Thursday, December 13, 2012

How to make a mess of marriage law

Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! Too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?”
From The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear
There's no such thing as traditional marriage, as some traditionalists would have us believe. Marriage law has changed over the centuries, as the BBC explained in its 'Ten key moments in the history of marriage' - a simplified history. Until recently, women were disadvantaged by marriage. It was only relatively recently, with the Married Women's Property Act of 1882, that women became entitled to full legal control of all the property that they'd owned before marriage or which they acquired after marriage either by inheritance or by their own earnings; until then, their husband acquired not just a wife, a mother for his children and a housekeeper, but everything she owned too. And it was only relatively recently that marriage came to be seen as being about romantic love; it was previously a contractual relationship that formed alliances between families with means or simply a sharing of skills and assets between the less well off. Two of the main purposes of legal marriage have been to provide a convenient economic unit for governance and a method of ensuring the paternity of children, when inheritance has mattered - hence "legitimate" and "illegitimate" children.

So when conservative Christians go on about marriage being "redefined", meaning same sex marriage, they are ignoring the fact that it has never been about biology and the way that male and female parts have evolved to fit together in the act of procreation - they are obsessed with sex, other people's sex. Legal marriage has mostly been about patriarchal values and the control of women, sanctioned by an imaginary male god.

Nowadays, most couples in the UK and other European countries like to think that marriage is, or should be, a partnership of equals. Over the last couple of decades the marriage rate has declined, after a peak in the post-war years. During and immediately after the war the illegitimacy rate shot up, as the prospect of an early death prompted many to throw caution to the winds without a condom. In the '60s there was plenty of extra-marital or pre-marital sex but also more contraception. In the '70s the divorce rate went up, mainly initiated by women who were less inclined to put up with the loveless marriages that their mothers might have endured, and since attitudes to "living in sin" and illegitimacy have changed, an increasing number of heterosexual couples have ignored marriage altogether, referring to each other as their "partner". It's never appealed to me. So, in a way, I find it amusing that so many gay couples want to get legally married. It will mean legal protection for each partner in the event of a divorce or bereavement, though I'm not sure how that will be different to the terms of a civil partnership, and it will make other financial arrangements easier, I suppose, but otherwise I can't see what all the fuss is about.

From recent surveys, it seems that homophobia is in decline and most people are in favour of same-sex marriage. Most people live their own lives and are content to let others do the same. It's mainly the Church's mouth-frothing tendency, the ones who are obsessed with sex, who think otherwise. Their hysterical shrieks have been resounding around the Anglican Synod and echoing around the Houses of Parliament, which ought not to take the blindest bit of notice of them, proclaiming that gay marriage is unnatural and they won't have it. As Ben Summerskill of Stonewall says, if you don't like the idea of same sex marriage, don't marry someone of the same sex. The right-wing press claims that (a) the Church will tear itself apart over this and (b) the Conservative Party will tear itself apart over this - both seem like positive outcomes to me. So, to appease the Church's homophobes and satisfy the gay marriage lobby, Cameron & Co have come up with a dog's breakfast of a compromise, which has enraged the liberal wing of the Church (still angry about the women bishops issue) and will legitimise discrimination by making same sex marriage in an Anglican church illegal, while other religious ministers may conduct gay weddings if their governing body says they can. Seems to me that this is the worst sort of law for the worst sort of reasons.

If I were in charge (I'm waiting to be asked), this would be my solution to the whole sorry mess. Remove the right of anyone other than a registrar to conduct a marriage ceremony in the UK, but make same-sex marriage equal to opposite sex marriage. If you want any other form of marriage - religious, humanist, Jedi Knight - you can have a ceremony however and wherever you want, but it would have no legal validity. This would be like the systems that they have in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, where only civil wedding ceremonies are recognised. But that would be too simple and sensible, wouldn't it?

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

An Al Jazeeran view of life in Iraq

It would be good if more people in the UK and US (especially the US) were to watch Al Jazeera's programmes online, offering a different perspective on Middle Eastern and International news stories. In the UK you can watch Al Jazeera live on Freeview TV or on their website.

There was a saddening report tonight in 'Fault Lines' (features that "examine the US' role in the world") about Iraq after the occupation. It was particularly disturbing to see that a high proportion of babies born in Fallujah have severe deformities. The Americans used uranium-enriched weapons there and the consequences look like those suffered in Japan after Hiroshima. Many babies are born dead, many die soon after they're born, and those who survive are hideously deformed. I can't find the report on the website as I type, but you might search for it in a day or two.

The consensus of opinion among ordinary Iraqis is that Iraq has not been left a better place than it was. Far from it, with high level corruption (including the president), Kurdish leaders exploiting natural resources with foreign help for their own benefit, and land-grabbing, like the worst examples in China and Palestine. Was it worth killing 10,000s of Iraqi civilians to get rid of Saddam and his mythical weapons? Few Iraqis think so.

Damn George Bush and Tony Blair, that arch-hypocrite.

Friday, November 23, 2012

It ain't necessarily so

It ain't necessarily so
It ain't necessarily so
The t'ings dat yo' li'ble
To read in de Bible,
It ain't necessarily so.
George Gershwin

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Point of View to the BBC

Waste of time, probably, but I've emailed the BBC's Points of View:
It's Monday 12th, and I've stopped watching or listening to BBC News as I'm heartily sick of its current obsession with itself. It seems to me that the only people who're predicting the BBC's imminent collapse are BBC staff, managers and so on, plus media hacks of all sorts. I've heard several doom-mongers go on about restoring "public trust", but has anyone bothered to ask the public? None of my friends on the social networking sites I frequent seem to have lost trust in the BBC, which we regard as the best broadcaster in the world. So BBC staff are fallible; so what? For goodness' sake, pull yourselves together and start offering balanced news reports again, while the managers sort out who did what and why. I'm happy to continue paying my licence fee but I will remain rather cross if you continue to devote so much air time to yourselves. It's boring and irritating. I'm sure there are some paedophiles out there who probably appreciate investigative journalists being distracted by the hoo-ha. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

War, by Anonymous

These readings by anonymous servicemen are from The Vintage Book of Dissent, edited by Michael Rosen and David Widgery.

The Colonel Kicks the Major
(To the tune of 'Macnamara's Band')

Oh, the colonel kicks the major,
And the major has a go.
He kicks the poor old captain,
Who then kicks the NCO.
And as the kicks get harder,
They are passed on down to me.
And I am kicked to bleeding hell
To save democracy.
c. 1940

"It's a crazy war, guv'nor. I don't see why Jerry doesn't bomb Berlin and let the RAF take care of London. We'd both save petrol and we'd be none the worse."

The Twats in the Ops Room
(To the tune of 'John Brown's Body')

We had been flying all day long at one hundred fucking feet,
The weather fucking awful, fucking rain and fucking sleet,
The compass it was swinging fucking south and fucking north,
But we made a fucking landfall in the Firth of Fucking Forth.

Ain't the Air Force fucking awful?
Ain't the Air Force fucking awful?
Ain't the Air Force fucking awful?
We made a fucking landfall in the Firth of Fucking Forth.

We joined the Air Force 'cos we thought it fucking right,
But don't care if we fucking fly or fucking fight,
But what we do object to are those fucking Ops Room twats,
Who sit there sewing stripes on at the rate of fucking knots.

Ain't the Air Force fucking awful?
Ain't the Air Force fucking awful?
Ain't the Air Force fucking awful?
We made a fucking landfall in the Firth of Fucking Forth.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Internet etiquette failure

I've been invited to join a local group that aims to campaign on an issue I care about. The email from the co-ordinator asked when it would be convenient to meet. He'd sent the same email to a bunch of other people, with all our email addresses in the 'To' box. I replied,
Rather than sending emails to everyone on your list, which means sharing email addresses (not good IT security, BTW), why not open a Facebook group and post messages there?
He replied,
Thanks Margaret,

I will put your point to the next meeting unless you are able to come to it in person.

