Friday, 13 November 2009

But what do we agree on?

Yesterday, Ann at Mystery Of Iniquity, who introduced me to the confusing abundance of Word World Blogos, posted a snippet from this piece of heartfelt polemic from The Daily Cos. Apart from heartfelt polemic being in itself bracing, it started me thinking about two issues, writ large within the United States, but with a message for all of us (I live in the UK). These are things which I and thousands of better informed bloggers have touched on before, but these things keep coming up, and cannot conveniently be consigned to the completed tasks tray or the trash.

If our elected representatives are beholden to special interest groups, then democracy ceases to exist. If you require large sums of money to get elected, and accept more money to vote according to the interests of your paymasters, we are simply using the word "democracy" because it sounds nicer than "plutocracy". For someone who would label themselves Democrat to behave in this way would seem to qualify for a lifetime hypocrisy award. And one of the things that most angers Hunter is that these people seem completely oblivious to their indefensible position.

In a BBC radio series on White Collar Crime, a British member of parliament, Jonathan Aitken, was interviewed about his state of mind while he was commiting the fraud of which he was subsequently convicted. He said that he came to believe that he could "walk on water", that his actions were somehow above normal standards of judgment.

So, do we agree that our elected representatives behave in this way and, if so, do we think they should? If not, what should be done about it?

This same Daily Cos piece inevitably got me thinking about the on-going and unseemly wrangle about US health care reform. To this end, it would seem to me that no proposal whichfails to directly address a means of preventing millions of one's fellow citizens from being mmore at risk of illness or death by virtue of their income, should be worthy of any consideration at all. All this prevarication and ideological posturing exposes the American nation to disrepute, and dishonours the fine traditions of those who established it. After World War II, Europe was enormously helped by the generosity and enlightened self-interest of The Marshall Plan, aiming to avoid a recurrence of a nation sliding into fascism fueled by economic collapse as Germany had done. Something of that spirit is alive in the G20's reaction to the current recession. Can't the American government and people exercise similar humanity and common sense within their own borders? Do we think the costs of health care are too high? Are we content that people who cannot possibly afford those costs will die? If not, what is to be done about it?

another thing I heard yesterday was that the Greenland ice cap is melting twice as fast as previously thought. Forgetting for now why this is so, should we just accept that it is irreversible, or do we owe it to our children or grand children to at least try and do something about it? Whatever the causes of climate change may be, hurling vast amounts of polutants into the atmosphere is not going to help, and poluting our atmosphere has to be a bad idea in principal. Surely, even a Creationist would agree that the closer we can get this planet to God's original design, the better for mankind. there is no "Thou shalt belch millions of tons of carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide into my atmosphere" commandment of which I'm aware. So, if we have choices, perhaps we should exercise them. Already their are technology consultants beginning to persuade the major energy companies that there is money to be made from renewables. Why spend billions of dollars drilling holes, poluting the oceans and atmosphere, and killing wild life, when there might be renewable =inexhaustible alternatives with less environmental clean up to do, and a much better public relations profile at the end of it? I'm guessing that if the fossil fuel industries had put the money into developing alternatives which they've spent on trying to discredit them, we might already be further along the road to a cleaner and more pleasant planet.

And lastly, to return to a current obsession of mine, is it really beyond our wit to stop producing stuff which nobody needs, paid for by unsustainable plastic debt, when we could be generating jobs, yes even (shock horror) labour intensive jobs, which actually do something useful?

If we really think that the extra car or TV is really more important than someone else's clean water supply, we shouldn't be surprised when they come to get us. Is our economy run on false assumptions? If so, what's to be done about it? An achievable future depends on what we can agree on. Sustained and polarised disagreement can achieve nothing but enmity and a sense of self-righteousness.

And, as a postscript, a quote from Sungold because, in the context of what I'm saying, it makes me feel better.
“I still don’t know what will come next, but this I do know. Freedom is better than oppression. Loving is better than refusing to risk one’s heart. Commitments to principles and people trump opportunism any day. And if we don’t embrace change and vulnerability, we might as well give ourselves up for dead. We might just as well erect our own personal Walls.”

Thursday, 12 November 2009


For those who have seen the TV series, this should probably be filed under the "Grumpy Old Man" category, but that's too bad.

Manufacturers' obsession with branding, while not as serious as world poverty or health care provided according to income, does point to something rotten in the state of capitalism as we currently have it. It is the triumph of form over content.

