Saturday, October 01, 2011


Timothy McVeigh, who we can all agree was not a very nice or a very well man, supposedly compared his bombing of the Murrah building in Oaklohama City with Luke Skywalker's destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars. There were 1,161,292 people on board the Death Star, and Luke was personally responsible for the death of every one of them. If a genocidal mass murderer like Luke Skywalker can be a fictional hero and not a fictional war criminal, then why can't someone who killed 167 people for a cause he believed in be regarded as a hero in real life? 

It's a valid thought experiment. Some people say that killing is just wrong, and that killing in war is even more just wronger. Some people really would let that hypothetical Nazi kill their hypothetical Grandmothers, because two wrongs don’t make a right and an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. Well then, Mr Pacifist, let's up the ante a little. It isn't a National Socialist and a little old lady. It's a huge great machine which was specifically created in order to destroy whole planets and which is bringing its magical planet killing ray on line to destroy your planet. Oh, and all 1,161,292 people on board are utterly and irredemably evil -- the sort of people who torture princesses and kill teddy bears. So, Mr Pacifist, you get to choose: push the button and kill one million one hundred and sixty one thousand two hundred and ninety two people, including Peter Cushing, or don't push it and see all the surviving warriors on the side of sweetness, light and apple pie, including all your friends and your only surviving non-evil relative, evaporate in the biggest explosion Industrial Light and Magic was capable of producing at the time.

Would you push the button?

Well, of course you bloody well would. Because Star Wars is only a story, and the whole story has been set up purely in order to make it OK for Luke to push the button. Alec Guinness was quite correct when he said that there is no violence in Star Wars. Guns go "bang bang" and people fall over, but nobody dies because the people who die aren't people, but extras, whose function is to fall over when the goodies go "bang bang" at them. To actually think about the crew of the Death Star would make the entire edifice fall apart. It would be like watching a child knocking plastic soldiers over with a nerf gun and asking him if he is going to hold a plastic funeral and what he is going to do to provide for the plastic widows and plastic orphans he's creating. It is madness to think that killing soldiers in war is harmless game because knocking over toy soldiers is a harmless game, but it would be equally mad to think that knocking over toy soldiers is a horrible moral evil because killing real soldiers is a horrible moral evil. And it's most unlikely that Tom and Jerry cartoons ever made anyone think that it was okay to put cats' tails in meat grinders. And Grand Theft Auto players don’t think that it's okay to kill cops. And most people who like dirty books aren't rapists. 

Actually I wonder how pacifists do deal with something like Star Wars. Maybe if Timothy McVeigh thought of himself as a hero because Luke Skywalker was a hero, there really are people who think Luke Skywalker was a monster because Timothy McVeigh was a monster. You do come across people who can't engage with any story or song in which a member of the English aristocracy goes fox hunting or any romantic story about a Spanish man who kills cows in an arena and certainly no very long American novels about people who kill whales. How can you be reading this stuff, they say – its about people who are killing harmless animals. For fun! Naturists and puritans sometimes pretend not to be able to understand coarse jokes: why are you giggling because someone mentioned that part of the body, they say. It's a part of the body, no different from any other. You wouldn't have laughed if he'd mentioned his nose, would you? So maybe there are people who sat through A New Hope dreaming that the Empire and the Rebels might kiss and make up and promise never to fight again. Imagine, killing each other over a political difference! It hardly matters whether you die fighting on the side of the Empire or the Rebellion! You are still just as dead! My friend you should not to tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory and that's why patriots are a bit nuts in the head. And incidentally, since Sherlock Holmes' and Miss Marples' main raison d'etre is to get people hanged, they are just as much cold blooded killers as the "villains". 

I'm not being entirely facetious. I myself can find the sheer casualness with which people are dispatched in duels to the death about nothing in particular a real barrier to my enjoyment of the swashbuckling in the Three Musketeers. 

It is said that during the first world war, a pacifist was asked "If a German soldier were raping your grandmother, and you had a gun, what would you do." "But I wouldn't have a gun" replied the pacifist "Because, you see, I'm a pacifist." 

There is nothing wrong with asking hypothetical questions. If you ask Ed-or-David Milliband "How would you sort out the economy if you were Prime Minister", it would be pretty unhelpful of him to reply "But I am not Prime Minister, and have not got a snowballs chance in hell of ever becoming Prime Minister, so it's a silly question." If I asked "Suppose you were on the moon, and you dropped a feather and a ball baring: which one would hit the ground first" it is not very helpful to reply "But I'm not on the moon." But some hypothetical questions are, I think, so completely meaningless that asking them really is a waste of time. If Jane Austen had had a vote on the question of Gay Marriage, how would she have cast it? Would Henry VIII have preferred David Tennant of Matt Smith? If triangles had four sides, what kind of wine would they order with their steak? 
And that's why I find it so hard to separate the question "Do witches really exist" from the question "If witches really existed would it be OK to kill witches." If there were people who were utterly and irredeemably evil -- call them "witches" or "paedos" or "godless commies" according to taste -- maybe it would be OK to kill them. But it's a meaningless question: there aren't and there can't be. Your choice to pretend that you exist in a world of utterly and irredeemably evil people is part of your morality.

The world is not like Star Wars; war is not like a child's war-game. People who can't tell the difference are called "psychopaths".  

Friday, September 30, 2011


We all agree that murder is a bad thing. Some of us believe that adultery and fornication are bad things. But, once you've permitted the killing of animals and bacteria, and the killing of human beings in war and self defence and euthanasia; and accepted that people may sometimes choose to commit suicide; then "Thou Shalt Not Murder" turns out to mean "You are not allowed to kill anyone except those people who you are allowed to kill". And even if you agree that the only permissible sexual intercourse is between married people, you can hardly to fail have noticed that society keeps on changing its mind about what counts as "marriage". Cousins are sometimes allowed to marry and sometimes not; the age of legal marriage can be quite young or surprisingly old; societies can't even come to a firm decision about how many husbands and or wives a man and or woman is allowed to keep on the go at once. So "thou shalt not commit adultery" turns out to mean "you are forbidden from having sex with anyone except those people who you are permitted to have sex with": a variation on "you should do whatever you should do".

