Monday, November 14, 2016

On feminism, an incomplete introduction

This post is in response to a comment on a previous post by 'Anonymous' or Richard - click here to read it first.
“A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.”
                                             ― Gloria Steinem
Note that she wrote “anyone”; not men or women, but anyone. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Richard that men can be, and are, feminists too. There have always been men who've supported women’s right to be treated equally, not just in terms of their pay, but in every way. Most of my male friends could be described as feminists. I’d find it difficult to remain friends with them if they weren’t. Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau, Patrick Stewart, Alan Alda and Bill Bailey (the guy in the picture) are just a few high-profile men who are happy to identify themselves as feminists.

Richard commented,
‘… feminists quite rightly identify the disadvantages suffered by women but are sometimes inclined to resort to the very thing they purport to oppose; namely crude prejudice against the opposite gender. This can culminate in examples such as Andrea Dworkin’s well-known statement, “I want to see a man beaten to a bloody pulp with a high-heel shoved in his mouth, like an apple in the mouth of a pig”.’
“Quite rightly identify the disadvantages…”? Rather patronising, don’t you think? In many parts of the world and throughout history, just being a woman is and has been a disadvantage. The list of crimes against women is long. Child marriage, acid attacks, domestic violence, stoning, rape, FGM, sex trafficking, slavery, female infanticide… there are many more.

Using Andrea Dworkin, an American activist, as an example of “crude prejudice against the opposite gender” betrays ignorance of Dworkin and of the women’s movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Though there were so-called radical feminists whose approach was counter-productive (I knew some), a majority were more constructive. Dworkin wasn't typical of twentieth century feminists, attracting passionate loyalty and hatred in equal measure. Those who loved her are known to have despaired of her belligerent approach, though they understood why she did what she did. Dworkin was abused as a child and raped as an adult. Her campaigning was directed at pornography, rapists and men who were violent against women, and at the police and the courts who so often failed to provide justice for them. Here in the UK, a TV documentary by Roger Graef in the early 1980s that showed Thames Valley Police detectives interviewing a rape victim shocked with its lack of sensitivity and humanity. The resulting debate prompted a review of how the police handled sex crimes. There were improvements, though things are still not perfect.

I was sexually assaulted by a Sunday School teacher when I was about ten, something I didn’t tell my parents about as I wasn’t sure of their reaction. I haven’t been raped but came close when I lived in Oxford in the early ‘70s. Resisting my potential rapist, someone I knew, I was hit in the face and had a bloody nose and black eye. In court, the magistrates, mostly male, decided that as I knew my attacker it was just an argument between friends, and bound us over to keep the peace. I appealed. In the Crown Court the judge said my sentence was “a nonsense”, reversed the judgement and fined my attacker, who’d assaulted my employer, a publican, in the interim. The amount of his fine was less than that imposed on a poacher in the following case. It seems that I was worth less than a pheasant. These sort of experiences aren't uncommon.

During the 1960s and '70s the British women's movement attracted a lot of attention. Spare Rib provided a radical alternative to conventional women's magazines, and the Virago Press published some thought-provoking books for women. Contraception became more widely available, freeing women to enjoy life despite the disapproval of religious conservatives. I was involved in the women’s movement in the ‘70s as a member of an Oxford women’s group, campaigning for equality legislation, and a branch of the National Council for Civil Liberties, now known as Liberty. I vividly remember a discussion about women’s rights at an NCCL meeting when a trades unionist from the Cowley car factory said that he had no objection to his wife attending our meetings if she had his dinner on the table before she left the house. He wasn’t joking. I was nominated to propose the formation of a women’s rights committee at the NCCL AGM in London and was subsequently co-opted onto the first such committee. We appointed Patricia Hewitt, later a Labour MP, as NCCL’s first women’s officer. The other members of that committee included Anna Coote, Tess Gill (now of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers), and Ben Birnberg, the radical lawyer. He introduced me to his mother, who’d been a suffragist.

A leading suffragist, who Mrs Birnberg would have known, was Millicent Fawcett, from Suffolk, after whom the Fawcett Society is named – I’m a member. Her sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson fought to become the first woman doctor. The new wing of Ipswich Hospital is named after her. The difference between suffragists, like the Garrett sisters, and the suffragettes, like Mrs Pankhurst and her daughters, was that the former sought justice by non-violent, legal means, while the suffragettes used direct action that led to imprisonment and force feeding when they went on hunger strike. The women’s suffrage campaign was interrupted by WW1, when women played an active role (as they did in WW2). In 1928 women over the age of twenty-one were given the vote on equal terms with men. Finnish women were the first to be given the right to vote, in 1906. Saudi women were allowed to vote in municipal elections for the first time last year. Women in Vatican City still can’t vote.

