It seems that the Gods / Forces of Coincidence want me to blog, as so many things have been happening lately that have brought me to the same collection of thoughts.
I think the first and most major event was the World Cup. There was something of a minor furore over whether it was Good and/or Right for the flag of England to be flown outside of Number 10, Downing Street in support of the English football team. To those who care about these things, it was somewhat offensive to the other members of the United Kingdom that the largely-resented “dominant” partner in the union was to get its flag flown outside the headquarters of that union.
The defence was that, if the Welsh, Scottish, or Northern Irish teams had qualified for the competition then their flags would have been flown also. This is almost certainly true, I would say; it would be insensitive and politically suicidal to operate any other way. Nevertheless, the minor uproar was inevitable. And that is what interested me: why do people get so worked up about these things?
The second was the horrific oil spill in the gulf, and the strange conversation that followed the coverage in the USA. There was talk that BP should be referred to by its acronym and not as “British Petroleum” as this ran the risk of generating ill will toward Britain as a whole. The strangest part, though, was a debate I heard on BBC Radio 2, which asked whether we as the British Public should be criticising the company or defending it. This was not on the basis of its actions, however – the facts of the actual case seem to have been counted as largely irrelevant. No, rather the debate hinged on the fact that it was an (at least nominally) British company. Apparently a lot of British pensioners have money invested in the stocks, for instance.
I was surprised, I must admit – in my rather naive way – that this was really so open for debate to people. If a corporation acts in an irresponsible way, or fails to act in a responsible way, then they should be criticised. They should not be deemed worthy of defence purely by virtue of their nationality or the self-interest of stock investments. Is it really so mad to suggest that this approach is totally backwards?
Finally, there came the always-inspiring genius of Bill Hicks. I went to a showing of American: The Bill Hicks Story, a documentary about the great man’s tragically short life, and there was a short clip about the burning of the flag and how extremely people tend to react to that particular form of expression, particularly in the U.S.. It certainly seems that the more vocal incarnations of patriotism that we experience over on this side of the Atlantic are far more widespread on the other. Perhaps this is a false impression, but in a country where children are expected to recite an oath of fidelity to that country, patriotism is certainly taken very seriously indeed.
The question that kept occurring to me through all of this is one that first struck me after a throwaway comment on the radio. It may have been a politician commenting on the Downing Street Flag Fiasco, I can’t remember. But the comment was a qualification to the main portion of their argument, and was along the lines of “I’m proud to be British”. This was then joined by other phrases from the same conversation about what nationality people considered themselves: “I’m Scottish first and British second”, for instance, or “I’m English first and foremost”.
I just thought, am I alone in not strongly identifying with the state I was born into? Whether England or the United Kingdom? Am I the only one who feels no compulsion to qualify any sensible, well-reasoned comment with “Of course I’m proud to be British”? I do hope not.
Pride is something that should relate to an achievement, generally speaking. I am proud of some of my writing; I am proud of gaining my degrees at university. I am not proud of an accident of birth. I am happy, to some degree, to be British. Certainly it has afforded me a great deal of advantages simply not available to those in less affluent countries. I am happy that I live in a country that, generally speaking, allows a significant amount of freedom of expression. But I am not proud to be British. I don’t feel that the adjective applies.
I don’t see patriotism as a useful force in the world. What it does in terms of promoting solidarity within a country and a sense of national identity is positively counter-productive in an increasingly global society. The oil spill is the perfect example: almost as much coverage has been given to the international relations aspect as has been given to the fact that it is a disaster on an incredible scale. Why do people care that it’s a nominally British company, when the spill is affecting several states with no regard for national boundaries? I am increasingly convinced that we need to regard ourselves as citizens of the Earth first, with this taking precedence over any national identity we might feel.
I leave you with the incisive wit of The Great Hicks…
I wish I could be surprised by this news, but instead I am simply resignedly outraged:
The man has criticised the government – not just policy, but ministers themselves – based on their handling of the evidence regarding drugs such as cannabis, LSD, and ecstasy. They are hopelessly blinkered into a negative view of these narcotics, despite reliable and repetitive evidence to the contrary. I won’t go into great detail here because this is certain to hit the blogs written by those with far more knowledge and time to spend on research and writing these things up.
