364 days

Well, its been a whole 364 days since my first proper post, where I suggested that we should allow paedophiles to abuse children, and terrorists to bomb trains.

Many thanks to those of you that have stopped by since then. I’ll buy you both a drink at some point.

Cautions, crosses… and those cartoons

Artur BorucAn alarming story I spotted at the weekend, but forgot to mention: ‘Alarm’ at cross player’s caution. The Celtic goal-keeper Artur Boruc was cautioned by police for causing a breach of the peace, after he made overtly Catholic religious gestures at the stauchly protestant Ibrox Stadium. He crossed himself, in the theatrical ‘spectacles-testicles-wallet-and-watch’ manner, so beloved of Catholics everywhere.

The argument for Boruc’s culpability here comes from the idea that he almost certainly knew what effect his gestures would have. They were not done innocently, but were intented to annoy the Rangers fans. It is a worrying decision for many reasons, I think we would do well to remember many of the debates that surrounded the Danish Mohammed cartoons affair in February – another controversy over symbolism, intent, and interpretation.

The most important debate then, as now, did not so much revolve around the ‘meaning’ of the symbol itself. In both cases, we agree that it is at least possible for symbols that one group find offensive, to considered benign or even sacred by another. No-one can define the symbol positively or negatively for everyone – people just have subjective responses. We only become concerned with the matter when one person (or newspaper) seeks to deliberately incite such responses in others. Then we ask whether they have a right to do so, balancing freedom of speech considerations with public order.

In the case of the cartoons published in the Jyllands Posten, the consensus (it seemed to me) settled with the importance of freedom of speech. The right to offend was rightly trumpeted. Those who did have a negative reaction were labelled as intolerant. Certainly, said the blogosphere, the secular ideals of freedom of speech trump the traditions of a religious group, especially when the issue concerns criticism of that group. The government seemed to agree, and those who over-reacted were arrested.

In this latest, analagous case however, the opposite has happened, and it is the provocateur who has been punished. I think this is wrong for a couple of reasons. First, I might say that banter between the home and away teams is part of any game of football. The home fans shout jibes at the opposition, while at the other end the players of the team they support are receiving a similar treatment from the visiting fans. Sometimes the banter works, and a player is put off his game. At other times the player responds, and riles the opposing fans some more. Being annoyed by players from other teams is, I would suggest, a part of the game. It is certainly a big part of being a dedicated fan. Furthermore, Boruc’s contribution was not racist or deprecating to the Ranger’s fans themselves. It was an overt gesture of his own faith which pissed them off. He should be allowed to do it, just as they shout rude things about the Pope in return, as they invariably are wont to do when Celtic visit Ibrox.

Is it not appalling that the Ranger’s fans could get so offended by the crossing gesture in the first place? The real issue here is that the rampant sectarianism still exists, and the punishment of Boruc in a way condones the mutual intolerance between the Catholics and Protestants in Scotland.

If the thuggery of sectarianism is our first concern, the second is how different groups are treated when the hackles of the extremists among them are raised. When violence between Christians occurs, we say that it is a social problem, a feature of urban living. No suggestion is made that the problem may be a flaw in the religion itself, that the policy of “multiculturalism” has failed, or that one of the two groups should radically change its thinking… or leave. But this is precisely what happens when the troublemakers are Muslim. Moreover, there are more Protestants and Catholics in the UK than there are Muslims. If Islamic extremism is such a threat to the unity of this country, then sectarianism is too. And since it manifests itself most overtly during football matches – those weekly beacons of the British way of life – it has a greater impact on the wider culture, than the Islamic lobby could ever have. Yet it occupies our thoughts to a lesser degree. Its easier to demonise those beared weirdos in sheets, than it is to criticise the guy in a football who uses sport to teach his sons how to hate.

Opie Zeitgeist

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Several Edinburgh Fringe Festival shows this year have marketed themselves with Julian Opie style images. I’m not quite sure why Opie’s aesthetic, made famous by the Best of Blur album cover design in 2000, has suddenly caught the zeitgeist. Perhaps the producers see how the stylistic forms, which are simplistic yet idiosyncratic, remind us how we build up our ideas of the human and its nature from a few bold strokes. More or less the same lines, but a million different possibilities. The same, they reason, could be said of their play.

Or perhaps its just easy, lazy design, tapping into an already recognisable ‘cool’. Maybe its a coincidence.

Elsewhere, I see Jabr-wocky has suggested that the Best of Blur album may have been derivative in itself.

Floating ball in the cosmos

A reader named Ray Storer makes a popular yet pertinent point over at the BBC NEWS Have Your Say pages:

Our common values are; We’re all human: All living on the same floating ball in the cosmos and if we don’t learn to get along with one another then the consequences will be our own doing or undoing.

