Monday, May 16, 2016

Nitwittery in education

In an ideal world, an education system would be run by well-educated, highly intelligent people with plenty of experience in their field who've studied psychology as well as their specialist subject. They'd understand child development and how children will or won't learn. They'd like children and young people and care about what happens to them. Their aim would be to do their best to help them grow into happy, successful adults, ready to face the world with confidence, no matter what the disadvantages some will have had, brave and flexible enough to seize whatever opportunities they're offered to suit their abilities. By being treated with kindness and respect, young people are more likely to follow that example.

In our world, or the British part of it, the education system is run by ignorant, arrogant nitwits who imagine that their most recent bright idea, dreamt up a long way from a classroom, will earn them the thanks of a grateful electorate and a good return on their investment in monetary terms, regardless of the mental health of the units of production. All of this will be measured by frequent testing so that there's hardly any time left for true education, particularly in the arts.

I loathe Gove, Gibb, Morgan and company. They're not fit to be given the responsibility for more than tying their own shoelaces and are in need of remedial education themselves. Education is too important to be left to politicians.

Further reading:
LA Times: Why Finland has the best schools.
Michael Rosen in the Guardian.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Happy Birthday Sir David

On the set of 'Life in Cold Blood'

Today is Sir David Attenborough's 90th birthday. He is rightly being lauded in the media, both public and social. Reading about his achievements, this quotation from 'Life on Earth' (1979) came to mind.
"Man's passion to communicate and to receive communications seems as central to his success as a species as the fin was to the fish or the feather to the birds. We do not limit ourselves to our own acquaintances or even our own generation. Archaeologists labour to decipher clay tablets rescued with painstaking care from Uruk and other ancient cities in the hope that the same citizen long ago may have recorded a message of more significance than a boastful genealogy of a chief or a laundry list. In our own cities, dignitaries arrange for messages to be sent to future generations by burying writings in steel cylinders strong enough to survive even a nuclear catastrophe. And scientists, convinced that man's most refined language of all is that of mathematics, select a universal truth that they believe will be recognised through all eternity — a formula for the wavelength of light — and beam it towards other galaxies in the Milky Way to proclaim that here on earth, after three thousand million years of evolution, a creature has emerged that has for the first time devised its own way of accumulating and transferring experience across generations. This last chapter has been devoted to only one species, ourselves. This may have given the impression that somehow man is the ultimate triumph of evolution, that all these millions of years of development have had no purpose other than to put him on earth. There is no scientific evidence whatever to support such a view and no reason to suppose that our stay here will be any more permanent than that of the dinosaur. The processes of evolution are still going on among plants and birds, insects and mammals. So it is more than likely that if men were to disappear from the face of the earth, for whatever reason, there is a modest, unobtrusive creature somewhere that would develop into a new form and take our place. But although denying that we have a special position in the natural world might seem becomingly modest in the eye of eternity, it might also be used as an excuse for evading our responsibilities. The fact is that no species has ever had such control over everything on earth, living or dead, as we now have. That lays upon us, whether we like it or not, an awesome responsibility. In our hands now lies not only our own future, but that of all other living creatures with whom we share the earth."
The quote is the last in a 'Humanist Anthology' published by the Rationalist Press Association and available from the British Humanist Association.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

God's wardrobe

A French film about the Iranian Women's movement, with subtitles

One of 'The Big Questions' on BBC1 this morning was "Does God care what you wear?" Since the gods that most people know about are the invention of petty tyrants, it depends on how much you care about their rules. If there was a god, it's likely to be completely indifferent to what you or I wear. If it exists, it has the whole universe to play around with. Why bother with your wardrobe, when there are gas clouds and galaxies to fiddle with? Imagining that each habitable planet has its own set of gods, laying down their own sets of rules about human behaviour, is plain daft. But then, religion is daft.

The focus of the discussion was mainly about Islamic forms of dress for women, inevitably, as the veil is such a contentious issue. 
The veil has always been a symbol of male control over women. In 13th century Assyria, only noblewomen were permitted to wear it; common women and prostitutes were not. In Islam and Christianity, its use signified modesty, piety and "good" behaviour; in other words, behaviour that didn't threaten male dominance. Yet now, in the UK, where you can wear whatever you want, foolish Muslim women choose to wear the veil, claiming that it demonstrates their commitment to their religion.

