Thursday, 25 January 2007

Force for Good?

How anyone beholding the myriad wars, internecine civil strife, and social discord incessantly provoked, stirred up, and prosecuted by religious factions and individuals against each other, and even more against non-believers, because of their ‘supernatural’ fantasies can believe that religion is a force for good in the world beats me.

From the global clash of faiths between Christians, Muslims, and Jews which is causing incessant death, destruction, misery, and ruined lives to absurd power-plays like the current Roman Catholic posturing over homosexuals and adoption, the upholders of ‘faith’ act like global blow-flies, spreading millions of poisonous germs wherever they plant their malodorous feet.

On an earlier thread, Jose said “alas, when churchmen get embroiled in politics”. But there is no such thing as non-political religion. The whole purpose and thrust of religious groupings is to impose their pet versions of what is ‘good’ and ‘right’ upon everybody else. Ultimately, the seriously religious aspire to rule the world. There is no gainsaying that this is the case with the most vocal segments of Islam – a religion that draws no distinction between faith and state, despises democratic pluralism and free speech, and envisages a worldwide theocratic Caliphate. It is undeniable that the Roman Catholic Church aspired to a similar supremacy over temporal rulers in Europe for several centuries, until its wings were clipped by the Reformation. One pope – Pius V – even had the temerity to absolve her subjects from allegiance to the ‘heretic’ Elizabeth I. And Protestantism – especially in its Calvinistic versions – has behaved similarly whenever it has obtained a sufficient stranglehold.

It may be that we in England are exceptionally fortunate – or complacent – because our national church was created by a wilful monarch to ensure that religion did not trump his personal rule. Even so, religious disputes have endured and sometimes dominated the political scene, as in the long-running 19th and early 20th century disputes between Anglicans and Nonconformists about the control of education. That battle is still far from over, with a retrograde lurch towards the creation of ‘faith’ schools and academies under the auspices of a credulous prime minister.

With the air filled by increasingly shrill cries from religionists that they are under attack from immoral Godless atheists, and a bunker-like mentality developing amongst their shrinking congregations, while the great majority of sensible people simply want to get on with their day-to-day lives without all the clamour, it does look as though a political settlement will have to be imposed by parliament sooner rather than later, reaffirming the basically pluralistic, tolerant nature of our modern democracy and ensuring that the religious do not encroach further on the freedoms of others. Religions are tribal. They depend on a sense of ‘superior us’ versus ‘inferior them’ – “We’re OK, they are not OK.” This toxic stance cannot possibly be conducive to social harmony.

For myself, I think that we have reached a point in world history when religious beliefs are no longer merely outmoded – they are clearly anti-social. Constantine's adoption of Christianity as the Roman Empire's state religion was one of the worst things that happened to the West. The rise of Islam, its early conquests, the Crusades, and the constant inter-faith strife between Christians, Muslims, and Jews have not made the modern world a better or more peaceful place. Humanity would be better off without such strident, holier-than-thou religions.

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Conscience Rules OK?

In their letter to the Prime Minister, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York make the following remarkable assertion:

“The rights of conscience cannot be made subject to legislation, however well meaning.”

One wonders whether the worthy prelates have really thought this issue through. Presumably it means that:

Islamic suicide bombers whose consciences tell them that they are fulfilling the will of Allah cannot be the subjects of anti-terrorist legislation;

Christians who starve, torture and murder small children because their consciences tell them that the children are possessed by the Devil cannot be prosecuted;

It was right for those Christians who worked for the Nazis in concentration camps to do so because their consciences told them it was alright;

Anthony Blunt and other Cold War traitors should have been excused because their consciences told them to spy for the USSR;

The British in India were wrong to suppress the Hindu custom of Suttee - the burning alive of a widow on her husband's funeral pyre;

It was right for the Christian churches in past times to torture and burn to death “heretics” and “witches”, because their consciences told them to do it;

The Roman Catholic Church was right to condone slavery until the middle of the twentieth century because their Christian “consciences” sanctioned it.

These are just the first few examples of the novel doctrine that the rights of conscience override the law which spring to mind.

Doubtless others will occur to those who read this post.

