Nothing new

“Binge drinking” is the fashionable moral panic topic for the UK media. The drunken excesses of youth in UK city centres are presented as evidence of social decline, the evils of youth culture, the dark side of feminism, even.

Agreed, drinking alcohol has some repellent effects. If legality really bore any relationship to social harm and if banning recreational substances didn’t lead to much worse problems than the substance ever caused, there would be a fair case for banning it completely.

As a predictable result of the current coverage of the evils of strong drink, Alistair Darling, the ironically-surnamed UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, greatly increased the taxes on alcohol today.

But experts said it was still not enough to make a “real difference”..(snipped)…
It comes at a time when more and more pressure is being placed on the government to use the lever of price to tackle binge-drinking Britain. (from the BBC)

Well, the media pressure might be recent but the increase in consumption and increase in collateral damage seem a mite illusory. The raising-price-to-deter issue remains unproven (and anyone can travel to mainland Europe and provision their neighbourhood with cheap booze.)

How new is this “issue” anyway? Think of Hogarth’s Gin Lane. Now that was an era with an alcohol problem.

A fantastic (and temporarily free) resource has lots of 19th century newspapers from the British Library, in a fully searchable online version. (The fact that some pages look as if they’ve been eaten by rats just adds to their charm.)

And, wow. Their news was much more action-packed and interesting than the stuff we get to read now. The political news tells you about things like the House of Commons reaction to Bradlaugh’s atheism. You can see the details of major historical events in a sort of reading-based real time. For instance, you can identify the start of the Irish Potato Famine. Even the shipping listings have whole columns devoted to casual lists of pirate attacks.

I mean, that’s what you call serious news. Which I will promptly ignore, of course, and go for the sensationalist stuff, being a true 21st century media consumer.

The biggest shock – for anyone seduced by a vision of the past as some sort of public order Utopia – is the nature and viciousness of the crimes reported in the local papers. Not to mention the often merciful nature of sentences, at a time when we assume that all “justice” was more than harsh.

Almost randomly mixed in with records of innocent Rose Grower’s Association fetes, you find some really bloodthirsty reports. I won’t retell a selection of 200-year-old crime stories, on the grounds that they would be as interesting as other people’s holiday snaps. Find your own stories by searching the database, if you’re interested.

Scores of knifings, battering, poisonings, drowning babies, muggings and gang robberies – one of which included an 86-year old woman, on the gang side. In one story, a remanded prisoner – whose imprisonment involved living as a guest in a detective’s house, ffs – managed to get a gun and shoot the two accomplices in the murder he was being charged with. (The detective’s wife gave evidence that he was very well behaved in their house and that the shooting was out of character…..)

The theme of alcoholic excess runs through many of these stories. 19th century binge-drinkers could drink today’s urban revellers under the table. For example, the London Examiner (July 7, 1817) reported the story of a soldier who was too drunk to remember having murdered his drinking companion.

The Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Scotland), Saturday, March 22, 1800 described the loss of a 64-gun royal navy ship, the Repulse, which had just recaptured a boat that had been taken by French privateers. Among the crew who died in the course of the shipwreck, there were two sailors who drowned “due to drunkenness” and four sailors who were so drunk that they couldn’t even leave the sinking ship.

Drinking to the point at which you become a serious danger to yourself and others is no new invention. It seems to be a centuries-old British tradition. I hope we don’t have to swear allegiance to that.

All atheists aren’t bright

If you’re smugly thinking that your being a bit less stupid than the next person is evidenced by your lack of religious belief, I have some unwelcome news. Then again, if you think the idea of all atheists banding together in a broad unchurch of unbelief is silly, you may feel vindicated. (Snakes and ladders.)

There’s a blog on the Atheist Blogroll called Al-Kafir Akbar Its site in the lower reaches of the mental gene pool became evident in a climate-change-denial post. This post has already been elegantly and eloquently savaged by Black Sun Journal.

I was pretty struck by today’s post. Mohammed protector of infidels. I already suspect this story of the Swedish artist is rather more complex than it is being reported in the international media, although, with any more reports, it will indeed become yet another crazy international incident.

There is a bizarre capacity of small groups in the Islamic world to stir up mass hysteria over “insults” known at 15th hand, and only through the deliberate agency of rabble-rousing Islamic leaders. There is also an evil twin Western response, which assumes that the entire Muslim world is made up of demented fundamentalist fanatics.

Most atheist blogs are well able to oppose any flavour of fundamentalist nonsense without degenerating into mania.

But let me refer you to Al-Kafir Akbar’s blog again. This doesn’t fit into that camp of rational discourse. He says

.. those neurotic, thin-skinned cry-babies will be rioting again – peacefully, of course….. Al-Kafir akbar, ragheads! 🙂

I find this unpleasant. As I do the “Disprortionate Response” button. “Mr Akbar’s” “Islam & the War” blogroll includes Soldier of Fortune blog and Western that has the sort of posts that include one saying “Moderate Islam: a Reductio ad Absurdum.”

I am trying to see this as a cultural Europe versus USA thing and be more tolerant. But something about that “ragheads” word chills me. Despite sounding completely unlike “gooks”, it somehow sounds exactly the same.

Feelings about Islam in the US can go way beyond denouncing anti-humanist religiously-influenced practices. Many Americans and more and more Europeans go beyond reason into demonising Muslims en masse. The ultimate direction of this way of thinking is genocide.

Endless global war over access to dwindling resources. Justified on all sides by appeals to increasingly polarised beliefs in nonsense.. Which takes us back to the environmental threats topic again….

Yes, terrorism is vile and terrifying. (The clue’s in the name.) However, Europe has lived in the face of terrorism for decades, barely paddling in the ocean of craven fear, bigotry and database-driven authoritarianism that the world seems to be now diving into. In most cases, the way to stop terrorism is to find out what it’s really about and to deal with that.

(Look more closely at the Swedish artist Lars for a good-natured and good-humoured response to bigotry. He tried to buy the Egyptian cartoons that insult him.)