I came across a person on the interwebs who affected to be genuinely astonished when I suggested that the Christian church, and therefore very possibly the Christian God, approved of some kinds of killing but not others. I said that it would be rather odd for YHWH to give detailed instructions about meat preparation if by "Thou shalt not kill" she had meant "Thou shalt not kill anything, ever, full stop". I said that since YHWH shows no sign of being a pacifist; and seems to think that very naughty people -- witches, for example -- should be executed, she probably things that the killing of one soldier by another solider in a properly declared war, or the killing of a criminal by an executioner after a perfectly fair trail wasn't murder. So there was no necessary inconsistency in being a Christian warrior or a Christian supporter of capital punishment.

But it says "thou shalt not kill" in the BIBLE, he kept saying, and yet these Christians support WARS. Haven't THEY read their own BOOK? HAVEN'T they READ their own book.

("Can you imagine Jesus in any army uniform" is not a very helpful contribution to the debate. I can't imagine Jesus playing cricket, and, come to that, I can't imagine the Queen going to the toilet. A clever person on the interwebs recently remarked that if you can't imagine Jesus with an erection, you a probably really a docetist.)  

Some people believe, or pretend to believe, that no-one ever really believed in witches. The whole concept was dreamed up by sad individuals who had a bit of a thing about setting fire to old ladies and needed a flimsy pretext to indulge their rather specialized proclivities. Mrs Thatcher (speaking of witches) used to comically and ludicrously claim that there was no political element behind the campaigns of assassination and bombings by the Irish Republican Army: they blew people up because they were the kind of people who liked blowing things up.

A world of bad people who were bad because they wanted to be bad; where no-one ever does a bad thing for a good reason, or a bad thing for a bad reason which looks like a good reason from their point of view.  How nice it would be if life were that simple.

I know: let's pretend it is!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


You will remember that, in his wartime radio broadcasts, C.S. Lewis argued that Right and Wrong were a clue to the meaning of the universe. He said that nearly all human beings have at nearly all times agreed that there was a difference between Right and Wrong. They even mostly agree about what kinds of things were Right and what kinds of things were Wrong. That, said Lewis, suggested what kind of a Universe we were living in – one in which Right and Wrong really existed, and would have existed even if humans hadn't come along and discovered them.

No greater person that Terry Eagleton scoffs at this idea. "Unchanging human nature?" he says. "Unchanging human bollocks, more like." (I paraphrase.) People in olden times used to burn witches at the stake. We don't do that any more, except possibly in Texas. Morality has changed beyond recognition.

Not at all, sighs Dr Lewis, anachronistically. If we really believed in witches – if we thought that there were really people who, as part of a real pact with a real dark power, were really causing plagues and famines and crop failiures then we would probably think that they should really be executed. We've stopped hanging witches because we disbelieve in their existence. That represents an advance in knowledge; not a change in morality. [*]

I think that that one's morals include what one does, as well as what one thinks one ought to do. I would not be inclined to say "John is a moral person because although he cheats outrageously on his wife, he believes adultery is wrong; Fred is an immoral person because he cheats outrageously on his wife while espousing a philosophy of free love." If fidelity and promise-keeping are Good Things, then infiedelity and promise breaking are Bad Things, whatever may be going on in the head of the love-rat. I am uneasy with a definition of morality which says "People in the past thought it was moral to execute children for petty theft; not because they differed from us about morality, but because they differed from us about certain material facts (say, the degree to which children could make moral decisions, the degree to which they believed in predestination, the degree to which they thought God would make it up to them in heaven after they died.) The fact remains that they killed kids and we don't. Except maybe in Texas.

By the time you've excluded "witches exist" and "witches are bad" from your definition of morality (along, perhaps, with "throwing old ladies rivers is a good way of determining guilt" and "burning alive is an appropriate punishment for bad people") morality ends up meaning not much more than "you should do whatever you should do."

It might be that "we should do whatever we should do" does represent an essential core which all humans have in common and nothing else does. I personally am inclined to doubt that giraffes, pebbles and sea monkeys have even this minimal moral sense: I assume that all human beings have it. Lewis flirts with this idea in one of his interplanetary essays. It is possible to imagine an alien being which is very adept at building cities and atomic bombs, but is not (in a theological sense) a person because it has no sense of what it "ought" to do, no sense that "good" can mean anything other than "good for me". It is also possible to imagine a hamster or a maggot that does have that crucial "person hood", because it does have a sense that there are things which it "should" and "should not" do. In his fiction, Lewis uses the terms "hnau" for such ensouled beings. (Tolkien found it a useful term, and used it occassionally.) It is in this sense that I have sometimes wondered if certain newspaper columnists, liberal democrats, and (in particular) former prime ministers are really "people". Some of them behave as if they do not have a concept of morality which goes beyond "whatever I have an impulse to do at the present moment." Some of those same politicians may have the same thing in mind when they say that poor people are sub-human and bestial.

But (as is relatively often the case) Mr Lewis's argument remains compelling and thought provoking even if it doesn't quite stack up logically. If there really had been witches, would Matthew Hopkins still be a monster? Or would he suddenly become a hero? If there really had been a widespread communist conspiracy in the 1950s, would we conclude that history has slandered Senator Joe McCarthy? What if there were no witches and no commies but Joe and Matt had honestly thought that there were? 

Or: a question which has been worrying me more and more during a summer which has seen the closing of the News of the World, a massacre in Norway and three seperate riots at the bottom of my street. 

What if the Daily Mail were right? 

[*] It is interesting, if entirely irrelevant, that the great game of Chinese whispers which is the internet has widely disseminated Lewis's observation that if we believed in witches then we would probably believe in executing witches in the form "C.S. Lewis approved of the Salem witch craze" or "C.S. Lewis thinks that wiccans should be hung." Certain segments of the internet has also transformed "I shall use the Chinese term, Tao to refer to the core of morality which all religions have in common" to "C.S Lewis renounced Christianity and died a taoist". See also under lisptick, nylons and invitations. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011



I don't mean to say "I told you so", but,

I told you so.


The improbably named Jame Delingpole, writing in the Daily Mail, has explained, and stop me if you've heard this before, that Political Correctness and the BBC are part of a plot by cultural Marxists to destroy civilisation.

