Category Archives: blogology

A moment worth waiting for

I’ve been pleased by the response to the last couple of posts, including the corrections to my theology (cosmogony?) offered by a couple of commenters – although they do tend to undermine the argument I was making, so I’m not going to update the post to address them. The second post – the one derived from comments on Crooked Timber – was a bit more uneven; I think there’s some good stuff there (if I say so myself) but also some stuff that deserved the challenges it got from the CT sceptics. I’m going to use this space to think about which was which.

1. The Good Bits (I think)

faith is a subjective response to an experience of the sacred; experiences of the sacred emerge out of collective practices of reverence; and collective practices of reverence are a way of publicly expressing a sense of the value of things that need valuing (birth, death, sex, society, the passage of time and so on). Faith is what you end up with, not what you start from.

I think this is true – more importantly, I think it’s the right way round – but it’s only part of the truth; that phrase expressing a sense of the value of things that need valuing is carrying an awful lot of weight, and getting a bit squashed by it. And what is the “value” of death? At a subjective level, surely, death is the greatest and most terrible challenge to everything we value, as well as being a universal and inescapable fact. “Expressing a sense of the value” is a coffee-morning phrase for something much more problematic and difficult – “the value of death” cashes in, roughly speaking, as she’s gone and I will never, ever see her again – and where the hell does that leave me?

But that’s also something people do with religion.

What do you do when the old man’s gone -
Do you want to be him?
And your real self sings the song -
Do you want to free him?

As if to say, you may be able to get clear of the “old man” (or you may not) – but even if you do you can’t simply let the “real self” out (and you may not want to). … The real oppressions & constrictions (psychological as well as material) and the utopian yearnings for absolute freedom and self-expression – we all carry all this stuff around, and we need somewhere to put it, be it a church, an analyst’s couch or an inflatable Stonehenge.

The thing is, I think that being human is deeply, deeply problematic – why wouldn’t it be? Thinking meat – what’s that about? House a reflective consciousness in a simian brain and you’re bound to get a bit of friction. I think churches are a good place to take those problems and work with them – although not the only place, obviously. Atheists would say that the fact that churches rely on a belief in God is a bug; I think the fact that they house practices that produce a belief in God is a feature, and an interesting one.

“Many ways to God” isn’t some kind of “wouldn’t it be nice if things were nice” rationalisation – it’s what lots of people believe. Lots of devoutly religious people, who sincerely believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God – but who don’t find it necessary to believe that God would have damned most of humanity for worshipping somebody other than Jesus, and therefore leave open the possibility that God might have revealed himself in other ways to other people. … We don’t have any business asserting that our beliefs (“Jesus was the son of God”, etc) are factually correct. We have no way of knowing whether they are factually correct or not; we’ll only know for sure when we meet God, by which time it’ll be too late to argue. So we stick to [saying that non-believers are] “incorrect as far as we can see from our imperfect vantage point”.

The idea of holding a belief without asserting that people who denied that belief were wrong provoked a lot of resistance, but I think it’s still a valid point. Saying “I believe X, but I’m not going to say that X-deniers are wrong” is a way of saying that, in a particular (and important) area, it’s not up to me to decide what’s correct or incorrect; I may never know what’s correct or incorrect, or if I was told I might not understand. It’s a Horatio moment – a way of saying that there are more things in heaven and earth than our philosophy dreams of.

One of the most valuable things religion does, I think, is to confront the believer with something they cannot possibly understand. What this is is secondary; what’s important is the feeling of being at the limit of your understanding and being at peace with that. Because life will throw things at you that permanently exceed your understanding, and the ability to be at peace with them will serve you well.

Believing lots of things exposes you to exploitation – believing that your hard work will pay off, believing that your partner loves you, believing that you’re making the right spending decisions. And yet we get through the day. In which context, I like the idea that the word ‘faith’ would have been better translated as ‘faithfulness’. That to me is what ‘faith’ is about – an orientation of trustful commitment towards… something. Something outside ourselves.

This also provoked a bit of resistance, mostly along the lines of “I trust the people who have given me good reason to trust them”. (Yes, I remember being young and in love.) Maybe some people do go through life up- and downgrading everyone they deal with, divulging a bit more or a bit less personal information, allowing themselves a bit more or less spontaneous emotional engagement. I think that sounds like Hell, and I don’t think it’s the way most people live. The belief in God is a lot like the belief that your partner loves you, or that the people you work with aren’t going to stitch you up – it’s not so much a belief as a commitment to choose to believe, an orientation of trustful commitment, extended in the case of religion to the universe and all that surrounds it. And I think there’s something to be said for that.

2. A little light pushback

“Religion certainly does provide comfort to a lot of people in difficult situations, but does that make it a good thing? Follow the ‘opiate of the people’ analogy – opiates bring vital relief to people in severe pain, but we don’t think being a junkie is a good way to live your life. Perhaps religious beliefs are good to have when you need a comforting illusion, but they’re illusions that should be abandoned as soon as you feel mentally strong enough.”

My answer to this one is that I don’t think religious beliefs are comforting in any easy sense. The most comforting thing I heard from anyone in religious clothing after my mother died was something along the lines of “It’s time to let go” – as if to say, You’ve run into a wall that you can’t get past; perhaps you should turn round now and go home. (Not that going home was just a matter of going home, if you see what I mean.) I don’t think anybody told me my mother was watching over me or that I’d see her again, and if they had I wouldn’t have believed it. Religion, for me, is something that takes you to the very edge of abandonment and despair, and stays with you there.

And in any case, just how much comfort can those ‘comforting’ beliefs really be, even if you manage to believe them? I’ve been to a couple of funerals where the continuing existence of the departed was emphasised heavily, and I felt that every restatement was prefixed by a tacit This certainly doesn’t appear to be true, but by God, it’s worth at least trying to believe. Anyone committed to believing that their departed parent was having a high old time up there, strumming a harp and chatting with Einstein, would also be committed to believing that something that appeared to be unbearable and incomprehensible actually made sense, except that it made sense in some way that couldn’t be understood either. Which isn’t that comfortable a place to be – in fact, I think it’s pretty much on the edge of abandonment and despair. But with a sense of not being alone there.

“Is it really a good thing to be confronted by something you can’t possibly understand? Doesn’t that associate religion rather strongly with ignorance and lack of curiosity? For that hit of blissful non-comprehension, wouldn’t it be quicker just to believe that God made the world in seven days? Never mind that you don’t understand how it happened – it’s a religious truth, so it’s meant to be incomprehensible!”

I’ll take this one on: yes, it is a good thing to be confronted by something you can’t possibly understand. It’s good to look at something you don’t understand and realise you don’t understand it (as distinct from thinking that if you don’t understand it it must be nonsense). It’s also good to learn more and understand more. But there will always be something you don’t understand, and there will always be some things you can’t understand. I think that’s a good thing to recognise. The alternative is to think that there isn’t anything that, in principle, you couldn’t understand. That might work for the law of torts or the Keynesian multiplier, but it wouldn’t do you much good with “why does everything die?”

“Fine, but you don’t need religion for that – just a reasonably well-developed sense of wonder and humility.”

Never said you did need it – just that religion is, often, a carrier of those things.

3. The less good bits

Sometimes what you’re being asked to believe will seem to cut with the grain of your experience of the religion, other times it’ll seem daft, but if the experience of religious practice and community are working for you you’ll tend to go with it. … Of course, in some churches the package of beliefs you’re asked to take on board will included some harmful and dangerous stuff.

That ‘of course’ is doing rather a lot of work – or perhaps it’d be truer to say that it’s avoiding rather a lot of work. There’s a real problem here. I argued that religious ‘truths’ aren’t incompatible with scientific fact, because where they make factual propositions they’re not presented as law-like statements. Nobody’s saying that people who die generally rise again after three days, quite the reverse – Christians believe that Christ’s resurrection was miraculous precisely because it was an exception to the laws of death and decomposition. And it’s these localised, miraculous exceptions – at most – which believers are asked to commit to, and which they grapple with more or less effectively. But there’s no particular reason why the package of religious ‘exceptions’ should be limited to those relating directly to the life of Jesus. What about the plagues of Egypt? What about Aaron’s rod? What about God speaking to Abram? Come to that, what about the creation of the world in seven days? We know that this isn’t how the cosmos looks as if it works, but after all, this is an exception to all those rules…

I haven’t got an answer to this one, except to say that there’s nothing in Christianity to stop you travelling relatively light. Figurative interpretations of the Bible have a much longer history in Christianity than literal readings; by the time you’ve finished grappling with impossible beliefs and finding ways to believe in them, you may well come to the conclusion that God worked in his mysterious way through the Big Bang, the Nile flooding cycle and various other things, and generally kept his powder dry for the big performance in 30 AD. (In the immortal words of Wikipedia: “30 April – After being condemned to death by the Jewish court known as the Sanhedrin Jesus of Nazareth is crucified at Golgotha[citation needed]“.)

I just don’t see the bright line between philosophy and religion  – or between religion and any other set of ideas having to do with morality or ethics. People who believe in God think that a belief in God is a good way to orient your life. That doesn’t mean they don’t believe in science or rely on divine intervention to boil a kettle – it means they don’t believe that the fact that science works entails that a belief in God is not a good way to orient your life. And surely you could say the same of any philosophical position – it’s how you think the world is, irrespective of whether your daily life supplies any evidence of it.

The weasel words here are “your daily life”. Anyone who believes in the ultimate overthrow of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat, say, is unlikely to find much evidence for the underpinnings of this belief in their daily life, but if they follow the news for more than a day or two they’ll find enough. Whether evidence of God working his purpose out will also be apparent is more debatable. Perhaps the point that needed developing here was what was meant by a belief in God, or by orienting your life by way of such a belief. In other words, the question is not whether class struggle is a reality, but whether it’s a good framework for judging whether things are going well or badly. Similarly with a belief in God, and the beliefs that follow from it – above all the belief that humanity was made in the image of God, which makes each human life enormously valuable. And yes, you can find Christians campaigning against abortion on these grounds, but also against euthanasia, against the death penalty, against war, against poverty and political programmes that entrench it. Hence Christian Aid’s marvellous slogan, “We believe in life before death”.

34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Again, you don’t need religion for any of this (and, again, I’m not religious myself) – you just need a belief in people. But religion is, often, a carrier of that belief.

For me, religion is a way of dealing with the incomprehensible – and sometimes incomprehensibly terrible – facts of human life, a way of honouring things in life that seem to need honouring, and a way of giving due respect to people. Or rather, it’s one particularly specialised example of a family of cultural practices which offer ways of doing these things. It’s not a bad thing.

Falling to bits, gloriously

This post at Crooked Timber sparked an interesting and only intermittently acrimonious debate about whether religious belief is inherently irrational or self-contradictory, and how best to combat religious reactionaries. I got stuck in and ended up essentially playing a Christian on the Internet, despite not being one in real life. It was an interesting debate, though, and really made me think. Here are some of my comments. (Italics are other people’s comments; I’ve included links to their original comments as well as to mine.) Discussion centred on four inter-related topics:

  • the relationship of faith and practice (and by extension the relative importance of the two)
  • the truth-status of religious claims (if someone believes that Jesus was the son of God, are they committed to believing that someone who doesn’t believe that is wrong?)
  • whether beliefs grounded in faith set themselves above rational argument, so that a Christian can always end the debate by saying “it’s what I believe“; and
  • whether reactionary claims made in the name of religion are a good reason for arguing against religion, or (as I argued) a good reason for not doing so.

It’s a bit of a comment-dump – or rather, it is a comment-dump, slightly rearranged – but parts of it may prove interesting.

1. Who are these people and why do they do it?

I’ve been playing with the idea that religion is a practice first, a faith second and a set of factual propositions third. First, you commit yourself to a certain way of living, a certain set of practices (even if that’s no more demanding than going to church once a week and saying ‘Yes’ if somebody asks if you’re a Christian, it’s still a different way of living). Second, in the context of those practices and in the company of others who share that commitment, you experience (or learn to experience) a sense of the sacred, of reverence for something numinous. Third, as part of the work you do to maintain that way of living and recreate that experience, you submit yourself to the mental discipline of believing what your church asks you to believe. Sometimes what you’re being asked to believe will seem to cut with the grain of your experience of the religion, other times it’ll seem daft, but if the experience of religious practice and community are working for you you’ll tend to go with it.The atheist’s view of religion often seems to centre on the third step, which is much the least fundamental. To the atheist’s question You believe that? a Christian will often answer “Well, I try to.” (Spufford: “Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed”, emph. added.) And believing religious propositions can mean grappling with them, trying to make them make sense, rather than simply believing them literally. (It was a Bishop of the Church of England who described the Biblical story of the Resurrection as “a conjuring trick with bones”.)

