Category Archives: saying the thing that is not

On science alone

Like Splinty, I am not inconsiderably annoyed at Private Eye. Oh yes.

In the recent ruckus between Newsnight and the Decent Right thinktank Policy Exchange, the Eye (or at least the enigmatic ‘Ratbiter’) has unaccountably chosen to side with the latter.

Newsnight alleged that Policy Exchange or its researchers had forged the receipts which showed you could buy book spewing out hatred of women, Jews, Christians and moderate Muslims in mosques. The researchers utterly deny any forgery; but the implications of the alleged exposé are explosive: David Cameron’s favourite think-tank was apparently stirring up racial hatred with fraudulent evidence.

Newsnight‘s killer claim was that its hacks had organised forensic tests which proved that receipts Policy Exchange said it had collected from the Muslim Education Centre in High Wycombe were dubious. When Policy Exchange said that the centre was selling such titles as Women Who Deserve to go to Hell – for complaining about their husbands and going along with feminist ideas promoted by Jews and Christians – it couldn’t be believed. The BBC stuck by the accusation even though the Muslim Education Centre cheerily told reporters that the books were indeed on sale.

Similarly Newsnight said receipts from the Al-Muntada Al-Islami Trust in west London were suspicious … If Newsnight‘s allegations were correct, the al-Muntada centre should be the innocent victim of a disgraceful smear. But the most basic checks show that it wasn’t. At the time the Eye was going to press, the al-Muntada online bookshop was offering [two works cited by Policy Exchange]

There’s a very basic logical fallacy in the argument put forward by Policy Exchange and endorsed by the Eye, which hinges on the unstated proposition that for Muslim bookshops to sell the works of (say) Sayyid Qutb really matters. It’s about working backwards up the chain of causation and treating an intermediate (and perhaps optional) link as if it were the starting point. All sorts of misinterpretations can follow from this error: some gang members grew up listening to gangsta rap, for example, but many people who grew up listening to gangsta rap didn’t go on to join gangs and were never at any risk of doing so. In the case of Qutb, as Splinty says:

What Qutb does do, if you’re a young Muslim alienated from the surrounding society, is provide an intellectual framework for you to understand your alienation. Note that this only works if you’re already an alienated Muslim, and that a Qutbist intellectual framework is not remotely necessary for the alienated Muslim to adopt jihadi ideas.

You can get from A to C via B, but you can also go straight from A to C, or go to B without going on to C. What’s most important is starting at A – and you don’t get there from B.

So there’s a strong argument that Policy Exchange and ‘Ratbiter’ don’t have a case even if we take everything they say at face value. But there’s a more fundamental problem. ‘Ratbiter’ doesn’t go into any detail about the alleged faking of the receipts, resorting to the weaselly adjectives ‘dubious’ and ‘suspicious’ and a reference to sciencey-sounding “forensic tests”. Those scientists, they can prove anything, can’t they? Newsnight will have given those receipts to a bunch of boffins in white coats, they’ll have taken a sample and whizzed it round in a centrifuge or something, and just because some liquid ends up turning red instead of blue…

Actually the tests were a bit more basic – and a bit more conclusive. Here‘s Richard Watson of Newsnight (and this has been up since the 14th of December, which presumably was some time before the Eye went to press):

Al-Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre
the hand-writing on this receipt is very similar – to my eye it looks identical – to the hand-writing on another receipt, said to have been obtained from a mosque in Leyton, 10 miles away [Masjid as-Tawhid]. A registered forensic document examiner concluded that there was “strong evidence” that the two receipts were written by the same person.

Masjid as-Tawhid
The first receipt provided by the researcher was obtained from the bookshop, at 78 Leyton High Road. I did see the carbon copy of this receipt so we know the books were acquired from the bookshop. But both the bookshop manager and the mosque management categorically say they are two separate organisations.

Curiously, we were told that researchers were sent back at a later date to obtain a second receipt on headed paper and that document, printed on an ink-jet printer, introduced the word “mosque” into the receipt for the first time. The address is still given as that of the bookshop. But none of this addresses the worrying fact that the hand-writing on the printed receipt matches that on the receipt from the Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre, 10 miles away.

Al-Muntada
[The receipt was] printed on an ink-jet printer. The forensic ESDA tests carried out by the registered document examiner concluded that this receipt was underneath the receipt from the Muslim Education Centre in High Wycombe when this latter one was written out. Once again the mosque management categorically told us that the receipt provided by the researchers was not a genuine document. Even if the books are available online, there are serious questions about the authenticity of this receipt.

You get the idea.

I read quite a lot of research for the purposes of my day job, and I’ve seen results called into question on much weaker grounds than Newsnight had. If you’ve got good reason to believe that the evidence in front of you isn’t genuine – let alone reason to believe that it’s been faked – then you just don’t trust that research, even if it’s telling you that the sky is sometimes dark at night and Monday tends to come after Sunday. If someone else can get similar results by other means, bully for them – let them publish what they’ve got. But that doesn’t somehow retrospectively validate the faked research, as the Eye seems to imagine.

Ultimately it’s a point about the reliability of the researcher as well as the research. If you’ve got evidence that they’re willing to put their thumb on the scales to get the right answer, from that point on you can’t really trust anything they tell you – unless it begins with “I’m sorry I faked those results”, and even then you’ll want to watch them like a hawk. Unfortunately Policy Exchange’s response to Newsnight can be summed up as “we didn’t fake those results, and what does it matter if we did, and besides you’re no better”.

To push the evidence is bad, but it doesn’t make the research completely invalid. To fake the evidence does invalidate the research, but for the researcher it’s survivable. But to fake the evidence and then refuse to admit it, deny that it matters, change the subject and generally try to bluster your way out of it – you’re off the list, I’m afraid.

The fundamental point ‘Ratbiter’ seems to miss is that this applies just as strongly if the results are plausible – and twice as strongly if the results are in line with the audience’s expectations. Picture the scene: they’re telling you what you want to hear, and it seems believable, but you’ve got evidence that they’re willing to lie about it. It’s a setup that rings some very loud alarm bells for me, but apparently it doesn’t at the Eye. Perhaps ‘Ratbiter’ had better stay well away from time-share presentations.

Kerouac, Kierkegaard, Michael Rennie

I agree with Andrew Anthony, up to a point:

My book is a polemical memoir. It’s not ‘The Truth’. It’s part of a debate. I may be wrong. It could be that if the troops are withdrawn from Iraq and we turn a blind eye to Islamic extremism at home, Jihadist terrorism will disappear. I happen to believe otherwise and base my case on historical fact and precedent.

I’m not aware of any causal mechanism through which withdrawal from Iraq and turning a blind eye to Islamic extremism will result in the disappearance of Jihadist terrorism. Yep, he’s got me there.

Earlier on today – before reading Anthony’s column – I was thinking about writing a post consisting entirely of pet hates. One of them was to be the passive-aggressive style in journalism (and blogging, for that matter, although at least bloggers usually do it in their own time). This sort of smug, preening, point-scoring, deceptive and self-deceiving idiocy is a prime example. “You can’t say that I’m saying I’m right! I’m not saying I’m right – I admit I may be wrong. I’m just saying what I think. And it just so happens that I’m right.” Stupid, stupid, stupid.

And the more you look at it, the worse it gets. The argument is based on an either/or formulation with an excluded middle approximately the size of Wales. Firstly, if ‘we’ (by which I think, or at least hope, Anthony actually means the government) turn a blind eye to Islamic extremism and bring the troops home, may this have benefits outweighing the fact that Jihadist terrorism won’t disappear as a consequence? For example, might it have some quantifiable effect on the level of disaffection among British Muslims in general, and by extension reduce the supply of would-be Jihadist terrorists? Even if it didn’t magically abolish the contemporary terrorist threat, in other words, might it help a bit? (I’m taking the art of stating the bleeding obvious to new heights here, I know.) Secondly, is agreeing with Anthony about what needs to be done with regard to Islamic extremism the only alternative to turning a blind eye? Perhaps we should take it very seriously indeed, but as a symptom of something that’s going wrong in British society – which, of course, doesn’t imply any sympathy with the ideology itself. (I’d say exactly the same about the BNP.) Thirdly, might bringing the troops home just be the right thing to do – or the least wrong thing the British government can currently do – irrespective of its effect on Jihadist terrorism? Viewed in this light, all Anthony is doing is finding reasons for the government not to do something it ought to be doing already. (Or rather, is doing already – I’m reminded of Daniel Davies’s crack about waiting for the Decents to organise a Troops Back In march…)

I’m quoting Anthony out of context, of course. Just as well, really, because the context is even worse:

My book is a polemical memoir. It’s not ‘The Truth’. It’s part of a debate. I may be wrong. It could be that if the troops are withdrawn from Iraq and we turn a blind eye to Islamic extremism at home, Jihadist terrorism will disappear. I happen to believe otherwise and base my case on historical fact and precedent.

It may be that an emphasis on cultural difference and group identities is the best means of fostering a harmonious and progressive society, but my own experience, observation and study suggests that it can and does have the contrary effect. It could be that by turning away from violent street crime and waiting for the government to make society more fair and equal, a shared sense of social responsibility will grow. But I don’t think so.

These aren’t fanatical or right-wing positions. They are concerns shared by millions – black and white, gay and straight, religious and atheist – in this country. Attempting to drown them out with shrill denunciations won’t make them go away. But it will help leave the left estranged from reality. And that’s when people really do turn to the right.

Even the multi-culturalism point – and I am willing to dignify it with the name of ‘point’ – gets lost between a gargantuan straw-man (the best means of fostering a harmonious and progressive society) and the customary rhetorical double-shuffle (can and does – that’s a bit like ‘may and will’, or ‘I’m not actually asserting this, oh yes I am’.) I’m not even going to touch the law-and-order line, except to say that I’ve never known anyone (left or right) who believed in waiting for the government to make society more fair and equal.

As for the last graf – what was I saying about Nick Cohen the other day?

To be realistic is to accept the reality of what you read in the papers. There’s a wearily Decent quality to this move. Things are as they seem! Why must the Left continue to deny it?

PS Yes, I am in a bit of a foul mood at the moment – why do you ask?

PPS I guess I should explain the post title, for once, if only because the post drifted as it went on. It was meant to focus mainly on the passive-aggressive thing; the operative quote is You’re supposed to be so angry – why not fight? (Go on, google it. You’ll be glad you did.)

A tree in Paradise

Some years ago, John Harris (not the pundit) proposed a thought-experiment called the Survival Lottery. The premise was that the supply of organs for transplant is currently inadequate to meet the demand. Moreover, the whole business of harvesting organs for transplant is fraught with practical and emotional difficulties, putting both the bereaved and potential recipients under a lot of stress which both parties could do without. The result is inevitably that people die who could have lived, and that many who do live have shorter and less satisfactory lives than anyone would wish on them.

How much better it would be, in terms of the greater good of the greater number, if the government organised a consistent supply of transplanted organs, which could be calibrated to meet the demand. The mechanism would be the Survival Lottery: every citizen would have a number assigned to them (the NHS number would do nicely), and a periodic random draw would be made. The unfortunate individual whose number came up would be killed and his or her transplantable organs harvested.

This would be an outrageously cruel and arbitrary system, which would probably cut short the lives of several blameless citizens every year. However, it could be guaranteed to save more lives than it cost – making it less outrageously cruel and arbitrary than the state of affairs we live with now. It’s true that, under this system you’d live under the constant threat of having your number come up and becoming an organ donor against your will. But you’ve already got that risk hanging over you every time you cross the road – and you’ve also got the risk of sustaining an injury (or developing a condition) which would put you in need of a donor organ, which might not be available. Viewed in this light, the phrase ‘Survival Lottery’ is a rather pointed misnomer – we already live with a survival lottery. Harris’s system, as unthinkable as it may seem, wouldn’t create the lottery or even exacerbate it; in point of fact, it would improve the odds.

And yet, unthinkable is just what it does seem. This is a real ethical problem, gifted to us by the development of medical transplants (not that uninventing them would be much of an answer). Kazuo Ishiguro’s heartbreaking novel Never let me go looks at one science-fictional solution, the development of cloning to the point where people could be created to become donors. Kathy, Ishiguro’s narrator, looks at the life of the human clones from the inside: we follow her through childhood (lived in a kind of year-round boarding school), through adolescence and into training to be a ‘carer’. (It’s a self-sustaining system: people like Kathy look after their friends, as they go through a series of donations and finally ‘complete’, before they become donors in turn.) Throughout the book, Kathy muses – brightly and not very reflectively – on what it’s like to remember someone who’s not there any more; what it means to leave something that you’ll be remembered by; whether it matters if you haven’t left anything to be remembered by, providing that you live on in people’s memories; and whether even that matters in the long run, since after all those people won’t be around forever – and in any case you won’t be there to know about it.

In other words, Kathy shows us life as framed by death – the same life we all live, albeit for most of us with a much longer timespan. (Clones are sterile, of course.) Along the way, Ishiguro raises the unanswerable question – would it be tolerable to treat an identifiable group of people like this – as a harvestable resource – for the sake of giving the rest of us a bit longer? Surely not – but if it were possible, how could you justify not doing it? And, to ask a darker and more political question, if we were doing this to an identifiable group of people, what could persuade us to stop? We can be thankful that transplant technology wasn’t available to the Nazis – or to the eugenists of Britain and America for that matter.

The ghastly flaw at the heart of Ishiguro’s clone-based solution also disqualifies the seemingly obvious solution to the donor organ shortage, permitting organ sales. The question is, can we guarantee that the costs and risks of organ donation would not bear disproportionately on an identifiable minority? If there’s money changing hands, clearly not. A similar, albeit less obvious, flaw disqualifies Larry Niven’s ghoulish fantasy of ‘organlegging’, which makes organ donation a corollary of capital punishment. (A typically lip-smacking description is quoted here – ‘cardiectomy’, indeed.) You only need to look into the issue of differential access to justice – and differential likelihood of coming to the attention of the police in the first place – to see the flaw here.