This struck me not ten minutes ago when I had a glass of some very pleasant drinking yogurt. While drinking it, I remembered that it is called "Yop", and wondered from the fevered brain of which over-paid branding consultant these three letters had come. This can be excused on the basis of how much cocain is integral to your life, but that he/she managed to convince others that I would be drawn to Yop by virtue of its name, fills me with foreboding for the sanity of our society. In fact, this stuff was on special offer, and I thought I'd try it in spite of its name. Now I'm sure that the relevant marketing department would tell me that all kinds of surveys, consumer panels and focus groups assure them that their particular "demographic" is as irresistibly drawn to this name as is an ant to honey, or a rat to a drainpipe. However much I may suspect that they regard their consumers with the same lofty contempt they would extend to ants or rats, I cannot (or will not) believe it..

Once upon a time, here in the UK, we had a State run UK wide railway service, formerly called "British Railways", and then rebranded to "British Rail". I don't know why, but fair enough, the name still sounds like the commodity being sold - rail transport. Then Margaret Thatcher decided to make some ideologically correct money for the government by selling it off to the private sector. In principal, there is a case for doing that, although none of the world's best rail networks - Switzerland, France, Japan - could survive without substantial State subsidy. However, what Mrs T did was to chop it up into bits. The maintainance of the track was entrusted to a single entity, while the running of trains was split up into regional companies in this extremely small country. In my opinion, this was madness (end of digression).

The point is that one of my local train companies is now called "National Express", which is OK. I'm very grateful to the world of takeover bids for this because, before National Express took it over, I would get on a train, to hear a slightly depressed male voice with an "inclusive" sounding London accent making the automated announcement "Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for travelling with...One". Yes, there was a pause before "One". What could this mean I thought. Was this a posh way, totally at variance with the accent of saying "thank you for travelling with me"? But no. a bunch of executives somewhere had allowed themselves to be convinced that "One" was a really great name for a train company.

Two more brief examples. Until recently, the parent company of my Internet Service Provider was "THUS PLC". I suppose this was intended to conjure up the notion of something of great power being brought forth, like the Ten Commandments. It's the same kind of grandiose nonsense which Monty Python had in mind in their wonderful sketch about "TREADMILL; THE MIGHTY LAGA".

Our national post office used to be known as "The Post Office" or "GPO" (general post office. It ran the telephone system as well as the mail, administering vehicle road tax ETC. When this too was all split up, for which there is definitely a case, the mail service eventually became "Royal Mail", which it is today. Unfortunately, a few years ago, postal executives were seized with an attack of branding madness, and out of nowhere came the name "CONSIGNIA". The process cost several million pounds, and was greeted with nation wide derisive laughter, which prompted the expenditure of several more million on a rather shamefaced return to "Royal Mail".

I think the lifestyle associations of products have gained way too much influence in the minds of manufacturers, when the quality of the product should be what sells it. When you add to that the somewhat dubious individuals who seem to have worked this trick for their own profit, I think we should simply get back to making things that people like because they're good. Layers of flummery do create jobs it's true, but non-productive jobs which only add to the price of the goods we buy.

Branding is a hugely expensive process, which has led to YOP, ONE, THUS PLC, and CONSIGNIA, among many others I'm sure. I rest my case.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Knowing what's good for us and other people.

Most of us crave security in our lives. If only we could be certain where the boundaries might be - good and bad, right and wrong. I suspect this is the chief attraction towards religious, moral, or ideological fundamentalism.

What of those who disseminate such views?
We all have opinions about how others should behave, ranging from their minor personal foibles which may charm or annoy us to the way in which people choose to live their lives, which we may admire or abhor. If other people's conduct is illegal we can invoke the law. But supposing people just don't do what we say quite enough. Supposing we would really like the world to be better ordered, and, particularly, better ordered in a way which suits our particular ideas. then, if we don't have enough authority of our own, we need to look for some higher solution. In the realm of religion for example, wouldn't it be good if God agreed with us; now there's an ally worth having. If we can find an appropriate biblical text, we can magically convert our petty prejudices into the word and will of God. "You can argue with me, but arguing with God might be dangerous". Eternal torment anyone? Such, I would contend, are the typical mouthpieces of fundamentalism; people who rather enjoy being on the same side as angels who happen to believe what they believe. There may not even be a specific belief agenda; all performers love their adoring fans so, even if, as an atheist, you don't think God can be on your side, there's enormous mileage, equivalent to any sense of righteousness, in feeling that you're not deluded as others are deluded. So a guru of atheism need never be short of equally devoted disciples.

