Archive for February, 2008

On politics

February 29, 2008

You may not be into politics, but politics is into you.

I wrote in a confused and rambling way that we live in anti-political times. When my mother was my age, she used to hide Vietnam draft dodgers in her flat. You can’t imagine anyone doing something like this today.

Voting in general elections has steadied at an all-time low of 60%; when you look at local and European elections, turnout goes through the floor. People disengage, either because they mistake disengagement for radicalism, or because of a fatalism: if voting changed anything they’d abolish it.

There is some truth in the latter. We are governed by a corrupt elite, and people who criticise its policies are generally ignored. And we have arguably more to complain about than my parents’ generation. The current crackdown on civil liberties, creeping social puritanism and indulgence of corporate power and foreign dictatorships is worse than anything that happened under Harold Wilson’s genial centre-rightist administration.

Given all this, it’s natural for people to feel that there is no point engaging because the government never listens. Again, there is truth in that. And yet political activism can and does work.

Let me give you the example of Fairtrade products. When I was a student, campaigners for Fairtrade were pretty much isolated from the student body. It’s a myth that student unions are run by raving lefties; more often they are run by curmudgeonly right-wingers, and at Sheffield the campaign against exploitation of Third World workers was dismissed as political correctness gone mad.

The turning point came in 2002 when there was a referendum to ban Nestle products from the union shops. Campaigners wanted this because Nestle’s aggressive marketing of baby milk formula in the Third World was causing the deaths of babies – the World Health Organisation maintained that 1.5 million infants die each year because they are not adequately breastfed.

On one level the ban made no difference. If you wanted Nestle products, there were dozens of places to go apart from the union shop. But the ‘Cutting Edge’ column of offical SU paper The Steel Press denounced any ban as an infringement of freedom of choice, and urged people to vote against it. (Luckily no one listened to these idiots and the ban went through).

My point is that you can’t talk like Cutting Edge did these days and be taken seriously. In just five or six years Fairtrade has gone from the liberal fringe to the consumer mainstream. Governments that once resisted it now urge their citizens to buy the products. Most supermarkets now stock them. Political activism works. Even petitioning works – just ask LabourStart.

When I say ‘activism’ I am not talking about the moronic Stop the War Coalition and their meaningless demos. I’m talking about NDADC’s campaigns to keep hardworking refugees like Peparim Demaj in the country; trade unionists who work tirelessly for better pay and conditions; journalists who bang on for years about the victims of miscarriages of justice. About people who will give up their time and resources to quietly plug away at vast government and corporate bureaucracies on behalf of the underdog. And sometimes the work pays off.

Now I never had much time for Tony Blair. But in his last ever parliamentary speech, he said something that I think still rings true.

Some may belittle politics but we who are engaged in it know that it is where people stand tall. Although I know that it has many harsh contentions, it is still the arena that sets the heart beating a little faster. If it is, on occasions, the place of low skulduggery, it is more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes. I wish everyone, friend or foe, well. That is that. The end.

Poetry and politics

February 28, 2008

Bookninja discuss the above.

“‘If poetry makes nothing happen what use is it?’ scoffed a recent letter in a serious newspaper. It is not a new question, if a bit Gradgrindish in nature. What does music make happen? Or visual art? The writer might have been thinking of social change.”

As the world’s politicians and corporations orchestrate our headlong rush towards eco-Armageddon, poetry may seem like a hopeless gesture.

There’s always been a tightrope for the politically committed author or poet: how to write about politics without letting the politics take over.

To whore out your craft to some ideological standpoint is lethal. But it is impossible to avoid touching on politics in some way, because politics is the world around us. It weaves itself into art without us noticing.

But these are anti-political times. I’ve had people actively recoil when I mention current affairs in conversation. People are not into politics. People have sensed that politics is so full of corruption and compromise that the only way to keep yourself clean is to stay out of the whole thing.

I’ve noticed the way contemporary novelists won’t even say the name of the Prime Minister, for fear of dating their book: this creates timelessness but also leaves no impression on the reader. There’s a consensus that creativity and politics don’t mix. Orwell has proved that they do, but this consensus remains.

