have crap pop music playing in the background while they work.

Positively good scenes included a meeting between Faramir and Pippin; and a couple of scenes of Frodo and Sam in Mordor, including a quite affecting shot of them throwing their un-necessary gear into a crevasse. I was pleased to see Gandalf confront the witch-king, although I thought it was rather pathetic that they had to come up with an “action movie” motivation for it. (No scene can appear in a movie unless it represents an obstacle which the hero has to overcome. In the book, Gandalf blocks the Witch Kings way at the gate of the city. No obstacle for the hero. Bad. In the film, the Witch King blocks Gandalf’s way to Denethor’s funeral pyre. Obstacle for hero. Good. Is our view of story really so mindlessly simplistic?)

Tolkien-geek-Andrew was pleased to see Jackson’s miniatures team having a shot at visualising the broken statue of the king which Frodo and Sam see at the cross-roads. But movie-fan Andrew honestly wonder’s what it was there for. Frodo’s line about the king’s crown of flowers showing that the orcs cannot conquer forever is deleted, which, typically, seemed to remove the main point of the scene. Sam still gets to say “Look, the king has a crown again”, which begs the response “We can see that you fool.”

But an awful lot of the “new” scenes served only to slow down an already top-heavy film. I am really, really, sorry, Christopher: I know that you are fine actor, and that you speak fluent elvish, and might have been an opera singer if you’d had the Latin; I know that you once met the Professor personally and that Attack of the Clones wasn’t your fault -- but truly, Mr Jackson was quite right to cut your big moment. To begin Part 3 with death of the villain who was defeated in Part 2 does indeed feel tedious. Saruman’s death has no dramatic tension. In the book, the main point of Saruman is that his voice can bewitch people, so during the parley in the tower there is a real danger that he will corrupt the party – for a moment, those present think that Gandalf is going to go over to his side. This aspect of Saruman has almost vanished from the movie; so there is very little drama or threat in the scene. Nothing comes of it except that Saruman throws down the Palantir.

While Theoden and Saruman were shouting at each other, I half expected Saruman to reply “Now go away or I will taunt you a second time.” But the confrontation between Gandalf and the Mouth of Sauron was even more pythonesque. I take it that by “mouth”, Tolkien simply means “herald” or “spokesman”. Jackson decides, as ever, to take the text as literally as physically possible. Having interpreted “the eye of Sauron” as a huge glowy thing on top of the tower, he decide it would be a good thing to spend most of his time in extreme close up of the Mouth’s mouth, presumably so we can consider the results of failing to brush our teeth regularly with fluoride. The Mouth has a funny accent and a silly hat. It felt like a horrible hybrid of the Trade Federation from Phantom Menace, and Samuel Becket’s Not I. Of course, the parley with the herald at the gates of Mordor violates Jackson’s Second Rule: several seconds pass without anyone thumping anyone else. But Jackson has an ingenious solution to this problem. When the Mouth shows them Frodo’s mithril coat, Aragorn does what any chivalrous future-king would do under the circumstances, and chops his head off on the spot. Why oh why couldn’t the Mouth have said “Tis but a flesh wound, I’ve had worse” at this point? It would have been so much funnier than Gimli saying “Guess that concludes negotiations.” And humour is what you need at the climax of a twelve hour epic.

Ah, Gimli, Gimli, Gimli: a filmic catastrophe of Binksian proportions, undermining every, single scene he appears in. (Why the hell is he sitting in the stewards chair? Has he no respect for Faramir? Has Gandalf? Has Aragorn?) Yes, Peter Jackson, you were so, so right to cut out the “drinking competition” between Gimli and Legolas from T-ROK. What on earth possessed you to put it back in? When someone is drunk in a movie, why does it invariably happens that they say “I am perfectly sober” and then fall over backwards? Have you ever seen a real drunk behave like this? So why put it in your movie? It’s not big. It’s not clever. It sure as heck isn’t funny. Exactly the same cliché turned up in this years Vicar of Dibley Christmas Special, a programme which provided the final clinching argument for abolishing both the BBC license fee and the ordination of women.

Gimli is there, too in the extended build-up to the “Paths of the Dead” sequence. Spooky tendrils of mist form in the air and reach out to him, he blows very hard to disperse them, and they form again. He says “Ya-ya-ya-yoiks”, and Legolas throws him a Scooby Snack. He’s even there in the ruddy closing credits, making an anachronistic, vernacular “okay” sign. Showing his contempt for us all. Mocking us.

