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Mr Grumpy can now be found posting at

Monday, October 16, 2006

A truth universally acknowledged

Two weeks away from the computer, followed by a week ploughing through a fortnight's worth of postings on my favourite blogs. Maybe I should just get a life instead?

If you think things look a bit different here, that's because I've upgraded to Blogger beta. Most of the benefits accrue to me rather than you, dear reader, but I have at least assiduously compiled a subject index for you.

Here's something from Norm which caught my eye: find out which Jane Austen character you are. Well, who else should Mr Grumpy be but Mr Darcy? Honest! OK, I admit I'm irresistible in a wet shirt. But, sorry, girls, the Mistress of Grumberley is already in post. And anyway, would you really want to spend the rest of your life with someone who defines his identity by being a miserable git at parties?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

What are we doing to our kids (postscript)

'A frozen food firm has set up an interactive lesson to teach children that chips come from potatoes.'


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A Domestic

Here's a story that made me think a bit. Regarding the religious angle I need only say that it makes me even less inclined than I was before to watch the Gibson film.

But consider this: a couple argue. It gets heated. She retreats to the bedroom. He follows her and tries to tear off her wedding ring and her watch. She reacts by grabbing his neck but lets go before it gets dangerous, leaving him with nothing more than red marks on his neck and a graze on his forehead.

Who, if anyone, would be facing an assault charge? Isn't his attempt to pull off her ring and watch the point at which it tips over into violence (I'd certainly feel assaulted if someone did that to me)? Wouldn't she therefore have little difficulty representing her reaction as an understandable one in the face of threatening behaviour (which according to the Home Office constitutes domestic violence in itself)?

And wouldn't sending both of them on an anger management course be a more constructive, cost-effective and compassionate approach than prosecuting either?

I don't know the answers to my questions. But I do know now that that's not how it works when the roles are reversed. Melanie Phillips has often cited evidence that domestic violence incidents are about equally likely to be started by a man or a woman. So there must be an awful lot of cases like this one. And in every one the domestic violence industry wants its pound of (male) flesh.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

What are we doing to our kids?

A group of experts offers a deeply pessimistic answer:-

"Since children's brains are still developing, they cannot adjust. . . to the effects of ever more rapid technological and cultural change," they write.

"They still need what developing human beings have always needed, including real food (as opposed to processed "junk"), real play (as opposed to sedentary, screen-based entertainment), first-hand experience of the world they live in and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives.

"They also need time. In a fast-moving, hyper-competitive culture, today's children are expected to cope with an ever-earlier start to formal schoolwork and an overly academic test-driven primary curriculum.

"They are pushed by market forces to act and dress like mini-adults and exposed via the electronic media to material which would have been considered unsuitable for children even in the very recent past."

(read it all)

Sometimes the thought of becoming a parent scares me s***less. Which in itself makes me part of the problem...

Mr Morpurgo said: "We have so much anxiety about children, their protection, their care, their education, that this has developed into fear. There is a fear around children, both from schools and politicians, which has led to this target-driven education system.

"That has put children into an academic straitjacket from a very early age which restricts creativity and the enrichment of childhood."

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

On racial profiling

Top solicitor Stephen Grosz presents the case against 'racial profiling' as a weapon in the fight against terrorism. Norm is impressed. Grumpy less so.

Scenario One: a woman has been raped and murdered in my neighbourhood. With no leads to go on, the police knock on my door, wanting to eliminate me from their enquiries. Would it be reasonable for me to refuse to cooperate unless they spend an equal amount of time eliminating my wife?

Scenario Two: a spate of terrorist attacks have in common the fact that they were all committed by Zimbabwean Jewish emeritus professors. Would it be a gross violation of Norm's human rights if the police were to take a certain amount of interest in him?

My point: equality of suspicion is a bogus human right, because it requires the police to treat a falsehood as truth and, carried to its logical conclusion, would make their job virtually impossible. It's a copper's job to suspect all of us (which is of course why socializing with them is not a universally popular pastime), but to suspect some more than others.