From my experience of contemporary poetry there is not much good political verse around – in fact, off the top of my head, the only good political poet I can think of is the great John Hall. The best of contemporary poetry focuses on love, the human condition and the secrets of the human heart. The worst is either bad observational stand-up, or moronic Pinteresque sloganeering about Bush and Iraq that could turn the most dispassionate observers into neocons. There is little good political poetry for the same reason there is little political activism: in these times being leftwing is an abstract state, based around shared opinions, prejudices, catchphrases and in-jokes.

It’s fitting that Szirtes quotes Auden. I read a volume of Auden recently and was struck by the way in which he strips politics of all its ideology, hypocrisy and posturing, and right down to the bare human essentials: we must love one another or die.

I particularly liked ‘Spain 1937,’ written about the Spanish Civil War, with its message that there comes a time where you have to stop simply being and start doing, and make your stand.

Tomorrow, perhaps the future. The research on fatigue
And the movements of packers; the gradual exploring of all the
Octaves of radiation;
Tomorrow the enlarging of consciousness by diet and breathing.
Tomorrow the rediscovery of romantic love,
The photographing of ravens; all the fun under
Liberty’s masterful shadow;
Tomorrow the hours of the pageant-master and the musician,
The beautiful roar of the chorus under the dome;
Tomorrow the exchanging of tips on the breeding of terriers,
The eager election of chairmen
By the sudden forest of hands. But today the struggle.
Tomorrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
Tomorrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But today the struggle.
Today the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
Today the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.
Today the makeshift consolations: the shared cigarette,
The cards in the candlelit barn, and the scraping concert,
The masculine jokes; to-day the
Fumbled and unsatisfactory embrace before hurting.
The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.

Via Mark.


February 27, 2008

Everyone who’s serious about writing gets rejections. Published or unpublished, celebrity or obscurantist, all serious writers will have amassed a wad of form letters (perhaps the odd couple with encouraging or derisory scribbles) that essentially say: we’re not taking this.

Stephen King said that he kept his rejections on a spike; Faulkner used to claim he could wallpaper his room with those form letters.

Me I don’t have a big pile of slips stored in a box somewhere (there would not be the storage space for them in my rented house, anyway) and I regret that.

The letter I particularly regret not keeping is from a man named Juri Gabriel. When I was sixteen, in a state of typical adolescent stupidity, I sent him some fiction.

His response still resonates in my mind. I don’t agree with point three, because in the last few years I’ve met a great deal of extremely talented and unpublished writers and poets. (Who was it who said that ‘nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent’?)

Still, Gabriel’s advice is worth reading. I have reproduced it to the best of my memory.

1) There are approximately one million novels written each year, of which a tiny proportion are actually published.

2) However, 95% of the above manuscripts are so hopelessly bad that it would be ludicrous to count them in any serious survey.

3) That there is a vast reservoir of undiscovered talent out there is a delusion. If you have talent, persist: the odds are less fearsome than they at first appear.

Iraqi employees: fine words, shabby deeds

February 26, 2008

The following is another update from Dan on the campaign to grant asylum to Iraqi employees working for the British government. There are more here.

– – –

Do you like reading fine words? Here is the Prime Minister on the subject of Iraqi ex-employees of the British Government, speaking in the House of Commons on October 9th, 2007:

I would also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of our civilian and locally employed staff in Iraq, many of whom have worked in extremely difficult circumstances, exposing themselves and their families to danger. I am pleased therefore to announce today a new policy which more fully recognises the contribution made by our local Iraqi staff, who work for our armed forces and civilian missions in what we know are uniquely difficult circumstances.

Fine words. What about deeds?

A small number of Iraqis – fewer than a dozen, according to people close to the operation who are in contact with me- were removed from Iraq in the early autumn of 2007. Since the Prime Minister’s admirable declaration of October, how many Iraqi ex-employees have been evacuated from Iraq? According to all the Iraqis that I am in contact with: none.

Here are the words of an Iraqi employee in Iraq, emailing me, today: ‘I am still in Iraq…I hear nothing from your Government yet!’

