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Monday, December 31, 2007
On getting 'it' right

During the nineteen forties, India was given its independence; its constitution was secular. Meanwhile, the dual Pakistan states were created for Muslims. At the time, this partition was seen as a wise move in that it reduced the terrible bloodshed at the time. Until recently, despite the rise of India's BJP, an aggressively conservative, religious party, I would have been inclined to agree that partition was, on the whole, a fine piece of judgement, even though some of the detail, e.g. Kashmir, may not have been handled correctly at the time.

Faced with the current deteriorating situation in Pakistan, one wonders whether, after all, it might have been better to stamp on religion and encourage secularism in a larger India, without a separate Pakistan. (I mean, what civilised country would, these days, call a major/capital city after a religion? Well, I suppose there's Stalingrad, now Volgograd, and Leningrad, now Sankt Petersburg, but Islamabad…What sort of nonsense is that?)

Whether or not partition was a mistake, it would now indubitably be better for the West to be dealing with a unified, albeit fractious, monolithic India, than with two nuclear-armed countries, where one at least is full of antipathetic religious zeal.

As the Irishman said, 'I wouldn't start from here, if I were you'. Quite! So how did we get here?

Many years ago, I watched a fascinating documentary – I guess it was in the late seventies or early eighties - about Afghanistan under Najibullah, supported by the Russians. I wish I could remember more but the part that made the biggest impression was seeing girls going to their new school and sitting down learning sensible things. Unsurprising to us, but then, in an Islamic country, that was absolutely unacceptable. In researching this piece, to help my memory, I read several articles that indicated that Afghanistan was moving in a democratic direction under Najibullah.

If there's one thing that Communist countries have a name for, it's for educating their children, both boys and girls. And they do it very, very well. Their literacy rates are excellent. The UK currently has many examples of these people, brought up under Communism, from behind the former Iron Curtain. Their countries having joined the EU, these young people have come here to work. (And I'm not talking about legendary Polish plumbers but about Slovenians, Slovakians, Czechs, Estonian and Lithuanians.) They work as opticians, receptionists, shop assistants, even as wine waiters. They are competent, well-educated, polite, and they have the most beguiling accents.

Faced with a Communist regime running an Islamic country, what's the best thing to do? Apart from cheer, that is. All you have to do is wait: no need for invasions or anything of that sort. You simply wait for education to do its work, and for the educated masses to dump the religious straitjacket, ditch the Communism and join the consumer society. It's easy when you think about it. The film I saw was optimistic about Afghanistan, despite its troubled history.

So, what did the Americans do? They provided the religious fundamentalists, the Mujahideen, with arms and support with a view to expelling the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. Such strategic naivety!

What on Earth could have motivated such a crazy strategy? All they had to do instead was sit back and wait, perhaps without even providing the Afghani government with discreet material help.

America is a country where Communism, Socialism and even Atheism are dirty words. The fear of egalitarianism is fostered by the very rich who have so much to lose. Socialism can't be allowed to work anywhere in the World because people might want it in the US. This explains why America is so keen to stamp on a less tribal, less religious, gender-equal Afghanistan. D'you know, I once heard a US politician go unchallenged on UK TV when he claimed that there had never been a democratically elected Communist government in any country in the World. I was thinking of Chile… The lie should have been rammed down his throat with a remark such as: 'No democratically elected Communist government has ever survived naked political interference from the US.'

So this is what brought the Taliban and Al Qaeda, morphing from the Mujahideen, to power in Afghanistan. This is what led to 11/9 and other horrors. Here we have two Islamic states next door to each other, with their contiguous mountain areas and backward tribes. There is a vast area where it is a crime for a woman to be unveiled, and where the highest forms of excellence are to memorise the Koran and/or to die fighting in the name of Allah. Total effing nonsense.