Quick history lesson, the mention of which will probably annoy the hell out of many US readers. Read Wikipedia on the Stern gang. The founders of the state of Israel got it by carrying out a terrorist campaign against the UK, who held Palestine as a “protectorate”. To this end, they even supported Germany in World War II.

(Stern) differentiated between ‘enemies of the Jewish people’ (e.g., the British) and ‘Jew haters’ (e.g. the Nazis), believing that the former needed to be defeated and the latter manipulated. To this end, he initiated contact with Nazi authorities, in order to enlist their aid in establishing a totalitarian state on Nazi lines., open to Jewish refugees from Nazism, in exchange for collaborating with Germany against the British Empire in the Second World War. (from Wikipedia.)

An object lesson in why you shouldn’t give into terrorism. At the same time, this shows you why terrorism presents an attractive option to people who can’t get what they want by normal methods.

Missing the Point?

I was browsing through the Times blogs yesterday and I came across one by John Humphrys (which was actually an extract from “In God We Doubt” about to be published by Hodder & Stoughton) carrying the title “In God we doubt” with the following tagline:

He went looking for God and ended up an angry agnostic – unable to believe but enraged by the arrogance of militant atheists. It’s hard to see the purpose of the world, he says, but don’t blame its evils on religion

As you can see, there was no way I wasn’t going to read this!

Overall, this is a reasonably well written piece. While it isn’t good enough to make me interested in buying the book it may well appeal to some people with wavering faith and the writing style is certainly inoffensive on the whole. John Humphrys is basically explaining how he went from being brought up a good Christian to his faith wavering and finally he “deconverted” to agnosticism. I wont go into the nonsensical idea that “agnosticism” is anything other than a complete wet lettuce of a philosophical idea, which has at its root the basic assumption that God does exist but is insufficiently proven for worship, that is for another day.

There is one, possibly major, problem with the whole piece and (I suspect) the line of reasoning from which it flows. After a lengthy and introspective introduction, Mr Humphrys identifies what he sees as “the attitude of those militant atheists who seem to hold believers in contempt.” (It is interesting that he makes a list of seven points, but again this diversion can wait). His reflection on “militant atheists” produces the following list of characteristics, faults and problems: (These are opinions which “militant atheists” are supposed to hold to)

1. Believers are mostly naive or stupid. Or, at least, they’re not as clever as atheists.

2. The few clever ones are pathetic because they need a crutch to get them through life.

3. They are also pathetic because they can’t accept the finality of death.

4. They have been brainwashed into believing. There is no such thing as a “Christian child”, for instance – just a child whose parents have had her baptised.

5. They have been bullied into believing.

6. If we don’t wipe out religious belief by next Thursday week, civilisation as we know it is doomed.

7. Trust me: I’m an atheist. I make no apology if I have oversimplified their views with that little list: it’s what they do to believers all the time.

After sharing his earth shattering wisdom the reader is further encouraged to discover each point in detail. It is here that I largely gave up on any hope for him. The explanations and rebuttals follow, now with my rebuttal of his rebuttal…

1. This is so clearly untrue it’s barely worth bothering with. Richard Dawkins, in his bestselling The God Delusion, was reduced to producing a “study” by Mensa that purported to show an inverse relationship between intelligence and belief. He also claimed that only a very few members of the Royal Society believe in a personal god. So what? Some believers are undoubtedly stupid (witness the creationists) but I’ve met one or two atheists I wouldn’t trust to change a lightbulb.

In his first sentence he gets it spot on, but possibly not in the way he thinks and despite his scorn for this it is his first point and he goes to great lengths to try and dismiss it. The reality of the matter is no “militant atheist” I know really thinks all theists are dumb and I would be interested in seeing the published information to support this idea. There are very intelligent and well educated theists – this goes without saying – and equally there are retarded atheists. Here, Humphrys has created a strawman and then attacked it. He tried to demolish it with an appeal to ridicule but, come the crunch, he failed. Nothing in what he writes actually says anything relevant to the point he tries to address so I suspect this is actually proof some atheists are dumb.

The strawman used by Humphrys reads that atheists think theists are “mostly” dumb or not as clever as atheists. Nothing that he writes contradicts this idea, except the appeal to ridicule at the beginning – and if it really is so clearly untrue, why address it first and foremost? If he strongly thinks it is false, then why is he using phrases like “reduced to using a ‘study'” (with sneer quotes)? Strawmen are wonderful things, but they need to be used properly…

2. Don’t we all? Some use booze rather than the Bible. It doesn’t prove anything about either.

Here he continues the strawman and again says nothing. I am not sure what point he is trying to make here. Does he mean to imply that religious belief is “good” because some people need alcohol to get through the day? Is he saying that the Bible (or what ever religious belief) is nothing but a crutch for people with problems and then claiming it doesn’t prove the original (yet strawman) argument he presented? If so, he is sadly mistaken.

After what he must feel was a rapier-like strike with the first point, Mr Humphrys descends into meaningless, pointless sentences like point 2. I am sure, somewhere, it means something but reading it on the Times Blog is baffling. He has no means of dismissing the claimed idea, for example with point 2 he does not even attempt to explain why intelligent theists are not simply clinging to their belief like an alcoholic clings to their bottle, he just says (an intellectually lazy) “so what.” For example:

3. Maybe, but it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Count the number of atheists in the foxholes or the cancer wards.

Again, he has no point other than a strawman. He has no way of dismissing or even disagreeing with it and finally he trots out the old stalwart of the theist case – Atheists in Foxholes. Now, anyone who has read “God Is Not Great” will know that Christopher Hitchens is indeed someone who has been an atheist under fire, as have I and many, many other people I know. In all honesty, I know more people who have been an atheist in a foxhole than a theist.

But even if we assume the claim is correct, it leaves open the argument that the gods the theists are worshipping are somewhat neglectful. Surely they should be caring for their believers more than unbelievers, so why is it so many of the faithful are made to suffer…?