Recently, I was talking about This fine analysis by Eric Reitan of the heavy weight bout between Hitchens & Wilson. In support of my contension that religious fundamentalism can offer divine support for its proponents' prejudices, eric Reitan refers to Pastor
"Wilson who, prior to these debates, was probably best known for his controversial co-authorship of Southern Slavery: As It Was
, which the Southern Poverty Law Center described as a “repulsive apologia for slavery.” Apparently, Wilson’s opposition to homosexuality is so strident that he is prepared to rehabilitate the Bible’s endorsement of slavery just so he can preserve its condemnation of homosexuality."

Fortunately for any of us who fear some kind of so-called Islamic or so-called Christian tyranical theocracy, the tide may be turning.

Just today, in connection with homosexuality, I read Anthony Williams' account of his decision to confront his sexuality as a young gospel performer and preacher, and his church's reaction to it. I'm much less a Christian theologically than he is, but his sense of the private relationship with the divine, and his conviction that "God's love is bigger than his judgment", marks a welcome respite from the hectoring style of prescriptive religion. I know how dangerous an internal conscience driven spiritual life seems to many who look for a testing and difficult regime to help them overcome their sense of sin, but far more potentially dangerous to me are the motivations of god's self-appointed spokespeople here on Earth.

And, saving the best for last, Professor Harvey Cox's article from the Boston Globe offers both hope and rationality, typified by this quote:
"Fundamentalism is defined by its one-way-only exclusivism. But today spiritually inclined people view the once-high walls between religious traditions as porous. They borrow freely. Synagogues and churches incorporate Asian meditation practices into their services. Instead of a single churchly allegiance, people now assemble “repertories” of elements from a number of sources. They may attend Mass, take a yoga class, and keep a Buddhist devotional book on their bedside table. Clerics often denounce this as “cafeteria style” religion, but the current of religious history is flowing against them. Father Thomas Merton, the leading Catholic contemplative writer of the 20th century, died while staying at a Buddhist monastery in Bangkok. Martin Luther King attributed his commitment to non-violence to Gandhi, who in turn said he learned it from Jesus and Tolstoy. The Dalai Lama has written a reverent biography of Jesus. For none of
these profoundly religious men did the appreciation of other faiths weaken their anchoring in their own. In fact each said that it enhanced it."
He points out that such developments can lead to fads and incoherence, but religion must always be the search for truth which will always be unknowable in any entire sense.

A shrinking world is increasingly in need of consensus. It will not find it in the polarised diatribes of the bone-headedly convinced. Such are the posturings of coaches before football games, and of generals addressing their troops before going into battle. Victory leads to oppression and resentment among the defeated. I would suggest that we need a more harmonious solution if it is to be more permanent, a solution which no kind of fundamentalism can provide, because it alienates and rejects all those who don't adhere to it.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Tribalism, nationalism and peaceful co-existence

I'm not an anthropologist, but it's easy to see what tribalism had going for it. The evolution of unique customs and a way of life gives the members of a tribe the sensation of being special and, given the competitive nature of humanity, this will probably come to translate as a sense of superiority to one's neighbours. This too can be useful, since it gives you an excuse to invade them with impunity and take their stuff.

In these terms, nationalism seems to me to work best the more homogeneous in some clearly identifiable way is the group comprising a nation. If it starts to lose a common religion, ethnicity, culture, values, or whatever is the cement that confers a sense of nationhood, a nation may be in trouble.

Something which may be said in favour of empires is that they can maintain peace and prosperity in tribally disparate areas. An overall structure, civil service, law inforcement, transport ETC, imposed from the centre and ultimately administered by those other than native inhabitants with their own particular allegiances, can create some semblance of national unity. The imperial master can also be the focus for everyone's resentment, creating a common focus, so that the imperialists can replace the neighbouring tribe as the most immediate "them" as opposed to "us". When the empire is defeated or dismantled, it may turn out that your country is just a bunch of lines that someone else drew on a map. At that point, unless you have a charismatic ring master like Martial Tito cracking the whip, all hell may break loose as old tribal/ethnic enmities reassert themselves.

The more successful nation states managed to throw off their internal tribal divisions. Maybe that's why they so recklessly ignored them as a fragmenting force when withdrawing from their former dominions. But even for the more succesful nations, I fear that nationalism, like tribalism, may have passed its sell by date. Within our national frontiers and internationally, I think the major threat is not cultural, but economic. If we value our cultures, we must address the economic failings built into our current system, to avoid catastrophe in the medium to long term.

