End of civilisation as we know it?

British politics seems to have gone into a weird meltdown, all because of a few expenses claims. Some MPs fiddle their expenses….. why am I less than surprised?

The TV news and most of the press are filled with people expressing their horror and claiming to have lost all faith in Parliament. How odd.

The Iraq war or evidence of collusion in torture didn’t have that effect, oddly. But a few dodgy expenses claims did?

It seems that the system was constructed so that MPs were more or less expected to claim for things (such as food and rent) that the rest of us have to treat as normal household expenses. This system was apparently created – in Thatcher’s time- so that MPs wages would appear becomingly modest to us sensitive taxpayers.

Mp’s wages aren’t exactly low – from the perspective of the average non-millionaire – but they aren’t paid enough to keep up two homes – one of which is in central London – and to run an office to deal with constituents. Hence, the expenses scam was deliberately set up to let them pay for things, whilst appearing to be taking home wages lower than those of judges or hospital consultants.

Obviously, some of them took the piss. In which case, the problem is mainly the failure of the system for scrutinising their claims. The House of Commons seems to have agreed en masse to scapegoat the Speaker – who had already upset Tory MPs by letting the police apply the same rules to them that they expect the police to apply to the rest of us. However, even the Speaker’s sword-falling hasn’t stemmed the Telegraph’s desire to pick through every Tesco’s receipt and claim for dry-rot-proofing it can get its hands on.

The result is a country that seems to have decided that a few fiddled expenses mean that our entire Parliamentary system is broken. The Guardian has been soliciting random famous-ish political-ish people’s wishlists, throwing up ideas ranging from PR to time-limited Parliaments, as if any random political commentator’s ideas are somehow relevant. It even gave David Cameron a platform to spout the Tory party’s nebulous reform ideas.

Marina Hyde called for lots more Independent MPs, then had to write another column explaining that she didn’t mean celebs, in the face of an unholy collection of celebs – Esther Rantzen, ffs – began scrambling to get elected. However, if we don’t have professional politicians, it seems most likely that D-list celebs would fill the void. No one in their right mind could see that as an improvement.

This is baffling. None of the reform suggestions seem to have anything to do with expenses-fiddling at all. If Parliament is broken, and constitutional change is urgent – why was noone calling for it before? The BBC reported this morning that more people voted for Britain’s Got Talent (or an x-factor or a big brother or something, the “got talent” name is obviously a lie) than vote in elections. And there were loads of people in Stoke willing to tell the BBC that they won’t ever vote again.

There is much media fretting about the BNP and other lunatic parties getting votes. I thought this was just a fear tactic. However, I have been told by people who live in likely-BNP-recruiting-territory estates that there seem to be significant numbers (i.e greater than zero) of BNP posters proudly showing in house windows. (I assume that these would counts as a bricking invitation in any reasonable court.)

It’s hard to imagine the waves of mass stupidity that give rise to that. For a start, it seems to be going on the principle that – if your MP is dishonest enough to have got the taxpayer to have paid the cost of a John Lewis lighting unit – you would automatically choose to have someone with a criminal record for committing GBH and inciting racial hatred as a clean alternative. Britain’s Got Morons by The Bucketload might be a more suitable tv show theme.

I have been as pissed off as anyone at the effrontery of some of the expenses claims. But I admit to having been quite pleased to see Jacqui Smith hoist on her own “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear” petard. I’ve also enjoyed seeing people who’ve made much of their desire to stamp out benefit fraud being revealed as engaged in benefit frauds that amount to much more than a well-paid worker’s wage.

Did many people really think MPs were all more ethical than the average person, until the Telegraph printed their expense claims? Does someone getting something for nothing really rouse the public to such fury, when any number of seriously bad decisions didn’t bother anyone?

Fine to reform our voting systems, the composition of our parliament and so on. But it’s hard to believe that meaningful constitutional decisions can be taken during the current hysteria.

Cleopatra Was Egyptian – Shock News!

Wow, breaking news brought to us by the BBC reveals that Cleopatra was, wait for it, of african descent! It seems that the in-depth research of the 1963 blockbuster Cleopatra was wrong and the queen of Egypt was not actually a white caucasian but was native to Eqgypt. Amazing claims like this needs some fantastic research. Fortunately the headline news on the BBC rewards us:

Cleopatra, the last Egyptian Pharaoh, renowned for her beauty, was part African, says a BBC team which believes it has found her sister’s tomb.

Wow. Knock me down with a feather. It gets better:

But remains of the queen’s sister Princess Arsinoe, found in Ephesus, Turkey, indicate that her mother had an “African” skeleton.
Experts have described the results as “a real sensation.”

Amazing. An African skeleton… How could Liz Taylor have got it so wrong only 45 years ago. Do we need to re-cast and re-film an entire generation of epic movies? Next you will be telling me Jesus wasn’t a tall, blue eyed, blonde haired Caucasian.

Actually, I cant keep it up. This is mind numbingly insane.

First off: Who is actually surprised that Egypt is in Africa? Seriously, anyone? This is a news item that basically says “Egyptian Queen is part African.” Is it really that quiet a news day? (no). This is the Online BBC news that ignored seven hours of riots and petrol bombs in Lurgan, Northern Ireland (despite coverage being in the newspapers). This is the online BBC news that is regularly a day behind unfolding events. It is obviously wasting too much time writing copy for the department of the BLOODY OBVIOUS.