4. True, and many children reject it when they get older. But many others stay with it.

This leaves me with a massive “eh?” So what? He agrees with the militant atheist claim, so what is his point?

5. This is also true in many cases but you can’t actually bully someone into believing – just into pretending to believe.

Mr Humphrys is misrepresenting the “militant atheists” claim here so that he can simply add a rebuttal in the form of a twist. Obviously he is thinks it is ok for religions to bully people into observing their practices because, deep down, the person doesn’t believe in them. Madness.

6. Of course the mad mullahs are dangerous and extreme Islamism is a threat to be taken seriously. But we’ve survived monotheist religion for 4,000 years or so, and I can think of one or two other things that are a greater threat to civilisation.

It seems his liberalised anglican upbringing is showing here. Fundamentalist Islam is, indeed, dangerous in the short term violence aspect but the reality is no amount of terrorist attacks can destroy civilised democracy. Yes, people may die but then people die every day. The destruction of civil liberties that is following the fear of Islam provides a more long-term worry. The destruction of education being forced upon the west by Fundamentalist Christianity is more likely to do long-term harm to our societies ability to exist than people with semtex strapped to their chests. (Even “liberal” Holland is suffering – for example). The “harm” caused by religion is not always exemplified by planes flying into towers – think of the oppression of homosexuals, the subjugation of women, caste systems, refusal of medical treatment for minors etc.

Also, I am not sure his history is up to speed either. While Judaism may have been around for 4000 years, it is certainly a lot shorter period of time in which monotheistic death cults have been dominant on a global scale – let alone people who get their orders from the voice in their head god having access to nuclear weapons.

7. Why? For those of us who are neither believers nor atheists it can be very difficult. Doubters are left in the deeply unsatisfactory position of finding the existence of God unprovable and implausible, and the comfort of faith unachievable. But at the same time we find the reality of belief undeniable.

Again, we have the illusion of a middle ground which is more reasoned, more acceptable, than the non-belief of Atheism. This middle ground has been largely created by theists who seek to undermine the idea that atheism can exist. It is not logical to have no opinion on the subject unless you have given it no thought. I am confused by the concept of finding the existence of god implausible but the reality of belief undeniable. Working through what passes for logic is giving me a head ache but I will try:

Mr Humphrys is asserting he is an agnostic because he finds the existence of god implausible but the reality that people “believe” in god is undeniable so he can’t think of himself as an atheist.

Did I get it right?

It has that wonderful ring of being “true” but it isn’t. Just because lots of other people “believe” something with all their hearts does not mean it is true. For centuries people believed that the Earth was the centre of the solar system, that the solar system was the universe, that stars were ancient warriors, that the gods sat on top of Mount Olympus and interfered with mankind and so on. Not one of these things were true and all the belief in the world will not overturn that.

It strikes me that, although Mr Humphrys describes himself as an “agnostic” and ridicules the idea that children are indoctrinated into religious beliefs, he is suffering from this indoctrination. He (I assume) will certainly agree that lightning is not the result of Zeus’ anger, that Neptune does not control the oceans and Loki is not spreading global mischief. He (again, I assume) will agree that there is a continent across the ocean from Europe, that the Chinese are not devils, that elves do not live in woods, dwarves do not mine gold in the Norse mountains, faeries do not steal Irish children and the tooth fairy is not responsible for the coin under the pillow.

All of these things have at some point been believed to be true by people over the world. All of them. They all have as much evidence for existing as the Christian God. If the existence of belief is proof of existence, then they exist. The existence of the things I mentioned is implausible and unlikely, but this seems not to matter to Mr Humphrys.

I find myself wondering if he really does doubt the existence of god.

On a final note, and getting back to the subject of this diatribe, Mr Humphrys closes with:

As for the fanatics – religious or secular – history suggests they succeed only to the extent that we allow ourselves to be defeated by our own irrational fear. For every fanatic there are countless ordinary, decent people who believe in their own version of a benevolent God and wish no harm to anyone. Many of them regard it as their duty to try to make the world a better place. It is too easy to blame the evils of the world on belief in God. In the end, if we make a mess of things, we shall have ourselves to blame – not religion and not God. After all, he doesn’t exist. Does he?

While I actually agree with the first part of this (and this is why I feel the “fear of Islam” is more worrying than the effects of actual terrorism), he finishes it up by missing the point completely. I know of no atheists who blame god for the world’s troubles. The blame has, at times, been placed on religion which, despite the assertion he closes with, is something he seems to be agreeing with. The people are making a mess of things. They are making a mess of it under the idea that they are working to a higher power and worldly suffering will be followed by a reward in the afterlife. This is the result of religion not secularism.

(I will leave looking at Giles Fraser to others for now but if you have spare time read the comments, they are priceless – even Fr Brian Storey pops up!)

[tags]John Humphrys, Humphrys, Religion, Belief, Christianity, Faith, Delusion, God, Bible, Logic, Fallacy, Strawman, Appeal To Ridicule, Philosophy, Society, Culture, Understanding, Times Online, Logical Fallacy, Confusion, Islam, Monotheism, History, Agnostic, Atheist, Militant Atheist, In God We Doubt, Book[/tags]

Fundamentalist Newton?

The Boston Globe has an article purporting to show that Newton believed in Intelligent design so he couldn’t possibly get a decent post in a modern university.

They reach this conclusion via a mode of rhetoric that makes you want to chew your own arm off. It’s like one of those long drawn out jokes in which the punchline is supposed to come as shock.

That is, they characterise the beliefs of an unknown professor in a succession of paragraphs that are supposed to make you think he’s a real extremist fundamentalist.

Not many modern universities are prepared to employ a science professor who espouses not merely “intelligent design” but out-and-out divine creation.

Of course, Dawkins’s name gets drawn in, Dawkins somehow having the ultimate say over all academic appointments in the fundy worldview. Continue reading


I had the continued pleasure of listening to Radio 2 quite a bit today – including the Jeremy Vine show. Hidden amongst a dreary line up, there was a hidden gem of philosophical brilliance – the “Violence against expats” bit.