Of course, in some churches the package of beliefs you’re asked to take on board will included some harmful and dangerous stuff. But there’s plenty of room to argue against those beliefs while still taking religious practice & religious community to be valuable forms of social life and granting some validity to subjective religious experience. You won’t find any stronger opponent of reactionary right-wing Christians than a radical left-wing Christian.

Faith which wasn’t accompanied by the possibility of doubt wouldn’t be faith, it’d be (subjectively) certain knowledge – just as the belief that Christ rose from the dead wouldn’t be at all remarkable if we didn’t simultaneously hold the belief that resurrection from the dead is physically impossible.As for what faith is, as I said above I believe that religious practice comes first, the experience of collective reverence for the numinous second and commitment to factual propositions a slow & often troubled third – as if to say, if worshipping Jesus together with these people works as it clearly does (for me), then perhaps I should take what these people say about Jesus to be true, however impossible it seems. Saying that faith is wrong because it entails believing six impossible things before breakfast didn’t work on Tertullian and it doesn’t work much better now.

It does seem to me that we, human beings, long for meaning, and struggle with an inner chaos of unordered impulses, response and experience, a dream world, we’d like to control, order and (contradictorily) free and express

Reminds me of a couple of lines from Jethro Tull which have lodged in my mind (potency of cheap music and all that) -

What do you do when the old man’s gone -
Do you want to be him?
And your real self sings the song -
Do you want to free him?

As if to say, you may be able to get clear of the “old man” (or you may not) – but even if you do you can’t simply let the “real self” out (and you may not want to). I think that’s psychologically quite powerful – and it reminds me in turn of Roy Bhaskar’s strictures on the image of “a magic transportation into a realm free of determination, as imagined by both utopian and so-called ‘scientific’ socialists”, to which he counterposed a project of “transition from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination”. The real oppressions & constrictions (psychological as well as material) and the utopian yearnings for absolute freedom and self-expression – we all carry all this stuff around, and we need somewhere to put it, be it a church, an analyst’s couch or an inflatable Stonehenge.

This is where Christians and their defenders really annoy me. Sure it is easy to poke holes in the arguments of naive rationalists, but the validity of those criticisms do not justify the jump to “Jesus Christ is our Lord and savior”.

I’m defending Christians, but I’m certainly not advocating that anyone convert – I’m not a Christian myself. I think religious practice can play a valuable part in people’s lives, just as practices like living in a commune, hanging out with artists, writing music, political campaigning, folk dancing and psychotherapy can do for other people. I think all these things can get you to somewhere similar, and that it’s somewhere worth going to; I don’t think you need to be religious to have a “religious experience”. I do think that being religious can be a way of getting there, and that for a lot of people it’s as good as any other, or even better.

the atheist asks why faith and you reply … what exactly?

My one-sentence answer is that faith is a subjective response to an experience of the sacred; experiences of the sacred emerge out of collective practices of reverence; and that collective practices of reverence are a way of publicly expressing a sense of the value of things that need valuing (birth, death, sex, society, the passage of time and so on). Faith is what you end up with, not what you start from.

Now, you can live a happy and productive life without ever going to Midnight Mass, and you can be a devout believer and a horrendous, miserable fuck-up. You can get through life perfectly well without publicly giving value to the big things in life; you can give value to the big things in life in non-religious ways which don’t ‘feel’ sacred; you can get an experience of the sacred without being formally religious. A world without religion wouldn’t be a world without any of the valuable things currently borne by religion. But those things are real, and they are borne by religion.

it seems to me inherently dangerous (because it exposes you to exploitation),

Believing lots of things exposes you to exploitation – believing that your hard work will pay off, believing that your partner loves you, believing that you’re making the right spending decisions. And yet we get through the day. In which context, I like the idea that the word ‘faith’ would have been better translated as ‘faithfulness’. That to me is what ‘faith’ is about – an orientation of trustful commitment towards… something. Something outside ourselves.

Any Christian believes that God sees more and knows more than any human being, including him- or herself. All statements about God are approximations; prayer is an orientation to something unknowable, something outside ourselves. So the truth of a statement like “Jesus is the son of God” is, more or less by definition, one element of a greater truth that we don’t and, as human beings, can’t fully comprehend. For all we know, someone could go through life denying the divinity of Jesus and yet picking up more bits of that truth than a staunch Christian. If that’s a possibility, what sense would it make to say that they were wrong to say Jesus wasn’t the son of God? Christians believe they understand a bit of God’s nature and they believe they’re genuinely oriented towards it, but they don’t know.

The emotional response that the religious experience promotes, on the other hand, is not to feel sad, but rather to feel guilty. To feel like you are a bad, terrible, awful fuck-up of a person, who deserves, who needs to be punished. Any mercy here is, in fact, the tyrant suspending the doom he himself has pronounced.

First off, you’re clearly talking about Christianity specifically, not religion in general. More importantly, while I won’t deny that some churches do put a heavy stress on the experience of guilt, I think it’s actually a distortion of the Christian message, which is much more about forgiveness. Paraphrasing from memory, Rowan Williams said once, “People think that when they leave religion behind they’re leaving sin and guilt, but if you look at the papers you see that sin and guilt and condemnation are alive and well. What people leave behind when they turn away from God is forgiveness, the sense that our sins won’t burden us forever.”

Repentance/forgiveness/redemption is one of the most psychologically powerful and rewarding experiences we go through. And, if the person you’ve wronged will forgive you, so much the better, but what if they don’t – or what if you’ve lost touch, or they’ve died? I think a large part of the appeal of Christianity is right there.

2. Do they really believe all that stuff?

God isn’t an empirically testable proposition, and neither is the Kantian categorical imperative or the emergence of the proletariat as a class-for-itself or the maximisation of subjective utility. I believe that people who find it useful to talk in terms of proletarian self-awareness could in principle find common ground with people who talk in terms of rational utility maximisation, given a lot of work and good will on both sides; I also believe that in practice that conversation tends never to happen, for good reasons. (What is impossible, on the other hand, is finding empirical proof that one set of ideas is the truth about reality and the other isn’t.) I don’t think religious belief is any different.

And yes, that does commit me to believing that common ground could be found between people who find it useful to talk in terms of God and people who talk in terms of a Godless universe, given a lot of work and good will on both sides. In practice, of course, that’s a conversation that really doesn’t tend to happen.

there are some fairly basic propositions that one would have to say “yes, that is correct” in order to be a Christian, and therefore that people who think something different are incorrect

Yes and no – i.e. yes to the first statement, no to the second. The idea that there are many ways to God is very widely held among religious believers – probably more widely than the idea that everyone has to convert or be damned. Even C.S. Lewis, when he wrote his version of the Day of Judgement in the Last Battle, has some believers in the Calormene death-god Tash end up being saved on the grounds that they would have believed in Aslan if they’d had the chance – and his theology wasn’t exactly liberal. Christians know that they’re saved by their belief in Christ, but they’re also aware (well, many of them are) that they don’t know the mind of God and hence can’t know that everyone else is damned.

Aslan judges some [Calormenes] – and not others – to have been good enough to be saved, which must mean that “worships Aslan” isn’t a necessary condition of “good enough to be saved”. In any case, the “sea of faith”/”many paths to God” mentality is very widespread among your actual believers.

Transubstantiation and the resurrection aren’t factual statements about how the world works – anyone who believes in them also knows perfectly well that this isn’thow the world works. That makes religious faith a very particular type of ‘denial’ – a belief that universal physical laws are/were suspended in this one place, or rather a commitment to holding that belief.

Some of the discussion here defends what religion could be, with beliefs that are inconsequential, metaphorical mush, and ignores what (Christian) religion more commonly is, an acceptance of certain claims as boldface “truth”.

Firstly, general physical truths – those fossils actually are relics of Noah’s Flood – are in no way core to Christianity; lots of Christians reject them totally. Reading the Bible literally is a very modern idea. Christ’s Resurrection isn’t really a “boldface truth” – everyone who believes it literally happened also believes it was a unique exception to the boldface truths of death and decomposition. Secondly, holding those two contradictory beliefs together leads directly into what you denigrate as “metaphorical mush”, which is much more common – much more normal – among Christians than you seem to think. If you were to ask a Christian (sympathetically) what they really think happened on Easter Sunday or on the road to Emmaus, I think you’d get a ‘metaphorical’ answer as often as not.

Of course, if you ask for boldface truths and to hell with the metaphor – yes, yes, never mind “in a kind of a way”, never mind “they had a real experience of something”, did he come back to life or didn’t he? – boldface truths are what you’re going to get. All the more so if your starting question was “are Christians so stupid or ignorant as to believe that a three-day-old corpse can come back to life?”

this “many ways to God” thing is trying to have your mushy cake and eat it.

“Many ways to God” isn’t some kind of “wouldn’t it be nice if things were nice” rationalisation – it’s what lots of people believe. Lots of devoutly religious people, who sincerely believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God – but who don’t find it necessary to believe that God would have damned most of humanity for worshipping somebody other than Jesus, and therefore leave open the possibility that God might have revealed himself in other ways to other people.Atheists on this thread seem to be asking whether it’s possible to be a Christian and have both a heart and a brain; when we answer Yes, they say Ah, but we’re talking about being a rigorously consistent Christian. Newsflash – there’s no such thing. Apart from anything else, rigorously consistent with what? There are two separate Creation stories, only one of which features Adam’s rib (the other has one of my all-time favourite lines from the Bible, “In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; male and female created he them”). The Gospels tell three versions of one set of stories and one radically different set of stories; you can’t believe them all, they can’t all have happened. And so on. The Bible, and a fortiori Christianity, isn’t about the-book-is-on-the-table statements of fact.

There are plenty of devout Christians, firm believers in the divinity of Christ, who nevertheless believe that not everyone who doesn’t believe in the divinity of Christ is damned. I can back this up, as well. God is omniscient, we’re not. God sees who he’s admitting to Heaven, we don’t. We can know that we’re saved, which gives us good reason to convert people if we can. However, we can’t know that everyone who misses out on the Good News is damned, or that there’s no other way for God to make himself known to them.

This is perfectly good Christian theology – as well as being a belief held more or less articulately by lots and lots of Christians – and it seems to me that it’s a substantial improvement on believing that everyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus is damned. That belief is a massive stumbling-block for anyone who believes in an omnipotent and benevolent God; in my experience it’s only embraced willingly by people who want God all to themselves and haven’t really got the point of the Gospels at all.

What you can’t logically do, if you believe that Jesus was the son of God, is think that other people believing something directly contradictory to that (ie that Jesus is not the son of God) are also correct. Ergo, they are wrong.

They appear wrong from our vantage-point, which we know to be imperfect. It would be the height of arrogance to say that they are wrong. Besides, what work is ‘wrong’ doing here? There’s been no objection to “I’m a Christian but non-Christians may do just as much good in the world”, or to “I’m a Christian but non-Christians may still be saved”. Why are those acceptable, and yet “I’m a Christian but I’m not going to say that non-Christians are wrong” is the badge of lily-livered pusillanimity that doesn’t deserve the name of religion?

We don’t have any business asserting that our beliefs (“Jesus was the son of God”, etc) are factually correct. We have no way of knowing whether they are factually correct or not; we’ll only know for sure when we meet God, by which time it’ll be too late to argue. So we stick to “incorrect as far as we can see from our imperfect vantage point”. Which is not a “mushy”, “woolly” or “uncommitted” position, although it does have a certain humility.

Do Christians believe it’s possible for people to return from the dead? No.
Do Christians believe that Jesus did return from the dead? Yes.

[NB when I wrote this I'd forgotten all about the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of the faithful at the end of days, and was thinking in terms of people coming back from the dead here and now. The physical impossibility of resurrection from the dead is the main point here.]