I know and am part of many 'round robins' as I call them, which work very well with no issues arising. Some of the address list are several screens long! Also where the people involved have never been asked whether they wished to be part of it!

I shall be guided by the collective thoughts about this. If we do make a change it would be best sooner rather than later.

Hope to meet you someday, best wishes, Bob
Lists "several screens long"! No thank you. I tried again...
Hi Bob,

On "round robins", or mass emails; they may "work well" as long as everyone on the list is careful about Internet security, but for one thing, unless all the people on your list have formally agreed to share their details, it would be in breach of data protection guidelines to share them, and I don't like it when it happens. Mass emails where everyone's email address is seen by everyone else on the list, are one way for viruses to be spread. They can also be useful to hackers and spammers. If you wouldn't share the content of your address book with everyone else in your address book, why would you do it online? When sending mass emails, I address them to myself and use the Bcc box for all the recipients' addresses.

I don't think that this is up to the group making a decision to stop doing it; I think you just must! A Facebook group is just one alternative means of communication, but a simple one.
Bob responded,
I have followed this up with the national coordinator of local groups who is not happy with the Facebook option (and nor am I).

Despite my reservations (that it will inhibit communication, especially for those who opt for the 'bcc' list, impose complications for those who manage it and makes everyone dependant on that persons availability and responsiveness) I will introduce an email based group.
Next I got another email, with all the recipients' email addresses in the 'To' box except mine, which was hidden, so I suppose you could say he was making an effort, of sorts.
Hello Everyone,

I need to explain that I have had a request to provide the option for members of the group to hide their email. I have discussed this with the national co-ordinator of local groups and agreed to arrange for an email group. He is not in favour of a Facebook mechanism for this.

Organising this has so far eluded me and this email is sent as before except that Margaret is on the 'bcc' list.
As the stable door is well and truly open, I've given up and quit the group.

'Bob' is not his real name - I respect his privacy.

For the benefit of anyone who doesn't know, here's how to send emails to a group of people - The BCC field.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

On dirty old men and a sense of proportion

When I reached early puberty and my breasts began to sprout, I was groped by a Sunday school teacher when he gave me a lift home in his car. As an adult, a close male relative attempted a clumsy French kiss and, later, someone I knew tried to rape me. He was a little man, the worse for drink, so I didn't have much difficulty fighting him off, but I did end up with a bloody nose and black eye, inflicted when I threw him out. These events didn't traumatise me. I haven't been waiting years for someone to refer me to a helpline. Like many other people, I shrugged off these encounters and forgot about them.

With all this fuss about Jimmy Saville, a dirty old man like thousands of others, I wonder how many of the people who've claimed to have been abused by him were any more traumatised than I was. I can understand people being deeply affected by persistent abuse, such as the sort perpetrated by relatives and family friends, or by rape, but groping? Does this really count? Should it make victims of anyone?

With the benefit of hindsight, all the self-righteous are now baying for BBC blood over Saville, but he wasn't that unusual; the main difference between him and thousands of others was his celebrity, and how he took advantage of it. I knew there was no point telling my parents about my Sunday school teacher; they'd have been embarrassed, and may not have believed it. Until the last couple of decades, when paedophile paranoia developed, most people pretended it wasn't happening. It was because of this culture of denial that priests, celebrity lechers and over-familiar relatives got away with it.

It's good that people are more aware of what is or isn't appropriate behaviour, and it's good that abusers are caught and prosecuted, but it's not good that so many seem to have been encouraged to imagine that their experience will ruin their lives. It needn't. No one should let it.

As for Jimmy Saville and the BBC; I agree with Simon Jenkin:
It is hard to see what real benefit will come from any of this. The case is awash in malice, vilification, exaggeration and litigation. After today's grilling, the BBC might well decide never again to let a child near a male studio presenter. Hospitals will be advised to recruit chaperones for males in children's wards. MPs would apparently deplore anyone permitting children near adult strangers.
Get a grip.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Stop the badger cull

There's no need for me to explain the reasons why the badger cull is a bad idea; other people have done that. My contributions to the protests have been twofold; to cancel my doorstep milk deliveries, because the supplier, Dairy Crest, supports the cull - I've let them know why; and to spread the word on social media.

If you buy milk, ask where it comes from and if its producer supports the cull. If they do, consider changing your supplier or do without until the policy is changed. Ask where the milk comes from that's used by your favourite coffee shop and other milk-users; I'm told that Starbucks is supplied by Dairy Crest. The important thing is to make milk wholesalers and retailers who support the cull aware of your views and boycott their products; commercial interests may prompt a revision of their policies.

Click on any or all of these links to find out more about why the cull is a bad idea, and why it's not just bad for badgers; it won't help cattle either.

From the Independent: Costs of proposed badger cull to prevent TB in cattle will be greater than the financial benefits

The RSPCA's campaign to stop the cull

From the Guardian: Badger cull "mindless", say scientists

Sign Brian May's e-petition (you must be a UK citizen to do this)

Photo: European badger from Wikimedia Commons

Update: 23/10/2012
Reply from CEO Allen at Dairy Crest says he's referred my letter to the managing director of dairies who deals with doorstep deliveries. No idea why, as I doubt he has any say in the cull policy.  Meanwhile, the cull's been postponed a year, with excuses aplenty, though the RSPCA hopes it means a complete revision of the government's position.

Update: 2/11/2012
Reply from my MP to an email:
Thank you for your email of 19 October about bovine TB and badger control.

As you are aware, infected badgers are highly contagious carriers of bovine TB. The dairy farming community has made clear that their livelihoods are at serious risk if the infected population is not controlled properly. Bovine TB harms farmers, their cattle, and consumers of dairy products; it also undermines wider countryside management and conservation efforts.

The Government is committed to using all of the tools at its disposal and continuing to develop new ones as a package of measures to tackle the disease. In high-risk areas herds are tested annually and any cattle that test positive are slaughtered. Restrictions on cattle movements have been further strengthened to reduce the chance of disease spreading from cattle to cattle – farmers who have had a case of TB on their farm will not be allowed to bring new cattle in until the rest of the herd has been tested for TB and a vet has carried out an assessment. They will also now have only 30 days, down from 60, to move cattle that test negative for TB from a TB breakdown farm.

The possibility of a mass vaccination programme was considered very carefully but is currently impractical. The Government has funded and developed an injectable badger vaccine and over the course of the next three years is making available £250,000 a year to support and encourage badger vaccination around the areas of any cull. The vaccine does, however, have significant limitations in the field. Badgers need to be trapped before they can be vaccinated and the process has to be repeated annually for many years, which limits its use to small-scale projects. In addition the vaccine is not 100 per cent effective in preventing TB and does not appear to make any difference to those animals that are already infected. As a result, current vaccines will not be as effective as culling in reducing the spread of the disease from badgers to cattle.

For these reasons, I support the Government’s decision to protect dairy farming and the interests of the wider rural community by approving a cull. However given the importance of the pilot culls, it is vital that the policy is delivered effectively. It is for this reason that the Government has accepted the request of the NFU, on behalf of the companies co-ordinating the culls, not to proceed with the pilots this autumn. The decision follows this summer’s exceptionally bad weather, protracted legal proceedings, the advice of the police to delay the start until after the Olympics and Paralympics and, most recently, the revision of local badger population numbers to a significantly higher figure.

By starting the pilots next summer we can build on the work that has already been done and ensure that the cull will conform to the appropriate scientific criteria and evidence base.

I appreciate that you do not agree and will find this response disappointing, but hope that you will not hesitate to contact me again in future.

