Thursday, December 14, 2006

Humbug (4)

I'm really, really sorry about this, but I think I may have caught the Daily Mail telling the truth. I've done an extensive survey of all the specialist greeting card shops in Bristol and I can confirm that it is very difficult to find a religious Christmas card in any of them.

Don't you find the whole concept of 'greetings card shops' a bit strange? In a healthy society, I think that greetings cards would be a sideline in a stationers or maybe an art-supplies shop. But every shopping mall in the country can support not just one, but two or three shops which sell nothing but cards. Well, cards and wrapping paper. Cards, wrapping paper and expensive Eeyore cuddly toys intended for adults. Which is quite strange in itself: if I want to send my love an amusing cuddly toy of Kanga or Piglet, then I'm also stuffed. Eeyore is the only Winnie the Pooh character you can get. I think it was Anthony Thwait who pointed out that A.A Milne has largely replaced the Bible and Homer as a source of easily identifiable character-types. If you say 'He had a Tigger personality' or 'I was having an Eeyore day' everyone knows what you mean. So what is the point of selling idols of the 'Sad' archetype in which he is represented as happy? All twelve pictures in this years 'Eeyore' calendar (you can get an Eeyore calendar, a Piglet calendar, and a Tigger calendar) show Eeyore with a smiley face.

The substance of the Daily Mail piece is quite true: if you want a picture of Littlebay Beejeezuz Clintons can't help you. But I would hesitate to conclude that Clintons must therefore be part of an anti-Christian conspiracy. They have a nice line in Christening cards, with pictures of babies, bells, churches and even crosses. The Daily Mail would presumably regard 'Christening' as a 'Christian' ceremony. The rest of us would note that, like Christmas, the Rite of Baptism is an important Christian festival, but that, like Christmas, it is often celebrated for purely secular reasons, and that, like Christmas, most of the customs associated with it -- silk shawls, silver teddy bears, depositing money in Premium Bond accounts -- have no possible 'religious' significance. We might also note that you can get First Communion and Confirmation cards of both the secular and the religious variety. A secular confirmation card depicts a stereotypically teenaged child, possibly with a church in the background, but with the clear message 'Congratulations on turning 13.' Whether or not anyone buys them, I don't know, but you can see how the marketing department came up with the idea. 'We sell a lot of Bar Mitzvah cards and its not only religious Jews who send them. So maybe be can make it the done thing for not-especially-religious Christians to send congratulations-you've-become-a-teenager cards when their friends kids are confirmed?' We might also note that the Sacrament of Marriage can be celebrated with cards which depict churches and (especially) church bells, and that Clintons have made no attempt to replace the English religious Mothering Sunday (fourth Sunday in Lent) with the secular American Mother's day (second Sunday in May)

My special friend Oliver Burkeman points out that the Mail piece is based on very questionable statistics. He notes that they claim to have looked at 5500 cards and found only 67 with images of the nativity. That could presumably mean that 96% have images of snowmen, carol singers, churches, bells and other 'traditional' images on them. Conflating 'not explicitly holy' with 'not traditional' and saying 'You can't get 'traditional' cards, therefore, Christmas is being stamped out' is another bit of sleight of hand.

What Burkeman doesn't say is that even if the Mail's statistics are valid, the piece itself is based on a lie.

Christmas cards are losing their religious message

Traditional pictures...are dying out

Scenes of the nativity has been replaced

There were fears that religious images were being scrubbed from the cards...

Hundreds of cards avoided any image linked to Christmas at all

Card manufacturers who ditched Christmas symbols...

...do-gooders sitting in offices who decide that Christmas is offensive to other religions

...so they must scrub all Christian images.

Oh: and while we are at it:

The Royal Mail has faced criticism for axing the Bible story from its festive stamps and....

Can you guess what's coming?

....councils have been ridiculed for re-naming Christmas 'Winterval'.

I was particularly pleased with the use of the plural. We now know that it's a good idea for employers to supply food at office Christmas parties to prevent staff getting too drunk. I expect that the very religious party at the offices of the Daily Mail will supply lots and lots of pork pies.

The Daily Mail aren't simply reporting a piece of data: it's hard to find a card with a picture of Our Lady on it. They are telling us that a process is happening whereby religious imagery at Christmas is declining, on the decrease, dying out -- that where there were images of Littlebay Bejeezus there are now Snowmen and Santas. But that's more than we know. How many secular cards were there in 2005, before the arrival of the Muslim hoard? In 1980 when we were ruled by the Blessed Virgin Margaret? In 1950 or 1850? Without figures from previous years, we have no basis to say that traditional pictures are 'dying out'. It is entirely possible that there were always more Father Christmases than there were Angel Gabriels.

The Mail also wants us to think that the secularization of Christmas is part of a conscious, deliberate (and fairly recent) process. But even assuming that the researchers really did find fewer B.V.Ms and more Christmas Puddings this years than they did last year, you can't infer that anyone is consciously replacing, avoiding, scrubbing, ditching, banning or outlawing anything at all. It's possible that there are so many Christians that, by the time the Mail's researcher got to the shop all the religious cards had sold out. It's quite likely that the kinds of people who want to send pictures of Littlebay Beejeezuz buy them from church bazaars, charities and religious bookshops, but not from Clintons.

As ever, it's the offhand comment, the un-noticed parenthesis, that reveals where the Daily Mail is really coming from.

Critics said card manufacturers and shops must not abandon British shoppers who wanted to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th.

And we have a rant from a random Tory:

Conservative MP Philip Davies said card manufacturers who ditched Christmas symbols were falling victim to....

Can he do it? Will he manage to speak to the Daily Mail for 20 words without saying it?

...'politically correct madness.....I'm sure one reason is because of do-gooders sitting in offices who decide that Christmas is offensive to other religions so they must scrub all Christian images.'