One could also mention the structural cock-up of showing us Aragorn boarding the Corsair’s ships, which served little purpose except to make his arrival at Minas Tirith a soupcon less dramatic. When he threatens to board them the pirate king says “You and whose army?” and Aragorn says “This army!” Making ancient world characters use modern turns of phrase is very funny in Carry on Cleo, here, it just gives the impression that you don’t give a shit.

Similarly, when Frodo tells Gollum that he swore on the Ring to obey him, the CGI sprite replies “Smeagol lied!” Does anyone want to enumerate how many movie-villains have made this joke over the last 20 years. (“But you promised.” “I lied”) If an oath taken on the Precious doesn’t mean anything to Smeagol, then a large chunk of the last 6 hours is rendered meaningless – Frodo wasn’t showing mercy to a pathetic character who was, at some level, trying “to be very good”, but being naively taken in by a conniving little liar. Which means that Frodo was wrong, straightforwardly, from the beginning, and Sam was right. Which totally undermines their characters. But who cares; it was a funny one liner. And funny one liners is what you need on Mount Doom.


Another thing which both increased and decreased my respect for Peter Jackson were the documentaries on the DVDs. I confess to only having ploughed through X-FOTOR so far. In the positive column, I was fascinated to learn about the massive amount of really thoughtful detail that had gone into the movies, asking questions like “What would Dwarfish weapons be like” and getting Tolkien experts and historians in to come up with good answers. But on the other – a slapdash disrespect for the world he is working with. Apparently, Alan Lee spent some weeks making sketches and models of what Moria ought to look like. But one of his sketches showed a hole in one of the stair-wells. Upon this hint, Jackson decided that there should be collapsing stairs, chasm leaps and, yes, dwarf tossing. None of which was in the original script.

“Make me the most detailed simulation of Moria you possibly can – and I’ll turn it into a sodding fairground ride, see if I don’t.”


People sometimes ask me why, if I feel this way about the movies, I watch them so carefully, so critically, and so, er, frequently.

The answer is rather obvious. Because of the good bits.


Has the idea of a camp parody of Lord of the Rings featuring Gandalf the Gay already been thought of? Is there at least a nightclub somewhere called the Gay Havens?
If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of Do Balrogs Have Wings?, which contains all my essays on Lewis and Tolkien, including some previously unpublished. Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.

Davewatch

As ever, remember that YHWH is the female demiurge (a baddie) and that she is literally present at the center of the earth somewhere.

Of course in the largest sense, I wouldn't rule out that it //the tsunami// was a reaction to the Year The Comic Book That Outed YHWH Came To An End. Many of the news stories about the tsunami made a great point of the fact that the earth -- that is to say YHWH in my construct which no one believes in but myself -- was still shuddering, still wobbling in its orbit, long after the fact, the day is now officially a millionth of a second shorter, etc. etc. Whereas I passed a quiet Christmas on my own, reading A Christmas Carol and John's Gospel aloud, completely at peace with the fact that I think I did with my book what I was intended by God to do with it and completely at peace with the fact that my twenty-six years of effort was as completely ignored by the Marxist media at the end of the year as it had been in March when it actually came to an end.

As I see it, at Christmastime 2004, YHWH and I were eyeball-to-ball.

And YHWH blinked.



Someone on the Yahoo group got in with the quote I wished I had thought of:

"The phrase 'paranoid schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur' is not in the aardvark's vocabulary, so, in his mind, he substitutes 'crazy as a panrovian monk' . . . " (Cerebus #5 p 13)




Yahoo! Groups : cerebus Messages : Message 58941 of 58997

Thursday, February 03, 2005

News of momentous importance

I finished Knights of the Old Republic. In scarcely more than a year. I shall gradually be re-integrating myself into human society. Who knows, I may even review it.

Blogger-fu?

Is there a way to make the "comments" section thread? Nice to be getting such a lot of comments, but after only a week or so it is becoming confusing.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Twenty Questions

I think that, before we stand any chance of working out answers to tough questions, we need to work out what the questions are. Which we very rarely do. So, as a service to the general public, here are the relevant questions about last months Big Controversy.

1: Did the images, which portrayed St Jerry in the role of a tawdry chat-show host, considered by themselves and regardless of context, constitute blasphemy against the Springerist faith?

2: Were those images, considered in that way, likely to offend Springerists?

3: What do you mean by “offense”? Do you mean “actually painful to watch” or merely “slightly annoying”?

4: What do we mean by “blasphemy”? Is a religion free to decide for itself what is blasphemous? (In other words does “blasphemy against my religion” mean “anything my religion says is blasphemous?”) If not, who else gets to decide?