Secondly: No one is disputing Cleopatra’s lineage coming from Alexander’s generals and being predominantly Greek. However, the idea that this remained purely Greek (Macedonian?) after the first generation is simply batshit insane. Yes there was a huge amount of inbreeding, and most royal marriages were with Greek nobles, but over 250 years without allowing locals into the bloodline is unlikely. That would have been news worthy.

Thirdly: In my limited archaological knowledge, WTF does “african bones” mean? Is this 19th century casual racism where its thought that the darkies have a different genetic makeup to us “white people?”  What on Earth is there about the bones that make them “african” rather than Egyptian or Greek? Seriously, WTF!

There has been some reluctance of late for this blog to attack the blinding madness that the BBC is pushing out, mainly because it puts us in the same camp as the Daily Wail, but this is a step too far.

The BBC has seriously lost any sense of what is, or isnt, news. This is thinly veiled advertising for a BBC program of dubious merit. Shame on the BBC and I want them to refund what ever portion of my licence fee went towards this drivel.

Twice hail, Obama

I don’t want to turn this blog into a big Obama gush-a-thon, so I’ve been keeping my mouth pretty well clamped on the new leader of the world. I know he’s going to do some shit things that make me rage. It goes with the territory.

All the same, the man has been behaving like a demi-god in his first couple of days. Banning torture for a start. Who would have thought a few years ago that this would be a ground-breaking act? But then, the zeitgeist shifted and suddenly opposition to torture became somehow weird. Obama has just turned the clock back to sanity. He’s made it so that “extraordinary rendition” can become no longer “ordinary.”

That in itself is enough for me to let him get away with a hell of a lot. But, he has even stepped up to the plate (strange American phrase that is becoming ubiquitous in UK discourse, although none of us know what it means, so I’m using it ironically) again in terms of stopping that mad ban on funding for agencies that counsel women who want abortions.

I am a bit pissed off that European media seem to be so determinedly racist though. The inauguration day reports here were pretty well written all in terms of what it means to have a “black” president. As if being “black” and wearing a suit were the crucial factors in leading the world.

Well, yes, it’s great, but (1) Obama is – like everybody on the planet – “mixed race” and (2) he was elected by Americans of every supposed “race” – totally spurious concept – not because of his visible attributes but because he is the best human being for the job. Total respect to the US population for seeing that. He is the most truly intelligent man to be elected president in my lifetime.

So: USA 1 Europe 0, so far.

When religion really is to blame

As anyone who reads FSTDT will know, Yahoo! Answers provides rich pickings when it comes to bizarre, crazy and downright wierd religious viewpoints. While idly browsing through it, I noticed a question asking “During the middle ages, how many were killed because they questioned the loving and kind Catholic Church?” (See original question thread)

Having a passing hobby interest in medieval history, this question appealed to me, so I read through some of the answers. A lot were standard Yahoo-fare, for example the “best answer” claims 150 million died, which seems a bit odd compared to the population of Europe in the middle-ages.  While sources are a bit made up, Wikipedia claims the population of medieval Europe peaked at about 100 million in the early part of the fourteenth century. This requires some interesting mental arithmetic to make the two sets of numbers add up, even if the 150 million deaths were spread out over 300 years.

However, the one that caught my interest the most was from Misty0408, and it makes quite a few points I would like to address here: [emphasis mine throughout quotes]

Crusades or Inquisition?

It’s easy in hindsight to judge a time and society we no longer experience or understand.

I agree with this to an extent as our ideas of what is “right” and “wrong” do change over time. This is not always a path from a “bad past” to a “good present/future” though, sometimes we take a few steps back. Crucially, there isn’t any real point to judging the past – we cant change it and we cant (for example) punish the Romans for keeping slaves.

I may have misread the question, and know nothing of the person who asked it, but I didn’t really think it was trying to judge the past. This made me think that Misty0408 might have a few axes to grind.

The Crusades were a series of defensive battles against Muslim attacks. They were not organized and run by the Church, but tended to be upstart groups of Catholics who took things into their own hands. Many non-believers joined in to reap the benefits of pillaging. There was no telephone, email, text messaging, etc. to get word out and tell people to stop. It took time for the Pope to know what was going on, and time for word to get back to those who had run amok.

Interesting. This also seems pretty much 180 degrees from the history lessons I remember. So much so that this cant be a simple lack of education, this is someone wilfully taught an incorrect sequence of events.

Pope Urban II instigated the crusades. This is the fairly famous quote he made in the call to arms:

All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested. O what a disgrace if such a despised and base race, which worships demons, should conquer a people which has the faith of omnipotent God and is made glorious with the name of Christ! With what reproaches will the Lord overwhelm us if you do not aid those who, with us, profess the Christian religion!

All the crusades were blessed by the Papacy. This is a far cry from the idea that the pope was busy running around trying to put a stop to the brutality.

It strikes me as a bit dishonest to claim that the church was not the organiser of the Crusades – yes the Crusading nobles will have gone through the actual logistics, but the Pope ordered them to and offered forgiveness for all their sins if they went.

The Inquisitions were also driven, in part, by the society and times in which they happened. Civil law and Church law were linked. If you spoke heresy you were condemned by civil law to die…not by the Church. In fact, in many cases the Church worked to get people to recant their heretical statements to save them from death. Death sentences were carried out by the civil authorities.