So. We start with a fact: 'Many cards have snowmen on them; some cards have silly jokes on them.' We go from this to 'Someone has decided that we must scrub all Christian images.' We then create a fantasy – literally without any evidence at all – that this has been done so as not to offend 'other religions'. And we end up saying that Clintons and Hallmark have 'abandoned' British people. The idea that there are millions of people, British or otherwise, who want to buy religious cards, but that greeting cards manufacturers have refused to sell them any for political reasons is so paranoid as to be laughable. But we are clearly meant to believe that this fictitious purge on 'all' Christian images is being done to 'British people' (i.e us) but 'other religions' (i.e Muslims). It will be remembered that twelve months ago the Mail particularly objected to the fact that Father Christmas had been banned from the town of Havant (which he hadn't) because the population there was 99.1% white. Me think England damn nice place. Much too nice for white man race.

Finally, we have a quote from our old friend Stephen Green, who the Mail introduces as

Stephen Green, of the religious group Christian Voice – which forced TV bosses to scrap plans to show the ‘blasphemous’ musical Jerry Springer: The Opera.

It might be more helpful to say 'Stephen Green, the fundamentalist fruitcake whose group Christian Voice want to ban mosques and enforce a kind of Christian sharia based on the book of Leviticus. And who still believe in the Angels of Mons. Oh and I have the video of Jerry Springer: The Opera. I taped it. Off the telly. Christian Voice didn't force anyone to scrap anything. Could I have another one of those nice looking pies please?' Green says that he wants people to go out of their way to buy religious cards. The Mail translates this as 'boycott irreligious cards', which is an interesting example of how their little brains work.

Mr Green is worried about cards with blasphemous jokes on them. The Daily Mail says that one card 'risks provoking Christians' (to do what?)

by suggesting that the shepherds only saw the angel appear on the hillside because they were hallucinating after smoking drugs.

Further down, they quote the joke verbatim. There is an angel with a trumpet in the background, and one of the the shepherds in the foreground is saying:

'I don't know about you guys, but this sheep shit is really doing my head in.'

So the actual joke is 'one of the shepherds initially mistook the angel for an hallucination because he had been smoking drugs.' Similar jokes (shepherds quarreling about whether the angelic music is a dream or not) occur in the Medieval Mystery Plays: the shepherds are drunk and vulgar until they recognize the angel, when they stop quarreling and start looking for Jesus. It doesn't particularly matter; either way, the card is in pretty poor taste. But it is interesting that the Mail's automatic reflex is to slightly distort the story. (It will be remembered that the humour free Stephen Green repeatedly said 'This opera says that Jesus Christ was a nappy fetishist' where the more boring truth was 'This opera makes a weak joke about the fact that the loincloth used in many paintings of the crucifixion looks a bit like a nappy.')

I read that Tescos have started selling ready made Shepherd Costumes and Virgin Mary Costumes for small children because they noticed that their sales of tea-towels quadruple during the nativity play season. Clintons sell Christening cards because people buy them. They don't sell Littlebay Beejeezuz cards, because no-one wants them. Happy Eeyore has replaced Gloomy Eeyore because thats what sells. It's Thatcherism gone mad, I tell you. You'd think that the Daily Mail might approve.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

8/12/80

"I've had enough of watching scenes of schizophrenic, ego-centric, paranoiac, prima-donnas."
NOTE 1: On "Question Time" this week, man-in-the-beige-shirt explained that global warming may by caused by the imminent onset of a new Ice Age, or by Cosmic Rays. (If the latter is correct, then I want to be the stretchy one, not the one with orange rocks.) Before they made him shut up, he referred to the "politically correct theory" that global warming was caused by carbon emissions.

NOTE 2: In "Metro" on Friday there was a puff-piece for a new book on urban myths called "That's all bollocks". It included a list of 15 "myths", including the one about Charlie Chaplin entering a Charlie Chaplin lookalike competition, and the one about the man who insured his cigars against arson. They asked us to select which were true and which were false. One of the ones labelled as "true" was the surprising fact that, when Titanic went down, the silent version of the movie the Poseidon Adventure was being shown on the ship's cinema. This is, of course, "bollocks": it is another fake urban myth invented by the Snopes website in order to demonstrate that if you say something in a sufficiently authoritative way, then people will believe you, however obviously stupid and absurd it is.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Humbug (3)


The 'Cancel Christmas' story in the December 6th Sun is a masterpiece of the genre. Like an expert conjurer, it tells no direct lies but uses a well-practiced sequence of moves to misdirect its victims into believing logical impossibilities.

We know that fir trees and tinsel are on display in every office and school in the country; we know that Christmas carols are being blared out over the tannoy in every shopping mall....but when we are told that Christmas Has Been Banned This Year we believe it.

The front page of the tabloid has a photograph of a Christmas decoration overlaid with the headline:


Now PC killjoys want to ban Christmas decorations. We fight back!
KICK 'EM IN THE BAUBLES


Pages 4 & 5 are a montage consisting of three separate items. The focus of the page is a colour picture of an (artificial) Christmas tree, with the headline:

Tree may seem a joyous symbol of Christmas, but to the PC brigade it's a...
SILENT NIGHTMARE.


'Silent nightmare'. It's a joke, you see: not quite up there with 'Super Cally Go Ballistic Celtic are Atrocious', but at least they're trying. Various items on the tree are labelled, and the right hand column, headed

What a list of 'shame' tells us: why the P.C brigade want the labelled items to be prohibited.

The left side of the page contains the substantive news story a number of supposed incidents of anti-Christmas legislation, and some quotes by the usual right-wing nutters. At the bottom of the page is a picture of a woman in a veil, alongside a story about Channel 4s Alternative Christmas Message. (The station has a childish tradition of putting something silly up against the Queen: last year, it was Homer Simpson, this year, it will be a Muslim lady.) For balance, the right hand column of the spread is written by the Sun's tame Muslim, Amla Baig, and is headed Tinsel isn't offensive, claims like these are. Finally, the op-ed page is headed Save Christmas and has a bullet point list of things which it thinks Christmas might need to be saved from. And today's editorial cartoon is a picture of -- stop me if you've heard this before -- a woman in a veil. She is saying 'Merry Christmas from Channel 4'. There may be a joke in this, but I can't find it. Anyone scanning the paper will pick up the message 'There is a widespread move to prohibit Christmas decorations because they are not considered politically correct and this is bound up in some way with Muslims, especially Muslims in veils.' Each element of the story contributes something to this impression:

1: The front page

This is a classic example of the self-reflexive headline, something which is quite unique to the Sun. It does not refer to anything which has happened in the real world; it's a headline about a headline. Today's front page news story in the Sun is a story about the story which the Sun has run on it's front page today. The headline is a smutty pun that doesn't work ('baubles' and 'balls' don't really sound the same) but the text is incredibly pompous; the language of the infants' school playground alongside the language of the political press-release. 'The Sun today makes no apology for printing pictures deemed deeply offensive by the PC brigade – of Christmas trees and baubles.' Of course, at no point does anyone remotely suggest that anyone has claimed to find photos of Christmas trees 'deeply offensive'.