Islamic dress is all about the Awrah, or the parts of the body that are meant to be hidden from the opposite sex. Normal, natural relationships between men and women are discouraged by an obsessive preoccupation with sex and "modesty". Not that Islam is unique in this respect; fundamental Christianity is just as bad, getting itself tied in all sorts of knots over the imposition of repressive values and its attitude to abortion, homosexuality, and sexual humour, among other things. In some parts of the country, where immigrant imams from illiberal cultures like Pakistan are a powerful influence over predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods, the veil is seen everywhere, while the men advertise their religious identity by wearing a long tunic over loose trousers with a full beard and a prayer cap. All of this demonstrates that the wearers place their religious identity above integration within British society; they choose to be different, to remain within their own communities, living as though they were in a little piece of whatever culture they came from, while rejecting the liberal values of the host nation. From the ICM poll conducted among Muslim communities for Channel 4 recently, it seems that people from these communities regard British society as corrupt and immoral. Which prompts the question, why stay?

Other BBCTBQ guests were wearing fancy dress that indicated their religious identities; a Buddhist monk and a couple of turbaned Sikhs. I tend to regard anyone who goes around voluntarily wearing some form of religious uniform, from a clunky crucifix to the hijab and niqab, as showing off, or advertising. "Look at me," they seem to be saying, "I'm a good person because of my religion." Not so. Goodness is about how we behave and shouldn't have to be advertised. Modesty should be about not boasting that we're trying to be good, or that we've done good things, not about sex. The Oxford dictionary defines modesty as the quality or state of being unassuming in the estimation of one’s abilities, such as "with typical modesty he insisted on sharing the credit with others."

We don't all have to wear the same sort of clothes. We can express our personalities and interests by our form of dress, some more creatively than others. Men in suits are boring and conforming to convention. They need liberating too. Express yourselves, even if it's only by wearing fancy underwear! People have died to be free to do so. They still do.

Sense from Twitter:

Thursday, March 03, 2016

I've gone off Dawkins, if you hadn't already noticed

This is something I wrote for a recent humanist group newsletter. I was hoping to provoke a reaction, as I don't usually get much feedback.
There's nothing new about atheism

In his new book, Battling The Gods, Prof. Tim Whitmarsh of Cambridge University claims that despite being written out of large parts of history, atheists thrived in the polytheistic societies of the ancient world, raising considerable doubts about whether humans really are “wired” for religion.

The so-called New Atheists - Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett - have written as though atheism is about countering religious ideas with science. All very clever but they don't seem to understand people - you know, those messy, often illogical, emotional beings that populate the planet.
I tend to agree with comedian Kate Smurthwaite, who recently said that the atheist movement is "pale, stale and male". Besides, being an atheist just means that you don't believe in a god or gods, nothing more. If you describe yourself as one, that's fine, but it doesn't say anything about your values. As some Christians are fond of reminding us, there have always been bad atheists, like Joseph Stalin. As for countering religious faith with science; I didn't need to know about physics to reject religion. I just thought it was a load of cobblers.
At a gathering of humanists at my place last weekend, my comments about the New Atheists were mentioned. I got the impression that two or three of my guests were especially surprised by my attitude towards Dawkins, who they admired. I admire his science books but not his tendency to opine on matters that he knows no more about than most people, and possibly less. Some have said that he's become the focus of a personality cult. Adulation can turn a man's head, and I think it may have done. I agree with Adam Lee:
Like many scientists who accomplished great things earlier in their careers, Richard Dawkins has succumbed to the delusion that he’s infallible on any topic he chooses to address, and in so doing, has wandered off the edge and plummeted into belligerent crankery.
Yes, I know he's had a stroke. What's that got to do with it?

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Shifty looking characters

From top left, clockwise:

Michael Gove MP, former Education Secretary, keen promoter of free schools and academies, enthusiastically continued the destruction of the UK's education system begun by previous incumbents. The National Association of Headteachers condemned the climate of "bullying, fear and intimidation" he created.

Nigel Farage, the face of UKIP, accepts his MEP's salary of £79,000, plus a generous subsistence allowance, yet has one of the worst attendance records of any MEP.

