Dalry Road

Two odd sights. The first was me running (nay, sprinting) down Edinburgh’s Dalry Road at 5:28pm, in the desperate hope of buying four male-to-female 2 metre VGA cables. The second was the fact I was blocked from entering Maplin Electronics by a procession of policemen and horses, escorting despondent Kilmarnock fans back to Haymarket station. I do not know whether it was them or the Hearts fans who were threatening trouble, or whether that sort of close protection is standard for a Saturday afternoon.

Whether it is the creation of a ridiculously complex video playout system, or the communal viewing of a ball being kicked around a field, we humans take our leisure time very seriously.

In defence of political correctness

“They’re calling asylums ‘care homes’ now. It’s madness gone politically correct.”
– Armando Iannucci

The think-tank Civitas has published Retreat of Reason by Anthony Browne. In the book, Browne attacks the concept of ‘Political Correctness’ as being a harmful to free speech. A dictatorship of liberalism has overrun the country, he argues, and any viewpoint that does not conform to the rules of Political Correctness is condemned, even if it is backed up by facts that expose the PC viewpoint as entirely false.

The facts and statistics in the report are presented with brash confidence, both in the publication and when it was publicised on the Today programme. However, their truth is apparently not so clear cut. Others, such as Pickled Politics, have begun to fact check these aspects.

Whether the facts cited turn out to be true or not, the so-called ‘problem’ of Political Correctness remains. Armando Iannucci’s joke is funny because the cliche is so well known.

It is telling, yet unsurprising, that Browne’s examples all attack those on the progressive left-wing, the primary purveyors (in his eyes) of the PC ideology. When we encounter more traditional groups using politcally loaded phrases, designed to stifle and muddle the debate, not a peep from Browne or his cronies can be heard. Indeed, in the case of fox-hunting, Anthony Browne himself has fallen for the trick:

… the Prince of Wales was right: if foxhunters were ethnic minorities like Muslims or Jews, they would not be persecuted in the way they are.

This has the sheen of an attack on PC behaviour… but Prince Charles’ sentiment, recycled by Browne, is the classic example of the sneeky rhetoric used by the Countryside Alliance to justify their opposition to the hunting ban. Misuse of language is their Trojan Horse. Throughout the CA press statements and public discourse they refer to themselves a ‘minority’. Using this word gives them access to the language of the oppressed, and they hope to gain sympathy as a result.

Now I hope you will allow me a short digression here. In common political usage, ‘minority’ is applied to groups made up of people who do not necessarily choose to be a part of that group – they just are. Therefore, a special focus is given to ethnic minorities and the disabled – both groups are visibly different, and visibly in the minority. Gay people are also born into their minority (this is debated by some, unfortunately), as are many religious people, and they lobby the government for recognition and support accordingly. But fox hunters are a ‘minority’ only in the show-of-hands, head count sense of the word. They choose an activity as one would choose any other sport. And crucially it is the sport that the government is against, not the people who practice it.

One of Browne’s own suggestions:

A binding referendum should be called on any proposal if supported by a certain percentage of the population. Such ‘citizens’ initiatives’ return power to the people, encouraging ordinary citizens to re-engage with the political process

The fox-hunting ban would a prime candidate for this, since more people support than oppose it, and it was part of the successful 2001 Labour Manifesto.

So it is not just the uber-liberal loony lefties that make use of Political Correctness as described by Browne. People with a conservative outlook closer to his own employ it too, but he does not condemn them, because it does not suit his or Civitas’ right-wing agenda to do so.

I mention the misuse of the word ‘minority’, because we are all very aware that this word has a political meaning. This awareness is the positive side of Political Correctness, a much-maligned concept. It is right that we should combat prejudices, and the first step to doing this is to identify the minorities who may be suffering. The act of naming oneself is an important step of empowerment. Thus we have to go through the process of re-naming: be it cities that are shrugging of a colonial past; mental asylums morphing to ‘care’ homes; or simply people who are not white choosing to call themselves ‘black’ (even if they are Asian). Those who say they are proud to “call a spade a spade” should not be praised for being anti-PC, but reprimanded for calling the Spade something that encourages prejudice…

This has been the foundation of Political Correctness – a simple acknowledgement that our common language is been loaded with derogatory words. It is a subliminal prejudice, set as our factory default, which we must work hard to overcome. And if we acknowledge the undesirable aspects of our society, an recognition of the many undesirable aspects of our history must be a part of that too.

