Friday, 27 April 2007

Religion and Human Rights in Europe - a Secularist viewpoint

I commend this report on a recent Council of Europe conference in San Marino to all arena visitors.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

'Fleshcreeper' rides again

Just after posting Crooked Cobwebs of Mental Moonshine I switched on the lunchtime TV news and was greeted by the spectacle of Dr John “Fleshcreeper” Reid regaling an influential audience with the serious prospect of a massive terrorist attack upon our infrastructure – electricity supplies, computer systems, etc. - and warning of the chaos that would ensue if such an event evaded the vigilance of our ever-watchful security services and police [whose own spokesman was later seen lamenting that the public didn’t trust them sufficiently - is it any wonder?].

If “Fleshcreeper” actually does believe that there is the remotest prospect of such a dire happening, he should instantly resign his post as Home Secretary, as he is clearly utterly unfit for the job. And so should this entire bat-brained government, which is enmeshed in such delusional fantasies of its own manufacture about the nature of the “war on terror” that it is totally incapable of defending this country in the needful manner.

To unravel this bundle of garbage, let us consider the following indisputable facts.

There is a segment of the Muslim world who are bitterly hostile to the West, not just because of our idiotic military blunders in the Middle East, but because they hate and despise our free – and to them “ungodly” – way of life.

The militant adherents of this anti-Western ‘jihad’ probably number at the most a few thousand and belong to a number of different groupings, of which al-Qaeda is the archetype, whose composition, whereabouts, and sources of funding seemingly remain impenetrable secrets to the intelligence services of the Western powers after almost a decade of avowed and spasmodically active hostility.

I find this, frankly, so incredible as to be almost hilarious. Are we seriously being told by the British, American, and other Western governments that with all their incomparably sophisticated resources they are incapable of smoking out and disposing of a few groups of stateless fanatics?

If this is true, we are indeed in real trouble. If it is not true, there must be deeper, hidden, reasons why these threats have not been effectively dealt with; and some of the wilder conspiracy theories loom over the horizon.

Even if such groups are capable of a massive attack on our infrastructure, and willing to carry it out, would they be lunatic enough to do so? I very much doubt it – for the simple reason that they are as dependant on the said infrastructure as we are: if it collapses, so does their ability to communicate, to travel, to move money and other resources around the world. Only brainless idiots would embark upon such an enterprise.

In my view, the nature of the terrorist threat we face is quite different to that perceived by “Fleshcreeper” Reid and his colleagues. Even successful explosions and loss of life inflicted by a few terrorist cells will not weaken our national resolve, or result in a change of policy on our part.

Of course, we do need to change our policies in various ways. To start with, we should withdraw our forces from the Middle East and renounce our arrogant design of imposing “democracy” upon countries and peoples who do not ask for it. We should deal with terrorist threats and terrorist cells at home in the same way that we did with the Provisional IRA during the Ulster troubles – by vigilant undercover intelligence work and effective policing. We should not allow terrorists the dignity of believing that they are fighting a “war” against us; they should be treated as the common criminals which they are.

We should reverse and wind down the burgeoning curbs on civil liberties which, far from being effective against terrorism, are simply alienating and oppressive to the long-suffering mass of the population.

Above all, we should restore our national morale, proclaim the superiority of our free way of life with all its imperfections, live with the knowledge that if something nasty happens and our personal number is on it that’s just too bad, and cease to be scared nearly to death by the bugaboos routinely manufactured by "Fleshcreeper" Reid and his minions in their spook factory.

Why is this foolish government working so hard to make us all fearful? Franklin Roosevelt said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. Amen to that.

Crooked cobwebs of mental moonshine

Jose says [comment on previous post ‘Hear, Hear!’]: “It's hard for me to understand how it is possible that man having been able to land on the moon isn't able to seek the terrorist heads out and do away with the problem?”

This mystifies me, too. With all the stupendous surveillance technology at our disposal, why are we – the West – unable to pinpoint and eliminate our ideological enemies?

It is now 5½ years since the Twin Towers outrage of 9/11. Yet Osama bin Laden and his leading henchmen have still not been apprehended, and their whereabouts are apparently unknown to US and British intelligence.

Frankly, I find this quite incomprehensible, and indeed unbelievable. I vividly remember the somewhat ludicrous spectacle of President Bush – when he had regained his speech after being struck dumb while reading ‘My Pet Goat’ – donning his metaphorical Stetson, cocking his best six-shooter wild west rhetoric, and histrionically proclaiming that “They can run, but they can’t hide. We’ll smoke ‘em out, track ‘em down, cut off their financial bases” – or words to that effect.