5: Are “blasphemy” and “offense” synonymous? Can something be blasphemous but not offensive? Can something be offensive but not blasphemous?

6: If I don’t belong to your church, should I care about what your church considers to be blasphemous? But if it is immoral (or at least bad mannered) of me to insult your mother, why is it quite all right for me to insult your God?

7: Can “blasphemy” or “offense” ever be legitimately used for artistic effect? Can a writer or painter ever say “I know it was offensive: it was meant to be.”?

8: If we say “This image is offensive” and “I was offended by this image”, are we saying the same thing? (Can I think that something was offensive if I personally wasn’t “offended” by it?)

9: Does the use of “blasphemous” or “offensive” images in, say, a play automatically make that play blasphemous or offensive? If an actor playing a Roman soldier spits on the image of Christ in a Passion Play, is he guilty of sacrilege? Granted that the phrase “fucking nigger” is highly offensive, does a play become offensive the moment a racist character uses the expression “fucking nigger”? (If so, who has committed the offense: the actor who said the words? The playwright who wrote them? The manager who staged the play? The audience? Everybody in the whole wide world?) If the phrase “Granted that the phrase ‘fucking nigger’ is highly offensive...” occurs in an article, does that article become offensive?

10: Does it make any difference if you print it as f*ck*ng n*gg*r?

11: Is an image less offensive if you find it in a work which has artistic merit than it would have been if you found it in a work which had none? Does the degree of artistic merit make a difference? If we discovered a lost painting by Leonardo that happened to depict the rape of a child by an adult, would the image’s offensiveness be reduced by the brilliance of the brushwork?

12: Contrawise, is the artistic merit of a work reduced if its subject matter is offensive? Could you say of the Leonardo “It can’t be a good painting, because it depicts a child being abused.”? Can we conceive of “good Nazi art”? If not, are we becoming confused about two possible uses of the word “good”?

13: If a work has sufficiently high artistic merit, does it matter who it offends? Can we says “It doesn’t matter that lots of people will be upset by the subject batter, because it is such a very pretty picture?” Is Ode to Grecian Urn really worth any number of old ladies?

14: Is it ever reasonable for someone to say “That work is offends me, so I won’t look at it”? Or is there some kind of moral duty to look at potentially offensive things? Or is it purely a matter of individual choice? Should I get around to seeing Life of Brian one of these days? Should Dastardly Dick Dawkins see The Passion of the Christ? Should anyone read Cerebus the Aardvark under any circumstances whatsoever?

15: Is it ever reasonable for me to say “That work offends me, so YOU shouldn’t look at it?” Can I be offended by a work I haven’t seen? Can’t the fact that other people are gathering to look at it be offensive in itself? Does my shock at the racist play or the pedophile picture go away simply because I don’t happen to be looking at them? Is it possible that under their cloths everyone is, in fact, naked?

16: Is your answer to question 15 affected by the number of people who find the work offensive? Do I have the same right to display a painting which is highly offensive to the 15 members of the UK’s frog-worshiping community than one which is equally offensive to the UK’s 500,000 Jews?

17: Is your answer to question 15 affected by the media in which the work is going to be displayed? Are there things which we can show to an all-ticket cinema audience which we can’t show on TV? Are there things which we can show on TV which we can’t put on a poster-hoarding near a busy road?

18: That Prince Harry, eh, what a twit.

19: What degree of “offense” and or “blasphemy” did Jerry Springer: The Opera in fact contain?

20: What degree of artistic merit does Jerry Springer: The Opera in fact possess? (Ignore this question if your answers to questions 11, 12 and 13 make it irrelevant.)

There. Now I’ve done the hard part, sorting out the answers is left as an exercise for the reader.

I didn’t see it, myself: and neither did any of the people who made such a fuss. I did get right through The Satanic Verses, though. It wasn’t very good.

Friday, January 28, 2005

My other webpage

If you want to read more of this drivel, there is about a decade's worth of it here

http://www.aslan.demon.co.uk

If this carries on, I will have to re-consider my decision to stop reading the Grauniad.

Guardian Unlimited Guardian daily comment History is blue. Discuss

"3. The abolition of the slave trade was:
a) "political correctness gone mad"; b) the only way to set quotas for immigrants coming into the empire; c) forced through parliament by the Islington liberal elite, who had no understanding of rural life in the colonies"

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

I posted it four times

I know I posted it four times. I don't know how I posted it four times. Twice, given that I tried to cancel the one with everyone's name in cc instead of in bcc, I could have understood. But not four times.

I am very sorry that I posted it four times.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Rilstone spends lunch time rehearsing tired old Lee vs Kirby debate, shock.

