Thursday, 25 October 2012

Not all are equal in His sight, apparently

It may be a recurring theme on these pages but there was, in the news this week, yet another example of religion being used as a discriminatory tool. George Pratt, an eleven-year-old who'd been a Scout for some ten months, has basically been thrown out as a result of his atheist beliefs.

I happen to disagree with the premise of Ally Fogg's otherwise excellent article in the Independent on this matter - I do think this is a call for faith rather than a call for obedience. His refusal to take the Scouts' oath on the grounds that it requires duty to be sworn to God seems to be the sole reason for his exclusion. This after ten months with the organisation with no reported trouble. I accept that people may ask why he'd seek to join a body whose aims and values he does not share, but the fact is, he does share many of the values of the Scouts, or he wouldn't have been with them for ten months.

In response to asking why he'd want to join, all the other shared values would seem sufficient to me. A modicum of flexibility on the part of the Scouts may be in order, too, if they want to admit kids who are genuinely keen to join. But this one value seems to be the one which matters more than all the others. No matter how well he's done, no matter what he's brought to the group and they to him, out he goes.

And on that flexibility; the Scouts allow children of other faiths to take an amended version of the oath, replacing 'God' with 'Allah', for example, for Muslim children. Fair play, so they should. The fact is, though, that they would not dare exclude somebody on the basis of their religion. Religious kids are protected from such discrimination, while atheist kids are not. So faith, any faith, gets you in - or simply being prepared to stick your hand in the air and lie while you take the oath, pledging to do your duty to a God you don't believe in. That'll get you in too. It seems the Scouts would rather take a chance on having a kid like that in their ranks than let somebody in who has the principles not to take their oath under false pretences.

Their loss, as far as I'm concerned. They've lost a bright, obviously intelligent (other interviews with him reveal he's thought about this carefully, having been left to make his own mind up by his parents), morally upright kid and made themselves look like an anachronistic, discriminatory laughing stock in the process.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Sometimes the blogger's work is done for him.

One of two things is happening with what I'm about to describe. Either the extremist elements of the Republican Party are a rich seam of material for Joe Blogger, or they're in fact supreme self-satirists, taking us all for a ride and having a quiet laugh when they read what's said about them. I can't help but think that such a sophisticated sense of humour is probably beyond people like those in what follows, though.

Both these stories are new news to me, so forgive me if I'm late to some internet party that everybody else is already enjoying, by the way. Our first comedian to step up to the mic is Congressman Paul Broun who, on September 27th made this speech to the Liberty Baptist Church Sportsman's Banquet. It's only a minute extracted from the whole thing, but it may be worth pointing out that the Congressman sits on the House of Representatives' Committee on Science, Space and Technology. That's Science, Space and Technology, just in case I didn't emphasise that sufficiently. Go and have a quick listen. I'll wait here...

Heard what Congressman Broun had to say? Yep - you heard it correctly. Evolution and the Big Bang theory are "lies straight from the pit of hell...". It's all coming right out of Satan's gob, through his obvious agents like Steven Hawking, Einstein et al, with the specific intention of depriving what would otherwise be God-fearing people their place in heaven. It may be worth repeating - that's the House of Representatives' Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Mr Broun should be congratulated for inveigling his way into a den of what's very obviously minions of Mephistopheles. Know your enemy, Congressman.

Anyway, who's next? Oh yes. Charlie Fuqua, Republican candidate for the Arkansas House of Representatives. A man with some excellent form behind him, having already called for the expulsion of Muslims from the US and described slavery as a 'blessing in disguise', he really is almost living up to my imagined pronunciation of his surname. The bulk of the Republican Party having swiftly distanced themselves from him on that one clearly has not discouraged the man, though, and more power to his elbow for going the extra mile in the name of extremist lunacy with his latest endorsement of the death penalty for 'rebellious' children. Marvellous. He is, of course, being a Christian fundamentalist, strongly pro-life. So a clump of cells is sacrosanct from the moment of conception, the preservation of which beyond the choice even of the mother, but once born the child, should it turn out a bit naughty, is fair game.

These would be funny if they were not quite so genuinely held beliefs, and, more worryingly, shared by what I hope is a small but vocal number of other people. It's that, and the fact that the Republican Party itself has sought to condemn outbursts like these from extremist nutcases, that convinces me these are not engaging in some great joke at everybody else's expense. They're just dangerous, fundamentalist loons who happen to be in politics.

Edit: Added Thursday October 11th.

Today's Republican 'Loon of the Day' award winner is Wisconsin state representative Roger Rivard, with his "some girls rape easy" comment. He seems to be a man who doesn't know, once he's opened up a nice hole for himself, when to stop digging. Here's what he had to say. Twice.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Running out of stuff to sell, George?

I've written on here in the past about the dogmatic determination on the part of the Tories to sell off absolutely anything. Anything they don't want the bother of running, anything they think they can make some quick cash from, anything they can use to please the Thatcherite economists in the party, is ripe for selling.

Now, it seems, even our rights can be sold off. This piece of nutcasery is the latest example of the sort of thinking that goes on in the Cabinet, and further evidence that they simple cannot think of anything but money. Money will sort everything out - if only employers could treat people like chattels, free to dispose of them as and when they see fit and for whatever reasons, then there'd be more businesses starting up and more jobs available. Terrific!

Of course, given the likely Ts & Cs on those jobs, and the type of people you'd be working for if they only started a business on the understanding that they could just ditch you whenever they felt like it, who's going to want those jobs? Perhaps we should set a price on our dignity as well, maybe we could sell that off, and then feel free to go and work for these Victorian-style workplace despots the Tories apparently so admire.

We're talking about loss of redundancy cover. Loss of the right to fight unfair dismissal. Doubling the amount of notice of return to work from maternity leave. Other details are patchy. And companies, while unable to force existing workers to sell their rights, would be free to offer only those terms to new employees. This is, frankly, absolutely staggering.

Over-reacting? Think of the money? Not only is this piece of lunacy another tacit admission of the failure of their economic policies (people are so desperate for money that they'll sell off their basic employment rights! Yay!), but what bloody good are shares in a firm which has sacked you and gone bust, only to then rise again as a Phoenix company? Not an inconceivable outcome.

There must be rank-and-file Lib Dem members (and voters) with their heads in their hands at the moment. How did they ever end up in bed with such a crew of right-wing, thoughtless, uncaring, patrician nincompoops as these? This would be laughable if it were not quite so insidious. Osborne, not that he ever feels any such emotion of course, should be hanging his head in shame. Even if he can't see the moral wrong in these proposals, surely, surely he could have seen how they'd be received by normal working people? I despair sometimes, I really do.

None so blind

Extremely interesting reality/documentary hybrid on the Beeb last night. In Conspiracy Road Trip (an odd title, but what the hell...), comedian Andrew Maxwell travelled the American heartland with five British creationists. He was, it seems, trying to show them the veracity of the theory of evolution by introducing them to a series of scientists who would present their evidence for it.

The five were also asked to speak, one at a time, to the other four to outline their own feelings on the matter. What struck me was not so much the unshakeability of their beliefs - it would be a poor theologian whose entire belief system collapsed over a few days aboard a coach in such circumstances - but the apparent lack, in one or two of them, of the values they all purported to hold dear.

We had four Christians and a Muslim; two women, three men. They were variously presented with evidence from paleontologists, geologists and historians, for example a string of hominid skulls found in one, one-mile deep rock seam in a single African valley. Theories and explanations bounced back and forth - interesting stuff. In some cases, though, their faith (or simply their human prejudices) completely blinded them.

When discussing the beginnings of life on Earth with a professor of astro-physics, for example, the Muslim lad, Abdul, claimed he 'liked science', but then went on to decry it, saying that, " should not present things that they don't know the same way that they present things they do know. It's a sleight of hand..." This, of course, completely misses the point of science, which to my knowledge has never done any such thing. It's called a theory of evolution for a reason. From Darwin to modern scientists, the word 'theory' is still stuck in front of it. Why is it OK for religious adherents to view their great religious texts as literal, perfect and unquestionable truths but cry foul at the very idea that science may present anything as 'fact'? Far better the openness about areas of ignorance which is what science actually presents us than the closed-eye certainty of creationism.

The oldest of the group, a chap called Phil who'd taken it upon himself to be their father figure and spiritual guardian, was a fine example of Christian hypocrisy. One of the girls, Jo-Jo, admitted she wasn't much of a church-goer, as she had trouble reconciling her beliefs with the tenets of the Church. Her best friend, for example, is gay, and she "wouldn't change him for anything." The fact that she was asked about this led to Phil accusing the director of being a 'bully', calling him a 'disgusting human being' and a 'pathetic director'. He then (having checked first with the preacher that the church they were about to attend wasn't a 'gay church'), took the opportunity during the service to tell the group not to talk about homosexuality and the Church. "If the subject comes up, don't go near it...," he told the others. "Just turn to the camera and say you're being bullied. We're here to talk about evolution and creationism."

He was asked, outside the same church, if he'd directed the group on what they could or couldn't talk about. He flatly denied doing what he'd just been filmed doing. 'Disingenuous', Maxwell called it. Lying, I call it. There was only one bully on the trip, and it certainly wasn't the director. Phil, it seems, saw all scientists (even the devoutly Christian paleontologist who saw evolution as God's work) as part of some grand conspiracy to deny the 'true' age of the Earth (6,000-odd years) and bring about a Godless way of life. He criticised the fact that no 'creationist geologist' had been brought on the trip to question the scientists' evidence. Evidently he saw the point of the show rather differently to the producers, and perhaps also knew he didn't have the intellectual wherewithal to contest their claims adequately. He also showed just how much he loved his neighbours, and how much forgiveness he had in him, by refusing to speak to the girls for some time afterwards because of their reluctance to toe his line.

As it turned out, the two women at least showed themselves open-minded enough to want to 'do some more research' in one case, while Jo-Jo said that though her faith was unshaken, " doesn't mean that God couldn't have caused evolution. I'm not wanting to be closed off. There's too much evidence." Fair play to her - I have absolutely no doubt that her life was enriched and broadened by the experience, without her faith having been shaken in the process. I very seriously doubt the same can be said for Phil.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Welcome to reality

An outstanding and humbling piece of TV last night. I strongly recommend that you catch Welcome to India on the Beeb's iPlayer if you can, before it disappears. The first in a series of three, it was a programme that would have shown even the most stubborn of ingrates counting their blessings in western Europe.

Some startling facts emerged from this programme - that some 17% of the world's entire supply of gold is in the homes of Indian housewives, for example, a figure to exceed the combined total of the reserves of the UK, the US and the IMD. Gold, in fact, featured heavily in what followed. The wealth stored up in that total is not, does not, of course, filter all the way down the production chain.

We were introduced to the lads who smelt gold in very small quantities on the rooftops of Calcutta houses, mixing the raw materials by hand. Raw materials which included strong acids and liquid mercury. They 'cleaned' their hands by rubbing them against the nearest wall, taking the top layer of skin off in the process.

Further down the scale, though, were the lads who leave their single-room dwelling, which fifteen of them were sharing, at 3am to go to work. Walking the (briefly) quiet streets of Calcutta at this hour, past the dozing bodies of countless hundreds of people sleeping out in the road (any one of whose stories could surely just as easily have been told), they swept up the dust and shit (literally) from the road in the gold district and processed it, looking for the tiniest flakes of gold. Hunting for dust-sized flakes from people's skin or clothes, they eked a living from the street.

One entrepreneurial chap had decided the drains offered better opportunities, as so many people wash in the road that there must be gold down there. Standing in a culvert that was basically the size of an upright coffin, shovelling black mud, rubbish and sewage into bags to sell on to larger-scale operators, they formed part of an economy in which two-thirds of the country's GDP is 'off the books'. With his meagre income he and his friends had, through their willingness to stand neck-deep in filth every day, earned enough to rent a room of his own. One room, about the size of a British box room, in which he and five or six others would be able to live happily and escape the prison of fifteen-to-a-room rented accommodation he was used to. I could not even begin to adequately describe the toilet facilities. Our entrepreneur, though, was a very happy man with the new arrangements.

There were other stories. People living in shacks of bamboo sticks and plastic sheeting, trying to grow fenugreek on the beach or run an illicit bar, dodging council demolition trucks intent on destroying their homes. Lads selling pirated books to people in cars, dodging traffic on the busiest main roads in the city and sleeping in the park. None of these people complaining about their lot, all of them quick to smile, all looking out for each other.

I will make a point of watching the other two programmes in this short series. My girlfriend and I were looking at each other during this first episode, marvelling at how extraordinarily wealthy, how incredibly fortunate we are. But for an accident of birth any one of us could just as easily be living the same life, or worse, as those featured. I urge you to catch this if you can - as well as a lesson in our own good fortune, it will also serve as a reminder that for all the mindless, vacuous, tissue-thin celeb-obsessed bollocks that's on telly these days, it's still capable of pedagogical and emotional power.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Trial by media

I have no doubt that you've seen the allegations being made about the late Sir Jimmy Savile in the press lately. I don't propose to lay them out here - it's easy enough to find them. His family are, needless to say, not happy about it, and I can see why.

History is littered with tales of posthumous trials. Perhaps the most infamous of them is the 'Cadaver Synod' – in January 898, Pope Stephen had the corpse of his predecessor, Formosus, dug up, propped up on a seat in court in full Papal regalia, and tried for perjury. Formosus was found guilty and stripped of his Papacy, some seven months after he'd died. (He must have been gutted.) It's one of the more bizarre episodes of post-mortem justice in history, but serves as a handy reminder of the pointlessness of trying somebody when they're already beyond punishment.

That's particularly true when that trial happens not in court, but in the media. This particular kangaroo court can be held openly as there's no possibility of the accused coming to the stand, no jury to prejudice, at least not in court. I can't understand the timing of it – surely in a case like this, it would be better to make the accusations while the subject of them is still alive? As things stand, Mr Savile cannot defend himself, he cannot be punished if he actually committed the offences alleged, and if the allegations are true then the victims must go on suffering knowing that nothing can be done to bring the perpetrator to justice.

What, then, is the point of making the allegations now? I've already heard, in discussion of this, that somehow he was regarded as above punishment because of his fame, should any allegations have been made while he lived. The alleged victims therefore felt it was either pointless or, worse, risky to speak out at the time. This strikes me as unlikely – these days fame seems to expose people to greater scrutiny, greater punishment and greater opprobrium than would be the case if they were unknown (though there will always of course be some people who believe their idols incapable of doing wrong). I can't see how his fame would have protected him, should anybody have chosen to speak out sooner – quite the opposite in fact.

It's a horrible, horrible case because now either the man's name is being dragged wrongly through the mud or, much worse, a despicable set of offences has gone completely unpunished. Pretty damn grim all round – I bet the red-tops are absolutely loving it.

Child-free flights

Saw this story on the Beeb recently, and it reminded me of the last flight I took, just over a week ago. It was absolutely full of kids – at least 35 of them. Since the airline I was flying with boarded 'people flying travelling with young children' after those who'd paid extra to get on quickly, there were no more than 30 or 40 of us left to board when they'd all got on.

Now I usually sit as far away from any kids on the flight as possible, but since they were everywhere on this one, there was no such escape. I had to sit with a child, a girl (don't ask me how old she was, I have absolutely no idea how to place kids' ages), right behind me. Let's guess that she was around six, though I honestly have no idea. She was, in fairness to her, as good as gold all flight. The same cannot be said for the much younger sprog at the back, still a babe in arms, who absolutely screamed his/her lungs out for the entire flight. I'm talking 35 minutes' delay sitting on the tarmac before taking off, then 2 hours' flying time, then the taxi to the terminal. This kid absolutely went for it from the off, and his/her commitment to bawling for the duration was total. Add that gob to the general cacophony of other kids on the plane, and I'd have gladly paid considerably extra to take a flight without them.

So here's my idea on how you handle this:

Any route with more than one flight per day has one of those flights made 'no children'.
(One flight per airline per route).

Punters wishing to take that flight pay, say, £20 on top of their ticket for the privilege.

Those £20s collected are used to buy kit for the other flights, full of kids, to make the kids' journey more comfortable for them. Any oddments that will shut kids up for a couple of hours; toys, alcohol-infused dummies, whatever – I have no idea what they'd need. (Can you tell that I'm not a parent?)

Or those twenties could be sent to childrens' charities.

Happy days. I wouldn't make this compulsory, of course – that would be discriminatory against people with kids. But I wouldn't mind betting that any airline which introduces a child-free flight will fill it pretty promptly, even at higher prices than the other flights. I'd certainly be buying.

Anyway, on my flight Baby Big Lungs eventually quietened just as the seatbelt signs were switched off and people started to get up to collect their stuff to disembark. Such was the number of kids on the flight that the crew felt obliged to ping the cabin with a message to ensure that all children were supervised in the general mêlée getting off the plane. That kid behind me clearly felt she was being hard done by, having behaved more or less immaculately for the whole flight. 'Supervised?' she said loudly, in an outraged tone, and got a laugh from the whole plane.

Big Lungs was clearly outraged as well because, at this, clearly having had enough of a breather, he/she switched the foghorn back on and started screaming again. It was a joy to get into the peace and tranquility(!) of the passport queue. Like I said, child free flights – where do I sign?