At the risk of C. S. Lewis-esque reductivism, it seems to me that this contradiction gives you a range of possibilities:

1. Christians are all too stupid to realise it’s a contradiction.
2. Christians don’t really believe it and are all lying when they say they do.
3. Christians are all batshit crazy, only all in the same or similar ways.
4. Christians go through a particular mental process which they call ‘belief’ or ‘faith’.

1. is plainly not true, 2. seems improbable, and 3. is basically a less flattering description of 4. And that mental process is what I’ve been describing.

3. You can’t argue with a Christian – or can you?

Once you have conceded that “I feel it in my heart”, “this makes emotional sense to me” or “this makes me a better person” are adequate justifications for the conclusion that there is a higher intelligence behind the universe or that souls exist, you have given away any intellectual tools to criticize somebody who feels it in their heart that homosexuals should be stoned.

This is an “I refute it thus” moment, surely. If this were the case, the only way a believing Christian could respond to the vilest things done in the name of Xtianity would be to say “who knows whether this is God’s will or not, let us pray”. Fortunately that isn’t the case – there is quite spirited debate among Christians about exactly what it is that God would have believers do in the world. You could say they’re being inconsistent, but I don’t think they’d agree – they’d say they’re witnessing as Christians, and arguing with fellow-Christians is part of that (as it has been since St Paul). You’d end up in the position of an atheist telling religious believers that they’re not religious enough.

you still have not shown me where religions can move beyond arguing, actually resolve their differences and decide on anything unless they refer to a set of otherwise universally recognized cognitive tools that, consistently applied, shows their very religion to be indefensible

I don’t believe “religions” do anything. I believe that Christians can have difficult, intense and productive discussions about what their shared faith requires them to do, and that those discussions can – with some difficulty – be extended to people who aren’t Christians. This obviously means that being a Christian involves more cognitive faculties than direct reference to inward conviction. I don’t accept that using those cognitive faculties would necessarily involve those Christians becoming atheists, for the simple reason that it plainly doesn’t: you can be a Christian and an intellectual. And I don’t think this should surprise us, any more than we’d be surprised to discover that an intellectual can also be a phenomenological existentialist.Your rationalism doesn’t do the work you want it to. You can show (that word again) that pi doesn’t equal 3 and that crop rotation makes sense, and argue those propositions down to number theory & molecular chemistry respectively. You can’t show that “religion is not based on anything more than fantasy”, any more than you can show that to be true of phenomenological existentialism, Kantian jurisprudence or revolutionary anarchism. You can certainly show that you can’t ground religion in scientific enquiry, but nobody here is saying that you can.

Reason is good for these areas where I use it daily, but not for these my cherished beliefs*. Why? Because that is different. It just is

Christians do use reason, they just don’t apply the scientific method to the foundation of their beliefs. Neither do philosophers, political thinkers or anyone else who thinks ethics and morality are worth arguing about. You can’t find the Holy Spirit with an ammeter; you can’t find class consciousness or the Husserlian epoche that way, either. It doesn’t make those things any less real and interesting & worth arguing about, for those who think they’re real and interesting & worth arguing about. (Those who don’t are free to argue about other things.)

I explicitly wrote that there are indeed ways of knowing, if you will, that aren’t scientific in the narrow sense, such as mathematics, deductive logic, moral philosophy, economics, history, art history, etc.

But the thing is, these areas all have more or less well-defined ways of deciding when a proposition is dead wrong.

I just don’t see the bright line between philosophy and religion in this respect – or between religion and any other set of ideas having to do with morality or ethics. People who believe in God think that a belief in God is a good way to orient your life. That doesn’t mean they don’t believe in science or rely on divine intervention to boil a kettle – it means they don’t believe that the fact that science works entails that a belief in God is not a good way to orient your life. And surely you could say the same of any philosophical position – it’s how you think the world is, irrespective of whether your daily life supplies any evidence of it.

There are lots of bad ways to be religious. Elevating revelation over reason is – not always but often – a very bad idea; cherry-picking scripture so as to give your own prejudices divine sanction is a bad thing to do; and treating God like a lucky rabbit’s foot (“please let the bus come now!”) is silly and childish. But it’s possible to argue against all of those things from a religious standpoint, and people do.

4. What about the bad guys?

the fact that religious claims are grounded in something other than rational enquiry doesn’t preclude believers from engaging in rational debate. Arguing that rational debate isn’t consistent with religious belief, and that Christians should therefore abandon either one or the other, is essentially criticising real Christians for not living up to your image of them. In real life the conversation between the liberal believer (L) and the homophobe (H) would go something like this:

H: “Jesus said we should kill homosexuals!”
L: No, he didn’t.
H: “Well, OK, not as such, but he did say [bullshit argument relying heavily on selective quotation]“
L: [Refers back to text and demolishes bullshit argument]
H: “But I just know that Jesus would say we should kill homosexuals!”
L: Well, I really think you ought to consider that you’re mistaken, because that goes against everything we know about Jesus. When did you start thinking this? Are you sure you’re not working out some of your own issues?
H: “But I’ve had a personal revelation! Jesus appeared to me and told me!”
L: I think you need help.

No different from the same kind of argument between a liberal rationalist and a rationalist homophobe – just replace Jesus with Darwin, say.

it remains true that large numbers of people, some of them important, do make truth claims about the state of the world based on their ancient poetry, and try to make life tougher for the rest of us on the authority of these claims. They need to be fought, and if the blowback from that fight upsets the nice club members who don’t actually cause problems for others, I’m genuinely sorry

Those people need to be fought with the “nice club members” on your side. If you’re fighting the NCMs as well, you’re fighting the wrong enemy.

What you need to do is pick your fights. If you’re fighting Creationism, fight Creationism. If you’re fighting sexism, fight sexism. In both cases you’ll have lots of Christians on your side. If you’re fighting the doctrine that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary… er, why, exactly?

Restrictions on abortion? Discrimination against gays? Lots of Christians oppose both. As for televangelists, there’s a reason people like Oral Roberts found their own churches. Campaign against what you want to campaign against, and I can pretty much guarantee that some Christians will be campaigning alongside you. Campaign against Christianity, and not only do you lose those potential allies, you get bogged down in side-arguments with people like me.

If you’re fighting televangelist scumbags, the many, many Christians who (a) believe in the power of prayer and (b) despise televangelist scumbags are not your enemy.

In his statement, [the Bishop of Down and Connor] doesn’t try to make any logical arguments we could address, he just states that abortion is against the teaching of the Catholic Church.

So we say, off the top of my head, “There is nothing in his statement to suggest that closing this clinic would result in better outcomes for women; women desperate to terminate a pregnancy will always find a way, and the closure of this clinic would simply help to drive abortion services back underground. I may not be qualified to argue Catholic doctrine with the Bishop, but I know something about the realities of women’s lives, and I am quite certain that more women – and more children – will suffer avoidable pain and misery if this clinic is closed than if it is left open.”

Or you could say, “Women have a right to abortion services on demand, and no old man in a silly hat is going to tell us otherwise just because some old book tells him so.” Which do you think would go over better to a largely Catholic audience? It’s all about picking your fights, and picking your enemies.

Lots of Christians do believe horrible and hateful things. Somebody once told me that Mother Teresa would be eternally damned unless she converted to the right form of Christianity before she died, the form of Christianity that had got her out into the slums of Calcutta not being the right one. On one level that’s angels on the head of a pin – what happens after anyone dies has never really interested me* – but it could have real effects; anyone who thought having the right beliefs was that important would presumably prioritise funding missionaries over funding famine relief.

So a kind of bigoted narrowness does, for many people, go along with belief in Christianity (go, as they say, figure). But here’s the thing: if bigotry always goes with religious belief and seldom appears without it, then religion’s your enemy. If bigotry sometimes goes with religious belief and sometimes with other beliefs, then bigotry’s your enemy – and un-bigoted religious believers are among your allies.

*In and of itself, that is, as I don’t believe that anything does. I do think what people believe about salvation and damnation is interesting & often very revealing.

To round it off I’ll just borrow a couple of other people’s comments, this time presented without any editing.

Zora 10.07.12 at 11:33 pm

I’m an American Zen Buddhist, in a sangha that doesn’t demand much in the way of faith. I’m not required to believe in a god — only in the efficacy of Zen practice. Or rather, that it’s worth trying out the practice. From that standpoint, the passionate denunciations of the atheists just whiz right past me. They’re not talking about me.

Yet I also find that I can read Christian or Muslim religious writings and say, “Yes, that’s SO.” I take God or Allah as a metaphor for those who need to experience their practice as a human relationship. The emotions evoked by this metaphor are powerful and useful. I recognize them. God is not my metaphor of choice, it does not resonate, but I cannot deny that it works for many people.

Isn’t that what Spufford is saying? That Christianity, as a practice, can cultivate love, compassion, serenity, acceptance of what must be endured. I understood what he said, and agreed — despite starting from an entirely different viewpoint.

Bruce Wilder 10.09.12 at 10:31 pm

The outside / inside dichotomy might be applied differently depending on whether you think the stress, in the OP title — Francis Spufford and the inner life of belief — should be placed on “belief” or “inner life”.

The very notion that the individual might have an inner experience — inalienable, subjective, private and owned — of which she needs to make sense, and which might, despite its seeming material inaccessibility to shared social observation, contain both a longing for, and a means of connection to the whole, of which the individual is an ephemeral part, whether that “whole” is a family, a society, a political state, a living planet or a universe, . . . seems curiously remote from the problems of political deliberation or ethical behavior.

Like others in the thread, I am troubled by the religious grasping at arbitrarily chosen, and apparently loosely held, “beliefs”, and using passionate “faith” in those supposed “beliefs” as a cudgel with which to bully others in various political disputes, or as a personal dispensation from personal shame or ethical responsibility. Putting those resentments against religion aside, the honoring of personal, inner experience, intrigues me.

It does seem to me that we, human beings, long for meaning, and struggle with an inner chaos of unordered impulses, response and experience, a dream world, we’d like to control, order and (contradictorily) free and express. I sometimes make the point in comments, that political arguments often take the form, not of a logical proposition like a syllogism, but of an hypnotic trance induction. We long to be hypnotized, to put aside our rationalizing, defensive consciousness; and, in persuading others, we instinctively play on this longing to be, literally, open to ideas and values.

If I come to the aid and comfort of a friend, who has experienced a tragedy or an accident, I don’t offer scientific analysis. I offer reassurance, touting “beliefs” which are objectively false as factual propositions, but are, nonetheless, aimed at repairing the person’s healthy narcissism. I am thinking of commonplace nonsense, like, “you are so lucky that the accident was not so much worse . . . ” It is important to hear that you are “lucky” — most especially, when you have been confronted with incontrovertible evidence that you are not — that you belong, that you are part of the whole, that you have as much right and purpose in being here, as the rocks, and the daffodils and the bugs and the stars.

We do a lot of this seeking after inner comfort and transcendant meaning, and not just in formally religious settings. I suppose that this is what people are mostly doing in a Tony Robbins seminar. It is why a business executive reads the Harvard Business Review. Maybe, following Aristotle, it is what we find in a great tragic drama. Or, what people seek, and sometimes, find in mind-altering drugs; or at AA meetings. It is what people want from magic or thinking about ESP and extra-terrestrials, or from sexual intercourse. It is what the coach is providing the team every day in practice, and in a pre-game pep talk.

I have listened to religious people, struggle with the concepts, say, of Darwinian evolution, and sense that their concern is that they are being asked to give up some necessary element of a favorite fairy tale, which has helped them find meaning or motivation in the necessary disciplining of their scarier impulses. They really don’t have to do molecular genetics or cure cancer (where factual and theoretical beliefs about evolution might have some purchase), but they do have to refrain from cheating their employers or killing their mother-in-laws, and hide their fear of being cheated by their employers or being killed by their mother-in-laws. If the universe doesn’t have an inherent moral structure of natural law and an all-observing God, well, then how can we justify ethical self-restraint in ourselves or expect ethical self-restraint from strangers?

I’m not always sure what the point would be in engaging people on the factualness of religious belief. I was raised in a Catholic tradition, which, following Thomas Aquinas, regards religious faith as focused on propositions, which are beyond factual refutation or confirmation, by definition. Of course, the bullying — exemplified by claims of papal infallibility — is front and center, as well. And, then there’s the hypocrisy — if that’s even the right word, for the disowned emergence of the darkest impulses — of sexual molestation or Mother Theresa making nice with the dictators of Haiti. The pragmatic case for religious belief or practice seems curiously difficult to put — the bridge to ethics or politics a mirage in the desert’s shimmering distance.