Suffice it to say I am once more disappointed in our government, though far from surprised. The only good I see coming of this is that perhaps – just perhaps – they will lose more votes in the impending election, and maybe even raise awareness of the hopelessly ignorant drug policies in effect in this country.
I realise this is old news to most people by this point, but I’ve been stupidly busy over the last month or more and just haven’t had the time, or indeed inclination, to blog. Even my creative writing, which takes precedence, has suffered lately. But enough of that. What is this old news to which I refer?
The UK now has an officially recognised and established Pirate Party. No, this isn’t some attempt to nationalise children’s birthday entertainments (at least I don’t think it is); it is a serious political organisation with a serious message.
That message, according to their website, is threefold: reform copyright and patent law; end excessive surveillance; ensure freedom of speech. Definitely policies I can get behind. But despite the multi-pronged nature of their “manifesto”, I have a hard time not categorising them as a single-issue party. Perhaps they would not dispute this.
The problem here is that single-issue parties do not get elected, and nor should they. For instance, at the time of writing this, their official manifesto contains the amusing line “Pirate Party UK has no opinion on whether Britain should or should not be a member of the European Union.” Is it sensible for a political party, I.E., a group presumably campaigning for votes, to have no opinion on this central topic in British politics? Even if you do not accept this, and think that “no opinion” is a perfectly acceptable position to take on Europe, then skip down to the economic policy. Yep, that’s right, they don’t have one.
As with every single-issue party, it seems that the function they intend (or are at any rate “destined”) to perform is that of a pressure group. Their true effect will not be measured in votes, but in public awareness of the issues; though it is true that any votes they do receive may well push the major parties into more serious consideration of those issues.
But why go to the trouble of creating a political party, when a pressure group is subject to far less red tape and hoop-jumping? If it is an effort to be taken more seriously, then they missed the lesson of the Snowdrop Campaign in 1997 – possibly the most effective UK grassroots pressure group in recent history. Indeed, their petitions resulted in new legislation being pushed through almost immediately by a new government terrified of the media’s disapproval after the horrific Dunblane Massacre. The resulting legislation, however, was rushed; as a result it was near-unenforceable and had to be reworded.
The media has evolved significantly since then, of course. 12 years ago the internet was just barely beginning to function as a media outlet, and the Snowdrop Campaign was one of the first to utilise its potential as a mass-communication tool. The Pirate Party is a group which, with technology as its primary background, is in a position to take full advantage of the new media, Web 2.0, or whatever other buzzword you’d like to use for it.
Should they be an established political party? Well, it’s probably not necessary. But I do wish them the best of luck in getting their message heard.
You may have heard, early last month, that Ireland has passed a new law regarding blasphemy. There also seems to be some confusion on the matter – is this a new law, making blasphemy illegal where it was previously not? Or is it perhaps a reform of an older law, which actually reduces the sanction on this offense from prison time to a fine? Either way, atheists and secularists of all stripes are up in arms, and a lot of them seem to be ignorant of the facts. When freethinkers start leaping to the defensive just from the very mention of words such as “blasphemy”, without examining the details, how can we claim the moral high ground? How are we better than fundamentalists? If we are to debate credibly, we need to be able to marshal the facts. This, in my mind, is one of the most important distinguishing aspects of the sceptical and secularist movements.
So, what are the facts in this case?
The Irish Constitution requires a law making blasphemy an offense. Such a law was not passed until 1961, but did not satisfactorily define blasphemy – this led to the 1999 Supreme Court ruling that the current law was unenforceable. Instead of amending the constitution to remove the necessity of the law, however (which would require a national referendum), it was decided that it would be easier to enact a law that was enforceable. This passed in early July.
So, in effect, blasphemy is now illegal in Ireland, and while this has apparently always been the case, it is now a cogent and enforeceable law with a specified definition and penalty (and a hefty penalty at that – up to €25,000). It will however likely not be operable until late October, due to necessary modifications in the rules of court to accommodate it. There is a significant campaign to repeal the new law, and indeed it seems that there are good reasons to consider it to be in conflict with the constitution – not to mention the European Convention on Human Rights.