George Galloway, Respect Party leader, has already upset fellow brexiters by turning up at a launch rally to be introduced by Farage as a "towering figure". Many walked out. Galloway visited Iraq in 1994, where he made a speech to Saddam Hussein, ending with the statement: "Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability."

Ian Duncan Smith MP, generally known as IDS, is Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the DWP. He's regarded as responsible for its general incompetence and reputation for forcing sick and disabled people to attend work assessments, even when at death's door, or lose their benefits.

It'll be interesting to see who else hops on the Brexit bandwagon over the next couple of months, but I wouldn't trust this lot to advise me on which way is up, let alone membership of the European Union. I'll vote to stay in.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Culture clash: on importing misogyny

I feel sorry for Angela Merkel. After responding with humanity and generosity to the Syrian refugee crisis, some of her guests have abused that generosity during a night of mayhem in Cologne and other cities on New Year's Eve. Large crowds of men of Middle Eastern and North African origin behaved appallingly, assaulting women who were out enjoying the festivities and overwhelming the police, who struggled to regain control. It was a gift to all the anti-migrant, anti-immigration organisations, here and in Europe. One man is reported to have told a policeman,
"I am Syrian, I must be handled in a friendly manner. Mrs Merkel invited me here!" 
However shocking, maybe we shouldn't be surprised. Refugees may not necessarily be terrorists, smuggling themselves into friendly countries in the guise of the desperate, but they may not know how to behave well either. Think about it.

Whenever you see a crowd picture in the news from the Middle East, it's invariably dominated by men. If there are women, they're usually vastly outnumbered and covered in the burqa. In repressive Islamic regimes, women are not free to go where they please or do as they please. They are treated as male property and even when they're assaulted or raped, the fault lies with them, not with their attacker. You can't simply blame their governments, as it suits most of the men in these societies to live this way. The sexes are strictly segregated, so from a young age they've known no different. These practices are being imported into Britain and other European and Scandinavian countries, where men and women are kept apart in the mosques. British Muslim women who attend mosques dominated by imams from abroad may not suffer the same extremes of repression as their sisters in Iran, Syria or Pakistan, but forced marriage and honour crimes are still a problem, as is the practice of Sharia Law.

Men raised in these societies, used to servile, controlled women, may come to regard women from the UK, Europe and Scandinavia as easy pickings, advertising their sexuality for the taking, because they do and dress as they please. Whether covered by the burqa or not, women aren't worthy of respect. We don't matter. The result is that when they come into contact with women outside their own community, there's bound to be trouble. A majority of the paedophile rings exposed here in recent years have been described as "Asian". The Libyan soldiers being trained at Bassingbourn Barracks took advantage of their new-found freedom to abuse local women - some are now claiming asylum here, knowing that they'll be punished if they return home.

Population growth, the effects of climate change, conflict in the Middle East, are all contributing to the migration of people across borders, but it's not as simple as moving across the map. The cultures of migrants and hosts couldn't be more different. You don't change attitudes during language lessons or through the education of immigrant children in a short time, not when the numbers are so high. Sweden is finding this. It has been generous towards refugees too, like Germany, but things aren't going well. Resentment towards Muslim immigrants in Sweden is growing, and understandable. Integration isn't happening. Canada's Globe and Mail reported,
Sweden’s fantasy is that if you socialize the children of immigrants and refugees correctly, they’ll grow up to be just like native Swedes. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Much of the second generation lives in nice Swedish welfare ghettos. The social strains – white flight, a general decline in trust – are growing worse.
What happened in Cologne may not be an everyday occurrence, but imagine a house guest who ignores all the usual rules of civilised behaviour and abuses your hospitality, then multiply it by thousands. Some kind and generous people from the South of England who took in a refugee who'd come across the channel were lectured by their guest on how to raise their daughter. She was immodest, they were told, and shouldn't expose so much flesh. It didn't occur to this idiot that he was in the wrong, not them. Sadly, there are many more brain-washed idiots like him, who've never been challenged about their beliefs before, and if we observe the convention of "respecting" their beliefs, nothing will change and women, especially, will suffer for it.