Again, some reasonable truth mixed with weirdness. The inquisitions were indeed driven by the time and society – however this society was intrinsically Catholic. Civil and Church law were mixed, yes, but this didn’t mean secular rules got mixed in with the religious ones. It basically meant that the Church set the law. The idea that heretics were condemned to die by secular authorities and not the church is batshit insane. Yes the Church worked to get people to recant, but not to save them from death. If the Church hadn’t declared some statements heretical (and demanded death as the punishment) I would agree they were not complicit in the torture. How on Earth can heresy even be a crime by secular standards?

While death sentences were indeed carried out by the civil authorities, they were given the moral authority to do so by the Church. The Church can not wash its hands of the crimes because the pope did not burn each heretic personally.

Its true, that at that time, the Church thought that a good way to deal with heretics was to torture them, and force them to recant. The Church has since apologized for this.

That makes it OK then.

But again, we see this error in hindsight. The medieval times were violent times for the entire society. Most punishments for breaking the law involved sentences we consider barbaric today. People were hanged in public, drawn and quartered etc. This was the society.

So why did the church apologise? How does this sliding scale of moral values lie with an inerrant word of God being handed down to the heads of the Church?

If the Church felt it was in keeping with Scripture at the time, what has changed?

The Spanish Inquistition was state ministry, not papal organization. Blaming Popes for deeds of Spanish Inquistition is incorrect. However kings of Spain used Dominicans (catholic order) as judges etc. because clergy (especially mentioned monks) were genarally far more educated than ordinal people.

Wow. An even bigger dose of madness wrapped around a kernel of truth. The Spanish inquisition was indeed instituted by the secular Monarchy.

First off, it was based on Papal Inquisitions (which were remarkably similar); secondly its purpose was to ensure people upheld the Catholic Church’s doctrine; Thirdly it was established by a Papal Bull from Pope Sixtus IV. Crucially, the Catholic Church could have stopped it, but chose not to.

Seems like the Catholic Church has to shoulder a fair amount of the blame for this.

The Church, even though the true Church of Christ, is not made of perfect people. She is protected from ever teaching heresy, but this protection does not give those in charge a crystal ball, or the power to know more than the current times in which they live.

Wow. Huge dose of irony there. The Catholic church can never teach heresy, but because there is no crystal ball its teachings may change and even contradict previous ones.

You’ve got to love the logic that belief grants you…

As far as the actual numbers of those killed, no one has a real count. But we do know that over the years the number has increased in direct proportion to the number of anti-Catholics. Those who claim in the “millions” are way off base. Not even close, more likely in the thousands. But just to give you an idea:
The Spanish Inquisition, assuredly the most vigorous and corrupt of the various inquisitorial bodies that existed in Europe, held 49,000 trials between 1560-1700 and executed between 3 and 5,000 people.

Again, it starts off well but then gets all conspiracy theory.

Worryingly, Misty0408 seems to be implying that because the numbers killed were “only” in the thousands this makes it OK. The idea that any people were tortured to death on the orders of a “loving” church is monstrous.

Bit of number crunching: I assume Misty0408 got the figures from Spiritus-Temprois.com, which doesn’t break down by year. If we assume each year was equal, that means there were 350 trials a year. Almost one a day. 350 people tortured each year. Just because these only resulted in between 21 – 35 executions each year doesn’t make it better. For most the period in question, Spain had a population in the region of between 5.4 and 7.5 million (source: The Population of Europe, Table 1.1, p8, by Massimo Livi Bacci, Cynthia De Nardi Ipsen, Carl Ipsen). This means that around 1 in 20,000 people were tortured by the inquistion – that is the equivalent of 3000 people a year in the modern UK, or 15191 people in the US – being put on trial for heresy each year.

This may seem trivial when compared with modern incarceration rates (which may be as high as 1 in 136 people in the US), but these people were in addition to all the “normal” criminals. Their only crime was not following the Catholic Church’s orthodoxy.

Yes, they may have been imprisoned under the orders of the Secular monarch, but it was done for, and with at least some blessing of, the Catholic Church.

Too often religion claims to be cause behind people doing good deeds, but then when bad things happen the nature of “Man” is blamed. This is a massive fallacy. The atrocities of the Crusades and Inqusition may not have been carried out (entirely) by uniformed members of the Catholic Church but it is fully to blame for them. Its doctrine lead to these acts. Its leadership endorsed them. Its priesthood encouraged them.

It really is to blame.


Rogue state fosters terrorism. That isn’t what the media are saying about Israel’s actions, despite the fact that a rational look at the situation in Gaza would support this conclusion. Every Israeli action of this kind drives the Palestinians further into the camp of extremists, as every other alternative is denied them.

A strange conflict arithmetic appears. Over 300 Palestinians dead, and 3 Israelis at yesterday’s count. The 3 Israeli casualties appeared as a rolling news banner, as if dead people are significant. Rightly so. But Palestinian casualties are treated as numbers, approximated and spurious. We are being hypnotised into seeing a hundred to one as some sort of equality of death, as if the value of a non-Israeli life is somehow one-hundredth that of an Israeli life.

On the rolling news broadcasts, images of Palestinians screaming and crying in grief are shown among a confusion of images of demonstrations and mass panic street scenes and Koran waving. At best, a local Englishman explains their situation in a half-screen box. Any attempt to follow what he is saying is disrupted by the flickering voiceless images of Palestinian chaos. The message is “You cannot understand these people. They are nothing like you.”