Not content with creating a monster in a misjudgement about the nature of 'the World-wide Communist conspiracy', (e.g. Vietnam: more Nationalist than Communist), the US finds itself faced with a religious hydra, that it has created, that suddenly turns its rage on America itself. To put it down effectively in its homeland, Afghanistan, it was essential to have done something about the adjacent tribal areas of Pakistan but this was unacceptable, if not impossible. To compound the error, they attack Iraq, a sophisticated state where religion was discouraged, probably on the way to democracy given some help, as a method of dealing with terrorism. At the time, there was no anti-Western terrorism in Iraq. There is now, though. It takes spectacular incompetence to create terrorism where there is none; step forward the entire US administration. The best we can now hope for Iraq is that it will emerge as a semi-democratic theocracy.

Not only was the invasion of Iraq a catastrophic adventure in its own right, it meant taking the eye off Afghanistan. Having created the Afghanistan problem in the first place, the administration virtually abandons it midway through an attempt at reform. Here's a short piece about the situation in Afghanistan. It begins
After two years in which the violence in Afghanistan has become worse, it is hard to see signs of hope in 2008.
Is it likely that Afghanistan will survive as a democracy of any sort? Currently unthinkable without an occupation force five or ten times its current size. Here's Paddy Ashdown:
He comes with experience from a similar role in Bosnia, but Afghanistan is a far larger task as he acknowledged recently, going as far as saying, "We have lost and success is unlikely".
And what about Pakistan? A basket case I fear. A nineteen year-old, Oxford-educated student in line for PM? Absolute lunacy.

It was my intention to start this year-end round-up of the World situation with a quote from Winston Churchill:
Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing...after they have exhausted all other possibilities.
Apposite enough, but this time they've painted themselves so far into a corner that it's difficult to know what 'The Right Thing' is. It was possible once, but that was in Najibullah's time.

I was going to conclude with another quote, this time from Eisenhower:
Only Americans can hurt America.
Quite right, Ike, but they can do an awful lot of harm to the rest of us, too...

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Saturday, December 22, 2007
Hitch's challenge

Christopher Hitchens, in his atheistic perambulations around US chat shows, news studios, and other modern versions of the bear pit, has issued the following challenge to all and sundry: "Can you name me a good action done or a good thing done by a believer that couldn't have been said or done by a non-believer?"

As I write this, I'm just hearing that Tony Bliar has, at last, been received into the Roman Catholic Church. This gives me the opportunity to let everyone know that, to compensate, I've just started to worship Satan (Have I got that right? I have such poor vision these days that I may have committed a typo. I was also reading recently that 'Satan' is an anagram of 'Santa'). Now, where was I?

I wonder if we could apply Hitch's test, suitably modified, to Blair's behaviour. We should ask "Do you think that Blair's behaviour exhibited, in any way, the sort of thing you couldn't find in a non-believer?' I'm thinking particularly of his passing off the Iraq decision as something that could only be judged by god.

Yes, I think that is something that only a believer could do: completely avoid responsibility by arrogating a vital matter to 'god'. A non-believer would have put such a decision down to his/her own poor judgement – no hiding in anyone else's beard/church/cloud cuckoo land – and move on, trying to dodge the brickbats from people (like me) who predicted the debacle.

So good luck in your new religious home, Tony Bliar. I wonder how you'll cope with the legacy of your worthwhile achievements: support for abortion and stem cell research for a start. Then there's the crap you'll be letting yourself in for, beside virgin birth, the trinity and resurrection that you're already stuck with. Transubstantiation, eh? No women priests; no female popes… I hope you get a nice, cheap indulgence. Cheaper than a peerage, I'll bet. Don't you still wish you had Campbell to tell Ratzinger that you don't (really) do god?

Finally, here's someone else with something to say about the Church of Rome. Click here. (Sound needed.)

Hmm, I think I may well lose my entry on the list of UK 'God Blogs' for this little bit of petulance…

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Sunday, December 16, 2007
Creationism comes to Britain

I was astounded to read this in today's Observer.
The latest salvo in creationism's increasingly ferocious battle with evolution is about to be fired in Lancashire. Not in a fiery sermon preached from the pulpit, but in the form of a giant Christian theme park that will champion the book of Genesis and make a multi-media case that God created the world in seven days.