RPGnet Forums - Judge: Lee Entitled to Some Marvel Profits

I appear to have started blogging.

I so don’t know if this is a good idea.

My friend Rob from Bristol, who lectures in something arcane and scientific and was kicked off the “Boffins” edtion of “The Weakest Link” in round three, e-mailed me after the last update to my web-site (that’d be in 1986, then).

“You should blog.” he said.

I said I wasn’t sure if my writing could sustain the off the cuff spontinaeity which I understood an online diary to require.

He pointed out that there was nothing to stop me editing stuff before I posted it.

I said I’d think about it.

He also suggested that I had, in fact, being blogging for years.

Meanwhile, I had started using “Instant messenger” for the first time. Everyone in my new office uses I.M. It saves them the bother of actually having to talk to their co-workers. Once I had it installed, I started to use it to talk to friends, as well. It is astonishing how modern technology has come up with so many ways of wasting time at work.

Another one of my friends, Louise, who has to the best of my knowledge never been on The Weakest Link, suggested that my I.M messeges were “like Delerium on a butterfly day”. When pressed, she said she thought this was probably a good thing.

What had already occurred to me was that all those round-the-houses-and-cleverly-get-back-to-the-starting point essays and jump-between-several-different-points-via-double-carriage-returns-and-hope-the-reader-gets-the-message articles which I post to the webpage take me rather a long time to write. This can be observed by the fact that

1: By the time I’d got my thoughts down on Siegfried the English National Opera were rehearsing Gotterdamerung

2: The Christmas piece, which really needed to go out before Easter 2005, was pretty obviously rough around the edges. Unfinished, even. One correspondent concluded that I was not a true Christian because the piece, er, contained spelling mistakes.

(Andrew, Andrew, Andrew. Just because you broke the habit of beginning every third sentence with “However” DOES NOT mean you are now free to drop “of course” into every line. Especially if you are going to use “of course” to introduce pieces of information which are fantastically obscure and/or highly contentious. And just because you made a lot of notes before starting deson’t mean it’s all right to jump-cut from sentence to sentence and indeed from subject to subject without inserting links. Of course, neither the contribution made by Stan Lee nor Paul Mcartney should be underestimated.)

However, the truth is, of course (STOP IT!) that I am a radically disorganised writer. Everything I write starts out as "delerious" as my I.M messages. First drafts go:

On the whole, I’d let the hooray-Henry’s carry on fox hunting if they really want to. Was that ever a movie? One can imagine Kenneth Williams in the role of the squire on a horse (“ooo, missus, tally ho”) and a certain amount of innuendo from Sid James (“you are a foxy lady”), althought I don’t think that they ever really got into that kind of social-satire. Which reminds me, wasn’t the Simpsons good last night?

Which means that for every thousand words that spills out, without much effort, onto the page, I spend two evenings trying to wrestle it into some kind of order. I do, in fact, have 5,000 words on my hard-drive spiralling around the fox-hunting issue (among other things), but I am not entirely sure that I can face the prospect of working it up into a finished pamphlet.

And there is also at the back of my mind the niggling thought: “Is this process of working over, and working over, the same piece over and over again actually removing any vestige of spontinaeity and wit from it. Might I not just as well post the first draft and have done with it? "

Ergo: blog.

I shall post first drafts here more or less as write them, however far I wonder of the point.

I shall edit for typos and libel, but not to improve the sense or style – not, for example, to remove that horribly self-conscious example of the Friends “so” in line 1?

I’ll give it to, say, the end of February and see if I think it is worth carrying on with.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

How many members do they have? "We're bigger than David's band, but not as big as Biblical armies," says Green, gnomically. He will not be more specific, but according to 1 Samuel 29:6, David, the future king of Israel, had a 600-strong band of followers, though their leader was not, as the Christian Voice is, based in Surbiton. What's more, 2 Chronicles 14:9 records that one of the largest Biblical armies was led by Zerah the Ethiopian, who brought brought one million men and 300 chariots against King Asa of Judah. So Christian Voice, we can say with confidence, has somewhere between 600 and one million members, though no chariots.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,1387321,00.html

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Sentinel of Liberty

"Deserve to die? I daresay he does."

1

I do not believe in the Marvel Comics view of morality. If Captain America hadsocked Hitler on the jaw, it would have made no difference. It would be nice to think that Nazism was the fault of one super villain, but it wasn't.

