Monday, April 01, 2013

Who Remembered Hills (1)

There is a very old joke which says that if you ask three different Christians a sensible question about their faith, you will receive four different answers.

The joke is also told about Jews and Psychiatrists.

I am about to claim that I have spotted three different ways in which people write about Doctor Who.

It would be awfully pretentious to describe them as "schools of criticism"; so instead I shall say that they represent three possible ways of enjoying the programme.

The first way, which should and can be ignored, is to regard Doctor Who as a kind of loyalty pledge. Last week's was the greatest Doctor Who episode of all time; in fact, it was the greatest thing ever to appear on TV -- very probably the single greatest piece of drama since man invented the alphabet. And next week's will be even better. If you say differently you are not a true fan. At the very least you should refrain from saying that David Tennant was incredibly irritating when non-fans might be listening, in the same way that it's obvious evangelistic common sense not to debate the precise job of the Virgin Mary or the finer points of the Holy Communion while there are infidels in the room.

This is the voice of the mercifully defunct Doctor Who Confidential, and, to a great extent, of Doctor Who Monthly. It naturally includes a few people who are working on the series, and an awful lot of people who think they ought to be. 

I don't blame them at all. They have their reward. They get to feel that they are part of an in-group; the gnostics, the knowing-ones who are riding the crest of the zeitgeist like the young folks, not stuck in the past like the fogies who are frankly more excited about the animated reconstruction of Reign of Terror than Season 7b. And it is probably perfectly true that Doctor Who fans appearing on Points of View and saying that Time and the Rani was an embarrassment hastened the cancellation of the original show.

But I have never particularly wanted to be on the crest of anything. What I have wanted, ever since I was buying fanzines which referred to Tom Baker as the New Doctor, is to be one of those wise old fans who has seen every episode of Dalek Masterplan and knows what is wrong with every episode of Season Fourteen (OH-WHAT-HAS-HAPPENED-TO-THE-MAGIC-OF-DOCTOR-WHO). If I had found the proverbial bottle containing the proverbial genius, my proverbial wish would have been to have been born exactly ten years earlier than I actually was. Oh, to have seen Unearthly Child on the day it was first transmitted! To have lived through Dalekmania! To have been a teenager in the UNIT era! 

Doctor Who began in 1963: which was rather too late for me. [*]

Had the proverbial granted my wish, I would also have been exactly the right age for the Marvel Age of Comics although on exactly the wrong continent to have enjoyed it; have had an eight year window to write to C.S Lewis; and a seventeen year window to meet J.R.R Tolkien. I would have been exactly the right age for Sgt. Pepper and exactly the wrong age for Star Wars. I wouldn't have had to do National Service, but I would have had to sit the Eleven Plus, had a much smaller chance of going to University and a much greater risk of getting the cane at school. I'm sorry; what was the question again?

If you make Doctor Who a shibboleth in this way, you will find that you are left with very little head-space in which to actually enjoy it. But that kind of fandom never was very much about enjoying the programme. It was always about being the biggest fish in the pub; having your balsa-wood Daleks feted in the art-room; having that reel-to-reel tape that no-one else had, a complete set of Annuals and the Dalek Outer Space Book. (I still don't have the Dalek Outer Space Book.) If some keen fourteen year old had asked one of those Wise Old Fans "Do you actually like Doctor Who?" he would have got the same reaction as if he had asked the Vicar if he actually believed in God.

Hush, child. That's not the sort of question you are supposed to ask.

(*) You've done that one before. -Ed


Saturday, March 30, 2013

Cheap Shots, Number 23 In A Series

The idea that Peter Jackson could direct an episode of Doctor Who is obviously ridiculous. The Hobbit is a small scale, rather gentle, leisurely paced children's adventure story. Jackson took out all the charm and magic and replaced it with melodrama, appalling sentimentality and ludicrously hyperactive sensationalist action and violence, most of which didn't even make sense on it's own terms.


Thursday, March 28, 2013


1: No. I don't know why it is somewhat okay to say "Mark Twain uses the n-word in Huckleberry Finn" but not okay to say "Mark Twain uses the word "nigger" in Huckleberry Finn". I suppose that the magic lives in the shape of the letters, in the same way that the magic of the F-word lives in its sound. I believe that both Neil Gaiman and Alan Garner researched the kinds of spells and charms that real magicians used to add authenticity to their fantasy stories, but then deliberately quoted them incorrectly, in case someone tried them out. I can see why you would want to draw attention to the fact that you find the word very offensive each time you quote it, in the same way that some Muslim traditions write "Peace Be Upon Him" each time they mention the name of the Prophet. I think that might be worth trying as an experiment, actually. "Some of the characters in "Scoop" use the word nigger (which is a very offensive word)". "In the course of "v" Tony Harrison says cunt (WIAVOW) seventeen times." 

2: Yes, the use of bloody (WIAMOW) in Pygmalion is a signifier of class, not obsentiy. Other characters use expletives like damn, hell,  filthy, and beastly (WAMOW) : they might be regarded as impolite or unladylike but it doesn't create a sensation. Eliza's sin is that she uses a lower-class word in an upper-class context. (In My Fair Lady, of course she shouts "move yer bleedin' arse (WAMOW)" during a race at Ascot, which makes the point rather nicely. 