The AH Trust, a charity set up last year by a group of businessmen alarmed by the direction in which they see society heading, has identified a number of potential sites in the north west of England to build the £3.5m Christian theme park.
We mustn't assume that nonsense like this is confined to the US.
Peter Jones, one of the Lancashire theme park's trustees, said the emphasis would be on multimedia rather than the costume re-enactments of famous biblical scenes favoured at Holy Land [Experience]...

[The trust] declined to say who the backers were, but admitted it is talking to a number of businessmen who have invested in city academies, leading to speculation that it may have approached Sir Peter Vardy, who has given millions of pounds to advance the claims of creationism - the belief that God created the world and that Darwin's theory of evolution is wrong.
We all know, don't we, that Peter Vardy has partly financed a city academy that teaches Creationism. The majority of the money comes from the UK taxpayer. Aaargh!

I guess that normal planning rules would apply and that the planning application would be decided on the impact of the development on the area. However, I was pleased to read this bit.
The theme park's anti-evolution bias and its emphasis on Genesis has raised eyebrows among planning officials, according to Jones, who originally wanted to build the park at the site of an old B&Q store but was refused permission by the council.
The buggers will keep trying though. They're bound to find somewhere they can put it.
'Wigan council slammed the door in our faces. You mention the C [Christian] word, and people don't want to know,' Jones said.
Well that's an interesting comment, isn't it? In this case, the aversion is bugger all to do with Christianity. People don't want to know because Creationism is still regarded as lunacy in the UK. But for how much longer…?

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More about bishops

A few days ago – well, 10th December to be precise – I was bemoaning the fact that Fresno had elected to secede from the Episcopalian church on the grounds that the established church was too tolerant of homosexuality. Well, Rowan Williams is standing firm, at last. This is from The Grauniad
The Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the worldwide Anglican communion, yesterday condemned attempts by conservative church leaders to undermine the US Episcopal Church for its support for gay rights and effectively refused calls to disinvite American bishops from next year's Lambeth conference of all the church's bishops.

In a long-anticipated Advent message to the 38 primates of the communion, the Very Rev Rowan Williams criticised African and other church leaders who have consecrated their own American bishops and offered to look after the small number of dioceses whose conservative American bishops have said they wish to separate from the US church and seek oversight from foreign provinces.
I have often argued that those who oppose progress are inconsistent in that they no longer, for example, permit the selling of family members into slavery (Exodus 21:7), or make slaves of citizens bought from neighbouring countries (Leviticus 25:4), or even kill people who work on The Sabbath (Exodus 35:2). If it's possible to dump some previously acceptable practices, going against biblical teaching, why all the fuss about homosexuality? It isn't as though being gay is implicitly (or explicitly, come to that) mandated for church membership. The bigots are not expected to be gay themselves, merely to accept it in others.

Apparently, the ordination of women presents further difficulty. Well, if we can let men box, then women should be allowed to do so, too. Similarly, if men are allowed to become bishops, then so should women; they should be eligible for the position of pope, too. Mind you, I'm not sure that I approve of popes and bishops per se but it's only when you've removed the sex restriction that one should think of a ban.