A school teacher who boasts that he never raises a hand to a child but sends brats to the headmaster to be thumped is no different from one that administers clips round the ear with his own chalk stained hands.
A headmaster who says truthfully that this hurts me far more than it hurts you is no different from a sadistic flogger.
Albert Pierrpoint claimed to oppose the death penalty, but not to be morally responsible for all the trap doors he sprung, because they would have been sprung anyway, by someone else. He was a hypocritical mass-murderer. (The judges, lawyers, editors and voters who allowed him to continue his trade were more or less sincere accessories to mass murder.)

Shit happens.
Shit is going to carry on happening whoever is prime minister, and who ever is president. Shit is going to carry on happening regardless of how many super villains we defeat.
However good the health service becomes, people will carry on getting sick and dying.
However efficient the police become, houses will carry on getting burgled, and innocents will carry on getting murdered.
 However draconian our prison system becomes, crimes will still carry on being committed.
However enlightened our social workers become, crimes will carry on being committed.
However strong our army becomes, and however clever our foreign policy becomes, there will still be tyrants and unjust regimes.
Sickness, death, robbery, murder, tyranicalism and injustice are not the aberrant results of the machinations of a small number of super-villains. They are just the way things are.
Anyone who tells you differently should be laughed at loudly, or tarred and feathered, according to taste.

This doesn't mean that we couldn't be doing a lot better than we are at the moment, of course.

2

When people use the term 'evil', I do not understand what they mean.
Is it being used in an analytic sense: 'Murderers are evil because 'evil' is the word we use to describe people who have committed murder'? But then 'He[1] is evil' means no more than 'He is a murderer.'
Is it being used as an explanatory sense? 'Why did he kill the child? Because he was evil.'? But this means no more than 'He killed the child because he was the sort of person who kills children.'
Is it being used to propose a solution? But if we don't already believe that evil people should be killed, then 'He should be killed because he is evil' says no more than 'He should be killed because he is a murderer.'
Is 'He is evil' a riposte to people who think that criminals can reform or be rehabilitated? But why say 'He is evil?' instead of 'He is incapable of reform.'?
Does 'evil' mean 'One who enjoys hurting others'? Then why not say 'sadist'?
Does 'evil' means 'One who acts without conscience or remorse'? Then why not just say 'psychopath'?
It might mean 'One who is pre-destined to go to Hell', I suppose, but the people who use the term are not Calvinists.
It might mean 'One who is possessed by Satan', I suppose, but the people who use the term are not pentecostalists.
It might mean 'he is genetically programmed to behave badly' or 'he is psychologically damaged and cannot chose but behave badly'; but the term is not widely used by geneticists or psychologists.

Tolkien said that the opposite of goodness would not be 'evil', but non-existence.
The Bible mainly uses the term descriptively, as 'He did evil in the eyes of the LORD' or 'Anyone who does evil deeds hates the pure light and will not come to the light'. It is more interested in 'sin', a technical term understood to mean 'a flaw in our nature caused by our separation from the Ground of Our Being, which inclines us to do bad things.' Sin, by definition, is not something which infects a few super villains, but something which we all suffer from.[2]

A man who invites two children into his house and kills them in the bathroom has done wrong.
A man who invites dozens of children into his mansion and touches them 'in ways which don't seem right or feel good' has done wrong.
A man who, under orders from a democratically appointed leader, drops a bomb which destroys a school, a village or an entire city, has done wrong.
A man who, because of his fanatical devotion to a cause, explodes a bomb which destroys a hotel, a plane or a shopping center, has done wrong.
A man who, as part of his business sells land-mines and torture implements which he knows will be used to kill civilians, including children, has done wrong.
There are different kinds and degrees of wrongdoing. The warrior has caused more grief than the murderer. The terrorist believes that he acts for a higher cause. The soldier is obeying orders. The murderer may be mentally ill, or not fully understand that what he is doing is wrong. The molester may not be able to help himself, or may sincerely believe that his victims enjoy what he is doing to them. The arms dealer acts in cold blood, with no higher cause apart from his shareholders wallets, and knows perfectly well what he is doing.
I wouldn't let any of them baby-sit my kids. Or feed my sea-monkeys, come to that.

3

If Harold Shipman had been executed by the state, this would have been a good thing since it would have provided closure for the families of his victims. But if he were to commit suicide while under a life sentence, this would be a bad thing because it robs the families of his victims of the chance of knowing how they died.
I trust this is clear.

4

Punishment is sexy. If it wasn't, there wouldn't be nightclubs called 'Spank' and the York Dungeon would go out of business.
There is nothing particularly wrong with this.
However, fetish clubs and Dirty Harry movies are not a particularly useful template for international diplomacy or social policy.