Basically, it being an apparently slow news day, this was a discussion about a British family who were forced out of their house in Brittany, France as the result of what may be hostile locals. This was obviously such a high profile incident, I can’t find any links to it elsewhere on the BBC site. For all I know, the Jeremy Vine show made it up (it wouldn’t be the first time the BBC faked something…).

Anyway, the debate was pretty much as you would expect – lots of people saying there was no hostility, all the French people love the British etc. Until one Scottish woman phoned in. Now, given the BBC’s track record on faking phone ins, she may have been a plant to stir things up (she failed) but she actually seemed to reflect a common opinion I have heard elsewhere. The call came (around the 48min point if you are listening online) soon after a French journalist went to great lengths to say how the French people, especially in Brittany, are welcoming and friendly – even going as far as to specify how the French love the Welsh, Irish, Scottish and Cornish. Hmm. This was followed by the Scottish woman, who phoned in to say how wonderful and friendly the French people she meets every year are. She built on this by saying how all the English people were loud, obnoxious, drunken etc., and how she can understand why the French hate them. Continue reading

Real royalty?

On Discovery Civilisation (UK version) today, Tony Robinson claimed to have unearthed the “real” heir to the British throne. (I assume this was a repeat of old programme, which I never saw. Noone needs to catch history and science programmes on terrestrial TV if they have cable…)

Humbug! “Real” heir to the throne, indeed? It turned out to be an English Lord somebody who was living in the Australian desert. As an English Lord, albeit no longer owning stately acreage, it was hardly a surprise to him that he was an aristocrat. He hardly needed the genetic fingerprinting, but it got thrown in anyway , so the progarmme seemed more like serious science.

This is the sort of nonsense that passes for history programmes on TV. How do you define “real heir” to the throne? It appears you

  • ignore 6 centuries of history, in which the monarchy was abolished and reinstated, and in which contenders to the throne have been imported from Holland or brought as marriage partners from Greece and Germany
  • assume the House of Windsor (nee Battenburg) is somehow functionally identical with the House of Tudor
  • go back no further than the Plantagents. No need for stressful searching out of Harald’s family or Cnut’s or Aelfred’s, let alone the descendants of Boudicca and the other pre-Roman ruling families
  • base your whole claim on one missing marriage from the times of the Plantagenets
  • assume the whole nature of royalty is passed on in the blood rather than struggled over in the real world

This is taking the history – the struggles over power and wealth – out of History and replacing it with a strange genetic determinist alternative pesudohistory.

I have ranted before about how TV archeaology’s 3-day-limited bulldozing of sites makes it necessary to find something amazing everywhere – or at least to make an impressive 3-d graphic reconstruction if the best find is a chipped piece of pot.

Is there now also an audience for this absurd genetic determinism? Some dumbing down is more than stupid. It can distort the very nature of how we understand history and society.

You were good in BlackAdder, Tony. In fact, you can get a better understanding of the past from the average Black Adder episode than from 30 Time Team episodes or, Toutatis forbid, Real Royal Family shows.

The Evolution of Fear

Again, sorry this is a long rant – I am in a bad mood. Comments are welcome though.

Once upon a time, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was renowned the world over for the way the population handled hardship and adversity. The “Stiff Upper Lip” was such a powerful stereotype it still endures today.

During the first three quarters of the twentieth century, the British Stiff Upper Lip was heavily put to the test. The century began with a hammering in Africa, followed by the loss of almost an entire generation on the fields of Flanders and the Somme. The interwar years were wrought with economic depression which was only relieved when the deaths of the second world war reduced the population enough for there to be more jobs. Entire cities were destroyed (Coventry) and most major population centres endured nightly bombing raids.

The end of the war only brought limited respite for the British handling of adversity. Crippled by economic debt and the ravages of the war, the Empire collapsed piece by piece. Britain was quickly over taken in the world power stakes by the upstarts (America for example 🙂 ), and to all intents and purposes became a secondary nation on the world stage. The somewhat anomalous status as permanent member of the UNSC is down to possession of nuclear weapons and nothing else. The break up of empire was accompanied by various military defeats (Suez, Korea), while the victories were sometimes hollow (Borneo, Malaysia). The apparent collapse spurred domestic agitators into more and more violence until by the mid 1960s, Northern Ireland was not dissimilar to Bosnia thirty years later.

Throughout this all the stiff upper lip remained. The ideas about what made “British” society were upheld and, generally, life went on. If you had proposed a national identity card scheme in 1970 you would have been laughed at for the rest of your life.

Continue reading

Silbury Hill to get stuffed

This blog (as a collective being) loves megalithic structures and sites.

So, it was interesting to read on clioaudio‘s excellent blog and in an English Heritage press release that Silbury Hill is being excavated.

Ironically,the half-arsed attempts to nose around in Silbury Hill were what is putting it at risk, after about 4000 years of being pretty solid. It’s a pyramid shaped man-made hill so it was inherently steady.

It was dug into by the Duke of Northumberland, in 1777, and by a Professor Atkinson, in the 1960s. The shafts they dug have made the monument unstable. Hence English Heritage is going in to shore it up with concrete. Hmm.

Continue reading

Educational Standards

It seems that teaching in UK schools hit the news a bit over the bank holiday weekend (for overseas visitors, I was proven correct this weekend, when I said the May bank holiday is generally the wettest time of the year…).