Sunday, 21 January 2007

The Yuk Factor

Speaking my mind on a blog is proving unexpectedly difficult. Having been chided with a [non-existent] wish to impose censorship on commentators, I have been roundly ticked off by them for some of the views I have expressed. There is a well-known saying [which I disagree with] that the only three topics worth talking about are politics, religion, and sex. Having had my fingers burned over politics and religion, I suppose I had better fall back on sex.

Having spent many years addressing public and private issues around sex, I must confess to a certain weariness with the usually inane manner in which it is commonly discussed. Havelock Ellis said that in no other field of human activity is so vast an amount of strenuous didactic morality founded on so slender a basis of facts. Freud said that in Western culture, most feel unable to be candid about their sexual tastes and habits, which they conceal under a thick winter overcoat of hypocrisy. A highly experienced and competent teacher of sex educators I used to know said that you must begin by clearing morals, like clearing trumps in Bridge.

What my experience did teach me is that even in our supposedly enlightened and more open times, sex is an extremely painful subject for many people, and a good deal of the sexual boasting and bragging that goes on is just a façade. Also, the physical aspects of sex cause discomfort and distaste, especially to the religious folk who have complained down the ages that the heights of sexual bliss are located amidst the dungheap of excretory functions - presumably due to bad taste on God’s part.

We are inevitably trained as infants to regard some parts of the human body, and its secretions and excretions, as ‘dirty’. Without such taboos, toilet training and a modicum of hygiene would be impossible. In the era of hippies and flower-power, there was a deliberate attempt to overturn these taboos with the result that indiscriminate multiple sexual couplings led to outbreaks of disease. With the advent of AIDS, sex educators who had concentrated on encouraging their clients to be less guilt-ridden and more sexually outgoing were obliged to do an about turn and counsel a return to prudence and even abstinence. It was all very confusing.

My own view is that many of the moral objections to sex, though consciously derived from the Bible and other ‘sacred’ sources, are in fact primarily motivated by bodily prudishness. I once received a letter from a lady whom I shall call ‘Mrs Yuk’ asserting that most people are intolerant of male homosexuals ‘mainly because of shit’, since gay men do not share the majority’s instinctive disgust at buggery. I drafted, but did not publish, a reply to her in the form of an open letter which read, in part, as follows:

“Dear Mrs Yuk,

You tell me that, in order to be accepted, gay men must ‘explain to heterosexuals why they are not put off by the contact with faeces’.

This, you surely realize, is an impossible task. No-one can explain ‘why’ they have certain tastes and certain aversions, or why they lack them. If I were to tell you that buggery doesn’t turn all gay men on, would that really make them more acceptable to you? I doubt it – you would probably then wax eloquent over the iniquities of fellatio. If not, why not? Just a matter of preference, I suppose.

You see, I really don’t believe that the intimate details of my sexual desires and diversions [or yours, or anyone else’s] are any business whatsoever of anybody except ourselves and our willing sexual partners. If you cannot agree with me that this level of toleration for practices and beliefs [sexual or other] which we may ourselves abhor is an essential component of a decent, civilized society, you and I have very different notions of what such a society is.

We cannot allow irrational prejudices to dictate social policy. For everyone is in some respects a Yukker. The list of my own personal yuk targets is quite lengthy. Among the major items are ill-mannered small children and their feckless parents; the practice of abortion, and its false presentation as a fail-safe for birth control; tobacco smokers of any kind and pipe smokers in particular; pickled onion eaters; people of a good many political and religious persuasions; and bigots of every hue.

I say ‘Yuk’ to them all. I won’t have them in my house if I can jolly well help it. But they are free, so far as I am concerned, to pursue their malodorous behaviour and to peddle their daft ideas consentingly and in private: whatever they do is none of my business, unless they intrude upon my or your privacy and freedom. It is at that point that their obnoxious personal preferences become of legitimate public interest; and determining where that point lies is the most crucial and delicate decision of social politics.