When a nasty crime happens, we feel outrage. Very often we express this outrage by imagining ourselves inflicting pain on the person who committed it.
There is nothing particularly wrong with this.
However, when we start to say that because we feel like hurting the murderer, we ought to be allowed to really hurt the murderer, we are making a category mistake. 'I feel like whipping that criminal' should not lead us to think 'Criminals should be whipped' any more than 'Windows 2000 is a bastard' should lead us to check its birth certificate.

We often link the degree of outrage which we feel to the amount of torture which we can imagine inflicting. We are inclined to express the badness of the crime in terms of the severity of the punishment. 'How bad is this crime? Oh, it's hanging, drawing and quartering bad.'
The more value we attach to a person, or the more love we feel for them, the more outraged we are inclined to feel when they are harmed. By a circumlocution, we express the value of the victim in terms of the amount of cruelty we can imagine inflicting on the person who harmed them. 'How valuable was that little girl?' 'She was burning at the stake valuable.'
There is nothing particularly wrong with any of this.
However, anyone who argues that if you don't think that murderers really should be tortured then you don't think that little girls are really valuable is making a logical error; at the same level as the priest who didn't like sex because he thought it might lead to dancing.

It is natural for superstitious peasants to punish the flower-pot which fell on the king's head; or for Basil Fawlty to want to thrash his car. But it isn't sensible to actually do it; or to create fantasy worlds in which actually doing it will make some kind of difference.

5

I can imagine what it would be like to be a super-villain, surrounded by powerful yes-men.
If I were in such a position, I can imagine that I might be tempted to do bad things. I might acquiesce in the assassination, first of political opponents, then of people who speak against me, finally of anyone I didn't like the look of.
(Please, Mr. Red Skull: Eric Spratling called your column 'stupid' and then changed it to 'foolish'. And he's a conservative, a class traitor. Would you like him to meet with an unfortunate deliberate? I could arrange it. Just say the word, boss. Just say the word.)
 I cannot imagine what it would be like to be a private citizen who gives his child a toy noose and takes him to stand outside a courthouse or a prison. Such people are alien beings who I happen to share a planet with. I can no more imagine their minds than I can imagine the mind of a bat or a spider or a one-year-old baby.
I find myself, therefore, more able to sympathize with the captive monster than with the crowds calling for his dismemberment. I found myself hoping that it would turn out that Huntley really was the victim of an horrific accident, not because I really thought he was, but because I wanted to deprive the multitude of its entertainment.

6

A theory:
What differentiates liberals from conservatives is the degree to which they believe that other human beings have minds which are the centers of their own universes; the degree to which they believe that other human beings have subjective experiences and an internal mental life.
The liberal believes that nearly everybody is a human being in their own right, and therefore, that almost nobody should be killed or tortured. The conservative believes that some people are not human beings and that it doesn't really matter what you do to them.

At the extreme end of the liberal spectrum are people who believes that everyone—yes, even people serving life sentences, yes, even people under sentence of death, yes, even war criminals, yes even her—have minds and personalities of their own. They believe that a comprehensible series of steps brought them to a place where they did terrible things, and that there is a possible route back for them.
At the extreme end of the conservative spectrum are people who believe that large numbers of human beings don't really have personalities or feelings. Death-penalty enthusiasts perceive condemned criminals as objects to which things can be done which benefit society. ('We have to have capital punishment. How else can we get rid of the trash?') Some white supremacists cite quasi-theological or quasi-Darwinian evidence that black men don't have souls or rational minds[3]. The climactic moment of the post-Soham sacrifice narrative was when Carr announced to the court that Huntley was not a person, but athing. (It is practically certain that Huntley told himself the same lie about the two little girls he killed.) It is not hard to end up writing off whole categories: foreign soldiers, communists, pedophiles, Jews, asylum seekers, ramblers, tenants.
It is possible to fall of the end of liberalism and start attributing human feelings to things which are not really human at all: animals and even plants. You start to imagine that the welfare of foxes is the great, burning issue of the day. You watch live sheep being loaded on lorries for slaughter and claim to feel as you would if you were watching Jews being taken to concentration camps.
It is equally possible to fall of the end of conservatism, and doubt the humanity of almost everybody. The perfect 'fascist' and the perfect 'fundamentalist' seeks to deny even his own humanity. I do not exist, only the party exists. Jesus wants me for a zombie. There is no love but the love of Big Tony.

It is impossible to call for the death or torture of another person if you can imagine what it is like to be that person. Most torturers have not themselves been tortured; hardly any executioners have themselves been executed.
Evil is a word which we use to stop ourselves from feeling empathy towards people we intend to kill.