2: The Half-Truth

It seems that our old friends the Political Correctness Brigade want to ban Christmas decorations. This is stated about six times in the piece:

Now PC killjoys want to ban Christmas decorations.
Bah humbug to killjoys who try to ruin yuletide.
A survey revealed that three out of four firms have banned festive decorations.
A survey of 2300 employers reveal red yesterday showed an astonishing 74% have banned Christmas decorations for fear of upsetting followers of minority faiths.
Firms are banning Christmas decorations in case they offend other faiths

A survey says that sensitive employers have decided that putting up a Christmas tree and sparkly adornments might cause some non-Christians...to take legal action.

The source of this figure is a press release from a firm of employment lawyers called Peninsula. They seem to issue a press release along these lines every December, presumably in the hope of drumming up business from companies who get involved in January litigation. No information is supplied about how the information was collected or what question was asked; I leave it to Ben Goldacre to tell us whether 2300 firms amounts to a statistically significant survey. All that matters at this stage is that 'One law firm says that some companies say they are not putting up decorations' is not synonymous with 'Decorations have been banned.'

Last week, the Daily Mail got its union jack knickers in a twist about an ACAS press release. ACAS is a government run employment, mediation and arbitration service. The press release was intended to inform employers about their responsibilities under the law during the Christmas party season: For example, they pointed out that if you supply infinite free booze to your employees, it's partly your responsibility to see that they get home safely. This document includes the following passage:

Q: My recently-recruited manager has issued an e-mail to staff telling them that Christmas decorations breach health and safety rules. She also said they are outlawed by the religion and belief regulations. Is she correct?
A: As long as a proper risk assessment is carried out looking at where and how decorations are sited, particularly if they could pose potential fire hazards, health and safety rules will not normally be breached. Regulations on religion and belief do not outlaw traditional customs. As most Christmas decorations such as tinsel, lights and trees are secular and not inherently religious, it could be difficult to argue that they cause offence to non-Christians.


So: the official advice by the official agency which deals with official employment laws specifically refers to tinsel and trees and specifically says that there is no objection to them. 'P.C Brigade Want To Ban Tinsel' translates as 'Some employers have decided not to put up any tinsel, even though the official advisory body says that there could be no possible objection to it.'

3: The incremental lie

According to the op-ed column "Mince pies are outlawed as a health risk." But on page 4, this story comes out rather less dramatically: "Villagers planning a festive party were told by council chiefs that it would be cancelled unless the carried out a risk assessment on the mince pies made by the Women's Institute." And if you read right through to the end of the story, we get to the even-less dramatic truth. The mince pie row erupted in Embsay North Yorkshire. Council chiefs say that the WI pies must be accompanied by posters warning that they contain nuts and suet pastry. But we still haven't quite got to the bottom of things. The Sun omits to point out that the W.I were only compelled to follow council health and safety rules if they wanted to hold the event on council property. No-one was threatening to raid their party if it was held on private land. Clearly 'Please put up a sign saying "contains nuts" if you are giving those pies away in a council hall' does not amount to 'outlawing pies', and even if it did, it would have nothing to do with political correctness or offending minority groups.

4: The Factoid

"The Sun Says Save Christmas" column also warns us that 'Christmas has been re-branded as Winterval'. Well, up to a point, Lord Murdoch. It is perfectly true that Birmingham City Council re-named Christmas 'Winterval', insofar as they used that made-up word on leaflets advertising the turning-on of the Christmas lights, the arrival of Father Christmas and other events related to Christmas, Hanukkah and Diwali. The problem is that they did this in 1998. The lie that 'Birmingham wants to replace Christmas with 'Winterval' ' is taken down from the loft and hung up every year at this time -- along with the old saw that 'Luton has re-named Christmas 'luminos' '. That council did indeed (and rather cleverly in my opinion,) name their turning-on-the-lights ceremony after one of Harry Potter's spells. In, er, 2001.

For the record, from this year's websites:

Luton council: 'Christmas all wrapped up'
Birmingham council: 'Christmas market'; 'Visit Father Christmas'
Havant council 'Christmas in Havant' 'Carols in Meridian Centre'
Portsmouth Council: 'Christmas sounds', 'Christmas pantomime', 'Civic Carol service'


5: The In Your Face Bare Faced Total and Utter We Made This Up and We Admit We Made This Up Load Of Twaddle Taking Up a Page and a Half.

The centrepiece for the spread is the Politically Correct Christmas tree, which consists of a series of comments at the level of:

Fairy lights – Could be construed as homophobic by some
Fake snow – Clearly this may be unsettling and cause distress to people from warmer climates.


This is, of course, completely made up, and the Sun admits that it is completely made up: it clearly describes it as 'The Sun's tongue-in-cheek guide to the shocking and provocative items found on your Christmas tree.'

What can be said about this kind of stunt?

1: It is not even slightly funny

2: Some of the jokes are fairly offensive. (Have you ever heard a gay man referred to as a 'twinkle'?)

3: It mixes up truth and lies in a ways calculated to cause maximum confusion. The piece about Rudolf (' In future we may have to substitute faithful Rudolph with a shiny amoeba') is prefaced by a bit of copy about how Robert L May wrote the song in 1939; which appears to be accurate.. On the other hand, we are told that 'Satanists complain that baubles are a mis-use of witch balls from the 1700' – which is, so far as I can tell, complete gibberish. Some time ago, the Snopes website demonstrated how easy it is to invent an urban myth by presenting a publishing a theory, clearly marked as a joke, that 'Sing a Song of Sixpence' was a recruiting song first writing by the pirate Blackbeard. Within two years, this piece of made up folk lore was being quoted as the gospel truth. Bill Bryson points out that nearly all of the extreme cases of politically correct language ('gravitationally challenged' for 'fat') come out of a satirical 'politically correct' handbook, and were never, ever used seriously. It's a safe bet that some Sun readers will read this load of old baubles and run away with the idea that someone really does think that the term 'crackers' is prejudiced against mentally handicapped people – and that this is precisely what the editor wants them to think.