Why are the likes of you so obsessed with, and revolted by, shit? Freud, I suppose, would put it down to over-strict potty-training; and I must say I think it is unhealthy to be either nauseated or fascinated by a substance which is a normal, healthy waste product of normal, healthy human bodies. I consider this constant harping on homosexuals’ attitudes to shit [ or piss, or cum, or whatever] is just naïve rationalization of dislike of the different: the basic reason why the majority dislike gay people is simply that we are different, and won’t conform, and the ‘yuk factor’ conveniently bolsters this prejudice and intolerance.

Frankly, Mrs Yuk, I am utterly choked off with your sort – constantly invoking your yukkiness as an excuse to abuse those you happen to dislike and to condone inhumane treatment of them, while at the same time parading a phony tolerance. I too say ‘yuk’ quite a lot; but thank goodness I am not a paid-up member of the loud-mouthed tribe of censorious Yukkers.”

What are the millions FOR?

As the Prime Minister's collar gets itchier with the slow but sure approach of Inspector Plod, I am increasingly puzzled by the glaringly obvious but unasked question: What do political parties need these huge sums in donations or "loans" for? They must, of course, maintain a central party organisation and staff, and they require an election campaign fund, much of which will presumably be spent [wasted?] on expensive advertising. But millions? Surely not.

In my politically active days, the Conservatives mostly financed their constituency parties locally, with such modest events as bring-and-buy sales and garden parties. Labour depended on trade union support, provided [while it existed] through the political levy. The Liberals, as they usually did, lived from hand to mouth.

So what has changed to make it necessary for political parties to require such lorryloads of cash? Answers on the back of a postcard, please. You just might get a peerage in the resignation honours which will shortly be issued from Wormwood Scrubbs.

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Is Doomsday approaching?

An article by Rupert Cornwell in today’s Independent says that today the Doomsday Clock, which has since 1947 calculated the probability of global nuclear war, will be moved closer to zero from the seven minutes to midnight at which it has stood since 2002.

The reasons prompting this decision by the Clock’s sponsors, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, include growing turmoil in the Middle East, increased international terrorism, more countries seeking nuclear weaponry – “the ultimate national security insurance policy” – uncertainty about oil supplies, and global warming. The scientists think the world has edged closer to Armageddon than at any time since the dodgy moments of the Cold War in the early 1980s. They believe that the danger of a nuclear war has increased significantly since the Clock was last advanced, in the wake of 9/11.

Apart from the growing number of countries seeking to acquire nuclear weapons – there are already nine nuclear powers - the renewed popularity of atomic energy as a source of ‘clean’ fuel will led to the proliferation of nuclear reactors and the increased circulation of enriched uranium and plutonium, which are also raw materials for atomic bombs.

If al-Qai’da or some other group of international terrorists acquire an atomic device, and threaten to use it, the deterrence doctrine of MAD – mutually assured destruction – which prevented the Cold War from turning into an atomic holocaust will no longer apply, and a dangerous threshold will have been crossed.

This article says nothing new, and simply outlines a situation that we push to the outer recesses of our consciousness most of the time in order to be able to carry on with our ‘normal’ daily lives. But considered in cold blood, it is the stuff of which the most nightmarish horror movies and science fiction are made.

Is it really possible that our rulers, who know far more of the actual details of this gruesome scenario than we do, are content to blunder on further along the perilous paths they are treading? Do they have a death-wish, not just for themselves, but for all of us?

And if so, what can we, the people, do about it?

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

What free speech is and is not

The legitimate opportunity to express opinions or points of view, however unpopular or unfashionable these are, underpins all other human rights and is a bedrock of civilised society as we understand it in the West. Any legal or social curtailment of this basic right means that the society concerned is less free than it could be and perhaps should be. It is through free speech that we can win or defend all our other liberties and establish, if not truth, at any rate the balance of probabilities in any situation.

J. S. Mill, in his classic essay On Liberty [1859], maintained that “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” This is an idealistic principle which, if philosophically sound, is remote from the practicalities of real life. Yet Mill’s essay – more often quoted than read nowadays – is far more subtle in its analysis of the benefits of freedom than his many critics have given him credit for. He maintained – rightly, I think – that without social liberty and free speech, human beings are serfs. He also pointed out that the whole truth rarely resides solely in one of two or more conflicting opinions.