The subjugation of women is strongly tied to the monotheistic religions, which have been used to enforce social control. Earlier societies, particularly around the Mediterranean, were matriarchal. Patriarchy developed with Judaism and Christianity, when the paternity of children and inheritance down the male line became a male preoccupation. The history of women’s role in society before patriarchy was largely ignored until an American artist, Merlin Stone, wrote ‘When God Was a Women’ (published as ‘The Paradise Papers’ in the UK) in the 1970s, documenting the archaeological evidence for her thesis that goddess worship preceded the male gods and prophets we’re familiar with. More recently, Prof. Francesca Stavrakopoulou, the atheist lecturer in the Hebrew Bible at Exeter University, has studied the archaeology too, and made similar conclusions. Both Stone and Stavrakopoulou have reported significant obstacles to their line of research from male academics.

The development of feminism in the UK since the early twentieth century has been linked to the development of humanism and secularism, with activists, both men and women, campaigning for social justice. Humanism and feminism are naturally linked.

Thinking of feminism in narrow terms, as a campaign by shrill women that began about fifty years ago, is to ignore its development throughout history, without being identified as such, to its continuation now and into the future, nationally and internationally. I find it irritating to hear it dismissed in negative terms by men or women, particularly women who preface remarks with “I’m not a feminist but…”. They may be ignorant of history, but every woman who’s achieved personal, financial, social and professional success owes a great deal to all those men and women who fought for the freedoms she enjoys. We should do what we can to continue the campaign for equality for all the millions who don’t enjoy it.

Oh, and on equal pay…

Richard, if you substitute “men” for “women” and vice versa in your explanation of the lack of equal pay, it reads as follows:
"Rarely is an attempt made to analyse the nature of society and why such traits are prevalent in our world. Take for example Equal Pay legislation which has been on the Statute Book for over forty-years—and has still to be achieved.

"The reason for this is rather more to do with the economic laws within a market economy rather than the inherent beastly nature of the female sex. If men’s wages/salaries are raised to equal those of women who will pay for the increase? I haven’t noticed male employers rushing to the aid of the brotherhood! If female pay was 10% higher than that of men then to retain present profit levels, women’s pay would have to drop by 5% to match a similar percentage rise for men. (All things being equal) This would result in the vast majority of men being no better off."
Would you be happy with that?

Click here to read what the Fawcett Society says about equal pay.

And about my post on “cunt” as a swear word...

Dr Richard Stephens of Keele University researched the psychology of swearing for his book, ‘Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad’. He’s said, “In my opinion ‘cunt’ is considered very offensive because of its strong misogynistic overtone.” I share that opinion. It seems to me that the use of the word as a profanity signifies an immature and unhealthy attitude. It is not equivalent to other swear words (I’ve been known to use several) because of its association with cultural taboos.

For many years, in mainly religious societies, women’s bodies and natural functions have been considered unclean by those who ostracise them while menstruating and after childbirth. “And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even.” (Leviticus 15:19).

To read more in this blog about women and women's issues, click here.

Update, 29/11/12:

"Between 2009 and 2015, 936 women have been killed by men. 598 (64%) were killed by their current or former partners, 75 (8%) women were killed by their sons."
                                                               Statistic from UK Women's Aid.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Use your imagination

Thomas L Friedman has written this in The New York Times, aimed at potential Trump voters,
"The smartest thing we can do now is to keep our economy as open and flexible as possible — to get the change signals first and be able to quickly adapt; create the opportunity for every American to engage in lifelong learning, because whatever jobs emerge will require more knowledge; make sure that learning stresses as much of the humanities and human interactive skills as hard sciences; make sure we have an immigration policy that continues to attract the world’s most imaginative risk-takers; and strengthen our safety nets, because this era will leave more people behind."
This applies as much to the UK as to the US. People voted for UKIP for similar reasons to Trump supporters. But our government is as behind the times as those who lament lost jobs, while punishing people for failing to get one. The old manufacturing industries are disappearing. There are too many service and retail businesses. There are too many people worldwide (and I don't mean immigrants), so there should be fewer babies. Money's going to be wasted on unnecessary projects like HS2, Hinkley and another airport hub runway, while projects that need finance, like renewable energy development, less destructive farming, waste control, and affordable energy efficient housing, are starved of it. Where do we start to change things? By untangling the mess that recent governments, Labour and Tory, have made of the education system, closing divisive faith schools, and encouraging creative thinking. By booting out the old guard on the right and left whose values are no longer relevant to life in the 21st century. A new electoral system would be good, and a new way of voting for people, rather than parties. We could do so much better.
“Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.”
                                      ― Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A letter to my MP about Heathrow

I'm absolutely staggered that Mrs May should announce the expansion of Heathrow. It's clear that your government regards the Paris agreement on climate change as unimportant, since increased aviation inevitably means more global warming, which has already reached dangerously high levels. Whether by fracking, aviation or other use of fossil fuels, you're condemning your children and the generations that follow them to a far more uncomfortable existence than you enjoy, with more extreme weather, more refugees from droughts and floods, and the loss of many more species. It's ironic that you should even consider building prohibitively expensive power stations like Hinkley Point, when any such constructions are liable to be flooded by rising sea levels even before they're completed. If the same amount of money were invested in renewable energy, its development and installation, together with a serious energy-saving campaign, we'd have a far better chance of averting disaster.