Just to be quite clear: this is not something which I am wittily reading into his article. I am not doing one of those clever "deconstruction" things where you take what some one says and show that if you took it to its logical conclusion, it would lead to an absurd place. I'm not exaggerating. I am reporting what this man actually said. HOW THE BBC FELL FOR A MARXIST PLOT TO DESTROY CIVILISATION FROM WITHIN. There was a photograph of Herbert Marcuse and everything.

There are days of the week, I don't mind admitting, where I feel a little like Dave Sim. Why are we still having this conversation, I feel like saying. I have told you what is going on. Are you not hearing me? Political Correctness doesn't mean going out of your way, maybe too far out of your way, to avoid offending the other guy. It never did. It is, and always was, a paranoid fantasy about a Marxist Plot to destroy civilisation, invented by an right wing academic called William Lind and sold to the British press and thus to the British political parties by one-man pressure groups with names like the Campaign Against Political Correctness.

"Gee Andrew, that sure is interesting," you say. "But my sys. admin really did ask us to stop referring to the computers as "master" and "slave" units, which I thought was going a bit far. And heteronormative is a pretty unwieldy word. "

No. No, no. That isn't the point. That isn't what we are talking about.

It might be that it's bad manners to ask a Muslim or a Jew "What is you Christian name"? It might on the other hand be that Muslims and the Jews should bloody well get over themselves and stop worrying about that kind of thing. It might be that Christmas is a mostly Christian festival and it might be that it isn't. If it is, it might be that it's okay to celebrate religious festivals in the public sphere and it might be that it's not. There are probably sensible arguments in favour of slippering serial killers and sending children who talk in the dinner queue to the electric chair. It might even be that "nigger" isn't a very offensive word and never was and even if it is it could be that the whole idea of "offence" is not something which the law can or should deal with. There are two sides to every question, apart from the one about whether Jack Kirby created the Silver Surfer. (If you don't think that there are two sides to every question then you are probably a fundamentalist or a bigot or a twit, and I mean that in a very caring way.)

But those aren't the questions that I'm asking. The question that I'm asking is "has the BBC fallen victim for a Marxist plot to destroy civilisation from within" and the answer is of course it bloody well hasn't.

It turns out that now the BBC has banned presenters from using the designation "BC" and "AD" when talking about dates again. This is another example of the sort of thing we could probably have a sensible discussion about, but aren't going to. It would seem to me that "AD" and "BC" are commonly used in colloquial English, and that we are going to carry on having comic books called "2000AD" and bad movies called "Six Million Years BC" for as long as we say "he was inching up the road" rather than ""he was 2.5 centimetreing along the road" and "and that's worth a few bob" rather than "that's worth between 5 and 15 pence" and "pull the chain" rather than "depress the little button thing on top of the cistern." Americans still have "dime stores" even though you can't actually by anything for 5c cents. On the other hand, we are likely to carry on, in more formal, technical settings like history text books, to say "C.E" and "B.C.E" has we have been for the last fifty or sixty years, because it is, in fact, a little odd to say that Mohammed was born 570 A.D because that's not the dating system that Moslims use. It would be very confusing to say that "Jesus was born 5 years before the birth of Christ" and completely barking mad to say that a particular dinosaur thrived in the year 64,997,989 BC. But it would be a little pedantic to say that the Battle of Bosworth field happened in 1485 C.E because Henry Tudor and Richard of York both called the year 1485 AD.

But that isn't the question. The question is why are we even talking about this. Because the BBC have not, in fact, banned the terms A.D or B.C. They just haven't. This isn't one of those cases where you can say "oh they kind of sort of have" or "Andrew has an opinion that the terms A.D and B.C don't appear on BBC websites any more, but other people think they don't. This is one of those interesting disagreements, and I guess BBC-AD believers and BBC-AD denialists will just have to agree to differ." Go to the page. Have a look. It hasn't happened, in the same way that Birmingham City Council haven't just banned Christmas again and never did. Hitler Diaries; Protocols of the Elders of Zion; Piltdown Man; Holy Blood and Holy Grail; Stan Lee created the Silver Surfer. Not differences of opinion. Lies. Lies, lies, lies, lies, lies. Lies.

Cleverer, or at any rate calmer, people than me have already pointed out that what the Daily Mail is objecting to is that people on the BBC are permitted to use the secular designation if they want to (Jeremy Paxman tends to; Andrew Marr tends not to) and that what the extreme right is saying is that they shouldn't be allowed to. The terms C.E and B.C.E should be banned and the terms B.C and A.D mandated, on ideological grounds. The Daily Mail is in fact doing precisely what it's fictitious political correctness brigade would be doing if it really existed, which it doesn't -- it just doesn't -- banning words banning words which it doesn't like.

BUT THAT ISN'T THE POINT. The point is that they are talking about an IMAGINARY ban which they made up out of their own head in order to promote their EQUALLY IMAGINARY story about how COMMIES are trying to DESTROY CIVILISATION.

And isn't it only fair that we should be a bit more considerate to the sensitivities of other races, religions and creeds? No, it's an act of cultural suicide. Most of us may not realise this but the ideological Left certainly does, for it has long been part of its grand plan to destroy Western civilisation from within. The plan's prime instigator was the influential German Marxist thinker ('the father of the New Left') Herbert Marcuse. A Jewish academic who fled Germany for the US in the Thirties, he became the darling of the Sixties and Seventies 'radical chic' set. He deliberately set out to dismantle every last pillar of society – tradition, hierarchy, order – and key to victory, he argued, would be a Leftist takeover of the language....

My old sparring partner from the Yorkshire Evening Post the "rev" Peter Mullen is a more straightforward

To be honest, I don't think the BBC's undoubted loathing of our Christian heritage is the main issue. They just loath anything that smacks of tradition and value and Englishness, of all that most of us were brought up to respect. Like Stalin or Pol Pot, the BBC would like to abolish all reverence for the past and for the institutions created by that illustrious past, and to make policy from year zero - a desolate, heartless, rootless public realm dominated by the banal celeb culture, pop music and the banal display of depravity which fills the air wave....

Just how many history shows has the BBC put out over the last twelve months, you pathetic little arsehole?