All this information is available at the excellent website Blasphemy.ie, and what is presented here is intended as a summary, attempting to clarify a situation which seems to be widely misunderstood.
So what’s the bottom line here?
Blasphemy is now functionally illegal in Ireland. This is a result of recent legislation which did not introduce it as an offense but rather clarified the law to a point at which it was enforceable. This was ostensibly done to avoid the costs of a referendum – which, as mentioned, would be necessary were Ireland to alter the constitution and remove the need for a blasphemy law. But, as Padraig Reidy points out, a referendum is planned for October on the issue of the Lisbon Treaty (a generally unrelated matter) – so why not save a few Euros and combine the two? And why set the penalty for blasphemy so high? Surely if it were a token law for the sake of convention, it would warrant only a token penalty. Does this perhaps hint at an ulterior motive for enacting the new legislation?
I am clearly not in a position to comment on that possibility. Anybody who is would be gratefully welcomed if they cared to enlighten me. Suffice it to say that I have been a little disappointed by the sparse and superficial coverage this story has received – as usual, the reality is a bit more complicated.
To stay updated with this case, head to blasphemy.ie.
Yes, part of the reason for this entry is that it is a legitimate excuse to use that word, much the same as happened with my A-Level Politics coursework. But at the same time, it’s also a very interesting subject, particularly when taken comparatively. Some of the issues I want to address here are: the prominence of the issue of the separation of church and state in the United States and United Kingdom; the reason for those different levels of prominence; and any implications there might be for the two societies. No doubt the discussion will range more widely, but that’s the basic structure I have in mind. So let’s begin.
I suppose the best place to start with this issue, as with most, is to define it. The separation of church and state is the phrase used to describe either the distance that organised religion keeps from the apparatus and activity of state politics, or the official, constitutional provisions for that distance. In short, it can refer to the rules, or to the reality. The U.S. and the U.K. have very different situations in both cases, and those differences are the subject of this entry.
Firstly, then, let’s look at the prominence of the issue – how high up is it in terms of public concern/awareness? Well, in the U.S., there are few more visible issues than the separation of church and state, with strong advocacy groups on the matter and implications for such diverse issues as prayer in schools, “In God We Trust” on the currency, and even gay rights. In the U.K., meanwhile, the issue is hardly on the radar at all; certainly there are similar issues with gay rights, creationism in the classroom, and various others, but rarely do discussions on these matters make mention of the established nature of the Church of England. It doesn’t seem to affect either legislation on, or public opinion of, the major issues.
So what is the formal position of religion in each of these nations? In the United States, there is a clear clause in the Constitution (Amendment I, concerning freedom of expression) prohibiting the establishment of religion by the state. What does this mean? Well, a fairly good example is the situation in the United Kingdom, as it happens: we have what is called an “established” Church here, the Anglican Church or Church of England. This means that not only is their brand of protestantism the official state religion (the monarch is still required to be a member of that religion because he or she is the nominal head of the Church), but also that members of that Church have seats in our national legislature.
Without going into great and tedious detail, the House of Lords is the upper house of the British Parliament, but has less legislative power than the House of Commons. It is also the highest court in the country. Among its 743 members, there are 26 bishops of the Church of England, known as the Lords Spiritual. It is hardly contentious to suggest that the presence of such figures in the legislature of the United States would be controversial and hugely unconstitutional.
So why is there no such uproar here? Well, the right answer (to the extent that there is one) is of course terribly complex and most likely involves matters of social history, and the complex interplay of power between the state, the church, and the people. But at least a part of the reason is simply that we don’t have a constitution; there is no hallowed sacred document to which we can refer to determine if a certain practice or state of affairs is “allowed” by the rules upon which our nation was founded. Because, when you get right down to it, it’s hard to say exactly how or when – or even if – that happened. Certainly there have been a slew of treaties (the latest coming as late as 1927), but there has never been a document drawn up to compare significantly with the strict and explicit terms of the U.S. Constitution.
It is strange to note how reversed the situation seems to be between the U.S. and the U.K.; one might expect the country with overt religious influence in the legislature to be the one that experiences a great deal of religious influence on legislation. But rather, it is the nation with explicit prohibition of religious influence on the legislature that is the arena for so much religious lobbying and debate. So on the one side of the Atlantic we have a secular government and a predominantly religious society, and on the other we have a nominally religious government and a – for all intents and purposes – secular society. Is it a case of causation, or correlation?
