The ‘New Atheist’ Holy Trinity of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens came in for a lot of stick some years ago, with the main criticism seeming to be that they were tone deaf to the real benefits of religion. Their stridency was said to be so one-sided that it could only result in a bleak world of scientific determinism. I have to say that sometimes, in seeking to make a case for atheism (e.g. Dawkins’ The God Delusion) God and religion got very mixed up. One doesn’t necessarily need the other, either way.
But now there is a new New Atheism, populated by religious fifth columnists of a post-modern variety. I heard from one the other day, the ever voluble ‘right on rev’ Giles Fraser, who was on Radio 4’s A History of Ideas: How did everything begin? If I understood him correctly, he does not espouse support for the cosmological justification for the need of God – i.e. a creator – but is happy enough to go along with the idea that God is synonymous with Creation, without beginning or end. I may be paraphrasing somewhat, but I’m sure I heard him say that God is in everything. Always was and always will be, not separate, but everywhere. This, of course, makes the God of the old New Atheists’ ire non-existent, since this God is no longer the God of holy books, but is transmuted into a mere metaphor when needed say, to offer a bit of comfort to those in need of it in this otherwise utterly random and purposeless universe.
This new form of atheism will never be called such, especially in the likes of the Church of England where it is being nurtured at a pace. I trace the roots of this movement back to Martin Luther, who began the task of demolishing the God of the Bible with his 93 theses nailed to the church door in Wittenberg. He it was who exposed the sale of indulgences as a money making scam, who started the Protestant iconoclastic tendency, who had short shrift for the then Christian adherence to magic and astrology. By turning religion into a matter of personal belief and inward reflectiveness there was despite the excesses of Protestantism a humanist reaction against ritualistic, unquestioning faith. That has continued to this day, now to the point where God is, as the song has it, Everywhere and Nowhere, Baby. Job done, problem solved.
I'm having an interesting time as a new student. A postgraduate student in fine art, in fact. A weird experience it is, walking round the campus being the oldest person in sight (unless there lurk lecturers who are 'senior citizens' too, but I doubt it). Since it's been nearly 40 years since I was last a student, I have been on a double learning curve. Gone are the library card indexes which threw up (or so I thought at the time) so many serendipitous connections; gone are the one to two ratio tutorials with tutors; gone are the all-day drinking sessions (I made that one up, of course) . . . gone are the student grants - even in the early years of Thatcherism you could still get a mature students grant - it paid for everything (I was classed as a mature student even then). Long gone too, since the time I was at Hull University are the days when Philip Larkin was librarian, now most people with an education couldn’t name a university librarian. Naturally computers, nay iPads are at the centre of things today. Since I resolutely can't be arsed with social media, I may be at a disadvantage. It seems a lot of discourse takes place in that blessed arena, which probably explains why young people aren't drinking as much as they used to do.
All this new experience – enrolling as a student pensioner – begs the question ‘how old do I think I am?’ It is a question not unrelated to the recent stuff in the news about the NHS website survey where you are asked to impart details of your life so that an algorithm can suss out how old your heart actually is. It seems that most UK hearts are somewhat older than the vehicles to which they are fitted. Perhaps it would be an interesting survey to ask people how old they think they are, apart from acknowledging how many birthdays they’ve had. I’d like to think that I’m stuck around 40 – once upon a time that was an age when maturity could be savoured whilst the benefits of youth hadn’t been entirely wasted.
Thanks to RT for alerting me to the existence of the UK website Bellingcat, which claims to be ‘the home of online investigation.’ RT reports the Russian Foreign Ministry denouncing a report from Bellingcat which claims to have evidence from a Russian passport database pointing to the two Skripal suspects ‘secret service’ connections. Bellingcat goes so far as to say that their passports had secret markings which identified the true nature of their employment. The Russian Foreign Ministry claims that Bellingcat has connections with British secret service sources. Whatever the case, it all makes the question about how the two got UK visas and passed unchallenged through passport control all the more pressing. If Bellingcat had been fed this information in order to bolster the charge that the Russian suspects were indeed GRU secret service agents, then it all boils down to that old question who knew what, when?
I am indebted to a friend for the following question: How did the two Russian suspects in the Skripal case get their visas? Given that the UK government almost immediately accused the Russian state of involvement in the case and has since – it seems positively – identified the two suspects as GRU agents, what checks were made when they submitted their visa applications? Isn’t it fair to assume that if we know foreigners are secret agents then their entry into the UK would be flagged up and perhaps explanations sought at the point of entry? They were not, after all, travelling with diplomatic immunity. It makes you wonder what the people staffing the passport desks are actually doing when they scan your passport. Perhaps it just brings up a page from the Beano on their screens.