And has any of this happened? Not a smidgeon. Despite all the space satellite technology, the lavish international on-the-ground intelligence resources, the boasted “pinpoint weaponry” – which in action on the ground in Iraq seems as scatter-prone as an 18th century blunderbuss – bin Laden and Co. remain unearthed from their presumably quite comfortable, if not luxurious, hideaways “somewhere on the Pakistan/Afghan border” [why is this assumed? Aren’t they more likely to be hiding out in Riyadh, Cairo or Brick Lane?] and reputed to be richer than ever.

I find this extremely odd. And not only odd – positively sinister. For what have we – the US and UK citizenry – been landed with as a consequence? The absurdly mis-named ‘war on terror’, with all its paraphernalia of illegal, mismanaged and futile foreign wars, repulsive obscenities such as what Naomi Wolf accurately dubs “Bush’s gulag” at Guantanamo Bay, constantly drummed-up fears of domestic acts of terrorism – which on the few occasions when they do occur appear to be the work of a handful of deranged and inadequate misfits – and the wholesale binning of our centuries-old civil liberties so cherished and hard-fought for by previous generations [including mine who grew up through World War Two] but seemingly meaningless to the young people of the Bush/Blair years, obsessed as they are with cosy consumerism and unnecessarily elaborate fancy gadgets such as i-pods.

Those of us who are appalled by the unconscionable and incompetent behaviour of our rulers in defence of what they choose to term our “free” way of life can grumble away as much as we like on the internet – for now, anyway: I wonder whether we shall be allowed that old-fashioned luxury for very much longer, the way things are going? [See Naomi Wolf again.] But in political terms, our complaints fall on deaf ears. In Britain, mainstream politics has been in the doldrums since our Dear Leader turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to over a million people marching against the illegal invasion of Iraq and his rentamob of spineless “New Labour” MPs failed to call him to account for his contempt of the people’s loudly articulated will. From then on, a sense of electoral impotence has grown, first as a feeling of resigned helplessness, then sullen acquiescence, and now dangerously verging on futile despair. This feeling of impotence is a big component, in my view, of the pervasive depression that is nowadays so widespread.

When will the tide turn? A new politics of mass protest and active democracy is overdue in both Britain and the United States, if we in the West are to regain our political health and spiritual integrity as the standard bearers of true freedom and moral front-runners for humanity in this so far nightmarish century.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Hear, hear!

"It is not terrorists who are a threat to our way of life, it is the politician who uses the threat of such to crank down on liberty, to create a climate of fear, to make our lives a misery."

LONGRIDER on his blog yesterday.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Americans observed

3. The anthropologist

Geoffrey Gorer was an English anthropologist who was a student and colleague of Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. He spent the 1939-45 war years in the United States on the staff of a British mission in Washington, reporting back to London on American attitudes. This work “threw into high relief the basic themes of disagreement and disapproval which, even though muted under the stress of war, were present in the minds of most of my British and American colleagues.” Both nationalities, he found, became disapproving, contemptuous or angry because their opposite numbers did not act or think or talk as they themselves would have done. He became convinced that a commonly held but false belief in the identity or similarity of the English and Americans was the greatest stumbling block mutual understanding and collaboration.

The outcome was his book The Americans: A Study in National Character, written shortly after the war and published in 1948. Although now nearly 60 years old, it is astonishingly fresh and up to date: many passages could easily have been written today. It is a difficult book to summarise adequately, and I would urge anyone interested in the topic to get hold of a copy. All I can do here is to outline the ground Gorer covers, and to quote some of his most striking observations.

He wrote it, he said, because he believed that the future peace and prosperity of the world depended on the mutual understanding and fruitful collaboration of the English and American peoples and governments. “But mutual understanding cannot endure if it is founded on delusions and falsifications; it must be based on the acceptance of our widely differing characters and ways of looking at and interpreting the world.”

The United States, he points out, was founded and populated by British and other European people who had rejected their old homes and crossed the Atlantic in search of a better life. The children of first-generation immigrants aspired to become more complete Americans than their parents could be, and commonly looked down upon their parents as old-fashioned. Following the example of the American Revolution, they rejected authority and espoused “emotional egalitarianism” – the belief that authority is, by its nature, morally detestable, and that the only good government is limited government. This led to an ingrained disrespect for politicians, and [in peacetime] for the military. [Graft among politicians is acceptable; feathering their own nests is understandable, and less dangerous than power-seeking or the exercise of political authority to effect social change: Franklin Roosevelt was widely distrusted for this reason.]