Nullifidian discusses an article in the Times which reports that the Religious Education Council (REC) is trying to remove a parent’s right to remove their children from a religious education class. This is pretty shocking and as you might imagine the arguments put forward by the REC are riddled with nonsense. It seems they have a “Good Idea” and the best of intentions (and it would do them well to remember the road to hell here…) but, as with most things Religious types get involved with, the practicalities and implementation sucks. When I was at school, RE was 95% Christianity, 4% Judaism and 1% Islam. I don’t recall any other world religion being mentioned, but it was good in teaching me the nonsense and sheer “woo” being spouted by theists. Thank [insert deity of choice] for Science classes…

Also looking at Education, Alun Salt has an excellent discussion about the loss of “Ancient History” as a subject in the UK  (Heather has also mentioned this). It is sad that at the same time the Religious nutters are advocating more and more religion be taught, the basis of a “humanist” society are no longer going to be taught. Will we go to a future where people think the Battle of Thermoplye was a fictional tale? Will we have a society where people think Alexander was actually Irish? This may seem trival, but the lessons (and understanding of society) provided by the classics still underpin the values we live by today. Removing their teaching can only be a step back to the medieval period.

Ancient History is becoming history

TV programmes on archeaology and ancient history are extremely popular. The history that engages most of us is usually in the distant past. It expands our understanding of what it is to be human. However, Ancient History is about to disappear as an A level subject, according to an article by Tom Holland in Saturday’s Guardian.

Tom Holland says “In modern schools, of course, history tends to mean Hitler”. There is mountains of material on 20th century history, not just original papers but film, sound recordings and interviews with living people. This reminds me of a Guardian TV critic’s comment I read a few years ago to the effect that, having a cable TV connection, the critic could now pick out individual faces at the Nuremberg rallies. Continue reading

Community Spirit on the wane?

For some reason, possibly temporary insanity, I ended up buying the Sunday Telegraph today (well actually the choice was Telegraph or News of the World…). As I suspected there are numerous examples of intemperate and illogical thought processes, all with the potential of providing this blog with millions of posts.

One of the things which has caught my eye early on is a page titled “The rise of can’t-be-bothered Britain” (available online). Basically, this is a piece on how since the fifties, community groups (Women’s Institute and the like) are losing out on membership. The thrust of the article seems to be trying to imply this is actually because people can not be bothered rather than anything else. Sadly, the article is riddled with poor historical analysis and some blinding leaps of illogic. Early on it sets the scene:

Seven out of 10 people questioned had no ties to groups or associations in their neighbourhoods. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, the figure rose to eight out of 10. Lack of time, or a dearth of groups relevant to their needs, were given as the main reasons.

The findings reflect the decline of bodies such as churches, the Women’s Institute and the Scouts, and appear to show the rise of a generation that cannot be bothered.

The data seems reasonable enough, so I am not going to debate that. I do have to question the assumption that this means people “cannot be bothered” though. From what I have read in the article there is little to actually support that conclusion – other than an innate journalistic bias. Further on, it continues with this mixed bag:

Membership of the Scout Association has fallen by a third since the early 1990s, to stand at 450,000 last year, while a shortage of Girl Guides leaders has been blamed on the growing number of women who work.

Women’s Institute membership, now 215,000, has halved since the 1970s, and the Labour and Tory parties have fewer than 500,000 members between them, a tenth of the level in the Fifties. According to Christian Research, less than 7 per cent of the population now attend church regularly.

Now, the less than 7% is good 🙂 , but I admit the drop off in political activity may be a “bad thingâ„¢.” There is little doubt in my mind that the increasing number of women in work is affecting the Guides when it comes to trying to get leaders but “blame” seems a strange term. Using a term like blame (remember, a journalist wrote this – they are experts in choosing the correct word for their meaning), seems to be saying women should feel guilty for going to work and earning money, rather than giving up their time for free. I find that odd, and I doubt the Guide Association would have meant it in that manner. It gets better though:

Yet research into work patterns suggests that “lack of time” may be a convenient excuse, rather than a genuine reason not to get involved. The average working week lengthened from 35 hours in the Seventies to 39 hours in 1998, but has since shortened to about 37½ hours, Office for National Statistics figures show.

Welcome to the land of bad statistics. Now, I actually do normally work less than 37.5 hours so maybe I skew the data a little, but I suspect if you average it out over the year (to include the periods where I work 12 – 16 hours a day for a fortnight straight), it comes to 37.5hrs. Despite this, pretty much no one else I know (I am aware this is not really valid data, I am trying to make a point) works less than 37.5 hours. Most work more – either voluntary or to gain overtime pay. I suspect the ONS figures are somewhat skewed and don’t count things like overtime, but this is an argument for another day. I am fairly sure the ONS figures only talk about time which is “worked and paid for” – so the hour for lunch does not count.

The interesting point about it is, this is an attempt by the journalist to imply that as people only work an average of 2.5 hours a week more, they still should have loads of spare time.

In the paper edition, the article is accompanied by a picture of loads of women “mucking in” to clean a street for a Coronation street party (1953 IIRC). The picture shows over a dozen women (probably twice as many) scrubbing the stones and decorating. What wonderful times, when communities were real communities eh?

Sadly, if you check ONS data I very much doubt that the average woman in that community was working 35 hours per week. In the days when WI, Guides etc were at their strongest, few if any women worked in jobs outside the home. Now I am not saying housework is not hard graft (it is) but the women of yesteryear had 37.5 hours a week more to do house work and be involved in the community. Today, nearly every family I know has both partners working (more than 37.5 hours but…). This was not the case in the 1970s and certainly was not the case in the 1950s. If we look at a family with no kids: In the fifties, the husband would have worked about 50 hours a week, leaving (assuming 8hours sleep) 174 hours for the family to get involved in things. Travel to and from work was almost zero as most people lived within a few minutes walk of the work place.

Today, that family will include two people working 37.5 hours a week (remember, 5 hours a week will be unpaid lunchbreaks, so they are actually “in work” for 42.5 hours a week – often people will be in work longer as morning and afternoon breaks are not counted). Now again assuming 8 hours a person a day sleep, this means there is actually only 139 hours a week free. As the average commute today is 45 minutes each way, this takes another 15 hours a week off people. Before we look at any lifestyle changes or issues, a couple today has about 124 hours a week “free time.” This is 50 hours a week less than the halcyon days of yore, or more than a full working week. This doesn’t include things like collecting children from childminders, going to the gym (less manual work means more time spent in the gym!) and so on.