The made up fact about the new dating system is only one of large number of made up facts which the Common Sense Brigade have made up this week. Melannie Phillips assured us that (sit down, please) that "Christmas has been renamed in various places Winterval". It is, I suppose, just possible that Liz Jones really believes that there is no recession because a waiter wouldn't give he the seat she wanted in posh restaurant and lose fitting trousers caused the riots. You can be stupid without being dishonest. But it is not possible that Mel really believes in Winterval. She is circulating a lie which she knows to be a lie. she must be be.

We have also had this kind of thing:

Yet Britain’s response [to the pacific economies] is to adopt the faddish fixation with man-made global warming, for which no shred of reputable scientific evidence exists, and thus to sacrifice prosperity on the altar of New Left green ideology along with Old Left class war.

I said above that there were two points of view about every question. But when there is complete unanimity among experts (about highly technical and specialist subjects) you do have to say "the is complete unanimity among experts about this highly technical and specialist subject" which is very close to saying "this is true". But not if you are part of the Common Sense Brigade. If you are part of the Common Sense Brigade you make up a story in which all the real scientists agree with you but the MARXISTS are suppressing the real truth. (Mr Delingpole's article assuring us that homeopathy works and the scientists who keep explaining why it can't are a bit like witch-finders is worth hooting with derision at, as well.)

The Marxists. Herbert Marcuse. The Frankfurt Group. Stalin. Poll Pott. End of civilization.

I told you so.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011


This sort of thing isn't unique to the Nasty Mail, either. 

Theories about what caused last month's outbreak of extreme naughtiness are many and varied: from the usual suspect like Poverty, Unmarried Mothers, Grand Theft Auto, The Secret Elders of Frankfurt and Rap Music to more outre suggesstions like Jamaican Dialect and (my personal favourite) the Introduction of Decimal Currency in 1972. Liz Jones is, as ever, beyond parody:

But the problem started when the likes of Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and Gap commandeered hip-hop clothing and sold it back to young people. The style became self-perpetuating and, to be honest, it rotted young people’s brains. Look at the footage of the young people rioting in London and Birmingham and so on, and it’s like looking at a commercial for American Apparel. Sloppy clothes lead to sloppy minds. The biggest disservice fashion superbrands have done is to relax a generation, for huge profit, and not equip them for the real world. Just as drawstring trousers never emit the warning sign that you might be getting fat, so sportswear means you will never be smart, disciplined or employable.

But I was rather more creeped out by a piece in the Guardian, yes, the Guardian which interviewed parents and yoof leaders in the ruffer parts of London after Teh Riotz to try to find out What Went Wrong and What Should Be Done About It.` The people who spoke to the Guardian feature writer were all of one voice. The reason that the younger generation had risen up as one a set fire to things was, yes, "discipline".

Parents are fearful about how they chastise their children.....

Stirling wondered whether weakened parental authority might have something to do with it.....

London's mayor said adults and teachers needed to be given back the right to impose authority.....

Stirling....believes parents have become afraid to discipline their own children....

....Teachers are scared to punish children.

Chris (who did not want to give her surname) said she felt under pressure not to discipline her children

People here will call social services if they hear you disciplining your children.

It's all very well trying to be liberal, but parents need to be given back their right to parent.

Who are these people who call social services if you make your child sit on the naughty step for five minutes? What do we suppose would happen if a child told Childline that dad had said "No Simpsons for a week because you poured the pepper over your kid sister's head?" What sound does being banned from youth club or losing your allowance make?

Most politicians are reluctant to say that the majority of their voters are child abusers and therefore take the line that the occasional very light blow is a tool which some responsible parents use responsibly. But these people weren't talking about tools or techniques or parenting styles or light blows. No-one appeared to be saying "It's inconvenient that I am no longer allowed to slap Johnny lightly on the wrist, and have to use Time Out instead". They appeared to take it for granted that "discipline" was synonymous with "hitting" and now that parents were not allowed to hit their children, it followed that they were not allowed to "discipline", or "punish" or "impose authority" or indeed "parent" at all.

Except that, er, it hasn't. Some people think that parental hitting ought to be banned. Some people think that there is a jolly difficult balance to be struck between on the one hand it being an obviously bad thing for private citizens to hit other private citizens and on the the other hand it being a bad thing for the state to interfere in how private citizens order their private lives and anyway, how would  you enforce such. I understand that the NSPCC thinks that you should make the law but not actually enforce it. It would, as practically all polticians say about practically everything "send a  clear signal".

That's a good model of 21st century politics, actually. Don't do anything. Just send signals. We may return to this point.

What fascinates me is how deeply enmeshed people are in the fictional universe where the Political Correctness Brigade has already won; how firmly they believe that and all forms of discipline – along with conkers and bent bananas and indecent seaside postcards and Christmas  – have been prohibited,  even though they quite clearly haven't been.

I don't understand how any of this impacts on Teh Riotz in any case. It's a little far-fetched to suppose that some violent, sub-human feral hoodie, half-crazed by exposure to Grand Theft Auto and American Apparel, who has always existed in a violent gang culture in which black youths, and white youths with black accents, who think of each other as soldiers, and don't know how many pence there are in three-and-six-pence, routinely engage in lethal territorial knife fights, might sit out an orgy of looting because they're afraid that Mum might give them a slap when they get home.

But it's a good deal more convincing than Call-Me-Dave's theory:

"Are you going to come out looting and spreading anarchy on Monday night, innit?" (I have it on good authority that this is really how young people talk.)

"That sounds swell, but you will have to tell the cats that I can't, innit. If I were caught, the beak might keep me in after school on Tuesday and make me write 'I must not engage in sheer criminality' on the blackboard, one thousand times, innit.

"Haven't you heard, innit? The Cultural Marxists have abolished discipline, innit. They wouldn't be allowed to put you in detention until Wednesday night, innit."

"That's, like, way cool, and also wicked and safe, and possibly lush and mint, innit. Let's go and set fire to the bloomin neighbourhood  innit. Pass me that blimey molotov, innit."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Getting the ship confused

A man dies and goes to hell. Satan, after filling in the paperwork, leads him to his cell. It resembles a single room at a Holiday Inn. There is a small bookshelf, consisting of nothing but Barbara Cartland romance novels and Observer Guides to British Birds; an infinite quantity of pot-noodle in the fridge; and a TV which is showing nothing but repeats of One Man and His Dog. "Oh please, no, I'll do anything, show me some mercy" screams the sinner. "Think yourself lucky" says the Devil "This could be heaven for some poor bastard."
                                                             Very Old Joke[1] 

In my last dissertation from the riot-zone, I misquoted Call-Me-Dave as having said:

Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control. Sentences without verbs.

