Tuesday 27 February 2007

The difference with atheists ...

In yesterday's Guardian - Stuart Jeffries has an article drawing parallels with what he calls 'secular fundamentalism' and religious fundamentalism. In particular he cites Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins is an academic with an abrasive polemical style. It's not the style I would use to challenge religious belief with any well-intentioned but basically deluded individual that I came across on a personal basis. But to put him in the same category as bible-bashers and mad-mullahs is a crazy kind of relativism.

Here are a random ten things that assertive atheists HAVEN'T done:

1. Burnt anybody at the stake and told them that their body must suffer so that their soul might be saved.

2. Proclaimed a Crusade or Jihad and then invaded a foreign country because it wasn't atheist.

3. Forbidden certain books that suggest that atheism isn't the only acceptable belief system.

4. Stoned anybody or publicly whipped anybody for offending the 'laws of atheism'.

5. Destroyed historic works of art for the same reason.

6. Specified that only certain kinds of food can be eaten, or a certain type of beard be worn by atheists .

7. Insisted that the state pays for atheist schools in which there is no teaching of any other kind of belief, and where only teachers who are atheists can be employed.

8. Demanded that one day a week is set aside when businesses and shops shut and trains and buses don't run out of respect to atheism.

9. Got on a bus with explosives strapped to them and blown up themselves and everyone else for the glory of atheism .

10. Sought the protection of the law if anybody ridicules atheism in any way.

... and so on. See the difference ?

Sunday 25 February 2007

Private enterprise and the consumer

Six hours today without mains water. This is the second time in a month. And we have only recently had a hose pipe ban lifted. Officially in this part of the South East we have been in a state of drought since last Summer. (That's South East England by the way not Africa).

OK - so the global climate is universally acknowledged as fucked as a result of environmental crisis. But we still have the highest rainfall in Western Europe - so this isn't the reason for the 'drought'.

Whilst the water companies are dispensing homespun advice about not leaving the tap running whilst we brush our teeth, London's water system leaks something like 30% of the supply every day. The water and sewerage system in London was a marvel of Victorian engineering. Unfortunately it remains so. Thames Water is owned by a German company looking to sell their interest on and major capital investment in modernising the system is not high on their agenda.

And at the end of last week, yet another fatal train crash on our privatised rail network.

Remember Thatcher's free enterprise revolution of the eighties ? Consumer services and choice were going to be transformed. But nobody thought who was going to be responsible for polishing the family silver once it had been flogged off.

Wednesday 21 February 2007


Just back from a long weekend in Istanbul.

It was 15 years since we were last there. I wondered if globalisation and Turkey's attempts to join the EU had made many changes.

Last time we were there the country had not long returned to civilian rule and there were armed paramilitary police on every street corner - not this time. Starbucks and MacDonald's were in evidence. And the sellers of counterfeit perfume in the Egyptian Spice Bazaar were saying ' very good price - cheaper than Tesco - cheaper than Asda.'

But even so it is still probably the most exotic city you can visit without leaving Europe. And in times like these when the divide between the Western and Islamic worlds are deeper than they have been for centuries, probably everyone in the West should make an effort to visit.

Of course Turkey isn't actually an Islamic country, but then Britain isn't a Christian country either. And maybe this ambiguity is what makes it so interesting.

There is no better symbol of this than the Hagia Sophia. One of the oldest churches in the world, it was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in part at least to get one over the rival church based in Rome. It was looted not when Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, but by the crusaders in 1205 who thought it was a safer bet to attack their Orthodox rivals than mess with the Saracens in the holy land. Actually when Constantionople did fall to the Turks and they converted it into a mosque they carefully covered up the Christian iconography, making it possible for the secular Turkish republic to uncover the original Byzantine decoration in the 1930's. The result is a museum that is probably the only place in the world where you can find an Orthodox altar piece of the Madonna and child next to Arabic calligraphy from the Koran.

It is convenient to judge Islam by what we know of the nutty fundamentalists today. But we forget that the Ottoman empire was possibly the first multicultural society with an amazing degree of toleration for Catholic, Orthodox, Jew and Muslim at a time when pogroms, crusades and inquisitions were a regular feature in the West.

Don't go looking for some sort of harmonious paradise in modern Turkey. It's recent history has walked a narrow precipice between populist fundamentalism and repressive secular nationalism. As a member of Amnesty I have a folder of letters addressed to Turkish politicians over the years.

But I can remember school trips to France - the idea was to broaden our horizons. Most of the time we were more concerned with smuggling back bangers and flick-knives. Maybe it could be more relevant now for kids to spend a weekend in Istanbul.

Thursday 15 February 2007

Blasphemer !

Why is it permissible to use religion as a trump card that effectively says: 'What I believe may be stupid, bigoted and reactionary but it is my sincerely held belief and therefore you are not allowed to argue with what I believe or even worse to take the piss out of it .' ?

But this is precisely the argument that religious people of all descriptions use all the time. It is the foundation of the blasphemy laws in this country.