Strikes me as people do have less spare time than they used to. I think this is highlighted by the further commentary:

Working-class people and those living in the north of England were most likely to admit no involvement in any community group. In London and the south, rates were lifted by the popularity of residents’ associations and book groups.

Yeah, people who work for a living (and depend on things like overtime) have less spare time than the idle rich in London. Who would have thought it? (And I am also aware that in London some people work zillions of hours a week, it was a joke).

Looking at the picture in the paper, I cant help but feel the lack of “community” is much more complicated than saying people today can’t be bothered (even in the over 60’s membership is minimal, and they will have grown up with this sort of thing, and certainly have the spare time…). In the 50s people lived in council housing, the state cared for them and, as a result, they cared for the state. Today there is more and more pressure for the state to cut people free (especially from the Telegraph), yet there is amazement that people don’t still care about the state in the same manner.

Now that is what I find strange.

History lessons are good..

Now if it had been a , I could understand it. Some seem very unwilling to learn about anything which happened before their Saviour came to Earth and to them the is a bit harsh and cruel. Oddly this is a Rabbi showing little real understanding of historical events. On MSNBC there is an article by Rabbi Marc Gellman (hat tip – Pharyngula) titled “In God’s Image” with a tagline of “The death of Captain America and the movie ‘300’ raise questions about the duty of the truly religious to protect freedom—even with their lives.

Blimey. Talk about reaching out for straws…

After an intro about the enlightenment and the problems with fascism, communism and jihadism, the Rabbi writes:

This same conflict lies behind the comic-book death of Captain America and the cinematic death of Leonides in the movie “300.” The Spartan Greeks, led by Leonides, could have chosen to live under the rule of Xerxes and the Persian Empire. They could have traded their imperiled freedom for a secure life of slavery. The choice of Leonides and the 300 Spartans to die in a doomed but heroic battle is the clear choice of those who believe that nothing—no faith, no material wealth, nothing—justifies the surrender of freedom to tyranny.

Strangely, I agree with his last sentence. Nothing, especially no faith, justifies the surrender of freedom to tyranny. I suspect the Rabbi and I have a different idea of how that is interpreted in the real world though but that is a whole different matter…

Often ignored is that, in addition to the 300 Spartans (Leonidas’ royal guards) there were 700 Thespians (from Thespiae) at the final battle. I am sure, as they were largely a “subject” city at the time, their freedom didn’t matter much though… Further on, the article continues:

Neither Leonides nor Captain America were religious, but both of them stood for that part of the religious world that believes in a God who fights for freedom.

Wow. While I can not comment on Captain America (he is a comic book character and not a real person!), I think it is reasonable to assume Leonidas was a very religious person. Maybe the fact it wasn’t Judeo-Christianity so it doesn’t count? Spartans always sought guidance from their Gods before pretty much anything (sports, war, trade etc) and part of the problem at Thermopylae was “ill omens” from the High Priests. However the nonsense, continues:

They both stood for the proposition that freedom is the foundation of all meaningful life. Religiously speaking, this is the belief that God gave freedom to all people made in His image, and that those who oppose freedom must be prepared to fight God.

Wow (again). The Spartans (remember Captain America is not real) were certainly NOT supporters of freedom – even by their contemporary standards. They were a military dictatorship in almost every sense. All citizens were geared for war and this was built on a bedrock of slave labour. Even the other Greek states (with their own slaves) thought the Spartans were oppressive. One of the reasons the Persian kept attacking Greece was the poor Greeks spent most of their time trying to stop the Spartans enslaving them.

The piece closes with:

Embracing the need to spiritually justify the fight for world freedom carries its own perils. Chief among these dangers is what we now see in the world of Islamic fascism: the use of religion to extol death and tyranny. The biblical name for this is idolatry, and the seductions of idolatry are hard for some to resist. In the end, though, the spiritual truth of freedom’s cause is eventually clear to all.

Leonides and Captain America were heroes not because they entered the field of battle with a shield of Vibranium or were in possession of abs of steel, but because they entered battle with a spiritually authentic idea: that God is free and we are made in God’s image to be free as well. We were not placed on planet earth to avoid death. We were placed here so that we could avoid surrendering our God-given freedom to tyrants.

Well again we hit an little dichotomy. Generally when people say things like “it is clear to all” or “every one can see” and my favourite “it is obvious”, the point being made is nonsense. Here, I think this is still valid. While I strongly agree the we should never surrender our Freedom to Tyrants (nothing to do with who gave us our freedom – that in itself implies tyranny but this is a whole new post..), I think the rest of it is nonsense. Leonidas was not a hero, and Captain America is not a real person so cant really be heroic.

The tyranny of religion is not limited to Islamic fascism – although that is the most overt form. Read the blogosphere about how gay people should be punished for an example of how otherwise moderate people are happy to subject others to religious tyranny. But I suppose that is ok though, cos it is a “good” religion…

(p.s. It is interesting how many sites / blogs (rightwingers) seem to see Thermopylae as a parallel to the west vs Iran/Iraq type thing. Dangerous comparison to be making… Why do the religious RIGHT get so confused when it comes to the media – remember March of the Penguins? Can’t they just accept a film is a film. It is there for entertainment. Study the reality if you want to draw cultural parallels…)

[tags]300, Judaism, Rabbi, Spartans, Sparta, History, Rants, Society, Philosophy, Logic, Religion, Religious Moderates, Religious Tolerance, Belief, Culture, Film, Media, Fiction, Superheroes, the 300[/tags]

When you have no argument

Resort to an ad hominem or strawman.