7

Execution enthusiasts used to say: 'We have to hang murderers in order to deter crime. If we abolished hanging half the physicians in the country would be bumping off old ladies. '
When this turned out not to be true, they said 'Did I say deterrence? No, sorry, what I meant was, we have to kill murderers because they are psychologically damaged and can't possibly be reformed or cured. And even if they aren't, we need to do something drastic to express the idea that murder is a very bad idea. And even if we don't, it's cheaper to hang murderers than to keep them in gaol for life, which is the only alternative. And if it isn't, then watching someone being asphyxiated is a good form of therapy for the families of murder victims.' (Other bereaved persons, sadly, have to make do with a bunch of flowers and a plate of cucumber sandwiches.)
In the end they gave up, and said 'We don't support hanging because we think it will do some good. We support hanging because we think that it is a good thing in itself. Bad people have to be executed. They just do.'

Execution is a modern, secular form of human sacrifice.
Most people will not experience their own deaths. They will be senile, or sick, or snuffed out unexpectedly by a heart attack or a drunken driver. Therefore, we have a deep desire to witness the exact moment of someone else's death. It's a sort of rehearsal. (Hence, all those death-bed scenes in bad Victorian novels. Hence Greek tragedy. Hence Princess Diana. Hence the centrality of the Crucifixion in Western culture. Even secular western culture. Hi, Mel.)
A sacrificial victim knows precisely when and how he is going to be killed, and has weeks or months to prepare for it. With or without the help of drugs, he goes calmly, even willingly; saying goodbye to his friends and family, making peace with God or the gods.
Many people plan their own funeral: a sacrificial victim is the only person who actually gets to attend it. This is why we somewhat envy them. The deaths of Iphigenia or Socrates or Timothy McVeigh represent exactly the kind of deaths we would like to die—although we would much rather not die at all, so we'll let them do it for us, if you don't mind.

Conservatives want an all-powerful state to make them feel more secure. There is no more powerful thing which the state can do than decide the moment and manner of someone's death. So conservatives feel safer in a state which occasionally sacrifices its citizens. It’s the ultimate symbol that Nanny is in charge.
And of course human sacrifice is thrilling and dramatic, like a boxing match or horror movie, or that frisson of nervous laughter which went round Assembly when the headmaster said that someone other than you was going to get slapped.
If the execution lobby were completely honest, I think that it would say, 'We do not specifically desire the execution of murderers. We just want they're to be executions, and murderers provide a convenient candidate. Jews, blacks, witches, Christians and volunteer sacrificial victims would do the job just as well.'

8

It once seemed as if society was weaning itself off punishment. It seemed as we had given up on the idea that cold bloodedly killing and hurting people was part of the role of the state. It was a gradual process, of course. The last Frenchman to have his head chopped off could, in theory, have asked to see Star Wars as a last request.
(Last public execution, eighteen sixty something. Last execution, nineteen sixty something. Formal abolition of the death penalty, nineteen ninety something. Abolition of whipping of criminals, nineteen twenty something; abolition of whipping of juvenile delinquents on the mainland, nineteen fifty something, abolition of whipping of juveniles delinquents on the Isle of Mann, nineteen seventy something. )
We'd even stopped thinking of prisons as places where we gave bad people a bad time. They were more of a service that took care of people who the rest of society really couldn't cope with; or helped and re-trained people who were incredibly messed up. The rhetoric of Tory conference and the barbarian press was still 'let 'em rot' 'string 'em up' and 'bring back the birch'. but there was a consensus that we simply didn't do things like that any more.
That consensus is breaking down. We are a democracy; and the demos desires punishment and sacrifice and personal satisfaction, and politicians increasingly think that it should be give what it wants.
The press—even the supposedly leftist press—continue to promote the urban myth that even the worst murderers do not get sent to gaol. Speaking of a prominent war criminal, one contributor to the Daily Mirror's letter page explained "At least we can reassure ourselves that if his own people deal with him he will not be given a slap on the wrist and a community service order." In the next column, another letter-writer (or, dare we suppose, the same sub) repeated the same lie in the same words"Let's hope they can hold onto to him because in their country, the punishment reflects the crime. If he manages to escape to Britain, he will plead that he comes from a broken home and that he only killed all those people because he was seeking attention. I reckon he would get about 180 hours community service."
Blunkett shamelessly courts the popularity of these soft-spoken demagogues. He changed the laws on parole to give Maxine Carr another few weeks behind bars, not because she was exceptionally dangerous—she's been convicted of a relatively minor offence—but specifically because she was a 'high profile case'. The law allows criminals who are not dangerous to be released from prison early. The mob demands its pound of flesh, especially if the criminal is female, and scary-looking, and has had her picture in the paper. So change the law to satisfy the mob. He had previously fought the European Human Rights court specifically to keep Myra Hindley in prison, not because anyone supposed that she was a threat, but because the mob wanted it. He made this very explicit in trying to justify his farcical idea of mandatory sentence of life-without-parole for some murderers.[4] Apparently, hanging was abolished in 1965 only on condition that murderessees would serve actual life sentences. If we had known that some of them would be paroled, we would have carried on strangling them. We have to keep up this 'contract' with the British people in order that they retain confidence in the criminal justice system.[5]
We can't become more liberal than we were in the 1960s. The mob wouldn't like it.