Israelis are interviewed in the circumstances of normality. Standing by their cars, discussing the events in English and expressing their concerns in the context of normal conversation. Israeli politicians are interviewed in modern well-set up studios. They say things that us Europeans tend to disagree with but they are recognisably like us. Reporters stand outside their comfortable hotels and discuss the day’s tallies and discuss Israeli reactions.

The overall impression seems to construct view of the Israelis that seems well nigh taken for granted in the US – that they are just like the people in USA or Europe or Canada, it’s just that they are insanely being bombarded by a load of Islamo-fanatics who hate their freedom and democracy and advanced way of life, etc.

Hmm. It’s not as if this is deliberate news management or anything. (Yes, “I am being sarcastic”, to quote Homer Simpson.) I initially thought it was just a side effect of the world’s journalists naturally gravitating towards interviewees who speak their language and can be easily reached from their hotels. And I was pretty depressed that, in the supposed age of the citizen journalist, traditional factors like accessibility and language and official control of information sources still frame the “news” so decisively.

But, it’s not just that.

“Israel is not currently permitting international journalists to cross into Gaza” (From the BBC report of a journalist who is Gaza resident)

Well, it’s not apparently permitting international medical aid to pass through the Mediterranean – as it admitted ramming a boat doing just that or it didn’t, according to UPN, according to which news source you believe – so it’s hardly going to allow foreign journalists into Gaza.

Hence, you can read lots stories like this in the New York Times.

A piercing shriek went up and a young woman fainted as the body, wrapped in a white shroud, was brought into the packed funeral hall.
On Tuesday, this fast-developing modern port city about half way between Gaza and Tel Aviv buried its first victim of a rocket attack: Irit Sheetrit, a 39-year-old mother of four

But, as far as I can see there very few people reporting for the Western media from within Gaza. Here’s one, a worker for an Islamic charity, writing on the BBC about the psychological effect of this on the children and about how hospitals are overwhelmed with the number of injured and dead people.

At the hospital I saw something I have never seen before – dead bodies outside on the floor. Everyone in Gaza has a relative or a friend killed or injured after these attacks.

Here’s another from the Guardian on a family that lost 5 daughters in one bombing raid. They lived in a refugee camp. Their lives were already shit and then they lost 5 daughters in one raid, while they were sleeping.

The Israeli strategy is based on a an insane belief that they will undercut support for Hamas by going ape on the Palestinians till they drop support for Hamas. This shows a level of ignorance about history and human psychology that seems almost wilful. The news management might have a fair amount of success in shaping how the USA sees and responds to this tragedy. But it is hardly going to convince the rest of the world. It’s not going to convince the people of Gaza of anything except the need to oppose Israel at any cost. It is not going to convince any Arab countries that they have any solution to the question of the Palestinians beyond slow burn genocide.

In the process, the Israelis are recruiting for Hamas, they are recruiting for Al Qeda. And, if the international community fails to put a stop to what they are doing, it is doing the same.

This blog is bigger than god

In what must be one of the longest waits from confession to absolution on record, the Vatican has forgiven John Lennon for saying the Beatles were bigger than god (or more popular than Jesus, or something) according to the BBC.

This was a mildly jokey casual remark made in the early 1960s, by a man who’s been now dead for decades. Has the Catholic Church been fretting about it ever since?

The BBC has a 1960s clip that shows some of the aftermath of the Beatles’ bizarrely notorious jokes about their huge success in the USA.

In this clip, a reporter with an impeccable old-style “BBC” accent talks about US fundamentalist baptists with the barely disguised distaste of someone who’s spotted another guest eating a fly at a dinner party.

The implication is that the UK saw the extreme US responses to the Beatles’ remarks as symptomatic of a strange and backward American culture. Beatle atheism was more or less taken for granted in the UK. The tolerant attitude of UK religious believers is also taken for granted. The BBC reporter could clearly assume that even UK churchgoers would see US bonfires of Beatles merchandise as exotically bizarre.

This was 40 years ago.

You certainly can’t imagine science teachers thinking that Intelligent Design should have an equal billing with Evolution in the biology curriculum, forty years ago.

The world can’t be a sci-fi novel. If it were, the hero would surely have detected by now that time is running backwards.

Privateers to battle pirates

Anyone who learned some Tudor history at school has probably heard of “privateers”. (Licensed pirates,)

Plus ca change etc. According to Voice of America,

Private Contractors May Protect Against Somali Pirates

Pirates have captured 20 ships in and around the Gulf of Aden so far this year.

Naval vessels from about 10 nations will soon be patrolling the waters off the Somali coast, trying to prevent pirates from hijacking cargo ships.

The international efforts may soon be extended to include “private contractors”.

Now, Blackwater, a firm providing thousands of private contractors in Iraq, is offering its services to battle pirates.

VoA (somewhat unaccountably) interviewed a Maryland college professor for a view on this. (Is Maryland twinned with the Yemen?)

“I think it’s important to note first that historically this has been done. In fact, several hundred years ago, when piracy was rampant off the coast of Africa, it brought English trade in that region to a standstill. And the East India Company actually employed private convoys to protect their ships from pirates..

I will try to temporarily ignore the fact that “several hundred years ago,” English trade off the coast of Africa was the Triangle Trade (manufactured goods taken from England to Africa; slaves from Africa to the Americas; and sugar from the American plantations back to England.) All the same, this could hardly be seen as “trade” in any good sense.