Claims that Heathrow expansion, or any expansion of the aviation industry, is needed, are nonsense. A significant number of air passengers are frequent flyers, whose reasons for doing so are questionable. Business can be conducted via the Internet, avoiding the need for travel and expensive hospitality. A lot of freight is wasteful of resources and unnecessary. If the uses made of air transport were audited, I'm sure you'd find that we need far less air transport, not more.

Lastly, I have relatives who live under a Heathrow flight path and sympathise with all of those who'll suffer more noise, and even more with those who'll lose their homes. You won't get many more Conservative voters there in future, will you?

I urge you not to support this foolishness, but to support any action that helps to counter climate change without leaving a mess for future generations to clear up.

Yours sincerely
Margaret Nelson

[Address given to show that I am a constituent]

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Pens aren't redundant, yet

I guess I'm a bit old-fashioned. I prefer a book made from card and paper to a digital device, despite failing eyesight - that's why I use a magnifier. There's skill in typography, graphic design and illustration, and I'd rather be able to take examples off the shelf than switch on a machine. And although I type on a keyboard quite a lot, I still use fountain pens and propelling pencils. While I was working as a humanist celebrant, interviewing clients meant writing pages of notes in longhand, as I never learnt shorthand. I know that some celebrants would take out a laptop and type as they interviewed, but that never appealed to me. It placed a barrier between you and the client, who might rattle on, oblivious to your scribbling, but could be distracted by the clicks of a keyboard.

In a recent article in The Economist, the importance of handwriting is explained. The article is about American schools, where children are being taught how to write again. I don't know what's happening in British schools but when I was last in one they seemed to be scribbling a lot, though there was no sign that they were being taught how to write well.

The article begins,
Researchers are also aware that more than mere pride in penmanship is lost when people can no longer even read, let alone write, cursive script. Not being able to exchange notes with the boss or authenticate signatures, for instance, can hurt a person’s chances of promotion. More importantly—and intriguingly—though, learning to join letters up in a continuous flow across the page improves a child’s ability to retain and understand concepts and inferences in a way that printing those letters (and, a fortiori, typing them on a keyboard) does not. It even allows insights gained in one learning experience to be applied to wholly different situations.
So, maybe being old-fashioned is actually a good thing?

Thursday, August 18, 2016

If L'Oréal really sold anti-ageing stuff...

I enjoy Helen Walmsley-Johnson's contributions to Standard Issue Magazine. In her latest piece she has a go at the anti-ageing nonsense being peddled by cosmetics companies. She wrote,
From this energetic stream of thought prompted by just one 30-second advert you would be correct in assuming that I have a problem with the whole ‘anti-ageing’ terminology. I loathe and avoid anything which includes the following words on or in its packaging or advertising: ‘perfect’, ‘renew’ or ‘renewal’, ‘correct’, ‘revitalise’, ‘restore’, ‘firm’, ‘regenerate’, ‘plumps’, ‘lift’, ‘anti-wrinkle’, ‘smooth’, ‘rejuvenate’ or promises to ‘turn the clock back’, ‘blur’ or ‘reverse visible signs of ageing’. So that leaves me with… not a lot actually.
I read this soon after I'd seen an L'Oréal advert on the telly - the people who are supposed to make Helen Mirren look gorgeous - and was confused by all the make-up - the made-up words they use to describe their stuff. I mean, what the heck is "2% Vitamin CG and 6% Pro-Xylane". I know about Vitamin C, but CG?

Helen (not Mirren, the author of the article) says that in the UK "we spend a staggering £2.2 billion on cosmetic skincare". I'd have to take issue with that. I'm not part of the "we", since I don't spend anything on cosmetic skincare, just a few squid on moisturiser that I forget to use and some sun screen that my dermatologist says I should use, on account of having had skin cancer.

I used to wear make-up on special occasions. I've given up now, since poor eyesight has led to poking myself in the eye with a mascara brush too often - one of the advantages of failing sight is that I can't see my wrinkles very well any more. I tend to forget I've got lipstick on and wipe it off with serviettes or my sleeve. I've better things to do with my pension than swell L'Oréal's coffers. Besides, none of it is anti-ageing; it's all superficial. Some cream with Pro-Xylane in it (whatever that is) won't fix what's going on under the skin, which is inevitable. If I read that we spent even a small proportion of that £2.2 billion on chocolate or cake or gin, I'd understand.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Why France?