It really is that simple. This must be such a universal “rule of thumb” that there must be a section in Genesis which tells people to do it. (This would also nicely explain why so many of the offenders are devout theist cranks)

Anyway, to kill a quiet Sunday afternoon (avoiding my research tasks), I visited UncommonStupidity (not an ad hominem, I am not saying their arguments are false because they are idiots – the two are co-incidental) again. Today I was rewarded with a piece about how Darwin was “anti-Irish” (amusingly titled “Darwin and the Irish … again“). If you are doing a course in logical arguments or similar, then check this out. It is an online example of how many logical inconsistencies and fallacies you can cram into a single blog post. I am sure this is a record – even by UncommonStupidity’s standards. This time it is O’Leary taking up the keyboard and he begins:

Apparently, one of the Thumbsmen has claimed that Bill Dembski overstated/misstated (or whatever) Darwin’s contempt for the feckless* Irish, with their endless stream of brats (combined, of course, with his approval of the thrifty and allegedly cautiously procreative Scot).

Which is hilarious, because contempt for the Irish was part and parcel of Darwin’s Brit toffery – a social code everyone in those days understood. The Potato Famine, when so many thousands starved to death within easy reach of abundant food exported from Ireland, would be incomprehensible apart from it. Indeed, I heard its fell echoes a century later, as a child in a far distant land.

No, Dembski did not misquote Darwin. Darwin meant exactly what he said. The problem is that what Darwin meant is incompatible with the theory he is famed for advancing.

With a start like that, you just know it is going to be good. Obviously O’Leary (good old Irish name, eh?) has a special insight into what Darwin actually thought and, equally, finds it valid to view his opinions from the comfort of 21st century society and our values. Maybe his intelligent designer provides this insight… Anyway, this line of nonsense progresses to:

Either natural selection produces survival of the fittest (Spencer’s term, quoted with approval by Darwin as a suitable description of the main point of his theory) or it does not. But Darwin believed – irrationally – that the Irish were both most likely to breed and succeed and less fit, and therefore a menace.

Wow. I told it was a good start. Now, the actual opinions of Darwin aside, “survival of the fittest” is not the “scientific” way of discussing evolution. It is a buzz word people use to try and explain things to the layperson. It happens in science all the time. For example, e=mc2 is an approximation of the proper theory because the full details are fairly complicated.

Another “failing” of the theistic argument is the combination of Science and Morality. A scientific theory does not have to be “morally” acceptable to an arbritrary social system. The two talk about different spheres of existence. If Darwin was contemptous of the Irish – so what?

O’Leary seems to really miss the point about what natural selection is and how it works, and sadly the potatoe famine acts as an example that artificial circumstances can allow large populations which are not “fit” to grow. (All this is comensurate with the science)

All in all (I can not be bothered addressing the other logical inconsistencies), this is another example of UncommonStupidity trying to show “evolution” is incorrect because Darwin was not a nice person. Sadly, theists are used to an idea hinging on a single individual’s values and remaining unchanged for thousands of years. In science this really is not the case. Will they ever get the idea?

[tags]Darwin, Evolution, Science, Philosophy, Logic, Intelligent Design, ID, History, Creationists, Creationist Fools, Woo, Crackpot[/tags]

Do Daily Mail readers write Guardian online comments

Bit of change of emphasis after that rather po-faced last rant. Two posts back, TW put a link to Joseph Harker’s column in the Guardian.

This was a good piece, even echoing my point that slavery was the abomination rather than the slave trade, but going on to say that the legacy of slavery still impacted on British people today, through its effect on people of Caribbean background. This is even moving towards providing a decent justification for the public apology.

However, the comments that it elicited were sometimes bizarre. It’s a serious temptation to point out some of the underlying follies, but why bother? Oh bugger, I’m going to put a few quotes in anway (didn’t you just guess that?) :-

from Haardvark: “I have never read such a pathetic piece of self-pity in my entire life. “ Hmm, even allowing for web hyperbole (the cosmos knows I’m guilty of that often enough) this person has obviously never read a newspaper. (All those confessionals from celebs who find the strain of being impossibly rich and idolised by millions too stressful and have to act like maniacs, then go into rehab, for a start. Now that’s “pathetic self-pity”. Guardian writer talking about society as a whole – it doesn’t quite qualify, does it?)

From CoeurdeLion :I am not sure where Mr Harker gets all this bile – it is difficult to pick out any hard facts from his scattergun approach to writing….. I feel that Britain today is one of the least racist societies in the world today, bettered perhaps only by countries like Brazil. If you break down success in Britain by ethnicity, you actually find blacks (particularly African) doing better even than whites in participation in higher Education, with Asians doing best. Bile? I defy anyone to find evidence of “bile” or a “scattergun approach to writing” in the pretty elegantly written and constructed Harker piece. Did they even read it, or just go off on a rant as soon as they saw a few words that sparked an emotional explosion in them? No answer needed. And Africans doing better in higher education (well, s/he doesn’t even say doing better but participating more)? As I believe I said in my last piece – people of mainly African ancestry, almost by definition, are not the descendants of people enslaved for the Atlantic slave trade. This doesn’t invalidate, or even contradict in any way, what Harker says.

It’s racism that makes people of European/African/Amerindian background seem exactly equivalent to Africans. Insofar as our identities and expectations of life are partly constructed from the cultural values and experiences of our ancestors, there are few points of similarity between the lives of Africans and people from the Caribbean. The histories of their ancestors are very very different. In fact, the main thing they have in common is basically the experience of being on the receiving end of racism.

from sandywinder: When are the whingeing blacks going to start looking to the future rather than constantly harping on about the past? Excuse me, but wasn’t it the government and the Church of England that started this apologising?

from halgeel84: The doozy Perhaps the reasons why blacks have a lower percentage of persons who perform well academically and a higher percentage of persons who commit violent crimes are related, at least partly, to genetics even though it is an unpopular and very politically incorrect explanation.? Bad science alert, even – more precisely – evil pseudoscience alert. I really can’t even start to address this nonsense.

Now, there were plenty of the posts that you would normally expect from Guardian readers, in response to this stuff. So, relax, the Guardian has not yet become the liberal face of the BNP overnight.

