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Mr Grumpy can now be found posting at

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Faith schools

Blogging teacher Shuggy is unimpressed by the case for faith schools. Grumpy puts up his hand and begs to differ with Sir...


As a liberal Christian I'm torn on the faith schools thing. But your position smacks too much of 'one size fits all - just make sure it's my size' for my liking.

At the state schools I went to in the 60s and 70s the standard pattern for assembly was effectively a short act of Christian worship. Is that still acceptable today? Or should religion be kept out of schools? If the latter, why do you think religious parents should be obliged to accept a school ethos based on the assumption that God is an irrelevance?

I think it's fair to say that Christians, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs (at least) have in common the belief that a right relationship with God involves (a) a commitment to moral behaviour understood as, at least ultimately, the keeping of God's commandments (as opposed to seeing moral codes as just arbitrary, or the product of human reason, or a matter of social convenience), and (b) worship. A school where these things don't happen is not just some kind of neutral forum for cultural exchange, it is functionally speaking atheistic. Religion becomes a private interest with essentially the same status as stamp collecting - and that simply doesn't do justice to the place it occupies in religious people's lives - and which they would wish it to occupy in their children's lives.

It's very easy and very unfair to argue from the worst case scenarios - schools teaching creationist mumbo-jumbo, schools turning out little Rangers supporters and little Celtic supporters, schools teaching kids to despise infidel 'filth'. But it's simply nonsense to imply that the average British church school turns its pupils into crazed, intolerant fanatics. And in any case it's poor reasoning to decide the issue of principle on these grounds. Where it can be done without entrenching dangerous divisions, why shouldn't parents have the option of sending their children to a school which takes their beliefs seriously?



Thursday, April 20, 2006

Robert Mugabe, world-beater

Who would have imagined, when Zimbabwe gained its independence in 1980, that it would win the melancholy distinction of becoming the country with the world’s shortest life expectancy? Yes, Comrade Bob has managed to outdo even Sierra Leone. I don’t suppose for a moment that the people who assure us they know how to Make Poverty History will have much to say about this almost entirely home-made African tragedy – apart from demanding that the rest of the world picks up the tab.

In contrast, neighbouring Mozambique seems to be sub-Saharan Africa’s big success story at the moment. This, too, is not likely to be of great interest to the MPHers, since the secret of the country’s success is the embrace of the free market by its one-time Marxist rulers. And to be honest, it’s a bit of a curate’s egg. Growth is running at an impressive 8%, but corruption remains rampant, the state is dependent on aid for half of its budget, and only the southernmost corner of the country, where the capital Maputo is located, is really feeling the benefits of the boom. Even so, where Africa is concerned a readiness to be grateful for small mercies is mandatory. [facts from a recent article in the print edition of the Berlin Tagesspiegel]

Why so cynical about Making Poverty History, Grumpy? For a start, it’s the simplistic programme that’s presented as a panacea for Africa’s ills. It’s the feeling that for the big aid charities the whole thing is basically a marketing campaign. It’s the way it gives aging rock stars and sundry other oversized egos the opportunity to proclaim ‘what a wonderful world this would be if only everybody was as caring as me’. It’s the bullying insinuation that anyone who dares disagree with the programme is pro-poverty. It’s the way Africa and its tragedies are turned into the arena for a Manichaean battle between good and evil in which the participants on both sides are rich westerners, whilst the poor buggers who actually live in the continent are turned into passive spectators.

I’m all for free trade. Well, now you mention it, I’m not thrilled about my best client offshoring work to Sri Lanka. But so long as it’s a question of letting in cheap food from Africa I’m delighted as a non-farmer to be able to occupy the moral high ground at no cost to myself whatsoever. But free trade won’t work magic.

Why not? If Europe and America were to stop protecting their farmers, African farmers could undercut them simply because their labour is dirt cheap. And then what? Three scenarios:-

  1. Their labour stays dirt cheap, ergo they stay poor.

  2. Labour costs increase and the competitive advantage conferred by cheap labour disappears. Farmers can’t export their produce, ergo they stay poor.

  3. African countries build on their export successes to invest in things that will consolidate their competitive advantage and start moving away from reliance on cheap labour. People have a chance to start getting less poor.
Scenario 3 depends on a whole lot of things which the rest of the world can’t ultimately control and, on the assumption that colonialism is a Bad Thing, shouldn’t try to. It raises issues about whether aid may turn out to be more of a hindrance than a help. And it’s absolutely not a process which anyone can take for granted given the track record of African elites since decolonization. In Mozambique there is, one hopes, a chance of it working. But if Robert Mugabe is running the show, the script goes into reverse. You start with a flourishing agricultural sector, which thanks to the farmers’ efficiency and enterprise has no difficulty in exporting its produce, and systematically wreck it for reasons of ideology and racial spite. You give land to people who aren’t interested in working it, and you end up not even being able to feed your own people.

Or consider the Ivory Coast, once the economic powerhouse of French-speaking West Africa, now pauperized by civil strife.

So, you ask, what are you going to do about it, Grumpy? My programme is modest at present, I must admit. I plan to carry on drinking fairly traded Tanzanian tea. I'll also continue listening to African music, which needs absolutely no PC special pleading. I'll back political initiatives that are tailored to the realities on the ground rather than to my own desire to enjoy a nice warm glow of self-righteousness. And, pathetic as it may sound to some, I'll try to keep remembering the peoples of Africa in my prayers.

[PS Since writing this, I've read this from Rod Liddle in the Sunday Times, putting Mozambique's achievements in an even more sobering perspective.]