The first bit he really said. The bit at the end was, of course,  my little joke.

Sam asked: "Am I alone in thinking that 70% of that would be a blueprint for utopia?" I think that this is a really interesting question." I apologize in advance for failing to provide a really interesting answer.

I take it that Sam does not think that it would be a Good Thing if all schools were full of vandalism, drug abuse and bullying. I take it that he doesn't even think that it would be a good thing if schools were the kind of environment in which it was impossible for the teacher to actually teach anything or the pupils to actually learn anything.

There have, I suppose, been revolutionaries who think that the whole idea of Literature and History and Science were dreamed up by the Patriarchy in order to keep the workers in their places: that Grammar and Maths are intrinsically Hierarchical and Structured and therefore Repressive. Get rid of schools and books, let the kids go and listen to impulses from vernal woods, and everything will be fine. I don't think that Sam is one of them.

Similarly, I assume that he doesn't think that in the New Jerusalem, there will be widespread murder, rape and child abuse, and that the perpetrators will all get away scott free. Again, there have been those who think that it's the whole idea of "punishment" that creates "crime" and that if we stopped telling people that if they talked in the dinner queue they'd get slapped then they'd mysteriously lose all desire to talk in the dinner queue. Oscar Wilde thought this was the case: so did St Paul, sort of. I don't think this is Sam's point.

And while there have been very, very extreme feminists who are so sure that it's all the fault of men that they've wanted to take men out of the reproductive process altogether (I understand that sisters are doing it in test tubes nowadays) and that even if you absolutely need a man to make a baby you still shouldn't let him anywhere near an actual child, I don't think that Sam or Germain Greer or anyone else thinks that way nowadays.

I imagine that what Sam has in mind is that in Utopia, schools will be nice and interesting and child centred, so teacher will happy to teach and children will be happy to learn and there will be no need to impose learning friendly behaviour by means of rules and sanctions; and that in Utopia, criminals will be well-treated, educated, helped -- isolated from the rest of society as a last resort -- but always for their own and society's good, never with a thought of saying "you did it to us so we'll do it back to you". I think that abolishing fathers is probably one of the 30% of Dave's propositions which he doesn't agree with -- but it might be that he thinks that the idea of fatherhood is bound up with a toxic notion of force and power ("just wait till your father gets home") and that in Utopia, that kind of fatherly role will not exist. Children will have two mothers, one of whom will probably be a male mother.

Sam can tell us if this is the sort of thing he had in mind. But it wasn't the sort of thing which David Cameron had in mind.

At least, I assume it wasn't.

Regular readers [insert joke here] will recall that before the coup, I expressed concern about Mr Cameron's ludicrous poster which asked "Why Not Restore Discipline To Schools". It seemed, I said, to take it for granted that there was a thing called "discipline" which used to exist, which doesn't exist any longer, but which it would be possible to bring back into existence.

Now, that word, "discipline" carries a sliding scale of meanings, along the lines of:

1: Learning in general ("fine art is an academic discipline")

2: Some task which you have set yourself because you think it will do you good ("the discipline of fasting")

3: An orderly environment

4: A highly structured regime in which everyone has to be in a particular place at a particular time and in which clothes, modes of address and bladders are strictly regulated.

5: Punishment

6: Corporal punishment

7: A euphemism used by prostitutes who provide sadomasochistic services.

A relatively sane person might, in fact, believe and be prepared to defend the belief that in order for learning (1) to take place, you absolutely need an orderly environment (3) that order can only be achieved through timetables and ritual courtesies (4) and that such structured regimes can only be brought about with the threat of punishment (5) and that painful punishments are the only kind of punishments that anyone is bothered by (6).

But if you aren't careful, you will find people engaging in the most shameful flip flopping between the different levels of meaning. Some reactionary old soldier who thinks that neat ties, shiny shoes, army cadets and a decent haircut would solve all the worlds problems will defend his belief in discipline (sense 3) on the ground that you can't possibly be against discipline (sense 1). Anyone who has moved in evangelical circles will be familiar with the argument that "hitting children is a good idea because the word discipline comes from the same root as disciple". In fairness, quite a lot of liberals say that people only support discipline (sense 3) because they enjoy discipline (sense 7).

Now, it falls upon Michael Gove, Dave ridiculous education minister, to implement the long-awaited "restoration" of "discipline". This has become very politically topical because Dave thinks that one of the reasons for Teh Riotz was that children and young people nowadays are undisciplined. I wish it was true that there was an ancient Babylonian text which complains that young people do not respect their elders any more. It is certainly true that Chaucer complains about ill-disciplined apprentices. 

As we saw during the election, the measures that are being proposed (by Tony-Lite, I mean, not Chaucer) are laughably trivial. Some schools like to give parents 24 hours notice before keeping their naughty offspring in after school: Her Majesty's Minister For Education thinks that this shouldn't be necessary. (So far as I can tell, this is a policy of particular schools, or possibly a rule laid down by particular education authorities, so it isn't quite clear what the education minister is going to do about it -- is there going to be primary legislation that says that giving 24 hours notice of detentions will henceforward be unconstitutional? Will parliament also make a meta-rule forbidding teachers to permit boys to take their ties off on hot days, or that cutting across on the field on your way back from P.E isn't allowed even if you ask the gym teacher first?) Gove thinks that it ought to be permissible for a teacher to use physical force, say to separate two boys who are having a fight...what, you mean it already is permissible? ought to be permissible for a teacher to physically separate two boys who are having a fight without having to fill a form in afterwards. In Daily Mail speak, Gove's moderate list of minor rule changes came out as "Tories pledge to end classroom chaos". And of course, the neanderthals who post comment on the Mail's website immediately translated this to and I quote "Bring back the cane. Discipline went out the window when the cane was banned."