I am also a bit confused by this particular historical parallel. The East India Company? My foggy memory of history had me thinking that the East India Company had something to do with India – indeed basically colonised India on a for-private-profit basis, not to mention caused any number of wars in its wake. Indeed, Wikipedia seems to share my delusion.

Maybe protecting the East India Company sounds a more respectable instance of the use of private naval warfare contractors than if you think of privateers in terms of the Pirates-of-the-Caribbean. Indeed, maybe, international co-operation can’t stamp out piracy in the Gulf of Aden. But in that case, what chance would an ad hoc private navy have?
More from VoA:

Cost of the private escort duty may outweigh the risk of sailing unprotected.
Berube says, “That would depend I think on the contracts themselves, but if you are a shipping company, for example, you would have to balance off the cost of providing that extra protection versus the potential loss of revenue… …
Berube says that his research shows most agree private contractors would provide escort duty and not hunt down pirates. “This is really simply just an extension of security that is already provided on some ships. We have armed riders for example. Some shipping companies are providing people on board to protect themselves from pirates,” he says.
He says, however, they must comply with international law, as well as local agreements

Hmm, Somalia has been in a state of complete chaos on and off for a couple of decades. International law doesn’t seem very big there. If it was – there wouldn’t be any pirates…… Or the UN would be able to stamp out the piracy threat, using member states’ existing navies. Without recourse to any private navy. Anyway, what is international law on the high seas? Who enforces it?

Are international governments like cash-strapped Tudor monarchs, forced to pursue their international objectives through fortune-seekers who’ll do the monarchs’ dirty work while enriching themselves?

It’s not just 1984 any more. Welcome to the Realpolitik of the 15th century.


The makers of the Rapture Ready Index are getting really quite upset about the prospect of Obama’s winning. (Make it so. Please, make it so.)

So upset that they seem to see Obama in a rapture-causing category almost all of his own.

…If Obama should win in November, I plan to issue the most dire warning I’ve ever issued during the history of this ministry.

That will be pretty damn dire then. Isn’t that their whole raison d’etre? Issuing dire warnings? And this will be the most dire.

I admit to being too dumb to understand the whole “dire warnings” thrust of the Index. Aren’t these people counting the minutes until they get raised up to heaven on a big cloud? Is their Index supposed to list bad things or good things, from their perspective?

In fact, if they really believe that an Obama victory will issue in the end of the world, then why are they condemning the “liberal” media for supporting him? Shouldn’t they be welcoming him for supposedly hastening their coming move upstairs?

Why are they supporting the emetic McCain/Palin combo, then?

(Well, not quite. They barely mention McCain. All their hopes seem to be on Palin, who is much scarier even than McCain to my godless self – and quite a threat to moose, wolves and polar bears, too, apparently.)

Of course, they manage to get in a sly insinuation that Obama is a mysteriously secret Muslim. This is utterly confusing, apart from obviously being the worst kind of nonsense, although it seems to be believed by a fair proportion of the people on their chatboards. How can such people both blame Obama for the words of his former Christian pastor and still see him as a Muslim? (Quite apart from their bizarre assumptions that “Muslim” is just a euphemism for “being a suicide bomber” and would self-evidently disqualify anyone from the presidency.) But, again, if they really believe this, shouldn’t they be welcoming it, following what I hesitate to call their logic?

Rapture Ready’s avid enthusiasm for the prospect of the destruction of humanity is expressed perfectly in another disturbing piece on the same page, which complains that the US is stopping the rapture by failing to support Israel:

The perfect prophetic storm is upon this last-time generation. To understand the darkly serious truth of America’s tinkering in the matter of forcing Israel to make human peace with its enemies, we must delve heavily into the relevant prophetic Scriptures.

(If only the US would force Israel to “make human peace.” ) They reckon that America and the UN are interfering in god’s plan for Israel.

…America’s and the Quartet’s (U.S., E.U., U.N., and Russia) attempts to force the making of a Palestinian nation upon land that is Israel’s by divine right.

I’m not going to be too snide about people with absolutely no education in history, let alone modern international politics. These are tough subjects and I am already marvelling that people as mentally challenged as the RR gang can write sentences and use the Internet.

I am going to challenge “god’s plan.” Either their god wants the world to be scourged of us evil humans or he doesn’t. If he does, but is too idle to do it himself, shouldn’t they be welcoming any potential anti-christ figure who fills the bill? If god wants the US to support Israel right into the jaws of Armageddon, why can’t he bloody do it himself?

Look, RR people. I wouldn’t dare suggest you try reading history books or anything. But there are plenty of other holy books that you could take as literally true. You could take the Eddas or the Mabinogion or the Baghavad Gita or the Dao de Jing (however they are spelled.)

I’m not saying that you still couldn’t do serious damage if you believed in any of these books as accurate prophecies but at least the rest of us would get a break for a few centuries while you worked up an appropriately life-destroying worldview.

Cold metal

There is a new Google enterprise to get searchable digitised newspaper archives online. A great idea. (I’ve already had loads of educational fun with the Times archive and the Victorian British press archive that went subscriber only, just when it had completely engrossed me.)

The Google blog page has a link to Google’s press archive search but there’s a warning that you won’t find everything indexed. They suggest some searches.

Not every search will trigger this new content, but you can start by trying queries like [Nixon space shuttle] or [Titanic located]. Stories we’ve scanned under this initiative will appear alongside already-digitized material from publications like the New York Times as well as from archive aggregators, and are marked “Google News Archive.”