9

We are excited by the capture of Saddam Hussein because we believe in the Marvel comics view of morality. Sock Saddam on the jaw, and the world will become a safer place.
We are excited by the capture of Saddam Hussein because we have bought into the theory that the wrongs of the world can be blamed on individual super-villains.
We are excited by the capture of Saddam Hussein because the political class have sold us a comic-strip narrative about 'evil' as a substitute for informed debate.
But above all, we are excited by the capture of Saddam Hussein because it provides us with a pretext to inflict the death penalty, and we love the idea of seeing someone being killed in cold blood.

'President' Bush will have no shame or embarrassment about welcoming and celebrating the forthcoming Iraqi human sacrifice. The British Press will do so as well. The Sun treated the death of Shipman as a joke, and dared Huntley to do the same; even providing a diagram to help him. (The 'Labour' home secretary said that his first impulse on hearing the news was to open a bottle of champagne. Truly, we are only ever one headline away from barbarism.)
Blair will not engage in this kind of bloodsucking morbidity—that's not his style—but he has already conceded that if the Iraqis decide to top him, he will go along with it. This places him on exactly the same moral level. Either you oppose all executions, or you support capital punishment. Either you plead for clemency, or you support the death penalty. You are either with us liberals, or on the side of the barbarians.
If you are not with us, you are against us. George Bush said that. Or was it Jesus? I lose track.

If New Labour fails to oppose an execution, even this one, then the liberal movement in the UK will be effectively dead. If we allow or support or refuse to oppose the ritual slaughter of one particularly heinous war criminal, then we have conceded the point that there are some circumstances—at least one—under which capital punishment is justified.
If we concede this point, the mob will not forget it. If you are prepared to make an exception for Saddam, Tony, they will say, why not Huntley? Why not all child killers? Why not all killers? Why not consider the possibility that it might be a very real and very practical deterrent to use against drugs pushers? They are already starting to say it. And the Tories already have in place a leader who, as home secretary, supported strangulation and popularized the ludicrous slogan that 'prison works'; and a shadow Home Secretary who is prepared to openly admit that he likes the idea of killing people, albeit 'humanely'. And while the mob starts to dance around Saddam's corpse, the best Tony can manage is 'We oppose the death penalty on principle, but we will abide by the decision of the Iraqi people.'
Kill the pig! Cut her throat! Spill her blood!
Society must not give into to the dark, atavistic impulse to ritually and ceremonially kill an already helpless prisoner. Not Shipman, not Huntley, not Saddam. Our hard won liberal society must not be sacrificed for the mob's pleasure.

'We have already established what sort of a woman you are. We are now simply haggling about the price'


[1] Or usually, she.
[2] To my slight surprise, Jesus occasionally uses 'evil' to mean 'ordinary human sinfulness'. "If you, who are evil, know how to give good things to your children…" is directed, not at serial killers, nor even Pharisees, but to the disciples.
[3] There exists a comic-book artist who sincerely believes that women do not have rational minds.
[4] Note for the benefit of Americans: the British system of justice has never had a concept of 'Second Degree Murder': all murderers are given an indeterminate 'life' sentence, and the amount of time actually served is determined on a case by case basis. (This is what lies behind the tabloid lie that life 'means' ten years: that's the average term served; some serve a lot less; some a great deal more.) The idea that the length of time actually served would be determined in advance, at the trial, and that it is based on the nature and seriousness of the crime - not, say, the degree to which the criminal responds to treatment or education over the next thirty years—is a complete novelty.
[5] For the avoidance of doubt: I think it most unlikely, that Harold Shipman, had he lived, would ever have been a safe prospect for parole; and even if he had been released, it would probably have been a bad idea to let him practice medicine again. I merely think that this decision should be made by a judge or a parole board: I do not think that a politician should be allowed to pre-empt a decision that will probably me made when he is long since retired, or even dead.