Here is what this man was told on February 3 by a conscientious British Civil Servant, out in Iraq to arrange the evacuation of Iraqi ex-employees and clearly shocked by the lack of progress:

I’m sorry that everything is taking so long to complete. Please note that we are waiting to hear what happens next from London and I can assure you all that I will personally contact you as soon as I receive instructions from London to confirm the next arrangements.

Here is why he is hiding:

They (the militia) keep asking my relatives and my family’s neighbors about me and they keep moving in my family’s street and keep their eyes on our home… they told them: anyone know anything about A__ he should tell us immediately and also they said: we will never give up until we catch A__ .

And here is what the Right Honourable Bob Ainsworth, Minister of State for Defence, wrote to David Lidington, MP, about this same man on 16th January:

Mr Hardie expresses concern over the handling of a claim for assistance by a former employee of British Forces, Mr A_ … Mr A_ is eligible for the assistance scheme, and we have passed his details on to the Border and Immigration Agency who will take forward his request for resettlement in the UK via the Gateway programme. Assuming that there are no problems with Mr A__’s immigration checks he should be able to leave Iraq by the end of January…

I added the emphasis, and I can also say that I have it in writing from the MoD that there were no problems with Mr A__’s immigration checks.

The Border and Immigration Agency is the Home Office Agency handling the last phase of the operation to resettle Iraqi ex-employees. And it is the BIA, according to every source of information that I have, that is delaying the evacuation of the Iraqis.

It is also supposed to be the Home Office that is co-ordinating the provision of housing to those Iraqis who do get resettled in the UK. In the House of Lords last month there was a debate on Iraq at the request of Lord Fowler, whom I had briefed on Iraqi ex-employees. Lord Chidgey, later backed by the Earl of Sandwich, asked a very pertinent question of the Foreign Office Minister Lord Malloch Brown, and he did not get a good answer:

…on the resettlement of Iraqis at risk under the Gateway Protection Programme, the Minister will be aware that its success is dependent on a sufficient number of local authorities participating. There is considerable concern that this is not the case at present. Will he advise what steps the Government are taking to ensure that local authorities will come forward?

There are many operational and logistical difficulties in the way of an operation: I know that. But the Government has known about these people for at least six months, and has been publicly committed to helping them for over four months. That is enough time to plan for the difficulties – far more time than you usually get in a war.

The Home Office is dawdling while people are threatened with death. This is either incompetence in the face of a crisis, or it is a deliberate policy of putting bureaucratic obstacles in the face of fugitives. Neither is acceptable.

And beyond that, the policy itself is being used to keep out Iraqis who can prove that they worked for British forces, and who can prove that their lives are at risk as a result. One man, Hamed, worked for British forces on Shaibah Logistics Base for over two years, as the Government accepts. He was threatened by the militias, and gunmen went to his house, so he moved his family to Syria and slept on the base’s floor. He continued to work for the British. Hamed finally was given ‘notice to quit’ Shaibah when the base closed, and fled to Syria, where he cannot legally work and where he and his family are safe (so far) but hungry. The British Government knows who Hamed is. A British Army NCO who knew him has confirmed every detail of his story to me, saying that he knew that Hamed had reported the threats against him to the military authorities. The Government has written to Hamed to reject any claim for help, since he was ‘not directly employed’ by the military.

Another man, Waleed, was directly employed by the military, in 2005 and 2006. He worked as an interpreter for one Army unit for its six month tour, during which time he was fired upon and chased by militiamen as he made his way to the base; he started work for a second unit, after which he received a threat on his mobile phone detailing where he lived, what he did, and what would happen to him if he ‘collaborated’ any more. He was also hunted in Iraq, and has also fled to Syria. A British Government letter, which I have seen, informed him that he would not be assisted since he had not worked for the twelve-month period specified by the Government’s policy – which, alas, the militias do not seem to respect.

We got the Government to admit to its moral responsibilities. Now we have to get them to match their deeds to their words.

