Sunday, June 26, 2016

Party politics is dead

Party politics is dead; it doesn't work any more. I've thought so for ages. Ideologies inhibit creative thinking and a willingness to compromise. Anti-intellectualism, here and in the US, deters intelligent, professional people from getting involved, so government departments are run by people who haven't a clue what they're talking about. Petty rivalries seem to mean more than actually getting anything done. The biggest challenges we face - climate change, population increase, mob violence, among others - are ignored or given limited attention. Career politicians become increasingly divorced from reality. Middle-aged men dominate everything. Real education is discouraged, because it results in young people who are ready and willing to challenge the absurdities. Hardly anyone has been taught how to think, so can only react. In the vacuum that's been created, nastiness flourishes.

Andreas Whittam Smith thinks there might be a way to sort things out, but that depends on a willingness to do so.

Julian Coman forecast the death of party politics three years ago.

Whatever happens, party politics is incapable of salvaging much out of the Brexit mess. I wish there was some reason to hope things might change.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Gullibility, prejudice and ignorance

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe.”
                                                   ― Albert Einstein
Example 1:
After the second world war, there was a housing crisis. Thousands of prefabricated or system-built homes were built, made from sections manufactured in factories and assembled on site. In my area, some of these council houses were falling apart. Made from steel-reinforced concrete, the steel was rusting away, the concrete was crumbling, and they were damp and draughty. There was no point trying to repair them, so a decision was made to sell them for a token amount to a housing association that could demolish and rebuild, providing the tenants with lovely new homes. Some tenants had foolishly already bought their homes through Mrs Thatcher's right-to-buy scheme. I heard that a few had phoned the council when things inevitably went wrong to ask to have them fixed. Told that they were no longer the council's responsibility, they were dismayed. Then, as their neighbour's homes were demolished around them, they were upset that they weren't going to be rehoused too. One or two tried to sell their houses. No one was interested.

Example 2:
During the EU referendum, large numbers of people were convinced that hordes of Turks were poised to join all the other millions of immigrants about to invade our shores. They believed that £350 million was sent to the EU every week, and that we got nothing in return. They believed that the EU acted like a dictator, running our country from Strasbourg and Brussels, though most of them probably had no idea where Strasbourg is. They believed that the EU was responsible was whatever was wrong in their lives, and the Brexit campaigners and right-wing press fed this general sense of dissatisfaction and injustice with lies and more lies. These people weren't necessarily unintelligent. They just didn't use the brains they were born with. Gullibility, prejudice and ignorance prevailed. As the economic and social consequences of their decisions start to affect them, who will they blame next?

Friday, June 03, 2016

Looks aren't everything

“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.”
                   ― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.
Just been reading about a woman who had chemotherapy for cancer and lost her hair, like Victoria Derbyshire, and how it affected her. I didn't need chemotherapy when I had cancer, I'm happy to say, just radiotherapy and surgery, followed by Tamoxifen for 5 years, but I wouldn't have been bothered about losing my hair and I wouldn't have worn a wig, which sound horribly itchy. I do remember a couple of my sister's friends visiting me in hospital and being surprised that I wasn't bald, as though they'd expected my hair to fall out within days of surgery. They made me laugh, though I was reminded of Madame Defarge, sitting knitting next to the guillotine, waiting for the heads to fall.

I wasn't offered a false boob, whatever they call it - a reconstruction? - so I'm lop-sided, but would have refused. After reading about various implant problems more recently, I'm glad I did. The alternative is what I call my pink jellyfish, a prosthetic breast that fits in a pocket in my bra. These days I only wear that on special occasions. Bras are uncomfortable, and now that my spine is twisted I doubt most people notice as long as I wear loose tops.

A counsellor I know recently told me that the way some women care so much about their appearance is understandable, but I don't really understand it, though I accept that it's about self-esteem and confidence, and that many women lack both. Men may feel the same, though they have the added disadvantage of not being encouraged to talk about it.

Over the years various bits of me have had to be removed, so I have a few scars, but I care more that I'm still alive than what I look like. I hear of women who'll say that they feel "less of a woman" because they've lost a breast or whatever, but what of the thousands of women who are disfigured by birth defects, accident, illness or injury? Are they any less female? Anyone who regarded them that way would, I suggest, be ignorant and prejudiced. Sadly, there are plenty of ignorant people about, but it's they who are lacking, not us.

Click here to read about the Indian women disfigured by acid attacks.

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?