Yours sincerely
Tim Yeo

Thursday, October 04, 2012

For National Poetry Day

Liverpool, 1944-1968

Candle-nosed children
(catarrh's common around here)
play on the bomb sites
under towers hung with washing.

Ships' voices
bellow above the city noises,
lonely, no longer in convoys,
like sirens

calling Granddad
back to the sea.
He sailed over torpedoes
but never told tales.

A tart with a complexion
like lunar craters
bought tea in Lewis's cafeteria,
saying, "Thanks luv."

People stepped over
a drunk outside the Adelphi.
He could be dead
but no one bothers.

Mrs O'Malley, scrubbing steps,
says, "Holymarymotherogod"
when a boy stepped in the suds.
He said, "Cherwa?"

I caught the bus home
smelling of wet clothes
and someone's chips,
and Woodbines.

Liverpool revisited, 1970s

Arthur Dooley
(folk hero of the '60s,
welder turned sculptor,
champion of old architecture,
piss on the bureaucrats!)
said, "Gerrof!", but they
took great chunks out,
like a mad dentist,
filling in with flyovers and downunders.
Concrete's handy stuff.

I used to go through this area on the bus, on my way into the city. Arthur Dooley tried to save some of the old architecture nearer town, much of it with original wrought iron decoration.

I was a student at Liverpool College of Art in the 1960s, living at home in the suburbs and working in Lewis's department store on Saturdays.  
I knew Arthur Dooley when we were both CND members, going on demonstrations with lots of other people. He was a real Scouser.
My grandfather, who lived with us until he died, had been a steward on the White Star Line. He  never adjusted to life ashore when he retired. He used to go and watch the ships whenever he could, sitting in the gardens along the river-front at Waterloo.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

As the weather gets colder, the beasties move in

Spider, originally uploaded by Sparrows' Friend.

I like spiders, but not in my bed. This one was evicted.

Friday, September 21, 2012

On what other people might say when you've got ME, or cancer, or whatever

Action for ME has invited members to contribute to an article on "What not to say to people with ME" for its magazine InterAction, in response to a blog post by Toni Berhard. I've sent this...

What not to say to people with ME? Are we going to publish a rule book? Seriously? Who cares what people say? If they're well-intentioned but don't honestly know what to say, they may blurt out something that comes across all wrong, and if you're having a bad day you may take it the wrong way, but can you honestly say that you'd always say the right thing in similar circumstances? I bet you can't.

Toni Bernhard says she doesn't want to hear, "Give me a call if there's anything I can do" because it's unlikely she'll call "because I’m too shy, too embarrassed, too proud, too sick—or a combination of the four." Well, that's her problem, surely? And if someone says something that's really unhelpful or plain daft, that's their problem.

Maybe it's my age (68) and the fact that I've got multiple health problems, not just ME, including having had cancer twice, but I'm just glad to still be here; I couldn't care less what other people think or say. I did, once. I overheard an arrogant surgeon telling medical students on his ward round that "ME is what I get on Friday evenings after a busy week," just after he'd examined me. I was so cross I told a junior doctor I wanted to discharge myself and find another surgeon. She said the surgeon didn't have much of a bedside manner, but he was the best there was with a knife - so I stayed, and he did a good job.

Toni Bernhard's blog post reminded me of a column that Deborah Orr wrote for the Guardian in April, when she'd had cancer, called "Ten things not to say to someone when they're ill". They included, "You're looking well." Some people just can't take a compliment, can they? I have more sympathy with Barbara Ehrenreich, the American writer who's also had cancer. She hates the cloyingly upbeat "pink ribbon culture", and so do I. She also wrote in her book, 'Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World', about all the clichés beloved by obituary writers about "fighting" cancer, or "losing the battle". Compared with that sort of rubbish, having someone tell me that I still have my sense of humour, despite having ME, is fine by me. One thing I do get cross about is quacks; when you've got ME, you get a lot of people recommending quacks of one sort or another. They even have ads for them in our magazines!

It's all about expectations, isn't it? You're having a bad day and you want comfort and support, but then you come across someone who's not really thinking, maybe they're preoccupied with what's going on in their life, and they say something that upsets you. It's not easy, if it's that sort of day, but maybe that's their problem? Your problem is allowing yourself to get upset.

A couple of years ago I did a pain management course with Arthritis Care; another of my problems is severe arthritis, mainly in my spine. I soon realised that I already knew how to manage my pain. I've been doing it for years. It's called distraction. I'm interested in lots of things that are far more interesting that ME, and if I'm interested in something, anything, other than ME, or pain, I forget about it - most of the time. We all have bad days.

I have a feeling that my contribution won't find favour with a lot of InterAction readers. I've noted a tendency to victimhood among many with ME, which makes me disinclined to associate with them. It tends to drag you down.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

On no-touch soap dispensers

When the advert for Dettol's no-touch soap dispenser came out, I thought it was a joke. Part of the blurb says, "The Dettol No-Touch Hand Wash System eliminates the need to touch a soap pump ever again," because a soap pump harbours millions of germs on its button, or whatever-you-call-it. As many canny shoppers have already spotted, you'd wash all those germs off after you'd touched a soap pump anyway, so what's the point?

This product is symptomatic of the crazy consumer-led economic system, if you can call it that. Whenever politicians opine on the need for economic growth, they invariably refer to ways and means of boosting retail sales. We mustn't just buy what we actually need; we must go out and buy what we want, which might be the latest soap dispenser; a totally unnecessary bit of plastic kit that uses toxic batteries, which will soon end up in landfill, after wasting energy transporting it from A to B and so on. I believe you can also get toothpaste dispensers, for people who are too lazy to squeeze a tube, and no end of other personal hygiene and beauty products that simply complicate keeping clean and looking good.

All you need for hand-washing is soap, preferably without palm oil from an unsustainable source (the sort that's grown where forests used to be). As for those millions of germs; there might be some left, after you've washed your hands with soap, but as my mum used to say, a bit of healthy neglect never did anyone any harm. In other words, an obsession with cleanliness can lead to a loss of natural immunity to infection. Dirt is good, in moderation.

Click here to buy soap from the Orangutan Foundation, to help save the red apes.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

One-track atheism

The Oxford English Dictionary defines atheist as "a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods". The word is derived from the Greek a- 'without' + theos 'god'. Calling yourself an atheist tells you no more than that; it doesn't tell you that an atheist is intelligent or that he or she has positive values; it doesn't tell you what his or her attitude towards religion or religious people might be. Yet there appears to be a common misconception among some atheists (mainly online) that it tells you all of these things, and more, so now there are arguments about the right sort of atheism and an assumption that atheism and anti-theism are necessarily the same thing, and that if you are an atheist, you're automatically anti-religion.

For these reasons, and others, I've been disinclined to describe myself as an atheist for some time. Using the word risks attracting all sorts of daft ideas about what I may or may not think or believe, or disbelieve. That's the trouble with labels; people will insist on using them as a basis for false assumptions.

The most irritating atheists are those who seem obsessed by religion, especially Islam. They're blinkered. They don't seem able to interpret what's happening around the world, particularly in the Middle East, except in relation to religion or religions. It bores me to death. For these one-track atheists, all religion is bad, and because it is, people with a religious faith are the source of all our problems. They're not interested in understanding religion in its historical, social and economic contexts. They reduce the conflicts in the Middle East to Muslim V Muslim, or Christian, or Jew. They see all Muslims as one homogeneous mass, who all think alike and have the same values. They think that if only religion was banned, everything would be all right, forgetting (if they ever knew) that totalitarian states have tried that, and it didn't work.

So please excuse me if I don't describe myself as an atheist, though I'm certainly not religious. If anyone imagines that I subscribe to some sort of atheist world view, you can forget it. Religion is irrelevant to my life; it interests me, but not enough to want to know why people keep on about spirituality or mysticism, which are such vague notions as to be meaningless.