Please write a letter to your MP. His or her address is The House of Commons, Westminster, London, SW1A 0AA. If you don’t know who your constituency MP is, go here and type your postcode in. When you’ve sent a letter, follow it up with an email: his or her address will normally be – for example

Two or three days after you have written the letter, call the Parliamentary switchboard on 0207 219 3000 and ask for your MP’s office. Repeat your concerns to the secretary or research assistant you speak to (and be nice: most of these people work damn hard for little reward), check that your letter has been received, and politely request that the MP ask questions of Ministers and reply to you. In your email, your letter, and your phone calls, you must be courteous: insulting an MP or a research assistant will discredit this cause. Talking points for the letter are below:

1: The Prime Minister announced a review of British policy towards its Iraqi ex-employees, due to the threats of murder they faced, on August 8th 2007, and he announced a change in that policy on October 9th, 2007. The Foreign Secretary made a more detailed policy statement on October 30th, 2007.

2: Nearly four months later no Iraqis who have applied under the scheme have been evacuated from Iraq.

3: Not one Iraqi ex-employee living as an illegal immigrant in Syria or Jordan has been resettled under the scheme.

4: A debate in the House of Lords contained several references to resettlement being blocked by the failure of the Home Office to provide housing in the UK. The Home Office has had between four and six months to plan for this eventuality: it is inexcusable that they have not done so.

5: Would the MP please put down written Questions to the Home Secretary asking why the Home Office is unable to live up to the Prime Minister’s publicy expressed commitment to rehouse Iraqi ex-employees whose lives are at risk for having worked for British forces?

6: Would the MP please write in private to the Home Secretary, and to the Immigration Minister, Liam Byrne MP, asking what provision their department has made to implement a policy decided in early October, and further asking them if they are aware that lives are at risk and that rapid action needs to be taken?

7: Would the MP also please write to the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary asking how many Iraqis who are ex-Employees of their departments have been resettled, and asking why Iraqis who are at risk for having worked for British forces are being abandoned for having ‘worked for less than 12 months’?

8: Can the MP please forward these letters to the Prime Minister, who personally approved the change in policy.

9: And finally, can the MP please reply to you with details of any Government response.

If you want: you can give your MP my name and email address ( ) and tell them that I am in contact with a number of Iraqi ex-employees inside and outside Iraq, none of whom have received help from the Government, and that I would be happy to brief them with confidential details of these cases, either by telephone, email or in person at their Parliamentary offices. They should feel free to contact me.

When you get a reply to your letter, email me (again, at ) – it’s very important that I know which MPs are sympathetic and what the Government is telling them. And email me if you have anything else that needs saying. Thank you.

‘It eluded us then…’

February 25, 2008

There’s a touching little post by Jim Chen in which he relates F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby to the immigrant experience:

Here is the impression Gatsby has made on Jinzhao Wang, a 14-year-old immigrant from China:

She is inspired by the green light at the end of the dock, which for Jay Gatsby, the self-made millionaire from North Dakota, symbolizes the upper-class woman he longs for. “Green color always represents hope,” Jinzhao said.“My green light?” said Jinzhao, who has been studying Gatsby in her sophomore English class at the Boston Latin School. “My green light is Harvard.”

As a member of that class of “first- . . . generation immigrants, who are striving to ascend in 21st-century America,” I heartily endorse Jinzhao Wang’s sentiment. The vast fields of this Republic, rolling on under the night into the vast obscurity beyond the city, are ample enough to hold and to fulfill the dreams of every ambitious young person who is willing to gamble on the dream that is America.

I wish only that the architects of contemporary immigration law and policy in the United States would remember the splendor that has gripped every newcomer to this continent.

Same goes for the architects of British immigration law.

On an unrelated note: talk of the green light makes me remember something one of my fellow undergraduates said in a seminar on Gatsby, back when I was a student. The man said that Gatsby’s dreams were only incorruptible if they remained dreams.

The guy’s name escapes me, but I’ve never forgotten his words.

City at night

February 24, 2008

Well I just got into town about an hour ago

Took a look around, see which way the wind blows

Are you a lucky little lady in the city of light

Or just another lost angel

City at night

-The Doors, ‘L. A. Woman’

I’ve just finished reading Occidentalism, a study of anti-Western thought by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit. Just as Edward Said mapped the racist attitudes of the old Western imperialists towards their conquered peoples in Orientalism, so Buruma and Margalit have written this thesis on the equally harmful stereotypes of the West held by Middle Eastern elites – and also many Westerners. From the intro: ‘To diminish an entire society or a civilisation to a mass of soulless, decadent, money-grubbing, rootless, faithless, unfeeling parasites is a form of intellectual destruction.’