Whenever a news programme brings us tidings from elsewhere in the world, they invariably begin with a map showing where they are reporting. The BBC uses a globe, which spins around from the Greenwhich Meridian, then zooms in on the flash-point of the moment (sometimes it spins the wrong way, but we can forgive that). During the Lebanon crisis, I felt there was something very disconcerting, about being reminded that we are marooned on ball of rock, immediately before watching images of the house-by-house destruction. Watching the tragic images of war in close-up, one gets lost in the complexity of the situation, and the grievances of both sides. However, the image of the globe, in all its enormous, lonely glory, streches our perspective, and we begin to look like a bunch of Liliputians.

Douglas Adams and his Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. Terry Pratchett and his Discworld series. I think that these guys have a better conception of our world and the humans on it, compared with the Holy Books of the God in whose name we maim and kill.

On Leadership at The Sharpener

I have finally got off my arse to write a post for The Sharpener. I’ve been mulling over the idea that the present, apparent impasse in international relations is as much to do with poor leadership as it is to do with the particular ideologies and agendas of the main actors. The post takes in some of the whines I’ve been making about the lack of radical thinking, and also ideas of ‘political capital’ and its erosion. The extent to which our Chief Executive should be a ‘Leader’ as opposed to simply a ‘Governor’ is an open question – Hopefully we will get a few decent comments.

Given my surname, its obviously pleasing to be able to write for The Sharpener. What I’m hoping is that, pretty soon, John Reid will introduce some draconian terror law that allows me to denounce the likes of Donald and Justin as the True Enemy of Right Thinking People Everywhere. Once they’re convicted I’ll be able to impose some kind of junta over the group blog, and gradually phase in a personality cult. Everyone will assume the blog is named after me, just like Arianna Huffington at the Huffington Post.


On Leadership

“But the US could take the risk of alienating the world and discarding international law only if its leadership was going to be effective. Instead its leadership has been desultory and uncertain and tragically ineffective.”

That’s Gerard Baker in The Times last week, bemoaning the poor record of George W Bush. A slightly more articulate version of the analysis that John Prescott apparently did not give to Labour MPs that same week.

Politics is, unfortunately, not just about issues. It is also about personalities, about diplomacy, about leadership. Governing a country means making a decision, giving orders, and allowing others to implement your policy. You need to ensure this will happen, and sometimes a constitution, a chain-of-command, is not enough to drive your agenda through the bureaucracy! Similarly, achieving your foreign policy aims, whatever they may be, requires at least some practice in the art of persuasion, whereby you can convince people over whom you have no political power that you are an ally, not an enemy. Call it charisma, call it gravitas, there are certain qualities that make one a more effective leader and diplomat.

I’m not sure George W Bush ever had those qualities. His diplomacy and ability to build coalitions world-wide has been half-hearted at best. For example, the arrogant US diplomacy from late 2002 onwards, embodied in the persona of the President, effectively sealed off certain possible pathways, possible worlds. Instead of a full-blooded UN force that the President and his Defence Secretary needed, the organisation was alientated and the Iraq invasion was under-manned. I cannot shake the idea that different – better – leaders would have begat different – better – consequences. It is not enough to simply describe the unfavourable political situation (in the case of the UN, we might cite the intransigence of the French) and say “it was impossible.” A good leader, with a dash of good rhetoric and proper diction, can set events onto a more favourable path.

The recent fiasco on the Lebanon/Israel border is another example of this tragically in-the-box attitude. The crisis (and of course, the wider Palestinian problem) cries out for some unexpected thinking. Something that ‘received wisdom’ says is impossible today, yet might become possible tomorrow. I am certainly not suggesting that if only we had a Churchill, say, or a Kennedy, that somehow everything would work itself out. More the opposite – the current crop seem almost resigned at their inability to influence actions for the better. They spout nothing but platitudes, as the pre-prepared script says they must.

Perhaps Ariel Sharon was on his way to such thinking when he ordered the withdrawl from Gaza. However, his party was split irreversibly as a result, so whether he succeeded or not is an open question. Certainly it was a bold move, and despite the election of a Hamas government, it nevertheless created a new ‘climate of the possible’. Soon after, we heard talk of Hamas recognising the two-state solution… But then all sides jumped back into their boxes.

It seems to me that if we are to effect real paradigm shifts in the political landscape (whether the issue is the Middle East, global warming, the existence of the EU, NHS reform or anything else) then it requires a strong, articulate and above all diplomatic leader to push the policy forward to fruition. Unilateral action may appear strong, and even win elections in the short term. In the long term however, it sunders friendship and causes political capital to crumble. It makes leaders less effective, and finally impotent. It is the long term that matters, and in the long term, the diplomat with the smile will win.

Hyperlinks in print

An interesting beginning to Patrick Burgoyne’s editorial in this month’s Creative Review:

Looking through this month’s issue, the sharp-eyed amongst you may notice a few words underlined in red like this … They are simply devices to indicate links in E-CR, the Digital Version of Creative Review.