Even in an ostensibly liberal and democratic society such as ours, the unrestrained expression of opinion is widely frowned upon. In the 1970s and ‘80s most of the legal and media battles around free speech concerned what many regarded as unacceptable pornography, which they claimed a right not to be offended by. This concept of protection from offence has provided a good deal of the fuel for more recent and contemporary battles around free speech, with various religious groups claiming that they are offended by derogatory criticisms or attacks upon their faith. Laws against incitement to racial hatred, designed to reduce social tensions, are held up as the model for further restrictions on free speech where religion is concerned. ‘Political Correctness’ – the reprobation and in some cases prohibition of opinions which go against the mainstream consensus – is a fashionable concept with a big head of steam behind it.

Whether or not Voltaire actually said “I detest what you say and will fight to the death for your right to say it”, the miasmic spread of intolerant and hate-filled attitudes places the would-be liberal committed to the defence of free speech in a dilemma. How far should we tolerate the intolerable? With so much rabid intolerance around, there seems to be less and less worth defending in the name of free speech. But defending the right to express a particular opinion is not the same as vindicating that opinion. It is, rather, defending everyone’s right to hold and voice any opinions at all. Obviously, opinions which incite violence against individuals or groups are beyond the pale of toleration.

Freedom of opinion is not the same as its indiscriminate expression in all circumstances. The notion that “anything goes” not just in opinions but in manners – or lack of them – in my view spells death for worthwhile debate. On the Internet, just as much as anywhere else, there needs to be a mutually acceptable code of discourse for any constructive discussion to take place. Otherwise, a linguistic Tower of Babel breaks loose, with everyone talking at once, whether to the point of not, and nobody listening to, or really interested in, what anyone else is saying. The late Harold Blackham, a leading campaigner for Humanism, once said that “standards of controversy are the joint responsibility of the parties engaged. They are an important part of public morals. Mutual abuse and misrepresentation are forms of violence and cunning which help to destroy the mutual respect and trust required for co-existence and co-operation in society.” I agree with him, which is why I have asked for the observance of minimum guidelines for discussion on this site. Without them, our exchanges will be pointless and boring.

Productive conversations involve listening as well as speaking. Many – perhaps most – people are poor listeners and manage not to hear much of what is being said to them, being too busy formulating their next statement while their adversary is still talking. I had a Quaker friend, Dr Rachel Pinney, who, because she realised that this was her habit, devised a method of “Creative Listening” which she advocated and practised all over the world – including in Moscow during the Cold War. The Pinney programme was beautifully simple, but extremely hard to carry out if you were not used to it. What she did was to seek out someone with a view opposed to hers – in those days it was usually for and against nuclear weapons – and ask them to explain their point of view to her as fully and accurately as they could, while she promised not to answer back, and not to interrupt them unless she needed to do so in order to clarify something she hadn’t understood. “In this way”, she claimed, “the listener really hears and understands the speaker, and the speaker is confident of being really listened to by his opponent. This enables both people to change slightly and get a little nearer to understanding each other”.

In other words, useful debate is about fostering understanding – not ‘winning’. That is my belief, too. What do you think?

Monday, 15 January 2007

Getting back on-side

For the first time in my life, I feel as though we – the West, the ‘goodies’ – are behaving in many ways more like those whom we used to disdain as the ‘baddies’.

Whatever Osama bin Laden’s intentions, the Twin Towers atrocity of 9 September 2001 was a master-stroke. The first hostile attack on USA soil since the British burned the White House in the war of 1812, it touched a sensitive nerve in the American psyche which sent common-sense thinking awry and induced a national mood of undignified panic. As the incumbent president was not the most sagacious of the varied bunch who have held his office – to put it mildly – and his administration was dominated by signatories of that hubristic document Project for a New American Century [/], the USA has, in the following years, behaved like an infuriated elephant floundering in a swamp, lashing out blindly around the world. Most regrettably, it has been aided and abetted in it’s purblind policies by the UK – or at least, by our God-guided [in his own estimation] prime minister who, while protesting his intention to act as a moderating influence on Big Brother across the Pond, has in fact been dragged along willy-nilly like a tin can tied to a mastiff’s tail.