6: Conflation of different stories. The majority of the stories which the Sun cites are about health and safety: trivial instances of officials making the lives of small organisations slightly inconvenient. But the joke Christmas Tree piece is all about 'political correctness' in the more normally understood sense -- people being hyper sensitive to things which could offend minorities. The tactic is quite brilliant. The Sun like the Mail, the Express and to a lesser extent the Telegraph and the Times have committed themselves to believing that the Political Correctness Brigade are trying to stamp out Christmas. The problem is that the Political Correctness Brigade are doing nothing of the kind, for the very good reason that they don't exist. So the Sun's 'Christmas correspondent' (no, really) has convinced himself that 'health and safety' and 'political correctness' are interchangeable, and, furthermore that any attempt to make a Christmas celebration conform to regulations is a direct attack on the festival itself. Once you've believed these three impossible things, it becomes possible to say 'someone has pointed out that the Santa Claus carnival float is unsafe and asked the owner to add a seat belt...so obviously, they think that Rudolf toys should be banned because they are prejudiced against homosexuals.'

The Sun is, it must be said, less nakedly racist than the Express. The political correctness tree is directed at homosexuals, people from hot countries and the mentally handicapped as well as at Muslims; the opinion piece by Anila Baig contains some valid points. But both campaigns are rooted in the same paranoia. Either the Sun reflects what its readers think; or it reflects what Tony's boss Rupert thinks that they think; or it reflects what Tony's boss Rupert wants them to think. Either millions of my fellow countrymen are paranoid; or else someone is trying very hard to make them paranoid. Either way paranoid people are scary. They elect scary governments.

You can't really fool children: they go on believing in Father Christmas for as long as they want to believe in Father Christmas. Any conjurer will tell you that you can only fool an audience that, at some level, wants to be fooled.

Friday, November 24, 2006

In the comment section attached to 'Christmas Doesn't Come Early...' we were talking about fictional characters, and whether any one in comic books has changed as much as Doctor Who.

Andrew Stevens asked
Producers have fiddled around with the edges of the character (and this has been done to the Doctor, I believe, more than literally any other character in the history of fiction), but the Doctor has always stood for justice.

Although I agree with his point, I am slightly tempted to reply: 'Er...Geoffrey of Monmouth, Thomas Malory, Alfred Lord Tennyson, T.H White, Marion Bradley.'

Phil Masters wrote.
But what perhaps makes (Batman) such a strong, almost archetypical figure is that the core myth has never changed much. The same goes for Superman, but not so much for other (less durable) DC superheroes. 'Saw his parents killed in front of him as a child; swore revenge on all criminals; perfected himself to achieve this'. 'Last son of a doomed, super-advanced planet; sent to Earth by his parents; raised by good, rural folks, then travelled to the big city'. If either character ever lost those cores, they'd be doomed.
Well...

'Last son of a doomed, super-advanced planet.'

Unless you count Kara, Mon-El, Zod, Jax Ur, the Super-Menace, several thousand inhabitants of the bottled city of Kandar and various animals.

'Sent to Earth by his parents; raised by good, rural folks'

Unless you go by the radio version in which he arrived on Earth as a full grown man and immediately got a job with Perry White. (Hence 'Strange visitor from another planet' rather than 'Rocketed to earth as a baby'.) Was Smallville mentioned in the George Reeve version?

I'm not being a fan pedant. Well, obviously I am being a fan pedant, but the fact remains that what we see as the 'irreducible core' of these characters came about by a process of evolution. It changes. People who like folk songs say that each singer changes the song a little before he passes it on, so an authentic folk song is the work of many hundreds of musicians: no single composer can reproduce that style. I think that this is also true of characters like 'Superman' and 'Doctor Who'. Good as the early episodes were, you can't say that 'Doctor Who' was created by Sydney Newman: he's the product of every writer who has ever worked on the series. This is also true of Superman and Batman. Less so of Spider-Man and Mr. Fantastic: Marvel comics is more inclined to treat old issues as Holy Writ: new writers do not so much contribute to the evolution of The Fantastic Four as provide a midrash on the work of Rabbi Jack.

A lot of fans said that John Byrne had radically changed the irreducible core of Superman when he decided that Ma and Pa Kent were still alive. (In a sense, they are right: it was a powerful part of the original myth that both Jor-El and Jonathan Kent existed only in Superman's memory – where they acted as, for want of a better word, a super-ego.) Yet everyone now accepts that Superman has a wise old earth mother to bake him apple pie and give him advice when he's in trouble. It was taken for granted in Superman Returns: but for 40 years of continuity, it wasn't true.

It was also said that when Byrne made the antepenultimate son of Krypton kill the three Phantom Zone criminals he violated the irreducible core of the character -- that Superman had a Code Against Killing. I've just been reading the reprints of the Silver Age Superman, and I have to admit that they are terrific fun. If I had grown up with them I might very well have thought that John Byrne's super-yuppie was simply not Superman. But now he is.

Superman's costume and insignia remains fairly constant, and so, on the whole, do his powers. (He can fly, he's strong, he can see through walls.) But the personality of the guy in the costume changes beyond recognition. I just listened to one of the old radio stories in which some small time gangsters are extorting protection money from Jimmy Olsen's mother. One episode begins: 'Having given the hoodlum a thrashing, Superman...'. You couldn't imagine the nice-as-pie Silver Age character doing that. Neither is he the 'Stranger in A Strange Land' that Kirby tried to make him, or the demi-god who Alan Moore put in Swamp Thing. ('I mean, how many atoms are there in the atmosphere?' 'Would you like me to count them for you?')