Usually, web design follows print design. We still see many fixed dimension layouts online, while many other website designs make a reference to paper and the physical world (my own site being an example of this). It is interesting, then, to see the reverse happen: print design being informed by web-design. In Creative Review we see the humble ‘underline’ evolve from something to denote emphasis, into something to denote more information elsewhere.

As it happens, I’m not sure whether this particular quirk will survive. I’ve noticed that many contemporary websites choose not to underline their links, favouring a change of colour instead. Colouring a word blue, the usual default for links, may ultimately be understood by more people. I once heard of a system – invented I think by Wassily Kandinsky – whereby different colours denoted different meanings in text. In the twenty-first century this idea may be realised. However, his idea was that the different colours denoted emotions, not meta-information. Either way, if a colour-based standard was adopted, the Accessibility lobby would hate it – What about the colour-blind?

As we emigrate to the multimedia world, we must learn (and indeed invent) new symbols, as part of a global language. The play, pause, record and stop symbols have been well understood since the Walkman first hit the streets. We had to wait for CDs before the ‘skip forward’ and ‘skip backward’ symbols also became ubiquitous. The drive to standardize the symbol for syndicated content (for example, RSS) is already underway.

At the same time, other symbols fall out of use. Why bother with numbered annotations, as many websites still do, when a hyperlink will more than suffice?

Give me back my kidney

A happy Sunday to everyone.

From LarkNews.com (via Fridge Magnet) comes a bizarre story of organ donation. Aleta Smith donated her kidney to a 20-year-old college student last year. Now she wants it back after hearing that the recipient Hannah Felks has changed religion from Christianity, to a mixture of Hindu and Pagan beliefs.

“They portrayed her as this nice Christian girl who works with kids. I saw it as a great opportunity to help a sister in the Lord.” … Smith was aghast when she heard of the conversion, and she
quickly wrote a letter asking Felks to re-convert to Christianity or return the organ, saying it was donated under false pretenses. “I feel helpless,” she says. “Part of my body, my DNA, is stuck inside a person who’s going to hell.”

I think this story highlights all that is good, and all that is bad with religion. First, we have an act of selfless life giving, inspired by the Christian belief in a shared humanity: We are all God’s children, and in acknowledging the gift of life we can celebrate our creation, together. This donation, the latest in a list of innumerable acts of charity made in the name of Christ, reminds us what a positive force religion can be.

And then, appallingly, the act is devalued. We see the divisiveness of fundamentalism, also implicit in a religion based upon the Revelation of ancient texts. It says: To have a different conception of spirituality apparently makes one an incomplete, second class person, less deserving of life. The request for the return of the kidney unveils a cold racism. The logic is selective – One could just as easily say that Aleta Smith’s Christian kidney will itself save this ‘pagan’, Asian-tea drinker Hannah Felks from hell…

Ironically, the Machiean world view of the Abrahamic religions is correct. But the sides of Light and Dark do not equate to the side of believers and non-believers. Instead, it is between inclusiveness, and divisiveness. It is the fundamentalist analysis, which judges some people as virtuous, and others as the damned-in-waiting, which is the true Devil in our midst.

The battle is not lost. We only need to remember the legacy of Ahmed Khatib, and Yoni Jenser before him, to see a glimmer of hope.

Now I'm being nagged by eBay

There I am, sitting in front of a computer in semi-darkness, reading other people’s blogs and posting comments on them. I am happy.

Then an e-mail pops into my inbox. It is from from eBay. The subject line:

robertsharp - get outdoors.

Why are we wasting our time with this shit?

Islamophobic – anyone who objects to having their transport blown up on the way to work.

I know bloggers like to think that they occasionally have an impact on politics and the mainstream media, but tonight, please God, what happens in the blogosphere must stay in the blogosophere.

I don’t know what annoys me more: Inigo Wilson’s ill-advised Lefty Lexicon at Conservative Home, or the ill-advised attempt by MPAC to have the man lose his job at Orange.

For the majority who remain blissfully aware of the ‘controversy’, the aforementioned lexicon was posted by Mr Wilson a couple of weeks ago. Its unfunniness is mildly annoying, but the lack of any depth to the apparent satire renders it totally harmless to actual debate. At no point does the ridicule actually change someone’s mind – those who are fed up with Political Correctness will applaud; and those of us who believe that, say, ‘instituional racism’ exists, will continue to do so.

As an aside, I find the piece has added annoyance, due to the fact that any criticism that one might possibly level at it would automatically be met with gleeful cries of either “Lefties can’t take a joke!” or “looks like I’ve hit a nerve” or some such retort. “If I’ve annoyed a Lefty, I must be doing something right!”