An article in Apollo magazine wonders whether art created by artificial intelligence (AI) can really be called art. If anyone can answer that question, they may also be able to answer the question ‘What is art?’ And as we all know, the answer doesn’t really matter, what really, really matters is how much some idiot will pay for something or other in the auction room. But the use of AI in art creation isn’t really anything new – it is merely another iteration of mechanisation, which has been around at least since the birth of photography. I think photography did more than anything else to act as the midwife of modernism and its many offspring. Capturing realism in paint seemed a little old hat when the lens could do the same thing so much quicker and cheaper. It wasn’t long before artists sought new forms of realism (e.g. the Impressionists) before it dawned on them that reality wasn’t what it always used to be anyway (e.g. Surrealism). Now anything goes in the post-modernist era and things made by machines (perhaps starting even earlier with a urinal) may be classed as art. However, I doubt that the conveyor belt that delivered that urinal knew it was a work of art, and I doubt that an AI machine will know that it is creating a work of art either. Perhaps something can only be called a work of art if its creator knows that it is a work of art.
The interview on RT with the two Skripal poisoning suspects certainly tips the balance in favour of the government's conspiracy theory that this was a Russian secret service operation. The pair look like they’ve been primed, their body language makes them look ill at ease. Their tourism story sounds preposterous. But is this the conclusive evidence we need to start another round of Russia baiting? Let’s not forget that what we need is evidence that puts their guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
It has been suggested that the murder attempt may have had something to do with the Russian mafia, rather than the Russian state, although these two things are often conflated. But all we’ve had from the UK government is the assertion that the would-be assassins worked for the GRU (KGB as was) and must have been ordered on their mission by someone ‘at the very top.’ (Who could that be?) There is another possibility, which I’ve not seen mentioned anywhere, which is that far from being assassins, the two accused were actually delivering the Novichok to Skripal, for uses unknown. Unless we are told more about exactly what Skripal was doing in the UK, with no obvious income but able to buy a nice house without a mortgage, we should not rule out anything. Asking such a question doesn’t let anyone off the hook – it merely means that we should keep an open mind, and not be led down the garden path into what are very murky waters, to mix metaphors.
The Tory plan to reduce the size of the House of Commons, from 650 to 600 members is edging closer. A key element of this is to make constituencies roughly the same size. This means inner city constituencies, which tend to have smaller populations will be enlarged, at the expense of Labour. The party may see around 20 seats disappear. For some Labour MPs I suspect this poses a much greater threat than deselection – in which case their most urgent task should be to do all they can to get a Labour government elected. You would think. Instead, all we hear about is hurt feelings over no-confidence votes. But let’s put that issue to one side for now. What has got me going is the impact of austerity on democracy – that is, the downsizing of democracy.
That is one reason for reducing the size of the Commons (not, be it noted, the over-stuffed House of Lords, the world’s second largest legislative assembly, nor the size of the executive). It is also a major factor in the downsizing of many councils. Councillors are increasingly seen as irrelevant, their powers are so circumscribed it hardly seems they have much choice about anything. Within councils new executive structures have concentrated what powers do exist into fewer hands, in the form of the ‘Cabinet.’ Effective scrutiny has been eviscerated. It has to be said that this is not entirely a result of the need for councils to save money. Labour introduced some of the new internal structures for local authorities, all with an eye on making them more ‘business-like.’ Northamptonshire County Council, being Tory-run, one would have thought might have been ‘business-like.’ But it’s being abolished, to be replaced by two unitary authorities. So it looks like those responsible for its downfall will get off scot-free. That’s democratic!
Over in Canada, the latest instalment in King Doug (Ford’s) bid to reduce the size of Toronto City Council, of which his disgraced, late brother Rob used to be mayor has taken a new twist. Ford’s plan, not mentioned in his manifesto seeking to be elected Premier of Ontario in the election last June has been kicked into touch by a judge, mainly because Toronto city elections are already under way. Doug had submitted to the judge his reasoning for his hasty anti-democratic legislation, here is part of it (it relates to a period when Doug Ford himself was a member of Toronto City Council):
“I can tell you that I was there numerous times for a 10-hour debate on getting Mrs. Jones’ cat out of the tree. We would sit there and debate about anything for 10 hours. After 10 hours and thousands of pieces of paper going around, nothing got done. Nothing got done. And guess what. At the end of 10 hours, we all agreed to go get Mrs. Jones’s cat out of the tree. That’s a waste of time ... That is why it is time to reduce the size and cost of municipal government.”
In fact, I suspect that’s the sum of his evidence. I also suspect he’s just settling a few scores, but what do I know. His legislation now has to go back to the provincial parliament. If you are as fascinated by this as I am, see more here on Gordon Prentice’s great blog.