[PPS And Bob Geldof, no less, has been saying much the same thing - of course in rather more colourful language.]

Monday, April 17, 2006

Secular Bigots of the Independent

Introducing an occasional series - a gem from Friday's Indie:-

'Sir: Ah, the quiet arrogant sanctimonious ignorance that comes from being a "person of faith". "People of faith remain more likely to give, volunteer, cook a meal for a neighbour, lead a charity, be happy, adjust successfully to ageing and vote", says Francis Davis (Letters, 10 April), with pious assurance. I know many atheists who do all of those things, me amongst them. And we do it not because we are "people of faith" but because we like our fellow men. And we don't need the promise of eternal bliss or 72 virgins or whatever to motivate us, just common humanity.

'"Cook a meal for a neighbour"? Ask the "people of faith" in Ireland, India, Iraq, Israel, Nigeria, the Sudan etc when they last did that.'

Touching to know that someone out there is capable of liking even a quietly arrogant, sanctimonious ignoramus like Mr Grumpy. Happy Easter!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

What is racism?

Normblog has a debate between Eve Garrard and Shalom Lappin on Leeds University's suspension of Frank Ellis (see my past posts on the subject here and, more substantially, here).

I esteem both protagonists highly in other contexts, but in this case I think both of them make a crucial omission by not unpacking the concept 'racism'. We have become so used to this being the deadliest of modern sins that we have stopped noticing that it conflates two concepts which are fundamentally different in nature - a moral one and a factual one.

The moral component (let's call it racism A for convenience) is, obviously, the principle that Dr Ellis should not give different marks to two equally able students because one is black and the other white. 'Odious' is a description rightly applied to such behaviour, and if Dr Ellis has been guilty of it he should be sacked forthwith. But in fact this is not what he has been charged with.

The factual component of 'racism' (call it racism B) is the assertion of differences between populations which correlate with racial identity - especially if such differences are alleged to be innate. Dr Ellis believes there is a biologically determined difference between the average intelligences of black and white people. Clearly this is a factual assertion which may be right or wrong. Its truth value is a matter for scientific enquiry, and it is not the case that there is no evidence whatsoever which supports it. That being so, applying the word 'odious' to Dr Ellis's opinion is, strictly speaking, meaningless.

And note that the morally odious behaviour implied by the word 'racist' is not logically entailed by Dr Ellis's opinion about a matter of fact. For he is certainly not committed to the view that every white person is more intelligent than every black person. To take an analogy which exaggerates the point, I think it is reasonable to believe that on average adults are better at composing music than children, but it does not follow that I think I could compose better music than the infant Mozart.

Note also that the question whether Dr Ellis would be fit to serve as a juror in a case involving a black defendant is, logically speaking, a red herring - unless he has also expressed views about innate racial differences in morality and criminality. It is quite conceivable that he is an unusually fair-minded person.

I'm not suggesting that the conflation of racism A and racism B into a single concept is simply arbitrary. Empirically it is obvious that they frequently go together in the sense that beliefs about racial difference are invoked to justify racial discrimination. In reaction to this liberals typically refuse to consider the possibility that the claims of racism B may have any truth to them because they assume that this would legitimate the morally intolerable racism A.

But there is no logical necessity about the connection. It is possible for a white person to hate and despise black people (or vice versa) without having any illusion that there are rational grounds for doing so. Equally it is possible that a white person holding Dr Ellis's views would invariably treat individual black people with faultless courtesy, respect and fairness.

Indeed, where racism A and racism B are conflated into an ideology, it is always illogical and irrational. Factual propositions about racial groups can never supply a moral justification for treating an individual human being as something other than what he or she is. Under apartheid in South Africa you could win a Nobel Prize and still be a second-class citizen because of the colour of your skin. No amount of scientific evidence about racial differences could ever have made this morally tolerable.

Given the lack of a necessary logical connection between racism A and racism B, those who assume that if Dr Ellis holds racist opinions he must be guilty of racial discrimination become guilty of prejudice. The only kind of evidence that would prove him guilty of discrimination is evidence that he does in fact practise discrimination.

PS I wrote in my first post on this topic about the special status of Holocaust denial, and it is worth reiterating the point briefly. Here the factual claim has an inbuilt moral component, for its plain implication is that all Jews, or the vast majority, are morally deficient, being involved in a vast conspiracy to defraud and manipulate the rest of the human race. The historical evidence for the Holocaust is dismissed on the basis of a prior assumption that Jews are congenital liars. Nobody holding this belief can possibly be relied on to treat an individual Jew with the respect due to a fellow human being - whereas this, mutatis mutandis, is precisely not the case with Dr Ellis and his black students.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Greenham grannies

From the Indie: two grandmothers arrested for trying to break into a military base. Predictable outcry from the civil libertarians.

Who seem to me to be overlooking a fairly elementary distinction between protest, which is a basic democratic right, and sabotage, which isn’t. Either we need these bases for our defence or we don’t. If we don’t, let’s close them down and spend the money on schools and hospitals. If we do, they need to be secure, and it is perfectly reasonable for their security to have legal backup. There are, after all, threats which didn’t exist in their present form when Mrs John and Mrs Boyes were camping at Greenham 25 years ago. Of course these women are not ‘the new face of terrorism’, but the law is the law. Or would the Indie rather have laws specifically targetting young men with brown faces?

And who is to decide whether we need the bases? Mrs John makes it quite clear that she wants to physically close them down, given half a chance. I’d prefer it to be our elected representatives who do the deciding rather than a bunch of activists, however many grandchildren they have. When she becomes Prime Minister Mrs John can scrap the lot. But not before.