Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Nothing new under the sun

I had intended composing a New Year Message for 2009, pointing out that the crisis we are currently involved in is not just political, economic, financial, or military - it is first and foremost a moral crisis: the wholesale abandonment of honesty. Then I remembered that Rudyard Kipling had said all this far better than I could ever contrive to:

The Gods of the Copybook Headings

AS I PASS through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.

When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "Stick to the Devil you know."

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "The Wages of Sin is Death."

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "If you don't work you die."

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Censors on the prowl

“I’m not trying to curb free speech”, says Andy Burnham, Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport, announcing his proposals for internet viewing restrictions, “I just want to protect the public from ‘unacceptable’ material”.

All would-be censors pay lip-service to free speech. The trouble is, they don’t seem to know what it is. In their book, you can say whatever you want – as long as they don’t disagree with it. You can read or view whatever you want – as long as it doesn’t offend their notions of what is ‘harmful’, ‘indecent’, or ‘offensive’.

Mr Burnham considers that clips of beheadings [for instance] are too shocking to be shown, and that children – it’s always children – must be ‘protected’ from violent or sexual content.

So presumably under the new Burnham dispensation the daily television news bulletins are going to be radically sanitised. No more scenes of fighting, bombing, civilian casualties, people dying of starvation, anywhere in the world? No more fictional murders? No more representations of the crucifixion on religious programmes?

An age-based rating system is to be applied, and presumably parents and others whose children watch material considered ‘unsuitable’ by Mr Burnham and his bunch of censoring nannies will be comitting yet another newly created offence.

To justify this latest invasion of parental rights and privacy, an NSPCC poll is cited which found that three out of four children had been ‘disturbed’ by images they had seen on the internet. “Most parents have no clue what their children are up to online”, said a self-important NSPCC nanny figure, implying that she did, and that they were up to no good.

Of course many parents don’t have much inkling of what’s going on in their childrens’ minds a lot of the time. Nor should they, if the children are to develop their own sense of identity and independence. Do we really want to live in a world where it is considered improper for children ever to be disturbed by what they see or hear, so that they are consequently ill-equipped to deal with the shocks and traumas which they will inevitably sometimes encounter as they go through life?

I suppose Mr Burnham will be all for banning Grimm’s Fairy Tales next. They and their kind provided many an agreeable frisson of horror in my childhood days.

These busybody censors keep popping up like jack-in-the boxes. Why can’t they mind their own business, and get off our backs? A quarter of a century ago, I wrote an essay on ‘Pornography and Free Speech’, pointing out that freedom of expression is the essential bedrock of democratic liberty which underpins all other freedoms, and making the case against censorship exercised on grounds of taste. I said, in part:

“I start from the premise that all censorship is evil, because it diminishes human freedom and interferes with the spontaneity of communication. In an ideal world there would be no censorship, but the world we live in is far from ideal; and for the foreseeable future there will be some censorship. What there is should be as limited as possible, and should be kept under constant and vigilant scrutiny. The burden of proving that censorship is the lesser evil in any given instance should always lie upon those (be they the representatives of the State or private bodies or persons) who seek to impose it. And such proof should include solid evidence of demonstrable harm, greater than the harm wrought by the proposed censorship, to an individual, to a group, or to society as a whole, if the article or information in question remained uncensored.

“Such harm can usually be proved in cases of legitimate restriction of information on grounds of State security or libel upon an individual (even though the law on these matters is widely acknowledged to be defective and awaits legislative improvement). In matters of public taste and morals, however, tangible evidence of harm or damage is much more elusive. These questions are essentially subjective - and it is for this reason above all that I believe the less the law intrudes into the realm of public and private morality, the better.

“All censorship is a hindrance to the free flow of facts, of opinions and of ideas; and therefore, regardless of the motive with which it is imposed, censorship constitutes a distortion of spontaneous communication between human beings. I would not wish to argue that communication should never be restricted by convention or even sometimes by law; but I do maintain that every instance of such restriction ought to be scrutinised vigilantly in a democratic society, and that the onus of justifying it should be upon those authorities or individuals seeking to impose it. The only possible guiding principle for a society that is tolerably free in fact as well as in name has to be that enunciated by John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty (1859) that

‘If all mankind minus one were of the 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’.