What makes the Survival Lottery interesting, and differentiates it from ideas such as these, is precisely that it has the merit of equity: everybody’s number would be in the hat. (Even the Queen’s, presumably.) There’s something distasteful about it, all the same. In his poem “The Latest Decalogue” the Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough offered a gloss on each of the Ten Commandments, including the sixth:

Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive
Officiously to keep alive

(Ouch.) The Survival Lottery seems to start from the identical assumption, that failing to keep alive is morally equivalent to killing – but Harris moves from this to the utilitarian (and very un-Cloughian) conclusion that killing so as to keep alive might be allowable, as long as there’s a net increase in the number of people who survive overall. Philosophically, it comes down to whether we think the taboo on killing in cold blood is there for a good reason, and whether that taboo is strong enough to trump utilitarian considerations. Politically, the question is whether we have sufficient trust in the wisdom of the state to empower it to answer either of those questions in the negative. Personally I’d prefer the question of state killing to have fewer grey areas rather than more.

Having said all of that, the idea of introducing ‘presumed consent’ for organ donation – in effect, switching from opt-in to opt-out – seems eminently sensible. As Rob says, it’s hard to see whose interests could possibly be set back by this change, as anyone who cared enough to object would be able to express their preference in binding form by opting out (“I would not like to help anyone live after my death”). I suppose there’s a case for saying that understanding of the policy couldn’t be presumed – in the absence of which presumed consent would be meaningless – but surely this is a case for public education, not for pitching policy to the level of the voters’ lack of awareness. (It took my grandfather a couple of months to get the hang of decimalisation – he still had to live with it.) What appears to be an honourable refusal to take decisions in the name of an uninformed electorate is really the refusal to trespass on the voters’ apathy and ignorance; it may be what those voters would prefer, but it’s hardly in their best interests. I’m particularly disappointed in Harry Burns – Andrew Lansley’s comments were predictable, but Burns should have known better. (I’d never even heard of Harry Burns before this morning, and now this – I ask you.)

Too much more

Welcome back* to Imprecise Song Lyrics Club.

This evening our featured lyricist is Mr Paul Weller, one-time tunesmith with popular beat combo the Jams. In his song “Porcelain gods”, Mr Weller writes:

Too much will kill you,
Too little ain’t enough

On first reading both propositions advanced here seem intuitively valid, but – I put it to you – are they? Certainly, too much over-proof rum or carbon monoxide or acceleration into a bend will tend to kill you, but does this proposition hold more generally? I think not. In some cases, too much will simply result in a stomach ache or an overdraft, or in the decision to call a taxi when you had intended to walk.

No, Mr Weller: too much will not necessarily kill you. For greater precision, the lines in question should have been drafted as follows:

Too much is excessive,
Too little ain’t enough

Very little there with which anyone could argue, I think you’ll find.

*To anyone for whom this comes as the second or subsequent post with this theme, perhaps because they are reading it in a period in the future relative to the time of writing.

Never here, never seen

Time for a bit more Potter. (Past time, in fact – my Rowling-rereading-and-reviewing schedule is way out. I blame life.)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, like its precursor, was big but not that big, a success but not yet a phenomenon. While we’re aware now of the continuing and repeated elements in successive books – the relationships, the Sorting Hat, the compulsory Quidditch – it’s actually quite surprising, coming back to Chamber of Secrets, to see how little it had in common with the first book. Harry’s parents don’t figure at all, for example, and Voldemort only appears in the form of a Horcmagical object (more of that later). What it does have in common with Philosopher’s Stone is a plot consisting mostly of increasing suspense (cranked up really high this time round), resolved in a fast-paced action scene that doesn’t make any sense at all – not even after Dumbledore has explained it.

I began my review of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by challenging J.K. Rowling’s indignant denial that the book was “light and fluffy”. Chamber of Secrets certainly isn’t light and fluffy in any obvious way; the mood’s gloomy and oppressive, with the first stirrings of that “everyone hates Harry” paranoid atmosphere which dominates the later books. The monster-movie horrors of the climactic big fight are undercut by the sheer daftness of the plotting – it’s hard to care about a life-and-death struggle which the author seems to be making up as she goes along. But some of the plot twists along the way are genuinely grim (Dumbledore suspended, Hagrid sent to Azkaban, Hermione in a coma…).

So is this a major advance on the first book? Is this where Rowling steps free of the wish-fulfilment fantasy framework that Philosopher’s Stone inhabited

Let’s say that there are these people who are not like us… and let’s say they can get whatever they want… and let’s say that there are good people and bad people, and the bad people are really easy to identify

– and begins to write, like le Guin or Pullman or even Tolkien, about real people who really get hurt? Yes and No – but mainly No. I don’t know how I’m going to assess the fifth and six books when I wade thrread them again, but my sense is that the books never quite get free of fantasy (in that weightless, narcissistic sense of the word). This is a strength as well as a weakness – it leads to a kind of restless, unsatisfied chewing-over of the conditions of fantasy, as if Rowling felt compelled to prove that it can’t work but couldn’t quite bear to abandon it. But it does mean that, thematically, the books are more or less variations on a master-theme. It also means that Harry isn’t likely ever to make it out into the real world, where lots of desires are impossible and lots of broken things can’t be mended – not even to the extent that Ged or Frodo manage it.

I suggested before that Philosopher’s Stone posed three questions about fantasy. First, is the hero superhuman, or is he at some level one of us – is he Sam Gamgee or Elrond, or somewhere in between? (Not that there’s necessarily a straight line from one to the other; Philip Pullman plotted some unsettling variants on this scale in the Amber Spyglass.) Second, does the hero’s special nature enable him to get whatever he wants, or will the world quietly, pointlessly get in the way? Third, does the hero have an infallible moral compass – are his friends good and his enemies evil? In that book, the answer to the third question was a definite “maybe”, while the second got a quiet but unambiguous No: Harry’s parents are dead and will stay that way. The answer to the first question was least satisfactory; the unenchanted human race is represented by the ghastly Dursleys, in comparison with whom Harry is simply loaded with midichlorians (and better looking with it).

All three questions are explored to considerably better effect in Chamber of Secrets than in the first book. The Dursleys are still ghastly, right enough, and there is still that slightly queasy adoption-fantasy sense that the Weasleys represent Harry’s real family, but this time round the wizard/Muggle divide doesn’t pass without authorial reflection. The issue is foregrounded through the revelation of the darker side of the Slytherin worldview, with Malfoy’s use of ‘Mudblood’ as a term of abuse for Hermione (Harry’s own parentage is thoroughly wizardly, of course). Slytherin was introduced in the first book as the house for cunning folk [who] use any means to achieve their ends (in the deathless words of the Sorting Hat) – and a house which might well suit Harry himself (who certainly isn’t noted for adherence to the rules). But all we really found out about Slytherin kids was that they tended to be ghastly over-privileged snobs, and that (according to the normally trustworthy Hagrid) there’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin. Incidentally, this untroubled mapping of the school onto the world at large is significant; at least, it’s another sign that, when we enter Hogwarts, we’re in the domain of fantasy. Rowling has said that, while she was planning the first book, I sat down and I created 40 kids who enter Harry’s year … I got 40 pretty fleshed-out characters (more details here); she doesn’t seem to have felt the need to draw any maps of the wizards’ world. Setting aside the question of whether the parallel British wizard society could possibly be sustainable on a birth-rate of 40 per year, you’ve got to wonder if Voldemort had any following outside Britain – and if not, why not.

In any case, it’s in Chamber of Secrets that we learn about Slytherin’s volkisch streak, and this in turn affects the way we think about Harry’s superior wizardliness. If Harry has something special about him – if the hero is endowed with superhuman qualities which lift him above our mundane level – then his gift can’t be something he was born with, or at least not something he could have been predicted to be born with. It’s no accident that the same book that introduces ‘Mudbloods’ also introduces ‘Squibs’, the unfavoured non-magical offspring of magical parents. (And there must be a hell of a lot of Squibs, unless the Weasleys are really way out on the right tail of the philoprogenitive curve – 40 per year, after all… They’d hardly need a Ministry of Magic, surely – a Greater Hogsmeade District Council would be ample. But never mind.) Hermione and Filch are both sports – magical ability comes and goes, and ultimately can’t be predicted from a person’s parentage or their external appearance. Magic itself is still pretty special – and the relationship between the magical world and ours isn’t any clearer in this book. Still, the disavowal of any idea of wizards as a separate caste does something to undo – or at least pull against – the sense that there’s a gulf of effortless superiority dividing Harry from the Dursleys, and other Muggles.

As for the question of the moral compass, this is the second of at least five books in which Harry’s loathing for members of Slytherin turns out to be misplaced. It’s a theme that gets predictable quite quickly – particularly when underscored by Ron’s stubborn failure to get it – but it’s interesting nonetheless. Rowling is emphatically not saying that Draco Malfoy is all right really, or (after the first book) that Snape is acting in Harry’s best interests. In this book it’s clear that Malfoy hates Harry because of school and social rivalry, and that he’s personally a nasty piece of work; his snobbish contempt for Ron is as telling here as his quasi-racist hatred of Hermione. (It’s somehow not surprising that real-world racism never rears its head at Hogwarts, despite the presence of Irish, Black and Asian kids.) However, it also becomes clear that he’s not working for the forces of darkness, as much as he might like to (or thinks he would). Similarly, Snape may have saved Harry’s life in the first book, but it’s clear that he means him no good. In particular, he would happily see him expelled – an unthinkable fate for Harry, as it would mean exchanging the charmed world of Hogwarts for the mundane (or hyper-mundane) setting of Privet Drive. But there’s disliking Harry and then there’s being evil; in this book Rowling insists that these are both real, but that they’re not identical. It’s a delicate balancing act – all the more so given that the nature of evil is never really spelt out, beyond the fact that Voldemort killed Harry’s parents and would like to kill Harry. It’s particularly noticeable that Dumbledore, in the obligatory but there’s still one thing I don’t understand scene at the end of the book, declines to draw the line distinguishing ‘evil’ from ‘Slytherin’:

‘Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor. You know why that was. Think.’
‘It only put me in Gryffindor,’ said Harry in a defeated voice, ‘because I asked not to go in Slytherin…’
Exactly,’ said Dumbledore, beaming once more. ‘Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.’

Even if it’s tidied away at the end of the book, earlier on the Slytherin problem has productively blurred the line between the issues of heroism and morality, querying Harry’s claim both to superhuman heroism and moral certitude. The way in which this book tackles the question of omnipotence – does the hero’s special nature enable him to get whatever he wants, or will the world quietly, pointlessly get in the way? – also shows some overlap with the ‘moral compass’ question. Specifically, Harry’s key discovery in this book is that people get in the way – and that they do so in ways that aren’t, actually, evil. The key figure here is the ridiculous and worthless Gilderoy Lockhart. Rowling’s authorial tone with regard to Lockhart never wavers; he is clearly an idiot who has made a career out of his own vanity, and who gains Harry’s respect only by virtue of his position as a teacher. And yet:

‘Oh, there you are, good,’ said Mrs Weasley. She sounded breathless and kept patting her hair. ‘We’ll be able to see him in a minute…’

Why,’ demanded Ron, seizing her timetable, ‘have you outlined all Lockhart’s lessons in little hearts?’ Hermione snatched the timetable back, blushing furiously.

Lockhart’s not merely incompetent, he’s dangerously incompetent – as well as being untrustworthy and a fraud. But he does have lovely hair and a nice smile, and it would be nice to believe he was genuine – and for a lot of people that’s enough to be going on with. Female people, primarily. (Is anyone gay at Hogwarts?)

Like Malvolio, Lockhart is at once a figure of fun and an annoyance, and his comeuppance is just as thorough as Malvolio’s. The final twist of the plot sees him deprived of his memory, the very faculty that enabled him to stitch together the character he made of himself. As a result he’s deprived of all significance, sidelined and reduced to an amiable childlike state. It’s interesting that the book where Lockhart does his turn also sees the first appearance of a much more significant figure, Cornelius Fudge. In this respect Chamber of Secrets foreshadows the third book, in which the theme that Lockhart embodies in comic form is taken up in earnest by Fudge: this man may be complacent, self-seeking and incompetent, but people believe him – people who wouldn’t, necessarily, believe you. There is stuff out there that’s unavoidably in the way, stuff that you just have to work round; there are people out there who will get in the way, without necessarily being evil. Thematically, Lockhart is part ‘omnipotence’ and part ‘moral compass’; in both respects this book moves on from the first one in some interesting ways.

But omnipotence, morality and heroism aren’t what the book is about – at least, they’re not the point of this book in particular. The best way to understand what it’s about is to take seriously two comments Rowling has made about the original draft of the book. One was that the plot was originally planned to reveal information which she decided to hold back to a later book; the other was that the book’s original title was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but that she’d been forced to drop it when she realised it didn’t fit the plot. This clears up a couple of mysteries straight away: the similarity between the major plot devices of the two books is explained, as is the bizarrely creaky ‘Prince’ plot device used in the sixth book. (Admittedly this doesn’t explain why Rowling reused the title in the first place; I suppose she must really have liked it.)

As for the crucial information, I think the key exchange comes in that final exposition scene:

‘Unless I’m much mistaken, he transferred some of his own powers to you the night he gave you that scar. Not something he intended to do, I’m sure…’
‘Voldemort put a bit of himself in me?’ Harry said, thunderstruck.
‘It certainly seems so.’

By the time we reach the end of book six we know all about how, and why, “Voldemort put a bit of himself in me“. (Settle down at the back there. This is family reading.) For now we’re left with a revelation that complements the revelation at the end of the first book. There’s something about Harry which protects him from evil, and which derives from his mother’s self-sacrifice to save him from Voldemort. But there’s also something about him which derives from Voldemort’s attack itself; the implication is that this will tend to draw him back towards Voldemort and destruction, like a delayed-action homing device.

The extent to which these motifs represent moral complexity, or fictional maturity, is debatable. As I wrote in the context of the first book, it’s arguable that Rowling is only going to leave the safety of comfort-zone fantasy for the equal and opposite safety of the discomfort zone – a fictional world whose heroes can be relied on to be powerless, unheroic, misguided and doomed. Lily’s shielding love and Voldemort’s contaminating Horcrinfluence are both all too compatible with a vision of Harry as an impotent plaything of fate, suffering horribly for his failure to attain the proper level of fantasy heroism. Whether they’re also compatible with Harry living in a real world – albeit a real world with magic – is much more debatable.