By some bizarre kind of double-speak, Catholics can defend their view that homosexuality is a sinful abomination and threaten to close down their adoption agencies rather than comply with perfectly reasonable anti-discriminatory legislation. And also complain that anyone who challenges their bigotry is somehow denying them their sincerely-held convictions.

The latest such lunacy strikes even closer to home - a student journalist at my old college faces disciplinary action because of the publication of a newspaper that ridiculed all faiths and re-published the notorious Danish Mohamed cartons. Unsurprisingly there has been a back lash from all those who have vested interests - like the Student Islamic society. It appals me that an academic institution that is supposed to be based on a liberal tradition of free enquiry and expression should yield to such pressure.

And accusations of racism are being thrown in to muddy the waters. But let's be clear about this criticism of Islam is NOT racism. Nor is criticism of the state of Israel. I do both this things regularly and yet I have also (literally on some occasions) fought real racists.

Why do religious people want special protection anyway ? - Surely if they are right we atheists are all going to burn for eternity.

I'll take my chances, though and so without malice to the many sincere individuals who subscribe to these faith here goes:

• The Catholic Church has been involved in a conspiracy to cover up paedophile priests.
• Evangelical Protestants in the religious right have manoeuvred the US into an insane reactionary foreign policy.
• Islamic fundamentalism practices the most barbaric repression of women imaginable.
• Judaism acts as a moral fig-leaf for the racist state of Israel.
• Hindu separatists in India wage pogroms against their Muslim neighbours.
• Buddhists in Sri Lanka do the same against Hindus.

So there you are. Religion is stupid,bigoted and reactionary - over the centuries it has on balance caused far more harm than it ever has good. Now sue me.

Wednesday 14 February 2007

" A failure of intelligence".

30 armed police officers, with another 220 in reserve, raid two family homes in Forest Gate, East London at 4am. One man is shot, two held on suspicion of terrorist offences and later released without any charge. Eight months later, the Independent Police Complaints Commission has told the Metropolitan Police to apologise. It also described the whole affair as:" A failure of intelligence".

I should say so. Hopefully this is a euphemism for "plain fucking stupid". But I suspect that they mean to imply that the information on which the raid was based was questionable. A bit like the 'intelligence" that led to the fatal shooting of Brazilian electrician Charles de Menzes. Still on the bright side maybe lessons were learnt from this and the police are getting better; at least this time they got a Muslim bloke - one with a funny beard and everything.

Let's face it the police force is not exactly full of Inspector Morse types. I suspect that very few will have read Malatesta's theoretical writings on terrorism or 'propaganda by deed'. He describes how a small group can build mass support amongst an aggrieved population by provoking state forces into over-reacting to random acts with disproportionate repression. It's a tactic that's been very successfully employed by the IRA, the Viet Cong, etc etc...

Actually though, to be a bit smarter, the police don't need to study political science - they could just try reducing their levels of testosterone a bit.

I live in a part of London still best known to most people for anti-police riots over twenty years ago. 50% of the borough's population come from ethnic minorities as opposed to 4% of the police. And every time there is an incident seemingly however minor, be it shoplifting from a newsagent's or a scuffle in a pub, there appears to be a police all-out call that results in never less than a couple of patrol cars and a riot van. It's the same operational culture that requires 250 officers to raid two family homes.

Visitors from out of town comment how we take no notice of the constant wailing of emergency sirens. Add to this the ethnic imbalance between police and community, and you come away with the impression that we are living in a battle zone, or more precisely a colonial occupation.

Thatcher spoke about denying terrorists the 'oxygen of publicity' by refusing to broadcast the voices of Sinn Fein spokesmen. Actually the 'oxygen' that will breed support for terrorism, amongst young British Muslims is the stupidity and insensitivity of the police. And more 'failed intelligence'.

Monday 12 February 2007

Not 'bootiful' at all.

Hopefully the man who gave the nation the Turkey Twister now faces financial ruin: the only silver-lining in the bird-flu scare in Norfolk might be Bernard Matthew's downfall.

I have a special but not entirely irrational dislike for anyone who makes their fortune in the food industry. The profits are obscene, the conditions for animals and workers alike appalling, and the crappiest products are marketed to the poorest and most vulnerable. And generally that seems to make a very successful business model.

The same of course could be said of many industries, but the food industry in particular uses a rural connection to suggest that there is something 'natural' or 'traditional' about its products, and that in feeding people it fulfills some time-honoured function in the tradition of the yeomen of 'merrie england'. Which is why Bernard Matthews promotes a home-spun image of himself in his advertising campaigns - tucking into his own products and proclaiming them 'bootiful' in a quaint Norfolk accent.

Except of course, and we have Jamie Oliver to thank for this, we now know that processed poultry is not 'bootiful'. It's shit. (Amongst all the other things that tend to get mixed up in mechanically reclaimed meat). The Turkey Twister may have been withdrawn as a result, but similarly processed products still form a large part of many kid's diets. And perhaps it is no surprise that the poorer you are the more likely you are to end up eating this crap.

I am not going to join in the hysteria about bird flu (yet) - there seems to be a lot of mis-information about that reminds me of the AIDS/HIV scares of the 'eighties. And I am not going to jump on the animal rights bandwagon - as a humanist I am not sure from the point of view of moral philosophy that there is such a thing as animal rights, only human duties of care.