Many atheists give the impression that they think they're cleverer than people with a religious faith, simply because they don't have one. They're not, and the more obsessive and strident they are, the less clever they seem.

If I had to use any labels, they might be secularist, free-thinker and all-round awkward sod. Leave me out of any atheist movements. My brain works perfectly well as it is; independently.

My advice to one-track atheists? Shut up, and read history, geography, sociology, politics, and learn more about how religions developed, and why. As for religious people; there are many reasons why they're religious, and many ways to be religious. If you dismiss them all without understanding any of that, you're as ignorant as the most fundamentalist religionist; in other words, you're as bad as they are.

There's so much more to life, don't you think?

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

More public money for crap "art"

Sorry, but here's another rant about public money going to pay for crap art. In my last post I expressed annoyance that Tracey Emin has been paid out of the public purse for her rubbish Olympics tube map illustration. Now I learn that that other colossal fraud, Damien Hirst, is benefiting from the Olympics too.

The Tate has a Hirst exhibition as part of the London 2012 Festival, "the most exciting festival the UK has ever seen, bringing more than 10 million opportunities to see 12,000 performances and events. Leading artists from all over the world will come together for this unique event to celebrate London 2012." The Tate describes him as "one of the most influential artists of his generation", ignoring his plagiarism, his delegation of the actual creation of his art to his assistants, and his cynical exploitation of wealthy art collectors with more money than sense.

It is exhibitions like this that maintain Hirst's reputation. Your taxes - think of the security costs for looking after the Swarovski skull! - help to prop up his value at auction. That makes this an unaccountable transfer of public money from the many to the wealthy elite.

If our gallery directors want to express their patriotism, they should do better sell all the Hirsts in the national collection at once. Crash the market and grab the cash. Call it art! Damien would.

Then use the money to support some artists who have something interesting to say. 
If only they would.

Meanwhile, how can we stop Emin, Hirst and other rubbish artists getting their hands on any more public money?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

"... some kind of communication, a message"

"Being an artist isn't just about making nice things, or people patting you on the back; it's some kind of communication, a message."
Tracey Emin
Looking at Tracey's drawings, the main message I get is the sort you read on public lavatory walls; lots of crude penises and vaginas. Nice things? What nice things? Being an artist? Oh deary me.

In December last year the Royal Academy made her Professor of Drawing. Hard to believe. When I heard it, I didn't believe it. Nor did many others. Surely a Professor of Drawing ought to be able to draw? Just a niggling little thing, I know.

It's bad enough when people with more money than sense, or taste, pay her £10,000s for her "art", but when public money goes into her bank account, it beggars belief. I don't know how much Ms Emin was paid for her latest masterpiece, the cover for the Tube map, but they could have commissioned a seven-year-old and got much the same sort of thing.

I just don't get it. Every time I see one of her creations, I think of the Hans Christian Anderson story about the Emporer's New Clothes, and imagine that all the foolish people who buy her work or write glowingly about it must be caught up in some sort of mass delusion. She has absolutely no talent, apart from a talent for making money and publicising herself. Why can't they see that?

David Lee of The Jackdaw isn't fooled. He's referred to her drawings as "childish scribbles unworthy of even the fridge door". This is his verdict on the tube map drawing:
The latest masterpiece from the Professor of Drawing is the cover for the tube map. She does a fair warbler with its beak open and trots it out at regular intervals. “When in doubt scribble a bird with its beak open,” advised the Prof as she stepped down from the Margate Express. It was commissioned for a special map to be handed out during the Olympics so that all the foreign visitors will be overwhelmed by the wealth of artistic talent in our country. Said the mayor of London, whose brilliant idea it was to approach the Professor: “How appropriate it is that our Olympic map should echo the advice of the mighty Apelles who drew birds as symbols of an athlete’s freedom of spirit.” Meanwhile, the willing idiot in charge of art on the underground spewed out what she always says when a new map is published: “The artwork presents a moving and unique interpretation of the capital.” Mrs Margi Doonham of Nottingham, who was up the smoke bargain-hunting for suicide potions, said after studying her map that she knew a disabled artist who could draw a better bird holding the pencil up his arse.

She likes birds does the Margate Express – and every one a masterpiece. Some years ago we reported on her sculpture outside the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool. It was sixty grand’s worth (courtesy of the BBC who for some reason paid for it) of tiny bird on a pole which some unimpressed scouser promptly sawed off. It was found nearby in a jiffy bag and reattached, following which it was nicked again. We are unsure of its current status, but do let us know if you are privy to information.
Dear Boris, I can draw. I went to college and everything. My drawings look like they're supposed to. I've never drawn willies or fannies on toilet walls. I'd be very happy to design an underground map cover. Compared with Ms Emin, my fees would be relatively modest. How about it?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

SOS dairy farmers

This is a letter I'm sending to my milk supplier and my MP:
Mike Sheldon
Dairy Crest
Claygate House
Littleworth Road
Surrey, KT10 9PN

Dear Mr Sheldon,

I was very sorry to hear that Dairy Crest is dropping its standard liquid agreement milk price by 1.65p per litre from 1 August 2012, leaving farmers with 24.92 per litre.

I read that milk retailers blame the price cuts on “market forces”, which doesn’t make sense to me.

Customers have been used to low prices because of competition, but this can’t be sustained in the long term if it forces farmers out of business and we come to rely on cheap imported milk and milk products from countries that have lower welfare standards and pay lower wages. I would rather that we continued to support British farmers, for all sorts of reasons.

British consumers are paying 99p per litre for Coca-Cola, which has no nutritional value; they should be educated to expect to pay a realistic price for milk, which does.

In my youth I worked on dairy farms and know how much time and effort goes into a doorstep pinta. I fully support the NFU and Farmers’ Weekly milk prices campaign. I’m informed that Kite consultants estimate the average break even cost to produce milk on farm is 29.3 pence per litre. Over the last year, cost pressures on farmers, such fresh calved heifer replacements (+14.7%), fresh calved cows (+29.8%), Soya (+15%), maize gluten (+11.9%) (Source Dairy Co April 2011 vs April 2012), have contributed to significantly increase their costs to produce milk, and they’ve also had to cope with the consequences of the bad weather.
I currently have organic semi-skimmed milk delivered in glass bottles (avoiding plastic) via Milk & More, so I’m already paying more than a majority of customers but would be willing to pay whatever is fair to the farmers who produce it. Incidentally, where does my milk come from?

I urge you to reverse the decision to cut milk prices and to pay farmers a sustainable rate.

Yours sincerely, etc.

Click here to read about the NFU's campaign
Click here to read more at Farmers' Weekly

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Body of Art

I shan't be going to the BP Portrait Award exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery this year, for the second year running. I need help to get there, and last year my helper was in Africa. This year, I don't fancy fighting my way through the crowds heading for the Olympics but I have a catalogue, so I've seen photos of the prizewinning pictures, including the portrait entitled "Auntie" by American artist Aleah Chapin. It's a nude, an older woman with pendulous breasts.

I was amused by Brian Sewell's response to this. In The Evening Standard, he wrote,
Silhouetted against a white ground embellished with meaningless blotches of ochre, this ancient crone stands life-size, full-frontal and stark naked, heavy breasts drooping low, skin stretched and sagging, looking as though, par-boiled and with the lividity of death about her lower quarters, she has just escaped from a cannibal’s cooking-pot. This is the figurative realism of the new American academic painter — no sympathy gentles the stark observation of every detail, nor is desire roused; instead, this painting stimulates revulsion.

