Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Religious belief does not excuse prejudice

If you'll forgive me for infecting this blog with another story of a sportsman, this entry is actually, again, not in fact about sport. At least, not directly. Some of you may be aware that the position of England football manager is currently vacant, with a search under way for (preferably for many in England) an Englishman to fill the role.

Perhaps due to a dearth of suitable Englishmen, one name which has come up is a certain Glenn Hoddle, one of the finest footballers England has ever produced and a man who has in fact managed England before. He has been quoted as saying he's interested in doing the job again and has received support from some of the influential names within the game. A strongly religious man, he was dismissed from the role first time round because of the fall-out from an interview he gave to The Times newspaper, in which he said this:

"My beliefs have evolved in the last eight or nine years, that the spirit has to come back again, that is nothing new, that has been around for thousands of years. You have to come back to learn and face some of the things you have done, good and bad. There are too many injustices around... You and I have been physically given two hands and two legs and half-decent brains. Some people have not been born like that for a reason. The karma is working from another lifetime. I have nothing to hide about that. It is not only people with disabilities. What you sow, you have to reap... You have to look at things that happened in your life and ask why. It comes around."

(The ellipsis dots are mine. They're in there to show gaps where he went on for a bit but I have not edited out anything which would change the meaning of the words.)

He was, after a storm of criticism from all quarters (including then Prime Minister Tony Blair) sacked. He blustered and thundered, saying he'd been 'misinterpreted', 'misconstrued' but, tellingly, not misquoted. There was not much in the way of demurral at the time. But now there are, suddenly, plenty of people who in the last few days have been saying that his dismissal for non-football reasons was wrong (I even read one piece which described it as 'scandalous').

Do those who now support his appointment think he's 'served his time', perhaps? Or that he's done nothing wrong? This is the latest in an irritating trend where people are using religion to excuse statements or behaviour which would not be countenanced anywhere else. A recent example is the guest house in Marazion, successfully sued by a gay couple after its owners refused to allow them to stay there. Despite such actions by businesses being specifically outlawed, there was considerable sympathy for Peter and Hazelmary Bull, the owners in question, from Christians. Now it seems Glenn Hoddle is receiving similar sympathy, though for doubtless very different reasons. I realise his bizarre views are personal, and genuinely held, but all he had to do was keep his mouth shut, and he'd have kept hold of his job.

For me, what he said was absolutely outrageous and he should not be allowed near such a prestigious and influential job as the England management again. Religious belief should not be allowed to be used as a stick with which people can beat those who don't fit their holy book's ideals. Otherwise, why not let them get away with burning the heretics next door while they're at it? It is, again, an example of religious dogma not being flexible enough to move and reflect the society from which its flock is drawn.

The judge in the guest house case got it, for me, spot on. I hope the mandarins at the Football Association responsible for the selection of our new manager remember that Hoddle's views will not have changed merely because he hasn't been stupid enough to open his mouth again since – he hasn't recanted his theism or retracted what he said in that interview. Unless he at least does that, they cannot possibly give him the job again.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The power of prayer?

Though this entry is about a sportsman, it's not about sport. No doubt, even if you have no interest in football, you'll be aware of what befell young Fabrice Muamba, the Bolton Wanderers footballer, during a game at Spurs a few days back.

It is, of course, wonderful to see him apparently recovering and doing so well, as a football fan and just out of common humanity. But one thing about his case has disappointed me hugely. A few details need filling in, just in case you're not familiar with them.

The 23-year-old had a heart attack on the pitch, collapsing face down, unconscious, unresponsive, not breathing. He was treated for some time on the pitch by some half dozen paramedics, and a heart specialist, Dr Andrew Deaner, who happened to be in the crowd and ran onto the pitch. The game was abandoned of course, the other players in tears, and he was taken to hospital with his heart evidently not beating of its own accord. In fact, it seems that, according to one of the specialists who treated him, he was effectively dead for 78 minutes, and his heart did not beat unaided for two hours. He was given no fewer than 15 separate shocks from the defibrillator, none of which restarted his heart.