Not that funny

Ellis:

[Podhoretz]also barks:

As with Finlandization, Islamization extends to the domestic realm, too. In one recent illustration of this process, as reported in the British press, “schools in England are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons to avoid offending Muslim pupils . . . whose beliefs include Holocaust denial.” (ellipses in original)

Now when you use apostrophes like that you indicate that you are quoting something. And there’s a trifling scholarly convention that you indicate in a footnote what it is you are citing and where an interested reader can find it. But Podhoretz is above the petty restrictions of conventional scholarship. He cites in a vacuum. There are no footnotes. His dubious quotations float in a void. And this particular citation is patently bogus. It sounds like some feverish nonsense copied from a Melanie Philips column.

It does, rather – not least because of Podhoretz’s own editoralisation. “Schools in England are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons”, eh? OK, let’s say that a school in this town and another school down the road independently decide to scrub round the Holocaust in their History lessons, because the teachers get sick of mouthy kids chipping in – but Sir it didn’t actually happen like that did it Sir? Now, there are only so many lessons in the week and only so many topics you can teach; it’s not inconceivable that you could design a History curriculum that skipped the Holocaust, for convenience’s sake. I did History O Level, time back way back, and I don’t remember the Holocaust even being mentioned when we covered World War II. (There was a Holocaust denier in my class, as it happens, although he was a born-again Christian and there was just the one of him.)

Still, this would be a pretty depressing scenario. What it wouldn’t be, necessarily, is an illustration of a broader process, a symptom of the creeping tide of Islamization from which only the righteous vigilance of a Podhoretz can save us. For that to be the case, rather than simply opting for a quiet life, the schools would have to be following the agenda – or at least cutting with the cultural grain – of the local education authority, or central government, or the teaching unions, or the Labour Party, or the Guardian… or, well, somebody. If this is the tip of an iceberg, there has to be an iceberg.

So, where is Podhoretz getting his information from, and does it justify the spin he put on it? For a start, where did that phrase come from? I googled. The first thing I discovered was that it’s a phrase with legs: 24 hits for “schools in England are dropping the Holocaust” from a variety of sources, including an open letter to the government from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre (not pleased). Rephrase and google for “schools are dropping the Holocaust”, and bingo:

Schools are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons to avoid offending Muslim pupils, a Government-backed study has revealed. It found some teachers are reluctant to cover the atrocity for fear of upsetting students whose beliefs include Holocaust denial.

There is also resistance to tackling the 11th century Crusades – where Christians fought Muslim armies for control of Jerusalem – because lessons often contradict what is taught in local mosques. The findings have prompted claims that some schools are using history ‘as a vehicle for promoting political correctness’.

Yes, it’s our old friend the Daily Hate-Mail, putting its own spin on a “Government-backed study”. More on that in a moment. In passing, it’s worth noting that the Hate‘s story even misrepresents itself; there are no claims that some schools are using history ‘as a vehicle for promoting political correctness’. Here’s the quoted phrase in context, from further down the same page:

Chris McGovern, history education adviser to the former Tory government, said: “History is not a vehicle for promoting political correctness. Children must have access to knowledge of these controversial subjects, whether palatable or unpalatable.”

McGovern must have seemed like a soft touch for a why-oh-why anti-multiculti quote – he’s the director of “the traditionalist History Curriculum Association” and complained recently that kids these days aren’t taught about the positive consequences of imperial rule. But what he actually said doesn’t include any claims about what ‘some schools’ are doing. In fact it’s rather embarrassingly adrift from the story, which is about Holocaust denial rather than political correctness. The Hate‘s distortion of McGovern’s words turns them into a thin, tendentious link between the two, insinuating that accommodating pupils with denialist views is political correctness – and, in the process, suggesting that these Holocaust-avoiding schools are acting with the approval of the local education authority (or central government, or the teaching unions, or the Labour Party, or the Guardian, or, well, somebody).

So, what does it actually say in this “Government-backed study”? See for yourself: Teaching Emotive and Controversial History 3-19 can be downloaded from this page. And Ellis’s instincts were right: the report doesn’t associate Holocaust denial with ‘political correctness’ and it certainly doesn’t approve of it. The line of the report is very much that schoolkids should have access to “knowledge of these controversial subjects, whether palatable or unpalatable”. Nor, in actual fact, does it say “schools are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons”; for that matter, it doesn’t say that there is generalised resistance to teaching the Crusades in ways that often contradict what is taught in local mosques. Here’s what it says, in a section headed Constraints to the teaching of emotive and controversial history, sub-heading “Teacher avoidance of emotive and controversial history”:

Teachers and schools avoid emotive and controversial history for a variety of reasons, some of which are well-intentioned. Some feel that certain issues are inappropriate for particular age groups or decide in advance that pupils lack the maturity to grasp them. Where teachers lack confidence in their subject knowledge or subject-specific pedagogy, this can also be a reason for avoiding certain content. Staff may wish to avoid causing offence or appearing insensitive to individuals or groups in their classes. In particular settings, teachers of history are unwilling to challenge highly contentious or charged versions of history in which pupils are steeped at home, in their community or in a place of worship. Some teachers also feel that the issues are best avoided in history, believing them to be taught elsewhere in the curriculum such as in citizenship or religious education.

For example, a history department in a northern city recently avoided selecting the Holocaust as a topic for GCSE coursework for fear of confronting anti-Semitic sentiment and Holocaust denial among some Muslim pupils. In another department, teachers were strongly challenged by some Christian parents for their treatment of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the history of the state of Israel that did not accord with the teachings of their denomination. In another history department, the Holocaust was taught despite anti-Semitic sentiment among some pupils, but the same department deliberately avoided teaching the Crusades at Key Stage 3 because their balanced treatment of the topic would have directly challenged what was taught in some local mosques.

Where teachers model the processes of critical enquiry that characterise the adult discipline of the subject, history teaching may well clash with a narrow and highly partisan version of family or communal history in which some pupils have been reared.

One History department avoided selecting the Holocaust. Another department (singular) did teach the Holocaust but avoided teaching the Crusades. And a Government-backed study held up the pair of them as an example to avoid, encouraged other schools to do better, and offered twenty pages of recommendations and examples of best practice to help them. In short, there’s no sign here of creeping Islamization, and no evidence of a ‘politically-correct’ campaign to avoid offending Muslims even at the expense of historical truth. There is, apparently, a small minority of kids out there who are being brought up Holocaust deniers, which is disturbing. But it sounds as if most schools are dealing with that minority appropriately – and a Government-backed study has encouraged those which aren’t doing so to get their act together.

In 1943, commenting on the Tory press’s new-found fondness for anti-Nazi atrocity stories, George Orwell reminded us that some things are true even if the Daily Telegraph says they are. I don’t think he was ever that generous to the Mail.

I can turn you into gold

As a genre, fantasy has something in common with utopian fiction. Utopias begin with a challenge – Let’s say that everyone’s happy – and then set about answering the questions that challenge provokes. The interest of a utopia is precisely which questions the author believes need to be answered: is it “Who will do the dirty jobs?” or “What about men?”, “What about the idlers?” or “What about aggression?”? The way these questions are answered – and the way they’re framed in the first place – tells us what the utopia is about, what drives it and sustains it – and by implication tells a story about what matters to us, in our world.

Fantasy fiction works a similar trick, at a less exalted – or perhaps simply a less programmatic – level. Let’s say that there are these people who are not like us… and let’s say they can get whatever they want… and let’s say that there are good people and bad people, and the bad people are really easy to identify… I think that something like this set of assumptions lurks behind a lot of fantasy fiction, a kind of unacknowledged comfort zone that the narrative quietly hankers for. The skill of fantasy is then to pull against the tug of wish-fulfilment and play with these assumptions, thinking about their implications and their limits, working out whether people could actually live with them – and if so, how. And, again, the specific questions that get asked (“what about death?”, “what about science?”, “what about pride?”) tell us what the fantasy is about – and, for the author, what matters in the world out here.

So, about Harry Potter…

I’m surprised when sometimes people say to me, “Oh, you know, the books are getting so dark.” I’m thinking, “Well, which part of ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ did you think was light and fluffy?”
– J.K. Rowling, interviewed 16/7/05

Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy – until he is rescued by a beetle-eyed giant of a man, enrols at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, learns to play Quidditch and does battle in a deadly duel. The Reason: HARRY POTTER IS A WIZARD!
– back cover copy, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, paperback edition (43rd printing, Dumbledore picture)

Fluffy, perhaps not – but that blurb is a perfect example of how the Harry Potter books might be read as ‘light’. Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy – until he is rescued – and boom, we’re off. Everything from there to the climactic caps and exclamation mark offers to lift the reader into unbounded fantasy, far from the ‘ordinary’ world of work and pain, love and boredom. (The threat implied by that duel might have done a bit of anchoring, if only it hadn’t been a deadly duel – the two words cancel each other out.)

That’s just a blurb, but I think the books are heavily involved with this weightless, comfort-zone version of fantasy – and that it accounts for a lot of what’s most disappointing about them. By which I mean, most of what isn’t plot or character, and some of what is. From the first chapter of Philosopher’s Stone, we’re encouraged to invest in Harry as a boy who has survived real traumas and will face more – “The boy who lived”, with all that that phrase implies. Yet Harry’s surroundings are pure wish-fulfilment. In an interview a while ago, J.K. Rowling said that she’d acquired an instant fan base among enthusiasts for boarding school education and believers in magic[k], and that she had no interest in either topic except as a fictional device. I thought at the time that this was an extraordinary admission – it’s hard to imagine Anthony Buckeridge or Geoffrey Willans disclaiming any interest in schools. But then, Hogwarts isn’t like any other school – even Linbury Court or St custard’s. Those schools are described with an odd combination of quaint specificity and fantastical exuberance, which echoes the collision between childhood creativity and institutional routine. There are things you must and mustn’t do, places you must and mustn’t go, people you must respect and obey and avoid; how it all fits together is for you to find out – or imagine, in curlicues of private mythology. There’s little of this about Hogwarts: the exuberance is all in the real magical trappings of the school, while the quaint specifics are all perfectly logical. As a school, Hogwarts is identifiable as a fantasy above all because it makes sense – there are things the teachers would rather not share with Harry and friends, but there’s nothing that in principle they couldn’t understand. Even the Jennings books are truer to the limits and the mysteries of childhood experience.

As for magic, to say that magic is real at Hogwarts isn’t to say much more than that wishes come true there. Rowling’s bluff scepticism about magic outside fiction contrasts oddly with peers like Ursula le Guin or Philip Pullman. Le Guin has always taken at least as much interest in fictional ethnography as in plotting, while Pullman concludes “His Dark Materials” by saying that magic is real, here, now – it’s just that in our world it’s called shamanism or the I Ching. Set against Ged’s trances or Lyra’s reading of the alethiometer – or even the solemn, meticulous cod-Tolkien of something like Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series – spells like “Expelliarmus” or “Wingardium Leviosa” seem like awfully thin stuff. (Perhaps in the seventh book there’ll be some explanation of why spells are written in something that looks like Latin but isn’t. Or perhaps not.) There are odd moments when both the magic and the school setting come to life – think of Neville’s trouble with passwords or Hermione’s “Wingardium Levio-sah!” – but they’re all too rare.

Despite all this – and despite a writing style in serious need of fluff removal – the books remain interesting, in large part because they do think about the implications and limits of fantasy. What’s particularly interesting is the way that the three themes outlined above recur from book to book, sometimes being waved away in one book and chewed over more seriously in its successor.

In this respect, it has to be said, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone doesn’t begin well. One of the key questions on the frontier between fantasy-as-speculation and fantasy-as-wish-fulfilment concerns the status of other people. To put it bluntly, are they real – specifically, are they as real as me? The fantasy setting offers plenty of opportunities to answer this in the negative, by allowing the reader to identify with the exceptional characters rather than the mere ordinary real people. Consequently, from an egalitarian perspective, many fantasy narratives are marred by either Tory paternalism (use your gifts to serve the less fortunate) or fascism (you have been raised up as a leader). Both Pullman and le Guin find ways around this trap. (It’s worth noting that Tolkien avoided it completely, by vesting paranormal powers in divine beings and consecrated objects – and dissociating heroism from both.) Rowling walks straight into it, in the opening words of the first book.

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

Perfectly normal, thank you very much – reading that last phrase I can just see Michael Palin in a flat cap and Terry Jones in a skirt and a hat with cherries on top. It’s a caricature of a certain kind of English middle-class normality, so broadly drawn that it hardly qualifies as satire and – by 1997 – very tired. The Dursleys, in short, are unreal from the word go – even before the relentless accumulation of negative character traits that follow in the next four chapters. They are the worst surrogate parents Harry could possibly have had, the least deserving of any kind of respect, consideration or reciprocity. The wizard/Muggle distinction gets more interesting in later books, but as far as Philosopher’s Stone is concerned the Muggles par excellence are the Dursleys in all their grotesquerie. Which means that the people who matter are the people who are not like us – or at least, not like them, those boring ordinary people who go to work and watch TV. Score one for wish-fulfilment.

The book’s answers to the other two questions I’ve suggested are a bit more interesting. Yes, HARRY POTTER IS A WIZARD!, but it doesn’t follow that Harry can get whatever he wants – because what Harry wants more than anything else is to be reunited with his parents, who are dead. (And dead, at least in this book, is dead.) One of the weirdest and most moving moments in the book is Harry’s encounter with the Mirror of Erised, a kind of psychological version of Larry Niven’s ‘droud’:

‘It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. … However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.’

To be presented with an image of our desires – and to sit before it, entranced – is quite a good image of the spectacle, as the situationists conceived it. It’s also a horribly telling critique of comfort-zone fantasy, that place where considerations of what is real or even possible don’t apply. It’s just a shame that the Mirror of Erised chapter is also the set-up for a really awful with-one-bound plot device (not to mention being one more example of Rowling’s tin ear for language).