Internally, those of us who live in more affluent countries live in economies which can only sustain growth by bombarding all our citizens with consumerist goals they cannot possibly attain without running up unsustainable debt. In this way, the internal consensus which makes nations governable is under growing threat. Externally, those denied this consumer paradise, and facing much more basic food and water shortages at home, will be trying to get in. If we don't let them, we should not be surprised by a rising tide of resentment, remembering that hungry people will stop at nothing to feed themselves and their families. Do we want to live in affluent fortresses?

Perhaps simplistically, it seems to me that we have to divert our technological expertise from making consumer goods which nobody really needs into making more of this world habitable and productive for it people. This is not an ideological agenda. Apart from any ethical or moral imperatives which we may embrace as part of our personal belifs, there are imperatives of enlightened self-interest which, if we ignore them, may see any quality of life we have destroyed by the besieging hordes of the dispossessed.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Collision in particle and opinion

I'm not sure where this is going, but yesterday, I read some arresting thoughts about two kinds of collision; one relating to particle physics, and the other to colliding opinions in the realm of metaphysics.

This rather surprising theory proposes that Super Colliders might be rendered inoperable by some force of retrospective self-preservation within the universe, because a devastatingly harmful particle might be created in one of them.

Importantly, the two physicists who have spawned this theory also propose a test for the point beyond which sheer "luck" becomes statistically something else in the context of one of these particle colliders.

I also read This article, In which Eric Reitan analyses "Collision", a documentary describing the verbal joustings of Hitchens V Wilson ("New Atheist" V "Conservative Evangelical").

I think Reitan's piece is required reading for anyone, like me, who is terminally pissed off by the aridity of polarised discussion. I must read some more of his stuff.

Debating to win is a skill and good mental discipline, and belongs in debating societies, where you may be called upon to defend some preposterous notion, and you do your best to drum up such arguments as you can, hoping your opponent will make a mistake. It can be good fun. I remember a debate from school days:
"This house would rather be a contented pig than a discontented philosopher".But a lot of people are going to run their lives on the basis of their religious convictions, so this latter "collision" should be beyond gamesmanship. Whereas the two physicists are proposing a testable theory in their area of collision, I accept Reitan's analysis that Hitchens and Wilson are not. Firstly, the existence or non-existence of God cannot be proved in the same way that Boyle's Law can be proved, and secondly, I agree with Reitan that the atheist and the evangelical are preaching to their own constituency. they are colliding but colluding. As long as their particular faithful get the approved message from their particular champion, they can shake hands and walk away afterwards like a couple of boxers, but with their prejudices intact.

Scientists at their best advance human knowledge by proposing testable hypothesese. Metaphysicists who defend an already established position, rather than exploring their assumptions or conceding the necessary weaknesses in unprovable positions, are merely massaging the prejudices of their own converts, and massaging their own egos in the process.

Debating to win can be addictive; debating to learn may be less vain glorious for the participants, but might have some merit beyond sound and fury.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The thirst for legitimacy

I know I haven't written the two posts I said I would, but I still might do it, and surprise you.

Meanwhile the present bee in my present bonnet is very unsurprising, and certainly nothing new. What always astonishes me about our human thirst for legitimacy is how easily we deceive ourselves that what we want is somehow justified by science, God ETC.

I was listening to a BBC program in a series on "Scotland's Black History", in which the notion of eugenics that we might call Scientific Racism was used in support of the legitimacy of the imperial adventures undertaken by various countries in the 19th century. Such ideas postulate that there is some kind of hierarchy of races, and divine sanction is often cited as well. Such a theory renders oppression not just excusable, but a sacred duty for the oppressor - the infamous "white man's burden". It has of course subsequently been used as a pretext for liquidating millions of people in Europe and Africa.

As another example of this, somewhat less destructive, at least overtly, God, or a particular interpretation of God, is wheeled out in order to punnish those whom believers consider to be sinful, while making the believers feel suitably virtuous. If this position is challenged, we definitely have a feeling that the righteous are extremely upset by the possibility of being cheated of the vengeance due to them for foregoing all that pleasure.
Thanks to Annie via Twitter for This article, in which something of the sort seems to be going on.

Now I'm asking myself if I can possibly be that easily self-deceived? Does the possibility of self-deception never occur to those who can make bigotry or zealotry work for them in their lives? Doesn't it strike themhow convenient these beliefs happen to be for their purposes? Has anyone ever proposed a racial hierarchy in which the proposer languished firmly at the bottom? The vast majority of the proponents of damnation seem to believe themselves to be saved from it. How convenient. If I am basing my life and its values on such handy and helpful constructs, made to fit the desired outcome, please somebody tell me.