A man he may grow

Michael Rosen’s written a long and thoughtful piece about his experience of the grammar school system in the 1950s. I don’t know if it’s going to appear in print or on a higher-profile blog, but at the moment it’s just a post on his own blog – and he’s such a prolific poster that it’s going to roll off the bottom of the front page at any moment.

So catch it while you can – it’s a must-read for anyone who’s interested in the debate around grammar schools, or interested in debates about selective education, or secondary education in general. And anyone who’s got kids at school, has kids at school or is ever likely to. And anyone who went to a grammar school, or a selective school, or a comprehensive, or a secondary modern… Basically, you should read this.

It rings so many bells, both positively and negatively (really? we didn’t do that) that I’m tempted to live-blog my reactions to it, but that would be rather self-indulgent. I’ll just mention one small detail of Rosen’s story. He mentions that he was born in 1946, his mother’s second son, and that she died in 1976, aged 55. My own mother had her 55th birthday in 1976; I had my 16th. The coincidence of one date, and the differences of the others, raise all sorts of questions. I can’t begin to imagine my life if my mother had died in her 50s; it was hard enough when it did happen, thirty years later. Then: is it easier for an adult to lose a parent who dies relatively young? Then: easier than what?

But back to school, and a detail of Rosen’s story that sparked off a problem-solving train of thought. He writes:

the pass rate for the 11-plus wasn’t the same for boys and girls and it wasn’t the same from area to area. That’s to say, it panned out at the time that girls were generally better than boys at passing this exam. However, the places for boys and girls was split evenly between us. Somehow or another they engineered what was in reality something like a 55-45% split into a 50-50% cent split. Clearly, some five per cent of girls were serious losers in this and some five per cent of boys some kind of gainers – at least as far as the system thought of us.

But that last sentence can’t be right.

Say for the sake of simplicity that the children taking the test were evenly divided between boys and girls, rather than being 49:51 or 48:52. Then we want to know how many kids passed, and then how many were pushed up or down to even up the figures. Another thing I learned from Rosen’s post is that the pass rate varied from region to region(!), depending on the availability of grammar school places(!!), but let’s forget that for the moment and assume that about one in five passed the 11-plus (in fact the proportion ranged from 30% down to 10%).

So we’ve got, oh, let’s say 10,000 kids, made up of 5,000 boys and 5,000 girls, and 2,000 of them are going to Grammar School, the lucky so-and-so’s. Now, 55% of those 2,000 – 1,100 – are girls, and only 900 are boys. So we need to balance things up, and we skim off the dimmest 100 girls who passed and promote the brightest 100 boys who didn’t (each and every one of whom is officially less bright, and hence less able to benefit from grammar school, than the 100 girls we’ve just sent to the secondary mod, but we avert our eyes at this point).

So that’s 5% of girls demoted, 5% of boys promoted? No – it’s 100/5000, or 2%. When you massage that 55% down to 50%, the 5% that’s lost is 5% of the cohort that passed the exam (male and female), not of the girls (passed and failed). You could also say that the really serious losers – the ones who have been unfairly discriminated against even by the system’s own standards – are 100 out of the 1,100 girls who passed: roughly 9.1%. The serious gainers, on the other hand, are 100 out of the 4,100 boys who failed, roughly (reaches for calculator) 2.4%.

So there you go: applied maths for real-world problem-solving.

Clearly, some two per cent of girls (or nine per cent of the girls who passed the exam) were serious losers in this and some two per cent of boys some kind of gainers – at least as far as the system thought of us.

At which point I feel a bit like Babbage correcting Tennyson, but it’s right, dammit. And besides, without the maths I wouldn’t have arrived at the figure of nine per cent – for the girls who passed the eleven-plus but were artificially failed to even up the numbers – which is pretty shocking.

Let’s eat some toast

This blog seems to have ground to a halt rather. I’ve been busy (haven’t we all), and a lot of the spare time I have has been taken up by 52 Folk Songs (which is going well, but I don’t want to go on about it here again). Even the beer blog has been quiet, although not as quiet as this one – having a definite focus seems to help (“haven’t written anything about beer lately…”)

Anyway, I just wanted to say that if you’re not reading Michael Rosen’s blog, give it a go. It’s terrific. He’s got a lot to say, and it’s all good, or at least interesting; it’s mostly about education, but don’t let that put you off if you think you’re not interested in ‘education’. I wish he’d enable comments on it – he writes some really thought-provoking stuff, leaving me at least with nowhere for the provoked thoughts to go – but at the rate he’s posting at the moment it’s probably wise not to.

I don’t know Mike Rosen, although I have argued with him on blogs (mostly not about education). Like a lot of people, I first saw his name attached to children’s poetry, and children’s poetry of a particular kind. Now, I write (one doesn’t write about something, one just writes), and when I was at school I wrote a lot of poems; not because the teachers (or anyone else) wanted me to, but because it was something I enjoyed, felt I could do well, took pride in doing well. (Three slightly different things. I’ll come back to that.) And also because my older sister did and I admired her for it. I was an inquisitive reader and we had lots of books around the place – books we all valued, boringly grown-up books, weirdly grown-up books and (I think quite importantly) books that nobody valued at all; books we all thought a bit ridiculous, that were just there. (My mother’s incomplete Sociology degree had left her with a copy of Criminal Behaviour, by Reckless. What a book. Never once got it off the shelf.) What with the Important New Poetry anthologies and the Ridiculous Old Poetry anthologies, I read or skimmed through quite a bit of poetry, and I got interested in how you write poetry. So I wrote sonnets (both kinds) and villanelles (the proper tetrameter kind) and got into Gerard Manley Hopkins, and recovered from Gerard Manley Hopkins, and (after reading a bit of Shakespeare) got quite accomplished at iambic pentameter; it reached the point where I could turn it out at will, to length, with hardly any strain and quick as speech, or hardly any slower. Only a few of my poems rhymed, but most of them scanned, and the ones that didn’t scan I was generally going for a Ted Hughes-ish solemnity, a “hear the silence around the words” kind of effect.

So that was poetry, and it was something I could do; I enjoyed doing it, enjoyed feeling I could do it well, took pride in doing it well. For a studious middle-class child – or perhaps I just mean “for me” – the thought of me taking pride in something I could do came with a definite corollary, which was that there were lots of other people (or kids) out there who couldn’t do what I could do. And this didn’t bother me greatly; if anything, I thought of all the things those kids could do (centring on sport and respect) and thought, well, at least I’ve got this. The thought of writing poetry being a way into reflective & creative language use – and reflective & creative language use being something that everyone can benefit from doing, especially children, the earlier the better – didn’t cross my mind. If it had, I would probably just have thought “they’ll be sorry…

Then along came this Rosen character with his “poems” that just look like somebody’s sat down and started writing – or not even that, just like somebody’s stood up and opened their mouth. Along came Rosen and “poems” that anyone could write. Seriously, anyone. You didn’t have to understand poetry first, you didn’t have to read poetry first, you didn’t have to make your language fit a metric grid (should be metrical, need to work on that) – you could just write about stuff, and that was poetry! I was appalled.

The rest of the story can be told quite quickly. I was wrong.

He was right (about the whole writing poetry being a way into reflective & creative language use thing).

And he’s still being right – or at least interesting – about a bunch of things, mainly but not exclusively related to education.

Read the blog, it’s great.

No fear, Cavalier

A quick plug: my post on the recent Italian referendum, A Slap in the Face, is now up on the LRB blog. Excerpt:

[Berlusconi] has always known how to stitch an alliance together and how to get an election won. In his heyday he was both the boss of a powerful political machine and the figurehead of a broad alliance, incorporating the successors to the Christian Democrat and neo-Fascist parties as well as the xenophobic populists of the Lega Nord. That alliance has gradually flaked away; most of the post-Fascists and ex-Christian Democrats have abandoned Berlusconi and regrouped as a centre-right ‘Third Pole’. The ability to win now seems to have deserted him as well.

Share and enjoy!

Your mercury mouth

No prizes for guessing the theme of this lyrics quiz, which is a kind of follow-up to Rob’s. With a couple of exceptions these aren’t memorable lines in themselves, but a lot of them are in the vicinity of memorable lines; I think overall it’s pretty easy.

  1. And the whole world is on your case
    - “Make you feel my love” (JaneyG)
  2. Come here and step into the light
    - “Highway 61 revisited” (ejh)
  3. Don’t tell her it isn’t so
    - “If you see her say hello” (Rob)
  4. Even the nobles get properly handled
    “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (skidmarx)
  5. He was staring into space
    - “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” (chjh)
  6. He wasn’t too small and he wasn’t too big
    - “Man Gave Names To All The Animals” (JaneyG)
  7. Hunted like a crocodile
    “Shelter from the Storm” (chjh)
  8. I know that Fortune is waiting to be kind
    “Mississippi”
  9. I wait for them to interrupt
    - “I want you” (Rob)
  10. I’m a generous bomb
    “Please Mrs Henry”
  11. I’ve been to gay Paree
    - “Not dark yet” (Rob)
  12. It makes you feel violent and strange
    “No time to think”
  13. It’s so hard to get on
    – “Visions of Johanna” (ejh)
  14. Ninety-nine years he just don’t deserve
    - “Percy’s song” (Rob)
  15. One bird book and a buzzard and a crow
    - “Tiny Montgomery” (chjh)
  16. She’s so hard to recognise
    - “True love tends to forget” (JaneyG)
  17. There’s a new day at dawn
    “Where are you tonight? (Journey through dark heat)” – chjh
  18. When the children were babies
    - “Sara” (chjh)
  19. White ladder all covered with water
    - “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall” (Rob)
  20. You weren’t really from the farm
    - “(Sooner or Later) One of Us Must Know” (ejh)

Answers in comments.

Bonus question: what’s true (at the time of writing) of “All Along The Watchtower”, “Like A Rolling Stone”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Maggie’s Farm”, “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Blowin’ In The Wind” but no other songs? And which three songs are most likely to be added to this list?

Update 7 down, 13 to go (or 9 and 11 if Chris chips in his two guesses). Not that it helps, but #8 has been one of my favourite Dylan songs ever since I first heard it, at a folk club about five years ago; that folk club is also the only place I’ve ever heard #1, although I understand it’s become a bit of a standard. Apart from those, the only songs on the list with folkie connections are #4, #14 and #19; in the case of #7 I suspect a debt to “Lakes of Pontchartrain” (“If it weren’t for the alligators I’d sleep out in the wood”), but that may be a stretch.

Update 2 Ten of the remaining 13 songs first appeared on record within one five-year period. Hell of a period.

Update 3 9 down, 11 to go. (Five-year period: nine of the remaining 11.) Chris, do you want to take #7? (Never mind, chjh nabbed it.)

Update 4 7 left. Apart from #10, which chjh spotted as being on the Basement Tapes, they’re on five different albums, three of which have already had a track named (two tracks in one case).

Update 5 6 left; five different albums (including the Basement Tapes), two of which have already had a track named. (Nothing else off BotT, in other words.)

Update 6 Not done yet, but we’re getting there. Thanks to JaneyG for naming both the sublime “TLTTF” (there is some great stuff on Street Legal) and the ridiculous “MGNTATA” (the next line is “Ahhh…. think I’ll call it a pig”). Incidentally, the clues to the bonus questions, and my reply to comment 2, are all on this page (clicking on the titles is not required).

Absolutely final update Beans spilt. Sorry nobody got “Mississippi”; it’s a fantastic song, particularly if you hear it sung by somebody who’s still got a voice. “No Time To Think” is a great song, too – once again, I strongly recommend Street Legal, particularly the remastered CD (the mix of the original LP was dreadful).

The supplementary questions were about live performances. “All Along The Watchtower”, “Like A Rolling Stone”, “Highway 61 Revisited”, “Maggie’s Farm”, “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Blowin’ In The Wind” are the only songs Dylan has played live over 1,000 times – nearly 2,000 for the first two of them. Coming up on the rails with 900+ are “It Ain’t Me Babe”, “Mr Tambourine Man” and “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35″. “Please Mrs Henry”, “Tiny Montgomery” and “No Time To Think” have never been played live by Dylan; more intriguingly, “Percy’s Song” and “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” are among the songs that he’s played live precisely once.