Had the painter stopped at the neck, this would have been a portrait of sorts; had she included the shoulders, it would still have been a portrait; but below them it becomes a grotesque medical record, the body disproportionately large. Did Miss Chapin not see that in her obsession with the ghastliness of ageing flesh, she had enlarged this repellent body beyond the scale of the head and given primacy, not to the implications of the face — the eyes purblind, the slight smile a rictus, the tousled hair perhaps some indication of character — but to the belly-button and the breasts. Could the judges not see this too? Just think: the National Portrait Gallery took down the nudes of Freud to award a prize to this. 
Maybe some people will be revolted, perhaps because the only nudes they usually see are the photoshopped variety in porn magazines. Someone has commented on Sewell's verdict:
I know you don't have much experience of these things but this is what the majority of women you see shopping in John Lewis who are the same vintage as Auntie look like when undressed. Shocking I know but I'm sure their husbands are in similar shape and love them all the same.
The reference to Sewell's "experience" is about his sexuality, I suppose, which appears to be confused.

I find Sewell's opinion strange, since he compares this painting with the paintings by Lucian Freud, many of whose nude subjects were not conventionally attractive, including the grossly obese Sue Tilley. If Sewell had studied life drawing and painting, as I did, he'd have found himself faced with an assortment of models, some young and beautiful, others past their best. All were interesting subjects, not to be dismissed with comments about their "ghastliness". I remember one older woman who was a regular subject. When dressed she wore a corset reinforced with whalebone (or the equivalent). When this was removed, her flesh fell into folds like a Michelin Man, marked for the first half hour or so by perpendicular lines left by the whalebone, so that she looked as though she'd been encased in a basket. I didn't find her body revolting. No one should be referred to as revolting, unless their behaviour warrants it.

I prefer David Lee's view of Auntie, from his Jackdaw magazine:
Auntie seems not to be fully in the present and invites thoughts of how in old age personalities, histories, gradually dissolve. It is a nicely judged picture, and there’s love in it.
Poor Brian. One wonders how much love there is in his life?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

On scroungers, dodgers and cluelessness

When a filthy rich Prime Minister goes on about "a culture of entitlement" and proposes that, if the Tories win the next election outright, more of us who claim state benefits will be forced to find jobs, it's a tad nauseating. Even if he was out of work tomorrow (if only!), Cameron is unlikely to need to worry about paying the rent. Still, it will keep Daily Mail and Telegraph readers and many of his back-benchers happy, especially those who resent having to share power with the Lib Dems.

It's all based on fallacies that Cameron's supporters are very ready to repeat.

Fallacy No. 1: There are far too many welfare benefits claimants.

In fact, the number of people claiming benefits they're not entitled to is exceeded by the number who don't claim what they are entitled to. The latest estimates from the DWP are as follows:
  • 0.7%, or £1.1bn, of total benefit expenditure is overpaid due to fraud; 
  • 0.8%, or £1.3bn, of total benefit expenditure is overpaid due to customer error; 
  • 0.5%, or £0.8bn, of total benefit expenditure is overpaid due to official error. 
  • 0.5%, or £0.9bn, of total benefit expenditure is underpaid due to customer error; 
  • 0.3%, or £0.4bn, of total benefit expenditure is underpaid due to official error.
Meanwhile, in 2010, the Citizens' Advice Bureau reported that...
  • as many as four out of five low paid workers without children (1.2million households) miss out on tax credits worth at least £38 per week - a total of £1.9 billion.
  • as many as half of all working households entitled to housing benefit (worth an average £37.60 per week) do not claim it – that’s up to half a million households.
Other benefits showing signs of significant under-claiming include council tax benefit and pension credit. Up to three million households are missing out on an average £13 a week in council tax benefit, while as many as 1.7 million pensioners are missing out on an average of £31 a week in pension credit.
Withdrawing housing benefit from under-25s might reduce the welfare bill by £1.8bn, but raking in all the tax that Cameron's cronies and other wealthy people avoid paying could add £69.9bn a year to the Treasury. Jimmy Carr's tax would be only a very small contribution to this.

Fallacy No. 2: There are plenty of jobs out there, if only all the unemployed would get off their lazy arses and look for them.

There are already more people needing work than there are jobs. This problem can only increase as the population continues to rise, and not just because of economic migrants but because the UK birthrate has gone up.

All we hear from all three main parties is that we need "economic growth" to generate jobs, but what jobs? So far, the notion of "growth" seems to hinge on consumerism; if people go and and buy stuff, any old stuff, it will get things moving again, like a big dose of laxative. When money is tight, most people don't spend money they haven't got. Apart from a friend with a handbag fixation, I hardly know anyone who's keen to go shopping. Producing and selling non-essentials in large quantities might keep the transport and plastics industries busy, but where does that get us? More traffic, faster consumption of fossil fuels, more rubbish to get rid of. If you were to audit the real cost of many of the jobs in retail, I think that you'd find that they actually cost more than paying people not to work.

So if you're selling, you need people to keep buying, and they're not. In 2009, Personnel Today, a publication for human resources professionals, reported that "Job availability falls at fastest rate to hit 12-year low", and that "The nursing, medical and care sector remained the only sectors to avoid the reduction in vacancies":
Mike Stevens, partner and head of business services at KPMG [accountants] said: "Yet another month of desperate news on the UK employment front, although the rate of decline in permanent placements has slowed. Most employers are now looking at ways to cut cost to mitigate falling sales revenues. High on the list of costs, for what has largely become a service economy, is wages." He said most employers were considering redundancy plans. "The best employers are already looking at more imaginative ideas, for example by inviting staff to volunteer to reduce pay in return for a shorter working week during the recession," he added. The Report on Jobs draws on survey data provided by recruitment consultancies and employers to a monthly indication of labour market trends. Earlier this year KPMG said it was urging staff to take sabbaticals on one-third of their pay to save their jobs.
Nothing much has changed over the last three years, except that increasingly desperate politicians from all three main parties are trying harder to convince us that they know what they're doing, when most of us can tell than they don't. Maybe they ought to just shut up for a while, and consult a few people who might have something to tell them, like Robert Skidelsky, a member of the House of Lords and Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at Warwick University:
Aristotle knew of insatiability only as a personal vice; he had no inkling of the collective, politically orchestrated insatiability that we call economic growth. The civilization of “always more” would have struck him as moral and political madness.

And, beyond a certain point, it is also economic madness. This is not just or mainly because we will soon enough run up against the natural limits to growth. It is because we cannot go on for much longer economizing on labor faster than we can find new uses for it. That road leads to a division of society into a minority of producers, professionals, supervisors, and financial speculators on one side, and a majority of drones and unemployables on the other.

Apart from its moral implications, such a society would face a classic dilemma: how to reconcile the relentless pressure to consume with stagnant earnings. So far, the answer has been to borrow, leading to today’s massive debt overhangs in advanced economies. Obviously, this is unsustainable, and thus is no answer at all, for it implies periodic collapse of the wealth-producing machine.

The truth is that we cannot go on successfully automating our production without rethinking our attitudes toward consumption, work, leisure, and the distribution of income. Without such efforts of social imagination, recovery from the current crisis will simply be a prelude to more shattering calamities in the future.
Dambisa Moyo thinks that things will get much worse, if they ever get better, because the Chinese have increasing influence on world economics, and a new report commissioned by Population Matters has found that projected population growth in the next 22 years could cost UK taxpayers over £1trillion gross in additional government spending and add a billion tonnes to our CO2 emissions. Cutting housing benefit to under-25s, even if it could be morally justified and saved money, seems pretty pathetic as a proposed solution to our problems.

Sound bites won't cut it, Mr Cameron, so be quiet until you have something sensible to say. You too, Milibland and Ball.