Occidentalism has a fascinating chapter on the idea of the City – despised by religious fanatics as hives of materialist corruption.

The problem is not with the city per se, but with cities given to commerce and pleasure instead of religious worship. In the case of Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta this religious impulse curdled into a dangerous madness.

Hubris, empire building, secularism, individualism, and the power and attraction of money – all these are connected to the idea of the sinful City of Man. Myths of their destruction have existed as long as men built cities in which to trade, accumulate wealth, gain knowledge, and live in comfort.

The greatest metropole of all, the commercial imperial capital of the nineteenth-century world, was London. And the greatest industrial city, the capital of dark satanic mills, was Manchester. All these cities inspired fear as well as envy and, like New York two centuries later, came to stand for something particularly hateful in the eyes of those who sought to eradicate the impurities of urban civilisation with dreams of spiritual or racial purity.

But of course disenchantment with the idea of the city is also shared by urban intellectuals:

But intellectuals also detested Americanism for a more personal reason. They knew that in an Americanised society, dominated by commercial culture, the place of philosophers and literati was marginal at best. Far from being the dogma favoured by downtrodden peasants, Occidentalism more often reflects the fears and prejudices of urban intellectuals, who feel displaced in a world of mass commerce.

Cities in the Western world suffer the consequences of freemarket dogma. City centres are quickly colonised by private developers and clonetown retailers, who inflate property prices so that ordinary working people are moved further and further away from town, while the city centre itself becomes an indentikit glossy nightmare of Primarks, Starbucks, chain pubs and Big Issue sellers. City councils bend over backwards to accommodate these developments, believing against all sense and evidence that what’s good for corporations is good for the city.

Making cities safe for the rich naturally leads to rising inequality, which in turn cranks up the crime rates. Buruma’s urban intellectuals are justifiably pissed off. As a letter writer to the Observer put it, commenting on his city’s regen boom: ‘Manchester is a place where you can’t smoke but you can get shot.’

In city centres there is a sense of pointless urgency, dull frustration, and above all stress; I once read that the adrenaline levels experienced while shopping in the high street are as high as those of army soldiers marching in formation.

So urban intellectuals have reason to hate the city. Not just intellectuals, in fact; coverage of the ‘binge-drinking phenomenon’ has echoes of an Occidental hatred for soulless cosmopolitan decadence. (Norman Tebbit recently said that, ‘If I was a young, devout Muslim man in some of our northern cities and I looked at what has become culture on a Friday and Saturday night, I would not want to integrate with it.’)

This is reflected in fiction from Raymond Chandler to Carl Hiaasen – cities are dark, dangerous places where everything is for sale. Conversely, the countryside and the small town are increasingly romanticised as spiritual idylls cleansed of consumerist pressures.

Despite everything, I love cities. For all their chaos and sadness, cities are the best place to experience the possibilities of life. I try to reflect the sense of possibilities that cities have, as well as their negative aspects, in my fiction. They are certainly better places to live than rural areas and small towns, which aren’t havens of authenticity and spirituality but, as Marx said, miserable, violent places populated by morons.

And with that, I’m off into town for a pint…

The Counterenlightenment

February 23, 2008

His pockets were stuffed with fifty different kinds of conflicting literature – pamphlets for all seasons, rhetoric for all reasons. When this man handed you a tract you took it no matter what the subject: the dangers of atomic power plants, the role played by the International Jewish Cartel in the overthrow of friendly governments, the CIA-Contra-cocaine connection, the farm workers’ unions, the Jehovah’s Witnesses (If You Can Answer These Ten Questions ‘Yes’, You Have Been SAVED!) the Blacks for Militant Equality, the Kode of the Klan. He had them all, and more, too.