The answer is, of course, complicated. I am tempted to argue that it is a combination of the two on both sides of the ocean, but in the States it seems to be more causation than correlation, and in Britain more correlation than causation. I don’t think it would be too controversial to suggest that the majority of British subjects are generally of an apathetic disposition with regards to religious matters; even the few who do attend church seem to be, for the most part, relatively liberal. Equally uncontroversial to me would be the suggestion that the U.S. was settled predominantly by religious persons, many fleeing persecution. For one reason or another, religion has persisted in a much stronger way in the U.S. than in Britain.
Now this is just speculation, but it seems to me reasonable to suggest that the current state of affairs, with religious lobbyists jostling and campaigning ceaselessly to crowbar some small modicum of their faith into the affairs of state, could have its genesis in the very constitutional measures designed to thwart them. Imposing secularism upon a strongly religious society could quite conceivably lead to strong resentment and this very kind of campaigning. Now, I’m not saying that the constitution is the only reason for the current state of affairs, or even that this is a worse situation than exists in Britain. Indeed, I think that the U.S. constitution is the only thing standing in the way of the country becoming an overtly religious one at the governmental level.
I can’t purport to know the reasons why Britain is, broadly speaking, a secular society. Perhaps it is partly because of the establishment of religion; perhaps it has instilled in the religious groups a kind of complacency. But I doubt that this is the case. The fact of the matter is that in Britain, the Church enjoys far greater official power than religious groups in the U.S., but far less public support. As far as creating secular legislation is concerned, ultimately, having a secular society is more important than having a secular government.
I was among the many millions of people who tuned in yesterday to witness the historic inauguration of the 44th president of the U.S.A.. It was as superb a speech as I had come to expect from Obama, and it was nice to see and hear true oratory art return to what is arguably the highest public office in the world.
But of course it is the content of the speech that truly matters, and here again he did not disappoint. Again he made history (to the best of my knowledge) by becoming the first president to acknowledge the existence and importance of atheists and agnostics in their inaugural speech. Even better than this, however, was the promise that science would be restored to its rightful place; the scientific community had been given promises along those lines throughout the campaign – and it was truly gratifying to see it given such prominence.
The overwhelming theme of the speech, however, had a distinct secular humanist feel, one of shared responsibility and a positive belief in society’s ability to effect change.
The future looks, despite the present dark, a lot brighter than it has for some time. Thank you to every American who chose hope over fear.
I accept that Graham Stringer MP has the best interests of children at heart, and wants to improve standards of education by introducing a system of synthetic phonics, something that has show promise in trials in Scotland. I’m all for that.
But to do this by attacking dyslexia as nothing but a myth is misinformed, misguided, and wrong. There have been studies conducted using FMRI which apparently show clear evidence of differences in physiology (referenced here); the evidence is not yet incontrovertible, by any means, but it is far from being a myth.
Mr Stringer needs to shut the hell up and listen to the evidence before shooting his mouth off and dismissing a troubling condition which affects millions of people. There are better ways to promote more efficient teaching methods – the trials speak for themselves in this regard. If there are funding issues, you can’t just call a costly condition a myth and divert its section of the budget. Yes it’s a simple solution to a complex problem, but that’s not always what we need. In fact, it’s quite rare that that would suffice.
Possibly the most famous informant since Judas, the man known until just three years ago only as “Deep Throat”, has died, aged 95. There are a few reasons for mentioning this here.
Firstly, he is an interesting figure for sceptics – he contributed one of the greatest amounts of fuel to the fire of the conspiracy theory culture that any one person has managed. It finally proved, in the eyes of many, that the government cannot be trusted; that there really are conspiracies and cover-ups at the highest levels of government.
Despite this being a perfectly valid point, however, what is rarely if ever taken into account by conspiracy
nuts theorists is that not only do conspiracies and cover-ups happen, but so does whistleblowing. Compared to some conspiracy theories, the Watergate scandal was relatively small in terms of how many people knew the truth; and yet someone spoke up. This is a perfect demonstration of one of the mainstays of arguing against conspiracies – the whistleblower argument. So not only did Deep Throat provide conspiracy theorists with the perfect proof, he also provided the perfect counter-argument.