Whatever. The piece isn’t meant to be debated. The impossibility of engaging with it, on any level, is built into its very construction. Its just a line in the sand for people to dance about, a midweek distraction for the lazy. Why ridicule actual government policies when you can attack a straw-man wrapped in a cliche?

More annoying, however, is that a week later, someone began agitating for Wilson to be sacked from his job in the communications department at Orange. Via Pickled Politics we hear that he has now been suspended.

How ridiculous. Provided the guy does not allow his political viewpoint to prejudice a customer or employee, it’s nothing to do with Orange! There is no suggestion that when Wilson writes on a conservative blog, that he is doing so in a professional capacity. He should be allowed to write what he wants, even if he is “a rancid, braying little tick”. By lobbying Orange, MPAC are either misunderstanding the nature of free, political speech… or they are engaging in a cynical publicity stunt. Foolish or opportunistic? Personally, I suspect the latter. If they succeed, Inigo Wilson could become a martyr to political correctness. And no-one wants that.

Instead, it is Conservative Home that should do the ‘sacking’, because it is only there that his political views count. Such crass humour reflects badly on a site that seeks to become influential in Cameron circles, and a wise editor would not have allowed the article to be published. As it is, the entire site loses some credibility for carrying the lexicon in the first place. It then loses some more, due to the lack of contrition at publishing something so tired. Bizarrely, they show no embarassment at their mistake.

Whichever way you look at this issue, all actors look ridiculous. Worse still, both sides have acted to polarise the debate. Their words have only served to reinforce the prejudices of those with the opposite viewpoint. What a waste of time.

The situation is complicated by the fact that Wilson does actually work in PR for Orange. As Stuart’s Soapbox says,for a professional communicator to not understand the consequences shows either an amazing degree of ignorance or a wilful disregard for the damage it could cause. So perhaps it is Orange’s business after all…. but I still think it is distracting from actual debate.

Blogs and newspapers

At Comment is Free, Sunny asks why newspapers are beginning to turn against bloggers. Are they worried about competition? Is building something up then tearing it down just how newspapers work? Or are the columnists scared of the militant and unfettered argument?

One thing I’ve noticed is that blogs have become, for me, sign-posts to the newspapers, and not the other way around. Take a couple of articles on how to combat terrorism which I read online. My attention was drawn to them by bloggers, not headlines on the news-stand! First, I come to this opinion piece by Sam Leith via Tim Worstall:

The terrorists succeeded: they caused terror … More and more, I wonder about something. What if, after the attacks on the World Trade Centre or the London Underground, the West had taken a difficult and strange course of action, and done nothing at all? What if we had, as a society, turned the other cheek: mourned our dead, rebuilt our cities and allowed the senselessness of the attacks to stand exposed for what it was?

I’ve been whining for a more radical and unexpected, even counter-intuitive approach for a while now, although I have not had the guts to stand up and say that perhaps we should simply turn the other cheek. Leith fills that gap, Worstall agrees its something to consider, and there is an interesting discussion in his comments box.

Meanwhile, it is via Rachel From North London, in turn via Chicken Yoghurt, that the latest column by the fantastic Matthew Parris: “Let’s treat the plotters as common criminals, not soldiers in a global war”:

How sides seem to have been switched since the last century turned. Rebels and mutineers used to insist that there was a war on, and governments used to insist that there wasn’t. Hardliners took the view that people who blew things up were common criminals, to be dealt with case by case. Liberals argued that it was more useful to see them as idealists in a warped and misguided army … Now it’s the other way round. Hardliners see a war between opposing forces. Liberals see a more fractured picture, a rebel cast of dangerous but messed-up people, idiots, nutters and psychopaths, some organised, some clever, others out of control: essentially a matter, however grave, for the police.

Hopefully I will be another link in the chain, as people click through from here to read Parris’ thoughts in full.

Crucially though, I haven’t bought either The Telegraph (Leith) or The Times (Parris). I have, however, become extremely efficient at recieving the benefit of their wisdom, for free. Newspapers should be worried by blogs, because blogs increase the likelihood that the likes of me are essentially ‘free-loading’ on the papers’ good work. I’ve certainly bought less newspapers in the past year. Worse still for the newspapers, I think I have a right to do so. Newspapers form an important of public discourse, facilitating the democratic debate before any democratic vote. With the right to free speech comes the right to listen uninterrupted, and if they put their content behind an Independent-style firewall, they will hear me moan. The business side of newspaper publishing is hindered by their aspiration to facilitate the public good.

We might be able to tolerate this is the case of behemoths like the Telegraph Group and News International, who can in any case plug the leak by selling online advertising. But what of the chap who runs the corner shop below my flat? Selling copies of The Telegraph and The Times are an important loss-leader for him. My failure to buy the papers, and instead read the juicy bits from each from three-storeys up, could begin to impact upon his ability to stay in business.

I’m off to buy a pint of milk before he closes.