The other big question is that of distinguishing between good people and bad people – or rather, between ‘good and bad’ and ‘friendly and unfriendly’ – or rather, between he’s a bad man and I don’t like him – or rather, between he’s a bad man and he doesn’t like me. (This last one is quite a lot to ask of a twelve-year-old; unsurprisingly, it’s a bit beyond Ron right to the end of this book. But then, that’s what Ron’s for.) As that awkward statement and restatement might suggest, this is a question that Philosopher’s Stone chews over thoroughly; it’s not what the book’s about, but it’s the main running theme. As you’ll know if you’ve read this far, we’re talking about Snape here (with whose help this theme will run and run). By the end of the book Harry has learned that Snape genuinely hates him; that he had some reason for hating Harry’s father, if not Harry himself; that, despite all this, Snape didn’t actually want Harry dead, and had in fact saved his life; and that somebody else was trying to kill him. It’s a shocking and persuasive demonstration of the difference between ‘evil’ (will kill hero if possible) and ‘unfriendly’ (will mark hero’s homework unfairly, but will save hero’s life if necessary). It’s only a partial break with comfort-zone fantasy; it’s still assumed that ‘evil’ and ‘death of hero’ imply each other, which clearly isn’t necessarily so (couldn’t Snape hate Harry enough to kill him, without necessarily being in league with the forces of evil? come to that, couldn’t the forces of evil do their evil work without Harry’s death being involved?) But it is a partial break – a tear in the fabric of the comfort zone – and more, and worse, will follow.

And what the book’s about? Love; specifically, Lily’s love for Harry, which saved his life and continues to protect him from Voldemort.

‘Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realise that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign… to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection for ever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good.’

Something so good as the self-sacrifice of a mother you never knew… There’s something slightly queasy there. Here’s another quote from that July 2005 interview:

Don’t you want to ask me why James’s death didn’t protect Lily and Harry? There’s your answer … because she could have lived – and chose to die. James was going to be killed anyway. Do you see what I mean? I’m not saying James wasn’t ready to; he died trying to protect his family, but he was going to be murdered anyway. … she was given time to choose. James wasn’t. It’s like an intruder entering your house, isn’t it? You would instinctively rush them. But if in cold blood you were told, “Get out of the way,” you know, what would you do? I mean, I don’t think any mother would stand aside from their child. But does that answer it? She did very consciously lay down her life. She had a clear choice. –

And James didn’t

Did he clearly die to try and protect Harry specifically given a clear choice? No. It’s a subtle distinction and there’s slightly more to it than that but that’s most of the answer.

Love as self-sacrifice – or rather, self-sacrifice as love, as a gesture of love so powerful that it enfolds the loved one forever after. This is a fantasy, but it’s a mother’s fantasy, not a child’s. It’s also rather morbid, and makes me wonder what’s in store for Harry’s emotional development. The other implication of that phrase “the boy who lived” is that the remainder of Harry’s life is a postscript to his first encounter with Voldemort, or at best a working-out of unfinished business. I wonder if Rowling is going to allow Harry at least to think about adulthood, and leave his mother’s sacrificial embrace behind – or will he always be the boy who had been loved? We know now that he’s never going to get together with that nice Hermione Grainger, but is anybody going to stay the course – or get the chance?

This doesn’t sound like an important question – it sounds like I’m reducing fantasy to a soap opera plot, and taking that more seriously than it deserves. But it is important, because it brings us back to the nature of fantasy. The other side of comfort-zone fantasy is the fantasy of a world where the hero is special because he’s marked out for destruction, he can’t get anything he wants and the difference between good and evil equals the difference between him and everyone else. Call it the fantasy of the discomfort zone. It’s an unrewarding, masochistic style of fantasy, but no less popular for that. Let Harry’s life be a vapour trail that streaks from one self-immolating explosion to another, and the only progress we will have made is from weightless comfort to ungrounded discomfort. Tolkien, le Guin, Pullman – all of them have faced up to the idea of a fantasy-figure embarking on a life after fantasy, and in the process drawn attention to what their fantasies were really about (humility and pride, death and fear, desire and science). I hope Rowling can do likewise.

[Sharp-eyed readers will have noted the lack of specific references in this post to the second and subsequent books. The plan is to write a separate post on each one, although hopefully not at quite this length. Stay tuned, and so forth.]

The world looks so tiny

Jamie:

Back in the eighties when China was inviting “foreign friends” over, mainly to teach, as a means of preparing the locals for the forthcoming golden horde of businesspeople they weren’t too scrupulous about checking credentials. There was an absolute infestation of evangelicals, often in posts at fairly prestigious universities for which they had no qualifications whatsoever. “Plate tectonics later – but first, Jesus!”

This kind of thing is partly a by-product of evangelism being banned in China. Partly also it’s because the thought of 1.3 billion hellbound souls just gets evangelical sap rising. It’s a particular obsession in the US. None other than Henry Luce said that the great mission of the United States was to Christianize China.

Back in the early 70s, when I last went to church at all regularly, there was a hymn called “Thy Kingdom Come, O God” which used to come round from time to time. The last verse goes after the following fashion:

O’er heathen lands afar
Thick darkness broodeth yet:
Arise, O Morning Star,
Arise, and never set!

Apparently more recent editions bowdlerise the first line to “O’er lands both near and far”, which dodges the point rather neatly.

I don’t know if hearing that hymn at a formative age had anything to do with it, but a friend’s younger brother later got religion in a big way and trained as a missionary. I was slightly startled by this, but much more so by his first posting, which was to a village in India. (No, look… they’ve got a religion, they’ve had it for ages and they seem quite happy with it… and I mean, different religions, they’re all different, kind of, different pathways to the same… obviously you think Christianity’s the best pathway and I respect that, but…) Still, it’s not often these days that you get the chance to meet someone with a different mental universe, so I suppose we should be glad that the evangelical Christians are around.

The idea of the historic American mission to Christianise China also reminds me of the Early Modern trope of the conversion of the Jews, as mentioned in Marvell’s “To his coy mistress”:

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.

The thinking here is, obviously, that the Jews won’t convert until the second coming of Christ and the end of the world.

But then came Zionism – Christian Zionism, in particular. (Regina Sharif’s Non-Jewish Zionism is terrific on this, if you can get hold of it.) For evangelical Christians, the rise of Christian Zionism meant that the Jews weren’t available for conversion any more, even in imagination. (Another church-going memory is of a visiting preacher praying for “thy people Israel”, who were having a bit of trouble in Lebanon at the time. I was taken aback – didn’t our status as Christians rather depend on the Jews losing the franchise? – but apparently this kind of eschatological double-vision is quite common in some quarters.) The enthusiasm of parts of the American Right for Nationalist China – their willingness to give the Kuomintang practical as well as financial support, and to withhold recognition from the People’s Republic until long after the game was up – has always intrigued me; it’d be interesting to see if the KMT fan base had much overlap with the Christian Zionist lobby. Perhaps, in the American evangelical imagination, Luce’s vision of the conversion of the Chinese took the place of the conversion of the Jews – although, the American evangelical imagination being what it is, it was seen not as an ineffably distant prospect but as a project to be brought about as soon as possible. Lucky Chinese.

Not mine

David, of all people, points to a fascinating lecture by Rowan Williams. Who writes, among much else:

Take Scripture out of this context of the invitation to sit at table with Jesus and to be incorporated into his labour and suffering for the Kingdom, and you will be treating Scripture as either simply an inspired supernatural guide for individual conduct or a piece of detached historical record — the typical exaggerations of Biblicist and liberal approaches respectively. For the former, the work of the Spirit is more or less restricted to the transformation of the particular believer; for the latter, the life of the community is where the Spirit is primarily to be heard and discerned, with Scripture an illuminating adjunct at certain points. But grasp Scripture as part of the form taken by the divine act of invitation that summons and establishes the community around the Lord’s Table, and the Bible becomes coherent at a new level, as a text whose meaning is most centrally to do with the passage from rivalry and self-assertion and the enmity with God that is bound up with these to the community in which each, by the influx of the Spirit, takes responsibility for all, and all for each.

When it comes to Christianity I’m an ex-believer, if that – church membership was always about the ethics in our house. When the Archbishop says that Eucharist and Scripture alike have to be considered in relation to belief in the resurrection it doesn’t mean much more to me than if he’d said that Mercury and Venus alike have to be considered as the rulers of air signs – and what he writes about the theology of the cross … a revelation of glory through self-forgetting and self-offering finds me deeply suspicious and rather hostile. (Blame it on Crass. “Reality Asylum” – once heard, never forgotten.)

But still, the argument I’ve just quoted strikes me as powerful and fascinating – and resonant far outside the Anglican tradition to which it speaks. If these are two ways of working with Scripture, they’re also two ways of using theory or doing politics. At one extreme are the converted believers, who will talk endlessly about how the text changes their view of the world and the new conceptual possibilities it opens up, without ever putting it to the test of working with other people. At the other are the pragmatic activists, devoting themselves to what’s actually going on out there, returning to the text (if at all) to mine it for parallels and sources of inspiration. These are caricatures, but I think they’re based on real positions – the discussion provoked by Dave‘s recent decision to rejoin the Labour Party drew some very clear lines between hard-headed realists and self-indulgent purists, or between principled socialists and opportunistic renegades.

While it was, in all probability, no part of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s intention to bang socialist heads together, his argument does suggest very forcefully that both sides in this debate were missing something. This isn’t just the familiar line about theory needing to be informed by practice and vice versa. The point is, rather, that theory (or Scripture) is something heard – a message – and as such needs to be embedded within a continuing conversation, within a community. (This may be closer to Jewish traditions than David suggests.) Neither the conversation without the message, nor the message heard by a single person, is adequate. I think there’s something profoundly useful and challenging here; it’s also profoundly depressing, given the current state of the Left. Still, to use theory to inform the intellectual life of a group – in Williams’ terms, to unite scripture with eucharist – strikes me as something worth aspiring to. Not that Williams’ thinking is flawless here; as that slightly grudging reference to the life of the community suggests, he doesn’t show much interest in what the community of believers is going to do in between Sundays. But a loss of focus on what an organised group is organised for is hardly unique to Christians.

There’s a lot more than this in Williams’ lecture. I particularly like the way he deals with St Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality, and the way it’s been used by conservative Christians; it’s the best exposition of what it means to take something out of context that I’ve seen. It’s hard going in parts – he knows his theology and isn’t afraid to use it – but I think it’s worth persevering with. If nothing else, it’s a corrective to the idea that religious thought is a contradiction in terms. If Williams were to lose his faith he could still write works of philosophy. (Not to mention sleeve notes for String Band re-releases.)

These are your favourite things

I undertook last night to defend Torchwood against its critics. Having seen last night’s episode I’m less enthusiastic about this task than I was – about the kindest thing that could be said about episode 3 is that it was a load of old tosh. Still, I feel much more kindly disposed towards the series than Justin or Dave – and some of their criticisms strike me as not so much unfair as irrelevant.

I’ll set the scene with a couple of Russell T. Davies’ earlier hits.

DOCTOR: Look at these people, these human beings, consider their potential. From the day they arrive on this planet and blinking, step into the sun, there is more to see than can ever be seen, more to do… no, hold on… sorry, that’s the Lion King… but the point still stands!

HOMELESS MAN: Big Issue?
VINCE: Yes, it is! Unrequited love – it never has to grow old and it never has to die!

A lot of Davies’s dialogue – a lot of his best dialogue – is like this: elaborate, tasteless and entirely unbelievable, but at the same time moving, funny and enthusiastic.

Especially enthusiastic. Davies’s imaginative world has three consistent features, all of which play in the direction of upbeat. There’s faith: faith in love and desire (which are seldom far apart); faith in emotions, and letting them out and acting on them; and ultimately an optimistic faith in people. Nothing is more characteristic of Davies than his setting a vision of the end of the world, in the eponymous Doctor Who episode, five billion years in the future:

DOCTOR: You lot, you spend all your time thinking about dying, like you’re going to get killed by eggs, or beef, or global warming, or asteroids. But you never take time to imagine the impossible. Like maybe you survive.

Then there’s sex. For Davies there’s always sex – he’s described it as the single most basic plot driver, whatever the plot is. The promise that Torchwood delivers on (or at least promises to deliver on) was made by Doctor Who as long ago as Captain Jack’s first appearance, and as recently as the Doctor’s parting with Rose. (And remember the Doctor and Rose tumbling out of the Tardis into Victorian Scotland? Why were they so unsteady on their feet – and why were they giggling so much?)

The third key element of Davies’s vision – and the one which seems to have given Dave and Justin the most trouble – goes back, I think, to Davies’s early days as a screenwriter for children’s TV. It’s a quality which Torchwood and Doctor Who share with Buffy and Serenity but not with Star Trek, let alone Star Wars. It’s a kind of unencumbered, disrespectful, not-quite-adult lightness, flippancy even. This is partly about the dialogue – you don’t ask whether a line is credible, you ask whether it sounds good in performance – but it also goes deeper, to the level of character. You don’t say, What does the willingness to do this say about Character X? or How will Character X handle the consequences? You say, Would Character X do this? What about you – would you? What about if you could get away with it, would you then? The characters aren’t burdened with foresight or moral reflection, and the writing doesn’t take up the slack with foreshadowing or ominous sound effects. They do what they do, and the consequences come along later to bite them – or not, as it suits the plot. And what they do is what you would do, if you weren’t too inhibited, too boring, too grown-up. I felt quite comfortable with this element of Torchwood – or rather, I wasn’t consciously aware of it – until I read Dave’s comment

The writing team has a low opinion of their creation’s integrity; three out of six are office thieves.

and Justin’s:

A member of the Torchwood team is revealed (in a *hilarious* scene) in the opening episode as a bisexual rapist who traps his victims using an alien aftershave he’s borrowed from work that makes him irresistible.

Office thieves? Rapist? They borrow stuff from work (including the said alien atomiser which induces immediate desire in anyone who gets a whiff). Sure, they’ve been told not to do it – but with stuff like that lying around, well, you would, wouldn’t you?