Sorry. I'd like to sound optimistic, but it's not easy. Essentially, what it boils down to is that there are too many of us, we need to have fewer children, and we have to get used to much simpler life styles. Money won't solve everything, but it helps to spread it around.
This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Postscript: I don't always agree with Polly Toynbee, but this time I do.
The Smith Institute reports that 95% of the £1bn rise in housing benefit this year is paid to people in work. Only one in eight people drawing the benefit is out of work; the rest are low earners. The cost is not about feckless people but the housing crisis, the failure to build social, rented or private housing over the last three decades.
Thanks to Lisa Tilley for the Skidelsky link

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Soggy ostriches

An angry man who was interviewed by the BBC in one of the flooded areas of the UK the other day demanded to know why "they" hadn't done enough to prevent the water from invading his and other people's homes. He was typical of many who don't appear to see any connection between changing weather patterns and what "we" are doing, or not doing, about climate change. As floods happen more often, hardly anyone seems to have made the connection. It's just the weather, they grumble. Did the angry man have any personal responsibility for the result of inaction? I doubt he'd have thought so. It's up to "them", whoever they are.

Meanwhile, in Rio, at last week's UN Conference on Sustainable Development, hardly anything was achieved. Paul Vallely reported for the Independent,
A lot of high-flown rhetoric ushered in last week's UN Conference on Sustainable Development. Rio+20 was the biggest summit the UN had ever organised. Some 40,000 environmentalists and 10,000 government officials gathered with politicians from 190 nations for a meeting which the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said was "too important to fail".

But fail it did. It ended on Friday with an unambitious, non-binding statement which made few advances on what was agreed 20 years ago. Activists such as Greenpeace International called it "an epic failure". Technocrats such as Maurice Strong, who ran the 1992 summit, called it a "weak" collection of "pious generalities". Politicians such as Nick Clegg called it "insipid". No wonder in Brazil protesters ritually ripped up the final text and renamed the summit "Rio minus 20".
Flood-stricken areas are likely to be flooded again. All the evidence suggests that they will. In the UK, it will mean higher insurance premiums and may force some homes to be abandoned altogether, but this will be nothing compared to the effect on those who live in low-lying countries like Bangladesh and the Pacific islands, who have nowhere to go when their homes are submerged.

The TV news shows flooded towns, angry or dejected people, but hardly a mention of the cause of this extreme weather - population growth and unsustainable life styles. Instead, all we hear is that we need more "economic growth" and more jobs. "They" are ignoring the real problems. So are "we".

Click here to read the US Environmental Protection Agency on Climate Impacts on Global Issues.

Click here to read about the elephant in the room at the Rio summit.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Happy Midsummer!

The midsummer solstice was yesterday, the longest day of the year. From now until the midwinter solstice (21st December), the days will gradually get shorter. For reasons that would take too long to explain here, the Christian Church high-jacked the winter solstice and turned it into Christmas and did the same sort of thing with the spring equinox festival (Easter).

Some years ago, I conducted a funeral for a relative of a couple who live on the other side of town - I think I've done more than one funeral for their family. They didn't add me to their Christmas card list; they added me to their midsummer card list, as they don't send Christmas cards. I've saved most of them, which are hand made with witty messages inside. This is the latest, inspired by the Diamond Jubilee, with a real daisy on the crown.

And here is one from a previous year. Inside it says, "We are as the woodlouse - existing in the nooks and crannies of life (and the better for it too!)".

I'm thinking of giving up Christmas cards, which have had the greeting "Merry Midwinter!" and one of my seasonally appropriate photos, and sending midsummer cards instead. The only problem is that I'll have to let people know this winter, or they might think I'm dead.

Monday, June 11, 2012

On being 68

Today I’m sixty-eight.
How did that happen?
Born five days after D-Day.
Mum was very glad
They’d invented gas and air.

Still trying to work out
What to do when I grow up.
So far, have sampled
A range of occupations
Of varying skill levels.

Wasn’t very good at
Selling hats or teaching.
Didn’t do too badly at
Milking cows or drawing.
Left it a bit late but
Still keeping my options open.

Given birth twice
With one happy outcome.
Had cancer twice
And thanked the doctors.
Broke an arm and a leg,
Not at the same time.

If I don’t make it
To sixty-nine,
Just say
She muddled through,
And help yourselves to
What’s in the larder.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Make music, not war

This is wonderful.

Men and the religion versus science thing

Men have been dominating atheist debate. Well, they would, wouldn't they? After all, the monotheistic religions - Christianity, Judaism and Islam - are patriarchal, while the main critics of religion in atheist circles are mostly male. It's become a contest between science and religion, while the history and sociology of religion, particularly the history of women's role in religion, has been largely ignored.

I've written about this sort of thing before - click here to read it. Was reminded of it again by two things. The first was a thread on Facebook about original sin, linked to the TV debate in Australia between Richard Dawkins and Cardinal George Pell. When asked about the story of Adam and Eve, Pell said,
Adam and Eve are terms - what do they mean: life and earth. It’s like every man. That’s a beautiful, sophisticated, mythological account. It’s not science but it’s there to tell us two or three things. First of all that God created the world and the universe. Secondly, that the key to the whole of universe, the really significant thing, are humans and, thirdly, it is a very sophisticated mythology to try to explain the evil and suffering in the world.
Dawkins said,
I’m curious to know if Adam and Eve never existed where did original sin come from? But I also would like to clarify the point about whether there was ever a first human.
Both of them ignore the history of the allegory, which is important. If you don't understand how and why this story developed, you won't understand where modern Christianity and Judaism get some of their ideas, and how the mythology has been twisted so that Eve became the villainess, rather than the heroine of the story.

The second TV programme that reminded me of the masculine bias in explaining religion is the current BBC and Open University series, Divine Women. Click here for the OU page. If you concentrate on demolishing Biblical mythology without understanding the shift from matriarchies to patriarchies, and how old myths have been changed to reflect male power, your understanding of religion will be limited. Male bias in religion is bad enough, but male bias in atheism is just as annoying.

One of the reasons that female goddesses predominated in the past was that only woman can give birth; they were venerated because of it. Paternity wasn't recognised. When it was, that's when the shift happened, as men sought to claim their offspring and the ownership of their property. This is still a major factor in religious justifications for the subjugation of women today. Men are excused for spreading their seed (a man's got to do what a man's got to do, or he'd go mad with frustration - or something along those lines), while women who lie with men who aren't their husbands are vilified.

Click here to read how the Creation myth was copied from an earlier Sumerian myth.

Painting of "The Fall of Man" by Rubens, whose women were realistically voluptuous, just as most early female fertility figures or goddesses were.
Photo of a female fertility figure, probably a goddess, seated between two leopards and giving birth, from Catal Huyuk, an Anatolian settlement, Turkey.  c.7250-6700BCE

Friday, April 06, 2012

Calm down dears!

There's been a lot of fuss about the web surveillance issue over the last week or so, and most of it ill-informed and exaggerated. To read some of the stuff on the Internet, you'd think that David Cameron wants a team of snoopers in his office at No. 10, scrutinising your every email, blog post, tweet and online grocery order, just to see what you're up to. Some daft individuals have suggested copying him into every email, so that he'd deluged with the things. It's ridiculous. Having written as much on Facebook, I get the impression that some of the people on my friends list think I'm in cahoots with Cameron, or completely bonkers.

This is more or less what I've written there...

Lib Dem blogger Stephen Tall has made some sensible observations about the web surveillance hoo-ha. As he states,
The government case in favour of extending interception of communications is straightforward: the law was created before the recent technological advances such as social media and smartphones and Skype, so all the new legislation will do is bring these communication methods into line with those that exist already for letter, email, phone etc.
This will mean revision of The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, introduced by Labour, which regulated the powers of public bodies to carry out surveillance and investigation, covering the interception of communications.