Anthony Browne says this is “the invention of Western intellectuals who feel guilty about the universal triumph of Western values and economic prosperity.” This is a lazy stereotype. Members of the PC-Brigade who whine on about the evils of colonialism feel guilty about one thing only: the evils aspects of colonialism! We do not wish the rest of our culture to be undermined by this legacy. Only with the whole picture in place can we define, and then take pride in, our country and our culture. It is only acceptable to to take credit for positive Western values if we simultaneously show some contrition for the bloodier part of our history. It is good that Political Correctness spoils the myth of Great Britain. Anything else is as intellectually dishonest as the innacuracies that Browne alleges.

None of this is necessarily a rebuttal to Retreat of Reason itself, just and argument against the tone and attitude of its creators. The idea that there has been a retreat from reason in political debate is not one I would wish to argue against! Anthony Browne is correct in saying that a problem exists… but he identifies it incorrectly. It is not the concept of PC that is at fault, but the fools who weild it, without understanding its purpose.

Any policy or ideology can hamper debate if it is applied without thought, or indeed if it is misused by special interest groups. However, this should not discredit the ideology itself. In the past year, the most stark examples of Political Correctness Gone Mad have actually been perpetrated by well-meaning stupid people second guessing what minorities may think, without consulting them. When an artwork was removed from the Tate Britain, for example, it was on the assumption that Muslims would be offended. No Muslims were consulted. This was a prejudice in itself, made worse by the fact that the policy-makers completely misunderstood the actual meaning of John Latham’s work. Likewise with over-zealous council officials cancelling Christmas Lights in favour of Winter Lights, deafened by the silence of the minority communities’ collective indifference.

To repeat: The purpose of Political Correctness is a noble one. It seeks to refine our political debate. It identifies and eliminates discrimination in our everyday language. Inconveniently for Civitas and Anthony Browne, some of this prejudice exists within the traditions and social mores of British Civil Society, the homogenising behemoth that they exist to defend. They therefore see Political Correctness as a threat, and they go on the offensive. This is truly a tragic irony, as they succeed only in holding back a force of progress, one which seeks to weed out Britain’s prejudices, and recognise its historical mistakes. Only when that process is complete may we call ourselves ‘Great’ once more.

A long and pertinent response to this article has been posted over at Talk Politics. The central issue is that the alteration of language through Political Correctness has distinct Orwellian overtones, and the censorship of thought is something that the commenters here have touched upon too. I do not beleive that that the alteration and modification of our oral habits amounts to Newspeak – there is no reduction of ideas or concepts here. Also, there is very much difference between what I am suggesting Political Correctness should be, and what it has become. Clearly this requires a further response, so I will post in the comment box at Talk Politics, and on these pages, as soon as possible.

Muddles of Narnia

I have not yet seen the new film adaption of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and I have not read any of The Chronicles of Narnia since I was a child. So I will leave the debate over whether the books are evil Christian propaganda to others. Tory Convert takes issue with Polly Toynbee’s criticism of the books and the film, and makes some interesting points on moral agency, and the link between religion and culture.

I have just one point to make about The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, something that has been bothering me for ages: If Narnia is a Christian allegory, what on earth is Father Christmas doing in there? Who or what is he metaphoring? Do Narnians celebrate Christ’s birth, or not-yet-saviour Aslan’s birth, or what? It looks like the inclusion of a big name star, just to draw the crowds…

New Year Honours

Happy New Year everyone. Time to announce some additions to the blogroll.

I am delighted that a few high profile sites I read regularly have added this site to their list of recommendations, and I am more than happy to return the favour. Chicken Yoghurt, and fellow Edin-bugger Devil’s Kitchen are pretty prolific hubs, of the type that have to post messages of apology if they do not post anything for more than 24 hours! I am not sure I will find a political soul mate at The Kitchen, but as one of his other endorsements declares: “I disagree with him quite a lot of the time but I actually have to use my brain to articulate why.”.