Youth, sex and optimism: the trio embodied in Queer as Folk in under-age Nathan, amoral Stuart and the eternally hopeful Vince, and subsequently rolled into one in David Tennant’s Casanova, John Barrowman’s Jack Harkness and (most strikingly) Tennant’s Doctor. This isn’t a world where gains are wiped out by their cost, where dilemmas are unresolvable or where darkness means more than the absence of light. It’s a bright and mostly beautiful world, where external threats needs to be resisted because people matter – and people matter because of their capacity to love. It’s also a world brought to us in a hectic patchwork of action scenes, character development, horror, plot exposition, character-based comedy, backstory exposition, beautiful camerawork and moments of calm, still wonder.

It’s not Our Friends in the North; it’s not even ER. It’s not trying to be. But what it does, it does well. At its worst it’s tosh (albeit beautifully-executed tosh), but at its best it’s good.

Update 31/10

Whoa, comments! Sod the politics (and the music), Whoblogging is obviously the way to go.

There’s some interesting stuff coming out. Jonn:

“So far the pattern seems to be that a) the Torchwood team have moral compasses that are spinning wildly; b) Gwen is already getting corrupted by it all (look at the shooting range scene); c) Jack isn’t nearly as concerned about these missteps as he should be

but I trust the moral grey area stuff to be going somewhere. In fact I suspect it’s what the show is going to be all about.”

biscit:

“Torchwood are supposed to be acting in humankind’s best interests- they keep a lid on things because others can’t be trusted. But the thing is can they? This isn’t subtle extrapolating, the question is more or less baldly asked by Gwen, a policewoman brought in to be the team’s moral compass.

This is a post watershed show, there is scope for the central characters to be devious and amoral.”

A couple of preliminary thoughts. Firstly, I think RTD is a genuinely amoral writer, partly because he sees morality as anti-sex and partly because he likes people. In other words, I think he’d argue that if you just wind people up and let them go it’ll work out for the best, probably, for most people – and that even if it doesn’t always work out well it’s still a better alternative than trying to control them. So I don’t think an RTD character is ever going to be riven with self-doubt – or if they are they’ll probably grow out of it (cf. Vince). Secondly, there’s a question of genre (and in this respect I stand by the comparison with Buffy); you could even say that a basic character makeup of looking for fun and acting without forethought (but learning from the consequences) is a genre convention for this kind of drama.

That said, even I found the shooting-range scene hard to take. I haven’t seen lethal violence made to look so attractive since the Matrix – and even that didn’t make it look so sexy.

So, I dunno. Two basic possibilities, I suppose. Perhaps it really is just the Double-Deckers with added sex and guns, in which case I’d reluctantly concede that RTD may have pushed the young/sexy/optimistic thing a bit too far into amorality – and amoral nastiness at that. Or perhaps there’s some dark stuff coming, but it’s not really being foreshadowed – which would fit with the lack of overt morality and the “act first, reflect later” thing. (Let’s not forget, the first episode included a character who’d become a serial killer for the love of Torchwood – and who killed herself onscreen. That’s pretty dark.)

The big question for me is what they’re going to do with Captain Jack – the second and third episodes have suggested that he’s not the best person to look after the kids he’s surrounded himself with, what with being an amoral bisexual seducer, but also that he’s so damn attractive that you probably wouldn’t care. Gwen’s relationship with her partner – who’s been laboriously established as a boring old Welsh spud – is going to be one to watch, I think.

One last update 2/11

It occurred to me today – not that I’m brooding over this obsessively or anything – that the key to Captain Jack may be that odd scene with Gwen where he told her that he couldn’t die, and added that if he could find “the right kind of doctor” he might become mortal again. We all spotted the D-word, of course, but was there something else going on there? Why would somebody who’d just survived being shot in the head want to be mortal again? What this suggests to me is that, despite all the tall buildings and general Neoish posturing, the Captain Jack we’re seeing is damaged goods. He’s survived a major trauma (none more major) and been abandoned by his closest friends – and now, perhaps, he’s trying to outrun the effects by turning stress into duty (“Gotta be ready!”).

Alternatively, perhaps it really is just a load of old tosh.

Don’t go changing

I recently read Alison Lurie’s New York Review of Books article on C.S. Lewis and Narnia. It’s worth reading, if you haven’t seen it; her Guardian article includes some of the same material but is much shorter.

This, in particular, leapt out at me:

Many readers have been infuriated by Lewis’s final condemnation of Susan Pevensie, the former wise and gentle Queen Susan, as “no longer a friend of Narnia.” In The Last Battle she is cast out of Paradise forever because at twenty-one she speaks of her earlier experiences as only a childhood fantasy, and is “too keen on being grown up” and “interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.” Apart from the fact that these seem very minor sins, it is hard to believe that Susan could have changed that much and forgotten her happiness in Narnia and her commitment to Aslan. Apologists have claimed that her banishment was necessary to demonstrate that even those who have once been saved can fall from grace. Nevertheless it has seemed deeply unfair to many readers that Edmund, Susan’s younger brother, who has betrayed the others to the White Witch, is allowed to repent and stay in Narnia, while Susan, whose faults are much less serious, is not given the opportunity.

It’s not a new criticism, but I think Lurie’s wording is particularly forceful: it is hard to believe that Susan could have … forgotten her happiness in Narnia and her commitment to Aslan. What this brings home to me – the last phrase in particular – is that, if Aslan is (more or less) Christ, then Susan had been as much a Christian as the other three children; if belief in Aslan equates (roughly) to Christian salvation, then Susan had been saved. But nylons and lipstick and invitations were enough to damn her – quite literally, as the Last Battle ends with Aslan enacting the final division of sheep and goats.

There’s an interesting defence of Lewis on this point on a blog written by two Christians:

Lewis is at this point deliberately illustrating a very Christian contrast, between the forgiveness Jesus holds out to even the very worst person who turns away from their sin, and the rejection Jesus promises for those who finally reject him:

I tell you that any sinful thing you do or say can be forgiven. Matthew 12:31 (CEV)The master will surely come on a day and at a time when the servant least expects him. That servant will then be punished and thrown out with the ones who only pretended to serve their master. Matthew 24:50-51 (CEV)

Jesus himself told a story about the jealousy that this free offer of forgiveness arouses in some people, in Matthew 20:1-16. The idea of unmerited forgiveness does seem “unfair” to us, but it is also unfair to accuse Lewis of carelessness in this instance, where he is in fact being careful to follow what Jesus taught.

It’s a fair point, but it doesn’t go far enough. The real problem is that, in order to illustrate this contrast, Lewis put a traitor to Aslan in the role of repentant sinner, and made his despiser of God a young woman who liked going to parties. In other words, as Lurie says, Lewis ‘allowed’ Edmund but not Susan to repent. The same contrast could just as well have been worked in reverse, with the committed opponent of Aslan turned away from salvation and the worldly backslider seeing the error of her ways. Susan even had form in the matter of backsliding and redemption: one of her main functions in Prince Caspian is to doubt Aslan and then regain her belief in him. But by the time of The Last Battle, Susan’s worldly unbelief seems to have hardened, in Lewis’s mind, into something worse: she ends up in very much the same position as the characters in the Last Battle who genuinely opposed Aslan. Admittedly we don’t actually see her being cast out into the darkness – but we certainly don’t see her in the Narnia-beyond-Narnia which is Lewis’s final vision of Heaven. She doesn’t even end up marooned in Heaven while not believing in it, the ironic fate of a group of selfish and mistrustful dwarfs – they’re good-hearted underneath, presumably.

So what’s going on here? Philip Pullman got this mostly right:

Susan … is undergoing a transition from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn’t approve of that. He didn’t like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up.

(Lewis: When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown-up.) Susan hasn’t simply taken sides against Aslan rather than for him; she’s changed, in a way that takes her right out of the Narnian picture. The adult Susan is somebody for whom belief in Aslan – i.e. Christianity – is neither a good thing nor a particularly bad one; she doesn’t think in those terms. And this transition, for Lewis, is far worse than the transition from virtue to sin. Not to care about sin is the truly unforgivable sin – which is to say, it’s the sin which determines the sinner not to seek forgiveness. And, for Lewis, the desire to be very grown-up, and in particular the desire to be a grown woman, is incompatible with caring about sin – so into the outer darkness with Queen Susan.

I think this is just how it was for Lewis – which in turn makes you wonder about how his mind worked. What kind of religion is it that makes indifference to itself the worst possible sin? Or rather, indifference to religion – the ranks of the saved, at the end of The Last Battle, include lifelong worshippers of Tash (the bloodthirsty god of the swarthy Calormenes), but no atheists (with the possible exception of those dwarfs). The bad news is that being good doesn’t get you into Heaven unless you’re also a believer; the good news is that it doesn’t much matter what you’re a believer in. To believe in something is the main thing: something beyond; something other; something not here. To do good is a good thing – which is reasonably uncontroversial; say what you will about Christianity, it’s hard to argue that Love thy neighbour as thyself is bad advice (particularly when coupled with the “Good Samaritan” gloss on the ‘neighbour’ part). But doing good for no other reason than that it’s a good thing isn’t virtue; to be virtuous, good deeds need to be done for the sake of something utterly removed from the people they actually benefit. To be virtuous, in other words, is to do good not because it’s good but because it’s right: to judge your actions by criteria entirely different from the question of whether other people benefit or suffer from them.

It’s this abstract, disciplined calculus of virtue which is threatened by the onset of nylons and lipstick and invitations. For Lewis, growing up – becoming a sexual being, not to put too fine a point on it – was a fall from grace, not because adulthood meant living in sin but because it meant living in the world. The world we know, Lewis believed, is only a poor shadow of a real world we can only know through the imagination. As early as the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis rhapsodises about the vividness, intensity and power of Narnian experience, then cautions his readers that, regretfully, we had never experienced anything like it and never would. (Neither had he, of course.) The land where the three good Pevensies go, at the end of The Last Battle, is described as brighter and more vivid – more real – than even Narnia. Lewis’s vision recalls the sad but ghastly words of Christina Rossetti in “In the bleak midwinter”:

Our God, Heaven cannot hold him
Nor Earth sustain
Heaven and Earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign

To be a Christian, for Rossetti, is to worship God and commit oneself to Him, in the consciousness that our God is greater than anything we know and anything we can imagine. God has no imaginable connection with the world; the Incarnation is more tragic than glorious, and more pathetic than tragic. In this perspective, to withdraw from immediate sensuous engagement with the world – and to devote oneself to oceanic fantasies of being ever more utterly abased, ever more utterly known, ever more utterly forgiven – was not a retreat from reality but a closer approach to it. Further up and further in!

If that’s what Narnia stands for, I’m with Susan. As Pullman says, Lewis’s version of Christianity is not only shot through with racist, sexist and elitist attitudes; at a much more fundamental level, it’s ‘anti-life’.

Serene machine

There’s a lot to dislike about Serenity, but…

Actually, no – there’s not much to dislike about Serenity. (Joss Whedon’s address to the fans, now, that is dislikeable. It’s three parts you-guys-are-great motivational pitch, two parts my-mental-horizons-are-expanding-right-now! Emersonian wonderment and one of saving irony; it’s very American, in other words. But you can always ignore it and just watch the film.)

Serenity does have one big flaw and one major weakness. The flaw is closely related to one of the film’s great strengths: the dialogue. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon gave the world an unprecedented three-way hybrid – genre-based action crossed with teen heartache, presented in language as mannered and frivolous as Wilde. (Sure, it looks easy now…) Serenity is coming from the same world, only with grownups instead of teenagers and outer space instead of the occult. But the language… Here are two excerpts:

This landing is gonna get pretty interesting.
Define “interesting”.
“Oh God oh God we’re all going to die”?

This is the captain. We have a little problem with our entry sequence, so we may experience some slight turbulence and then explode.

There’s a scene early on in Good morning Vietnam, when Robin Williams’ manically free-associating DJ first lets rip. After a few minutes he finds a gap in his stream of consciousness big enough to fit a record in; then he kills the mike, looks up and says “Too much?” For a moment it’s as if Robin Williams is seeking reassurance from the director of the film. Of course it wasn’t too much, it wasn’t that kind of film; in real life it would have been enough to get the guy suspended from army radio pending psychiatric reports, but never mind. (The true story on which GMV was based is a quieter affair, by all accounts.) But either one of the lines quoted above verges on too much, and using them both in the same scene tips the film momentarily from ‘adventure film with gags’ to ‘Airplane with SFX’. Joss Whedon’s a fine writer, particularly with regard to the cracking of wise, but as a director he needs to rein that writer in.

Still, there really isn’t a lot to dislike about Serenity – and there is a lot to like, starting with the great majority of the dialogue. I liked the odd, sketched-in back-story, and the way the names of the characters ranged from Star Trek-standard (‘Inara’, ‘Shepherd Book’, ‘Fanty and Mingo’) to just plain standard (‘Malcolm Reynolds’). I liked the ventures into Andre Norton ‘space Western’ territory (two genres, count ’em), and the way Whedon is clearly conscious of going there: at one point our heroes are driving across a semi-desert planet pursued by a gang of savages who want to kill them, and sure enough, arrows begin thudding into the ship. (Possibly spears, but the resonance was there.) I liked the technology, which has a solid, grungey, Chris-Foss-with-rust quality to it: the ship being chased through the scrub looks like nothing so much as a JCB, albeit one which (to paraphrase Douglas Adams) is flying through the air in exactly the way a JCB doesn’t.

I also liked the acting, even if there were too many characters to keep track of – as the Star Trek films have shown, you can’t do as much with an ensemble cast over the length of a film as you can across a series. (Most of the problems with the film, major and minor, come back to it being a spinoff from Whedon’s cancelled TV series Firefly, which had the same setting and most of the same cast; to put it more bluntly, the trouble with the film is that it is a film and not a TV series.) I particularly liked what were effectively the two male leads, the wonderful Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Operative (who wasn’t in Firefly) and Nathan Fillion as Mal (who was). Before Firefly Fillion was in Buffy, towards the end – he played Caleb, the backwoods hellfire preacher who had gone to the bad and kept on going. Personally I didn’t think much of him, but I think now the problem was more with the character than the actor. Mal is a great character. He gives the impression of blundering through life without much to sustain him but his determination to keep on blundering through, and of being the captain of the ship for no real reason other than that somebody had to do it. That, and a deep but unfussed love for the ship and its crew, and the determination to keep the show on the road for as long as possible. It’s the ordinary bloke as leader, essentially; it appealed to me. Fillion brings it off well, particularly the anti-heroic moments where Mal’s inner shallows come out:

– Zoe, the ship is yours. Remember, if anything happens to me, or you don’t hear from me within the hour… you take this ship and you come and you rescue me.