When these two proclaimed their doctrine of ‘pre-emptive intervention’ to impose democracy on countries and peoples who have no notion or desire for it, I was irresistibly reminded of the Europe of my youth, where Hitler and Mussolini rampaged across borders bringing their ‘New Order’ to reluctant recipients. Not only is the new ‘doctrine’ wrong in principle, it has little if any hope of working. Anyone with even the most superficial knowledge of the Middle East and Asia should know that however much the West meddles, and for a time dominates, it is impossible for us to keep the indigenous people of those regions permanently in subjection. Whatever the moral and practical shortcomings of the old British Empire, those who administered our colonies at least had some understanding – at times quite profound – of the peoples they ruled. Their successors here, and even more in the USA, seem bereft of any such wisdom.

All this is deeply depressing, especially when one’s personal time is drawing short. But, as Yellow Duck so sagely says in the burrow today, nothing lasts for ever and the political weather can change very quickly. There are increasingly clear signs that the majority of people in both the UK and USA no longer support the policies of our Dear Leaders. For whatever reason – even if only because the policies obviously aren’t succeeding - that gives cause for hope.

Why this arena?

Coming up to my 80th year, and having largely lost my mobility due to chronic illness, the Internet is proving to be a fascinating and mentally liberating resource even in a house with several thousand books on the shelves. The ability to exchange messages almost instantaneously with people all over the world is wonderful, and gives me hope that even in the sombre political climate we are currently living in, a far greater degree of understanding and co-operation between people of good will can be achieved and will ultimately prevail over hatred and destructiveness.

I started to post comments on The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ site about six months ago. I was feeling more and more depressed about the world situation, which seemed to be going from bad to worse, and hoped that I might find some reassurance that there was still some constructive thinking going on somewhere. What I did find was lots of ding-dong battles of the junior school playground “yah, boo, you started it first, no you did” variety, too much intemperate personal abuse of both blog posters and other commentators, and a quite unacceptable degree of site censorship through arbitrary removal of some posts and even banning of certain posters although other comments which blatantly breached the site’s own ‘talk policy’ guidelines were allowed to remain. This craven surrender by The Guardian – which has been staple reading for me since I was a teenager in WW2 – to the fashionable heresies of ‘Political Correctness’ was a severe disappointment, so in November, encouraged by Frank Fisher and one or two other cyberfriends, I experienced a rush of blood to the head and set up ‘anticant’s burrow’.

Furbishing the burrow with memories, anecdotes, and light-hearted items as well as more serious topics, and keeping it as what I hope is a cheerful and friendly place for my Awkward Squad colleagues and other visitors, has been a source of much pleasure and satisfaction. It will continue to be a snug retreat for anticant and friends. But the breadth of subject matter has, I think, discouraged as much in-depth examination and commentary on more serious and public issues as I’d hoped for. Hence my decision to open this arena, designed for debate of current politics, social issues, religion, philosophy, significant books, etc. as a serious but not, I trust, too solemn public forum.

Unlike the burrow, which is and will remain ‘free’ for comments from all comers, I shall moderate this site so as to ensure, if I can, that comments don’t stray too far from the subject of the thread. If anyone wants to post a blog here, I shall be happy to do so, providing it is relevant.

Now, read – and write – the blogs, join the fray!

Sunday, 14 January 2007


ANTICANT’S ARENA is the new In Place for free and open debate.

anticant is opposed to censorship and Political Correctness of whatever stripe. He believes that all opinions, however unfashionable or unpopular, deserve an airing as long as they conform to the basic requirements of civilised and honest debate. These, in his view, are:

  1. Only opinions genuinely held by the poster should be expressed, unless a “devil’s advocate” point of view is advanced for the sake of argument, in which case this should be made clear.

  1. However controversial a point of view is, and however strongly it is disagreed with, any such disagreement should be expressed without the ill-temper, aggressive bullying, or personal abuse which disfigure some other discussion sites.

  1. Opinions will not be censored or posts removed unless they are a direct incitement to violence or lawbreaking, or pose a serious risk of libel.

If you are agreeable to operate in accordance with the above guidelines, welcome to ANTICANT’S ARENA. Suggestions for topics, and draft posts, will be welcome and, if published, duly acknowledged. Requests to join my 'friendly places' list will be favourably viewed.