Stef at Famous for Fifteen Megapixels probably leans more my way. He presents articles that are thoughtful, amusing, or both.

The rise and development of the Internet is a subject that fascinates me. We are still at the beginning of the communication revolution, and those who campaign for good practice and good design deserve particular praise. A List Apart is a “website for people who make websites.” As well as carrying a fantastic design, it is impeccably coded and offers advice on how designers can mirror those traits on their own sites. Website design should be so much more than simply visual design for the screen, and these folk are the best advocates. Elsewhere, the simple site by Clay Shirky carries some concise and perceptive essays on the Internet and the digital revolution.

It is an oversight that two organisations I have collaborated with on a few projects are not present in my associates list. Radio Magnetic are a Glasgow based radio station, perennial nominees for online station of the year awards. Digital technology opens up whole new ways to communicate, for those with the confidence to try.

Radio Magnetic have commissioned a series of podcasts from Scottish artists, giving an insight into the process of creating new music. The FOUND Collective bring us the first podcast in the series. its quite funny.

Arsenal 4-0 Portsmouth

Ah, the great British game!

Arsenal Players in Purple ShirtsWe began in North London with a cappuccino from the bagel counter, and settled in to watch Lehmann from Germany, Lauren from Cameroon, Campbell from England, Toure and Eboue from Ivory Coast, Frenchmen Cygan, Pires, Henry and Flamini, Gilberto from Brazil, Fabregas and Reyes from Spain, and Bergkamp from Holland. They played against Ashdown, Griffin, Taylor and O’Brien from England, Priske from Denmark, Vignal from France, Cisse from Senegal, Vukic from Senegal, Todorov from Bulgaria, Viafara from Columbia, Hughes from Scotland, Skopelitis from Greece, LuaLua from the Congo, and Mornar from Croatia.

Despite all this hot international talent, we still froze our bollocks off.

Propaganda Pope?

Pop in a Santa HatThe Vatican has a good PR department. With half a billion adherents to the Christian brand, one might say this has always been the case. By the looks of certain papal headwear this festive season, a ‘merger’ with Coca-Cola’s Santa Claus logo seems to be on the cards, which could provide a further boost!

Their recent communication strategy may also prove an effective, if sinister ploy. From Pope Benedict XVI’s Christmas message:

“Today we have vast material resources available to us,” he said. “The men of this technological age risk becoming victims of the successes of their intelligence and the results of their operative capabilities, if what they obtain is spiritual atrophy and an emptiness of the heart.

First, I think he is wrong to worry. The two largest technological revolutions are those of digital communications, and microbiology. Our capability for genetic engineering is certainly a potent force, but the furore surrounding GM crops is evidence that the scientists, the politicians and the public are acutely aware of the power we hold. Of course we need to take care, but the debate is proceeding slowly, precisely because of our ethical heritage.

I sense that the Pope is in fact referring to the advances in digital communications. In this case, the focus is on more people being able to communicate faster and easier. I would disagree that this will somehow lead to a diminished sense of soul. Indeed, these inventions have fostered entirely new types of community, ones that are not based on the accidents of geography or time. It allows people to maintain relationships with friends and family over long distances, and it allows communities to organise much more efficiently. Later in his address, the Pope emphasised the idea of a global family. Mankind is using these technologies to better itself – where is this threatening spiritual decline?

It is not our spirituality that is threatened, merely the Church and its outdated modus operandi. The Church does not deal in verifiable facts, but in the ideas we let into our minds. In the 21st Century, ideas flow so freely and cheaply that they are rebutted by a choir of voices almost as soon as they are aired. The Internet provides such diversity of thought and opinion, and the institution is particularly vulnerable to dissent and rebuttal. The Heiresarchs can no longer be silenced.

The Pope is free to tell us that our technological advances are threat to human spirituality. It is in fact only the Catholic Church that is under threat, but His Holiness uses his position to equate the two. He may well believe his analysis to be true, but it is a classic piece of propaganda and Christians should not fall for it. Instead, they should celebrate the growth in spirituality that the technology offers. Our new methods of communication allow minority voices to be heard, bringing new concepts of human value, and how people should spend their time. This may not be a new religion, merely an emphasis on (say) creativity and expression. The Catholic Church may “slip from their heart” but that is not to say that some other spiritual element cannot fill that void, even if it is simply concepts of kindness and happiness, which even atheists recognise as being a part of their substance. Who are you calling empty hearted, Joseph?