It would seem to me that the Irreducible Core of Superman is actually Clark Kent, Perry White, Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. (Jimmy started out on the radio: but he migrated to the comic pretty rapidly: I'm sure Nick will tell me the issue number.) Fortresses of Solitude may come and go; Smallville, Jor-El and Superdog may vary in importance, but every version of Superman has been built around those four characters. Their personalities are malleable -- Lois is no longer an uberbitch; movie-Clarke is a complete klutz where radio-Clark is super-competent But their relationship never changes: Jimmy admires Clark and Superman; Lois loves Superman but looks down on Clark; Clark loves Lois.

The question of whether you have one character called Superman or several different ones is rather interesting. It is perfectly true that the 1940s Superman, the one who fought gangsters and Nazis, is now said to be the Superman of Earth-2, while the one from the 60s, the one who used to be Superboy and had a dog called Krypto, was the Superman of Earth-1. But this was an after-the-fact explanation of the changes that had crept into the character: no-one woke up one morning and said 'Let's re-invent Superman from the ground up' – there was simply a process of gradual change.

In the 1960s, Jack Kirby (along with some dialogue writer whose name I forget) created The Fantastic Four. He included a character called The Human Torch. Now, there had certainly been a previous character called the Human Torch, a war-time android who could burst into flame. The new version was a 1950s teenager who could burst into flame. There was connection between the two characters apart from the name and the superpowers; and Marvel made no real attempt to present the old 1960s character as sharing a 'brand identity' with the 1940s one. This wasn't 'a new version of an old character', it was more 'Jack leafed through some old comics and spotted a venerable character which gave him the idea for a new one.'

A bit later, Jack (with the same assistant) introduced a character called 'Captain America' into the Avengers. This Captain America was said to have been a superhero in World War II, and to have been frozen in ice for the intervening 20 years. Now, there had indeed been a 1940s character called Captain America. He did indeed fight the Nazis, and his real name, like that of the 1960s version, was 'Steve Rogers'. Does this mean that the 1960s Cap is the same person as the 1940s Cap in the same way the the Sherlock Holmes of 'A Study in Scarlet' is the same person as the Sherlock Holmes of 'His Last Bow'. Or should we say 'Captain America was a new character. He had a back story which involved fighting Nazis in the World War II, just as Mr Fantastic has a back story which involved fighting with the French Resistance. But the new character is not the same character that appeared in those 20 year old long out of print comics. What would that even mean? The new character happened to share a few plot elements with the old one.' But there is no question that Kirby's assistant used the fact that Captain America was a 'revival' of a famous old character as a Unique Selling Point for the new comic.

Come to that, the Buscema-Lee version of 'The Silver Surfer' has no real connection with the superior Jack Kirby version: Lee took the look and feel of Kirby's design and created a new character around it. I certainly don't feel any obligation, when reading the Fantastic Four 48-50 to think 'The Surfer is lying, of course. He knows perfectly well what 'love' and 'eating are'. And he is only fooling about fancying Alicia. His True Love is waiting for him on his home planet, and he's only been travelling with Galactus for a few months.' (Yes, there are fanwank rationalisations of this, which usually involve Galactus taking Norrin Radd to Anchorhead and having his memory wiped. I don't believe them any more than you do.) But the Lee version is the famous one, the one everybody knows: the nonsense about Zenn-La is part of the irreducible core of the Silver Surfer whether I like it or not, and people on submarines sometimes have fist fights about it.

From '63 to cancellation, Doctor Who was a continuous 'tradition'. No-one ever said 'let's wipe the slate and start again'. Doctor Sly had virtually nothing in common with Dcctor Bill; 'Survival' 4 was not recognisably the same programme as 'Unearthly Child'. But the change had happened incrementally. The grumpy but lovable old man in the 'Gunfighters' is not the scary misanthrope of 'Tribe of Gum' (or whatever we have to call it now) but you would be hard pushed to say when he changed. 'Power of the Daleks' could have been a Hartnell story; 'Spearhead From Space' could have been a Troughton story; 'Robot' very nearly was a Pertwee story. Each producer passed the torch onto the next producer; each producer inherited scripts and script editors from the last one. RTD has been the first producer to have had to actually re-light the torch and try to get it moving again. He isn't inheriting an on-going series, but looking back on an old one. What he is doing is much more like creating a 'new' Captain America than adding one more issue to the infinitely long sequence of gradually evolving Superman stories. The fact that there was an 'old series' is very important to the new one; just as the fact that your Dad might have read a comic called 'Captain America' was an important part of the overall poetic effect of Avengers #4. Otherwise, why have Sarah Jane or K-9. Why have Daleks? Why mention Time-Lords? But the old series is something which we are looking back at and commenting on; not something which we are adding a new chapter to.

That said, I am unhappy with SK's claim that Doctor Who is a null concept, that anything with 'Doctor Who' on the label is part of Doctor Who, and that we can't really discuss Doctor Who any more than we can discuss the square route of Tuesday or the philosophical convictions of Tony Blair. When a new TV series labels itself with the title of an old one, then surely one of the things which it is doing is inviting comparisons, claiming to have picked up the torch or to be continuing the tradition. Supposing I say 'The new Jackanory completely misses the point of Jackanory,' (and I think it is the sort of thing that I am quite likely to say). I am not making a null-comment. I am saying 'I remember a TV programme called Jackanory in which well known actors spent fifteen minutes reading to children from a book. I think this was a very good format, because it encouraged children to read and because the human voice is an intrinsically powerful tool for story-telling. I don't think that the new programme, which appears to involve adapting books into cartoons is nearly such an interesting format. And I think that today's kids would still go for the old format, particularly if your started by reading from some modern popular kid's; books, possibly ones involving wizards and boarding schools.' The BBC is not doing anything morally wrong by applying the brand-name Jackanory to its new cartoon show: if they want to, they can create a post watershed adults only comedy show and call it Crackerjack. But I'm at liberty to point out that they are trying to imply that the new programme is something like the old one, whereas in fact, it isn't.

If you create a new version of Sherlock Holmes, then you are positively inviting readers to say 'This is very faithful to Conan Doyle's original text' or 'This is very interestingly different to Conan Doyle's original text' or 'This is a very funny hatchet job on Conan Doyle'. I agree that 'This book is written by someone who doesn't know Holmes; he seems only to have seen the Basil Rathbone movies; and he doesn't seem to know that there weren't any thatched cottages in Victorian London' doesn't exhaust the things that you could say about the hypothetical book. You might well say 'It's nothing to do with Holmes, but it's quite a clever whodunnit.' God knows, there are things to say about Jackson's Ring cycle apart from 'It isn't very faithful to Tolkien' (such as 'For God sake, you should have grown out of belch jokes when you were at primary school.) But comparing it with the book is one thing that a reasonable person might reasonably do to a film which says Lord of the Rings on the tin.