“Censorship is the intervention of a third mind between the communicator and those to whom the communication is addressed. The censor says: ‘For a reason which seems good to me, I must stop this information reaching you.’ (‘You’ may be either a specific individual, a class of individuals, or the public at large.)

“What is censored may be a fact, an opinion or a scene. A censored fact may be true or untrue. A censored opinion may be well-founded or ill-founded. A censored scene may be real or imaginary. As Mill points out, society can be harmed just as much by the censoring of falsehoods and errors as by the suppression of truth - not least because the truth or falsehood of information and opinions can only be established by free discussion and full examination of all the available evidence.

“The censor's ‘good reason’ for censoring a fact is usually that a person learning it would be harmed (this argument is frequently advanced as a ‘reason’ for not giving sex education to adolescents); or that a third party would be damaged by it (the basis on which the laws of libel are founded and on which legal measures to protect privacy are advocated by some people); or that the community or the State would be harmed (the raison d'etre of the Official Secrets Acts). The ‘good reason’ for censoring an opinion about society is usually that it would undermine the established order (i.e. it is seditious) or that it is highly offensive to the feelings of certain groups in society (e.g. the Race Relations Acts, blasphemy). The ‘good reason’ for censoring an opinion about an individual or a group is usually that the person or the group would be harmed or offended by its publication. The censor's ’good reason’ for censoring a scene is usually that it will harm the people seeing it or that some of them are outraged by it: this is the common justification for censorship of pornography. In other situations, censorship may simply be used as a repressive weapon by the State or other authority without being directly related to the content of the material which is being censored.

“Are the censor's ‘good reasons’ really good? The answers must depend not only on whether the harm he fears is real, but also on whether it outweighs the counter-harm which censorship does to freedom of speech. Any act of censorship, whatever its pretext, is by its very nature a political action: it is the exercise of power by one group over another. In a democratic society the presumption must always be in favour of free speech. If any other presumption prevails, the society is no longer free and open, but will - albeit gradually - become closed and authoritarian.

“Surely, in the end, it is safer to run the risks involved in a free and open society where views, attitudes and opinions are expressed which one does not necessarily approve of, than to live under a regime where free enquiry and expression are stifled and suppressed. Censorship is a habit of mind which, once it gains a foothold, spreads like a cancer. Whatever its starting point, the end of the censor's road is likely to be the same: repression of ‘dangerous’ ideas, not only about sex but about morals, politics, art and life.

“I detest censorship and would-be censors because they attack my freedom - and yours - to read, see, hear and do what I - and you – choose…The attempt to preserve people [including children] from harm by keeping them in ignorance of whatever may ‘morally pollute’ them strikes me as not only misconceived and futile, but as positively evil in its consequences. Living is, by its very nature, a dangerous process; and it is only by being conscious of the depths, as well as of the heights, of human imagination that we can make meaningful choices and accept full moral responsibility for ourselves. Bad things happen in the world, whether we are allowed to know it or not: and we shall never overcome evil by being kept in ignorance of its existence.”

So my message to Andy Burnham and his ilk is: “Keep your censoring activities within your own household, and confine them to your own children. Let other parents, and their children, take responsibility for their own reading, viewing and listening choices.”

NO to the Nanny State!

Friday, 26 December 2008

Shum contradickshun, shurely?

In his Christmas message, the moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Wales, the Reverend Haydn Thomas, pondered the meaning of "good will to all men”.

"It means showing tolerance towards all people, no matter what their creed, race, gender or politics," he said.

"It means accepting that everyone has a right to express their opinion even though they don't necessarily believe the same as you."

He then said he was 'hurt' by the two members of the Welsh assembly who invited poet Patrick Jones to read his poems at the Senedd in Cardiff Bay.