– Do you want to run this ship?
– Yes!
– Well… you can’t!

He also delivers one particularly fine line of dialogue which I won’t quote – it’s the last line of the last deleted scene on the DVD. It’s a good scene – an exception to the general rule that deleted scenes were deleted for a reason.

As for the film’s major weakness, it’s the plot. Without giving away too much, the film sets up a horrifically evil force early on, apparently as part of the back-story scenery. Much later, this force turns out to be centrally involved in the main plot of the film, in an entirely unexpected way. I was left feeling that there was something wrong about this – it didn’t seem to work as a feature-film plot motor. I don’t know if any of the plot of the film figured in Firefly, but it seem to me that what Whedon gave us wasn’t so much a plot as a story arc – a theme which could run underneath a series of plots, occasionally affecting the way they developed, before being resolved at the end of a series. (Think “Dawn as the Key” or “Faith and the Mayor”.) If you take that out, the plot of Serenity boils down to two people chasing each other – and in the end they both get away.

But perhaps we wouldn’t want it any other way: a good plot has a resolution, and resolutions end things. Even Buffy ended, after the total implosion of Sunnydale, with the casual revelation that there was another Hellmouth out there (Cleveland, apparently). Harry Shearer once said that the reason Hollywood studios don’t get comedy is that in comedy you don’t want your characters to go on a journey or learn a lesson – you want them stuck, like Laurel and Hardy on the steps with their piano, and you want them to stay stuck. Something similar applies to genre fiction, perhaps. Having met Mal and his crew, I feel about them very much as I do about Buffy – I don’t want to know how they got to be ‘brown coats’, and I certainly don’t want to know about what happened after they gave it all up and settled down. But I wouldn’t mind another story about them flying the ship, going where they go, doing what they do. This one was fun.

Never return again

It’s been a bad week for deaths. Arthur Lee died last Thursday. If you drew a line from Brian Wilson’s ice-cream symphonies to Dylan’s lyrical manifestoes, you’d meet the Arthur Lee of Forever Changes right in the middle. Arthur Lee was a great artist, responsible for some of the strangest and most beautiful moments in recorded music. His best years were well behind him when he died – but then, I would have said something similar in December 1980, and that was still a dreadful loss. So is this.

On the same day that I heard about Arthur Lee, I read that Pierre Vidal-Naquet had died (thanks, Paul). Vidal-Naquet was a great scholar, a lifelong political activist, a consistent left-libertarian and an equally consistent challenger of historical revisionism – no small matter on the French ultra-left, sadly. He leaves a gap which it’s hard to see any one person filling. (Writing that line reminds me of yet another recent departure, for whom it’s just as valid: Murray Bookchin, who died the day before Vidal-Naquet. Hard times for left-libertarians.)

But I have to say that none of these losses affected me as much as a fourth. Bob Smithies, who died the same day as Arthur Lee, was a gifted photographer, a Manchester Guardian man and a local TV personality. But more, much more than this, he was Bunthorne, compiler of some of the best crosswords I’ve ever attempted to solve. Bunthorne didn’t go in for the kind of themed crossword which John Graham (“Araucaria”) made his own, or for Araucaria’s meticulous distribution of easy and hard clues. The puzzle as a whole, for Bunthorne, took second place to the clue. Here Bunthorne had two specialities. One was the vast, sprawling anagram of thirty or forty letters, spread over six or seven separate lights and immediately identifiable by the liberal use of punctuation marks and contractions. The other is harder to describe, but can be summed up as “clues that don’t look like clues”: sequences of words which make a kind of sense, but seem to supply either far too little information for solving purposes or far too much (the page linked above features a celebrated example of the latter: “Amundsen’s forwarding address” (4)).

Solving a crossword clue (for me at least) is primarily a matter of letting my mind work on it while I’m doing something else; the answer generally comes to me fully-formed, leaving me to work out how the subsidiary indications fit in afterwards. Still, there are clues that you can solve by mental brute force, decoding the subsidiary indications one after another and trying to make a word from what comes out (between the points, that’ll be compass points, maybe it begins with N and ends with S?”). It’s a perfectly valid way to set a puzzle; most of Araucaria’s puzzles could in theory be solved entirely by this approach, without any relegation to the mental back-burner. Not Bunthorne’s. I’ve never known a setter whose clues were so unamenable to the methodical approach or so insistent on being solved in a flash of (delayed) realisation. There was a teasing, gnomic quality to the best of Bunthorne’s clues: you knew you were being told something; you knew you didn’t – yet – know what it was; and you knew that thinking wouldn’t help. You couldn’t say, afterwards, how you’d worked it out, because you hadn’t. Every Bunthorne clue solved was a small but mysterious victory.

And now it’s over: there will never be another Bunthorne crossword. Bob Smithies has left a gap – and, unlike the other three people I’ve mentioned, he’s left a gap in my life personally. I hate that feeling, particularly at the moment. It’s been four months now but I still miss my mother, in much the same sense that somebody in a liferaft misses being on board ship. I’ve lost people before now and felt there was a gap in my mental skyline, but this time it’s more as if the ground’s gone.

Death just doesn’t seem like something we’re equipped to deal with. Tolkien wrote somewhere that he’d realised, after seeing friends killed around him in the First World War, that death was the great paradox: on one hand, for a loved one to die is the worst and most unbearable thing that can happen; on the other, death is absolutely universal and absolutely unavoidable, the one thing which we can say with certainty will happen to everyone who’s been spared it so far. Crushingly unbearable yet universal and inevitable: how can that be? Apparently the story of Aragorn and Arwen began as an attempt to deal with this paradox, as it were by taking a God’s eye view. If love, among mortal beings, leads to the worst pain imaginable, how could an immortal love a mortal? But if love is divine and mortals are worthy of it, how could an immortal not? To put it more simply and without the elves: how can love be worth the pain?

The answer is, I suppose, that it is because we need it to be – or else that it isn’t but we still need it to be, because the only alternative which would be even halfway comfortably numb would be a life without love, and that would be unbearable in itself. Shortly after a friend died, a couple of years ago, I saw a prize example of stoner-philosophy graffiti, which nearly sums all this up:

LOVE + PAIN = LIFE WHICH LEEDS TO DEAF

Nearly, but not quite – life also leeds to birf (and a whole new round of LOVE + PAIN), as eny fule kno.

And feel your lumps

Go and sit upon the grass and I shall come and sit beside you…

Back in the early seventies a couple of forward-looking sixth-formers at my school booked a series of acts, with varying degrees of success; Hatfield and the North were very nearly booked at one stage, but they ended up with Keith Christmas. I always wanted to be like those sixth-formers, but by the time I got there respect had given way to derision; they shouted at me in the corridors, in other words. (They called me ‘Medusa’, which was literate at least.) Anyway, Keith Christmas was pretty good; he could certainly bring off the long hair. The Albion Dance Band (as they then were) were also good, although I’d been hanging around all day with the people doing set-up and was out of my head on London Pride by the time they came on. And then there was Ivor Cutler, who disappointed some by not bringing his harmonium and disappointed me slightly by giving half a set to Phyllis April King (as she then was). I was prepared for the writing, as one of my sisters had left a copy of Cockadoodledon’t! at home. The writing was good.

But Ivor Cutler is dead.

Years later I saw Ivor Cutler again; at least, it was either him or an elderly man of medium height who was determined to look as much like Ivor Cutler as possible. Our paths crossed on a bridge over the Thames – one of those railway bridges with the fenced-in pedestrian section to one side. (Blackfriars, Waterloo, I don’t know.) I contemplated saying something but rapidly realised that I didn’t have anything more cogent to say than “Hey, you’re that Ivor Cutler, aren’t you?”. (Unlike my sister, I had never purchased any of his works.) I didn’t say anything.

But Ivor Cutler is dead.

As you’ll read in his interview with the Wire, Ivor Cutler wasn’t entirely pleased to have his contribution to Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom described as his own work. His own work was quite different. Wyatt later paid him a greater homage with his version of “Grass”, a.k.a. “Go and sit upon the grass”: a wonderful, hilarious and highly meaningful song about the path to enlightenment, which I have myself sung in public to great acclaim. (I made somebody cry with laughter – of which I have to say I am rather proud. Thanks, Ivor.)

Ivor Cutler is dead.

He has left a gap. The gap has many shapes; one of them is this. That’s a good gap.

And we shall talk…

No sweat at all

I agree with Michel Houellebecq, up to a point.

Atomised became a bestseller at home and abroad. It won the Prix Novembre, though it missed out on the Goncourt. The publication of Platform saw him prosecuted for incitement to racial hatred, after describing Islam as ‘the most idiotic religion’ in a promotional interview. (His exact words were: ‘La religion le plus con, c’est quand même l’Islam.’) He argued that he was entitled to criticise Islam, and that he had never conflated Muslims with Arabs; he was cleared; the book sold 200,000 copies in two weeks.

In any case, Islam’s the shittiest religion of all. Now: consider Islam as a body of ideas about the source, meaning and ultimate purpose of human life, intertwined with a body of practice and ritual, both of which are incarnated in a community of believers. In short, consider Islam as a religion like Christianity. In that perspective, Houellebecq’s acquittal was well-deserved; indeed, in that perspective I don’t see that the remark raises any significant issues. We might disagree with it profoundly; we might see it as hostile and divisive; we might see it as counter-productive to broader political projects with which we sympathise. All of this is beside the point: religions – like other ideologies and bodies of community-based practice – cannot be protected against disrespect, and it’s no kind of radicalism to insist that they should be.

On the other hand: consider Islam as the body of practice and belief which defines a minority community, whose members are born into that community and can no more cease to be members than I can cease to be English (and part-Welsh). In short, consider Islam as a religion like Judaism. If it’s appropriate to consider the Muslim community as a minority ethnicity, then it’s equally appropriate for the state to protect that community’s identity against slurs like Houellebecq’s – and for radicals to protest against its failure to do so, in line with the ruling classes’ eternal divide-and-rule strategy.

I don’t think there’s a right answer to this question, although I do think that for conceptualisations of Islam to develop away from the ethnic perspective and towards the contemporary Christian model would be profoundly desirable. All of which means that we need to make things more complicated and qualified rather then less – even if it means our writing becomes less bracing:

There’s little point in denying that he has some profoundly fascistic tendencies (the biography reveals that he is, or at least was, a committed racist). Like Céline, he’s a right-wing misanthrope who has produced a genuinely perceptive and resonant picture of French society – obscenified and isolating. He’s also a careless writer (in his view the modern world doesn’t deserve anything better). His fiction is often crude and repetitive. His observations, bracing at first, seem specious and grating when repeated, in almost identical form, in novel after novel.

Theo Tait’s conceding too much here. I realise that Damn. braces, but is frankly-expressed racism and misanthropy really bracing? We’re dealing here, I think, with a kind of perverse inversion of the role Richard plays for his readers, and Tim for his: That stuff you read in the paper today? It’s all a load of rubbish. You know what’s really important… In Houellebecq’s case what comes under fire is not so much what you read in the paper as what you think, and the flattery of the reader is rather indirect, but the basic dynamic – a kind of antinomian evangelism – is very similar. Don’t believe them – you know what’s really going on… It’s agitprop, essentially, promoting simplification and blame. (The two go together: if the issues are so clear, why are we told they’re so complex and difficult? Because they‘re idiots, or liars, or idiots unwittingly serving liars, or…) As literature, this kind of thing is contemptible. As political writing it’s not much better.

So I agree with Martin Kettle (up to a point):

Too many haters of capitalism and the United States still cram everything into the frame of untruth and self-deception that says my enemy’s enemy is still my friend because, even if he blows up my family on the tube, murders my colleagues on the bus or threatens to behead me for publishing a drawing, he is still at war with Bush, Blair and Berlusconi.

The all-embracing anti-imperialist mindset is a reality on the Left today; it’s a distraction at best, at worst positively dangerous. Ironically, the alternative perspective Kettle appears to propose – one wiped clean of any allusion to socialism, which has supposedly been proved to be a utopian daydream – is not much of an improvement. Nothing in Kettle’s piece is more revealing than the point when, after discussing his Communist Party background, he refers briefly to ‘other’ socialist currents; these are immediately qualified as ‘democratic and moderate’, i.e. reformist. As a post-war Communist, Kettle comes from a group which identified the revolutionary hopes of socialism with Stalinism – that weird combination of great-power realpolitik, managerialist Gleichschaltung and Fabian gradualism – and systematically denied that any rival claimant to the ‘socialist’ name deserved it. Even now, Kettle seems genuinely unaware of the possibility of being left of Stalin.

There is, in other words, no alternative; faced with the collapse of actually-existing socialism, Leftists must either live a lie or abandon it and embrace the more progressive elements of liberal capitalism. And if the latter course involves finding a home from home on the non-socialist Left, so much the better. (An awful lot of old CPers have ended up with New Labour; I suppose one authoritarian, bureaucratic party that blots out the rest of the Left is as good as another.)

The problem with Michel Houellebecq is less that he’s a racist than that he thinks simplistically and encourages over-simplification in others, erasing qualifications and concealing viable alternatives. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one.

So close to the answer

Thanks to a post at Burningbird – and in particular some thoughtful comments from Yule Heibel – I saw the Danish cartoons today. I won’t say I was shocked, but I was surprised. If offensiveness has anything to do with intention to offend, these are strikingly inoffensive images. Certainly the widespread comparison with hate speech, and with cartoons used as hate propaganda, doesn’t hold up for a second. The images have been seen as offensive because they’re portrayals of Mohammed, and because they’re critical of Islam: it’s an explosive and provocative combination, which probably shouldn’t have been attempted. (Although not because of the ‘predictable’ violent reaction – which I persist in regarding as entirely unpredictable, and entirely the fault of the people who were directly responsible.)