This instantly arouses my vapourware bullshit detector. Hmm. Space shuttle. The Titanic. First man on the moon… Maybe they’ve just stuck together a few very standard searches and plan to add lots more information as it becomes popular….. I feel impelled to test it a bit more rigorously.

I try a few off-the-wall searches. I pick the topics solely on the randomish basis that somebody’s mentioned the words to me in conversation today :

  • “Dolph Lundgren” – 4,370 articles
  • “Japanese swearword” – 279 articles
  • “linear algebra” – 3,520 articles
  • “Large Hadron Collider” – 3,370 articles.
  • “Frozen vegetables” – 236,000 articles

Blimey. This actually works really well. I can’t claim to have clicked on more than a handful of links but the ones I did click on were legit.. It’s definitely not vapourware. It’s already damn good.

So, the big test, then. I’m going for my favourite indicator that a human twat-a-tron is at work. “Political correctness gone mad” gets 3,420 print archive hits.
Wait. I run it again, to see if the British press is represented. Just because I suspect that it must appear several times a day, so 3,240 seems a relatively small total. (It’s outnumbered by all the phrases above except “Japanese swearwords” and the consensus of press opinion seems to be that these don’t really exist.)

This time I get a mere 1,550 hits. Bloody inconsistent Google. Plus, the timeline is bizarre to say the least. It claims the first mention was between 1880 and 1559. The next was in 1782, then there’s one from 1805. … I think not. They are making these up. The 1958 ones looks like a mistake as well.

Closer inspection reveals that the “dates” have leaked in from elsewhere in an article. Most examples are huddled around the last 8 years. In fact there’s barely an instance of political correctness gone mad until 1998. It’s only in the past couple of years that the full flowering of the phrase has taken off.

“The PC brigade” (h/t Alun) got 467. Ignoring the dating oddities, these are also clustered around the turn of the century, with a linguistic take-off from 2000.

These numbers are tiny. Ah ha. Google hasn’t archived the Daily Mail. 🙂 (No hits for “the Daily Mail is shit”, h/t Tom Donald)

Look, if they are only going to index serious newspapers, there is going to be no fun in this.

However, they must have archived a fair bit of newsprint crap, because “the Rapture” brings back a stunning 18,300 reports.

First mention is 0 AD 😀

Chomsky tells us off

In an Independent interview today, Naom Chomsky said that Britain:

has failed in its duty to stop the US from committing “shameful acts” in the treatment of suspects detained during the war on terror, …… Professor Noam Chomsky calls on the Government to use its special relationship with Washington America to secure the closure of Guantanamo Bay.
Claiming that he has heard only “twitters of protest” in the UK , the emeritus professor of linguistics also asks British “thinkers” to be more conspicuous in their opposition to the erosion of civil rights since the 9.11 attacks on the US.

National pride should compel me to put up some sort of defence of the UK here, but I’m afraid he’s just right.

(Except that there’s basically less than no chance the UK could stop the US doing anything, but at least we could stop encouraging them.)

The Independent article quoted Andrew Tyrie, the MP who set up the All Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition (APPGER).

(That repulsive phrase is of course the Dilbertspeak neologism for the old-fashioned “kidnap and torture” phrase. In this case, I can’t blame them for using it. It’s in a good cause.)

“The UK Government’s reaction to the US programme of rendition: a policy of kidnapping people and taking them to places where they may be tortured, has been inadequate, to say the least. It is scarcely credible that now, despite all we know about rendition and the UK’s involvement in it, the British Government still refuses to condemn this illegal, immoral, and counterproductive policy.”

I looked for something about this group, about whom I’ve previously read nothing..

The Chairman of the APPG is Andrew Tyrie MP,[Conservative] the Vice-Chairmen are Chris Mullin MP [Labour] and Norman Lamb MP, [Liberal Democrat]and the Treasurer is Lord Hodgson.[Conservative peer] The Coordinator of the APPG is Stuart McCracken. [Lord Hodgson’s researcher]. I googled this information in square brackets so you don’t have to.] (from APPGER site About us page)

Here are their press release documents.

The very existence of this Parliamentary group lifts a tiny corner of the blanket of national shame under which I am cowering after the richly deserved rebuke from Chomsky.

However, David Milliband – am I developing an anti-crush on this man? – brings back the feeling of national shame by his apparently unironic recommendation of this group:

The questions asked by… the all-party parliamentary group are precisely the sort of parliamentary interrogation and questioning that is wholly appropriate. (quote from Milliband on the APPGER home page.)

Well, he might respect their questioning role but he’s buggered if he’s going to address teh issues they raise. Blimey, he and his department won’t even willingly submit to a court order (“National security”, yada, yada..) in the Mohammed Binyan case. Are the embarrassing questions of a few decent parliamentarians going to bother him?

The dark side

I don’t have the stomach to watch it, myself, but I am going to write about it anyway. Alex Gibney’s Taxi To The Dark Side is about torture in the war on terror.

The free bus paper, the Metro, had a powerful interview with the filmmaker. The full content doesn’t appear in the online version of the review.

Which is a pity, because the director made some very strong points. He said that most of the military whom he interviewed were horrified by the descent into torture. This included an interview with his own dying father who had been a naval interrogator in World war II. His father had said that they would never have condoned torture. Not only was it utterly unethical, the information that it produced would be of no value.