There's been an interesting moving of goalposts here. The original campaign against stop and search was based on the premise that young black men were being targetted for no better reason than the average copper's penchant for a spot of racial harassment. How far this was true and how far the perception was systematically promoted by people with a political agenda to discredit the police is a question which I leave open. The point is that to the extent that it was true it was wholly unacceptable.

In the fight against terrorism, on the other hand, it is absolutely clear that this is not the case. The 'profile' has not been invented by the police, it has been created by the criminals themselves.

For al-Qaida, I regret to say, is not an equal opportunities employer. It does not delay an operation until it can fill the post of Bomber with a Chinese lesbian. Allowing the police to act on this knowledge in the interests of preventing mass murder does not mean giving them a licence for harassment. But Grosz is not interested in drawing the distinction. The victims (with or without quotes) of profiling are equally entitled in both cases to cry 'racism' and find themselves a good human rights lawyer.

Of course racial profiling is an admission of failure - that it is better to proceed on the basis of evidence against specific individuals falls squarely under the heading of the Bleeding Obvious. The question is, what are the police to do when no such evidence is available? Stopping young Muslim men at random is a highly inefficient use of police time. Stopping random members of the population as a whole is about a hundred times more inefficient.

And how far are we take the 'no profiling' argument? Is it legitimate for the police to interest themselves in particular Islamist organizations or particular mosques, even if it is clear that the majority of members/worshippers are not terrorists? There are evidently plenty of Muslims for whom this is already a step too far.

Remember we are talking about a matter of life and death (for young Muslim men just as for everybody else), and remember we are talking about the usage of limited resources. Wasting police time is an offence. We should not be forcing the police to commit it.

Of course there is another argument against profiling. '[T]argeting causes resentment and disaffection' says Grosz, delicately declining to spell out an implication that sits distinctly uncomfortably with the rest of his argument: if resentment and disaffection are caused within a group from which terrorists are already disproportionately drawn, who knows what forms of expression they may find? Once we go down this route we leave the discourse of human rights far behind.

We would do well to remember also that resentment and disaffection are not necessarily the sole preserve of minorities. If political correctness (which, pace Grosz, is what his argument amounts to) is perceived to be overriding the protection of life and limb, the explosive mixture of resentment and disaffection with mistrust and fear is likely to lead to more, not fewer, incidents of the flight 613 variety.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Faith schools again

'[Muslim faith] schools are, apparently, a breeding ground for extremism and, indeed, for terrorism. Does the fact that no Jewish school has produced a Jewish terrorist not point to a flaw in that argument?'

- from a piece in the Times by Stephen Pollard. SP is correct that this line of argument against faith schools is very stupid, but since it is advanced by intelligent people there has to be something more than stupidity involved. The driving force is not stupidity but religiophobia. See my previous post.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Secular bigots of the Grauniad

[update: there was a duff link to a Vatican theological document - it should now work]

Much ado among my friends the secular fundamentalists:-

'An Opinionpanel Research survey conducted in July this year found that more than 30% of UK university students believe in creationism or intelligent design.'

- said A C Grayling (via Harry's Place, predictably), delivering a fine old religiophobic rant for comment is free the other day. A 'virulent cancer of unreason', no less - and that's before he gets really worked up:-

'When any of these imprisoning ideologies are on the back foot and/or in the minority, they present sweet faces to those they wish to seduce: the kiss of friendship in the parish church, the summer camp for young communists in the 1930s. But give them the levers of power and they are the Taliban, the Inquisition, the Stasi.

'Give them AK47s and Semtex, and some of the fanatics among them become airline bombers, mass murderers of ordinary men, women and children, and for the most contemptible of reasons.'

Crikey. It sounds as if he knows something about his local parish church that he ought as a matter of some urgency to be sharing with the police. Get that thurible over to Forensic!