But I am pretty clear that every time we have one of these scares it highlights quite how little big business cares for the consequences of its actions.

Wednesday 7 February 2007


Whether it's peerages for sale scandals or arguing over plans to reform the House of Lords, the role of an unelected second chamber is back on the agenda.

So much utter crap is spoken about how an unelected body is somehow 'above' politics.

Regardless of it being the hereditary landed aristocracy, life peers drawn from the great and the good or even bishops from the Church of England (yes really in 2007!) - the fact that they are there at all is down to patronage of some sort.

The culture of deference runs deep in this country and one unspoken underlying aspect of defending an unelected body is that there is some special quality about these people that makes them 'know better than us'.

This is where a bit of historical perspective is essential - what looks likes an institution legitimised by ancient tradition always has been what it is today - the product of patronage, nepotism, crony-ism and out and out corruption. Blair and New Labour are just keeping the tradition going.

Contrary to common belief the House of Lords does not represent something mystical continuity going back to ancient times. There have been a number of 'spurts' of peerage creation , all of them highly dodgy and not at all noble.

• The Normans - the original English aristocracy were all but wiped out or exiled at the time of the conquest in 1066. William replaced them and gave land and titles to the French and Norman knights who came over with him - an inner circle of henchmen who could be trusted.

• The Wars of The Roses - a weak central monarchy and strong regional factions made possible a kind of fifty year gang war between the nobility. It is a story more like the Godfather than King Arthur and the round table. Alliances were made and broken, puppet kings installed and - titles created for favours done and to buy loyalty.

• The Restoration - peerages created for those who had stuck by the Stuart monarchy through the civil war years, and also for those compliant husbands who co-operated with Charles II taking their wives as his mistresses !

• The Eighteenth Century - the new merchant classes claimed their place at the table of power and more peerages were granted in return for loyalty to the solidly Whig regime.

• Victorian times and later - since the industrial revolution there has been a steady stream of peerages given to successful businessmen, and this has been mutually beneficial to them and governments alike, with influence traded in both directions.

And so on to the present scandal... So long as the second chamber is appointed in some way rather than elected, patronage and corruption go hand in hand.

If we do need a second chamber for our legislature, it must be an elected senate.

Tuesday 6 February 2007

Trouble in paradise.

Well almost.

There's a strike at Harley Davidson's plant in York Pennsylvania.

Workers there voted 2,533 to 52 in favour of strike action to defeat the MoCo's (as HD is known) plans to introduce a two tier wage structure with reduced rates for new employees; to double pension contributions; and to make the previously free company health scheme contributory.

The MoCo claims that it needs to make these cuts to ensure that the company does not go the way of the US car industry.

But the truth is that it is in a very different position. Harley have posted record profits each year for the past twenty one years, and account for something like 60% of heavy-weight motorcycle sales in the US.

Strike-free for sixteen years the MoCo has encouraged the use of stickers that proudly proclaim 'made in the USA by union labor'. Of course it's partly a myth - many components are actually imported (some from Japan shock horror) - but it has established the Harley brand as a powerful part of American blue-collar culture.

This may now come back to haunt the management at the MoCo. They have a bad record of taking things for granted, including the passionate loyalty of many of their customers who are faced with over-priced products and often shoddy service from the dealer network. The 'hardcore' bikers who supported HD through the grim years of the late seventies and early eighties when the company was under the ownership of AMF are now regarded as something of an embarrassment. Instead the marketing strategy is aimed squarely at what in the US are called 'RUBs' (rich urban bikers), or yuppie born-agains over here in Britain.

So I hope all Harley riders join me in wishing the best of luck to the members of the International Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 175.

Monday 5 February 2007

Rugby & national anthems

A good sporting weekend - a possible renaissance for English rugby with Johnny Wilkinson's fairy-tale return and a fantastic spectacle from the Welsh and Irish.

But as always I am embarrassed when it comes to the national anthems.

• France - The Marseillaises
The marching song of the revolution, and possibly the best of all anthem tunes.
The words are pretty militaristic but at least they get in:

'Tremble tyrants and traitors
The shame of all good men'

• Scotland - Flower of Scotland.
A hymn of revival from a repressed nation who have been at the shitty end of the stick from England for centuries:
'But we can still rise up
And be a nation again'.

Ireland - Amhrain na bh Flann.
As above, although the anthem of the Republic is usually also followed by 'Ireland's Call' to placate those from Ulster :
'From a land beyond the waves

Sworn to be free
No more our ancient land
Shall shelter despot or slave'.

Wales - Land Of My Fathers.
Great tune, a bit sentimental but certainly nothing offensive.
'Land of poets - land of the free'.

Italy - Can't find the words I'm afraid but it seems like a jolly tune.

England - God Save The Queen
Er - that's about it really - I seem to remember some dodgy lines buried in later verses about 'popish knaves' and 'rebellious Scots'. Nothing you would remotely want to take any kind of pride in.

Why are we still using this crap ? Even Jerusalem would be better with its daft religious connotations. And actually 'roll out the barrel' would probably be better still.