The casual Luddite attitude adopted by the Pope is designed to assert a superiority over other, competing voices. Paradoxically, it actually becomes a barrier to people attaining their version of spiritual fulfillment. Despite his white baseball caps, the new Pope’s pronouncements before and after his succession to the Papal throne hint at a hostility to the modern world. If this attitude does not change, then the Christian message will begin to wane. This would be a shame, as it is a creed that has so much to offer humanity. It is unfortunate that Christianity in its current form (along with many other religions too, I am sure) is obsessed with homogenising an aspect of life that is, by definition, personal. To do so, it must dismiss the possibility of other paths. Thus they warn us against technology, and the notion that spirituality may be a relative concept. As we use and embrace technology, so we announce that these alternative paths exist. The control that Catholicism exerts over its adherents, and those who happen to live alongside them is undermined.

Of course, it is possible my analysis of Pope Benedict’s strategy may be too complicated. Perhaps he is not as subtle as I give him credit for. He also spoke out against the proliferation of weapons. Perhaps the “operative capabilities” he refers to are in fact those conferred on the Saudi Arabian Air Force, now they have purchased 48 Typhoon fighter jets from the British Government! If it was this transaction that the Pope was talking about, then I can well believe in the spiritual atrophy he speaks of. The Saudi regime has a particularly warped conception of human value – Delivering these expensive killing machines to them will send our moral compass spinning.

Teach them nothing but philosophy

The government’s exam regulator declares that the view of history taught by schools is too narrow, with a bias towards the Tudors, and Adolf Hitler. Accompanying these reports comes the inevitable cry from commentators that our children are not being taught properly. Our schools are merely day-centres for the ignorant. We hear that QCA is now developing modules for the DfES that give pupils a broader range.

The array of knowledge we have to cram into the heads of our innocent secondary-school children is vast, and inconveniences such as puberty distract pupils from the task of absorbing even a fraction of it. The problem with human knowledge is that there is an awful lot of it. Many historical facts are disputed, and there are several possible interpretations of those facts we can agree on. Everyone will leave school ignorant of some of the key figures and events that have shaped our world, and there is nothing we can do to change this.

We also hear that children in Key Stage 2 spend vast parts of their time training for tests. This is the most annoying aspect of the report. It is as if exams are an end in themselves, and not a means to an end. Indeed, for an over-worked teacher who is threatened with another Offsted inspect, good test scores for her pupils could be the only thing that matters!

Children should be trained to be philosophers. Philo and sophos, a Love of Knowledge. Perhaps it is not important what facts they know, just that they take an interest in the world around them. They will then seek out knowledge for themselves, naturally. I am paradoxically both ashamed and proud that there exist books on my university reading list that I did not read until after I graduated. Whenever I encounter a word or reference I do not recognise, I look it up and plug the gap. With increased access to the internet, this gets easier to do every day. I find the power of Wikipedia to be breath-taking, and surfing through to random articles is a secret, solitary pleasure. Only last week I found myself immersed in an explanation of the Reimann Hypothesis and its place in the history of mathematics. I only read the biography of Field Marshall Karl Dönitz a few days ago, and I have no recollection of how I came to surf to those pages.

Old men and little girls

We do not know whether Norman Kember is alive or dead, and yet he is a ghost. His face haunts our TV screens. We go about our daily lives, with his image in the background, on TV sets in shops and on an inside page of the Metro newspaper. When we eventually hear something, we will look up for a moment, and think “oh, it’s happened, then” and then carry on with whatever it was we were doing. Whatever the news, we will barely be surprised. We do not an will never know him. He is just a symbol for something indeterminate, and icon that we look at for a while.

Norman’s image is the latest such symbol to hover on the edge of our consciousness. Ken Bigley took on the role before him, another old man. We hear stories of how they are decent normal people, just like us. Anything that does not fit with the stereotype is not mentioned, glossed over. It is Ken’s brothers and father who the media go to for quotes, not his Thai-bride, Sombat. Norman’s mission to Iraq seems eccentric – not the action of a typical, normal bloke – but it is mentioned with pride as if its the sort of thing any of us might have done after picking our kids up from football practice. We use their first names, not their surnames. They symbolise the ‘everyman’ for a little while, and then we switch the channel over.