He’ll drop you where you stand

I can’t help wondering where, exactly, Norm is going with this one (quote reordered but not reworded).

Israel’s killing of Ahmed Yassin:

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan: “I condemn the targeted assassination of Ahmed Yassin. Such actions are not only contrary to international law but they do not help the search for a peaceful solution.”

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, described the assassination as “very, very bad news”.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said: “Israel is not entitled to go in for this kind of unlawful killing and we condemn it. It is unacceptable, it is unjustified and it is very unlikely to achieve its objectives.”

Killing Bin Laden:

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed Osama bin Laden’s death as a key turning point in the struggle against terrorism.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said: “I would like to congratulate the U.S., pay tribute to its determination and efficiency in reducing the threat posed by terrorists and underline the close cooperation between the EU and U.S. in the fight against terrorism.”

Prime Minister David Cameron said that bin Laden’s death would “bring great relief” around the world.

And so on (the page linked also cites reactions from France, Norway, Brazil, Japan and the Vatican).

We could consider explanations for this apparent disparity that Norm and his source overlook. Most obviously, bin Laden was an effectively stateless individual who was waging (or perhaps had waged) a transnational campaign of political violence against multiple states. There was no obvious single cause around which negotiations or a peace process might have been initiated; no internationally recognised grievance on which bin Laden was recognised as a spokesman; no mass movement to demand negotations with bin Laden; and no actual or aspiring state-level actor in whose name bin Laden could have negotiated. The contrast with Ahmed Yassin is glaring. Whatever else he did, Yassin was an actor in the struggle for Palestinian statehood – a cause that most of the world recognises as worthy, and which most of the world hopes can be resolved peacefully. Some enemies, in other words, are better qualified to be shot down like dogs than others. Moreover, sometimes shooting down your enemies like dogs is just bad politics, exacerbating a situation that wiser tactics could ameliorate (“It is unacceptable, it is unjustified and it is very unlikely to achieve its objectives.”) There’s also a third explanation, which I’m afraid is probably just as significant as the other two: the world is wearily accustomed to the US going pretty much where it wants and doing pretty much what it wants, and doesn’t even bother to protest about it. However, this licence seems only to extend to one nation at a time. We could call that inconsistency, or we could just be thankful for small mercies.

But let’s, for the sake of argument, scrub out all those objections to the equivalence Norm is proposing here; let’s just say that in 2004 one country rubbed out an evil terrorist mastermind, in 2011 another country bumped off another evil terrorist mastermind, and the world’s reactions were strikingly different. What’s the implication? When we heard about the assassination of Yassin, should we have rejoiced at that news? And what’s the implication of that? Norm has always denounced the use of double standards where Israel is concerned, so presumably the lesson of Abbottabad is that it should be open season for evil terrorist masterminds wherever they may be. State see terrorist, state kill terrorist. No man, no problem. And if people say it’s unjust, or it’s not lawful, or it’s just bad politics… oh, please

Terrorism is scary stuff – the clue’s in the name – but it’s never worried me as much as counter-terrorism, and this argument of Norm’s reminds me of why that is. As it happens, I do draw a lesson from the Abbottabad execution, if that’s what it was (if it’s true that four people were killed, only one of whom had drawn a weapon, a better word might be ‘massacre’). I haven’t bothered blogging about it before now, partly because it seemed pretty obvious but mainly because Dave had said it already. But maybe it could do with saying again: state-sponsored assassination is wrong. State lawlessness is not a protection against individual lawlessness: rather, it’s far more dangerous, partly because of the vastly greater resources that the state has at its disposal and partly because a law-governed society depends on the state itself being governed by law (as Jeremy Waldron has argued, the rule of law is prior to the concept of law).

If you subscribe to a kind of extreme Hobbesian view of the state, in which the sovereign has both the power to make law and the power of life and death, so that a correctly targeted state killing must be legal – it’s his state, his rules – then you shouldn’t have any problem with the death of Sheikh Yassin, or Osama bin Laden, or for that matter Mairead Farrell, Sean Savage and Danny McCann. I didn’t think Norm held that view, though, and – more to the point – I can’t see any good reason why anyone would. So where is that argument going?

An extremist scrape

Our Margit declares if hoo’d cloas to put on,
Hoo d go up to Lundun an’ see the young Queen,
An if things didn’t alter when hoo had been,
Hoo swears hoo would fight, blood up to th’een.
Hoo’s nought agen t’queen, but hoo likes a fair thing,
An’ hoo says hoo can tell when hoo’s hurt.
– “The Four Loom Weaver” (trad., 1830s)

Well, I didn’t go – partly influenced, I confess, by dystopian fantasies of mass kettling – and it went off brilliantly:

a wonderful, spirited, and conviction-driven multitude of ordinary people, representative of the British population in their diversity, marched in their hundreds of thousands.In doing so, they made it clear – we made it clear – that we simply will not accept the dismantling of our welfare state and public services

And I’m not going to qualify that. The march went off brilliantly. Half a million people, give or take, assembled in the middle of the capital to protest against the government’s attack on public services. Activists, burnt-out veterans and absolute beginners, they came from all over the country – from the post-industrial northwest to the Tory shires – and they marched together. It was a truly remarkable march and it went off brilliantly.

Shall we look at that picture again?

I was right the first time: that was what last Saturday looked like. Cheerful, united, determined and very, very large.

If you stop here you won’t miss much. Continue reading

Smoke lingers

Recent email, lightly edited:

Many thanks for entering this year’s Orwell Prize. The longlists will be announced next Wednesday, 30th March, at 7pm.

For the first time this year, we will be holding a special event to celebrate the longlist announcement. Drinks from 6.30pm will be followed by the announcements at 7pm and a special discussion on blogging featuring previous winner, Richard Horton (police blogger, ‘Jack Night’) and one of this year’s judges, David Allen Green (‘Jack of Kent’), chaired by Jean Seaton (director of the Prize).

The event will take place at [...] The event is FREE – if you would like to come, please email [...]

We hope that the event will be a fitting celebration of all of this year’s entrants. Many wonderful books, great journalists and brilliant bloggers unfortunately won’t make it onto the longlists – but we want to celebrate all the excellent writing which has come in, and say thank you for making the Prize what it is.

Do feel free to share the invitation with colleagues and friends.

I guess that’s a No, then. Nice of them to make it a free event, though – asking people to pay to come and hear their name not being read out really would be adding insult to injury.

Update 31/3/11 Yes, it was a No. Congratulations to Laurie, Dave and especially Anton – well-deserved. What some of the other names are doing there is anybody’s guess. Daniel Hannan?

After “No Cuts!” the marchers’ favourite slogan was “Fairness!” Alright, then. How about parity between public and private sector pay? Or job security? Or pensions? How about being fair to our children, whom we have freighted with a debt unprecedented in peacetime? How about being fair to the boy who leaves school at 16 and starts paying taxes to subsidise the one who goes to university? How about being fair to the unemployed, whom firms cannot afford to hire because of the social protection enjoyed by existing employees?

Conservative pigging Home?

Whilst the Prime Minister David Cameron has secured a resounding success in persuading Arab governments to support intervention in Libya, the anti-war coalition has – unsurprisingly – been busy voicing its support for murderous dictatorship. A large gang of them congregated outside Downing Street in Whitehall last Thursday evening and handed out spurious and demagogic leaflets whilst waffling on about western imperialism. … The coalition is a cross-section of fruitcakes, loonies and closet masochists, mostly.

(I like the ‘mostly’. Judicious, dude)

And then – on the ‘Left’ – there’s Molly Bennett, who works for a Labour MP and writes about his constituents: they seem to be mostly “whingers”, several of them are “nutters” (some of whom she names), and one of them (also named) is an “enormously fat man” who gets around using a “fatmobile”, ho ho. What puzzles me about this blog is not so much how it’s got longlisted as why Ms Bennett’s employer hasn’t demanded that she take it down toot sweet. (Unless there is no Molly Bennett and it’s actually Chris Morris. That would make sense.)

I’m not the greatest fan of George Orwell – I think he was a dreadful old fraud who mistook unquenchable self-loathing for staunch radicalism – but his worst enemies would admit that he wrote well. He wrote clearly, and with some insight into the overtones of his imagery and the limitations of his arguments; and he wrote humanely, by and large (as long as nobody mentioned vegetarians). About the only connection between Orwell and the blogs I’ve quoted is that it would have been fun to see him take them apart.

What with our culture

With some misgivings, I’m planning on entering some posts for the ridiculously-named Orwell Prize this year. (I hate popularity contests generally, and this one seems more pretentious than most – and, as Phil says, this year at least there is only going to be only one winner. But I could do with getting a few more eyes on this blog – it’s currently getting less attention than my beer blog, which doesn’t seem right.)

So here are the posts I’m planning on entering.

Paint the words upon the wall (25th April)
“Quick quiz, aimed particularly at any readers who are outside the UK (or who don’t go past phone boxes very often). Each of the following slogans has been used in street advertising by one of the main political parties contesting this election … But can you match the slogan to the party?” (They were all Conservative Party slogans in the “Big Society” vein.)

Imitation of life (30th April)
“Apparently Gordon Brown didn’t really think Gillian Duffy’s remarks were bigoted; he thought something she didn’t actually say was bigoted.” (I conclude that Duffy’s remarks were deeply confused, and that racism was actually all that held them together.)

Tomorrow, today will be yesterday (5th May)
“In the last post I revisited the series of posts I wrote before the last election, arguing that Labour supporters should vote for parties to the left of Labour – a category in which I included the Lib Dems. (I voted Green on the day.) This time round, I’m seriously considering voting Labour. So what’s changed?”

The Liberal Democrat Party: a concluding unscientific postscript (9th June)
“Unlike leftish fiction-writer Ian McEwan, I am disinclined to extend much goodwill in the direction of the coalition government. … Tory government is bad; if you join a Tory government, or (even worse) make a Tory government possible, you and your party are off the political roll-call forever. This position seems pretty fundamental to me. But can I justify it on the basis of anything other than what McEwan refers to as ‘deep tribal reasons’?”

Bashkohuni! (26th June)
“Speaking of Albania…” (On the difference between Marxism as a scientific method and Marxism as guarantor of historical correctness.)

Late in the evening (30th June)
“I agree with Ken Clarke, up to a point.” (On the prison population and the danger of over-applying cost-benefit analysis in sentencing.)

A gift from the Queen (10th November)
“I’ve lived through several Remembrance Days … and for most of those I’ve refused to wear a poppy. (And it did feel – and continues to feel – like a refusal, not a free choice.)” (On patrotism, the necessity of unthinking loyalty in the armed forces and the danger of unthinking loyalty to the armed forces.)

Jolly little nothing (25th November)
“A number of people have been all over the latest from the Odious Clegg. Clegg’s big idea is to contrast ‘old progressives, who emphasise the power and spending of the central state, and new progressives, who focus on the power and freedom of citizens’. Old progressives believe in redistribution; new progressives believe in social mobility.” (More on the Lib Dems, this time starting from a truly dreadful thinkpiece by a leader who is clearly way out of his depth.)

Look who bought the myth
“‘we as a party still support the policy of moving towards the abolition of fees and I suspect that we will have something like that in our next manifesto.’ – Tim Farron MP” (I’m surprised nobody else picked up on this astonishing piece of Lib Dem chutzpah. The post wrote itself.)

Scant evanescent things (23rd December)
“Is there anything to say at this stage about Vince Cable and his supposed lack of impartiality?” (Damn right there was.)

Three pre-election posts (one about the Tories and two about Labour); seven post-election, including one about patriotism, one about class consciousness, one about Tory penal policy – and four about the Lib Dems, bless ‘em. All, naturally, written in prose like a window-pane, by a plain and unillusioned man who reports things as he sees them (I find it’s simpler in the long run). If that lot doesn’t win the Orwell Prize, I won’t be at all surprised.

Heave a sigh

How long do you leave a blog before you stop reading it, or take it out of your RSS feed? I currently follow 29 blogs; some (e.g.) I’m willing to leave for weeks or months between posts, because when they do post I know it’ll be worth reading. (A new post from Luke would be appreciated, though.)