Neither Doctor Who nor Superman has an unchanging, irreducible core. But this is a long way from saying that there are no themes, styles and genre conventions which enable us to describe a particular cluster of narratives tropes as Doctor Who stories; and therefore to meaningfully discuss (and respectfully disagree) about which are 'good Doctor Who stories' and which are 'bad Doctor Who stories'.

It is true that in such a very long established tradition, you can find an exception to almost any statement. If I say 'The name of the character is The Doctor', you can say 'In Part 2 of War Machines' he was called 'Doctor Who', as he was in the the dutero-canonical Docotr Who In And Exciting Adventure With the Daleks; the apocrphyphal TV Comic and the downright heretical Doctor Who and the Daleks movie. ' But if I write a Doctor Who story and ignore the 'War Machines', I am not simply turning my back on evidence which doesn't support my cause: I'm following a whole string of predecessors in the Great Tradition. There is a narrative consensus to repress 'War Machines' from our textual consciouness. (Don't tell anyone, but this is how the faithful treat all other sacred texts as well.)

If I had been asked 'What is the unifying feature that makes Doctor Who Doctor Who' I probably wouldn't have said 'justice'. I would have been more likely to say 'Wherever he is, he's an outsider, an alien; he always brings a fresh, unexpected perspective to the world.'

Maybe 'strange visitor from another planet' would have done the trick. Here's to the next 43 years.
Torchwood sucks, incidentally.


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Thursday, November 23, 2006

11/23/1963

Throughout history, you Thals have always been known as one of the most peace-loving peoples in the galaxy. When you get back to Skaro, you'll all be national heroes. Everybody will want to hear about your adventures. So be careful how you tell that story, will you? Don't glamorise it. Don't make war sound like an exciting and thrilling game. Tell them about the members of your mission that will not be returning - like Maro and Vaber and Marat. Tell them about the fear. Otherwise your people might relish the idea of war.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Humbug (2)

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

St Paul

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

St Paul

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

The Acts of the Apostles

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

Jesus

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

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

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

FURY OVER HALAL CHRISTMAS DINNER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confusingly, the Telegraph thinks that she also said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Sacha Cohen has been promoting his new movie by giving in-character interviews in his Borat persona. Some of these have been very funny. (Empire magazine: "Which is your favorite James Bond Movie?" Borat: "It hard to say. I am like all five.")

It would have been very easy to mistake the Daily Mail's "Borat's Guide to Britain" as a contribution to this genre. In fact it is a parody. "Here, David Thomas imagine what guidelines he might have for immigrants visiting Britain" (I particularly like the combination of 'immigrants' and 'visiting')

A parody of Borat is a rather pointless exercise: I recall that impressionist Mike Yarwood declined to "do" Frank Spencer or Edna Everage, because they were fictitious characters who were already being "done" by Michael Crawford and Barry Humphries. But you might expect the parodist to get the joke. Borat has a set of prejudices which no sensible person could possibly share; and he doesn't understand America at all. The character in the Daily Mail piece has a set of prejudices shared by the editorial staff of the Daily Mail; and understands the U.K very well indeed.

The piece could be taken as a lexicon of Daily Mail prejudices. Borat thinks that in England, you will be arrested if you try to court a woman; but that homosexuality is almost compulsory, certainly a necessary path to promotion in certain careers.

But if British man is having sexytimes with person who is not a girlie, he not arrested. On contrary, he given contract Channel 4 TV, seat in Parliaments and invitation go swimming with Michaels Barrymore.

He has noticed that English Christians are a persecuted minority:

Chrissiemas. Is banned because not inclusive other religions. Nowadays, British only allowed have religious ceremonies, prayers, days off, etc if not Christians.

Foreigners are given advantages over English people in employment:

If you Polish, just be plumber. Don't worry if can't tell hot tap from colds — British peoples think all Polish great plumbers. Otherwise, can pick fruit and vegetables, cleaning streets, become "ethnic" candidates on Conservatives' A-List.

(The nastiness of that final quip takes one's breath away.)

Borat has spotted the Most Important Issue Facing Britain Today:

In Britain, some women wear veils, mostly if radical teachers, lawyers etc hoping to get into papers, cause fuss, maybe pick up compensation monies.

And of course, he understand the British immigration system.

What to do when First Arrivings. Do not say: "I like very much Britain, long tradition freedom and democracy. Now I hoping work hard, raise family, and celebrate Christmas with all my friends, even the Jews." If say that, immigration officer reply: "Get lost, mateys, we don't want your kind here!" Do say: "I HIV-positive hijacker, sex criminal and terrorist fear persecution in own country. Now I hopings buy fake National Insurance number, claim benefits and plotting attacks on infidels, especially Jews."If you say that, immigration officer reply: "Certainly sir. Just jot your details down here. The Home Office should be able to lose them in a week or two.

Which is, being interpreted: "Me think England darn nice place. Much too nice for white man race."

Anyone who thinks that this is a parody of Daily Mail attitudes, intended to show how absurd they are, should run their eyes down the readers comments section. "Not too far from the truth...what a brilliant articles, its completely true...very funny but more importantly very true....this is the sort of country you get when you let the liberal elite be in charge and take orders from undemocratic institutions like the EC commission....profoundly and unfortunately true....frighteningly accurate description of Britain in terminal decline..."

You have to be quite careful with characters like Borat. Johnny Speight and Warren Mitchell had impeccable left wing credentials, but there were always a certain number of people who liked Alf Garnett because he said what they thought. Ali G is meant to be a complete pratt, but one got the impression that some people missed the joke and thought that he was quite cool. I have even heard stupid people repeating the phrase "Are you having a laugh?" over and over as if they thought that it was funny, where the entire point is that it isn't.