The media has whipped up a storm about the proposals, which aren't complete, creating a lot of OTT reaction that isn't justified. If there was another terrorist attack, say during the Olympics, that could have been prevented by the interception of the plotters' communications, and it wasn't, there'd be a huge fuss about that. You can't have it both ways, and if you're not a criminal or a terrorist, you'd have to be very paranoid or conceited to imagine that your emails would be of any interest to anyone other than the people they're addressed to.

I refuse to sign silly petitions against email snooping or bay for Cameron's blood (I reserve my criticism of him for more important issues), and I'm happy to be in a minority of one, though actually there are many who'd agree with me. As Frank Zappa said, "It has never mattered to me that thirty million people might think I'm wrong. The number of people who thought Hitler was right did not make him right... Why do you necessarily have to be wrong just because a few million people think you are?"

The moral of this blog post is: don't let your imagination run away with you.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Jenny Tonge - a storm of ignorance

Baroness Jenny Tonge has resigned the Liberal Democrat party whip over the hysterical reaction to what some are saying she said, not what she actually said at a Middlesex University meeting last week. She's responded:
The comments I made have been taken completely out of context. They followed a very ill-tempered meeting in which Zionist campaigners attempted continually to disrupt proceedings. They mouthed obscenities at the panellists, to the extent that university security attempted to remove them from the premises.

The comments I made were in protest at the treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank and the treatment of Israeli Arabs. I am disappointed the leadership of my party did not consult me before issuing a press release and seems always to be at the request of the pro-Israel lobby.
Jenny would never win prizes for diplomacy, having always spoken passionately and bluntly about Israel and its relationship with the Palestinians, but she doesn't deserve vilification. What she actually said was that Israel couldn't survive "in its present form", which is indisputable. Michael White wrote that she's stated "an immutable law of history". Things can't continue as they are. I've blogged about Israel before. This was in May last year:
On Netanyahu saying no to Obama

It would be political suicide for Netanyahu to agree to President Obama's suggestion that Israel should go back to its pre-1967 borders. He referred to "certain changes that have taken place" but the biggest change wasn't mentioned, which is that Israel has accepted thousands of immigrants since 1967, while thousands of Palestinians have been displaced by this influx. Le Monde says, "The 2.6 million immigrants who have arrived since 1948 have made Israel the only country whose population has multiplied by nine in the space of 50 years".

Immigrants from America appear to be some of the most ignorant and prejudiced Zionists, as recent TV programmes by Louis Theroux and Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou suggest. Dr Stavrakopoulou found Israeli tour guides giving very fanciful explanations for the archaeological evidence for Israel's claim to the "Promised Land". She said that her research led her to think that much of what's been taught about King David and the Jews' right to the land is simply untrue. However, as long as a majority of Israelis believe the stories they've been fed since childhood, and as long as they keep building to house the next influx, no Israeli Premier can afford to agree with Obama.
These are just some of the reasons why Israel can't survive "in its present form":
  • Its population influx is already creating huge problems, by sheer force of numbers;
  • Israelis continue to build settlements on the West Bank, in defiance of previous agreements;
  • Israelis divert water, depriving Palestinians of a limited supply, destroying wildlife, and creating sink holes along the banks of the Dead Sea. A lot of this water is used to grow crops for export in an entirely unsuitable environment (boycott Israeli produce - I do);
  • Israelis complain about terrorist attacks from across their border, but in fact the Palestinians have suffered far greater losses. As Jenny Tonge has said, it's not surprising that many become suicide bombers - she understood why they do.
What those who are angry with Jenny Tonge don't seem to know or accept is that Israel was founded by terrorists who forcibly evicted Palestinians from their homes; many of those Palestinians are still living in refugee camps, over sixty years later. The BBC's News website used to include a moving account by a Palestinian woman of her family's forced eviction from their home by masked Zionists in 1948. They were only allowed to take what they stood up in, even leaving the family dog behind, and had lived in refugee camps ever since. This account has been removed, possibly because of Zionist pressure. This injustice can't be ignored, while Israel continues to play the victim. Israel has exploited its victim status since the Holocaust, as justification for establishing a Jewish state and displacing the people who'd lived there for generations, but many Jews did not support Israel, and still don't. There are Jews all over the world, religious Jews and secular Jews, who do not support the Zionists, and never have.

The only way that Israel can survive is by recognising Palestinian claims (including its claim to have a Palestinian state), by halting immigration and going back to its pre-1967 border. This means that it can't continue "in its present form".

Click here to read about anti-Zionist Jews
Click here to read about Jews for Justice
Click here to read Amnesty's reports on Israel's dismal human rights record

Update, 2/3/12

A letter in support of Jenny from Ben Birnberg in the Guardian:
As a Lib Dem and a Jew, I protest at the ultimatum given by Nick Clegg to Baroness Tonge to leave the Lib Dem group in the Lords and her resulting resignation. To say, as she is quoted saying, that Israel would ultimately lose US support, a view expressed by many people, has been clearly deliberately misinterpreted by the powerful Israeli lobby, goaded on by its ambassador, Daniel Taub, as a statement that Israel would cease to exist (Taub: "We have no intention of going anywhere"). Jenny Tonge, as a long-standing critic of Israeli policies and as a supporter of the Palestinians, deserves the full support of the Lib Dem leadership.
Benedict Birnberg
I knew Ben in the early 1970s, when we were both on the National Executive Committee of the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty). He introduced me to his mother, who was a suffragist. With people like Ben defending Jenny, Clegg & Co ought to pay attention and apologise for their hasty action. Paul Boateng wrote about him as his "Legal Hero".

Update, 10/10/15

From Haaretz: "There are no justified arguments left in Israel’s arsenal, the kind a decent person could accept. Even Mahatma Gandhi would understand the reasons for this outburst of Palestinian violence. Even those who recoil from violence, who see it as immoral and useless, can’t help but understand how it breaks out periodically. The question is why it doesn’t break out more often."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Humans are "naturally nice"

So says Frans de Waal, a biologist at Emory University in Atlanta, and I'm inclined to agree. Click here to read more.

We don't need religion to tell us how to behave; most of us know. It's in our own interests to be good and kind, as such behaviour is likely to be reciprocated. 

Those who are forever fussing over our morality seem to me to be the least generous in their attitudes towards their fellow human beings, with the lowest expectations.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Lord Carey and the marriage preservation society

It's actually called the Coalition for Marriage, and what it's bothered about is the prospect of gay marriage, rather than just civil partnership. Their website says,
Throughout history and in virtually all human societies marriage has always been the union of a man and a woman. Marriage reflects the complementary natures of men and women. Although death and divorce may prevent it, the evidence shows that children do best with a married mother and a father.
This is a very rosy view of marriage in history. Until recently, marriage was mainly about forming family alliances, if you were rich and owned property, or forming a partnership based on shared skills and assets, if you were poor. Girls as young as fourteen would be betrothed to older men, to ensure a harmonious relationship between two powerful families. Men and women without power would look for partners who could help one another by growing and preserving food, and other important survival skills. This is an old nursery rhyme:
Sukey, you shall be my wife
And I will tell you why:
I have got a little pig,
And you have got a sty;
I have got a dun cow
And you can make good cheese;
Sukey, will you marry me –
Say Yes, if you please.
Until just over a century ago, only about 60% of the male population married, because many either couldn't afford to or couldn't find suitable partners - marriages were often arranged by families. If you had no skills or assets, you'd be considered unmarriageable. It wasn't at all romantic.

Attitudes towards marriage have changed a lot over the last century. Women gained the freedom to choose their partners and divorce became a lot easier, allowing them to escape loveless marriages. During and immediately after the Second World War, the illegitimacy rate shot up, demonstrating a shift in attitudes towards sex. The post-war establishment of the Welfare State, the National Health Service and a state education system made a huge difference to marriage, as did the provision of contraception. Labour-saving devices, especially the washing machine, liberated women too. 