I've noticed that some people have asked why France should have suffered more terrorist attacks than other European countries and the UK recently. The young man who killed so many people in Nice was from a Tunisian family. The Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan Concert Hall killers were of Algerian descent. France has a large number of Muslims whose families originated in its north African colonies of Algeria and Tunisia. Many are descended from immigrants who were originally welcomed, who've worked in low paid jobs and raised several generations. Yet they're still not well integrated. Many live in socially deprived areas, in poor housing, and suffer discrimination and prejudice. Even those who've gone to university and succeeded in the professions will tell stories of discrimination, like black people here and in the US. Young French Muslim men are more likely to be either unemployed or in poorly paid jobs than other French citizens. We don't know much about the Nice killer so far, but home-grown terrorism is more likely when there is a pool of resentful, dissatisfied, under-employed young men, many with a record of petty crime, and some with severe psychological problems. Daesh might inspire them to kill, but it's unlikely that their motives will be wholly religious. France has a problem, and it's been brewing for a long time. There are very few who'll resort to murderous acts, but it doesn't take many.

Click here to learn about French Muslims in an enlightening account by Al Jazeera.

Click here to hear how the Danes have a different approach to dealing with vulnerable young Muslims.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Letter to my MP about the referendum

Dear Mr Cartlidge,

It's ten days since the catastrophe and I'm still filled with a mixture of anger and disbelief, like someone who's come home to find a bunch of moronic teenagers have had a party in my house and totally wrecked it. But if that were the case, it could be fixed. I'm not sure that the post-referendum mess will be.

None of this was necessary. Mr Cameron wanted to appease the anti-EU section of your party, so he said we could have a referendum. It was a party political decision and not in the public interest. He must have thought that he'd get a Remain win to settle the matter, once and for all. Having lost the gamble, he's washed his hands of the whole affair and left the ambitious leaders-in-waiting to fight amongst themselves, while those of us who aren't Conservatives can only look on in despair.

I signed the No.10 petition calling on the result to be set aside. The referendum was won by a slim margin with a mixture of fraud, bare-faced lies, and an appeal to the most prejudiced sections of society. Leave campaigners, mainly Messrs Johnson, Gove and Farage, based their campaign on claims that were untrue, and that have been shown to be untrue. The first two were mainly motivated by personal ambition while Farage is simply the most ignorant, racist egomaniac to disgrace the UK in the European Parliament, where he rarely attended debates or committees except to insult other members. The rubbish press, mainly the Daily Mail (which lauded Hitler in the 1930s), the Express and the Sun, repeated these lies and elaborated on them with more inflammatory nonsense. I asked a friend who planned to vote Leave why she would do so and she repeated verbatim the £350 million a week to the EU and massive Greek influx claims, among others. She was one of many ill-informed voters who determined the outcome.

Considering the low turnout in the European elections and the fact that hardly anyone could name their MEP, no one should have been surprised at the general level of ignorance about the EU. The issue was and is complex, yet there was little attempt, even on the Remain side, to inform. Sloganising back and forth was as far as it got. Our membership should never have been decided by a referendum that had no more validity than the throw of a dice. Mr Cameron gambled away our future, but mainly the future of our young people. At 71, it won't affect me much but it will affect them.

I have no confidence in any of our senior politic leaders at this time, of any party. In fact, I think that party politics and the first past the post system are anachronisms. It's time to overhaul the system, though I can't see any of those who've gained power attempting to do so; they're all too busy putting their own interests before national interests. And when I say "national", I mean British interests, before the kingdom is divided.

Since the referendum result is meant to provide guidance to the legislature, there appear to be grounds to reject it. The result wasn't decided by fair means. I urge you to support any attempt to challenge a move to invoke Article 50 and to expose the fraudulent claims of the Leave campaign.

If you haven't already done so, I urge you to watch what Professor Michael Dougan of Liverpool University (an expert in EU law) has to say about the referendum, which was won through "dishonesty on an industrial scale". You might also like to familiarise yourself with an EU document, The Code of Good Practice on Referendums (a PDF), if you haven't read it.

To paraphrase Princess Leia's message to Obi-Wan Kenobi, you and your fellow MPs are our only hope. Please demonstrate that Parliament is capable of taking decisive action to avoid a disastrous and irreversible decision. The European Union is far from perfect, but it can be improved. For so many reasons, we're better off in than out.

Yours sincerely,
Margaret Nelson

Note: Mr Cartlidge was on the Remain side.

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?

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Shifty looking characters

From top left, clockwise:

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Culture clash: on importing misogyny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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