It seems to me that use of the term "discipline" is deliberately being used to create a fug in people's minds. It is absolutely true that no teacher has been allowed to strike a child for 30 years. It is possible that a very stupid person might think "Since good behaviour only follows from the threat of punishment; and since physical punishment is the only possible kind of punishment; I know, without needing to look, that there has been only bad behaviour in all schools for the last 30 years." But I don't think the neanderthals have articulated their point of view in so many words. They probably don't actually know so many words. I think that the very fact that we use the same word, "discipline", to refer to "hitting" and "orderly classrooms" means that when someone tells them that  "hitting" (=discipline) has been abolished they hear that "order"(=discipline) and "learning (=discipline) have been abolished as well. Hence Gove's modest suggestions about making the process of expelling a child from school less bureaucratic becomes  "Gove puts an end to classroom chaos". Doubtless there are difficult schools and difficult classes and teachers at their wits end: their always have been. But the generalized, solvable "classroom chaos" is a myth. In fact, it is very nearly a pun.

It is this kind of verbal ambiguity which Cameron seems to be playing on, and which Sam picks up. The suggestion that, as a general rule, we have "crime without punishment" is quite obviously absurd. We currently have about 85,000 people in prison in this country: some of them, at least, must have committed crimes. In the course of his speech, Cameron claimed that young-people-nowadays aren't scared of committing crimes because they think that if if they are caught, they will only get an ASBO, which they don't mind too much. (The whole point of anti-social behaviour orders -- and the reason they were controversial -- was that they were applied to behaviour that was not, in itself, criminal: you could get an ASBO prohibiting you from buying spray paint even though you hadn't actually been caught painting graffiti on walls yet. It might be true that teenagers who'd been looting shops thought that they would only get an ASBO: it's not at all the case that that was really all they'd get.) [2]

When Cameron said "crime without punishment" he could plausibly deny that he meant anything other than "I think that courts are much too lenient with first time offenders". But a lot of his extreme right wing fanboys will hear either: "No-one gets punished nowadays. If you are found guilty of a mass murder or a war crime, you just get a few hours of community service" (people who write to Metro and the Daily Mail really believe that this is true.) Or they will hear "Prison doesn't count as a punishment, because all prisons are like holiday camps. The only real punishment would be execution, torture or hard-labour, and when we secede from Europe and opt out of the Human Rights Act, that's exactly what they will get."

So. Her Majesty's Ministers makes very specific and only mildly controversial statements: "I think that teachers should be able restrain children without having to fill out a form"; "I think that people who commit even moderately bad criminal offences should be sent to jail even if they haven't been in trouble before." But they couch them in very general terms which play into the fantasy world of those who believe in the Broken Britain mythos.They say "I think that it should be easier for teachers to put children in detention" and the Common Sense brigade hears "All schools in England are in a state of primal chaos."

But liberals like Sam hear the very same words and think that what is being described is a socialist Utopia: a world without coercion or violence or arbitrary authority.

Well, doubtless this is coincidence. Clearly, Cameron didn't intend to describe Sam's ideal society. He just described what he saw going on in the country, and happened to couch it in terms which Sam could willfully and amusingly misread as describing a liberal or anarchist Utopia.


If my reasoning up to this point has been correct, then the lunatic right now operates primarily in a fictitious world in which a fictitious organisation called the Political Correctness Brigade has already taken control (or very nearly) of England. And the fictitious Political Correctness Brigade is simply a front for the Extreme Left. If Cameron believes that the Cultural Marxists are already running the country, is it any wonder that he describes his made-up Broken Britain precisely in terms of an anarchist Utopia?

[1] I also like the one about the man who, as a warning to mend his ways is allowed to see the torments being meted out to history's greatest sinners. Jack the Ripper is being eternally flayed alive by his victims; Henry VIII is having his head cut off over and over again; Hitler is acting as a domestic slave to thousands of Jewish people; and Richard Nixon is making love to Marilyn Monroe. "Nixon seems to have got off pretty lightly" says the man "Idiot" says Satan "That's Marilyn Monroe's punishment." But it wouldn't actually have been relevant to the essay.

[2] This seem to be the kind of thing that @Nick has experienced: because people think -- because Call-Me-David and the Daily Mail has told them so -- that Health and Safety now controls every aspects of their lives, then a petty official has only to say "ooo, it's against Health and Safety" and people are inclined to believe him. In the Olden Days, that same official would have said that the petty inconvenience he wanted to inflict on you as down to union regulation, or merely that it was more than his jobs' worth to do anything else. People's beliefs about health and safety and asbos seem to count for more than any actual law. There is no point in being saying the Birmingham city council never did ban Christmas (they didn't, by the way): the story is what matters.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

I wrote this ten years ago

Arthur:  And what happened to the earth?
Ford:  It’s been disintegrated
Arthur:  Has it?
Ford:  Yes. It just boiled away into space.
Arthur: Look, I’m a bit upset about that.
Ford:  Yes, I can understand.

So; Flash and me and Darren and Keith hired a little pleasure boat at Inverness, and spent a week tootling down the Great Glenn, across Loch Ness, Lock Oich and the imaginatively named Loch Lochy.
Flash and I flew from London to Scotland. That meant on one day I traveled on a train, a car, a bus, a plane and a boat.
Scotland is very pretty. There are hills and lakes.
One night, we tied up at mooring point a mile or so from the nearest village. There was no artificial light. We couldn’t take our eyes of the stars (until it got too cold and we went into the boat and drank whiskey and read poems out loud out of a book).  It surprises townies that the night sky has stars in it.
According to the guidebook, you could drown the whole population of the world in Loch Ness, three times over. Somewhere in its murky depths there hides a Monster.
Never mind the scenery, the whisky, or the stars. It’s the Loch Ness Monster that keeps the tourist business going. Souvenir shops offer you soft-toy Nessies (usually sea-serpents) or china ornament Nessies (usually plesiosaurs). Dumnadrochit has got a large fiberglass plesiosaur in front of a mocked up boat, so you can show your friends a photograph of you with the Monster. As you sail through the lock system into Fort Augustus, there’s a topiary of the monster and a little baby monster.
Flash explained that in Scots, you can’t mistake the word “Lock” for the word “Loch” because “Lock” is pronounced “lok” whereas “Loch” is pronounced, er, “clorrk”.
It only takes two people to pull a little boat through a lock, so while Darren and Keith held onto the ropes, me and Flash jumped off, walked into the canal-side pub (the Loch Inn, ho-ho) downed a quick pint, and rejoined them on the other side.
It was September, so the weather wasn’t perfect but we didn’t have any thoroughly washed out days. There’s a snapshot of the three of us looking very drenched by a very disappointing historical monument.  (An ancient well where the dismembered heads of seven people who had been executed in some blood-curdling highland feud were washed before being presented to the clan chief, apparently.)
The worst disaster occurred when we thought it would be a Good Idea to take the boat out into the middle of the lake while Keith was preparing a good healthy English cooked breakfast. The first time a teensy tiny little wave struck us, he poured a – fortunately not very hot pan -- of cooking oil over himself.
The charter company set Fort William as the limit of how far we could take the boat. It was Tuesday. A nice enough medium size town, containing the one good pub we found, name-check the Goose and Gruel. It’s the place you go if you want to climb Ben Nevis. We didn’t. We did visit the Ben Nevis whisky distillery, however. Not a whisky drinker myself, but I forced myself to try the free samples.
We took a taxi back to the marina where we’d left the boat.
“Och, have ye heard the news?” said the driver “Apparently, an aeroplane has crashed into a big hotel in America.”