The poet's reading of his collection of poems Darkness Is Where The Stars Are led to protests and claims that his work was "obscene and blasphemous".

- BBC report

Whatever happened to melody?

To Ben’s incredulous scorn, Anticant sometimes listens to a pop music station calling itself Mellow Magic, which has the silly slogan “more music, less talk” – an obvious lie each time they say it! Far from being mellow, much of their output is raucous and tuneless. I suppose I hang on hoping that the next track will be an old familiar friend, or at least hummable to – but what is mostly on offer is:

[a] men who ‘sing’ as if they have clothes pegs clipped to their noses;

[b] a growing tribe of women with the nasty habit of making rasping ‘hawking’ noises from the backs of their throats as if they are about to be sick [and so far as I’m concerned, the sooner the better];

[c] persons of both sexes who HOWL like dogs baying at the moon, and seem to have no idea of voice production - though I suppose that old-fashioned notion went out with the advent of portable microphones;

[d] thunderously loud thumping backups which often drown out the puny voices, reminding me of those heavy forge hammers in the steelworks I used to visit of old;

[e] last but not least, the over-rated ‘superstars’ – the utterly talentless Madonna, Elton John giving his famous imitation of Donald Duck in a tizzy, George Michael sounding like a mouse with tonsillitis, and Will Young, who gets ever more epicene.

Whatever happened to the easy listening music of my youth and young adulthood, performed by artists who knew how to enthral and delight an audience – Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett [happily still with us], and this side of the pond, David Whitfield, Matt Monro and their ilk?

And still more, what has become of the charming genre of musical comedy and light operetta: Noel Coward, Ivor Novello, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein…..?

What beats me is who pays these people to perform, and even more who wants to listen to them?

Now there’s a nice Christmas rant for you! Obviously, Anticant is getting old. And, sometimes, nostalgically grumpy.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

What an idea!

I find something irresistibly comic about the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his Christmas sermon, telling people that they shouldn't expect magical solutions to their problems.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Christmas is for everyone

When I was young in the mid-twentieth century, Christmas wasn’t politicised in the way that it – like almost everything else – has become today. Whether you were a Christian or not, Christmas was an uncomplicatedly happy time of the year – magical for some: a festive break in the middle of winter’s gloom, enjoyed (or ignored) by everyone in whatever way they chose, without officious priests, politicians, or journalists telling them how they ‘ought’ to be celebrating it.

To my mind, that is as it should be. But nowadays, we are ceaselessly assailed with the injunctions of the Politically Correct – ‘those who know best‘ - about what we should and should not do at Christmas. The ineffable Mr Ed Balls’ Department for Children, Schools and Families has even issued 150,000 leaflets called "Tis The Season To Be Careful", warning people to guard against (among other things) the danger of gravy exploding in microwaves! [Thanks to Ken at ‘Nanny Knows Best’ for this tit-bit.]

Even Christians are admonished not to celebrate the birth of their Saviour in a fashion which may be ‘offensive’ to those of other faiths: being ‘offensive’ is now a major crime in the eyes of the PC brigade, who ignore the obvious fact that being offended is a choice, and that sensible people for the most part choose to put up with it instead of kicking up a petulant fuss.

I am not a Christian, but I have no objection to Christians – or any one else - celebrating Christmas in whatever fashion they choose. How they do it is their business, and no-one else’s.

If that includes letting the gravy go ballistic, so be it.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Grandmothers are great

My two grandmothers were very different personalities. My father’s mother had a sweetness, as well as a firmness, which drew people to her as a fount of sage advice and comfort. She played a major role in my growing up, and her death when I was eighteen was a personal tragedy for me.

My other grandmother was also a strong character, but in a different, and more negative, way. She endeavoured to rule her family to such an extent that she alienated their affections, and ended up as a very lonely old woman, still railing about their shortcomings. I felt sorry for her.