Another Canadian writer, Ali A Rizvi, has described religion as the "elephant in the room" in debate about Middle Eastern misogyny.
Having spent the first 24 years of my life growing up in Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan as part of a Muslim family, I can't be so simplistic to allege that all of the misogyny in the Arab and/or Muslim world is a consequence of just one or two factors. But I also can't be naive enough to dismiss or even downplay one of the major, central forces driving it.

Saying that sexism and misogyny in the Middle East has "nothing to do" with Islam (or any Abrahamic religion for that matter) is symptomatic of either denial or fear.

The Quran is written in Arabic. And the people of Egypt, the largest Arabic-speaking Muslim country in the world, largely believe it to be the immutable, divine word of God -- not unlike most people in other Arab and Muslim countries. The majority of Muslims won't even touch or recite the holy book unless they have done wudhu (cleansing) and/or ghusl (bathing). Women are not allowed to recite it while they're menstruating. That is how much it's revered.
For the sake of women everywhere, we can't tiptoe around cultural differences and religion and make excuses for misogyny. I'm in favour of offering sanctuary to refugees from the chaos of Syria and the droughts of North Africa, but it's not possible to ignore the dangerous beliefs that some of them regard as beyond criticism, and which threaten our human rights and rule of law. They have to be confronted.


A report from Spiegel Online on the Cologne attacks, "Chaos and Violence: How New Year's Eve in Cologne Has Changed Germany."

And now, a happy story about an English woman and her male Syrian refugee lodger.

Refugees to be given lessons in 'Western sexual norms' in Norway.

Belgium to launch 'respect for women' classes for refugees and migrants.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Terrorism, and what not to do about it

There may be many things wrong with religion, such as Deuteronomy 7:1-4 and the thread of misogyny that runs through the Abrahamic religions, but being religious doesn't make you a terrorist, including being a Muslim. There are estimated to be 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide. Only a very small proportion of them are terrorists but they make up a large proportion of the victims of terrorism and of the refugees from the mess in Syria and Iraq. Yet in the current panic about terrorism, some regard every Muslim as a suspect.

People, mostly male, who become terrorists are likely to have huge chips of their shoulders which they blame on others for a variety of reasons. They are unhappy, resentful people who'll justify their anger and hatred with one of a variety of negative -isms, including jihadism, patriotism, tribalism, nationalism and sexism. The Oxford English Dictionary defines terrorism as "The unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims." What was "shock and awe", the assault on Baghdad in 2003, but state-sanctioned terrorism, most of it committed by nominal Christians, led by those two pious idiots, Bush and Blair?

IS, or Daesh, is a bigger organisation than Al-Quaeda, Al-Shabaab or Boko Haram, largely thanks to Syria's Bashar Al-Assad's destructive regime and to the mess left in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. In the absence of any effective governance, widespread lawlessness and the availability of illegal weaponry has allowed a few charismatic leaders to recruit fighters to their toxic cause. Sponsorship by wealthy benefactors also contributes. Many of its foreign recruits are from areas of social deprivation; under-educated, under-valued, under-employed, and ripe for enrolment into an organisation that tells them you're all right and everyone else is wrong.

France may like to crow about "Liberté, égalité, fraternité!" but it has housing estates full of Muslim citizens who will tell you that they don't feel that they're treated equally. Al Jazeera has reported that by 1904 5,000 Muslims were working on the shop floors of Paris, in the soap factories of Marseilles and in the coalfields of the north. Muslim soldiers fought and died for France during the First World War, and Muslim members of the resistance helped liberate Paris in 1944. "Born as North Africans, many would die for France. But how much did post-war France care about their sacrifices?" Not enough. Young Muslims, like the young woman who blew herself up in Paris last week, have grown up to face social deprivation and unemployment with an understandable sense of grievance. Maybe you should be surprised that more of them haven't become terrorists.

And what about the UK? We don't have the same pool of disenfranchised Muslim youth, though there are pockets of deprivation, but bombing IS isn't going to help matters. There'll be more anti-UK rhetoric and reaction, more refugees, and more anti-Muslim nonsense spouted in the right-wing press and nationalist political groups and parties. In other words, it'll stir the pot of violence and hatred even more. Act in haste, and reap the consequences.

Click here to watch the Al Jazeera series on French Muslims.