But I’m saying goodbye to Splintered Sunrise. The blog hasn’t been updated since September the 2nd, and it seems unlikely that it will be now. As you who read this may well already know, something a bit odd happened to Splinty’s blog a few months before it shut down. Like most of his regular commenters, I saw Splinty firstly as a socialist blogger and secondly as a good source on what was going on in Ireland; his occasional polemics against the National Secular Society were just some of the padding that came with the package, of no more significance than his appalling taste in music or his occasional lapses into Cyrillic. Besides, I am myself the son of a preacher man (well, a lay reader man), and I didn’t have much of a problem with the occasional argument to the effect of “these militant secularists don’t understand how religious people think”. Some time around mid-year, this type of argument started to dominate Splinty’s blog; at the same time, there was a shift in the claims being made. We began to read posts that could be summed up as “these unbelievers don’t understand how Catholics think”, which had me squirming a little – and then “these so-called liberals don’t understand how true Catholics think”, which had me looking for the exit. And then, suddenly, silence fell. My immediate assumption was that Splinty had realised that he was espousing two radically different bodies of ideas – or, at least, that he was talking to two radically different audiences – and had retired, in a certain amount of bemusement, to work out how to reconcile them. This theory got a bit of a knock from the discovery that Splinty had resurfaced on the one-line Web, where he continues to post like the proverbial bandit – and never gets the opportunity to set out his views at length, or gets challenged to justify them in detail. So I guess that’s a happy ending of sorts.

I’m also going to stop checking on Rob Knox’s intermittent but frequently brilliant blog Law and Disorder (even the URL is an education). Rob’s last post on that blog reads, in part: “So, anyway, I have made a New Year’s resolution to try and post much more frequently, we’ll see if this actually comes about”. It’s dated 18th January 2010. I look forward to reading the book on international law that he will indubitably end up writing.

On the other hand, I am going to start reading Between the Hammer and the Anvil (which I currently catch up on every couple of weeks, very much the way I read XKCD) and Bad Conscience (which I read when it’s linked from Stumbling and Mumbling, i.e. quite often).

Finally, does anyone know what’s happened to Liam Mac Uaid’s blog? It’s currently coming up as “deleted”, which is surprising and a bit alarming. I’m hoping it will resurface in another form before too long (sectarian joke about relaunching with new name and slightly larger membership goes here).

Thou art my darling

Well, this is odd.

Back in January 2008 I started keeping beer tasting notes on the blog. Repeatedly updating that post rapidly became a pain, so I hived off the tasting notes to a separate page, which turned into a series of pages; quite soon after that, I started a dedicated beer blog and put the pages on there.

Earlier this year – on the 10th of August, to be precise – I started putting posts up on Oh Good Ale. Traffic was pretty slow to begin with, but once I’d got the blog listed on a couple of aggregators and exchanged comments with a few other beer bloggers it soon settled down to a regular 10-50 hits a day.

Then I posted this.

Here’s the last week’s stats on the Gaping Silence:

23/11: 40
24/11: 37
25/11: 34
26/11: 43
27/11: 66
28/11: 37
29/11: 82 (so far)

And on Oh Good Ale:

23/11: 11
24/11: 30
25/11: 7
26/11: 25
27/11: 19
28/11: 89
29/11: 1288 (so far)

It’s been linked, it’s been tweeted, it’s sparked a debate on an American beer forum (To be fair, when reading a UK blogger’s opinion on beer, you have to take into account the effects of insular dwarfism). In the immortal words of Sandeesh off the Apprentice, like influenza and e. coli, it’s gone viral.

I’ve always thought 100 hits in a day was good going on this blog, and on Oh Good Ale I don’t think I’ve ever even reached that. And now look at it. If I’m not getting asked to say something about beer on Radio 4 by the end of the week, I won’t be at all surprised.

Anyway, why am I even talking to you lot? My beer people await…*

*Joke. Honest. This will always be my main blog. And I’ll try and put a word in for The Gaping Silence over there, promise.

All your bedroom queries

Nice to see WorldbyStorm lighting on the Passage the other weekend. I started composing a comment after I’d listened to a couple of the tracks and rapidly realised I had far too much to say. Only one thing for it, really…

For a band by whom I own virtually nothing – one 7″ single, bought long after the event, plus one track on a ubiquitous compilation – the Passage have meant a remarkable amount to me. I think this is largely because the band crossed my path on four separate occasions – which, in fact, corresponded to four distinct versions of the band (there were six in all).

First, there was “New Love Songs”. Continue reading

Playing across the river

Here’s a meme of sorts, for anyone who’s interested.

1. Which blogs did you read regularly when you first started blogging?

The first blog I read regularly was Tom Watson‘s, of all things. It was the run-up to the 2005 election and I was one of the people pushing (at least within blogworld) for anti-Labour tactical voting; Tom Watson is a pretty good blogger for an MP, and – being a Labour MP – took a fairly straight-up-and-down “vote Labour to stop the Tories” line, which was fun to argue with. I started my own blog when my comments started getting too long, and started leaving comments and links on a bunch of related blogs – Blood and Treasure, Chicken Yoghurt, Europhobia, the Yorkshire Ranter, the Jarndyce Blog (defunct).

2. Which blogs do you read regularly now?

These days, on the other hand, my main hangouts are Aaronovitch Watch, Splintered Sunrise, CT and Daniel’s blog, although I do still read the Ranter and B&T. (Edit: since I began this post I’ve had to give up on Splintered, or at least start reading with a very long spoon. The comments threads there, in particular, have changed overnight from a thoroughly congenial environment to, well, something else.)

3. Which blogs have you stopped reading, and why?

I’ve tried to find some kind of political trajectory in the blogs I’ve spent a lot of time on over the years – Tom Watson to Gauche to Dave to Socialist Unity to AaroWatch, what’s that, right to left? Labour loyalist to not actually anti-Labour as such? anti-Trot to, er, slightly less anti-Trot? The fact that three of my favourite political blogs – Liam, Splinty (when he’s on form) and Cedar Lounge – write about Ireland may also be significant, or it may just be that I like the way they write.

Another couple of categories of blog I’ve stopped following are easier to identify. I used to run two separate blogs, one of them devoted to what was then work-related stuff; this was in what retrospectively looks like an odd period in my career, when I was heavily into ethnoclassification (a.k.a. ‘folksonomy’), the Semantic Web, ontology modelling and so forth. (A philosopher friend remarked that the entire ‘ontology’ project was doomed to confusion the moment they adopted that term – ‘ontology’ in this context signifies a logically-structured and locally complete set of inter-related terms, the mental universe of a particular discipline or application. An epistemology, in other words.)

Anyway, I spent quite a while looking for pointers on this brave new world of software-enabled social networking, while also looking for stuff to write about on my work blog and looking for something to read in between working. At one point I started writing a series of posts debunking the then-fashionable image of the “Long Tail”, and was at once downcast and relieved to discover that Tom Slee had done it all already. (Tom’s a fine blogger and I strongly recommend his book.) Nick Carr gave me several “oasis in the desert of hype” moments; he also gave me personally some useful advice when I was looking for writing work, for which much thanks. I used to read Dave Rogers with more attention than he solicited; he oscillated unpredictably between LiveJournal-ish chat, testy common sense and flashes of real wisdom. I discovered Maciej Ceglowski’s Idle Words by way of his “Dabblers and Blowhards” essay taking down a writer called Paul Graham, which is (a) much more widely applicable and (b) hilarious. (It occurs to me that a lot of my favourite bloggers from this period were (or are) essentially anti-boosters; people who react to the latest from Clay Shirky or Chris Anderson or Dave Sifry with varying proportions of scepticism, irritation and laughter. On Clay specifically, this from Tom is brilliant.)

At some point I noticed that most of my work blog feed was American (or Canadian), while almost all my home blogs were British (or Irish); at a later and less definite point I more or less decided to make a policy of this. So when I stopped reading blogs (from the world of software-enabled social networking) at work, none of the transatlantic blogs I’d been reading made it onto my feed at home (even if they weren’t all about s.-e. s. n.) It was an arbitrary decision, only really justified by the fact that my home feed was quite long enough as it was. I sometimes miss reading these blogs regularly, & sometimes check back on them. The blog from this period I look back on with most fondness is Shelley Powers’s Burningbird, which is currently running as five or six separate blogs but at that stage was all in one place. I can understand the decision to split it up – as a single blog it must have been taxing and challenging on quite a personal level – but from my selfish perspective as a reader I miss the single BB; it combined green politics, software development, feminism, the Semantic Web, personal experience and photography in some extraordinarily rich and powerful ways.

The other main category of blogs I’ve stopped reading consists of blogs that have stopped appearing. Short of dropping off the Web altogether, like the Jarndyce Blog, it’s not always clear when a blog has gone silent for good; I guess in practice it’s partly a matter of how long different readers are prepared to wait for the next post. Martyn Connell’s beer blog Zythophile went quiet for half of last year before coming to life again – I unsubbed at the time and had a six-month backlog by the time I caught on. I’m keeping Rob on the list for now, despite his silence for most of this year, in the hope that he’s also just resting; as far as I can see there’s nobody else doing what he used to do with that blog (viz. blogging a Marxist engagement with the legal form). By contrast, both Ellis and Justin put a fairly definite full stop to their blogs (although Ellis went on to do something not quite completely different). They’re both fine writers and these were both great blogs, which made me feel there were people out there doing the kind of thing I wanted to do with a blog. Saying any more than that seems both pointless and impertinent.

4. What blog did you start reading most recently?

My most recent addition to the RSS feed list is Jon Boden’s A Folk Song A Day, which does more or less what it says on the tin and does it rather well. But that isn’t really a blog so much as a project exploiting blog software. My latest blog discovery is Luke Roelofs’ superb (and exhaustingly prolific) Majestic Equality. Despite its title – taken from that Anatole France quote about the law – Luke’s blog is not devoted to a Marxist engagement with the legal form (although I wouldn’t be surprised if he gave it a go). What Luke does is to argue from first principles, taking a standpoint informed by Marx and Spinoza, and tackling questions like these:

What is meant in calling a prediction of the future, or a political theory making such predictions, ‘utopian’?

what goes on in someone’s mind when they help someone else with something?

is a human society possible, in which individuals will, except in very exceptional circumstances, be able to act without violating any genuine value, given sufficient wisdom?

It’s a bit like what Stumbling and Mumbling might look like if the more challenging arguments were followed through instead of grinding to a halt in a sputter of rhetorical questions – and it were written by a Canadian anarchist instead of a writer on the Investors’ Chronicle. Strongly recommended. For a taster, try these three posts on the deceptively intuitive concept of “violence”.

5. List every blog you’ve ever contributed to.

Actually Existing. I started blogging in March 2005, as a spinoff from the arguments on Tom Watson’s blog; my first post (digging out some material from 1997 which I hadn’t known what to do with) was rapidly followed by this bit of navel-gazing and this post, which before it was chewed up by Blogger was quite a decent bit of psephology. Another nine “how should we vote” posts followed, all concluding that we shouldn’t vote Labour. In the circumstances I don’t think that was wrong.

Apparently… (later Cloud Street). My work blog, set up later in March 2005. “I’ve started this blog as a place to collect my thoughts on user-centred ontologies, ethnoclassification, folksonomies, emergent semantics and so on.” They can’t touch you for it. First post: a reply to a comment on a blog post by Clay Shirky, taking a sceptical view of the claims then being made for Wikipedia.

What I wrote. A short-lived attempt to use Blogger to showcase (or park) some offline writing which I thought could use a wider audience. All three of these were merged into The Gaping Silence in March 2007, or November 2006 if you believe What I wrote.

Then there was the 2005 UK Election Roundup group blog (which no longer exists) and its larger, shinier, more ambitious but ultimately less coherent successor, The Sharpener (link goes to a list of all my posts). The Sharpener started well, with a bunch of us between us publishing at least one good post every day, but ultimately foundered because none of us were really sure what its identity was. I think in retrospect we should have been able to work “not Left but not anti-Left” into a USP – it would certainly be unique – but we couldn’t even agree on that much. The alternative was simply to be the politics blog that was open to everyone who wanted to write on a politics blog that was open to everyone who wanted, etc, but that wasn’t enough in the end to keep regulars motivated or stop occasional contributors from drifting away. The new Sharpener? LibCon for dedication, Fistful for variety, AaroWatch for attitude.