The fact that he is now, just a few days later, conscious, speaking to people, moving his limbs and apparently recovering, is scarcely believable. So incredible, in fact, that his recovery seems to have been put down to nothing less than divine intervention. In this most secular (fortunately) of countries, suddenly a rash of imprecations from all around to pray for the lad. If his immediate family and friends draw comfort from this during his suffering, that's a good thing for them, of course. But the headlines in some of the tabloids reflect a baffling race to give credit for his recovery to the man upstairs.

'It's in God's hands', boomed one paper during the early stages of his treatment, quoting his family. And as he improved, 'All your prayers are working. To God be the glory', his fiancee wrote on Twitter. Now, I understand that the people who actually saved his life, the medical staff on scene and the heart specialists at the London Chest Hospital, do their jobs because they want to help people and are doubtless getting a job satisfaction from his case that the rest of us will probably never fully appreciate.

But this removal of the credit from them and placing it into the hands of some deity is taking faith to the point where it does them a singular disservice. Where was the glory to them? Where was the 'All their hard work and dedication is working'? If his recovery thus far is a miracle, it is one of modern medicine, and of the enormous hard work, skill and dedication of the medical people who didn't give up on him when they might have done.

The only power of prayer as far as I can see it is that it makes the people offering them feel better. They must alleviate a sense of helplessness, of an inability to do something when you desperately want to. But if it's all down to God, all down to prayer, why bother with the medical care in the first place? If it's the prayers, would the faithful leave the man in bed, not worry about actually treating him and just let prayers do their 'work', given the choice? Exactly how much faith in prayer is there here, compared to a trust in medical expertise? I sincerely hope that, when this remarkable story hopefully ends with him walking out of hospital fully recovered and with a smile on his face, that same family also remember to thank publicly the remarkable medical people who should have praise and gratitude heaped upon them. Drs Deaner, Tobin, and all the other medical staff who saved the man's life, to you be the glory.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Not exactly selling the family silver, but still stupid

The Tories are, once again, demonstrating their blind dogmatic belief that they can solve any problem by simply selling stuff off and ridding themselves of responsibility for it with this news that they're looking into privatising the road network.

No doubt, exactly as with their plans for the NHS, fierce opposition from much better-informed parties will not stop them charging on with their eyes closed and nothing more than a bull-headed belief that they're right to sustain them. The AA, who should know a thing or two about the roads, already think it's a bad idea. But why listen to them when there could be money to be made and more responsibilities discharged into other people's hands? Batter against the door of reason with a thick enough forehead and eventually it will give way.

Look at the disaster that the national rail network sell-off has become. Companies driven exclusively by profit giving rise to increasing fares, increasingly packed trains, increasingly poor service and the various stakeholders simply blaming each other when there's a problem on the network. My own brother used to work maintaining the railway network, and he told me stories of work going undone because the company which maintained the infrastructure would not pay the companies who owned the trains to get their crews to the sites which needed work. You can imagine the ramifications for service and safety something like that had – but it's an almost inevitable consequence of privatisation. Had that sell-off not happened, instead of pushing through an environmentally catastrophic agenda of expanding road capacity (which, as has already been demonstrated in the Smeed report, merely increases traffic levels), the government could pump money into improving public transport. But they can't – they sold it during John Major's administration.

Clearly they've learned nothing from this. We'll end up with a huge increase in road building, cutting a swathe through already damaged green areas of Britain, sticking extra lanes or new roads down for drivers who can barely afford to run their cars now. Just take a look at the different traffic volumes on the M6 toll compared to its free sister road for an indication of how many people are prepared to pay to use a road.

The idea is so stupid that it has in fact, some years ago, already been parodied quite effectively in Ben Elton's Gridlock. That this government is considering measures which have been used as material for jokes before would be funny if it weren't quite so potentially damaging. Not a peep from their Lib-Dem bedfellows yet, of course. Unless the coalition collapses, 7 May 2015, the likely date for the next general election, already cannot come soon enough – one can only hope this bunch of neo-Thatcherite dogmatists are removed from office before they can do too much permanent damage.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

A sense of loss

It's a good thing I don't believe in God, because if I did, on days like yesterday, I'd absolutely hate Him. Seeing pictures of that Belgian coach destroyed in the accident in Switzerland, killing 22 children and 6 adults, you can only see such an occurrence as an accident, entirely without design or will behind it. Anything else is so horrible as to be beyond reason – it would be the most vicious, cruel and wanton evil imaginable if it were any kind of act behind it, or any kind of act of omission of act by something or someone, that could stop it. Surely, surely no supposedly benevolent deity would do such a thing, or allow it to happen?

I cannot begin to imagine the suffering of the parents of those kids, perhaps especially those travelling to Switzerland who still don't know the fate of their own child(ren). Seeing the face of the pastor of one of the schools were two of the dead adults and several of the children worked or attended, he looked like a man who had no idea how or why this could happen, a man struggling to reconcile his own beliefs with the reality of the event which confronted him and the others it had affected so horribly.

Friends and relatives gathered at a church, I guess as a point of shared contact for the human comfort it affords, being with others who truly understand and share your suffering, because I cannot imagine there can be any comfort drawn from the belief that those kids now sit with a God who chose to take them. It's an awful contradiction and one of the reasons I can never understand faith. Indeed, even the priest conducting the ceremony was forced to face a question which must have been in every one of those suffering minds – has God abandoned us, he asked, presumably rhetorically.

No, of course not. What I suspect is abandoning some of them, entirely reasonably given the circumstances, must be their sense of trust in God, their certainty of His existence. It's easy to say this of course, sitting here miles away, not knowing any of the victims, but the only way to rationalise this awful tragedy is as a horrible accident, the cause of which, doubtless eventually to be ascertained by investigation, had nothing to do with anyone or anything's design, celestial or otherwise. That will not, of course, help the parents with their grief, but may help them feel less angry about it later, if they're able to come to see it like that. Like I said at the start, if I thought somebody were behind this, or could have stopped it and did nothing, I'd absolutely hate them.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

A weekend of Kop and curlers

Working 12-hour days lately, and doing so through a horrible bug for the last few of them, has left me unable to write here - sorry about that. So this entry is a few days out of date. But it's worth mentioning last weekend, spent in Liverpool, and what I learned from it.

Firstly, Liverpool as a city has changed beyond recognition if you haven't been there for a while. The last time I spent any time there during daylight hours and did anything other than head straight to Anfield, it still had some of the vestiges of the decay, neglect and depression of the Thatcher era. Don't get me wrong, walk around Anfield and you'd think nothing has changed, but that's a peculiar exception brought about by the club buying so many of the houses in the area for a stadium development that has not yet, and may never happen, and leaving them empty. But check out the city centre and the docks in particular, and you'd think you were in a difference city to the one Mrs T so shamefully abandoned.

Our little group was fortunate to have two local guides, one of whom got me into the Kop for the first time in my life, while the other 'sacrificed' her time to spend it shopping with the girls as we did the footy thing. I did though, before the game, have a bit of a wander round town with the group, and there was one thing in particular that raised eyebrows. It seems that, among a certain stratum of Liverpool culture, the done thing if you're going out on Saturday night is to show the world you're doing so by wandering round during the day with enormous curlers in your hair. You may think this makes one look ridiculous, but evidently it's a bit of a status symbol to the cognoscenti. 'Look at me - I'm going out. You're not even getting ready yet, are you? You're clearly going to sit in and play Scrabble or something, you sad bastard.'

I'm sure there's an entry in itself which could be written about how this is perhaps driven by the inexplicable televisual celebration of a certain type of nitwit exemplified by Desperate Scousewives, Geordie Shore and the like, but I'd only be treading a path that's well-worn on these pages. Our Scouse friends, of course accustomed to this sight, unlike us southerners/Spaniards, explained the whole thing with a slight air of resignation. We decided that we'd be able to chance going out for a bit of dinner without having first indulged in this Liverpool ritual, and managed to have a few drinks, a bit of grub and a chat without being pointed and laughed at, despite our peremptory preparations. (I say peremptory - we actually prepared for going out by going to the pub...)

Anyway, thanks so much H and R for being such splendid hosts. We had a great time. Liverpool may have its curler set, but it's also of course very well known for the wit and friendliness of its citizens, and two finer examples of those qualities I'll warrant are not to be found anywhere in the city.