3: There were some people on the high street having a campaign to stop the Middle East. They didn't agree with the way that Israel keeps taking more and more territory from Palestine, unlike the rest of you squares. They provided a map to show where the borders were in 1948, and another map to show where the borders were now. What interested me was that the two areas were marked "Palestinian land" and "Jewish land". Not "Palestinian land" and "Israeli land", or "Moslem land" and "Jewish Land." Was there a hidden Dawkins agenda, do you think (that it was Bad Religious People taking land from Nice Non Religious People)? Or did they think that "Jew" still carries negative connotations for many English people, and using the J-word would make us more likely to support the other side (in the way that the Daily Mail used to insist on calling The Labour Party "The Socialist Party" even though that isn't what it's called.) Or was it just that Jew is a short word and Israeli is a long word and there wasn't much space on the map. 

4: It isn't a tax. It's a means test. 

5: If you are reading about some particular theory or interpretation of history, you start to see evidence for it everywhere; very ordinary words start to take on special meanings. I described how this happened during the fortnight when I was reading about the "Paul McCartney is dead" conspiracy theory. Once you have been told that "he blew His mind out in a car" means "Paul died in a road accident" it is very easy to think that any lyric anywhere means the same thing. You think you lost your love -- because he died in a road accident. The long and winding road -- where you crashed your motorbike. On penny lane there is a fireman with an hourglass -- who is about to rush to attend the road accident. I think that, once you have decided that there is quite a lot prejudice around (which there is) you can easily flip into a mindset where every sentence and every word is evidence of prejudice. I think that once you have decided that there are quite a lot of people around who are absolutely paranoid about the PC police, then very ordinary events and words, like teachers noticing that its always the same food that gets used in food fights and taking that food off the menu, is evidence of the sinister hand of the PC police. So I suppose the only thing we can actually do is look charitably at context and intention, accept that language is a wibbly fuzzy thing that doesn't always do what we mean it to do and get on as best we can. Which, I realise, is scary to fundamentalists who think that the word means what the word means and if you say differently you are giving the bad man permission to be bad. There are left wing fundamentalists and feminist fundamentalists as well as religious fundamentalists and Darwinian fundamentalists  and I am perfectly well aware that fundamentalist is one of the magic words and someone will be saying "oh, no, no, no, no, fundamentalist means bad people who believe wrong things without evidence and can't possibly be applied to good Guardian readers who have a perfectly neutral stance on objective reality." 

So. Is there anything good on TV this Saturday?

Anyone who might be interested in "The Physical Impossibility of Debate In The Mind of Someone on the Internet" or "Language, Truth and Bollocks", my two previous extended rants on this subject do please send me an e-mail asking nicely, or make a small donation (£1.20 has been suggested) or buy something off the Amazon list and I'll send both the PDFs.  Many thanks to everyone who has already done so.  

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Appendix to the Appendix

i wrote a thing as a follow up to the thing that i wrote about the thing that i wrote

sort of about language and bad words in the light of what i said before and poets says "bum" on the radio and amazon selling tee shirts with "bum" on them and all the usual stuff like that

all the nice people who showed an interest in the last one already have it.

everyone else - send me an e-mail saying you are interested, or drop a couple of coins in the tin, or even buy me some comic books and i'll send you this one and the last one and anything else i do in the same vain. (this one is a 16 page A5 pdf at the moment.)

and no i am not going to a mailing list only format for the blog forever and ever and ever. my next essay will be printed on a t-shirt, the one after that will be a pod-cast, and third one will be tattooed on my bottom. i am, how you say, Exploring Alternative Formats.

Send me some money (£1.20 would be nice)

Buy Me Some Comic Books

Sunday, February 17, 2013

"The Physical Impossibility of Debate In the Mind of Someone On the Internet" is now available in no-frills Epub and Mobi (kindle compatible, I do believe) versions. PDF is still available. Sales are already approaching double figures.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

I wrote a thing about the thing that I wrote. And then I got someone who admires my writing very much to write some annotations. And then I stuck in some other bits and pieces I had lying around. and I put it together as a PDF. (I will take the arguments about formats for granted, and have a go at making an e-book tomorrow night.) If you are interested, please chuck a few coins in the tip jar and I'll e-mail it to you. Obviously, I don't do it for the money, I do it for the sheer love of people not knowing what the hell I am going on about, but about £1.20 per customer would be nice. It's about 20 page A5, including the original essay; comes in around 8,000 words, I guess. Possibly it will go some way to clearing up the confusion that the original piece generated.

Members of my direct family and people I've insulted in it will probably get one for free.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Monday, February 04, 2013

The Physical Impossibility Of Debate In The Mind of Someone On The Internet

If you feel that this essay is worthwhile, please consider purchasing the "extended edition" (PDF, epub, mobi) in return for a small donation.

Right so bitwixe a titlelees tiraunt
And an outlawe, or a theef erraunt,
The same I seye, ther is no difference.
To Alisaundre was toold this sentence:
That for the tiraunt is of gretter myght,
By force of meynee for to sleen dounright,
And brennen hous and hoom, and make al playn,
Lo, therfore is he cleped a capitayn;
And for the outlawe hath but smal meynee,
And may nat doon so greet an harm as he,
Ne brynge a contree to so greet mescheef,
Men clepen hym an outlawe or a theef.
Geoffery Chaucer

Woman is the nigger of the world.
John Lennon

Let us suppose, hypothetically, a country in which there was, and had always been, a link between complexion and seating on public transport.

Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that dark skinned people have to sit in the rear seats on busses, but light skinned people are allowed to sit in the front seats.

Let’s assume that this has been the case for so long that it’s practically invisible: most of the time, even the dark skinned people take it for granted that that’s the way things have to be.

Let’s also note that in this hypothetical and imaginary country, dark skinned people tend to come from the lower social classes, are less likely to own cars, and therefore have to use the bus service more frequently.

We could conceptualize this unfairness in two ways.

We could say that the neutral state of affairs would be for everyone to sit in the front seats, and that the dark colored people are disadvantaged by having to sit in the ones at the back.

We could say that the neutral state of affairs is for everyone to sit at the back, but the light skinned people have the advantage of being able to sit in the front if they want to.

Or we could say dark and light skinned people are equal (they can all sit down) but different (they have to sit in different areas.) But we probably wouldn’t. The phrase “equal but different” is used almost exclusively by light skinned people who are quite sure that dark skinned people are not their equal. So toxic is the phrase that even if a situation arises where it happened to be true — say, at a school where there were separate boys’ and girls’ soccer teams — you almost certainly wouldn’t use it.

So: either the dark coloured people are disadvantaged — suffering from unfair discrimination — or else the light coloured people have an unfair advantage or privilege. Both descriptions are equally true, or equally untrue: the glass really is both half empty and half full. But if you take the first model, you are apt to think in terms of stroppy black people demanding something extra; if you take the second, you are more likely to think in terms of mean white people refusing to share their treat with anyone else. Taking the second model also makes it harder to be indifferent: supporting the status quo means “supporting the privileged position of the white people.”

(Some parents tell children: “if you are very naughty, you will not get any ice cream.” Other parents tell them “if you are extra good, you will get some ice cream.” American parents, or at any rate, parents in American situation comedies, say “If you are bad, I will take away your ice cream privileges.” Using food as disciplinary tool is a really bad idea because and can result in all sorts of hang-ups and eating disorders.)

However you describe it, the situation is horribly unfair: so if the dark skinned people finally decide that they are going to sit in the front seats regardless of where law and tradition says they should sit, then everybody would support them on general principles.

There are, in fact, two sides two every question (apart from the one about who created the Silver Surfer.) It might, in fact, be that the fight about bus-seats isn’t worth having; or at any rate, that it isn’t worth having today. Better let the light skinned people keep their symbolic advantage than anger the more extreme elements on both sides and risk riots and reprisals. It is certainly the case that all the seats are much the same and the bus takes you where you are going regardless of where you are sitting. Changing a law, even an obviously unfair law, takes time, and the lawmakers may have more urgent matters they want to deal with first.(Politicians do have to think like that, at any rate so long as we remain a civil society with a constitution, laws and procedures, as opposed to one of those anarchists utopias where you tear up the rule book and everyone starts being spontaneously nice.) It might be that what is in everyone’s best interests is a harmonious society where even the most prejudiced light skinned people put up with even the most prejudiced dark skinned people, and that a gradualist approach to reform is more likely to bring this about than radical reform. Politicians sometimes have to think like that, too.

But I can’t imagine anybody actually arguing any of those points. The situation is so blatantly unfair that we would have a two-horse race: between the small minority of racists who don’t really want coloured folks on their busses in the first place, and an overwhelming majority who think that it is obvious (once the question has been raised) that everyone should be allowed to sit wherever they want to.

Similarly, there could in theory be a disagreement about what kinds of tactics the reformers should adopt. Should they simply disregard the law? (But doesn’t civil society depend on us all obeying laws, even laws we don’t like? If I am free to disregard the bus law, whence cometh my obligation to stick to the law about paying my fare, or the one about not punching the bus driver on the nose? Because it’s my duty is to obey a higher, god-given law of morality? But whose god? And who decides? The stronger side? But isn’t that how we got into this mess to begin with?) Do they have organized protests in which everyone ostentatiously and pointedly breaks the law on a particular day? Or do they start lying down in front of busses and picketing bus stations? Do they politely ask the transport staff to change the rules, or actively intimidate bus drivers until they are too scared to enforce them? What about the fellow who sets fire to himself on the back seat of the Number 9 to make his point? Or sets fire to someone else? Or blows up the whole bloody bus?

Most of us would say that it was our duty to support the dark skinned people regardless of whether or not we happened to like their tactics. Even discussing the tactics is tacitly supporting the injustice. The power imbalance is so obvious and blatant that it's incumbent on you to support the weaker side. You simply have no right to sit in the comfortable seats saying that, although you agree with the point that the people in the uncomfortable seats are making, you wish that they wouldn't make it quite so loudly. 

“But what if the dark skinned people adopt violent tactics: are you obliged to support them even then?” I think you are. Or rather, I think that once you have asked the question “do you agree with violent tactics?” you have put yourself on the wrong side. “Violence” means “use of force by the side we don’t agree with”. It’s a word that the powerful invented by strong people to describe tactics used by weak people. It’s just very odd to look at the entire machinery of a nation state bearing down on the little guy and say “I deplore the fact that the little guy threw a stone at a police officer.” 