We only had a radio to communicate with the outside world. But then one would automatically turn to  Radio 4 in a crisis in any case. When we turned on, there were car bombs going off all over America and tens of thousands were dead. Canary Wharf had been evacuated. Things only gradually got back to normal. I am happy to say that I still haven’t seen the footage of the tower collapsing.
I was going to use the word “stunned” to describe our reaction. Perhaps “embarrassedly not sure how to react” would be more honest. Since none of us on had friends or relatives in New York we turned off the radio and carried on with our holiday. There didn’t seem a great deal else to do.
There was an American family we’d passed in a couple of locks, with a star and stripes tied to the back of their boat. We noticed they’d lowered it to half-mast.
Last February, I lost a very close friend in a pointless futile stupid railway accident. That’s left me a bit mixed up over how to mentally process big disasters. I’d been through the experience of seeing a news report of a major accident, saying “tut tut, how terrible” and finding out twelve hours later that there was a real person involved. It would be nice to say “and that made me feel much more Christian sympathy for the horror stories coming out of New York”, but it actually just made me want to switch off. Must then a Christ perish in torment in each age for the sake of those with no imagination?
I think the media actually does very well at bringing minute-by-minute reporting of major events. In the old days, the morning papers were history’s second or third draft: by the time you heard the news, it had been tidied up. Journalists knew the facts before they reported them. Live news creates a weird immediacy, despite its inaccuracy. Fog of war – conflicting reports – “something terrible has happened, we don’t know what the details are yet”—too early to speculate. Real life must be very much like that. 
But after a few hours, it very rapidly reverts to normal; human-interest items about children who have lost parents and arty photos of the fire brigade raising the Stars and Stripes. Would the girl who lost her fiance be any more traumatized if he’d slipped on the steps outside his house and broken his neck? But because he perished publicly, her grief is News.
I know what they were doing and I don’t blame them for it. 6,000 dead is just a number, they want to put a human face on it. But it has the effect of assimilating the shock into an easily digestible narrative:  tragedy as soap opera. At some level, those of us who weren’t directly involved were enjoying it. God help us, we were.
“We are all Americans now,” said one commentator. I was at college in Brighton when the IRA came within a hairsbreadth of assassinating Mrs. Thatcher; one of those rare moments when strangers are allowed to talk to each other, even if it’s only to look down at the paper and say “Tut tut, nasty business.” People stood on the beach and gaped at the wreckage of the Grand Hotel. A man with one of those RAF moustache accents said “You a Tory supporter, then?” and I said “No, but that’s a bit irrelevant, isn’t it?” -- as if my opinion of the Falklands War or the Miners Strike might have any effect on my opinions of the moral wisdom of putting explosive devices in hotel bedrooms.
My opinions on the U.S foreign policy, the middle-east situation, George Bush’s brain-power, globalization and the fact that Starbucks make crap coffee remain precisely where they were on September 10. But that’s a bit irrelevant, isn’t it?

The most moving sound image which Radio 4 piped at us was the Queen’s guards playing the Star Spangled Banner outside Buck House as part of the changing of the guard; and the mainly but not entirely American voices singing the words. The cynic in me knows that “the Queen’s” decision to change the ceremony was really the result of a press adviser who wanted to make sure that she didn’t fumble the ball like she did when Di died. But it was very moving, nonetheless.
We can’t do patriotism; we aren’t allowed. At about this time of year, there is a minor classical music concert in the Albert Hall. Tradition dictates that the second half includes Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance and a silly medley of English Sea Songs, culminating in Rule Britannia. And every year, I mean, every year, without fail, there is a minor controversy about whether these songs are a bit bellicose and jingoistic and it wouldn’t be better to sing “I’d Like To Teach the World To Sing In Perfect Harmony” instead. This year there was even more mumbling. As it happened, the little American conductor with the line in weak jokes replaced Land of Hope and Glory with Ode to Joy but still let the multitudes belt out Jerusalem and everyone went home relatively happy. But one couldn’t help comparing our embarrassed confusion about patriotic traditions with the purity and wholeheartedness of that of the Americans.

The Vicar preached an entirely adequate sermon about Recent Events in the World. He said that it reminded us of the frailty and contingency of human existence; he said it reminded us of the weakness of human endeavor compared to the will of God; he said that if we put our trust in God rather than towers made by men, that, in the long run, even in the face of terrible events, we would be OK: that death needn’t be the final and total evil. He pointed out that in the Psalm, where it says “God is our refuge” the word “refuge” means literally “unassailably strong tower.”
All doubtless very true.
But it struck me that all he had really done was use an “item in the news” as a sermon illustration: rather as if he had drawn an moral point out of England losing the football (don’t set your hearts on human heroes, they may let you down) or, less likely, England winning the football (press on towards the goal however hard it seems.)
And that, one feels, is what a lot of people have been doing: like any big event, it can’t just be a Terrible Thing which happened: it has to be a metaphor of Titanic proportions; onto which we gradually project meanings. Sensible meanings, if we are C of E vicars; mad ones if we are Richard Dawkins or Pat Robertson. There are crazed fundamentalists on all sides. (Tony’s “reorder the world” speech reminded us that it was possible to be a well meaning liberal and a crazed fundamentalist at the same time.)
It’s unlikely that “Why does God allow bad things to happen” was at the forefront of the congregations mind. If we regarded “the problem of evil” as an impediment to Christian belief, it’s unlikely we would have been in church in the first place. The issue that we could have done with guidance on was, I thought, more practical. “What’s the Christian response to evil?  Should we try to forgive the people who did this terrible thing, and encourage our leaders to turn the other cheek? Or should we rather take up arms against Evil, and prepare for a Holy War?  Great Christians have  taken both positions. And if a Just War it is to be should we regard it as a Crusade against Islam, or merely a crusade against a minority of bad people? Or perhaps a police action against one Evil person? But if it is a war against bad people, why these bad people in particular; why not a never-ending theocratic war until a holy world government ushers in the Millennium?”
Answer came there none.