The Coalition for Marriage (their version of marriage) say, "If marriage is redefined once, what is to stop it being redefined to allow polygamy?" That's hardly likely, but shows how their tiny prejudiced minds work. Still, since they raised the subject of polygamy, which was once common in different forms around the world (and still is)...

Polygyny (one husband having several wives) and polyandry (several husbands having one wife) have been practised in different societies according to the availability of land, livestock, etc. If a family lived in an area where there was an abundance of food because of easy growing conditions, a man might have several wives and raise lots of children. In other areas, such as remote mountain regions with poor grazing for livestock, several brothers might share a wife but they'd often be away for long periods, hunting or trading. In the pre-Judeo-Christian era, around the Mediterranean and Middle East, matriarchal societies didn't pay much attention to paternity; children were raised by a family group that was dominated by women. Lord Carey wouldn't like that, would he?

Marriage has been "redefined" often, and there's nothing that the Coalition can do to stop it. All this faff, because a few people are obsessed with other people's sexual practices, but then organised religion has always been obsessed with sex - other people's sex. That's rather unhealthy, isn't it?

Update: 22/1/12
Excellent piece about this by Martin Robbins in the Guardian - 'I'm happy to explore polygamy with the Christian Institute',

Monday, February 13, 2012

A guide to pseudo-science for the gullible

I've been ill for over 25 years with ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis), so I've tended to attract well meant suggestions about "treatment" from a few friends and others. Since there isn't any cure or treatment for ME, and  no one has explained what causes it (though there are theories), ME patients are susceptible to the persuasive claims of quacks. I've been offered radionics, which involved someone directing healing radio waves at me from the other end of the country (for a "modest" fee of £100), and I know of people with ME who've spent £1000s on worthless treatments, some of which could do them a lot of harm.

As I'm also a sceptic (that's skeptic, if you're American), I've had no trouble rejecting all suspect claims, including homeopathy (one of the most popular) but if you're bothered by snake oil salesmen or their fans, just refer them to this invaluable guide to pseudo-science - click here to know more.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The trouble with Pat Condell

Pat Condell is very popular among atheists who like to think that religion is the cause of all our ills and if everyone thought like them, we'd all be better off. His YouTube channel has 173,612 subscribers at the time of writing, and his videos are viewed millions of times. Apparently Richard Dawkins is one of his fans; he's reported to have said, "Pat Condell is hard-hitting, but always quietly reasonable in tone". It wouldn't be the first time that Dawkins' judgement has been suspect; if you don't understand what I mean by that, ask me to explain.

Condell always has something to say about religion, especially Islam, and it's always in negative terms. Sometimes he might be right, such as saying that Sharia law shouldn't be tolerated in British society or that women are discriminated against in Islamist societies, but I stopped watching his videos ages ago because of his hectoring tone and scatter-gun approach. I don't like him, so I won't waste my time listening to him. Unfortunately, many people do, and many of them might imagine that he's usually right. He isn't. He's probably wrong at least as often as he's right, which sort of cancels out the latter.

Condell is xenophobic and Islamophobic. He might deny it, but the evidence is there. One of his pet hates is multiculturalism, which he blames for all manner of ills. He campaigned for UKIP in the last UK general election, a party that includes plenty of xenophobes and Islamophobes but doesn't get as nasty as the BNP. It's OK to discriminate on nationalist grounds in UKIP, and it's OK to discriminate on religious grounds if you're Condell.

One of the issues that Condell got famously wrong was the 'Mosque on Ground Zero'. Like many others, he got very hot under the collar about reports that a mosque was to be build on or near the site of the 9/11 atrocity. It wasn't true. The Ground Zero Mosque wasn't a mosque and it wasn't on Ground Zero. Condell simply jumped on a very ill-informed band wagon and let rip (Google his video).

Why am I writing about this now? A humanist contact emailed me and a bunch of other people yesterday with a link to one of Condell's videos, The Final Destruction of Sweden (note the melodramatic title), saying "I find this quite shocking" and inviting comments. I replied, "You shouldn't be shocked. Condell is a ranter who exaggerates issues to suit his prejudices. When it comes to Islam, he's repeatedly demonstrated his ignorance, portraying all Muslims as a stereotypical fundamentalists. I doubt he knows many, if any." There followed an exchange, during which I said I'd ask a Swedish Twitter contact what she thought. She looked at the video, and replied, "Impression from the first minute: I suspect that guy doesn't know much about Sweden." I think she's right.

The video is about Sweden's recent constitutional changes, mainly these:
  • It will be written in the constitution that the ability of Sami- and other ethnical, linguistic and religious minorities to keep and develop their culture shall be promoted.
  • The current requirement regarding Swedish citizenship for some higher state positions is removed. One such position is the national prosecutor (riksåklagare) which might be held by non-citizens in the future. The requirement on Ministers to have been Swedish citizens for at least ten years is removed….
The Sami people are Arctic indigenous people who inhabit Northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.

Condell rants in the video about the high incidence of rape in Sweden and falls into the trap of blaming immigrants for this. However, there doesn't appear to be any evidence that Sweden's immigrants are the main reason for its rape problem. Some perpetrators may be immigrants, but Sweden's biggest problems seem to be old-fashioned sexism and the inefficiency of its police and judiciary.

My email correspondent has been in touch with a gay Swedish humanist who wrote,
I think that the man who speaks in the film - who is he? - cannot be taken seriously when he says that it is just a matter of time before Sweden becomes an Islamic state. Muslims are just a small minority - at most 400,000 of a total population of about 10 million. I do not know if the number of rapes has increased as much as the speaker says. But it is true that the authorities do not register which religion criminals have, and the press generally does not report their nationality or ethnicity. It is also true that the Norwegian police says that very many rapes in Oslo are committed by immigrants. And in Malmö, there have been Muslim attacks on Jews, and the mayor has made strange statements about Jews. But there have also been attacks on Muslims by people hostile to foreigners, both in and outside Malmö. And in various places in Sweden, mosques have been vandalised and even set on fire.

Many Iraqis have been deported back to Iraq, although it was not safe. But Sweden has also received more refugees from Iraq than most countries. I think the town of Södertälje, which had many immigrants from the beginning, received more refugees from Iraq than the whole of the USA! American delegations came here to study the town.

A disturbing phenomenon is the cultural relativism that has spread in Sweden, especially in the left, but not only there. Muslims and people from "foreign" cultures are not measured by the same standards as others, and they are more easily excused, when they violate human rights.  And there is widespread "phobia of Islamophobia" in the media. Religious movements, both Christian and Muslim, get a lot of money from the state, even when they are homophobic and misogynist”
The last paragraph refers to confused and confusing attitudes towards people from foreign cultures (a problem that we have in the UK too), which is due to a failure to think sensibly about the values we should expect from all our citizens. This works against some people from ethnic minorities, especially women, but the fault lies with politicians who are reluctant to challenge so-called "community leaders" who exert too much influence.

Naomi Wolf wrote an interesting piece about Swedish rapists and the Assange case (another egotist who gets far too much attention), which led me to a report by Jennifer Heape that refers to Amnesty's report on Sweden's rape record. It ends: "Amnesty blames 'deeply rooted patriarchal gender norms' of Swedish family life and sexual relationships as a 'major societal flaw' and a reason for the continued prevalence of violence against women in Sweden." Heresay evidence apparently from the Swedish police that immigrants are behind the rape crisis might be about finding non-Swedish scapegoats, rather than facing up to their own inadequacies.

Condell's diatribe is typical. He gets it wrong because he can't see further than his own prejudices. Don't pay any attention to him. He's a trouble-maker. Use your brain and work things out for yourself.