Steady on a moment, though, A C. Opinion pollsters do a great job and all that, but if one is going to base an article on a poll it's not a bad idea to check out exactly what the questions were. Especially if the subject matter is not breakfast cereal preferences but something more in the Life, the Universe and Everything sphere. And especially if you're the kind of chap who's keen on not believing anything without hard evidence.

The full poll write-up is here. The question put to the students is almost identical to one put to a sample of the British public as a whole by Ipsos MORI, on behalf of the BBC Horizon programme, in January. In view of Grayling's strictures against the higher education system it's worth noting that the general public appear to have significantly more sympathy with creationism than students do.

The student poll version goes like this:-

'Q1 People have different explanations about life on earth and how it came about. Which of these statements best describes your view?

  • 'The 'evolution theory' - Humans developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. God had no part in this process.
  • 'The 'creationism theory' - God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.
  • 'The 'intelligent design theory' - Some features of living things are best explained by the intervention of a supernatural being, e.g. God.'
If ever there was a poll that ought to offer respondents a 'crap question' option, it's this one. For which box is a non-fundamentalist theist like Mr Grumpy to tick? I want to assent to evolution on the understanding that it is good science. But I can't do that unless I also sign up for the corollary according to Dawkins: that evolution disproves the existence of God, or at the very least reduces him to a passive spectator. Which is very bad theology. Not just according to me, but according to the Pope (have a look at this if you're up for something a little less digestible than your average blog posting - paragraphs 63ff are the directly relevant bit), the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi (educated guess, but I'd be very surprised if I'm wrong) and, I am sure, plenty of liberal Muslims. Quite a significant current of opinion, in other words, but how easily it is overlooked by those obsessed with the cosmic struggle between secular rationalism and fundamentalism.

So I can either cop out with a 'don't know', or I can opt for 'intelligent design' as the least evil. Not that there is much sense in the implied view that the mysterious 'e.g. God' pops up every now and then to do a bit of designing, but at least it acknowledges the existence of an active creator.

How much of the 19% support for 'intelligent design' results from similar thought processes? If somebody would repeat the poll using a theologically literate question we might have a chance to find out.

I don't want to press the point too far. Plainly quite a lot of students do give credence to Creationism, and I'm with Grayling in believing that Creationism is pseudo-science and also in thinking that it matters if people believe something that isn't true. So there is a real problem, but let's keep it in proportion. The post I pointed to in my last points out that Americans are both more likely than Europeans to believe in Creationism and more likely to have a positive attitude towards science. Our belief systems are complex, multi-dimensional things, and it is rarely constructive to classify them into good and bad along one dimension whilst ignoring the rest.

At the root of this complexity is the fact that as human beings we need more than scientific truth. We need meaning and values, which science alone can never supply. There are those who assert that the only truths which count are those which can be proved - an assertion which is, of course, itself unprovable. I thought that philosophy had moved on from this old chestnut, but Grayling's article suggests that he hasn't.

What, for instance, would count as evidence that I ought not to try to blow Professor Grayling up the next time he boards a plane?

I don't treat the Bible as a biology textbook, and I don't look to The Origin of Species or The Blind Watchmaker to tell me what I should believe about the ultimate source of meaning and values. The people on both extremes who refuse to draw this distinction are locked into a symbiotic relationship where each group confirms the other in its prejudices. The secularists see people conjuring pseudo-science out of 3000-year-old sacred texts, and conclude with relish that their whole belief system is mumbo-jumbo. Conversely, the more the theory of evolution appears to come in a package with the Meaning of Life According To Dawkins and Grayling, the more reason conservative Christians have to distrust it.