“Terrorist” is what the big army calls the little army. It’s only “class war” when the poor fight back.

And this is true of every argument and every disagreement. Every quarrel is, in the end, a quarrel between a person with power, and a person without power. So you only ever have two alternatives: intervene on the side of the guy being beaten up; or intervening on the side of the guy doing the beating. If you do nothing, then you allowing big guy to carry on whacking the small guy, which amount to supporting the bully. If you say "But what if the fight really about? Maybe the little guy antagonized the big guy in some way?" then you are still doing nothing and allowing the victimisation to carry on. 

Of course, you may dress it up in fancy words. "I feel sorry for you" I may say "I genuinely do. I have nothing against dark coloured people. Some of my best friends have dark coloured skin. But philosophically, you will concede that it is part of the Cosmic Essence of buses that the dark coloured people must sit at the back  of them and light coloured people must sit at the front? You wouldn’t want to upset the Balance of the Force, would you? Or if you do not concede that, you must at least concede that that is part of my sincere and devout beliefs, and the since and devout beliefs of many other Jedi? So in order to preserve the Cosmic Balance, or out of respect for other people's faith, I must reluctantly sit in the comfortable seat. But do please understand that it isn’t about you. It’s about the bus.”

If I said this, I think that you might well take the view that I hadn't really said anything at all. All my talk about the Force and Cosmic Essences amount to "Well, I would give up my seat, but I don't feel like it." La la la I'm not listening!

Of course, most people are better at concealing their privilege under a poor mask of logic; but that's all it ever is -- a mask. Suppose I say: “Why does the law ban me from killing foxes for sport, but permit me to keep chickens in horribly inhumane conditions?” Aren't I just invoking concepts like "humane" and "even-handedness" — which are in the long run just as made-up an imaginary as the Cosmic Essence of Busses — to assert the hereditary right of rich people (like me) to own the countryside and do whatever they like it in? 

Or if I say "Is there any statistical evidence that capital punishment reduces the number of murders in society?", aren't I just invoking mystical concepts like "statistics" and "evidence" to occlude my belief that I'm a rich white guy, want rich white guys to stay in charge, and think that culling a few hundred poor black guys every year to show the who's boss is a small price to pay for maintaining the status quo? My use of terms like "murder" and "capital punishment" show pretty clearly which side I'm on. When a weak person kills a strong person, we call it "murder"; when a strong person kills a weak person, we call it "capital punishment". (C.f The school teacher hitting a little boys backside with a big stick, while chanting "")

It isn't that my arguments are "bad". It's the whole idea of "argument" that's the problem. "Arguments", "logic", "evidence", "proof", "neutrality" are things you learned in school, and schools were set up by rich white guys to teach ideas thought up by rich white guys in order to keep rich white guys in charge. 

How did the light skinned people get to sit at the front of the bus in the first place? Not by winning an argument, that's for sure.

Everything's really all about power. (Unless everything's really all about sex, but that's an argument for another day.) You might think that you are talking about theology or music or sanitation but if you look under the bonnet, it's always really about who gets to sit at the front of the bus. The question is never "who is right?: it's always "which side are you on?"

All of which leaves me rather stuck.

So far as I can see, everything I've said above is true. But when I'm asked a question, my inclination is always to work out the answer from first principles. At any rate, to use some kind of argumentation and try to work out what the other fella is trying to say, and if he's wrong why he's wrong and if he might have a good point. Which keeps putting me on the wrong side of the question.

I have just deleted three separate paragraphs giving examples of questions I may be on the wrong side of. I know how toxic discussions about questions that people are on the wrong side of can become, and how quickly. 

I have also deleted a paragraph about why I think they become toxic. It has been explained to me that when I try to do that kind of thing, I come out, to use the technical jargon, "sounding like a cunt". (I suppose this is why it is called "vulgar Marxism".)

Despite early assurances, the internet does not contain a 3D virtual reality in which I can be taught Kung Fu by Lawrence Fishburne and drown Tom Baker. All the internet actually contains is words. Lots and lots of words. Oceans of words. Millions of writers telling us what they think. Good writers, bad writers, indifferent writers; informed writers; ignorant writers; boringly right, engagingly wrong. Writers telling you what they think about what other people wrote about stuff they read on the internet. Derrida was right. There isn't any stuff. There's only people talking about stuff. I've never experienced a murder, or an election, or a football match, or (god forbid) an instalment of I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. I just kind of intersect with the ripples these things put out in cyberspace. Which isn't really a space, and isn't really very cyber. It's more like a lot of very bored people making wisecracks in their coffee break. 

But all this argument is taking place in a space in which we have already agreed that argument is not even possible. "Right" and "Wrong" aren't qualities that any argument has: they are just descriptions of which side you are on in a big fight that has been going on throughout history, and will carry on until, any day now, history comes to an end.

And you knew that already. 

So why are you even reading this?

I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: think it possible that you might be mistaken.
Oliver Cromwell

The infidel might have a good point, you know. 
Les Barker

If you thought that this piece was worthwhile, please consider purchasing the "extended edition" in return for a small donation.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Next time someone asks you what the BBC is for, listen to Kirsty's reaction to Martin Carthy's story about Scarborough Fair, and then listen to Benjamin Zephaniah reading the House at Pooh Corner for the first time. You just don't get moments like this on the tellybox. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Cross Purposes

Can a place of work or a school have a dress code?