However, at their best, Ali G and Borat are powerful instruments of satire. A fictitious person expresses a ridiculous prejudice, and a real person reveals how stupid and bigoted they are by agreeing with them. In general, Ali G had to conduct long interviews with people in order to trap them: Sacha Cohen must be pretty chuffed that he is made the Daily Mail look stupid and bigoted without even going near their offices.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Christmas Doesn't Come Early This Year

This year's first 'political correctness brigade bans Christmas' story is pretty feeble even by the standards of the World's Greatest Newspaper. It seems that the Royal Mail has published its annual collection of Christmas stamps. This year's stamps depict Father Christmas, a Reindeer, a Snowman, and, sensationally, a Christmas tree. You might think that these images are a little unimaginative, but to the trained eye they betray the the machinations of the Political Correctness Brigade.

CHRIST IS DUMPED FROM CHRISTMAS STAMPS Royal Mail under fire for using 'faith free' designs.

Bungling mail chiefs were yesterday accused of taking the Christ out of Christmas.

They unveiled this year's festive stamps – which ignore the season's holy background.

Furious Christian politicians joined the Church of England to condemn the Royal Mail over its faith-free designs....

Last night critics accused the Royal Mail of snubbing Britain's Christians heritage in a politically-correct bid to avoid offending other religions....

This is in all respects a typical piece of Daily Express reporting. Note the quotation marks around the phrase 'faith free' in the headline. In fact, none of the furious politicians or members of the Church of England who are quoted in the story actually use this phrase. None of them mentions 'political correctness', either.1 The Royal Mail has, as a matter of fact, put non-religious pictures on its stamps for 16 of the last 40 Christmases. Its current policy is to use religious and secular pictures in alternate years. Nothing has been 'axed', 'dumped' or 'banned.' No-one is offended by Reindeer. No-one is furious about anything. There is no story here.

As we've seen, the Daily Express has recently developed a comic obsession with the fact that some Muslim women dress like Muslim women. There have been at least ten separate Ban the Veil headlines over the last month – two new ones in the last seven days. They draw a link between this story and a quite separate case about companies that have dress-codes which prohibit jewelry declining to make exceptions for Christians who want to wear crosses. On October 31st and November 2nd they ran two identical stories about the Duchess of Cornwall not having a poppy on her lapel. Both versions of the story were given a religious twist: first Islamic Camilla dumps poppy and then Camilla Hides Poppy: She is wearing one, but you can't see it under Islamic scarf. (So far as I know, Poppies are worn to mark the end of the First World War. 'In Flanders fields', and all that. Armistice day is next Saturday, November 11th. Remembrance Sunday is on the 12th. People were expressing outrage about Mrs. Windsor's choice of accessory on October 30th. Did someone declare the whole of October and November 'Poppy Months' without telling me?) On October 26th, they regurgitated an old, old story about how Prince Charles wants to unilaterally re-write the British Constitution and take the title 'Defender of Faiths' rather than 'Defender of the Faith' should he ever happen to be King. This also got en-meshed in the Cross vs Crescent narrative:

A royal courtier said the Prince had become even more determined to get his way following the controversies over Muslim veils and Christian crosses in recent weeks.... Stephen Green national director of Christian Voice, said: 'Prince Charles cannot start rewriting the constitution on a whim to include other faiths because the job description is that he is a Christian, so he cannot then say that he is also the Defender Of Islam, for example, which is diametrically opposed to Christianity.'

If the church of England was really furious about snowmen it would be quite a good story because no-one has ever seen furious Anglicans before. In fact the two C of E quotes that the Express comes up with are not so much furious as mildly peeved. The first is from one of those un-named 'spokesman' that the Express is always talking to. He quite liked last years stamps and 'regrets' the post office's choice for this year. The second is from someone called Dr. Christina Baxter who sits on the General Synod. She also 'regrets' what has happened, presumably because, once Christ has been banned, all her friends will have to call her Tina. The rest of the piece is bulked out with quotes from David Burrows MP who is a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, and Stephen Crabb MP, who by contrast is a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship. Mr. Burrows wonders why 'a country with a Christian heritage doesn't celebrate Christmas in a straightforward way?' Note the tactic: we've managed to go from 'not putting babyjesus on the postage stamps' to 'not celebrating Christmas' which then mutates into a sub-headline 'Why can't this country celebrate its Christianity?' printed in quotation marks, even though no-one said any such thing.

But the Christian who is most furious of all is Stephen Green, who claims to be 'deeply offended' by Christmas Trees and Reindeer. He's the same chap who was worried about Charles becoming defender of faith-in-the-plural. His organization, Christian Voice, is a group of anti-gay, pro-death penalty, theocratic fruitcakes, best known for completely missing the point of Jerry Springer: the Opera. Their views on Islam are a rather more extreme version of Vlad the Impaler's:

A mosque is regarded as an abomination in the sight of Almighty God....When Muslims go into a mosque and bow down before their false god, 'Allah' ('the god' in Arabic) they are engaging in idol worship without realizing it. It is only necessary to look at the symbol of Islam, the crescent moon, to realize the identity of the real spirit behind Islam.2

So what the Daily Express describes as 'the church of England and politicians' turns out to be a small sub-set of the Conservative Party and a rabidly anti-Muslim Christian supremacist sect that no other paper would give half a column-inch to.

So: why has the world's greatest newspaper suddenly turned religious on us? Has the publisher of Spunk Loving Sluts given his life to Jesus? Of course not. There is nothing remotely Christian about the rest of the paper. It publishes a daily poem; but not a daily prayer or a daily scripture. It gives away free children's books, but not Bibles or tracts. It writes about homeopathy but not faith-healing. It urges us to wear our poppies with pride, but it doesn't print articles telling us that we ought to go to church. When it talks about 'Christianity', it is talking about badges: a cross round your neck; babyjesus on your stamps; the Queen as head of the Church; nativity cribs outside the town hall and hot cross buns on the menu.

What does it mean to wear this badge? Curiously enough, on the same day that no-body at all was getting angry about snowmen a Tory councilor and prospective parliamentary candidate decided to nobly sacrifice her career by circulating a piece of light verse on the subject of immigration. A lot of commentators seem to think that she wrote the thing herself, but it's actually been in circulation for years. You know the one:

Kids need dentist? Wife need pills? We get free! We got no bills! Britain crazy! They pay all year, To keep welfare running here. We think UK darn good place. Too darn good for white man race! If they no like us, they can scram. Got lots room in Pakistan!