But my first blog, or blog-like thing, dates from 2003. On May 28 I put up the first two instalments of

A life in theatreland, clubland, Hollywoodland and the Land of Green Ginger: the memoirs of Sir Frederick Bodine.

and waited for the plaudits to start rolling in, if that’s what plaudits do. Oh well. The title of the blog was Remembering July Garland. An introductory post explained all:

“Ditch the rainbow song!”

The words were mine, all those many years ago; those sad, misguided words were mine. Fortunately for all concerned, my advice was ignored, as it would be so often in the future. But that’s another story for another day.

Of course, dear Judy didn’t ditch ‘the rainbow song'; indeed, it would be associated with her name for many years to come. It affords me a crumb of solace to note that the song was heavily edited before recording, eliminating most if not all of the elements to which I had objected. Even the title had to change – “Have yourself a merry little rainbow”, what sense does that make? None! None, I say!

These, then, are my memories of a life in the green room; a life which I can truly say has been lived among the stars; a life that’s full, in which I’ve travelled each and every byway. But more, much more than this.

I tried to place Sir Frederick’s memoirs with some of the top publishing houses, but sadly without success. (To be precise, I ran them past someone at Word (who said “very nice, but no thanks”) and someone at Mojo (who said “not really us, try Word“).) My dreams of finding fame and fortune as the Bodine amanuensis were dashed. But it was fun while it lasted.

Perhaps it was the drink talking, but at one point I asked old Morrie what had gone wrong – why wasn’t he the big star he used to be? He wasn’t best pleased, I can tell you. He glared at me, brandished an old Smiths 12″ and said, with great aplomb, “Sir Frederick, I’m still big – it’s just the records that have got small.”

I apologised, of course, and Morrie was soon his old charming self again. Apparently the restricted dimensions of CD packaging are a genuine concern for him.

Another couple of blogs need mentioning for the sake of completeness, although my song lyrics blog isn’t one of them (it’s invitation-only, and besides I haven’t updated it for ages.)

Oh Good Ale. At the beginning of 2008 I started keeping beer tasting notes in this post. My notes on beer rapidly outgrew the post and turned into a static page, and subsequently into their own dedicated blog. I‘m planning to turn have just turned the “tasting notes” posts back into static pages, after which I’ll and I may now start writing the occasional post and turn it into a real blog.

¡Vivan Las Caenas! This doesn’t really qualify as a blog I’ve contributed to, as there’s absolutely nothing there; I snagged the WordPress domain name late one night, not realising that I wouldn’t be able to unsnag it. The plan is to spruce it up a bit and put longer, retrospective posts up there – “My life as a military historian”, that kind of thing; either that or an issue-by-issue overview of my involvement with Red Pepper. Or both. The reference is to the revolutionary(?) slogan shouted at the beginning and end of my favourite film – and, indirectly, to the materialist idea that our lives are built in and through circumstances we didn’t create, and have been since before we started thinking about it. Structure determines agency, and agency would be pretty empty if it didn’t. Of course, at the moment it’s all I can do to post here occasionally and keep Oh Good Ale updated, so whether anything will ever appear on ¡VLC! is something of a moot point.

So there you go. Here are the questions again:
Tell us about…

  1. the blogs you read regularly when you started blogging
  2. the blogs you read regularly now
  3. some blogs you’ve stopped reading (and why)
  4. the blog you’ve started reading most recently
  5. every blog you’ve ever contributed to

Have at it!

What I’m looking for

There is (unless I’ve changed the design of the blog by the time you read this) a widget about halfway down the righthand column giving some of the more interesting search terms that people have used to find this blog. I don’t update it very often, partly because I don’t get many interesting searches and partly because I don’t want to bump most of the phrases that are listed there at the moment. I mean, take Dalton aspirin communism headaches – I’m quite proud to have been there for whoever was looking for that, even if the actual post was mainly about the future of the EU. (Note to self: planned Roque Dalton post prompted by recent LRB article now seriously overdue. I mean, recent LRB article no longer all that recent.)

As I write, the search terms for yesterday and today are listed as

“dont think we have enough protest
universita sweater
and was jerusalem builded here rules
underneath elegant women pics
heswall animal rescue
why are americans so uptight about eroti
manchester grammar school naked swimming
scott walker protest song

The last one is odd – “Hero of the war” would qualify, I guess – and I’m sure there’s a story behind the last but one. (Although not one that you can find anywhere on this blog – I’ve never even mentioned Manchester Grammar School before this post.) “and was jerusalem builded here rules” (emph. added) is also a bit of a mystery. As for this week’s Top Searches, here they are:

universita sweater
vivid cambridge topless
fashion shoot with social awareness
fass glas
“these scientists eh? they’re so stupid! you know those black box flight recorders they put on aeroplanes? and you know they’re meant to be indestructible? it’s always the thing that doesn’t get smashed? so why don’t they make the planes out of the same stuff?” the audience roared with laughter at how stupid scientists were, how they couldn’t think their way out of a paper bag, but i sat feeling uncomfortable. was i just being pedantic to feel that the joke didn’t really work because flight recorders are made out titanium and that if you made planes out of titanium rather than aluminium they’d be far too heavy to get off the ground in the first place?

The first three… well, you can find it yourself if you’re curious; I slightly regret posting it, although probably not as much as some people regret clicking through to it. “Fass” and “Glas” both appear to be German words, but otherwise the fourth search term is a mystery to me.

But the fifth is something else. It’s an extensive quote from Douglas Adams, which goes in this instance to this post. Blimey, I was writing proper posts back then. It’s crafted like a sermon, that one – or a good opinion column, which I guess was the model I had in mind: you go from the David Bowie title to the Douglas Adams quote, which turns out to be there to support an observation about Terry Pratchett, which in turn leads into a discussion of… the War on Terror and the London bombings of July 2005. Proper deep thought, and fairly controversial with it. I’m bigging myself up here, but only myself in 2005 – reading that post in 2010 makes me feel quite inadequate.

Setting aside where it leads, a couple of things about that search term boggle me. I can’t imagine why somebody would type the whole thing into a search box, and find it hard to imagine that anybody would. Nevertheless, somebody (and perhaps more than one somebody) does seem to have done so – the lower-case letters in particular (was i just being pedantic) militate against cut and paste. I hope they found the post interesting when they got to it. I was also struck by the fact that my blog isn’t the only hit for that chunk of text – it’s actually the eighth out of eight (although the post on my original blog is third; I think I copied the text myself from the first hit, which is on Charles Arthur’s blog). It’s nice to see that there’s an audience for Adams-related blogging, as I’ve been planning to do a bit more – well, I’ve been planning to write something about And another thing, anyway. I wasn’t thinking of using it as a lead-in to anything else, though, except possibly another book I’ve read recently. (I feel like apologising to Phil of 2005 – I’d be a great disappointment to me. Not sure what’s changed; perhaps it’s because I had a less interesting job back then, or I pinned more hopes on blogging – or just because I was newer to it?)

For now, can I interest you in Douglas Reed? “Bernard, Bernard, this bloom of youth“? giant octopus? They’re not necessarily the best posts I’ve ever written, but I can guarantee that none of them is about the future of the EU.

Update 5th August. Search of the day: “fashion photography from the boobs”. Yes, it’s another one of those searches – I’m starting to wonder about taking those posts down – but ‘from’ is curious; wouldn’t that rather defeat the object?

I’ll get my raincoat.

I got a message

Back in December 2008, commenting on the career of the recently-deceased Conor Cruise O’Brien, Daniel Davies casually sketched out… well, I’ll let him tell it:

I think his decline and fall from sensible, interesting, Good Bloke to reactionary ballbag outlines the Three Prime Directives, the rejection of which defines Decency:

1. Think about the consequences of what you’re saying

2. Don’t become an ethnic partisan

and, the Ultimate Prime Directive

3. No need to be a c**t about it.

CCO’B started off on the right side, but one by one he gradually broke them all.

(Daniel didn’t use asterisks, but I’m a bit less fearless about causing offence. Plus I’m getting quite enough one-handed traffic as it is, thanks to this post.)

In the shortened form of ‘BACAI’, the phrase has entered the language – at least, it’s entered the jargon used on Aarowatch and D^2 Digest. What does it mean? I’ve written elsewhere on what precisely the insult in question signifies, and Daniel’s usage isn’t that far from mine. Basically there is no need to start from the assumption that disagreement can only be motivated by evil and stupidity; no need to be aggressive, wilfully insensitive and deliberately offensive; no need to challenge the other person to jump through hoops of your own devising and denounce them when they fail to do so. Above all, there’s no need to enjoy doing all this, or to congratulate yourself and others for doing it. (If anything sums up the meaning of the C-word in BritEng, it’s this combination of insensitivity and self-congratulation: he’s ruined your day and not only does he not care, he thinks he’s been rather clever.)

As well as identifying the deep affinity between BACAI and what’s become known as the Decent Left, Daniel has repeatedly stressed the importance of the (Ultimate) Prime Directive in blog discussions (the other two have rather fallen by the wayside). I think the PD can be unpacked into two equally important statements:

1. Whoever you are and however just your cause, there is no need to BACAI.
and
2. This matters: BACAI is never a good thing and should always be avoided.

The second statement is there to help enforce assent to the first, which everyone is wont to regard as dispensable on special occasions (e.g. when they’ve been annoyed by somebody enough to want to BACAI).

Fast forward to last weekend and TAM 8 – the eighth annual session of The Amazing Meeting, James Randi’s sceptics’ conference. And:

Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a dick” talk, in which he decried what he sees as the rise of incivility in the skeptical blogosphere.

Continue reading

Everything you stand for

In itself, there’s nothing unusual about someone being left wing when young and becoming more right wing as they get older. What’s strange about the RCP, though, is the way the group seems to have moved together

From Jenny Turner’s terrific piece on the Institute of Ideas and its siblings and precursors.

What’s particularly good about this article, apart from its length and thoroughness, is its open-endedness: the title is “Who are they?”, and this question – like the related question “what are they doing?” – is never really answered other than descriptively. Turner’s conclusion gestures towards the idea that the ex-RCP network might be keeping its powder dry for the coming upsurge in class struggle, but her heart isn’t really in it. More typical is her remark that “it isn’t clear what the Continuity RCP is after, except that someone, somewhere, really likes setting things up”.

I seem to have jumped the gun on anecdotes involving the RCP, but don’t worry, I’ve got more. One more, at least. In 1993 or thereabouts, I was in London on an assertiveness training course. I was on my way back to my hotel when a Living Marxism seller made the mistake of approaching me. Usually I would just walk straight past, but that night I said No, thankyou!, quite loudly and distinctly. I was feeling rather pleased with myself when the guy called after me, “Why not?”. I stopped and spun round. Why not? Because you’re a bunch of fucking fascists, that’s why not! (This language is of course aggressive rather than assertive, and is not recommended in a workplace scenario; the poor guy would have been well within his rights if he’d told me that he had an issue with the way I addressed him. He didn’t, though.)

They do consistently tend to rouse strong feelings, the RCP – never more so than in that period, when Bosnia had substantial parts of the Left feeling fairly aggrieved with one another. But “fascists”? Not really. It would have been true to say that I felt an absolute enmity towards the RCP, more than I did towards Labour or even the Tories – or anyone else except the fash – but that’s not quite the same thing. Turner again:

‘RCP members were the first to imitate neo-Nazis and deny the existence of a Serb concentration camp in Bosnia,’ Nick Cohen wrote in 2006. Neo-Nazis? Really? ‘Living Marxism’s attempts to rewrite the history of the camps,’ Ed Vulliamy wrote in 2000, ‘was motivated by the fact that in their heart of hearts, these people applauded those camps.’ How could he possibly know that?