Ought a place of work or school to have a dress code?
Dunno. Depends on how extreme the code is and how good a reason for it there is. Asking people to wear hard hats on building sites, fair enough. Asking people to wear clowns hats in the office, not so much. Okay to ask men to wear a tie. Not okay to ban them from wearing trousers. Unless company in question was Jock McHamish's Kilt Emporium. Or the Perfectly Normal Transvestite Shop. Or, come to that, the Raunchy Nude Butler company. It's complicated.

Are you saying that dress codes aren't unreasonable in themselves, but a particular dress code might be unreasonable for some people under some circumstance?
It's complicated.

Is this a human rights issue?
We have to come up with a vocabulary and framework for talking about these things, and human rights seems to be the one we've decided. If they'd asked me, we'd have reserved "human rights" for the big stuff like torture and war crimes, but they didn't. When t.c Tony Blair talked about access to the internet being a human right, I started to think that "human rights" had become one of those phrases that used to have a meaning but now just indicate mild approval from the speaker, like "stakeholder", "zero tolerance", and "British".

Might this ever be a human rights issue?
If a prison or school or branch of Tescos had a policy of enforced nudity, then that would be a breach of someone's human rights, as well as an interesting premise for a porno movie. We should be careful of making assumptions about how different people from different backgrounds feel about modesty. If your culture tells you to wear a turban, what does it feel like to be caught with no turban? Is it more like "How incredibly embarrassing! I've come to work without putting a tie on"? Or is it more like "OMG my knickers have fallen down in public and everyone can see my arse!"? It's only a couple of generations since a woman walking down the high street without a hat would have caused a genuine scandal, after all.

If a place of work or a school has a dress code, should there be exceptions to it for people with strong religious convictions?
It depends on the importance of the original dress code and the importance of the religious conviction. I don't think that I should be exempted from wearing protective clothing at work because I happen to have decided that I feel like wearing my "Smile, Jesus loves you" tee shirt today. If a company has made a rule about wearing badges, then I am not sure that it makes any difference if the badge in question is a skull and cross bones or an icthus. 

What are these strange "badges" of which you speak?
I believe that they are what foreigners would call "buttons". You may have become confused about the differences between "trousers" and "pants" several pages ago.

Is the law prohibiting Christians from displaying signs of their faith a breach of their human rights?
I don't know. But it seems pretty intolerant and mean spirited to me.

Is there, in fact, a law prohibiting Christians from displaying signs of their faith?
No. Of course not. Don't be silly. Just walk down your street and count how many cars have Christian fishes on them, and, for that matter, how many cars have those nasty little Darwin fishes on them.

Do some companies have a dress code which forbids the wearing of jewellery at work?
Apparently so.

Are people who want to wear crosses, stars of david or rosaries at work automatically exempted from the "no jewellery" rule?
Apparently not.

Have you ever seen anyone wearing a rosary at work?
No. Of course not. Don't be silly. 

Should there be an exception?
It depends on the importance of the rule and the importance of the jewellery. If you are working on a production line and jewellery is dangerous, then there should probably not be an exception. If you are putting books on shelves in a library and it's a very small and discrete cross, then there probably should be. If wearing a small cross is a compulsory element of your sect, then almost definitely. 

Wouldn't that mean that Motorhead fans and members of the Liberal Democrats would suddenly decide that wearing small badges was a compulsory part of their faith?
Almost certainly. If you say that "literary merit" is a defence against a charge of indecency or obscenity then every publisher in the country is going to claim that his top shelf magazine is a work of serious literature.

Are there, in fact, any Christian sects for whom wearing a cross at all times is compulsory?
No. Of course not. Don't be silly. 

So how did "the human rights court is deciding if companies should be legally obliged to waive their dress codes for Christians who want to wear jewellery to work" become "the human rights court is deciding if Christians should be banned from wearing crosses in public"? 
See under "Eric Pickles", above. 

Why does he think its such a big deal?
It isn't quite clear. He doesn't think that people should be allowed to wear crosses because everybody should have the same freedom as everybody else and subject to that as much freedom as possible; he thinks that people should wear crosses because Faith is a good thing and we want more of it. It doesn't matter too much in what. But he has a purely instrumental view of this Faith stuff.  He doesn't think Faith is a good in itself; he thinks it's a good because "it provides a clear moral compass and a call to action that benefits society as a whole", whatever that means.

So he really cares about "society as a whole" and sees Faith as a means to an end?
That's what I meant by "instrumental", yes. 

So, in fact, he worships "society" rather than God?
Yes Socrates; that is indeed the case.

Is that roughly what you would expect a member of discredited right wing government to do in a country where the dominant folk religion has always been a sort of Christian tinged secular pelegianism?
Oh, Socrates, you are so much cleverer than us!

Would the world be a happier place if I refrained from reading the Daily Telegraph even when someone has left a copy of it on my table?
Very probably.

What's the difference between analogy and allegory?
Analogy is when strawberries being you out in spots. Allegory invented the internet.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Loose Ends (5)

C.S Lewis's "trilemma" was never intended to be a proof of the existence of God. Again.