The second thing I find interesting about Mark Felt is his expressed misgivings about what he did; apparently he felt guilty about “betraying his FBI badge”. Some critics agree with this assessment and brand him a traitor for turning on the Commander in Chief – a strange assessment considering the FBI is not a military organisation but a civilian one. Either way, I disagree with his critics and argue rather that he upheld his oath as a federal employee; the oath he took bound him to uphold the constitution, not to defend the president.
Of course, it’s not as simple as that. As associate director of the FBI, he was also supposed to protect the information relating to the investigation, and send it through the correct channels. This is the obligation he violated, and surely the source of his moral discomfort. What he did, though, fulfilled the spirit of his role rather than the by-the-letter procedure thereof.
Here comes the quick ethical philosophy section, because me being me I find it hard to resist. Mark Felt suffered a moral dilemma, which is what happens when one or more roles in which you sees yourself oblige you to take two conflicting courses of action. In this case, he was obliged to follow procedure, and also to see that justice was done. Normally these two obligations would not conflict – and indeed the theory is that they are more or less synonymous. However, with regards to the Watergate scandal, the procedure was blocked, hindered, and/or corrupt – giving rise to the dilemma.
I say he did the right thing. He chose principle over procedure, and in exposing the Nixon administration’s misdeeds, he carried out the most important role of his position. It was, after all, an important founding tenet of the constitution that nobody would be above the law; his obligation to defend and enact this principle overrode his obligation to follow Bureau procedure. What’s more interesting than the whole Watergate débacle is his later conviction (and pardon) for approving illegal raids. That has echoes in recent legislation, and involves arguments about the right to privacy and the measures necessary to combat terrorism.
That will have to wait for another day and another blog entry. For now, it is enough to remember the man known for over thirty years only as Deep Throat, and what he did. I only hope that his Alzheimer’s provided him some degree of moral peace in his final years, and he died free of torment.
I have no problem with people believing in gods, or indeed holding any supernatural beliefs – I think I’ve made that quite clear in previous entries here. I also have no problem with people who believe that these irrationalities are compatible with science. I think they’re horribly and utterly wrong, but I also accept that they’re quite entitled to hold those beliefs.
What I do have a problem with, however, is when this sort of person is appointed to a top position related to science. Such as, oh I don’t know, The British Science Minister, who claims to have a “sixth sense”. Also, he believes in God and sees no conflict between these beliefs and science.
Is it too much to ask that our top science positions are filled by people with the ability to think critically, and in a scientific manner?
You are the presidential candidate of the same party as the incumbent, in the last few months of the campaign. The president makes a controversial decision which, by association, could harm your chances. Polls show that a significant majority of the population does not approve. The press is asking for your comment.
What do you do?
In all likelihood, your advisors will be telling you to distance yourself from the president, and perhaps even go so far as criticising his decision. It’s the obvious political choice, as the alternative offers very little advantage – siding with the president may keep some bridges intact, but burning those bridges keeps your chances of getting elected intact.
Some among you may recognise the scenario. It was one of the many complications on the road to the election in the final season of The West Wing. The reason I’m writing about it here is that Matt Santos’ solution to the problem struck me as an approach characteristic of the sceptical mindset.
He did not distance himself from the president’s decision. However, he also did not simply state his approval of Bartlett’s actions. He stated his support for the president and then went about explaining his reasons for doing so – and the president’s reasons for doing what he did. He saw that the main reason Bartlett’s approval ratings were so low was the presentation of the matter in the media; his tactic was aimed at improving the information available to the public.
Perhaps it was a somewhat naïve move, based on the assumption that the press would report his full explanation and not the simple summary that he sided with the president. But one of the more appealing aspects of this particular presidential candidate is his determined idealism and reluctance to play by the standard rules of campaigning.
There are a number of different branches I could follow from this anecdote, and I probably will do so at some point. A rant about soundbite campaigning; the connection between scepticism and idealism; maybe even a comparison of the West Wing election to the most recent one. For now, it is just interesting to note that, when presented with a dilemma, it’s a good idea to make sure it’s not a false one.