Almost finally in this mish mash of democratic insight, I was encouraged to hear the news that the European Parliament had voted overwhelmingly to pursue investigations into Hungary’s unpleasant regime. Tory MEPs supported Hungary’s apparently anti-semitic leader, Orban, so I expect we’ll hear more about that soon from Jonathan Sacks, who will no doubt be banging on Theresa May’s door demanding an explanation (after appearing on the Today programme, naturally).
But also today, Election Prediction has published the results of a poll which show a majority of the British public favouring a Canadian style trade deal with the E.U. But I’m sure the questions, reproduced below are somewhat leading. It would seem that people don’t want to crash out of the E.U. with no deal, but want some kind of ‘in,’ which just happens to be the only other option which mentions ‘immigration.’ Well, well.
Thinking about Britain leaving the European Union, or "Brexit", and the different ways this might happen. Please can you order these five possible outcomes from your most favoured outcome to your least favoured outcome.
· "No deal" - Britain leaves without a specific deal, and gains full control of immigration, laws and trade, but British exports to the EU are hit by tariffs and other barriers.
· "Canada-style" - a negotiated free-trade agreement between Britain the EU, similar to Canada's deal. The UK has control of its own immigration, laws and trade but has to match EU regulations in some areas, so that many British exports to the EU are ok.
· "Chequers" - the government's current plan. Britain remains in the EU single market for goods and agriculture, but not services. Freedom of movement and some budget payments might remain (depending on negotiations).
· "Norway-style" - membership of the European Economic Area, similar to Norway's deal. Britain remains fully in the EU single market, but outside the Customs Union. Freedom of movement remains, along with EU single-market regulations, and half-rate budget payments to the EU.
· "Customs Union" - Britain remains in both the single market and the Customs Union. Freedom of movement remains, along with EU single-market regulations with large annual payments to the EU budget and Britain cannot sign its own trade deals.
The whole Election Prediction poll report should be on their website soon. This is from an email. I wonder how the options were explained. Perhaps the word immigration just leapt out? How familiar with all these options are You?
Anyone with 17 minutes to spare might take a look at ‘The Corbett Report’ here – it’s a piece called ‘9/11 Suspects: The Dancing Israelis.’ It suggests that the Israeli government knew of the 9/11 attacks before they took place. I confess I hadn’t heard this story before, but the evidence in this short film is fairly compelling, using as it does official reports and footage filmed (amongst others) by Fox News, whom one wouldn’t normally associate with such matters. It should perhaps be emphasised that the report does not depart from the official line that Al Qaeda carried out the attack. It merely begs the question: did the Israelis know about it beforehand and fail to pass their intelligence on to the U.S government? Is that plausible? Benjamin Netanyahu, on film, lends credence to the idea. Of course, viewers of the film might only want to ask for some confirmation that Israel will be held to the same (and not higher) standards than any other democracy.
Following the Swedish general election, where the far-right Swedish Democrats (SD) increased their vote, comes confirmation that even in the most stable societies populism is still on the rise. With their Nazi history, one would have thought that the advance of the SDs would be yet another warning sign about where the true threat lies to minorities. But no, I am sure we have not heard the last of the ‘existential threat’ that Corbyn’s Labour Party poses to minorities here in the U.K.
I’ve been reading Michael Foot’s entertaining 1980 book ‘Debts of Honour,’ which contains brief biographical sketches of an eclectic mix of people Foot admired and indeed, as the title suggests, felt some debt to. They range from Disraeli to Paine, Beaverbrook to Defoe. The range and scale of Foot’s interests and his wit and intelligence illuminate these mostly long departed characters’ lives. The year of publication is interesting, or perhaps just coincidence. It came out shortly before his election as Labour Party leader, so for those of an enquiring mind, they would have been able to discern more intimately perhaps what kind of leader they were going to get.
Foot was not the first politician to write in this fairly rare genre. In 1957, in a career enhancing move, JFK wrote ‘Profiles in Courage’ (although some suggest it was ghost written for him by Arthur Schlesinger, his speechwriter) which looked at the lives of eight Americans and won a Pulitzer Prize. Long after Foot, and perhaps seeking to replicate the JFK magic, our very own Gordon Brown wrote ‘Courage: Eight Portraits’, published in 2007, just as Brown was becoming Labour Party leader. The multi-biographical format lends itself to self-promotion, the author very prominently identifying him or herself with the heroes written about. Perhaps some of the magic is intended to rub off – ‘these great people have influenced me more than I can say (but I’ll say it anyway).' I don’t apply the last cynical comment to Foot of course – he was a genuinely good writer, worth reading for his own sake. Other much less substantial figures have employed the broader biographical genre to promote themselves. Boris Johnson, for example penned ‘The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History.’ (‘It reads at times like a mixture of Monty Python and the Horrible Histories’ – D. Telegraph) In Johnson’s case, to paraphrase Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s put down of Dan Quayle in the 1988 U.S. presidential campaign: ‘Mr Johnson – I knew Winston Churchill, and you’re no Winston Churchill.’