However, when the director showed the film to non-military audiences, he often got the response that the war on terror was different and meant that we had to go to “the dark side” to fight it. The film maker’s response was that Charles Manson had also been uniquely evil, but the USA hadn’t needed to dismantle its entire justice system to convict him.

I am going to pick up on two bits of this interview.

First, Gibney’s brilliant response to the popular idea that there is such a serious threat now that we have to drop human values to confront it. In the UK, Gordon Brown and others seem determined to use the argument that the old rules don’t apply not to justify torture – yet – but to gather support for daily more repressive laws. Brown explicitly said that the old war-on-terror was nothing like the new one. (He pretty well iimplied that the old one was almost cosy homegrown friendly disagreement.)

Just in case, anyone is convinced by this argument. The BBC’s On this Day has a handy Northern Ireland “bombings and shootings timeline.” This shows, for example, that by 1978, 1,000 people had died. That’s barely 7 years from the first event.

Cast your eye down the list. There were attacks on Parliament, on the Tory party conference, on two prime ministers, ambassadors, members of the royal family and so on. You would think that targeted attacks on the members of the establishment would have achieved total repression, if nothing would. And that was quite apart from all the thousands of normal humans who were killed and injured in pub bombings and shopping centre bombings, and so on.

Obviously, that was different. (There were no Americans killed, for a start.) Now, I think the Charles Manson point is unarguable. If the UK didn’t fall to pieces under that terrorist threat, why is it hellbent on doing so now?

Secondly, Gibney’s observation that it was usually people with no experience of the reality of war who are calling for the most horrific measures. This brings up a point that Grumpy Lion blogged about a couple of months ago – the biggest verbal “hawks” tend to be those people who have no idea what they are actually calling upon their troops to do. People, driven mad by fear, somehow lack the imagination see what sorts of actions they are endorsing. Some of the poor buggers who have to carry out these evil actions will themselves be scarred for life, quite apart from the unspeakable effects on their victims.

Sorry for a depressing blog. One of my own armchair warrior faults is that torture enrages me beyond measure. There is never a justification for it. People who condone it are well nigh as guilty as those who carry it out in their name. And there can be no truer sign of descent to “the dark side” than to come to treat it as just another option.

The art of war

As a reminder of the UK’s old TWAT, there are some amazing photos of Belfast’s militant art in the Belfast set on the Flickr site of Gerry Ward.

I have been told that many of these Northern Ireland murals have been painted over as part of the peace process, which is a pretty powerful artistic metaphor for political processes that are painting over the old sectarian divisions.

I feel completely ambivalent about these images. I’m not exactly convinced that seeing adverts for murder – with direct sentimental appeals to religion, nationalism, a sense of injustice – can be anything other than spurs to cultivate hatred. I am, deliberately, putting this in too mealy-mouthed a way. In reality, this is propaganda that helped to foster violence for decades.

At the same time, I don’t like the idea of erasing history. And many of these murals are chillingly beautiful. On balance, I would like to feel that the NI population is reaching a condition in which they can appreciate the paintings as historical truth, while marvelling at the alienness of the world-views expressed in this art of war.

But, what has the UK government learned after 30-odd years of homegrown warfare? Nothing like enough, it seems. Gordon Brown seems to think there is no comparison with the current TWAT, almost presenting the IRA/UVF with the same self-deluding nostalgia as the lunatics who talk about the era of the Krays, as if they were lovable cockney villains.

One lesson is surely be that repression fuels resistance. As in the instance of the murals, repression can spark awe-inspiring levels of creativity in the expression of resistance. But, repression, in itself, is pretty bad at dispersing the will to resist. (Think French Resistance or Yugoslav and Italian partisans in World War II.) The only road to peace is conflict resolution. It always comes to that in the end, unless we are going to make war on abstract nouns for ever.

Speeding to sanctuary

Someone being chased by police for speeding sought sanctuary in a Northern Ireland church. And, amazingly, found it.

When police tried to follow they were blocked by members of the church.

You have to remember this is Northern Ireland before you move next to a church and start a whole new career as a criminal mastermind.

The last instance I could find of someone claiming the medieval right of sanctuary was the case of Viraj Mendes who took sanctuary in a Manchester church about twenty years ago, to avoid being deported back to Sri Lanka. He had a rather more morally defensible position. He was afraid he’d be killed in Sri Lanka. He wasn’t just dodging a speeding ticket.

In any case, sanctuary didn’t even work for him in the end.

The stand off lasted 760 days before police battered down the doors with sledgehammers and removed him.(From the BBC)

Disappointingly for that new master-criminal career, the BBC said that

the right of sanctuary had no legal force for centuries

(Try telling that to the congregation of the Free Presbyterian Church in County Tyrone.)

Those who refuse to learn from history

Just a taste of what happens when elected representatives start fuelling anti-immigrant hysteria….. A masked group, armed with sticks rampaged around a district of Rome, smashing up shops owned by Indians and Bangladeshis and disappearing before the police arrived.

The assault comes as Silvio Berlusconi’s administration launches a crackdown on illegal immigration, and days after a mob firebombed Gypsy camps in Naples. Last month crowds at Rome’s town hall welcomed newly-elected mayor Gianni Alemanno with fascist salutes..

(With my limited understanding of Italian, I translate that as “German Johnny”, a mite ironic to be the name of an Italian neo-fascist. )

Here’s a link to that story, with a disturbing picture and some pretty disturbing content. For instance Berlusconi reportedly greeted this unpleasant manifestation with the claim “We are the new falange”

As I mentioned recently, anti-gypsy feeling is so extreme in parts of Italy, that the church associated with St Francis of Assisi hired armed guards to keep gypsies away.

