Friday, 23 September 2011

How many more will it take?

Other than on the issue of only some states imposing it*, I don't propose to have a go at the US's use of the death penalty here – as I've said before on other matters, in a sovereign state, with a democratically elected government, it's not up to us to tell somebody else how to do things in their own country. Rather, I'd prefer to say something about the principle itself.

Troy Davis was executed in Georgia last night after a 22-year gap between his alleged crime and his punishment. There has been widespread protest in and outside of the US about the certainty of his conviction, particularly since 7 of the 9 witnesses who originally testified against him have subsequently retracted their testimonies. I don't, of course, have any idea if he was guilty or not. What I do know, though, is that there was doubt. There was doubt as to his guilt, so the possibility is there that the State of Georgia has killed an innocent man. Putting aside all the moral arguments as to the principle itself for a moment, that possibility, for me, is the single strongest reason not to have execution on the statute book.

How many cases of miscarriage of justice have there been in democratic societies where the wrong person has been executed? How many more must there be before it's stopped everywhere? Look at Britain's record – Derek Bentley and Timothy Evans, among others, paid the ultimate price for crimes they didn't commit, and the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, Winston Silcott and Barry George probably would have done if we still had execution on the statute books in the UK. I could go on – it's not a short list. The risk is simply too great - if even one innocent person is executed by the State, any State, then the price paid for the punishment, deterrent, whatever you want to call it, is too high. And I am part of a significant percentage of the British public, still the majority I think, who do not want the State killing people in my name, which is basically what they'd be doing.

And that moral argument I mentioned? Taken at its simplest, for me, it breaks down to this. You killed somebody. That's wrong – everybody knows that. So we're going to, er, kill you for doing so.

Where the hell is the sense in that?

*You can be executed in 35 of the US States, but not in the remainder. That I simply don't understand, because we don't have the large differences in county administration and legislature that the American states do, so the British mind can't quite get the idea. Particularly baffling for me, for example, is that in 2004, in New York, a section of the state's death penalty law was declared unconstitutional. New York subsequently abolished the death penalty in 2007. I recognise that each state's laws are different so what may be deemed unconstitutional in New York may not even be part of the law elsewhere, but this is a very clear example of the differences I'm talking about that to a British mind are extremely difficult to understand.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Shades of Gray

An interesting piece of utter nonsense on the Beeb's website at the moment. This is one of the more bizarre treatises on the theological/atheological question that I've ever seen, if indeed that's what he's trying to do. It's difficult to tell what his reasons for writing it were, because it's an oddly-structured thing, which bounces from one idea to another a bit, so you'll forgive me if my response to it necessarily does the same.

If you can be bothered to read the whole thing, you'll see that he uses Graham Greene's apparently unusual conversion to Catholicism as his starting point, saying that Greene could not be particularly bothered to remember why he converted, but continued to accept Catholicism anyway. He says that this was partly brought about by 'the challenge of an inexplicable goodness' Greene found in a priest he'd got to know. He doesn't mention if Greene had anything to say on the goodness he encountered in atheists he met, but anyway, we'll leave that for now.

Gray's piece, perhaps in an effort to understand Greene's seemingly odd position, rather meanders on to how it's in fact science, not religion, that's full of myth (on which I'll respond in a mo) and then, bizarrely, this:

"In most religions – polytheism, Hinduism and Buddhism, Daoism and Shinto, many strands of Judaism and some Christian and Muslim traditions – belief has never been particularly important. Practice – ritual, meditation, a way of life – is what counts. What practitioners believe is secondary, if it matters at all."

If it matters at all??! What a piece of complete tripe that is, and it's roundly contradicted in many of the 400-plus responses to his piece, by people to whom belief is a fundamental and extremely important part of their theism. And try telling this to the 'martyrs' who kill themselves and others in the name of Islamic fundamentalism, for example. His next paragraph is also alarming:

"The idea that religions are essentially creeds, lists of propositions that you have to accept, doesn't come from religion. It's an inheritance from Greek philosophy, which shaped much of western Christianity and led to practitioners trying to defend their way of life as an expression of what they believe."