It is surprising that it has taken so long for this split to come about. Rowan Williams first tried very hard to persuade the liberals to back down. He's now on a loser in confronting the secessionists; he'd be better off kicking them out and controlling the schism that way. In fact, he should have done it years ago. None of his fence-mending has worked. All we've had is the sorry spectacle of the Archbishop persuading a gay, but celibate, applicant to refuse the offered position of Bishop of Reading. Here's what Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford wrote about the incident earlier this year. This extract is from Harries' article in The Grauniad dated 8th April 2007.
…the pivotal point was [Rowan Williams'] refusal to go ahead with the consecration of Jeffrey John, whom I had nominated as Bishop of Reading. In retrospect, the archbishop and I could have handled things differently … the Anglican Communion was already dividing on the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson in the United States, and opponents, quite wrongly in my view, put Jeffrey John in the same category (because Jeffrey had been celibate for a considerable period of time)
Clearly Harries believed, along with the rest of the sensible Episcopalians, that this would have been a corner worth fighting at the time. By delaying, Williams has made a mess of his hand. By attempting to appease the bigots, he has antagonised both them and the more moderate wing of the C of E. The church will now fall apart more messily than it could have done.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007
At the swimming pool

Imagine a group of children at the swimming pool. They've all been a bit careless about where they peed – too often they'd just go right where they were, instead of going off to the loo, properly. Now, the pool chemicals can cope with a certain level of impurity but there is a limit. After that limit, the pool becomes irrevocably foul.

Most of the children come to the conclusion that peeing in the pool is a pretty disgusting habit and that they'll not do it any more, in the interests of everyone. They can see that it's rather inconvenient to traipse all the way to the toilet but it's something that just has to be done. If everyone acts together (or forbears from acting selfishly), the chemicals will have less work to do and the pool will stay fresh and healthy longer, perhaps almost indefinitely.

A few of the kids are reluctant to join the co-operative community. John, a notable pisser, is banned from the pool and replaced by Kevin, a notable continent. Unfortunately, though, George, the biggest of the boys, and rather a bully, thinks selfishly and decides to carry on peeing in the pool. What's more, he decides to add even more pee.

What clever, co-operative children to look after their pool so responsibly but how nasty and selfish George is. He is freeloading on the good nature of the more perceptive and responsible children, George is effectively saying 'I can forever go on peeing in the pool and you poor mugs who've stopped doing so will, by your forbearance, permit me to do that because I'm the biggest and I'll thump you if you complain'. (Well, he would say that if he were a bit more articulate; actually, he may be big but he's remarkably maladroit and out of touch.) George doesn't have it completely his own way, though – someone from his family: big Al – who's not really big enough to control George - keeps on pointing out to the bully the error of his ways.

This reminds me of another story I read today:
The EU was in a showdown with the US over climate change policy today, demanding Washington "wake up" and describing next month's US-led talks on emissions cuts as "senseless" without binding targets…

…Earlier today in a speech to the conference, former US vice president Al Gore accused the US of being "principally responsible" for blocking progress on climate change prevention.
Of course, there's no similarity at all. The problem with the pool is that the civilised kids could always find another pool, just for the hygienic among them; there's no similar possibility with our lovely World, though…

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007
The tragedy of Conrad Black

I have followed the trial, in the US, of the saintly Conrad Black. Now that the unjust sentence has been handed down, I spend much of my time weeping for this maligned man. This is how The Grauniad described it
Conrad Black was sentenced yesterday to six and a half years in an American prison for abusing shareholders' trust through a sophisticated plot to embezzle $6.1m from his Hollinger media empire.

At Chicago's federal court, Judge Amy St Eve told the former owner of the Daily Telegraph: "No one is immune from the proper application of law in the United States and that, Mr Black, includes you."
I was interested to discover that she fined him $125,000, the merest fraction of the amount embezzled. This is slightly puzzling but, I suppose, it can be attributed to one of the more cynical views of American justice, surprisingly left unexpressed by the victimised Black: that it is retributive rather than restorative.

In thinking about poor Black's fate, the image of him that comes most to mind is that of him dressed as Cardinal Richelieux, accompanying his wife, Barbara Amiel to some fancy dress function (Although I found the picture, the link doesn't work. Sorry.) It reminds me of nothing so much as another of our business worthies, the equally maligned and late, lamented Robert Maxwell arriving at a function, dressed as a sheikh. (Alas, I am again unable to provide a link for you. Such inefficiency!)