The radio broadcasts were never aimed at atheists. There weren't any atheists in England in 1940, and if there were they didn't listen  to religious talks on the wireless. They were specifically commissioned to appeal to those who "on whom church membership sits lightly."  Lewis's target audience are people who may think that "cardinal sins" are the kinds of sins committed by Roman Catholic cardinals and that the "begotten, not created" bit in the creed has something to do with the virgin birth. People who don't know but want to know, or who are prepared to listen. Translating big ideas for the benefit of the Common Man who is certainly not stupid but is almost completely uneducated. His attitude can certainly seem incredibly patronising, as indeed can everything else that the BBC did between 1922 and 1984; but they were wildly, wildly popular, turning Lewis into an instant celebrity and cult figure. 

I therefore become exasperated in a not at all mean spirited way when people just repeat the old saw that Lewis was a bad or dishonest polemicist because the "aut deus aut malus homo" argument is merely a "dodgy rhetorical flourish". He is directing the argument at people who think of themselves as Christians, but who honestly don't know what kinds of claims are put into Jesus' mouth in the New Testament; who honestly believe (because generations of dishonest clergymen and schoolteachers have told them so) that the Jesus of the Bible was a moral teacher and nothing more; that to be a Christian means "to be good"; that the expression "Son of God" means "person whose moral teaching we agree with". Lewis is showing why this doesn't work. It obviously doesn't work. 


The aforementioned Francis Spufford gives the trilemma very short shrift, as I mentioned in the review. He argues, very interestingly, I think, that the mystical transcendent sense of being in contact with God can be very emphatic even for very ordinary believers; so it would have to be utterly overwhelming for a remarkable and holy man such as we must suppose "Yeshua" to have been. Believing that you are God is a perfectly imaginable response to such an extreme experience. If human experience is such that perfectly sane people can come to believe that there is a God, it's possible to see how a perfectly sane person could come to believe that he is  God.

Of course, Dawkins has sufficiently poisoned the discourse that most people probably don't think that it is possible for a sane person to believe in God: me and Jesus and Rowan Williams and the Vicar of Dibley are mad and bad by definition, so the whole argument is rather moot.  

While Spufford is, in my opinion, a bit harsh on Lewis, he is very good about the whole scholarly debate about the New Testament documents and the "historical" Jesus. The Gospels are clearly stories, not news reports, and have to read as such, something which Lewis, curiously, never really came to grips with. On the other hand the, the populist notion that the stories depict a sweet Lennonist moral sage and nastybadjewish St Paul perverted them into a religion about a deified saviour is completely false. The earliest Christian writings we have are about a divine, resurrected saviour who is coming back Real Soon Now. The narratives are written decades later. 

Granted, those narratives must have had antecedents and sources - St Luke says explicitly that he's editing previous accounts - and all scholars agree that our best link to the really really original totally historical utterly authentic Jesus of history is a lost fifth Gospel that collected a lot of parables and teaching. [*]

Spufford cleverly makes the point that, even if this is correct, that still doesn't get us back to a sweetly human Jesus of simple morality as preached by Douglas Adams, Charles Dickens, Queen Elizabeth II, Woody Guthrie, Geraldine Granger, Miss Govey who taught R.E at my infant school, John Lennon and David Icke. 

He (Spufford) writes:

"Moreover, even if you try to discard everything in the biographies which is explicitly devoted to storytelling Jesus's divinity, and just concentrate on the bits which must have come most uncontentiously from the lost sayings-collection, you still don't get back to a layer in which he's just a wise person dispensing wisdom....'If someone asks for your coat, give them your shirt too' is not 'great moral teaching' in this sense. It is either foolishness, or something else."

Not great moral teaching. Either foolishness, or something else.

Now, what does that remind me of?  

[*] Except the ones who don't.

My previous seventeen essays on the Trilemma, can be found in "Do Balrogs Have Wings?"  along with that essay on Planet Narnia everyone wanted so badly. The unsigned copies are the valuable ones.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Loose Ends (4)

I may at some stage try and write a review of the Hobbit

But on the other hand, I may just sit in the corner and weep softly to myself. 

Man of Steel looks appalling, and after dubbing the last one The Abomination, I would be a bit of a humbug to go and see Into Darkness. 

I am greatly looking forward to The Miserables. 

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Even Looser Ends

(Responding to comments on previous thread. I will get back to writing about funnybooks soon, I promise.) 

Before writing anything about religion, I really ought to write, "I AM NOT NEARLY AS PIOUS AS I AM PROBABLY SOUNDING" in large letters at the top of the page.

The religious don't think of God as only, or even mostly, as Universe Createy Guy. (This is why most of them found that Hevolution required only relatively minor adjustments.) So I don't think that saying "God is like a father" can be mostly a way of conceptualizing the concept of Creation. In any case, Christians almost never talk in terms of God bringing the universe into being like a father bringing a child into being. If anything, it's more like a craftsman constructing something. (Hence "begotten, not created" in the Creed.) The reluctance to call God "Mother" is possibly connected to this: "God the Mother" is always in danger of giving birth to the universe, which changes the way you think the universe is related to God. Joseph Campbell goes on and on about this. 