Americans believed – rightly or wrongly – that this hatred of authority made them “peaceloving”. Their devotion to social – as opposed to economic – equality convinced them that they were the most democratic people on earth. Their aversion to showing deference to other people was only exceeded by their attachment to symbols – the Flag, the Goddess of Liberty, Uncle Sam – and their fascinated absorption in scientific and technological achievement which had given them the highest material standard of living in the world.

In the American family, the rejection of the father’s authority was matched by the controlling influence of the mother. “The idiosyncratic feature of the American conscience was that it is predominantly feminine.” In consequence, “all the niceties of masculine behaviour – modesty, politeness, neatness, cleanliness – come to be regarded as concessions to feminine demands, and not good in themselves as part of the behaviour of a proper man”. Indeed, many fathers colluded with their sons in egging them on to become more “manly” by breaking these maternally imposed codes. The result was that American men were often psychologically confused, and this accounted for the panic-fear of homosexuality which was prevalent in mid-twentieth century America.

The manifestations of the female conscience in public life gave rise to the peculiar behaviour which Americans call “idealism”; the proclaiming of moral rules of conduct which others should follow, but which do not necessarily apply to oneself. This often led to charges by foreigners of hypocrisy, of which the Americans themselves were unaware and greatly resented being taxed with. “America seems to speak with two voices, the one proclaiming high ideals, the other negating them with the most unenlightened self-interest. But from the women’s clubs the voice of American’s conscience rings out clear and serene.”

To an American, to be successful was to be loved; and when they contemplated the undoubtedly abundant generosity with which the United States had frequently acted towards other parts of the world, they were filled with dismay and resentment at the criticisms made of their darker and less benign actions. This led to social hypocrisy – especially in the Southern states, where negroes were expected to show perpetually smiling, grateful faces to their erstwhile white masters.

Ignorance of the wider world – and, indeed, of their own country – was the greatest threat to American democracy. “An increase in the apathy and passivity of its citizens, and a further lowering of the calibre of Americans who make politics a career, might well lead to a virtual breakdown of the state; or alternatively this apathy may leave them open to the manipulations of a self-appointed √©lite of social engineers” – a prescient comment.

The demand for love, and the hurt distress when love was refused, coloured many American responses to international situations. Americans viewed the inhabitants of the rest of the world along a scale with 100 per cent Americanism at the positive end, and 100 per cent un-Americanism at the negative end. The more “American” people were, the more human. Therefore, democracy [American style] was the greatest benefit Americans could bestow upon others. The more “American” other nations could be depicted as being, the more sympathy they deserved. “Unless this minimum of Americanism is ascribed to them, how can they be considered human at all? And if they are not human, they are things: and things cannot be sympathised with or supported, they can only be exploited or destroyed” - another comment with a grimly contemporary ring. The other side of the coin was the American belief that their economic system of unbridled free enterprise and economic competition was a viable model for foreign relations.

I could go on quoting from this impressively insightful book, but this post is already long enough. Do read Gorer for yourselves.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

"They thought they were free"

Another very interesting and worthwhile piece and comments from ICH here.

Justice - Islamic style

From the "New York Times", 19 April:

Iran Exonerates Six Who Killed in Islam’s Name

Published: April 19, 2007

TEHRAN, April 18 — The Iranian Supreme Court has overturned the murder convictions of six members of a prestigious state militia who killed five people they considered “morally corrupt.”

The reversal, in an infamous five-year-old case from Kerman, in central Iran, has produced anger and controversy, with lawyers calling it corrupt and newspapers giving it prominence.

“The psychological consequences of this case in the city have been great, and a lot of people have lost their confidence in the judicial system,” Nemat Ahmadi, a lawyer associated with the case, said in a telephone interview.

Three lower court rulings found all the men guilty of murder. Their cases had been appealed to the Supreme Court, which overturned the guilty verdicts. The latest decision, made public this week, reaffirms that reversal.

“The objection by the relatives of the victims is dismissed, and the ruling of this court is confirmed,” the court said in a one-page verdict.

The ruling may still not be final, however, because a lower court in Kerman can appeal the decision to the full membership of the Supreme Court. More than 50 Supreme Court judges would then take part in the final decision.

According to the Supreme Court’s earlier decision, the killers, who are members of the Basiji Force, volunteer vigilantes favored by the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, considered their victims morally corrupt and, according to Islamic teachings and Iran’s Islamic penal code, their blood could therefore be shed.