Writing as an atheist myself, only an atheist could produce such a piece of tosh as this. Of the countless billions of people all over the world who practise a religion, how many of them would even be aware of this 'inheritance'? I rather suspect that most people's religion comes from within themselves, an innate feeling of what's right, or is passed on from believing parents, without the slightest knowledge of the history of scholarly input into the belief system itself. They simply believe, because it feels right to them. It fits. I strongly suspect, for example, that if the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that the existence of God was merely a 'proposition you have to accept', his Church and its followers would be utterly startled at the suggestion that it was anything other than a fundamental truth.

Gray then goes on to basically turn his guns on science. He says that it's a 'vehicle for myths', that humans 'can't overcome the fact that they remain animals', and that 'however rapidly our knowledge increases, we'll always be surrounded by the unknowable'. Well that's the bloody difference between science, and religion, isn't it? How many religious tracts did you ever read which accept that we're animals? Contrast the idea that we're made in God's image with Desmond Morris's work The Naked Ape, for example, which very vividly and readily accepts that we are animals. I have often said during discussions with friends on this stuff that I think we're just 'apes with big brains'. I think he's completely mistaken to believe that humans can't accept this – plenty of us do.

And what kind of 'vehicle for myths' would adopt the fundamental standpoint of 'we don't know, so let's study it and see if we can become any more enlightened one way or the other', which is how I view science? Surely any 'vehicle for myth' would adopt the starting point of certainty and work backwards from there, filling in the back story as it went?

Anyway - Gray is not finished yet. His most bonkers statement, 'humanity doesn't exist, there are only human beings, each of them ruled by passions and illusions that conflict with one another and within themselves', is startlingly odd. Of course we're all filled with such conflicts, but that doesn't mean there's no such thing as 'humanity'. If that were so, nobody would bother with scientific endeavour, or with religion for that matter. We'd all be living solipsistic lives where nobody ever did anything for anybody else, regardless of motive, unless it also directly benefitted them to do so. What a bleak world that would be. Fortunately we don't live in such a place. One thing I do know is that, regardless of whether it's driven by religious belief, innate goodness or whatever, there's plenty of 'humanity' in most people – it's just difficult to define it simplistically. That does not mean it doesn't exist. You see it readily enough when people rally to help strangers in times of crisis, natural disaster etc, where empathy for the suffering of others is felt by atheist and believer alike. What is that if not humanity?

Last point on what he's written.

"Evangelical atheists who want to convert the world to unbelief are copying religion at its dogmatic worst. They think human life would be vastly improved if only everyone believed as they do, when a little history shows that trying to get everyone to believe the same thing is a recipe for unending conflict."

Quite so. But most of us are not doing that. I certainly don't go around knocking on people's doors trying to 'unconvert' them, or whatever you'd call it, in stark contrast to Jehovah's Witnesses, for example. I merely seek to live my life free of the influence and direction of the Church, be it Christian or any other, and have all children left free to decide for themselves rather than be taught any set of religious beliefs as fact during their education. That's not the same as some kind of atheist imperialism.

And Graham Greene? His Catholicism which John Gray finds so difficult to comprehend, and on which he misses the likely reason so completely? I rather suspect that his desire to marry Vivien Dayrell-Browning, a Catholic convert herself, was behind it. An all too human exigency which he himself acknowledged when he said he, "…ought to at least learn the nature and limits of the beliefs she held." But that's clearly too difficult for John Gray to comprehend, so he comes up with this piece of negative drivel in which he both dismisses religious belief and scientific endeavour at the same time. Some achievement, that, Mr Gray.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

I don't know much about art, but I know what I like

My girlfriend showed me this, this morning.

This is the greatest piece of art installation I've ever seen, and it does huge credit to Osaka that they would pay to have such a beautiful thing installed at a station.