Note that I didn't say "If Christians are right to conceptualizes God as sky-father..."; I said "If Christians are right to call God 'Father'" (or, as I then said "Daddy"). 

"What we call God" = "How we address God" = "What kind of relationship we think we have with God". 

Is there an imaginative difference between thinking that you can approach the divine as "Daddy" and thinking you can approach it as "Mummy"? 

I think there possibly is, maybe. 

At any rate, masculine imagery is used right through the Bible, and once you've said "God is neuter", "God is hermaphrodite" or "God is an energy field created by all living thing, he surrounds us, penetrates us and binds the galaxy together" you'd have to rethink all the other images and metaphors in the Bible. What would you do with the mystical wedding feast of the Lamb in the book of Revelation; the allegorical level of the Song of Songs; the parable of the Prodigal Son; the story of the Seven Foolish Virgins waiting for the Bridegroom; etc etc etc?

This is the problem with ultra free translations of the Bible. All very cute for Miss Muir to tell us that the Missionaries sometimes taught Natives that Jesus said "I am the coconut of life", but how did they then deal with the passage about the Jews leaving Egypt in such a hurry that they had to eat unleavened coconuts, which is clearly relevant to the story of Jesus' giving coconuts and wine to his disciples.

An evangelical pastor once posted a "wayside pulpit" poster outside his church, reading:


Back in prehistory, when the Church of England first debated the whole question of Lady Vicars, I think the position of most of us liberal evangelicals was along the lines of "Well, we are far from sure that a vicar does act as the ikon of God, because we are far from sure that we believe in that clergy are "priests" in that sense. But we are quite sure that a female priest can be an ikon of God the father just as much as a male one can." 

I mean, that was what we thought when we weren't thinking "This is a rather obscure and technical point to be making quite such a lot of fuss about." 

The only time we became jumpy about the whole thing was when a minority of women's ordination exponents said "A female priest can be an ikon of God because the Bible and tradition is completely mistaken to think of God as father". "Oor, er" we said "It now sounds as if you are making a change to the whole grammar of faith rather than, as we thought, correcting an obvious and silly historical injustice." 

A woman's ordinands wrote to the Guardian and said "The only difference between me and Robert Runcie is that he has a penis and I don't." The great Auberon Waugh responded in his column "Even at the purely psyiological level, this argument is bollocks."  It is entirely possible that I have quoted that before. 

A 2007 post by me, entitled "A Completely Unfunny Posting" gets more hits, by a fact of about five to one, than anything else I have ever written. I initially thought that, since it contains a lot of bad religious jokes, it must be linked to from some religious or theophobic website that I can't find. It has been pointed out to me, however, that in the course of the piece I frivolously refer to Mr Dawkin's imaginary "memes" as "midichlorians", so the hits are probably coming from very disgruntled Star Wars fans, none of whom have bought my book.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Loose Ends (3)

I think that "Jacob" makes a very valid point

I think his very valid point is this: The whole idea that the relationship between two men might be lawful and blessed, but not sacramental; and the whole idea that it's perfectly fine for a female to to be Queen or head of MI5 but impossible for her to consecrate the Eucharistic clearly implies that differences (and therefore, in certain respects at least, inferiority and superiority) are built into the whole system. That makes the whole system rotten at a very deep level.

I am very sympathetic to this argument, and actually used it myself the first time I wrote about this subject, back in the Jurassic era. 

I would, however, ask "Jacob" to charitably consider my analogy with the pagans -- the ones who hypothetically believe that the male and the female principle are hard wired into the universe, and a man can't be an earth mother any more than you can make rabbit stew without a rabbit. It's not a rule that someone made up; it's a description of how things are. 

This would make things actually a lot more sticky because if 

a: Sexism and homophobia are actually implicit in the whole idea of calling God "Father" 


b: Calling God "Father" is a significant Christian belief 

then it follows that

c: telling Christians that they have to have female priests and marry same sex couples really does amount to saying that their whole concept of God is not permissible; which really does amount to saying that they can't practice their religion; which is either a very good thing or a very bad thing depending on how Christophobic you are. 

But I am now making a hypothetical argument on behalf of a hypothetical person whose hypothetical views I don't myself agree with and may not even have properly understood. Some people may question the usefulness of such an exercise.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Loose Ends (2)

Using analogies sometimes helps me to think straight. I think they may sometimes help other people think straight as well. 

Jesus once said "You don't know when you are going to be burgled, so you lock up every night. Similarly, you don't know when I'm coming back to earth, so be prepared for me all the time." I don't think it follows from this that Jesus is like a house breaker; or spirituality is like a mortice lock; or pastoral care is like being a a crime prevention officer; or that the second coming is going to result in damage to your DVD collection. I think that the burglar has one specific element in common with Jesus, i.e the element of surprise. (Jesus also said that human beings were to God as litigants were to magistrates; I don't think he intended us to think that the prayer involves filling out endless forms, knowing the correct forms of address, wearing funny wigs etc etc etc.)

I get very bored with people wilfully misunderstanding analogy. Only the other day, a friend of mine said to another friend "Oh, if your bike is a mighty stallion, my bike is only a little shetland pony." I naturally responded "That's outrageous and Shetlophobic! Have you ever seen a pony with wheels?"