The last victims, for example, were a young couple engaged to be married who the killers claimed were walking together in public.

Members of the Basiji Force are known for attacking reformist politicians and pro-democracy meetings. President Ahmadinejad was a member of the force, but the Supreme Court judges who issued the ruling are not considered to be specifically affiliated with it.

Iran’s Islamic penal code, which is a parallel system to its civic code, says murder charges can be dropped if the accused can prove the killing was carried out because the victim was morally corrupt.

This is true even if the killer identified the victim mistakenly as corrupt. In that case, the law requires “blood money” to be paid to the family. Every year in Iran, a senior cleric determines the amount of blood money required in such cases. This year it is $40,000 if the victim is a Muslim man, and half that for a Muslim woman or a non-Muslim.

In a long interview with the Iranian Student News Agency, a Supreme Court judge, Mohammad Sadegh Al-e-Eshagh, who did not take part in this case, sought Wednesday to discourage vigilante killings, saying those carried out without a court order should be punished.

At the same time, he laid out examples of moral corruption that do permit bloodshed, including armed banditry, adultery by a wife and insults to the Prophet Muhammad.

“The roots of the problems are in our laws,” said Mohammad Seifzadeh, a lawyer and a member of the Association for Defenders of Human Rights in Tehran. “Such cases happen as long as we have laws that allow the killer to decide whether the victim is corrupt or not. Ironically, such laws show that the establishment is not capable of bringing justice, and so it leaves it to ordinary people to do it.”

The ruling stems from a case in 2002 in Kerman that began after the accused watched a tape by a senior cleric who ruled that Muslims could kill a morally corrupt person if the law failed to confront that person.

Some 17 people were killed in gruesome ways after that viewing, but only five deaths were linked to this group. The six accused, all in their early 20s, explained to the court that they had taken their victims outside the city after they had identified them. Then they stoned them to death or drowned them in a pond by sitting on their chests.

Three of the families had given their consent under pressure by the killers’ families to accept financial compensation, said Mr. Ahmadi, the lawyer.

Such killings have occurred in the past. A member of the security forces shot and killed a young man in 2005 in the subway in Karaj, near Tehran, for what he also claimed was immoral behavior by the victim.

A judge caused outrage in 2004 in Neka, in the north, after he issued a death sentence for a 16-year old girl for what he said were chastity crimes. After the summary trial, he had her hanged in public immediately, before the necessary approval from the Supreme Court.

Neither man has been punished.

“Such laws are not acceptable in our society today,” said Hossein Nejad Malayeri, the brother of Gholamreza Nejad Malayeri, who was killed by the group in Kerman. “That means if somebody has money, he can kill, and claim the victim was corrupt.”

"Emotional midgets with constipated compassion"

Another rousingly robust polemic against the NeoCon brigade here.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

The Party of Brownshirts

Another first-class article on the US Republicans by Paul Craig Roberts from ICH.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Apostles of Deception

"What passes for Christianity among the people, like so many things American, is not the genuine article", by Charles Sullivan.

Another excellent item from Information Clearing House here.

Saturday, 14 April 2007

Double standards

"To initiate a war of aggression. . . is not only an international crime, it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole." - Nuremberg Tribunal.

"The US-led invasion of Iraq was an illegal act that contravened the UN charter." - UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan - -September 2004.

Commenting yesterday on a "Guardian" interview with Russian exile Boris Berezovsky, who had advocated "a revolution" in Russia, a Foreign Office spokesman said: "We deplore any call for the violent overthrow of a sovereign state. We expect everyone living, working or visiting the UK, whatever their status, to obey our laws".

What's sauce for the foreign goose is evidently no longer sauce for the US/UK gander!

Friday, 6 April 2007

What is this thing called love?

In the early 1990s I wrote a short book, Speaking of Sex, about the various ways in which sex was thought about and discussed in our then contemporary society. I say “then” because attitudes and discourse have changed considerably during the past 15 or so years, and if I were writing the book today it would be different in a good many respects. However, I believe it is still worth reading.

One of the chapters had the title of this blog. It was symptomatic, I thought, that someone asked me “why do you need to talk about love in this book?” Nowadays, so much sexual activity is purely sensual and emotionless that love has been relegated firmly to the sidelines. But it did, and does, seem to me important to consider the nature of love. I realise that this is a topic which has been mulled over by some of the profoundest minds down the centuries, and it is presumptuous of me to add my twopennyworth. Nevertheless, here goes.