Grandmothers – when we are fortunate enough to have them – are often seminal figures in our lives. To a child, they represent a fount of wisdom and experience beyond that of our parents, and although often accused of over-indulgent “spoiling”, leave behind them – perhaps for that very reason – undying memories of being not only loved, but fully accepted by them.

Wise grandmothers – often great-grandmothers – feature in many of the classic fairy tales by the great Victorian writer George MacDonald, such as “The Princess and the Goblin” and “The Princess and Curdie”. Usually they are tucked away in a lofty turret of the castle, only reachable by a child with true discernment, where they sit spinning the warp and weft of the lives of those whose good fairy they are. In “The Wise Woman”, it is an isolated cottage on the moors where the grandmother-figure instils spiritual wisdom by placing the self-absorbed and surly children into ‘mood chambers’ where they undergo various revelatory experiences.

MacDonald understood the power of true feminine wisdom, long before the strident man- hating feminists appeared on the modern scene. If you haven’t read him, do – his Complete Fairy Tales are available in the Penguin Classics series – and reflect this Christmas upon the blessings the fortunate ones amongst us have received from our grandmothers.

The Pope's Christmas message

Pope Benedict XVI has said that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour is just as important as saving the rainforest from destruction.
- BBC News.

Well, it's a nice change from 'Peace on Earth, Goodwill to all Mankind'.

In these dire times we are living through, is gay-bashing really the most important mission of the Roman Catholic Church – above reducing global violence, seeking an end to war, ministering to the sick, the hungry, and the homeless?

The New Testament Jesus is not recorded as having even mentioned homosexuality. Nowadays, it seems to be an obsession of his vicars on earth – a displacement mechanism which allows them to turn their pious eyes away from the real evils afflicting humanity.

This ex-Nazi Pope is either na├»ve or deranged. Hopefully, no sane person will take much notice of his ignorant and bigoted pronouncements. He was recently forced to eat humble pie for a clumsy attack on Muslims; now he owes an apology to those belonging to sexual minorities – though it is unlikely to be forthcoming.

I repeat what I said on a previous post: Ever since it lost its moral and temporal supremacy at the Reformation, the Catholic Church has been consistently hostile to the liberal, civilised values of the Enlightenment, to modernity, and to scientific progress.

My Christmas message to the Pope and his minions is: It’s time for you to join the turkeys, and get stuffed.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Anticant is indisposed

For the past week the Burrow household has been in the grip of one of the worst 'flu-type viruses we can remember. So much for the vaunted jabs we had in October!

Anticant has stayed thankfully in bed, occasionally tottering along to the computer to check mail, but incapable of doing much typing. Pre-Christmas preparations have been disrupted, and it will be a while before normal blogging service is resumed [whatever passes for 'normal' in the Burrow and the Arena!]

In the meantime we wish all our friends and visitors a bright festive season.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Rancid rant

The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, has made an intemperate attack on secularism and what he describes as “a liberal society, hostile to Christian morals and values”.

According to the Cardinal, Britain shows signs of degenerating into a country “free of morals” because of its rejection of traditional values and its new emphasis on the rights of the individual, stoked up by “vocal and aggressive atheists”. The “unfriendly climate for people of all faiths” has [he says] united the country’s major faiths of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Catholicism, the Cardinal claims, has borne the brunt of this “liberal hostility” because it defends “absolute values” which it considers to be “fundamental pillars of a rightly ordered society”.

Almost needless to say, these “absolute values” include implacable Catholic opposition to liberal laws on abortion, homosexuality and divorce, and support for faith schools. He accuses critics of Catholic moral doctrine of being repressively intolerant, and asserts that the Human Rights Act denies the rights of religious groups to act according to their conscience and beliefs.

This utter codswallop really takes the biscuit. It is total "through the looking glass" thinking.

Ever since it lost its moral and temporal supremacy at the Reformation, the Catholic Church has been consistently hostile to the liberal, civilised values of the Enlightenment, to modernity, and to scientific progress.