Both men shared a similar, justified view of their own importance, inviolability, and perhaps a touch of folie de grandeuer, too. Yet both came to grief in different ways. We can only mourn their passing and hope that it will not be long before we see their likes again, cutting their confident swathes through the finance and media worlds without a thought or care for the next person.

I wish them both well, wherever they may go/have gone.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Culture rules

Following the nonsense with the teddy bear in Sudan, a Sudanese Official has said, according to the BBC that
Westerners going to live and work in Sudan should pass an exam on the local culture…

Khalid al Mubarak, media counsellor at London's Sudan embassy, said the orientation courses that were mandatory in the colonial era "worked very well".
Well, that's interesting. Let us, today at least, with respect to the teddy fiasco, put aside the knowledge that none of the parents complained of the way Ms Gibbons gave the teddy assignment to their children. (I happen to think that it was an imaginative project.) Let us also set aside the knowledge that the complaint to The Ministry of Education was made by a disgruntled employee of the school at which Ms Gibbons taught. And let us not dwell upon the consequential loss that Sudanese society will now inevitably suffer in its education of the young, for to do so would suggest that Mohammedanism is backward and that it, at the slightest opportunity, embraces archaic notions rather than attempting to engage with living in the modern world.

Instead, though, let us consider the modern world, exemplified by the United Kingdom, in its relationship with resident or 'home-grown' Mohammedans. Let us also wonder if the wise words of Khalid al Mubarak have any relevance to this relationship.

Perhaps we could 'advise' British Mohammedans that polygyny is a criminal offence and remind them that 'honour' killings are murder. We might also remind them that exhortation to suicide is also criminal as, too, is child abuse. I am thinking of female genital mutilation here, or even non-medical circumcision. Then there's the matter of wife-beating – criminal again. Of course, there are many other things that are 'local culture' here. I would suggest it's worth being aware that things like eating pork and drinking alcohol are part of our local culture. And perhaps I might point out that the strongest stricture against alcohol in the Koran amounts to 'Do not go drunk to your prayers'.

So, Khalid al Mubarak, perhaps you would be good enough to consult Mohammedan leaders and communities in this country and let them know what is expected of them – for some of them seem to be remarkably ignorant. Or, at least, they behave as though they are ignorant: I suspect that they do know and ignore our laws and customs in a calculated way. This is far worse than anything Ms Gibbons inadvertently did. I think an exam for these people might be appropriate for your co-religionists here, don't you? D'you fancy giving it a try?

God is grott, merdeiful.

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Monday, December 10, 2007
Episcopalianism starts to fray

There used to be a special place in my heart for Fresno CA. Sometimes referred to as the worst place in the US, partly because of its very hot summers, cold winters and accompanying fogs, I nevertheless found it pleasant there. I spent New Year at an anonymous motel, completely alone there, some twenty years ago. I can't remember much of the detail, except that it was cold and foggy but it was 'nice'.

I was therefore rather disappointed to find the following piece, relating to Fresno, in The Grauniad
The conservative Diocese of San Joaquin voted Saturday to split from the liberal-leaning Episcopal Church, becoming the first full diocese to secede from the denomination in the debate over the Bible and homosexuality.

Clergy and lay members of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin voted 173-22 at their annual convention to remove all references to the national church from the diocese's constitution, said the Rev. Van McCalister, a diocesan spokesman.

The diocese, based in Fresno, plans to align with the like-minded Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, based in South America.

The decision is almost certain to spark a court fight over control of the diocese's multimillion-dollar real estate holdings and other assets.

The Episcopal Church is the U.S. member of the global Anglican Communion, a 77 million-member fellowship that traces its roots to the Church of England.
I hold no brief for religion/faith of any sort. I have often rejoiced at the number of bishops sacked or refused official confirmation, not at the homophobia relevant to the decisions, but because bishops, Richard Harries excepted, are 'a bad thing'. Anything that undermines religion, that places the bishopric under siege, is 'a good thing'.