Someone said that reacting to a terrorist is rather like smacking a naughty child. You know that he’s trying deliberately to provoke you, and in reacting, you are in one sense, giving him precisely what he wants. But if you don’t, then he smashes up your house. There’s no doubt that the point of a terrorist attack is to provoke a retaliation, to make the target behave like the wicked oppressor that the terrorist believes him to be. (Now we see the violence inherent in the system! Look at me I’m being oppressed!)  But in one sense, what else do you do?
As a dyed in the wool liberal with dangerously pacifist tendencies; I would like to hear a good deal less about good wars, about how we are going to defeat the forces of evil and make the world a good and happy place and a great deal more about straightforward retaliation. Swift retaliatory justice, annihilating the perpetrator of the atrocity, in so far as we know who he is, and indeed where, taking out as many civilians and tacit supporters as happen to be in the way – nuke the whole country if you like, I don’t mind. It may not be an ideal solution, but it seems to be morally straightforward, in a brutal, Old Testament way. I can understand the morality of “If you kill our citizens, we will kill you”. It has limits. A blood-letting , some mourning, and we get back to normal. But a general war against terrorism – or, in some views, against evil in general – seems too open ended. It could go on forever. Millions could die. And it’s a blank check to give power to our rulers. Of course we aren’t going to be too critical of them during a crisis; but don’t let it go to their heads, otherwise the crisis could mysteriously drag on for ever and ever, with more and more of our liberties being eroded along the way.

And so everything gets back to normal; my holiday is over; there are reports of bombings on the news and some vague mutterings about anthrax in the stock exchange. It’s not even very interesting any more. Just some dead people in a foreign country; a subject to write about; slag off the clergy, maybe a parenthesis or two about Tony.
It’s been a standing joke in this column for years that half the readers are a mysterious alien race called “Americans”. I drop in friendly little asides about how “my readers” won’t pick up on the irony or understand my references to English literature. Assuming that they exist it would have been nice if I’d been able to think of something better to say to my Americans readers beyond “sorry”. Humankind cannot bear very much reality.

You could drown the whole population of the world in Loch Ness, three times over. Somewhere in its murky depths there hides a Monster.
Thought for the day

Thursday, September 08, 2011

The aforementioned Blackbeards Tea Party have just posted the track list for their second album on facebook. Not often one gets excited by a list of songs without having heard the actual songs, but I think the combination of their slightly OTT nautical arrangements with such impeccably chosen numbers as Barret's Privateers and Chicken on Raft puts this at the top of my "most eagerly awaited" list.

and they're playing in Bristol in November!

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Semantic Interlude

I think that the really interesting question, however is is "how the hell could anyone have possibly thought that saying 'taxation is the same as theft' was a useful contribution to a discussion about the abolition of the 50p tax band, or indeed, anything else?"
If "stealing" means "taking something from someone else without their permission and not intending to give it back" then it is a no-brainer that there are lots and lots of times when "stealing" is very naughty; a few occasions when stealing is very good; and a number of difficult cases about which we can agree to differ. Coming into my house and taking my laptop would be in am example of the first kind of stealing (bad); taking a knife away from a homicidal maniac who was about to stab someone with it, or confiscating heroin from someone who was planning to sell it to small children at the school gate would be in the second kind of stealing (good); stealing bread in order to feed your sister's children would be an example of the third kind (debatable).

Or perhaps you would say: "Ah! But confiscating weapons or drugs, and liberating food to feed characters in long French musicals isn't stealing at all." In which case stealing doesn't mean "taking something from someone else..." It means "taking something you shouldn't have taken". If you go with that definition, then it would be completely untrue to say "Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor". If the rich were really that rich and the poor were really that poor then what Robin Hood did wasn't stealing at all. I believe that this really was the line taken by the medieval English church, in theory if not in practice: it was the rich man's Christian duty to feed the poor; therefore the food didn't really belong to the rich man; therefore it wasn't stealing for the poor man to take it, if he really was starving.

So: "Taxation is theft" comes out as either:

"Taxation is taking something from someone else without his permission. Taking something from someone without his permission might be right or wrong depending on circumstances; so I'll now have to explain what it is about the circumstances of taxation which makes it wrong, which is very much where we started."


"Taxation is taking something which you shouldn't take; which is as much as to say, I personally don't approve of or agree with taxation: so I will now have to explain to you why I don't approve of it or agree with it, which also takes us back to where we started."

I suppose it is possible that there could be a rational man who thinks that our society, pretty much uniquely in the history of the world, could get by without a system of taxation. (Is the idea that the police will send you a bill after they catch, or more likely don't catch, the guy who stole your laptop and gave the proceeds to the poor? Or that once we all have guns, we'll be able to defend our own houses and won't need policemen? Will there be people who can't leave there own homes because they can't afford the toll to walk on the pavement? Or what?) But "I don't believe in taxes because taxes are a form of theft" is a meaningless sentence, boiling down to "I don't believe in taxes because I don't believe in taxes."

See also "I don't believe in hanging / war / smacking foxes / hunting children because hanging / war / smacking foxes / hunting children is a form of murder / violence / not the sort of thing which is acceptable in a civilised society."

I find this kind of thing keeps happening to me. I think that it is quite possible that I am in fact the wisest man in Athens, or a corrupter of the nation's youth or something.