For Professor Grayling, however, creationism takes its place alongside suicide bombings in a single vast web of malignity labelled 'religion'. He is apparently the author of a standard text on logic, so he shouldn't need me to tell him what's wrong with 'some religious believers display violent intolerance, therefore religious belief causes violent intolerance'. The largest group of unfree people in the world today, living mostly in the People's Republic of China and amounting to over a quarter of the human race, are forcibly denied basic freedoms in the name of an ideology which is explicitly atheistic. When this rather obvious fact is dismissed as a 'tired old canard' with the counter-claim that Marxism-Leninism is really a religion, or a 'salvation faith' as Grayling puts it, you know you're wasting your time arguing. Even minds as powerful as Professor Grayling's can be totally closed.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Faith schools and social cohesion

From a letter in the Times:-

'Sir, If the community providing a faith school is already well integrated into the host society it should facilitate the integration of its pupils and their parents — immigrants in particular. But faith schools are likely to be damaging to social cohesion in two circumstances. The first is when the faith community is itself badly integrated into the host society.

'The second is when the host society is itself deeply segregated, as in Northern Ireland. There, the solution that I and others first proposed was the establishment of a network (now of 57 schools) where the children of Catholics and Protestants would be educated together on a footing of equality, receiving a religious education that satisfies their parents.'

I agree with the analysis, which makes a refreshing change from the hysterical across-the-board denunciation of faith schools which you're all too likely to read in certain other papers. And I salute the work done in Northern Ireland. The writer goes on to make another good point that is rarely heard:-

'Catholic schools have had an important part to play in integrating into British society the immigrants who have for many years been coming from Italy, Spain and Portugal. And they are now doing the same for Polish, Lithuanian, Slovakian and Ukrainian immigrants. Hampering them would be incredibly foolish.'

Then comes the pay-off: an ambitious proposal for extending the principle developed in Northern Ireland:-

'Helping the Muslim community to integrate is another matter, and the leaders of the Catholic and Islamic communities should discuss the creation of joint or shared schools where the children of Christians and Muslims could be educated on a footing of equality and receive a religious education that satisfies their parents.'

This seems to me to be a tall order. There's no harm in talking, for sure, but I fear he underestimates the differences between the Northern Ireland case and this one. For all the sectarian poison in NI, the people it divides are members of the same faith. Of course there are doctrinal differences, but none of them are anywhere near as fundamental as the Christian values which the sectarian conflict betrays, and therefore none of them are valid arguments for refusing to try to dismantle the barriers.

But how would a joint Christian-Muslim school work? A collective ethos is the whole point of a faith school, as opposed to providing individual pupils with faith experiences tailored to their parents' expectations. Christians worship God incarnate in Christ - that is the irreducible core of our faith. When we do so we blaspheme in Muslim eyes. How do you arrive at a shared ethos without excluding religion altogether? What kind of assemblies would such a school have?

It's good to talk and it's good to find better ways of living together. Pretending we believe the same things when in fact we don't is not a solid foundation for anything.

The red hermit: remembering Ted Grant

I've just caught up with the news that Ted Grant, founder and guru of Militant Tendency, died in July. This doesn't seem to have been much blogged about, but it surely marks the end of an era for the left. Grant was virtually the last living link with the pioneering days of Trotskyism, a man who committed himself to the cause when Trotsky himself still had a decade to live. And although I don't look back on my own Militant phase with much affection or pride, I can still readily acknowledge that in his way Grant was a remarkable man.

The papers have obits, and his followers have created a memorial website.

It was obvious to anyone who heard him speak that he was South African. I didn't know (perhaps I should have guessed) that he was Jewish, or that Ted Grant was an assumed name. The official hagiography and most of the obits give his real name as 'Isaac Blank'. It only seems to have occurred to the Independent to question whether 'Blank' was his real name either. The multiple layers of concealment seem entirely appropriate for the future leader of an organization which vehemently denied its own existence.

One can accept that he was motivated by the desire to avoid getting his family into trouble, but that in itself does not explain why he adopted such a very un-Jewish name. This stealthy self-Aryanization is something he had in common with his one-time comrade and subsequent leader of the SWP, Tony Cliff, né Ygael Glickstein (and of course Trotsky famously borrowed the name of his jailer). It doesn't exactly speak for a boundless confidence in the ability of the revolutionary proletariat to transcend the prejudices of bourgeois nationalism. And might the phenomenon not be entirely without relevance to an understanding of the far left's attitudes towards Israel?