That said, I don’t think there’s a case for censorship, even in the case of irresponsible provocations (or rather, especially in that case – hard cases make bad law). I don’t think it’s acceptable that the Muslim community should have a veto over portrayals of Mohammed, any more than that Christians should be able to have ‘blasphemy’ banned. As for the political content of the cartoons, I think that the questions they ask about Islam can be asked reasonably and without racist intent. Is the subjugation of women justified by reference to Islam? Is suicide bombing? Is violence against apostates and blasphemers? Or violence against non-Muslims who commit what would be blasphemy if they were Muslims, e.g. Danish cartoonists? And, if the answer in practice is Yes (as it clearly is in the case of question 4), does this say anything about Islam as a body of doctrine and practice? Are these beliefs aberrations from the mainstream of Islam – like professed Christians supporting the death penalty – and if so how are they justified in terms of Islam? These are troubling questions, but they’re open questions – or should be. As I wrote back here,

It would be absurd – and grossly insulting – to assume that full-face veiling invariably reflects personal feelings of misogyny. But it would be equally absurd to ignore the degree of ‘fit’ between the injunction for women to be veiled and broader misogynistic social structures, and to assume that contemporary veiling is never associated with misogyny. The conversation needs to take place, out of the shadow of the criminal law.

And, I would add, out of the shadow of accusations of racism. Christianity isn’t afforded immunity from criticism – even biased and ignorant criticism – in our societies, and I don’t think we should approach other religions any differently.

Henry Porter has it about right:

We should accept that it has caused deep offence to people whose religion we do not fully comprehend. But, equally, Muslims must allow for the error in a continent of free but flawed societies. They should understand that our societies are not simply based on godless consumption and self-indulgence, but on one or two deeply held convictions.

An anonymous commenter at Indigo Jo goes to the heart of this disagreement when [s]he writes:

there are areas [in Islam] that can be “compromised”, but there are foundational areas that cannot. When you reach those core areas, a choice has to be made as to what you stand for, who you are, etc. … your identity is not guaranteed under the law [if] the law allows for trivialisation and ridicule of those core beliefs/principles that constitute your identity. True it may not be inciting to hatred or murder, but such ridicules and trivialisation still has some effect in the society. It is only a matter of time before it culminates in the likes of Jerry Springer’s portrayal of Jesus (peace be upon him), and ultimately mockery of Christianity. The outcome is evident. Religious values and its objectives are destroyed in the hearts of people.

Well, I liked Jerry Springer: the Opera, and I’ve got a great deal of time for the teachings of Jesus. More generally, I believe firmly that mocking the symbols and impedimenta of a belief does not mock the belief itself – and that even mocking a belief itself doesn’t destroy it: books don’t burn (Mikhail Bulgakov said that). Perhaps it’s a British (or Northern European?) thing; there have been quite long periods when Christians of different denominations have had to think of their faith as something that wasn’t protected from mockery, by the state or anyone else. I have beliefs and I expect you to respect my right to hold them, but my faith isn’t protected from criticism, mockery or abuse – and neither is yours. Between this outlook – this conviction – and the conviction that my faith needs to be protected, I’m not sure how much dialogue there can be.

But I may be wrong. And there could, in any case, be more respect – from both sides.

Postscript Ken MacLeod has the mood of much of this discussion bang to rights.

If anti-semitism is, in an important aspect, a rage against the machine, against progress, is there an opposite rage: a rage against reaction, a fury at the recalcitrance of the concrete and the stubbornness of tradition? A rage against what is sacred and refuses to be profaned, against what is solid and doesn’t melt into air, against ways of life that resist commodification, against use-value that refuses to become exchange-value? And might that rage too need a fantasy object?

I’ll admit to an element of rage – rant, even. I think it’s partly because I was brought up Christian and still have a distinct emotional investment in religion: I know that (a certain type of) religious belief can be not only compatible with but conducive to liberal and radical politics, leading people from a vague wish to be good and do good to the shores of libertarian socialism. So seeing a violent mobilisation in the defence of religion against liberalism, with the apparent approval of socialists… well, there are people who read the New Testament and find nothing in it but what they already knew (queers are bad, abortion’s bad and smacking your kids is good, essentially), and I feel pretty much the same about them. Apart from anything else, it seems such a wasteWhen you’re so close to the answer, why don’t you go in?

Anyway, Ken’s comment is one of the few things I’ve read during this affair that has really given me pause. Read the whole thing. (Then re-read this post. Balance, y’know.)

A couple of tra-la-las

I quite liked the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, although I have to admit to a certain bias in favour of any film featuring Tilda Swinton – particularly Tilda Swinton riding in a chariot, wearing chain mail and a lion’s mane (spoiler, sorry), brandishing two large swords and glaring, always glaring

Sorry, I seem to have drifted off for a moment there. Anyway, it looks like a fair bet that they’ll plough on with the rest of the series, and I for one am looking forward to the Last Battle. Who could forget that climactic scene in the Narnia beyond Narnia which was also England beyond England, that land beyond all lands which contained all lands and held within it the bright promise of everything that is true and good in human experience…

“One thing yet puzzleth me but a tad,” said Prince Vivien. “In the tales of old we hear of two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve, and yet here you are and there’s like three of you total? I mean, hell-o? If ye take my drift, good lords and lady.”

Lucy sighed. “Yes, we told Queen Susan that we were going to jump through our magic mirror into the wonderful land of Narnia and have lots of jolly adventures, but she just said something about having a banging headache from last night and could we all go away. Actually, she didn’t say ‘go away’, she said -”

“That’s about the size of it,” Edmund cut in. “Susan doesn’t care about Narnia these days – all she does seem to care about is nylons and lipstick and mascara and eye shadow and foundation and that red powder that you really have to rub in – rouge, that’s right – and there’s this lip gloss she wears sometimes, you know, and she’s got all these different colours of nail polish, there’s one that’s almost clear but when it catches the light it’s got all these sparkly bits… She’s a sight too interested in all that nonsense, if you ask me.”

Peter nodded. “That, and getting bonked silly by that boyfriend of hers – and no, Lu, I don’t think it’s fair to say ‘which one’, she’s told me she only ever has one on the go at a time. Still, the fact remains that she’s foregone the chance to have lots of jolly adventures in the wonderful land of Narnia in exchange for nothing more than the sordid pleasures of the teenage meat market. She always was a sight too keen on growing up, if you ask me.”

Lady Polly frowned. “There’s growing up and growing up – look at me, I haven’t had a good night out in sixty years, but you don’t see me complaining! No, if you ask me Susan’s one of these modern girls who just want to get to the silliest, most irresponsible, most frivolous, most sexually active and most pleasurable stage of life as quickly as possible – and stay there as long as possible. Why, at this very moment poor old Susan’s probably staggering in after a wild night out, she’s probably got roaring drunk and danced till she was ready to drop, and now she’s probably going to summon her last dwindling reserves of energy for a wild session with some young stud. And tomorrow night she’ll probably do it all over again.”

“Poor old Susan,” said Lord Digory. “When you think, she could have been here with us. In this… place.”

“Is this… is this Heaven?” said Lucy in a small voice.

“Well, we are dead,” said Lord Digory, “if that’s what you mean.”

“I thought so,” said Lucy happily.

The silence was broken by a sigh from Prince Vivien.

“Poor old Queen Susan. To think that she’s missing out on all this.”

“Yes,” said Peter. “Poor old Susan.”

The Templars and the Saracens

In a piece which appears in The Salmon of Doubt (I don’t know whether it was published in the author’s lifetime), Douglas Adams writes:

There’s always a moment when you fall out of love, whether it’s with a person or an idea or a cause, even if it’s one you only narrate to yourself years after the event: a tiny thing, a wrong word, a false note, which means that things can never be quite the same again. For me it was hearing a stand-up comedian make the following observation: “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, 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 of 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? … There was no way of deconstructing the joke (if you think this is obsessive behavior, you should try living with it) that didn’t rely on the teller and the audience complacently conspiring together to jeer at someone who knew more than they did. It sent a chill down my spine, and still does. I felt betrayed by comedy the same way that gangsta rap now makes me feel betrayed by rock music. I also began to wonder how many of the jokes I was making were just, well, ignorant.

De mortuis, but I tend to think the (self-)criticism was apt. A lot of Hitchhiker is less like a novel – or radio series – than a student revue (a very good student revue, admittedly): take the paper-thin characterisations, the dialogue built around gag lines or – more importantly for the current argument – the evocation of weird and counter-intuitive areas of science and philosophy, undercut by a common-sensical English ordinariness. This is amplified by the Pythonesque dogged persistence which won’t let go of an idea until it’s been pushed to its logical limit, taken over the limit, fined for exceeding the limit and embroiled in a lengthy but inconclusive case in the Court of Over-Extended Metaphors. Stylistically, this gives us Arthur’s exchange with Prosser over the planning notice (“…behind a door marked Beware of the Tiger”) or most of Marvin’s lines (“The second million years, they were the worst too.”) – great lines all, but very unlike anything anyone would actually say. Put it together with the common-sensical idea-juggling and you get, for example, the argument for atheism derived (all too logically) from the Babel Fish. What’s most striking about this argument is that it’s got nothing in common with the arguments of actual proponents of “intelligent design” – which are no less ridiculous, but turn on the idea that the wondrous complexity of the universe does provide evidence of the handiwork of a Designer. There’s a lack of engagement with the Creationist mindset here, which ironically makes that mindset harder to combat. If you assume that everyone starts from the same set of common-sense precepts, genuinely alien world-views will only be explicable on the grounds that the people holding them are irrational or stupid – which isn’t the best way to open an argument, even (or especially) an intransigently critical argument.

The mindset that this kind of writing seems to represent (and affirm) is that of someone who’s learnt a lot of valuable stuff in a short time, and who now doesn’t see the need to learn very much more. There is stuff out there that you could learn, but most of it’s not really worth the effort – at best it’s inessential, at worst it’s a pile of pretentious verbiage. If you demonstrably know a lot more than the average person about genuinely important topics, the chances are that you know enough – enough to see through the people who tell you there’s more to be known, anyway. It speaks to the inner second-year science student, in short. (One of the benefits of doing an arts degree is that you never forget that there’s lots of important stuff out there that you genuinely don’t understand. You never forget this if you have any contact with second-year science students, anyway.)

Terry Pratchett has a lighter hand with the dogged persistence than Douglas Adams, but in most other respects he’s a far better writer (he’s much better at people, for a start). That said, some of his jokes suggest the same kind of self-enclosed common sense, evoking the alien without engaging with it. (Does Pseuds’ Corner take nominations from blogs?) One example is the (admittedly funny) dwarfish war-cry “This is a good day for someone else to die!” Some years ago, the KliLakota original of this slogan (“This is a good day to die!”) was discussed on the alt.fan.pratchett newsfroup. The tone of the discussion was cheerful and uncomprehending. I wouldn’t say that anyone jeered at the KlinLakota, but very few people showed much sign of understanding the slogan, as distinct from Pratchett’s common-sensical inversion of it). One’s own death is, after all, an eventuality to be postponed as long as possible, not to be embraced. One poster even suggested that the slogan had begun as a deliberately-tempting-Fate insurance policy, akin to “break a leg”.

Fortunately one poster – the wonderfully-named ‘Catherine Denial’ – pointed out that death in battle was an honourable fate for KlingLakotadammit warriors, so that the slogan could actually be taken literally (‘death in battle’=’good death’, ‘today’=’day of battle’, therefore…). [Update 23/6/2007: it’s just come to my notice that Catherine Denial is in fact not a clever pseudonym but the name of a real person, who has written widely on nineteenth-century American history. Apologies.]

And I’m not sure even this goes far enough. The point is, surely, that the function of soldiers (contemporary, dwarfish or KlingoLakota) is to kill and risk being killed – and that unwillingness to do the latter makes them less effective in doing the former. The tone is very different, but in terms of the underlying worldview “This is a good day to die!” isn’t so far from the Royal Navy saying “If you can’t take a joke you shouldn’t have joined.” Meaning, in the words of a post from soc.history.what-if by the late and much-missed Alison Brooks,

When it is raining and dark, your feet are giving you hell because they have been wet for two weeks, when you are carrying a pack weighing your own weight, when you are on the edge of a minefield, aware that, well within range, are more people than you who want to kill you, and they have the capacity to do so, when your best friend standing ten feet from you gets hit, and you have to wipe his brains from your face so that you can see, and when the instruction is given to go forward, if you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t have joined.

You risk death – and, if so instructed, take actions which you know will increase your risk of death – because that’s what you do: that’s what being in the armed forces is all about. (Not that you’ll find it in the recruitment literature.) In its more aggressive form – getting back to the Native Americans – this outlook also makes for a more formidable opponent: an enemy who wants to save his own skin first and kill you second is a lot easier to deter than one who just wants to kill you.

As you’ve probably worked out by now, this post isn’t really about Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett; it’s not even about the Royal Navy or the Lakota (let alone the blasted Klingons). It began life about a month ago – a decade or so in blogtime – in response to this post on Brian Barder’s blog and the ensuing comments, this one in particular. Brian writes:

it’s obviously psychotic, isn’t it?, to be unable to perceive the large-scale random murders of wholly innocent people as anything but evil? And when the murders are deliberately and unnecessarily accompanied by the suicides of the murderers, doesn’t that suggest minds that have become completely unhinged? Isn’t it psychotic to suppose that some desirable result can be achieved by killing others and oneself because of ‘grievances’ that have nothing whatever to do with the murder victims, and which can’t possibly have a better chance of being remedied as a result of the murders committed?

As long as we persist in seeing [the bombers] as politically and rationally motivated people whose response to their grievances is to go out and kill people, and as long as we strive to ‘understand‘ that behaviour, we shall encourage more of the same. It is insane as well as evil to act in the way that they have done, and while we need to try to hack out the roots of the insanity as well as of the evil and criminality, we need to beware of giving the impression that by trying to understand them and what they did, we regard murder as an understandable (and therefore in some sense defensible) response to a political grievance. Psychiatrists may properly seek to understand the roots of insane and evil behaviour: the rest of us need to be clear that the behaviour is insane and evil and that it can never be condoned.