Tobia Jones, in a 2 may Guardian article suggested that the apparent re-emergent fascism was mainly a presentation issue and made possible by well-meaning attempts to bring together the still-warring Italian left and right. And, and according to Jones, Berlusconi is just a populist “bread and circuses” magnate, allegedly. (Together with Jones’ references to the “Italian character,” it looks like an almost “‘Allo,’allo”- level of resort to national stereotypes.)

I hope it is just my own unfounded pessimism. Maybe fascists salutes and shouts of “Il Duce!” aren’t really as terrifying as they seem. But I am left thinking “Control of mass media, populist appeal, use of emotionally charged nationalist motifs, and a convenient ethnically-different scapegoat sub-population? Sounds as close to fascism as dammit to me.”

Whit walking

This is Whit Sunday. Saturday’s Face to Faith, in the Guardian, confusingly said that Easter lasts seven weeks and includes Whit/Pentecost. (I see I’m too much of a heathen to have realised that it’s still Easter. )

Whitsun is such an impressive name for a festival. It’s like “Walpurgisnacht.” I am impelled to Google it.

Pentecost is also known as “Whitsun” (or “Whit Sunday”) in the United Kingdom. The week beginning on Whit Sunday is called “Whitsuntide” (formerly also spelled “Whitsontide”) or “Whitsun Week”. The term is derived from Middle English whitsonday, from Old English hw?ta sunnandæg, “White Sunday”, in reference to the white ceremonial robes formally worn on this day. An alternative derivation is from “Wit” or “Wisdom” Sunday, the day when the Apostles were filled with wisdom by the Holy Spirit (Wikipedia)

Bugger the “alternative derivation.” A festival that still bears an Anglo-Saxon name impresses the hell out of me.

The only two other Germanic languages to name this holiday ‘Whitsunday’ are Faroese and Icelandic, where it is called Hvítusunnudagur and Hvítasunnudagur (White-Sunday), respectively. (Wikipedia again)

So Whit seems to be a very Far-Northern-European holiday. Indeed, even within England, it’s very much a Northern thing. Whit Walks are still held in Lancashire on Whit Friday, a Day I had certainly never heard of before. ( It’s the Friday after Whitsunday. ) They involve parades, with brass bands and women  wearing white dresses.

As far as I can make out, Whit Walks are a folk custom from the years of early industrialisation. (Spinning the Web. ) They have been held in the mill areas around Manchester (and in Yorkshire) since about 1800. Showing off new spring clothes seems to be a crucial part of the ritual.

Oldham and Saddleworth Whit Friday website has a 1961 photo that looks as if it was taken in Fairyland,.
Whit Walk in Stalybridge 1961

Ethereal Gothic novel style heroine; slightly spooky children and Les Dawson style matriarchs, wearing hats and gloves. Wow. I admit to being less enamoured of the Brass Band Competition stuff. I love the whole idea of it. I just don’t enjoy the sound of brass instruments, especially in a mass format.

Where do these traditions come from? Internet sources tend to stress the “clothes” wearing thing, either as an opportunity for mill-owners to show off their products or as part of the survival strategies of the poor.

One of the traditions of the Whit Walks is for those taking part to wear new clothes for the occasion. In harder times this was something to look forward to as children would rarely get new clothes, more often receiving handed-down clothes from older siblings or relations. …..
Another custom, still in practice, is for people watching the walk from the pavement to look out for people they know taking part in the walk and to run forward and give them money (From Ashton-under- Lyne.com)

I must say, I’m not convinced by the “advertising” explanation. The Lancashire mills produced cotton for much of the world, rather than for a few Lancashire villagers. Industrialisation was invented there, ffs. I can’t imagine any branding benefit that cotton-mill owners would gain from passing out free clothing to people who couldn’t afford to buy more and who would only be parading their wares in front of equally poor people.

In any case, I am still baffled about the origin of the Whit walks. Were they rural customs brought to the city by the peasants who had turned machine-minders? Nowhere else in England seems to have such a tradition. The medieval Whitsun tradition that is most often mentioned on the Internet involves ale. (Like most medieval traditions, basically. Oh, and that would be most modern festivals, too. )

A site called homely divinity does mention walking in the context of Whitsun tradition.

“… the custom of walking barefoot through the dewy grass on Whitsunday morning.”.

(That magic May dew strikes again.)

The site talks about other notable medieval aspects of Whitsun – decorating churches with greenery and using purpose-built deus ex machina devices to release doves in church. Morris dancing. Wow. Morris dancing. Keep your brass bands, give me Morris dancing.

And the “Green Man”:

Carvings of the Green Man appear in British churches beginning in the 12th century. His prototype, of course, is much older. His origins are to be found in the ancient god of the woodlands who was known as Sylvanus by the Romans and Cernunnos by the Celts and was related to Dionysos, the Greek god of the vine and its fruit. ……

So, granting this site an unearned unspuriousness (because it suits me at the moment…) Whit is just another old non-Christian festival with a Christian overlay. (Well, duh. ) It’s a bit sad that all that exuberant May celebration stuff, like Maypoles and Morris dancing dwindled to a sedate walk in a white dress, but still, it’s something. Respect, Oldham & Saddleworth, Bolton, Manchester, Ashton-under-Lyne, et al.