– Stephen King, The Stand

The man (although not really a man) in the extract above is Randall Flagg, an agent of chaos and destruction who brings down a plague on twentieth-century America. If Flagg (or is it Walter O’Dim?) stalked our land today, the tracts in his jacket would be different. He would offer you a DVD explaining how 9/11 was arranged by the US government, a pamphlet revealing how reflexology can cure cancer, another that let you know that condoms cause AIDS (or one that said that AIDS doesn’t exist) a leaflet pointing out the holes in the theory of evolution, a text by ‘Dr’ Gillian McKeith demonstrating that human beings are capable of photosynthesis, a newspaper report linking the MMR vaccine to autism, a copy of the Da Vinci Code, an internet printout proving conclusively that the Holocaust is a myth perpetuated by international Zionism. Flagg is a purveyor of counterknowledge, and today his irrationalisms are taken much more seriously.

Damian Thompson demolishes all these theories and more in his fantastic book Counterknowledge, which I wholeheartedly recommend. If his work sounds like a Louis Theroux style goggle at the fringes of thought, Thompson will make you think again. Fringe ideas are taken increasingly seriously. The government spends millions of pounds on building homeopathic hospitals, despite the fact that homeopathy has no medical value; charalatans like Gillian McKeith are given their own TV series and treated as experts in their fields; London houses publish books explaining that China discovered America in 1421 and that Jesus’s descendants are alive and well in France; a former government minister, Michael Meacher (also a onetime candidate for Labour leadership) subscribes to 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Conservatives would say that the popularity of counterknowledge is caused by the decline of traditional religion. Humans have an innate need to believe, and in the absence of churches they will turn to cultic superstitions. The fevers started in the 1960s when social revolution destroyed the authority of the family and the church. If you don’t believe in God, you’ll believe anything.

Personally, I agree with Francis Wheen: if you believe in God, you’ll believe anything. State-sanctioned faiths (and what is a religion but a very successful cult?) don’t keep the lid on popular delusions; they set a precedent, ripping open the lining at the edge of rational thought. Let’s face it, if you can believe that a virginal woman gave birth to the son of God, who is later killed only to be brought back to life – then acupuncture and healing crystals will be quite easy to get your head around. Why favour one form of counterknowledge over another?

In any case, the phenomenon is indulged across the political spectrum. (If you don’t believe me you should read a copy of the Daily Mail, a newspaper whose mission is – in Ben Goldacre’s words – to divide the world’s inanimate objects into those that either cause, or cure, cancer.) There’s a widespread disillusionment with rationalism and Enlightenment values, which are now associated with the Iraq project and seen as concepts of a purely Western elite determined to impose ‘our’ idea of democracy and human rights across the world. (The quotemarks around the word ‘our’ are an essential part of the argument.) The Enlightenment is for hopeless idealists, corrupt politicians, fuddy-duddy Oxford professors and militant atheists.

Above all the Enlightement is mainstream, and people despise the mainstream. The mainstream is McDonalds and Ian McEwan and George W Bush. The mainstream is hated above all else, which explains the strange convergences of thought between ostensibly opposed fringe groups like the SWP and Hamas,  between American creationists and fundamentalist Muslims, and between leftwing 9/11 deniers and Neo-Nazi Holocaust deniers. They will unite to defeat the common enemy; rational, secular thought. Anything that’s against the mainstream can’t be all bad.

People trying to explain the appeal of irrationalism will inevitably turn to psychological analysis. Imagine being a 9/11 Truther or a believer in homeopathy. You have unearthed a vast, hidden conspiracy that most of the world has completely missed. Either it is the conspiracy of PNAC engineering the Twin Towers demolitions as a pretext to declare war against the Middle East, or a secret plan by the medical/scientific/pharmaceutical establishment to cover up the healing powers of alternative medicine so they can carry on selling useless drug treatments.

You can dismiss the testimony of most doctors, scientists, physicists or engineers because their very experience and qualifications show that they are part of the elite and therefore have an interest in covering up the scam. Indeed, any contradictory evidence can be ignored – it will have been planted. Your own lack of evidence doesn’t bother you; obviously, the conspirators are going to cover their tracks. The proof is the absence of proof.