Resorting to metaphor, love is an embracing atmosphere which we absorb – if we are fortunate – in infancy and childhood. Those who grow up surrounded by it, and receiving it, take it for granted – for them, love is the natural, spontaneous feeling people have for each other in the absence of painful emotions. The caring concern and warmth of parents and other close grownups confirms the child’s sense of self and worthwhileness; and those of us who are fortunate enough to have received such positive messages about ourselves when we were little give out love spontaneously to others.

Those who know that they are loved, and who grow up loving others in their turn, do so largely unaware of how lucky they are. Those who don’t receive and experience love in their childhood don’t know what it is that they are missing; and so their own capacity to love is stunted. Often they are angry, without knowing why; and their emotions of resentment, and even hatred, which stem from their lack of love, seem as natural to them as a loving nature does to those who have been brought up lovingly.

While the potential to experience and to express emotions is inborn, the activities of loving and of hating are acquired through experience and reciprocation. Even then, one does not spontaneously become a loving or a hating person; each one of us constantly makes and remakes that choice [whether we are conscious of doing so of not] in every event and relationship of our lives.

I believe, however, that, regardless of the good or ill fortune of their upbringing, and the influences it has exerted upon them, all human beings experience the need to be loved, whether of not they comprehend what this yearning is; and that its absence, or frustration, is the most potent breeding-ground of misery and of anger which all too readily turns into hatred and cruelty. And the need for love is not only emotional: it has a strongly physical component which expresses itself through the sensuous urge [not always, but very often, sexual] for fusion with other human beings. Plato identified this urge, and depicted it beautifully in his legend [told by Aristophanes in the Symposium] of the hermaphrodites cut in two by the gods, who constantly yearned to be reunited with their ‘other halves’.

Apart from this instinctive physical yearning, and far from being the soul-shattering thunderbolt which romantic novels and films depict as ‘falling in love’, love is not an unwilled experience. It is a deliberate act of will and intention – a chosen reaching out towards others, and specifically to one other [‘the Beloved’], in loving care and concern for their wellbeing. To be loving requires openness and involves risk. It is an art, and also a skill, which can be consciously learned and developed.

Do these notions bring us any closer to defining the elusive butterfly? In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson offer an original metaphor: LOVE IS A COLLABORATIVE WORK OF ART. This, they say, incorporates many other metaphors: love is an aesthetic experience [beauty]; love is energy; love is work; love requires co-operation, dedication, compromise, discipline, patience, instinctive communication, shared values, goals and responsibility.

Some other familiar metaphors are: Love is a journey, an adventure, a pilgrimage, a service; Love is madness [as in ‘I’m crazy about him’; ‘She’s driving me wild’]. An entire book [Love and Addiction by Stanton Peele] has been devoted to the metaphor of love as a junkie’s fix, characterising the state of being ‘in love’ as a toxic dependency upon a romanticised vision of the Beloved who, being actually only an ordinary human being, is incapable of living up to the lover’s inflamed expectations. In this state, love becomes an unhealthy mutual protection racket forged out of a victim-like need for security. Such overheated ‘Romantic love’ flies in the face of common sense and lures many to heartbreak and even tragedy. And the clearer vision of detached third parties is rarely of much help.

Before we can love anyone else happily and successfully, we have to love ourselves – not in a selfish or self-centred way, but realistically and with some sense of proportion. We must be aware of our own strengths and weaknesses, and take responsibility for making fruitful use of the former and improving the latter. Only then can we offer supportive affection to another human being, rather than making dependant demands upon them. My own favourite metaphor for a healthy loving relationship is two pillars standing side by side in comradely togetherness but each solidly based upon its own sound foundations.

The essence of love is emotional honesty which does not falsify, either to oneself or to the beloved. That cannily sage and uncannily modern Victorian, Robert Louis Stevenson, says in one of his essays: “Truth to your own heart and your friends, never to feign or falsify emotion - that is the truth which makes love possible and mankind happy.” And elsewhere he writes: “The essence of love is kindness; and indeed it may best be defined as passionate kindness: kindness, so to speak, run mad and become importunate and violent”.

In this, Stevenson concurs with his friend Henry James, who once said that only three things really count in life: the first is to be kind; the second is to go on being kind; and the third is still to be kind.

How many of us achieve this in our lives?

Thursday, 5 April 2007


Peace is the most hyped-up and least valued aspiration of contemporary humanity. Everyone pays lip-service to it, while virtually no-one seeks to practice it actively. The 21st century atmosphere is choking with actual and verbal violence – always labelled “defensive”, of course. The dwindling few who audibly urge peace and behave peaceably are mocked at as weak, even treacherous.