It’s a point that needed making. They’re not fascists; in many ways they’re quite recognisable revolutionary socialists. The contrarianism, and the dogged rationalism that backs it up, aren’t at all unusual – back in the eighties any socialist worth their salt could explain at some length how it was that the Labour Party were the real class enemy, the British Army in the North of Ireland were the real terrorists, or whatever. Also very familiar is the stultifying fakery that comes of combining front work with cadre organisation:

These days, IoI bods look like delegates at a Unison conference, or the seekers who gather at Landmark seminars and the Alpha Course. The ones who make the speeches are mostly white and in their thirties and forties (the volunteers on the cameras and boom-mikes are younger and more diverse). They’re more relaxed than they used to be, less aggressive and overtly controlling, but they still have a habit of sitting on panels together, pretending they don’t already know each other, and they still dominate meetings with tedious, well-rehearsed spontaneous interventions.

I’ve noticed something similar from SWP members, some of whom seem to have taken a vow never to mention the party itself – even when the conversation turns to Martin Smith (of Unite Against Fascism), Weyman Bennett (of Love Music Hate Racism) or Marxism 2010 (“great speakers, great workshops, have you thought of going?”).

What’s not clear is why the RCP have ended up staking out this weird business-friendly anti-green smug-libertarian corner – or, for that matter, why they went quite so heavily for the pro-Serb (or anti-anti-Serb) cause in the 90s. I don’t believe they’re provocateurs in any straightforward sense, but their psychological makeup does seem to include a love of the wind-up – a sense that getting a reaction is an end in itself.

The magazine’s Bosnia coverage had a very odd tone, cold and flippant and a bit sarcastic. The July 1992 edition had Serbia on the cover, described as the ‘WHITE NIGGERS’ of the New World Order. ‘The world’s media have invented a veritable Holocaust in Bosnia,’ Furedi wrote, under his own name, a couple of months later. ‘It is surely only a matter of time before gas chambers are discovered in the car park of the Agriculture Ministry in Belgrade.’ LM was perhaps trying to counteract the ‘very one-sided, anti-Serb’ gushiness it objected to in ‘the liberal media’ but the effect is not cool, disciplined, objective – it’s just mean.

Put it another way. Suppose you were accused of denying that a prison camp known to be a place where people were brutalised and murdered was really as bad as all that. You probably wouldn’t set up a libel defence campaign and advertise it with a picture of the barbed wire that caused all the trouble in the first place. You probably wouldn’t call it ‘Off the Fence’.

Their more recent angles – denying global warming, denouncing anti-racism – are perhaps a milder form of the same kind of shock tactics; they’re certainly aimed at shocking the same kind of people. It’s not, to put it mildly, the way political groups generally make propaganda. It’s more like a particularly dedicated satirist, trying to identify the few kindred souls who get it by setting out to offend almost – but not quite – everyone in the audience.

So what is it all about? Back in 2003, Jamie suggested that this might be what you get if you keep the vanguard role going (with its contrarian and rationalist presumptions) but quietly lose the revolutionary politics that gave it its point:

Their oppositionism has been the one constant thing about them. Yet it does seem to have led over the years to a kind of surreptitious hankering after nihilism, expressed at one level by their eager apologetics for genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda and on another by their inability to avoid mechanical sneering at any social or political phenomena. In theory, they are apparently in favour of confident humanity making choices. A glance at Spiked tells you that they can find nothing good to say about the choices humans make. The whole site reads like the effusions of the snottiest 14 year old in the grammar school playground. This is apparently where vanguardism for its own sake leads.

Or perhaps they run campaigns and hold conferences and issue press releases because it’s what they’re used to doing – someone, somewhere, really likes setting things up – and their pro-corporate evolution is just a kind of tropism towards a guaranteed source of funding.

Anyway, read the article. Jamie’s post about it is also well worth a look, particularly the comments thread.

What you hear is not a test

Sorry to go quiet on you. Since the election I’ve been insanely busy – not to mention being depressed and really rather tired – so there hasn’t been much blogging and probably won’t be for a while (although I’ve got a concluding unscientific postscript to the previous post worked out and ready to go, just as soon as I can find the time to get it blogged).

In the mean time, this was too good to miss:

what was number one in the week you were born?

At the risk of not so much showing my age as waving it about, here’s mine:

In the spirit of the BBC’s Eurovision voting forms, it has to be said that the “Performance” isn’t up to much, and the less said about the “Dance and Outfits” the better. But the “Song” is holding up pretty well.

The rest we can leave

To end this slightly hyperactive day, here’s a recommendation you’ve probably seen already: read Johann Hari on Hammersmith.

As I spend days walking across the borough, I find the detritus of the old thriving public sector now shut and shuttered. Next to a big council estate I stumble across the large red-brick Castle Youth Club. It was built in Dickens’ time and bequeathed to the local council “to benefit the children of this area for perpetuity”. The Conservatives shut it down two years ago to sell it off. The deal fell through, so now it sits empty while the local kids hang around on the streets outside.

I realise I am peering into the reality of David Cameron’s “Big Society”. The council here told people that if they took away services like this, there would be volunteers; if the state withered away, people would start to provide the services for each other. But nobody … started a new youth club on their own time and with their own money. The state retreated and the service collapsed. It’s a rebranding trick. The Conservatives know that shutting down public services sounds cruel, while calling for volunteerism sounds kind – but the effect is exactly the same.

Read the whole thing. (I’ll wait.)

And here are a few lines from a comment at Crooked Timber (hi Tim!)

I too would like to ‘punish’ Labour for the GWOT/Iraq business. Brown may not have been enthusiastic about the whole business, but keeping quiet and wishing it would go away while signing off on every penny is of course nowhere near good enough. On the same grounds, I’d like to reward the Lib Dems (as well as liking their noises about Trident and ‘illegal’ immigrants, for example). … But retribution and reward are not top priorities at this point, even they could plausibly be seen as a necessary part of a system of long-term incentives. (The war has already had electoral consequences in prising Blair out, of course.) … The urgent imperative is to keep Cameron out.

The Conservatives have done nothing at all to suggest they have moved toward the centre in broadly economic terms – even with a rightward-bound centre. … The Conservatives have, even before getting in, the most hawkish about spending cuts, and flagrant in their ambitions for top-rung tax cuts like inheritance, for example. Their real intentions have to be guessed at, but they won’t have been understating their brutality. Even the line of verbiage they’ve chosen to fill the ominous silence is actively repellent. All this wittering about voluntarism is familiar enough stuff, now elevated from a weak debating point to a supposed philosophy: ‘other things equal, wouldn’t it be nice if everything were done voluntarily, out of, er, benevolence?’. Other things equal my arse. Tell it to Adam Smith’s baker. Making obligations and liabilities voluntary – repudiable – has only one purpose, as every instance of self-’regulation’ testifies.

I particularly like that last point. Other things equal my arse – Tories of all people should know that you don’t get owt for nowt. But the market doesn’t supply everything or everyone – it’s conspicuously bad at providing universal services, unlimited emergency services or services for people who can’t afford to pay, for instance. The history of public service provision since Joseph Chamberlain has been one of collectively-funded efforts to redress market failure. Turn off the funding and that ‘market’ – the market for home helps, youth clubs, women’s refuges, emergency accommodation – will fail in a heartbeat. And the Tories know that, those of them who are older than 18; they have to know that. The idea of sleek Tory politicians knowingly and heedlessly consigning poor people to lives of misery and fear is terribly old-fashioned and rather melodramatic, I know, but it seems like an awfully good fit.

If you’ve got a vote tomorrow, please use it to help prevent a Tory government. That will be an achievement worth having been part of.

Yesterday today was tomorrow

I started blogging in March 2005, after I’d started commenting on Tom Watson’s blog (more on that another time). In particular, I wrote a series of posts on why people shouldn’t vote Labour. They were:

I: 126 as a limit
A shadow of its former self – about 75% of this post got eaten by Blogger one night. Which was a shame, as it established the context for the whole series. Looking at the 2001 results and at current polling data, I established pretty conclusively that the Tories weren’t going to win: tens of thousands of Labour supporters could vote against Labour without costing Labour the election.
II: When you need cover
On Labour’s resort to dog-whistle politics, and a peculiarly empty form of dog-whistle politics at that: rallying the core Labour vote isn’t just difficult for New Labour, it’s the one thing they can’t do. What remains is an empty, moralistic appeal – you ought to vote Labour because, well, you ought to.
III: In the Big Muddy
On what an anti-Labour vote might achieve (a slim majority or a hung parliament at a pinch) and who this would benefit (primarily Gordon Brown – “Turn around men! I’m in charge from now on.”) And why it was worth doing anyway.
IV: I just can’t see myself following you
“We’re living in a strange, muted, deadened political landscape, where many of the most important questions go unanswered or unasked.” On the need to break New Labour’s blockage of the political landscape, but also on the genuine risk of benefiting the Tories in the process.
V: Beneath the flag of democracy
On Iraq: war as “the ultimate trust issue” and the ultimate reason for withholding trust. “If Labour are re-elected with a majority of 80-100, we will have officially drawn a line under Iraq and moved on; we will have told Blair, loud and clear, that we do trust him after all.”
VI: Everything you say is like iron
Against the advice to “hold your nose and vote Labour” which was coming from both the Guardian and the Morning Star, and against the opposition between party loyalty and ‘tactical voting’. “Tactical voting is holding your nose when you vote: voting Labour even at the cost of registering your support for policies you oppose … It’s not tactical voting to vote for breaking the log-jam, and vote to make it more likely that it breaks to the Left. It’s not tactical voting to vote to replace New Labour with something better.”
VII: Put your lips together and blow
More on dog-whistle politics and the difference between loyalty and principle. “There are reasons why I voted Labour at most opportunities between 1979 and 1997, and most of them are the same reasons why I’m voting against Labour this time. I haven’t moved – they have.”
VIII: Arrows with a very bad aim
On good reasons and bad reasons for refusing to vote for a particular party. I took the line that there were good reasons to refusue to vote either for Labour (“There is nothing good to say about the New Labour project.”) or for the Socialist Labour Party (“the SLP, after all these years, urgently needs to give up and let its activists get on with their lives”) but not for refusing to vote Lib Dem.
IX: Yeah yeah, yeah, yeah
On the disturbing possibility that all this messing around on blogs might be entirely detached from the real world, and Labour might still be heading for a three-figure majority. (SPOILER: they weren’t.)
X: None of you stand so tall
I’ll repost this one in full:

Here’s my advice, for anyone who’s interested.

Don’t vote Labour.

Don’t vote Conservative, don’t vote UKIP and for God’s sake don’t vote Veritas. But don’t vote Labour. Here are 35 reasons (hat tip to Ellis Sharp). Iraq is at numbers 11 and 22. There are another 33. The name Blunkett doesn’t even appear on the page.

There are values which have been associated with Labour throughout its history: even under operators like Wilson and Smith; even under chancers like Kinnock; even during the long retreat in the face of Thatcherism. Under New Labour, that’s all gone. Maintenant c’est joué… The party of the Left must be built, and it won’t be built in a matter of days. For now, what’s essential is for the Left to withdraw its consent from the representatives who have betrayed it. If you want to vote for the values which Labour once stood for – under Hardie, under Attlee, even under the member for Monklands East – don’t vote Labour.

This isn’t about the war, except insofar as the war has shown a lot of people in their true colours. As I wrote back here, “this is a single-issue election – and the issue is New Labour.” From which it follows that I don’t advise anyone, anywhere, to vote for a Labour candidate. Not even if they’ve got a good record on the war; not even if they’ve got a good record on control orders and ID cards and tuition fees; not even if they’re Jeremy Corbyn, frankly. (Sorry, Jeremy.)

The objection that these tactics will lose us some good MPs misses the point. This is a boycott. If boycotting something – goods from a certain country, say – didn’t involve forfeiting choices we would normally make, there’d be no need for the boycott: the invisible hand of the market would do the job for us. Boycotts, by definition, cannot be relied on to deliver an optimal choice: that’s not what they’re for. What they do is signal that there are choices we are not willing to make – positions that we are not prepared to endorse – even at a cost to ourselves. I’d hate to have a Tory MP, but I would rejoice to see my Labour MP’s vote drop far enough to make that a possibility.

While Labour is controlled by the New Labour clique (and it is – these people are serious about power), nobody running as a Labour candidate deserves our support. It doesn’t matter whose name is on the ballot paper. It doesn’t matter if Labour won last time or came second or third. If you can’t stand the Trots and the tankies, vote Lib Dem. If you can’t stand the Lib Dems, vote Green.

Don’t abstain. Don’t be an idiot and vote Tory.

But don’t vote Labour.

So what’s changed?

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