Most people reject your explanations because they are brainwashed by the corporate media, or too scared or stupid to see the truth. Only you, and a handful of fellow Truthers, are smart enough to see through the lies. What a boost! And presumably, when the conspiracy is found out, your greater intelligence and heroism will be recognised and you will be given the power and rewards such qualities accord you.

Finally, I think that the conspiracy minded are people in need of reassurance. They can’t handle the random, the chaos of life, the disasters that can come out of a clear blue sky. It is more comforting to believe that George Bush destroyed the Twin Towers than Osama bin Laden. It’s more comforting because we can vote Bush out, and put him in jail. 9/11 conspiracy theories send a message of subliminal succour: don’t worry, don’t worry, your government is in control. Sssshhh…

This is borne out by the way that, in rejecting the mainstream, fringe intellectuals will throw their weight behind another mainstream – often one much worse. Gavin Menzies, who wrote a book explaining how the Chinese discovered America, is now supported by senior officials of the totalitarian regime and does speaking tours of China’s universities. Indeed, the Enlightenment itself was bitterly opposed by the establishment of the time, which hated the idea of ordinary people gaining rights and freedoms.

Purveyors of counterknowledge are not revolutionaries. They are reactionaries, seeking comfort and status from their dark dreams.

Multi-faith dialogue

February 22, 2008

We are looking for earthly solutions, how to prevent them… I have another way to prevent earthquakes. The Gemara says that one of the reasons earthquakes happen – which the Knesset legitimizes – is homosexuality… God says you shake your genitals where you are not supposed to and I will shake my world in order to wake you up.

– Shlomo Benizri, ultra-othodox Knesset member, on last week’s earthquake in Israel

God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve… The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’

– Jerry Falwell, fundamentalist Christian demagogue, speaking on September 14, 2001 about the terrorist atrocities of September 11, 2001

This is a strong and definite judgment because the world has been arrogant in going its own way… We are reaping the consequences of our moral degradation, as well as the environmental damage that we have caused. We are in serious moral trouble because every type of lifestyle is now regarded as legitimate… In the Bible, institutional power is referred to as ‘the beast’, which sets itself up to control people and their morals. Our government has been playing the role of God in saying that people are free to act as they want… The sexual orientation regulations are part of a general scene of permissiveness. We are in a situation where we are liable for God’s judgment, which is intended to call us to repentance.

– The Right Reverend Graham Dow, Bishop of Carlisle, of the ‘liberal, moderate’ Church of England, on the floods that devastated Britain in 2007.

Thanks: HP

The deadline has whooshed…

February 21, 2008

…and submissions to Succour 7: ‘Animals’ have now closed.

Thanks to all who sent stuff in.

The next issue should be out on May 1 and we will be looking for writing again by then. So watch this space.

Life is holy

February 20, 2008

Radio 4’s oxymoronically named Thought for the Day programme has a policy that bans non-religious figures from appearing.

I’ve never got too worked up about Thought for the Day, because I’ve listened to it – and believe me it’s impossible to react to such half-arsed rambling. The words pass through the brainstem without registering. Being annoyed by it is like being annoyed by whalesong.

I think: let the faithful have their five harmless minutes of bullshit. It’s all they’re getting and it’s where they belong.

But now the ban seems to have been partially lapsed I’m really enjoying this alternative Thought for the Day, by Gay Humanist editor, Outrage activist and Harry’s Place contributor Brett Lock.

Of all the sound arguments against faith, this one gets to the heart of the matter for me.

The idea that we only have one shot at life is a liberation. It means that we owe it to ourselves to pack in as much as we can in the time we have. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that belief in an afterlife is a far more depressing state than accepting that death comes equally to us as it does to a bug on the windscreen. It is depressing because people do such terrible things to themselves and to others because they believe this life must be sacrificed to gain points in a hereafter.

Whether it is denying oneself the joy of love and companionship because you believe some God frowns on sexuality, or blowing yourself up in a crowded marketplace because your faith promises a heavenly reward, the belief that this life – this only life – is not important, not precious, not all there is, is the greatest humanitarian tragedy imaginable. Life deferred is life lost.

Or as Aayan Hirsi Ali says it, in this book:

Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely; we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.