It is therefore with mixed feelings that I express my disappointment at the split reported. I am content to see the C of E falling apart, but I am sad about the cause and the reasoning. I see absolutely nothing wrong with homosexuality; it's not for me but that's no reason to refrain from criticism of institutions that use biblical references to endorse their prejudices. If we were all literalist about the bible, we'd still be selling women into slavery – see Exodus 21:7. [What's that: we still do?]

Yesterday, I argued that boxing was a bad thing. That was based on incontrovertible evidence that the 'sport' causes brain damage. I didn't do it because of some dubious piece of bronze-age writing, allegedly about a vicious psychopath called 'God', but because it made sense. We have legislated on crash helmets and safety belts in the interests of people's safety. We should legislate about boxing according to the same principle, unpopular though such a move might be.

Citing scripture as authority is dubious, particularly when it comes to matters that are strictly personal. It isn't as though homosexuality does any harm. And if people have a predisposition towards falling for people of the same sex, why should we try to stop them doing so?

Fresno, I'll not feel quite as favourably disposed to you as I used to.

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

I was extremely disappointed to read this piece of savage nonsense about/from the current UK Sports Minister
… Gerry Sutcliffe is determined to increase the number of schools offering boxing to pupils.

Only 4% of schools do so at present, though a pilot scheme involving 150 Sheffield schoolchildren is under way.

"If it is successful I want to roll it out in the rest of the country," he told BBC Radio Five Live.

Sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe is determined to increase the number of schools offering boxing to pupils.

Only 4% of schools do so at present, though a pilot scheme involving 150 Sheffield schoolchildren is under way.

"If it is successful I want to roll it out in the rest of the country," he told BBC Radio Five Live.
The report comes from the BBC.

A few years ago I argued that women's boxing should be allowed on the grounds that, if men are allowed to do something, women should be, too.

During last week, as the hype for the Hatton-Mayweather fight grew, I was tempted to argue about boxing again; this time, it would be to argue that the sport should be banned. Yet I find nonsense like this, from the Sports minister. So, here it goes:

Boxing is a savage sport that inflicts deliberate injury. Indubitably, it causes brain injury. Other sports sometimes cause injury but never deliberately - it is always accidental. It is about time that the bloody sport was banned. We've progressed to the extent of banning bear-baiting, cockfighting and dog-fighting. We should really stop people abusing each other by boxing, even though supporters might claim that boxers have free choice. Nor is it character-building to teach children – or anybody – to batter each other.

I never understood Tony Banks' support of this barbaric activity. I understand Gerry Sutcliffe's advocacy even less. One wonders is he could be prosecuted for incitement to inflict grievous bodily harm.

Do we really want children (or even grown men) taught to batter each other? To inflict injuries that are very likely to cause brain damage? As Woody Allen said 'My brain - that's my second favourite organ'. And are we really so uncivilised that we want people to inflict damage on each other for our entertainment?

Ban it immediately!

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Monday, December 03, 2007
More on the missing discs

Further to my piece The missing discs, dated November 26th, here is a bit from an Observer article dated December 2nd
…two discs were found at the home of a former contractor to the Department for Work and Pensions.
The worker discovered that she had inadvertently forgotten to return the discs when her work with the DWP finished - and expressed her surprise that no one had checked that she had done so.
The two new missing discs reveal what kind of benefits the people receive. The data on the discs can be accessed by any standard computer and is not encrypted or protected by a password.
The blunder comes days after the Government was forced to admit it had lost the personal details of more than 25 million people in the post.
You can read the full article here.

This is appalling. Firstly, why employ contractors? With an organisation like Work & Pensions, dealing with sensitive data, you need to have the data under control at all times. This means doing all computing in-house. I suppose they outsourced the stuff to save money but look where it's getting us! It's the same with the HMRC data that disappeared; it's all to do with making false economies. Like employing Blackwater in Iraq. Aaaargh! Will these bloody people never learn? Morons!

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