Grant was utterly single-minded, not just in his commitment to socialist revolution but in his conviction that 'entrism' was the means for achieving it. He took what for Trotsky was a tactic to be applied for a few months, and turned it into an immutable law of history: the working class will always turn to its traditional mass organizations. Not even the apotheosis of Tony Blair could weaken his certainty that the Labour Party was the only place for Marxists to be.

He was a man with no time to waste on ironing his notoriously loud shirts, let alone on anything as distracting as sex (so in that respect very much like his estwhile disciple Tommy Sheridan, whose preferred form of relaxation, we now know, is a quiet game of Scrabble). Away from the conference platform, where he trained himself to be an effective orator, he was, for a political leader, quite remarkably introverted. Already in 1945 we see him keeping his nose buried in his newspaper when he has his picture taken. And during my stint in Militant he seemed to spend most of his time closeted in his office, where he would read all the day's papers from front page to back page.

Ironically for a militant materialist, the introversion went with a rather touching air of otherworldliness. I remember hearing him speak during the glory days of the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism. 'How do the gentlemen of the SWP propose to fight fascism? With dance bands!' Then he corrected the answer to his rhetorical question to 'with jazz bands', and at the third attempt he finally dragged himself into the Seventies: 'with rock bands'.

Militant held together for an extraordinarily long time by far left standards, but when the split came it was inevitable that the far more politically savvy Peter Taaffe would walk off with 90% plus of the membership. And Grant's reaction was entirely characteristic. Left with a few dozen true believers, like Sisyphus he set his shoulder to the stone which had rolled to the bottom of the hill and started building the revolutionary party from scratch.

There's a further irony in the timing of his death, coming as it did while a court in Edinburgh was hearing Tommy Sheridan's libel case against the News of the World. For Sheridan's charismatic leadership of the anti-Poll Tax campaign was plainly crucial in giving Taaffe and the majority of Militant members the confidence that they could turn their backs on the increasingly hostile environment of the Labour Party and 'come out' as an independent party. And it was his charisma which put the new party on the map, in Scotland if nowhere else. But charisma, as the comrades might have remembered from the case of Derek Hatton, is a two-edged sword. If Ted Grant's political project ended in failure, it's not clear that those who turned their backs on him will ultimately fare any better.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Reason and religion: another liberal myth bites the dust

'But if we assume for the sake of argument that it does matter that Britain doesn't produce enough scientists, there's a surprising - to me, anyway - possible factor behind this: it seems that the countries of the EU 25 are in general more irrationalist and less favourably disposed towards science than either the United States or China. For example, barely a majority in Europe believe that the "benefits of science outweigh the harm", compared to over four-fifths in the United States. And with regards irrational beliefs, it is Europeans who are much more likely to believe that astrology has a scientific basis than either Americans or Chinese.

'This rather flies in the face of the comfortable liberal stereotypes of rationalist Europe and fundamentalist America and it raises another intriguing possibility - that some irrational beliefs are more conducive to scientific development than others. While a much higher proportion of Americans believe in God and regularly attend religious services than Europeans, it seems that this is not because Europeans are more rational but that they are more pagan. They are also more suspicious of science. Whether there's a relationship between the two, I wouldn't know. Worth thinking about, though.'

- a palpable hit from Shuggy

Postscript: a little evidence in support of Shuggy's thesis...

'The mastermind behind the goddess cult is the golden figure who greeted me, Kathy Jones, who used to be a BBC science researcher.'

...from Victoria Moore's wondefully irreverent Daily Mail report on her encounter at Glastonbury with the High Priestess of Avalon (via).

'"She's the creatrix, the female face of the divine," says Kathy, ushering me to a seat between Georgina, a fully trained priestess, and Christina, who teaches Arthurian studies at Bristol University. "Oh, never mind. You'll get the hang of it."'

Arthurian studies? Bristol University? HellO?