Brian conflates two arguments which, I think, urgently need to be disentangled. On one hand, I don’t believe that it does any good to deny that the bombers acted rationally, let alone to describe them as ‘psychotic’: their world view was certainly alien to me, but I don’t think it was also insane. Apart from anything else, is it necessarily a sign of psychosis to kill innocent people, to carry out attacks which will cost your own life, or to attack people whose death can’t in itself advance your cause? Not, I would argue, if you’re a soldier – or an irregular combatant (were Orde Wingate’s Special Night Squads ‘psychotic’? is Hamas?). Similarly, the bombers’ actions make sense if we assume that they saw themselves as part of a guerrilla force, fighting in one front of a war with Britain (among other nations), and prepared to use any means – however inhumane – to further their cause.

Obviously this world-view – as well as the acts it inspires – is vile and cannot be condoned: to understand it is not (pace Brian) to see it as in any way defensible. But, as I said above, there are two separate arguments here. Yes, the London bombings were evil and can never be condoned; but no, this does not require us to characterise them as insane. Visualise concentric circles. To demand that Britain withdraw from Iraq is a legitimate political point of view which is widely held (and which is not necessarily counter to British national interests). To demand that ‘the West’ withdraw from ‘Islamic lands’ is a legitimate point of view which has rather fewer adherents (and which is counter to British national interests). And to set out to kill at random in order to further this point of view is unforgivably evil; moreover, it is an unforgivable evil committed in a bad cause. (As I’ve argued before, it’s hardly possible – and may not even be desirable – to uncouple your assessment of a terrorist act from your assessment of the cause involved.)

This is what I mean by ‘understanding’ – and I don’t see that it involves any ‘condoning’, any ‘in some sense defensible’. What it does involve is visualising those concentric circles – which I think is essential, if we’re to have any hope of stopping the flow of recruits from outer circle to inner.

God is an arms dealer

My hopefully provocative question: since those who tend to oppose this legislation tend to draw a disanalogy with laws banning incitement to racial hatred by pointing to a distinction between what is chosen and what is unchosen, with race not being chosen and religion being chosen, does it matter whether sexual identity is chosen when considering laws against discrimination or incitement of hatred towards particular sexual identities?

Robert suggests an interesting way in to the ‘religious hatred’ question. But first, let’s talk about hurting people. Before I’m a libertarian, even before I’m a Marxist, I’m a humanist, at least in the sense that I believe that human beings – all human beings – are more worthy of preserving from harm than anything else. Of course, this isn’t an absolute rule; the test-case scenarios are legion (the death of one person vs. the loss of an entire species? what about an entire genus? what about the loss of an entire genus vs. the death of the last surviving member of a tribe?). Let’s just say that the prevention of harm to people is value #1 and work from there. It does at least differentiate my position from that of the Texas sheriff I once saw on TV; his words were, “I’ve seen plenty of people that deserved shooting, but I’ve never seen a wallet that deserved to be stolen.” I’m not planning to go to Texas. Personally, I’ve seen plenty of wealth that deserved to be redistributed (did I mention that I went to Cambridge?), but I’ve never seen anyone who, in my eyes, deserved to be shot.

What Robert’s post suggested to me was that the question of religious hatred is part of a broader set of trade-offs, between harm done to other people and our own sense of identity: not the (few) unchangeable facts of identity that we’re born with, but our personal frameworks of habit, compulsion, self-fulfilment – the things you do to feel OK, to feel like you’re you. If you get off on wearing an SS uniform in bed, it’s no business but yours and your partner’s. If you write long articles about the joys of wearing Nazi regalia in bed, I may feel that you’ve got the right to express your sexual identity, or I may feel that publicising this particular sexual identity is a bad idea. And if you tell me that what gets you through the night is driving around Jewish neighbourhoods in an open-topped car wearing a leather overcoat and a death’s head cap, I’m likely to tell you to stop it – the distress you’re causing to other people will matter more to me than your ability to get your kicks. This isn’t a public/private question (assuming for the moment that that distinction is meaningful); the question of harm can have the same gradations in an entirely ‘private’ context. Someone who gets off on inflicting pain, for example, may be fearlessly exploring the outer limits of sensuality; they may be a boring and creepy bully (who, nevertheless, has every right to be boring, creepy and domineering in bed, as long as they can find a willing partner); or they may be actively dangerous and in need of therapy and/or locking up. The distinguishing factor is whether they’re doing any harm to other people. We may not choose the framework through which we see the world, or how we’d like to act, but we can choose what we do with that framework and how we do act. The choice whether or not to cause harm to another person, above all, is always ours.

Having said that, it’s not always obvious whether or not what we are into is harmful. In both the S/M-based scenarios I’ve given, there’s one extreme where harm done clearly takes precedence and another extreme where it’s equally clear that nobody is being harmed. Then there’s an area in the middle where (to paraphrase Altered States) the right answer is that there is no right answer. Your critique of leather queen A may be equally applicable to his friends B to Z; it may be a valid but extreme response to diffuse trends in the leather-queen community; or you may just have happened to pick a leather queen who is also a twisted bastard. You aren’t going to know until you talk it through, without either assuming that a particular course of conduct is harmful nor ruling out the possibility. The point is to have the conversation – and, more broadly, to maintain the conditions in which that conversation can happen.

But there’s a complication. So far I’ve assumed that ‘critique’ and ‘harm’ are not only distinguishable but entirely different things: ‘harm’ is all about actions and bodies, ‘critique’ is about thoughts and brains. But brains do more than think, and bodies do more than act: between these two (more or less imaginary) extremes is the muddy terrain where people actually feel stuff. In particular, where they feel hatred – where they desire to harm (or at least severely demoralise) certain other people, or groups of people. Which is a problem. There may be some individuals who it’s entirely appropriate to loathe and despise, but it’s rarely appropriate to view an entire social group with unalloyed, non-negotiable hatred. But, of course, prejudice of this kind does exist; feeling prejudice seems to come fairly naturally to most of us, followed closely by finding justifications for prejudice. And, where justifying prejudice is concerned, there’s no absolute distinction between a mindset based on a set of reasoned arguments and one built on unquestioned beliefs and habits: either one can be used to express and justify hatred. What’s worse, both can be used to portray the hated enemy in ways which will evoke hatred among other people – even people who don’t subscribe to those beliefs or arguments.

This, it seems to me, is very much the area in which the proposed new law on incitement to religious hatred is working. Whatever criticisms we might have of particular religious beliefs (advocates of the new law argue) we should recognise that there is such a thing as prejudice against a group defined by its religion, and that this is no more defensible than racial prejudice. Fears that the new law will have a chilling effect on criticism of religion are misplaced, we’re told; the law will only kick in at the point where critique stops and hate begins. We don’t condone racial hatred, and few people now object to the criminalisation of incitement to racial hatred (which dates from 1976); why should religious hatred be treated differently?

There are two problems with this argument. Firstly, as we have seen, the idea that hatred can be cleanly divided from critique is illusory. If I believe that a defined group of people regularly do something to which I strongly object, I’m not going to feel kindly towards that group. The question is whether this is hatred arising from a reasonable belief, or a prejudiced belief arising from hatred. In the case of racial prejudice, it’s generally not a tough call, for the simple reason that ‘race’ doesn’t govern behaviour. Where religion is concerned, the question is more difficult. Anyone who hates Muslim men on the grounds that they all require their wives to cover their faces is clearly prejudiced (‘Islamophobic‘, even). But if I said I hated those Muslim men who do require their wives to cover their faces (basing this policy on their reading of Surah 24:31), would I be expressing illegitimate prejudice against Muslims or a valid critique of sexism? It’s arguable both ways; I think it’s a conversation that should be held, and held out of the shadow of the criminal law.

Instead of opening up the question of what can and can’t be said about religious and cultural practices, the proposed law would shut it down, giving legal definition to the cut-off point where criticism (legal) becomes hatred (illegal). Since that borderline is essentially imaginary, in practice the law would be liable to bite off either too much (chilling legitimate debate) or too little (leaving genuine incitement to hatred unpunished). The former outcome seems much more likely than the latter. It can be argued that the 1976 legislation has itself had a chilling effect on discussion of race: the legislation only criminalises ‘threatening, abusive or insulting’ statements which are also likely to stir up racial hatred, but it has tended to make it difficult to make any general statement about ‘race’. On balance, this is probably no great loss. By contrast, the new law attacks an area where debate is widely seen to be both legitimate and useful; what’s worse, it doesn’t include that saving stipulation that the language used should be ‘threatening, abusive or insulting’. If somebody says that what you’ve said or written is liable to stir up religious hatred, the law says they’ve got a valid complaint, more or less by definition. (But (we’re told) we needn’t worry, as the Director of Public Prosecutions won’t bring prosecutions most of the time. We’re being asked to give the state new powers which could be abused, in other words, and trust that they won’t abuse them. Why don’t they just drop the big one and pass an Enabling Act?)

There’s another problem. Saying that rational arguments can support prejudice doesn’t mean that unquestioned convictions can’t: religious beliefs may themselves articulate and buttress hatred. The way I feel about the ‘conservative’ Muslim husband who insists on his wife covering her face is very much the way that I feel about the sadist who insists on spanking his partner with a table-tennis bat. Both are constraining someone else’s behaviour; both are doing something which seems unarguably right to them; both are reproducing broader patterns of gender-based subordination, in the form of a culturally-specific practice. And, crucially, in both cases this practice may articulate and support a personal hatred of women, or it may sit alongside feelings of genuine respect. It would be absurd – and grossly insulting – to assume that full-face veiling invariably reflects personal feelings of misogyny. But it would be equally absurd to ignore the degree of ‘fit’ between the injunction for women to be veiled and broader misogynistic social structures, and to assume that contemporary veiling is never associated with misogyny. The conversation needs to take place, out of the shadow of the criminal law.

Instead, the proposed law would tend to protect prejudice, as long as it was expressed in the language of religion. There are Christian ministers – to look no further afield – who express themselves in the most vitriolic terms on the subject of gays, or Jews, or members of other Christian denominations. Anyone denouncing this kind of purportedly religious hate-mongering would need to tread carefully: using the wrong kind of language about the minister and his flock could itself be classed as incitement to religious hatred. (We’re assured that this wouldn’t happen, of course, but that’s almost beside the point. We could expect to see prosecutions – or rather, we would expect to see prosecutions, and most of us would moderate our language accordingly. Is it getting chilly in here?)

Prejudice exists; hatred against any number of groups exists, religious groups included. (To bring sex in one last time, prejudice is a bit like pornography: if you can identify a group, you can be sure that somebody somewhere is prejudiced against it.) Prejudice against religious groups is a genuine problem; the rationalist argument that all beliefs should be equally open to criticism is valid but irrelevant, given that rational arguments can buttress and articulate prejudice just as well as unexamined systems of belief. Unfortunately, the proposed law attacks only one half of this pairing, giving its blessing to the other – and, for anyone who believes in rational debate, the law has picked the wrong side to protect.

But it’ll help Labour get back some of the votes they lost over Iraq, and I guess that’s the main thing. Make Secularism History!

Not moving any mountain

Two days to go till the election. Right then: let’s talk about religion. I’ve done Islam – here goes for Christianity. Or rather, I’ve done Islamism – here goes for Christianism.

I grew up in a Church of England family. This meant four things. Firstly, we took charity and social justice very seriously (particularly the kinds of social justice which could be arranged without upsetting too many people; my father was solid Labour, but on Gaitskell’s side rather than Bevan’s). Secondly, we didn’t look down on people who were Not Like Us. Or rather, we did – we were dreadful snobs – but racism was right out; so was prejudice against gays; so was sexual moralising in general. We were never challenged on the relationship to Christianity of any of this, but if we had been we could have gone straight to the New Testament – see Colossians 3, “neither gentile nor Jew”; see Luke 10, the parable of the Good Samaritan; see John 8, the woman taken in adultery… (My parents both had a better than average acquaintance with the Old Testament, but they wouldn’t have dreamt of referring back to it in this way – “new covenant” and all that.) Thirdly, we went to church every Sunday, where we generally heard sermons about tolerance and social justice. Fourthly, we occasionally talked about the spiritual side of Christianity – what actually happened after the Crucifixion; what they actually saw on the road to Emmaus; what actually happens when people die… But we never really got anywhere with those questions, or wanted to. Being Christians gave us an interest in that stuff, but it didn’t seem to mandate that we had any particular convictions about it – or even that we all thought the same way.

When I went to university, I met people called Christians who didn’t seem to care very much about social justice or tolerance, but cared very much indeed about the Crucifixion and the road to Emmaus and, above all, What Happens When You Die. They also seemed to refer back to the Old Testament a lot more than I was used to. I thought this was all a bit wrong-headed, but I didn’t get very far arguing with them – not least because they weren’t very interested in arguing, which was another difference from my family. In fact, the more I argued the deeper I seemed to get onto their territory (well, no, obviously I didn’t read the story of the Creation literally – nobody did, did they? er… did they?). After a while I gave up and stopped calling myself a Christian. (By then I’d discovered Marx, which helped.)

You take your eye off the ball for a few years, and look what happens. Look at the Christian Institute (“Christian influence in a secular world”) and look at its judgment of MPs’ voting records. For example, “according to our Christian beliefs” Ann Widdecombe has cast an absolute hatful of “morally right votes”. To summarise, she’s voted

  • against legal abortion
  • against gay rights
  • against divorce
  • against euthanasia
  • against gambling and
  • against reclassifying cannabis; she’s also voted
  • for “mainly Christian” Religious Education and
  • for the parental right to smack

Apparently, these eight policy areas are vitally important to Christians. Or rather, apparently these are the only policy areas important to Christians: whether Widdy has voted to feed the hungry and clothe the naked the Christian Institute neither knows nor cares.

What I’d like to know is: where do they get this stuff? Serious question. Leaving the Apostle Paul out of it for the moment, I’ve cited Matthew 25, Luke 10 and John 8. Where does Jesus express punitive views on the topics of marriage, gambling and drugs? Where does he pronounce in favour of compulsory religious indoctrination and smacking? For bonus points, where in the whole of the New Testament is it written that these are the most important issues for Christians? (Think carefully.)

I don’t know how it came about that the mobilising power of Christian faith could be harnessed to an agenda like this. What I do know is that it’s very bad news. These people aren’t just a joke any more. They’re a menace.

%d bloggers like this: