Maybe I’m a pessimist, or maybe it’s because it’s February and there is a constant grey drizzle with the occasional excitement of something between sleet and rain - no, now it really is raining, fine grey rain - but it seems that we are on the brink of a new Dark Ages, like the time in Europe when Popes and Priests and Bishops and Kings controlled what we thought and how we thought it; the time when Gallileo was shown the instruments of torture to encourage him to retract his statement that moons circled Jupiter, you could see them through this here telescope; and therefore the anomaly of planets being embedded in crystal spheres had to be addressed. Now we who share a culture that has evolved through the Enlightenment will have to explain to ourselves what has happened - which is that a way towards an understanding of the world and the universe based on the evidence of our senses, which are the only pathways between the universe and the brain, Galileo's way; working together with a tradition of conceptualisation which I’m not sure that we have a good name for, but can be pedestrianly labelled with the philosopher’s “what is the case”; that kind of understanding based on evidence is being rejected, by politicians as well as popes, in favour of a way of understanding based on stories, beautiful but fictional stories, made up by men, always men, from far away and long ago. Evidence. It’s such a boring, dusty word. It is however crucial, a fulcrum for how we think and therefore what we do. By and large we human beings operate on two levels as to evidence. We ignore it in our account of ourselves, our significance, our stories, our creations, our bigotries and chauvinisms and loves. But we take very careful notice of it, hopefully, when standing on the edge of a cliff or changing lanes at 150 kph on the motorway. And there is absolutely no evidence for the existence of God, gods, fairies, ghosts, the soul, life after death, alchemy, or double decker buses on the moon. There is a mystery about where everything came from. It is the mystery of existence. But once you have accepted that something, anything, exists, then the problem is in theory soluble - not necessarily by us, maybe our brains aren’t right for it, but given our record so far, progress in that direction seems likely. The mystery of existence is conceptually difficult. It’s opposite, a thought experiment, that nothing exists, nothing has ever existed, is just as inconceivable as the supposition that something exists and maybe, in some sense, has always existed. But once you accept that something exists - quantum foam or space-time or p-branes or a naked singularity - and you wonder how it came about, where whatever existed first came from; then positing God, or gods, does absolutely nothing for that ultimate mystery. It merely defers the question with a fiction, God, evolved by the human brain over historical epochs that we can trace. God does not answer the question, it merely adds a redundant term. There is evidence for quantum foam - according to the cover of the New Scientist I saw in WH Smith’s yesterday there is palpable evidence. But there is no evidence for God, or fairies, as independent and discrete anythings that are sensate and aware of their own existence. Evidence. The millions upon millions of the superstitious, those who base their understanding of the world finally on the beautiful, primitive fictions of men, as if the aesthetics and politics and dietary laws of a wondering West Asian tribe was the only portal to all truth; all those Jews and Christians and Muslims with their wars and murder and torture, their misogyny and genocide, along with the Nazis and the Stalinists, all whose access to truth is through a [sometimes beautiful, sometimes hideous] fiction; all of them reject evidence. There is no evidence, they say, for evolution. God did indeed create the world in six days. Evidence next. But I must go and change the brake pads on my mountain bike, the rear ones are through to the rivets and making a mess of the discs, as well as not actually doing any braking. All palpable, evidential stuff. And scaring yourself [with me this is easily done] by hurtling [in my case not much of a hurtle] downhill through mud and over rocks is as good a way of staying sane as any. (More....)
Dear Hazel Blears, This will be an open letter. As a father and grandfather I am distressed at your continuing intention to deport Olive Mukarugwiza and her three children, Olive, Sandra and Yvan. I can quite understand that at one time the New Labour Government wanted to confirm with the tabloid press its credentials as pitiless, authoritarian and reactionary. This could be achieved by not only removing thousands of asylum seekers widely perceived as fraudulent, but in demonstrating a "firm but fair" policy of removing deserving, vulnerable and ultimately, as the result of your actions, pitiful cases. By, as it were, kicking in the teeth the legally powerless, you could show how tough you were to the racist bullies of the gutter press. In fact, let's be honest, you could get much more electoral credibility with what you may hopefully call the Far or even Extreme Centre by persecuting one family of exemplary human beings than you could with the (far more difficult) business of deporting, say, a thousand people-trafficking knuckledustered pimps. Olive Mukarugwiza’s seems to be just such a case of exemplarary citizenship. Her children are all doing well in their education, and indeed her eldest daughter Sandra is just about to take her A levels. I can see that in the past you could have made huge capital by bundling them on a plane with their mouths taped, out-Howarding Howard, out-Widdecombing Widdecombe. But, believe me, that battle is long won. Nobody in their right mind could now doubt New Labour’s commitment to authoritarian administrative brutality. The Mail, the Sun, the Express, can be proud of you. The fact that they are not is more down to their blind bigotry than to any objective situation. You have nothing to lose. Under the circumstances, I ask you, as someone who I’m sure still has beneath the New Labour veneer, much humanitarian compassion, to allow Olive and her family to remain in this country. Yours sincerely,
Possibility of a week mountain biking with the lads around Chamonix. We are meant to be looking for suitable accommodation. What’s this? ....seven rooms including the “Myla” suite complete with a mini-bar of sex toys. The moral imperative to spend is strong, I know. Work and spend and shut your face, and follow a “Faith” to keep you segregated from, in passive enmity to, others with the same ostensible interests in a good life and freedom (in the Enlightenment, not the American sense), knowledge, health, a decent childhood and constructive hope for the future. Work, spend, self-segregate, and you won’t perceive BushBlairBrown for the post-democratic horrorshow they are. And people obey, so sweetly, so like cattle; the lumpen in Odeons and UCIs, dutifully making a purchase of (not buying, a subversive word, rooted in our history of independent nations) a five litre tub of popcorn and a five litre tub of Pepsi for a bargain price of £7.50 (more than the ticket, but the corps have got to make their profit somewhere) the arms rising and falling in robotic unison, stoking the lard, stoking the lard, brain and body. People buy what they’re told to buy. That’s how mini-bars work. I guess. I have never used one, but I’ve been behind Americans paying bills in hotels, and they are dutiful makers of multiple purchases and tot up huge sums. I always look at the very small bottles of whatever it is in the minibar and if I feel whisky or wine is what I need, I go to the shop next door and buy a very big bottle for the same amount. Americans are not allowed to do this. Especially the ones with a “Faith”. Similarly with sex toys. I assume. This is my first inkling of a minibar of sex toys. And I’m not sure whether a week with the lads in Chamonix is an appropriate setting for exploration of its delights. And if I was going to, I think I’d stock up on the Internet before I left. But then there could be a problem travelling with the gear. Not just the embarrassment of disclosure as a whole potential minibar’s worth or Rampant Rabbits and Twisterellas are spilled across the counter by airport security personnel; but I’m not sure where these things stand, especially the more voluminous and rigid, in terms of weapons of terrorist aggression. There is at least a risk, if your searchers are agents of the quisling StrawBlairBrownGov, of being rushed away with a bag over your head and handed over to Americans, put in a cage, and tortured with sex toys even more worrying than the “anal invader” (Qui s’excuse... but that was ten seconds on Google, honest). So there may be some role for the minibar (would the toys be refrigerated? Is that a good idea?) Personally, if I find myself in sudden need, as with the whisky and the wine, I’ll slip out and find the nearest Ann Summers or equivalent. Otherwise, improvise. As I do at the cinema; by eating and drinking something other than popcorn and Pepsi before I go.
The spiral stairs thunder continually, there is noise from dawn to dusk; furniture is never where you expect it to be, you are constantly stumbling on piles of detritus, clothes and boots, forgotten arms caches, animals and gunmen, fallen, littering the landscape; foraging expeditions move constantly from place to place, looking for toast, honey, chocolate and cake; like occupying forces everywhere, impatient of being fobbed off, with banana, raw carrot, dried apricot, they demand luxury; wheeled vehicles will suddenly career round the kitchen just as you are getting something involving boiling oil out of the oven; drums beat from the second floor; there is carousing far into the night. How can a mere five constitute such a total presence?
I hope Tony Blair has sent a suitably stiff school prefectly rebuke to the US Congressional committee that found that Bush’s reaction to the New Orleans flooding had been marked by "fecklessness, flailing and organisational paralysis". Because we remember how furious Tony was at Matt Frei’s “anti-Americanism” when Frei, himself visibly enraged by the US government’s criminal neglect and abuse of the hungry and homeless, said exactly the same thing as the congressional committee, only a little sooner. But Blair, you’ve got to admit, he’s a loyal guy. When Dave Cameron suggested that the Royal Prerogative might be modified so that the Prime Minister could not take the country to war against the wishes of Parliament, Blair said that this was impractical because it might interfere with our treaty obligations to NATO. Put more crudely, Blair meant that he would not have his unconditional loyalty to Bush and the United States interfered with by something as venal, volatile, unprincipled and irresponsible as the elected representatives of the British people. You can see where he's coming from - his own temperamental bent for Public School Stalinism aside. It’s the proximity thing. Just as the gaggle of Downing Street courtiers known as The Government experiences nothing but London, and thinks that the huge problems and distortions of the capital represent the condition of the rest of the country (thus their constant chatter about supposed dreadfulness of the education system), so Blair knows only the formless, malleable pap of New Labour loyalism, the frogspawn-like matter of those with an unblemished voting record, and rightly despises them as worthless, without principal or insight; certainly not fit to judge whether this country should go to war. And of course in that particular he was right. They had a chance, those New Labour parliamentarians, to do the right thing, what clearly in retrospect would have been the right thing and was equally clearly the right thing at the time, and they chose, for the sake of their mortgages and their vanity, to follow the gaseous fantasies of their leader. One of these feckless cyphers was on the five minutes of Question Time I caught last week. I have no idea who he was but it seems Blair has put him in charge of a commission on future energy provision to fix the nuclear “choice”. His voice was the oily, wheedling, bullying yap of the salesperson who knows he only has shit to sell, he kept saying that he had yet to "make up my mind on the nuclear option” . The more he spoke of his honour... no prizes for guessing who after the election will be filling the pockets of this authentic voice of New Labour.
Blair has said that failure to get his new terrorism laws through Parliament on Wednesday would send a signal that “beggars belief at such a time”. No, Tony, the message that it would send is that, despite your nine years in office, your missed opportunities, your huge and ever-swelling errors, your arrogant anti-democratic authoritarianism, the shifting quicksands of your lying, your increasingly hysterical frenzy to get a “legacy” beyond some loony managerial fiddling and twiddling, and the lethal mess large parts of the world are in somewhat, though not entirely, because of your gargantuan misjudgement; despite all this, there are still the vestiges of democratic freedom stirring in the mother of parliaments.
OK you guys out there in Washington State, you can do some explaining. Who is this guy Stephen Crowe from Bellingham who is so exercised (third letter down) by the rape scene in The Romans in Britain? Take him aside and explain to him about portrayal, representation, the Crucifixion, medieval Mystery Plays, cruelty and so on. Go slowly, one thing at a time. And the very next letter*, Respect for Ganesh! (may his ears for ever be cool) - this purports to come from T Pura of London, but T Pura is but one letter away from an anagram of Rajput, the significance of which could be discovered only by the undertaking of a perilous journey to the heart of the Great Thar Desert; which journey I myself have (intrepidly) made. I can now reveal a part of the mystery; that that very missing letter would in its centrality complete the initials BL, of Seattle, herself a devotee of, and here’s the proof if further proof were needed, that very pot-bellied deity. I now have merely to demonstrate an ancient connection to the betrunked one, Lord of the intellect and son of Shiva and Parvathi - is there a statue somewhere in the mansion of the said lady which might be the key to the universal mystery? - before I can complete my own bestseller, the title of which - this is beyond the stuff of coincidence - is the very title of this post.
*Unfortunately there is no link to the letter, but it starts “I am writing to complain about the portrayal of the Lord Ganesh in communist drab on the cover or the Review Section... “
Compare and contrast: The Romans in Britain, A Cock and Bull Story. Mary Whitehouse did The Romans in Britain a big favour when she started her fundamentalist yapping about the buggery scene. The play is less than the sum of its parts, and its parts aren’t up to much either. It draws poetical but otherwise vacuous parallels between the Roman and the Saxon invasions of South East Britain, and the British occupation of Ireland. There is also much cursory killing; not shocking, just so undeveloped as to be inconsequential. It was one of those plays where you guess the director had suddenly realised his task was hopeless far too late in rehearsal and the cast were left floundering with no clear idea of what they were meant to be doing. The set had a wonderful edifice at the back like a full size whale shaped out of a single piece of worn driftwood, but apart from that my attention kept wondering irritably - why when plays are hollow are actors so actorly, faking exaggerated emotion - and why did the patricidal girl have such twenty-first century knickers on under her figure hugging quasi-Celtic dress; and why did her Dad, having cut the artful turf along the dotted lines with a dagger, scooped some earth from under the stage and then extracted a statue of a Pagan Goddess of staggering mystical reverberance vis a vis the plot if you like that sort of thing but horribly banal otherwise, then put it (the goddess) back in the hole, reverently replaced the earth, put the astroturf back; why did he have to cut the fake sward in exactly the same place with a huge great sword when he decided to dig her up again three minutes later? And why were the corn shocks straight out of Ladies in Lavender? And most of all why do actors run from place to place in that very annoying skippy way as if they were auditioning for Andy Pandy? Nobody else ever runs like that. I’m not against actors, I have a genuinely high regard for them. Most of them are hard working, responsible and dedicated. But if the play is bad, and they are not absolutely on top of their work, they can excite tetchiness. A Cock and Bull Story was wonderful. It was funny, sharp, insightful, slightly moving and very very clever - in a British and pragmatic way, as suited Sterne’s story, written when the various nations of these islands produced, briefly, the cleverest ideas in the world. There were lots of allusions to other films, just clever enough that I could feel superior for getting them but not so hyper-intelligent and arcane that they went miles above my head, like that silly Zazie dans le Métro which we all had to laugh at when I was a student. And it really did get together a lot of the Tristram Shandy novel, a seemingly impossible task, in a very small space. Everything seemed to tie in with everything else in an unexpected way like those eleven dimensional Calabi-Yau manifolds that have something to do with string theory - producing huge amounts of virtual narrative energy at each intersection, so that in the end you were left with an experience that continued to expand from the pressure of its own imagery long after the show was over. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon were pretty funny too. Oh it was good.
Quoted somewhere on Chloe’s blog way back was this: Marge: It’s easy to criticise. Homer: Yes, and fun too. I’m not alone among bloggers on politics in spending much time slagging people off. It’s fun and, with Bush and New Labour and religious extremists, its easy too. But now I'll make a list of people who are for me world heroes. And because I’ve just spent the morning at the Hockney gallery at Salt Mills, which was largely the vision of Jonathan Silver, some local heroes as well. And I hope the list might be a proliferating meme, because these kind of people would give us a lot more hope if we thought about them more. So what people might do is take the list, add to it, take away from it, do what you like with it, but send it on its way. Without more ado, I’ll start - later I’ll do better links to say who these people are, but for the moment: Wangari Maathai Vandana Shiva Prof. Muhammad Yunus Paul Rusesabagina
I can see the reasons for it, but it seems a pity that only Abu Hamza is locked up while Nick Griffin goes free. Poetically, a bit of Huis Clos would be the answer - in adjoining cells, but with a grill for them to shout at each other through. Practically, and taking into account our abusive prison system, it would be better if each had to suffer some alternative punishment, like being incarcerated every morning with one hundred pages of text chosen by the other, and then having to correctly answer a fifty question comprehension test set by Chris Woodhead and Ruth Kelly before they were allowed out for their dinner (this would keep the four of them busy for a long time). It is definitely wrong that Hamza should be extradited to the United States. No British citizen should suffer this until the US acknowledges and submits to international law. My opinion of the British Government is so exceedingly low that I had meant not to post about it again, or at least not until the next election. Little can come from damning the so thoroughly condemned. But they really do ask for it. The Guardian reports “that ministers may use the convictions to try to reintroduce proposals outlawing the glorification of terrorism”. They’re out of their tiny minds. This guy was “jailed for seven years on six incitement to murder charges and lesser sentences on charges of threatening behaviour with intent to stir up racial hatred and of possession of a document, the Encyclopedia of the Afghani Jihad, which was "useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism".” How, even if you have the significantly below average number of brain cells allocated to a New Labour Minister, can the fact that he was convicted on so many charges argue for the introduction of another one? The minister reportedly making the suggestion was none other than the new, shiny and freshly cloned Blairite (rather than the old and shopsoiled Maestro of PFI, or buy now and let our children pay cripplingly and exorbitantly for schools and hospitals when we are history) Gordon Brown. So, before they do introduce the legislation for the New Labour blobs to vote through, let's hear it one more time:
Glory to terrorism, Glory to Bush, Glory to terrorism, Glory to Mugabe, Glory to terrorism, Glory to Blair, Glory to terrorism, Glory to Karimov, Glory to terrorism, Glory to (the defence minister, can’t remember his name) Glory to terrorism, Glory to Sharon, Glory to terrorism, Glory to Mountford (representative blob New Labour MP who voted for the war, you won’t have heard of her.) Glory to terrorism, Glory to LT. Gen. Umar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir, &c
It should not be necessary to point out that the above chant does not represent my views, quite. (Oh and, my goodness, I forgot old bin Laden. Sorry, Osama, you belong there at the top, between Bush'n'Blair)
Ben Goldacre in Bad Science has been excoriating hi-fi freaks. The argument goes on a bit, but basically it’s about whether you get a better sound with an £1800.00 power lead than if you plug your amplifier into the mains with the lead off your electric kettle. Goldacre says that on blind listening tests nobody can tell the difference. And this is where the argument gets a bit interesting, because seemingly the editor of Stereophile (there’s a suffix that’s lost its innocence, your mind flashes up input abuse without your even wanting to look at it) - anyway, him - he says that if people can’t tell the difference between one piece of equipment and another on blind listening tests, then perhaps there’s something wrong with blind tests. Because, he says, if I the editor of Stereophile most definitely can tell the difference, very obviously and clearly, between a £3000.00 (I’m guessing here) cheapo old amplifier and £10,000.00 (still guessing) slightly more expensive one when I know which is which, then the fact that I can’t distinguish one from the other when I don’t know which is which means that that test is invalid. And Goldacre rightly rubbishes this claim. He says it’s just the kind of argument used by homeopaths and reflexologists and herbalists and all the alternative Wellbeing and Mindbodyspirit constituency to justify the fact that there is no objective and scientific evidence that these practices do anything more than move money from the gullible to entrepreneurial; if the tests don’t come up with the right answer, maybe we should change the tests. But I’m sure Ben is also missing something. There were some blind tests on wine tasting. These really were blind, in the sense that the tasters had their eyes covered so they couldn’t see what they were drinking. And it seems that not only could they no longer distinguish between butteriness, attenuated steely highlights, a slightly composty pong and a vibrant vegetality, but most of them couldn’t even tell red wine from white. Well, clearly blind wine tasting is useless. I drink a fair bit of wine, mostly red, and without a blindfold, not only because I want to see the colour, but I also like to read the label. I do know what I like, and I like to know that that’s what I’m drinking. But to be honest my sense of taste is fairly vitiated by time and abuse (see Oenophile), and if I had to choose by taste alone between la Paz old vine tempranillo, Casillero de Diablo cabernet sauvignon and the Rioja that was half price for £4.49 at Sainsbury’s last Friday (Mmmm, tannins a bit past it, wouldn’t you say?) it would be just random guessing. Even if I can taste the difference, I can’t possibly remember which is which. But, Benny boy, that’s hardly the point. Isn’t most pleasurable human experience half learned and half imagined? Even a simple song, if you like it, you like it more thoroughly the third time around. Food, drink, love, music, we bring elaborate structures of memory and expectation, appetite and fantasy to them. What would they be without? And all of us in our chosen vocations and pursuits have tools and gear and equipment that we value for their virtues, which of course must partly be inherent in the objective world (bad tools are bad tools), but which beyond that are constructs of our own brains. Look at cars, and the astronomical amount of garbage talked and written about the functional distinctions between them, just because what a lot of people bring to their cars is an elaborate construct which ramifies through their whole lives. So if a person’s destiny is to be editor of Stereophile, it’s likely that a lot of his waking time, and maybe his dreams, will be taken up with amplifiers and speakers and bits of wire and stuff. And we hope for his sake that he is enjoying this supererogatorily detailed propinquity (I have no real idea what that octosyllabic word means, I just feel everybody should use it from time to time so it doesn’t become extinct) to tweeters and woofers, because if he isn’t his life must be sad. But if he is happy there, then he is going to bring enormous constructs of - well, I have no idea what the stereophile equivalents of bouquets and noses and rotten medlar and complex tannins and Provençal September dungheaps are - to the experience of listening to amplifier A as against amplifier B. And the stereophiles he is writing for will do the same, somewhat by proxy as they may not be able to get their hands on a new £15000.00 turntable every week. And I feel smugly superior to them, secure in the knowledge that not many people suspect my particular area of gear obsession. We all have our secrets. So, for MindBodySpirit, I say yes to blind tests. For music, drugs, love, bicycles - technology has its place, science has its place, but human daftness is first among equals.
A final few words on the cartoons. Gary Younge made me come to terms with how I would feel if I was a Muslim and I had to go out on the streets of Copenhagen the day after [four months ago] a cartoon of Mohammed with a bomb for a turban was published. I wouldn’t feel good at all. I would object and demonstrate. How I would demonstrate I don’t know, because I cannot know how it feels to believe there is a one and only and true god and by believing in him I am better or at least more righteous or at least more right than the rest of humanity who do not so believe. But I might stand outside the Danish parliament (supposing that the Danes haven’t gone as far as New Labour in criminalising protest] with a placard of the cartoon in one hand and in the other a placard saying, “Look, Danes, is this really what you think of me?” [only in Danish]. So I take Gary Younge’s point - Jyllands-Posten had a right to publish the bomb cartoon, but they ought not to have. But what about the one with the guy holding out his hands in front of a big cloud and saying, “Stop stop we ran out of virgins”? I don’t know how widespread among Muslims is the belief that so many virgins in Paradise is the reward for jihad, maybe none do, but it is a very offensive belief to a lot of non-Muslims, not all of us female or virgins, and in so far as the belief exists it deserves to be ridiculed. And if that hurts pride and wounds vanity and excites homicidal tantrums in the believers, tough shit. The point here, the distinction between not publishing what is harmful and not publishing what is offensive, is a totally secular one, based on the morality of not damaging others in ways that you would not yourself wish to be damaged. (But even here there’s a side of me which says that I’m being over-careful. What if Christians objected to, say, a cartoon of the cross as a missile? With Bush’n’Blair at the control panel? Seems fair enough to me. If Christians objected to that I’d say, fuck off Christians. So what’s the difference with the turban as bomb? Sometimes when I have been walking in our town when there are not many people about, and a group of Muslim men come towards me on the pavement, I have thought, if it was the other way round, if I was Muslim and this was a group of native men, who I might imagine in the failing light looked like the shaven men in shades packed close around Nick Griffin when he left court, or like IRA or UVF paramilitaries, in short pitiless, criminal, sadistic, destructive - then I would be scared witless. It is for that sort of consideration that I think it was wrong to publish the bomb cartoon. But the rest? Far and wide. Far and wide. Finally, going back to one of my original arguments, that Islam needs to open itself up to criticism and modernity, here is the kind of question that needs to be debated. One, it is totally forbidden to make a graphic image of Mohammed. And two: “A group of ultra-conservative Danish imams set off for a tour of Saudi Arabia and Egypt with a dossier of the cartoons and several other cartoons, unrelated to the Jyllands-Posten drawings, showing Muhammad with the face of a pig and as a paedophile.” In other words [if this story is true] these imams, when they came across these images so offensive to Mohammed and Allah, do not immediately destroy them as they are in the most sacred duty bound, but photocopy them, then draw or cause to be drawn some more very, very much viler portrayals of the Prophet, and then tootle off to the heart of Islam to pollute the sight of others in their thousands, their millions, with this filthy cargo. Come on, imams, get a grip.
Further to my last blog, a few points. I am going to publish below the most offensive of the Danish cartoons. I am not doing this to offend Muslims, though I know most Muslims will be offended; and knowing that they will be offended, I can’t do that slimy two-faced thing of turning round afterwards and saying in a surprised way, “Oh, I’m sorry if [my racist, sexist [whatever]] carelessness gave any unintended offence”. So I know doing this will give offence. But I’m doing it anyway, because I think it’s important for two huge groups who are in conflict. On the one side are the religious, a complete spectrum of the religious from philosophical liberals who may not believe in a god at all, to pre-modern fundamentalists like George Bush and Osama bin Laden. And on the other side are post-Enlightenment modernists, who do not believe in any god, or in soul, or in life after death. There are two broad ways of dealing with conflict. One is to say “I am right and you are wrong,” with the option “and therefore I am going to hurt you or kill you or at least if you yourself are too powerful or too well defended then I’m going to kill someone, I’m not too bothered who.” This is what you might call the bipolar approach. It is the approach of Bush and Blair and bin Laden. The second is where we say, what we are at odds over is not you and it's not me, it is a third thing out there in the world, so let's get together and let’s look at what it is out there, explore it, and see if, though we may not in the end agree, we can find each other’s opinions and beliefs not so terribly threatening that we can’t live in peace together. The first way, “I’m right and you are wrong and I’m going to kill you,” is the way of conflicting monotheisms, and particularly the three which stem from the patriarch Abraham, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. You can debate whether monotheism is a root cause of human violence. What is not so debatable is that in the pre-modern epoch, that time when a majority of the followers of the various religions “of the Book” believed that they and only they were in possession of the literal and only and necessary truth, there were far higher concentrations of monotheists at the scenes of most mass slaughter (Mongols excluded, though the Moghuls were Mongols) than could be accounted for by chance. The second way, “Let’s look at this together and when we’ve got as close as we can, agree to differ,” is the way of the post-Elightenment; what there is is all there is, and that doesn’t include god or afterlife, so we’d better make the best of what there is. This is the conflict. And I am one side of it. I think your belief in God, any god, distorts your view of how things actually are, in ways damaging to the dignity of all humanity. When you say that because I hold this view you will "butcher" me, or others, I feel deeply offended. But if you say you find my view offensive, or ridiculous, or pathetic, or perverse, laughable, obscene, then I am not offended. These are mere insults. They do not demean me for who I am, as a racist or misogynist [if I was a woman] or homophobic [if I were a homosexual] slur would demean me for who I am. They merely express your opinion of my opinion, and my opinion is not you or me. It is a third thing, out there in the world. Like this cartoon of some guy with a bomb in his turban. Which I am going to examine with you, if you will go along with me. And I am going to examine it for this reason. That if we don’t, things will only get worse, both for your lot, the committed devout of Islam; because if you pursue these fantasies, things can only get worse for you, and you are rejecting allies against your real enemies, the plutocrats of Riyadh and Washington, Jakarta, Cairo, London. And things can only get worse for my lot, because you make things easier for the extreme Right, the racists, much easier, for the thugs and fascist demagogues who say, “Get them all out of here.” And third, worse for us who care, who have Muslim friends, not close friends but well regarded and well-liked, and do not want to be driven apart. So, there is you and there is me, and there is a thing out in the world, this drawing of a bearded man with a bomb instead of a turban. There is no caption, but there is writing on the bomb in a script which I think is Arabic, which I do not understand. The man looks to me as I imagine a fearsome Russian general out of a novel might look. But suppose the writing on the bomb suggests that the man is Mohammed, then, two things. First, you forbid me to represent your prophet in any way. But I do not accept your proscription, your censorship, and if you threaten to kill me because I do not accept it, then you entirely lose my respect and support. But, I can understand that this representation of a great man called Mohammed is a totally false representation of a religion which, though I totally disagree with some of it tenets, central of which is the existence of God, has produced some of the greatest works of mankind - I know of no buildings more moving than the Taj Mahal and the Great Mosque at Córdoba. If this writing on the bomb tries to say that Mohammed preached the doctrine of suicide bombing, then that is a travesty, both of his teaching, and of the fact that the notion of suicide bombing can never have crossed his mind. And I think having agreed that it is a travesty, we can leave it at that. Nobody need kill anybody. But, just a minute. Perhaps we should also look at what the cartoon is, clumsily, rudely, offensively, simplistically, half-wittedly maybe trying to say. Not that this image is of the actual Mohammed, but that it is what a dispassionate observer might feel is the image of Mohammed that suicide bombers might carry in their heads. Now this is something, to my mind, that can be debated. I think it is wrong as most generalisations are wrong. I think it is totally wrong if it applies to idealistic Palestinian youths of both sexes who feel such despair at their situation and the brute power of the Israeli state unconditionally backed by the greatest military power in the world, itself in the hands of a bellicose religious fundamentalist, that they see extreme self-sacrifice as the only way. Clearly these young men and women act out of idealism and despair. But... the London tube murderers, those British indiscriminate killers, as a representation of what was in their minds, and only as a representation of what was in their minds, then maybe this travesty of a cartoon hits a certain truth, or is even too kind an interpretation of their motivation. In other words, the image cannot be wholly dismissed, though its “truth” is marginal, partial, a travesty of the more comprehensive truth. And maybe we can even accept that without having to kill each other. Because, and this is my opinion, it is you who will have to move the most. If you believe that you are the only righteous one, and that this allows you to kill, maim, torture, kidnap, then it doesn’t matter whether you are George Bush, Tony Blair, Osama bin Laden or the poorest acolyte screaming for vengeance, you are wrong. You are very wrong. So it would be better if you moved. And if you move towards modernity, you can begin to address the modern problems that really afflict you and all of us; which are not the will of Allah, because he, Like Jehovah and what the Christians call God, does not exist; poverty, starvation, the gap between rich and poor, imperialist capitalism, corruption, disease, global warming, and the rest of it; how we as the glorious and awful collective of human beings are going to set about dealing with these things.
Images. Bradford youths, beside themselves with the rage of righteous ignorance, burning a copy of Satanic Verses. Two Bradford girls, from “professional” families, in hijab, in my undergraduate class, explaining fully and calmly, without threatening or seeming threatened, why they would quite happily discuss Satanic Verses, but they would not themselves read it. More recently, last year, a Muslim family sitting round our much enlarged dining table for tea. The old grandfather, an archetypal bearded patriarch visiting from Kashmir, had walked with me by the pond. We spoke with mutual respect in mutually unintelligible languages. At the meal a mother explained how her daughter had asked to be excused the visit because she was taking a GCSE the next day, but she, the mother, had said, “No, you must come, you can take GCSEs any time, but this experience you may never have again.” I would fight for people’s right to be as they are and live as they want. But religion should be a private thing. Must be a private thing. It must have no place in decision-making, or government, or education (except as an object of study) or anywhere else, except as it privately informs the acts and decisions of individuals. The attempt to shout down, cut down, the Danish cartoons that poked the mildest fun at bigoted, self-serving, ultra-reactionary religious totalitarians should be resisted, just as all that we call, admittedly a bit vaguely, fascism, should be resisted. And so should the cowardice of the international media in not showing what it is that the religious fascists are insisting that we should not be allowed to see. Here the BBC and the liberal press are in culpable dereliction of their duty in not printing the cartoons; not that they should do so as a yah-boo to Muslims, as the gutter press might; but in not doing so they allow the religious fascists to suggest that some inexcusable insult has been given by these images - whereas to publish them would demonstrate just how total and totalitarian is the censorship we are expected to endure at the say-so of a self-serving and bellicose minority within a religious minority. There is nothing wrong with religion as a private pursuit. But immediately it is imposed upon others, others in the family as much as outside it, religion, being mythical, beyond reason, logic and morality, becomes perverse. (Religion beyond morality? Well, yes, I think any “Faith” that sanctions savagery, murder, torture, rape, genocide, is beneath or beyond morality. There is a derisory argument that morality is derived from religion, but clearly religions merely codify aspects of the contemporary morality, with much self-serving spin from the holy guys; who then make exceptions of themselves anyway, so that old men and women of all religions can abuse children, repress or kill young women, and murder their opponents, oh happy days.) So we should resist. Who is we and what should we resist? We are the secular citizens of Britain, who subscribe to democracy, human rights... (I could go on for some time about what we subscribe to) and who find notions of race and religion irrelevant to the way the state and civic society should be ordered. And this We has nothing to do with colour or belief. Though he is Nigerian, I would put Wole Soyinka as one of the first among us, and the British Muslim undergraduates who discussed Satanic Verses with such calm, knowing that the convictions of others cannot harm one’s own. And what we should resist is any attempt to dictate what we must not say or portray, by any person or group of any alien minority - in alien minorities I include a white public school educated religiosely post-democratic prime minister more loyal to the United States than his own country, and the lobby-fodder that support his totalitarian drift in Parliament, just as much as any non-English speaking, thought repressing, superstitious old fascist from the Punjab via Bradford, or young British murderer from Leeds. And how should we resist? Through fearless championing of human rights, in thought and word, and a refusal to have our own rights curtailed by the outcry of religionists high on their own victimhood and their power to control and destroy what they see as proxies for their oppressors. And, just to make it clear where I stand I say, without irony, respect to democracy, respect to elections, respect to Hamas. Respect to any democratic government of Israel that renounces terror.
Children are different animals to adults. On Sunday Pierre, who took the picture below, stood on a chair and hurled himself in a perfect roatation onto his head. He didn't do this in a fit of pique. He did it to illustrate how Buster Keaton walked the plank. So powerful must have been the image in his mind that he had forgotten who and more importantly where he was, and lay on the carpet some moments putting it all together before he burst into tears. The Buster Keaton was a birthday present from J, three DVDs, so on a freezing Saturday afternoon we all watched The General, and on Sunday, Steamboat Bill. I wasn't sure the kids would like them, they're quite slow, but Jacob did, quite, and Loïc was entranced. He loves slapstick, and stories. When he was about four there was a TV sequence - it was at my mother's house, we were just off to the beach - of a man hopping, it went on for about five minutes, down the hill, along the street, in and out of shops. Loïc laughed, on and on, occasionally glancing at the rest of us, unsure that something so funny could be real. And he kept laughing the rest of the day by the sea - "That man..." But he's also good at detail. When he was even younger, Christmas, I'd stolen away for a bit of quiet and was watching Bergman's Magic Flute and he joined me. At the point of all the business with the picture and the Queen of Darkness and her minions the telephone rang and I was gone for five minutes. When I came back Loïc explained to me in detail what had happened while I’d been away, so for the first time I understood the plot fully. T gave me an over-exciting DVD of downhill mountain biking and I spent yesterday, because it was so cold, in the park, practising riding down flights of steps. I'm the opposite end of the courage spectrum to Pierre. I don't dare do things that I am perfectly physically capable of. My cowardice is mental. My body and all the basic bit of my brain enjoy slightly scary things, I like adrenalin. But in winter particularly I come to a drop that I know I can do easily, and I immediately have an image of myself lying at the bottom, concussed or with a limb broken, dying of hypothermia. That's why the park is OK, there are enough people about for someone to find me. Mind you this in itself is a mixed blessing. When I fall off and hurt myself the sequence is, look around quickly as soon as you can to make sure there's nobody nearby; then groan. As loud as you like. As long as you like. But you can make mistakes about being alone, indulge in a feast of elaborate groaning and then look up to see three school girls straight out of Vivaldi's orphanage, with hair like Berenice's, staring down at you. But the steps in the park - I didn't like the Rough Riders do the long flight that goes down the side of a cliff, due to cowardice - were mostly easy, and I came back determined next time to do the drop-off by Mytholm Bridge; though realistically, I’m not Buster Keaton, or Pierre, and I probably won’t.