Yet Catholics take full advantage of the social and technological benefits which this hated "liberalism" has provided.

In this day and age they are parasitic throwbacks, seeking to drag us all back to a pre-rational age.

Anyone doubting this should read Double Cross: the Code of the Catholic Church by David Ranan for a full exposure of their humbugging 'absolute values' and for the cruelty they all too often practise as opposed to the 'sweetness and light' which they preach.

True to form, the Pope’s headquarters at the Vatican would – according to the National Secular Society’s Newsline – prefer gay people to be executed rather than married. And it doesn’t want disabled people to be protected, either, in case that promotes abortion:

‘The full extent of the regressive nature of the Vatican under Ratzinger was made clear this week when it was revealed that the Vatican had opposed two United Nations resolutions aimed at protecting gay and disabled people from discrimination and death.

‘When France proposed a resolution seeking all nations to decriminalise homosexuality, the Vatican immediately said it would oppose the resolution. This is despite the fact that up to 70 nations still have legal punishments for gay people including, in some instances, the death penalty. In a number of Islamic countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen, homosexual acts are still a capital offence.

‘The UN resolution is due to be proposed by France later this month on behalf of the 27-nation European Union. But Archbishop Celestino Migliore said the Vatican opposed the resolution because it would “add new categories of those protected from discrimination” and could lead to reverse discrimination against traditional heterosexual marriage.

‘“If adopted, they would create new and implacable discriminations”, Migliore said. “For example, states which do not recognise same-sex unions as matrimony will be pilloried and made an object of pressure. ‘

A strongly worded editorial in Italy's mainstream La Stampa newspaper said the Vatican’s reasoning was “grotesque”.

‘Franco Grillini, founder and honorary president of Arcigay, Italy’s leading gay rights group, said the Vatican’s reasoning smacked of “total idiocy and madness”. Mr Grillini said the resolution had nothing to do with gay marriage, but was aimed at stopping the execution of gay people in Islamic countries.

‘An editorial in Rome’s left-leaning La Repubblica newspaper said the Vatican’s position “leaves one dumbstruck”. Margherita Boniver, a leading member of Italy’s leftist Democratic Party, called it “alarmingly anachronistic”.

‘The gay rights activist, Grillini, said he feared what he called another “Holy Alliance” between the Vatican and Islamic states at the United Nations to oppose the proposed resolution. At a major U.N. conference on the family in Cairo in 1994, the Vatican teamed up with Islamic and Latin American countries to defeat an abortion rights proposal. In October, a leading Vatican official called homosexuality “a deviation, an irregularity and a wound”. ‘

The secretary of the UK’s Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association, David Christmas, described the statement as “ludicrous”. He said: “The accusation that it is in some way discriminatory to attempt to counteract the prejudice and hatred which exists in over 80 countries that outlaw same sex relations would appear to be yet another example of the Vatican turning logical thinking on its head.”

‘Mr Christmas pointed out that in nine countries or regions of countries the mandatory punishment for homosexuality is death by execution. “Isn’t the Vatican supposed to believe in the right to life?”, he asked.

‘Meanwhile, The Times has revealed that the Holy See also refused to sign a UN document last May on the rights of the disabled because it did not condemn abortion or assert the rights of foetuses with birth defects. ‘

The Vatican made its position clear as it marked the United Nations International Day of Disabled People. Archbishop Migliore said the Vatican could not accept a clause in the UN declaration affirming a right to “sexual health and reproduction” because “in some countries such rights include the right to abortion”.

‘The Italian left of centre Democratic Party said that coupled with the Vatican’s stand on gays, this showed a "return to obscurantism" under Josef Ratzinger.

‘Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society said: “These two incidents expose the Vatican’s “morality” to be a sham. How otherwise could an organisation that purports to be a moral authority and whose current Pope’s first encyclical was laughingly entitled God is Love actually oppose measures to put pressure on states who execute citizens because of their sexuality? It seems that in some respects the Vatican has not moved on very much from some of the medieval atrocities for which it was so famous.”’