All the same, it’s quite instructive to see-

  • a more literate version of the Jade-Goody et al vileness.
  • a reminder that racism, even pseudoscientific racism, is always happy to raise its ugly head from licking its butt, whenever it’s given the least opportunity
  • a reminder to this blog that it’s barely possible to challenge official hypocritical nonsense, without giving aid and comfort to the enemy

On a more general level, the democratisation of discussion, that has started to become possible because of the Internet , can have undesired effects. For a start, there’s always a potential Lord of the Flies-style downside. History shows that there is probably no force more repellently inhuman than a general population that believes its self-identified tribal/cultural/ethnic group is somehow more human than another group. (Slavery, Holocaust, Ruanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, and so on.)

If you are looking for a way to stir up a mass of people to support your desire to seize power or take over a piece of land, this is blatantly the way to go. (In your faces, Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, you naive rationalists)

I am assuming that these blogistas aren’t frequent Guardian readers – too many long words, for a start, not to mention the existence of a good few other papers that wouldn’t leave them incoherent with rage, every morning. All the same, these views exist and are pretty common. Some people even believe they represent non-politically correct “common sense” are what others are too cowardly to say. I don’t believe that suppressing these views is the solution. It’s better to identify them than to cover them with a layer of pink icing and pretend they don’t exist.

What do we do about this sort of thinking is another question.

Obviously, a brief but necessary culling of people who fail a simple test of worthiness to be “human” – based on their intelligence, rationality and level of goodwill towards other people – is the first thing that springs to mind.

(Note for the hard of thinking, this is sarcasm. I am being sarcastic.. Well, use a dictionary, then. It’s a bit like irony but not as complicated.)

Remorse without retribution

There is something of a global fashion for aplogising for things you haven’t actually done yourself to people who aren’t alive to hear the apologies.

I’m all for Britain becoming aware of the bad parts of its history. All the same, most of our ancestors were peasants or the industrial poor, kicked off the land by Enclosure Acts or thrown out of craft work by emergent industrialisation orbegging in the streets or pressganged into virtual serfdom on ships, while the slave trade was going on. Are we supposed to apologise for being British? Or being white? Isn’t it pretty racist to assume that as “white” people, we are somehow responsible for what other “white” people did. I can pretty well guarantee that my ancestors weren’t profiting from the slave trade, or I’d be a lot better off now.

Racism grew as the ideology to support the inhuman treatment of the enslaved. Are we to internalise this vile belief system and think that we are somehow a different breed of human from the Africans who were captured?

There is no genetic basis for theories of race. How often does one have to keep saying this? There is more genetic variation within any given “race” than between “races.” The whole concept ignores the fact that we are all “mixed race”. Almost no people on earth have lived in isolation, without the benefits of genetic diversity, for any measurable time. The existence of a “white” race is a pernicious myth. Surely anyone with any pretence to education or intelligence knows this. If not, what are we doing in our schools?

We should certainly try to understand the nature of British racism – developed as a justification for slavery, at a given point in time, it evolved into a subtly different justification for colonialism and has continued to evolve throughout the 20th and 21st centuries to support different social forms – e.g. when the UK needed labour in the 1950s and imported lots of “colonial subjects,” it soon had to start to drop most of the racist nonsense. Racism still continues to flourish and to take new forms to reflect our different social and political situation (it’s now mainly directed at Muslims rather than Afro-Caribbeans, for instance.)

I believe that understanding the nature of racism is crucial for the future of the planet.

I also believe that apologising for things we (that is US, as living human beings) didn’t actually do is pretty hollow.

There is plenty more bad around the relations between Britain and Africa.

For example, the profits from engagement in the slave trade made England such a wealthy country that it was able to take the lead in industrialisation. The failure of England to dominate the palm oil trade – so necessary to an important phase of late Victorian industrialisation – was due to the negotiating success of African traders, who consistently got the better of the European traders as soon as they realised palm-oil was crucial – OPEC-style. this led to European colonial invasion of West Africa. Comonial rule in Africa was very shortlived but left a devastating legacy of invented states and collaborationist local elites which still impacts on African politics to this day.

If there are current resonances here, they seem to be in the realm of grabbing control of oil through warfare…… Oh, and supporting it with a belief system…….

Is there any point in apologising for all of British history? A genuine apology should surely include some attempt to make amends. Who should Britain make these amends to? The descendants of the slaves? In what form? Send money to America? Probably not a good idea.

To Africa? Surely, by definition, Africans WEREN’T enslaved. When the European powers messed up Africa, slavery was well over. But Africa could do with some assistance, beyond the adoption of its best-looking babies by female celebrities, the wearing of Red Noses and even beyond lots of people paying to see has-been rock stars.

There were no slave plantations, brutally suppressed slave revolts or Jim Crow race laws in England. These are American evils. Out of them grew a classification of humans as Black or White. This is not just patently absurd – flying in the face of the evidence of one’s eyes – it shapes our thinking in subtle ways. It is not necessarily more or less racist than the multicoloured shades of racial distinction that exist in the many other countries. It is certainly different. Most US black people would be self-evidently “white” to most Africans (outside South Afriica or Zimbawe) or North-east Brazilians. Are we so imbued with US culture that we can’t even look at our own history without seeing it through their eyes?

Here I feel that the uniquely British role in the triangle trade created historical outcomes which are quite distinct from the North and South American legacies, but that we are somehow taking the American guilt on board here and apologising for it along with our own national guilt. But, guess what, we’re not doing anything useful about it.

In fact, the UK government has made racism more or less invisible, for example, by changing the goalposts so that “anti-racism” is now “diversity,” by shutting down the Commission for Racial Equality and by mouthing siilly apologies for things that happened two centuries ago. Social equality is barely advancing. Many times more “black” kids are being excluded from school, for instance. Integration of cities like Bradford is becoming less and less likely.

Our ruling class may feel a bit better about itself for saying it’s sorry. Does this achieve anything to anyone else’s advantage? As a nation, England did a lot more to challenge global slavery, when we started to sink any ships caught trading slaves, not long after the UK ban. This actually achieved something concrete – it started to make slave trading too unprofitable to be attractive.