The poem seems to be American in origin – it says 'darn' rather than 'damn' and 'welfare' rather than 'social' or 'benefit'. The last line was originally 'If no like us, they can go/lots of room in Mexico'. Never mind that the comic pidgin bears no relation to any speech pattern ever associated with an Indian. Never mind that, far from being lazy, the usual British stereotype of a Pakistani is someone who is obsessively industrious – who runs a 24 hour corner shop and wants his children to grow up to be lawyers and doctors. Someone took a poem about lazy, feckless, welfare-dependent Mexicans and changed it to lazy, feckless, welfare-dependent Pakistanis, without thinking for five minutes about whether the slur matched the new target. British xenophobia – the same xenophobia which used to say that dark skinned people 'came over here and took our jobs' now says that all dark skinned people are social-security scroungers; and when it thinks of 'dark skinned people', it automatically thinks of Muslims - Pakistanis.

Ms Blande couldn't understand why anyone thought that the poem was racist. Writers to the Daily Mail website felt that Cameron's decision to kick her out of the party was 'PC gone mad' and evidence that 'the Tories have gone PC mad.' And certainly, views scarcely less extreme than those in the poem are expressed in the Mail and the Sun every week.

So: is the Daily Express using 'Christian' as a euphemism for 'White Man Race' and 'Muslim' as code for the dark men who are going to out-reproduce us and take away our lebensraum? ('We have hobby/It called breeding/Welfare pay for baby feeding.') I actually think that they are being rather cleverer than this.

There is no doubt that 'religion' is one of the things which makes a community hang together. It is highly probable that the reason that there is an identifiable Asian Community in the UK is because many Asians are Muslims. We're used to the fact that there are groups of people and areas of London which are Very, Very, English, but also identifiably Jewish. People in New York or Liverpool seem to be able to maintain a sense that they are also Irish over many generations – presumably because their Catholicism binds them together and signifies their difference from the host community. (Do protestant emigrants maintain such a nostalgia for the Old Country?) In this sense, England hasn't had a religion for more than 50 years. Individual English people have been religious, of course, but only in the sense that 'religion' has been one of their beliefs and hobbies. They haven't seen themselves as 'Members of the Methodist Community' any more than as 'Members of the Line Dancing Community.' Increasingly, although he writes 'Christian' on the census forms, the English chap has no religion at all. This may be part of the reason that we don't have a clear national identity. On the other hand it may be the reason we are quite good at embracing multi-culturalism. Not having a religion or culture of our own, don't you know, we can afford to be patronizingly tolerant of the quaint exotic foreigner who does.

White thugs may paint the Cross of Saint George on their bottoms during important football matches, but they don't think of it as a religious symbol. They don't pay lip-service to the Bible or think that attendance at Matins is necessary proof that you are a true Brit. But it is often said that many young Asians who are not especially pious think that going to Friday prayers and fasting during Ramadan are important signifiers of Who They Are.

So. I think that the Express is engaged in a pretty transparent attempt to radicalize the White community. It is systematically running news stories which conflate Christianity with Englishness;and that equate Islam with foreign-ness. If the English can be persuaded to use Bibles, Stamps, Prince Charles, Silver Crosses and very occasional church-going as signifiers of national identity, then they will start to perceive themselves as part of White Community. If they perceive themselves as part of a Community, then they will also perceive themselves as different from members of the Veil-Wearing Community. If 'England' is defined as 'a Christian Country' and dark skinned people are defined as 'Muslims', then dark-skinned people are outsiders, full stop. Remember that multi-culturalism is now a dirty word. Once, we would have said: 'You eat your Muslim curries and we'll eat our Christian HP sauce; we'll have our Christian Baby Jesus and you have your Islamic snowmen and I'm sure we'll get on fine.' But now, we want to wear our Christian crosses, but we don't want you to wear your Muslim hats. If you come into our country, you should adopt our customs. Add to this the fantasy that sinister forces in the government want to ban Christianity but encourage Islam, and you are only one coffee morning away from Church of England suicide bombers. The message is not "Live and Let Live" but "Live our way or get lost."

This is why the Express matters. It isn't a lunatic ranting at a bus-stop: it's read every day by more people than read the Guardian and the Independent put together. And the slogans on the front page are seen by practically every adult in the UK.

Feminists often say that the open display of pornographic images on magazine covers and newspaper front pages degrades the whole of society. People should be allowed to buy porn if they want it, but only in brown-paper wrappers. I think that we have reached a similar point here. I despise what the British National Party says, but would defend to the point of writing a stiff letter to the Guardian their right to say it. But I draw the line at having Cross v Crescent propaganda openly displayed every day in every shop in the country.


1The article is also noteworthy for including a new mutation of the phrase 'political correctness'. It appears that one unspecified person has asked another unspecified person in an unspecified place not to put up any Christmas lights because they might fall off the ladder. But this has morphed into; 'Other traditions to be axed in Britain under political correctness include Christmas lights – banned by some health and safety official worried about people injuring themselves while putting them up'. So it appears that now 'health and safety' and 'political correctness' can be used interchangeably: the Mail has even taken to talking about the 'health and safety' brigade. The significance of the use of the of the future tense is left as an exercise for the reader.

2Is it logically possible to worship an idol without realizing it? I would have thought that it was the kind of sin which is all in the intention. I assume that everybody apart from Mr. Green already knows that Arabic-speaking Christians refer to God as 'Allah' because, er, that's what the word means.

Thought for Today

"If any question why we died
tell them because our fathers lied."

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Scum

What do you think are the virtues of science?

"For the future of the economy, it is almost as important as economic stability. If we do not take the opportunities that are there for us in science then we are not going to have a successful modern economy. We will be outcompeted on labour costs. It is our human capital that is the most important and it is at the cutting edge of science that our human capital can be best exploited for the country's future. We've got to give the country a great deal more confidence about science and its place in the future. Britain has been very good at invention and discovery and not so good at its commercial exploitation. For me, those two things go together."

Margaret Thatcher


no sorry I'm lying it was actually Tony Blair