But for a serious politician, I can’t see it would do any harm to pen an admiring book about one’s heroes. It is now clearly Corbyn’s turn to switch his word processor on and get to it. Who made him who he is today? This would be an opportunity to counter-act the impression that the only people he hangs out with are murderous terrorists who believe the state of Israel should be destroyed. There are risks of course: the book would probably be peer reviewed in the Daily Mail by ‘Lord’ Jonathan Sacks, seeking hints of irony. It would be panned in the D. Telegraph as a Marxist tract. The National Allotments Association, whilst broadly welcoming it would nevertheless question whether in 1978 the winner of the biggest marrow competition (OAP Section) was indeed a Czech spy.
Don’t be deterred Jeremy. Get the book written.
Church attendance is in rapid decline. For example, according to the Faith Survey, Roman Catholic attendance dropped from over 2 million in 1980 to less than 700,000 in 2015. Other churches have in the main followed this precipitous pattern, not least the C of E. Students studying religious education (RE) are also no exception, with a nearly 50% reduction in recent years. I picked the last piece of information up on this morning’s BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme which was reporting on the future of RE. It seems clerical types, having recognised they have a problem, think that RE could be saved if it became the study of religions and ‘world views.’ I smell a rat.
It’s taken long enough for some in the religious community to accept that ‘creation theory’ is not equivalent to the fact of evolution. Are we now being asked to accept that some world views based on superstition can be taught in some form of equivalence with views based on science? Don’t get me wrong – I am quite happy for people to believe in fairies and angels, but young people should be allowed to discover what these things mean, along with the whole religious rigmarole as a result of their own personal path to discovery. Given the state established church still carries so much influence in society – undeserved on current trends – I do not trust them with any aspect of formal education even whilst they clutch at secular straws.
What are the chances of a new ‘centrist’ party being formed? Chuka Umuuna has denied that he is up for it. At the same time he has politely asked Corbie to ‘call off his dogs,’ i.e. those Labour Party members who are unhappy with Labour MPs who support the government in all but name. Chuka must believe it to be the beholden duty of all Labour Party members to support their MPs whatever they do. Actually, a good reason not to bother with non-binding no confidence motions in their MP is to avoid giving said person more of an excuse to jump ship to the Martyrs’ Progress Party. Anyway, it’s a bit rich the right-wing moaning since Blair’s camp during the 1990s had no scruples about doing whatever they could to get rid of people that upset them. I should know, since working for the party at the time I apparently earned the title ‘Blair’s enforcer’ in Leeds (according to the BBC). What goes round comes round, sometimes with the other boot on it.
Anyway, a new party? Will this emerge out of what ‘Sir' Vince ‘I knew nothing about austerity’ Cable called a new ‘moderate movement?’ (Sounds like the first stirrings after a period of constipation.) Others like to think of this beast as the ‘radical centre.’ Or the Third Way. Or triangulation. All such formulations of course accept in the main the neo-liberal narrative as its core. This pushes for “deregulation on economies around the world, for forcing open national markets to trade and capital, and for demanding that governments shrink themselves via austerity or privatisation.” (Guardian, 18/7/17) New Labour, which finally died with Corbyn’s election as leader was a major proponent of these approaches, albeit with an added touch of social liberalism. In the minds of the wannabe leaders of the ‘moderate movement’ the centre is a neo-liberal centre – Cable knows this, serving as he did for five years in an austerity crazed government. Perhaps the new party could be called the Neo Liberal Party, or Liberal Party for short.
Our first past the post electoral system will put paid to any new centrist party, as it did with the SDP. But beyond that, what would the new party actually stand for? Timing here is very important. For Umuuna, it would certainly be an anti-Brexit party, but unless such a party comes into existence long before the March 2019 E.U. exit date, it’s hard to see what influence it might have. Brexit is only six months away and whatever deal (or no deal) is struck is even closer. And, rather embarrassingly for new ‘centre’ party enthusiasts from Labour’s ranks, polling analysis by YouGov suggests that those electors who feel least represented by the existing parties are ‘Leavers.’
Nevertheless, if the ‘Labour is anti-semitic’ hysteria is now wearing a little thin, I suspect media talk of a Labour split will come in for a good airing. Some Labour MPs, fearing deselection may go for it, but such a new party will hardly be blessed with any new thinking or unique selling point. Or indeed, a leader with any charisma, since the only person whose name regularly crops in this context is Chuka, and he quickly dropped out the last time he was in a leadership race.