When an organisation -- let's call it "The Church of England", for the sake of argument -- confuses two elements of its own anatomy, let's say for example its arse and its elbow - over some particular issue -- let's hypothetically say "the ordination of women Bishops" -- everyone naturally feels very cross / ashamed / defensive / bored. Christophobic writers are naturally inclined to jump up and down with joy and say "You see! That proves what I've been saying all this time".  Bloggers are inclined to reply "Well, I think it's actually more complicated than that" even though in this case it probably isn't. 

So I think it can sometimes be helpful to take a step back and say "Let us imagine a different organisation, called X, that has made a different arbitrary rule, prohibiting a particular group (Y) from holding a particular office (Z)" What would follow?  Does the breadth and significance of Z within the organisation, the position of Y in the power structure, or the influence of X in the community make a difference; or is prejudice against Y over Z just as serious as prejudice against A, B or C over D, E or F. Because I am a terribly funny and witty writer (terms and conditions may apply) I like to think of silly values for X, Y and Z in order to make the analogy more memorable, and the essay less boring. If I ask us to think about a custard factory which won't allow blue eyed people to sweep the floor, it doesn't, mean that I think that the historical oppression of women is no more serious than the historical oppression of blue eyed people, or that carrying out the Great Commission and administering the Eucharist is like manufacturing egg thickened confectionery cream. I'm just trying to sort out in my own head what exactly it is we are disagreeing about.

I realise that many of us would rather not sort out in our heads exactly what it is we are disagreeing about. I think that many of us would rather just form battle lines and shout at each other. Which is great fun and excellent aerobic exercise, I admit. 

I think that many of us really do think that the Church of England is really a social movement like the Campaign for Real Ale or the National Society for the Prevention of Children, that all the ceremonies and rituals are more or less dispensable decoration (like one of those Laurel and Hardy men's clubs with jokey initiation rituals). Whereas I think that some of the people getting their knickers in a twist about ordination probably think that the ceremonies and rituals are the main thing, possibly even the only thing, which the organisation is there for. I think that most people "get" that there are groups of people like wiccans and druids and Alan Moore who honestly believe in rituals and ceremonies and spells which have some kind of actual effect. (Most of us also think that they are as fruity a batcakes, but that's not the point right now.)So I think it is sometimes helpful to say "Pretend that we were not talking about Christians saying that a lady can do anything except perform Holy Communion; pretend that we were talking about a group of wizards saying that a blond haired man could do anything except cast a Fireball spell - what would you say in that case?"

Which isn't the same as saying that I think that the Church of England is similar to a covenant of fire wizards, or that transubstantiation does 1D6 damage per level, or that I am going to carry on labouring this particular point for the next twelve months, necessarily.

I believe it to be the case that in a modern wiccan ceremony, only a man can embody the horned god and only a woman can embody the earth mother, because the male and female principles are believed to be real part of the cosmos. Peter Owen-Jones certainly had to get into the nuddy. But I don't actually know anything about modern neo-paganism, which is why I prefer to make up hypothetical examples. 

To digress back to the last point but one: someone might say that a belief that there really are male and female cosmic principles is Sexist; some might say that such a belief is Sexist, but not in a bad way; and others might say that it is not Sexist, because it is true. And someone else might say that if it were true, it wouldn't be sexist, but since it isn't, it is. You can define the word how you like, but it is not much help to deliberately think up a definition which will apply to people you think are wrong and then say that they must be wrong because they conform to you definition. 

Someone will say that imagining wizards who, while not otherwise prejudiced against bald people, say that the best spells can only be cast by people with hair, doesn't change the argument at all, because discrimination is discrimination and discrimination is always wrong. Telling a white man that he can't play in your Very Authentic Traditional Blues Band, or a black man that you don't want him in your Very Authentic Traditional Morris Dancing Side is no different from saying that he can't stay in your hotel, sit in the best seat on the bus, or vote in election.[*] Once you have conceded one kind of prejudice, however minor, you have conceded that prejudice is okay really. There are no grey areas. Never compromise: even in the face of antidistestablishmentarianism, never compromise. 

As a matter of fact, I would probably agree with you, although I draw the line at mixed gender changing rooms. But I think that extended hypotheticals about the Red Headed League may have helped to clarify the point. No disrespect intended. No intention to trivialize important issues. I don't for one minute mean to imply that you really have been chucking feathers and lumps of lead around in a vacuum.

[*] It obviously makes a difference if you say that the only people who can stay in your hotel, sit in the best seats in the bus, or vote at elections are Morris Dancers, Bluesmen, or High Level Wizards.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Loose Ends (1)

I don't think that "having false beliefs about" and "hating" are necessarily the same thing.

Er. that's it, basically.

I mean, I could say some other things if I felt like it. I could arbitrarily decide that I was going to spend 2013 referring to Richard Dawkins as "Christophobic". I could speculate about whether the use of the same word to describe "having false beliefs about" and "hating" is inadvertent, or tactical or sometimes one or sometimes the other and sometimes both. I could play around a bit with with words like "antisemitic" and "islamophobic" and wonder if everyone who is bothered by (say) ladies wearing face masks is "islamophobic", and whether that means they are wrong, necessary  But I don't think I will. 

Having false beliefs and hatred are not necessarily the same thing. But sometimes they are. Really, that's it.