Genuinely, I realise it's just a piece of digital genius-ery, but when we can produce things like this, it always makes me wonder how it is we also allow such violence, cruelty and starvation at the same time. What a strange and enigmatic animal humanity is.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Holy cow there are some stupid people about

I realise that footballers are not known for their intelligence. (Bear with me, this is not a post about football posted to the wrong blog.) But this shows one of the particularly stupid ones. In case anybody's not completely aware of what his nonsensical English is trying to communicate, he appears to be one of the numerous people across the planet who believe that the 9/11 attacks were not the work of terrorists, but some kind of giant US Secret Service-led self-inflicted sham, whereby they blew up the towers themselves, killing thousands of Americans and others in the process, faked the planes striking the buildings with holograms or something(!!!) and then laid the blame at Al Qaeda's door to give them a mandate for their war(s) in the Middle East.

The breathtaking stupidity of this belief is hardly worth commenting on. Nor is the smug self-titling of the so-called 'Illuminati', those who smirk at the ignorance of non-believers and think they're in on some giant conspiracy that the rest of us simply can't see. I've got no time for any of that bollocks. Needless to say, his employers are taking a dim view of what he's written, being a) managed by people with an immediate understanding of the suffering of people involved in tragedy and b) owned by Americans, and he's removed the post since it hit the news.

Typical of the attitude of those 'in the know' conspiracy theorists, though, and in a further demonstration of a total disregard for (or ignorance of) the consequences of his comments, he's not exactly backing away from what he said with his later follow up. And here, as well as his stupidity and arrogance, he also brings to the party his complete ignorance of the function and place in society of Twitter. "If you don't like what I have to say un follow me!! Some things get took way out of context...", he says indignantly. What. The. Fuck??? 'Out of context'? It's Twitter, you total dickhead – exactly how were you expecting to contextualise a statement limited to 140 characters? Do you even know what 'out of context' means? And are you suggesting that what you meant was not the message conveyed by the first tweet?

The stupidity, insensitivity and disrespect for those who suffered or lost people in the attack, having to put up with ignorant wankers like him claiming their loss was a deliberate governmental act, really winds me up. Footballers as social commentators – here you see the result.

Friday, 2 September 2011

The one-eyed leading the blind

Came across this on the BBC website. It's interesting to me not so much for the response to the individual himself – bigoted reaction to a person like him is hardly that surprising; there are regrettably too many people about with too much time on their hands, too much ignorance in their heads and too much hate in them to be able to not care about something like his gender orientation. Indifference is, for me, the only rational response to something like this. Why should you care about the gender orientation of somebody you've never met and are not likely to, dancing on a show you've doubtless never watched before and probably won't anyway? I don't understand what people get worked up about stuff like this for, I really don't.

I do though, I think, understand what TV producers get worked up about, and that's what did interest me about this – the way that the company who make this show is clearly using some 'conservative' (hmmm) reactions to him to further its own ends. They are, by extension, using him as well, and he either can't see that or (I hope) can see it but doesn't care, and is a knowing participant in this little circus, using them to further his own 'career' as a celebrity.

This bit is quite a telling example of what I'm on about: 

Dan Gainor, of the Culture and Media Institute, called Bono's casting "a ridiculous, agenda-driven move" by the show's producers. "This is the latest example of the networks trying to push a sexual agenda on American families," he said.

Mr Gainor is quite right that it's agenda driven, but it's certainly not for what he thinks. The only agendum driving the producers is the gimlet-eyed focus on viewing figures and, by extension, profit. They know the value, quite literally, of a bit of controversy and its attendant publicity, and must be absolutely delighted with the fuss that's been caused. This also gives the lie to this bit:

However, Dancing With The Stars' executive producer Conrad Green… added the show had no agenda other than entertainment and was seeking to represent a range of people.

What a load of sanctimonious bollocks that is. They're seeking to get as many people as possible to watch the show and all other considerations are secondary. I bet they all had a bit of a giggle in the production office when he worded that statement.

So this reflects, basically, poorly on both sides, as is often the case. You know that you've got a media circus when the person coming out of it with most credit, playing the defensive mother's role perfectly, is Cher, for fucks' sake.