The reaction to Iran’s freeing of their British naval hostages is dismally predictable. The comment threads of the Guardian’s CiF blogs on the subject are overflowing with sneering tirades – some of them positively apoplectic – mostly from across the Atlantic, damning Britain’s failure to launch WW3 over the issue. Whatever the Iranians’ motives, they have made a magnanimous gesture which deserves more than a contemptuous nod of recognition and should be explored as a stepping-stone towards the general reduction of tension in the Middle East.

No individual or nation is perfect: there is no room for ‘holier-than-thou’ attitudes, any more than there is for tediously repetitive snarls of ‘yah, boo, you’re worse than we are and you started it first’. Whatever the virtues of the Iranian people, the post-Khomeini regime is a nasty totalitarian theocracy, and while it was feasting its British captives in the parlour it may well have been torturing its domestic victims in the dungeons. But this stomach-churning possibility does not detract from the hopeful nature of what has occurred. The breakthrough should be exploited to the full.

Surely this still infant 21s century has experienced more than enough hatred, anger, violence, and wanton murder. Surely all decent people all over the world are nauseously surfeited by it. Surely it is high time for a worldwide vibrant people-centred [as opposed to government-directed] movement for global peace.

By ‘peace’, I do not mean merely the absence of conflict, or the containment by superior force of still–cherished hatred and anger, but a genuinely peaceable attitude towards other people and countries, and the committed renunciation of violence. This may sound a utopian dream, but if humanity is to regain its balance and endure successfully for another half-century, it has to begin somewhere. And soon.

The only place where it can start is within each peace-seeking and peace-loving individual who aspires to, and sometimes fleetingly experiences, “the Peace of God which passeth all understanding”. But while such benign people are, I firmly believe, in the vast majority there is also a sizeable rabble of angry, hate-filled, and aggressive individuals and groups who revel in violence and must be confronted and faced down by peaceful means - including, if necessary, passive resistance.

Yet again, this is an aspect of the democratic deficit – the insidious way in which small, unrepresentative, too-powerful minorities wag and manipulate supinely passive majorities. The peaceable people of the earth are like Gulliver, bound by the gossamer threads of the Lilliputians. If we wish to survive, it is time for us to rise up and shake them off.

Sunday, 1 April 2007

Where do we get our values from?

Are humans born as homunculi, containing within themselves the seeds of all their adult traits? What role does genetic transmission play in the formation of character? Is ‘conscience’ innate or learned? These are all hard-fought battlegrounds, and my own ponderings over the sources of personal value-systems are far from conclusive.

First, it must be the case that physical inheritance determines many aspects of the individual – certainly where tendencies to a particular disease runs in families. But whether such influences determine all aspects of character is a more open question.

Few now hold that the infant is born a tabula rasa – a blank page upon which anything can be written by early contacts and influences. It is more likely that each newborn baby has some inherited predispositions and tendencies. Experience, however, is crucial. An easy birth, followed by gentle, loving nurturing is more favourable to the development of a placid, trusting nature than an angry, tense one. Even in a loving family, however, stressful adult situations can have a negative effect by inducing tensions in a child, as happened in my own case.

Education – in the widest sense – plays a primary role. Our nationality, our family history and traditions, our early awareness of social, cultural, and religious influences regarded as ‘normal’ by our parents and grandparents, all shape our childish assumptions.

In adolescence and early adulthood, the influence of good – and bad – teachers can be critical in forming an intelligent and enquiring approach to knowledge, while poor teaching can permanently turn a child off from the wish to learn. I was exceptionally fortunate in this respect, both at school and at university, and owe a lifelong debt to half a dozen or so dedicated and inspiring teachers who spared no pains to encourage and enthuse me.

Peer group influence is more problematic – more so nowadays than when I was young. Children are great imitators, and “keeping up with the Jones’s” whether in bad, anti-social and self-damaging habits such as drug taking, extravagant expenditure, or even worse in gang warfare and violence, are hazards never far from the minds of today’s responsible parents. The benign side of the coin, fortunately, is the formation of lifelong friendships which are a great comfort and support to many in times of crisis as well as in happier days.

So while some of the sources of our values are clearly discernible, others are part mystery and part lottery. Those of us who have had at least some good luck in the draw should acknowledge how fortunate we are, and be as charitable as we can in judging those who have fared worse than we did.