That other, sadly familiar icon is that of stolen innocence. The narrative of the Soham murders fit neatly into a Brothers Grimm template. The girls become one character, Hollyandjessica. Dressed in their Manchester United replicas, they are modern Red Riding Hoods, skipping off to play, where a Big Bad Wolf eats them. Maxine Carr becomes the wicked witch, with The Sun bizarrely dropping her in the same circle of hell as Myra Hindley. (By the way, this is the same tabloid that also supplied us with images of slighlty more mature girls wearing Man U shirts on Page 3). So persistent is the story that the media seeks out new ways to reinforce it. The girls are always shown together. I’m pretty sure that one of the later images released is a computer composite (the one with Holly – or is it Jessica? – in a blue cap). The light looks wrong.

In other cases, the facts don’t fit with our preconceived narrative, and so we are presented with misleading symbols to crowbar it in. When Jodi Jones was killed near Dalkeith in 2003, it was not the shattering of innocence, but a tragic end to a life already peppered with low self-esteem and grief. And yet the picture of Jodi distributed by the news media had been taken several years earlier, giving the impression that the victim was a primary school petal, and not a pierced, fourteen year old goth. How would we have judged the case if a more recent picture had been released?

Perhaps none of this matters. It will not change the fate of Norman Kember, nor condone the murders of Ken Bigley, Holly Wells, Jessica Chapman or Jodi Jones. But it is worth remembering that we do not know these people, and we do not understand their stories. Their images merely wallpaper our lives for a time, and we will forget them once more, learning nothing.

Reclamation

In the aftermath of the Sydney riots, an speech published in Quadrant Magazine surfaces to chart the rise of Lebanese gangs in Australia. While the gangs battle (and subdue) the police, the suggestion that an immigrant population may be adversely affecting the area is rejected by the politicians, and the problem grows:

The amount of money spent on the multicultural industry beggars belief. It is a lucrative and sustainable position for many. Governments pay huge money to anything that bears the word multicultural. Indeed the police department, like other government departments, spends vast amounts on multicultural issues, multicultural jobs, multicultural consultancies, education packages, legal advice, public relations and the rest. Having expended large amounts of money on multiculturalism, they are hardly likely to criticise it. Those that feed off multiculturalism are not likely to question it.

riotsI get what Tim Priest is saying here, but his definition of multiculturalism seems to burn too many bridges. The social phenomenon he charts in Sydney is clearly undesirable: Communities living side-by-side, not integrating, becoming ghettos, that in turn become no-go areas for the police and ordinary citizens. Cultures and ethnicities living side-by-side without integration or communication is not what I would call multiculturalism… just antagonism. Multiculturalism has to imply a certain degree of integration, assimilation, and above all, a process of change for it to be something to value. I think a great many of the projects Priest vilifies are designed to promote just these things. That some of the programmes may fail can be a fault in design, implementation or personnel – There is no need to dismiss the values and the aspirations as a result.

Indeed, Priest goes on to describe the respect he has for the Vietnamese community of Cabramatta in Sydney, who expressed a desire to live peacefully alongside ordinary Australians (Melanie Phillips thoughtlessly refers to them as ‘indigenous’). Surely this is an example of an immigrant community playing a positive role in Australian national life – the very essence of multiculturalism.

The social problems faced by immigrant communties world-wide are real, but multiculturalism is the word I would use to describe the solution, not the cause of the problem. Immigrant communities can and should integrate with their host culture, but the process of change occurs on both sides. It is the acceptance of this fact, and managing the change in a positive way, which we call ‘multiculturalism’. Ignoring and rejecting it can only lead to further frustration, misunderstandings and conflict.

Explain yourself…

Ever since Tory Convert last week attempted to explain her political philosophy, I’ve been mulling over how I would answer the same question.

Then I realised I did not have to, and probably could not do so anyway. Personal philosophies are slippery things that change with every new conversation you have and every article you read. They are also both complicated and subtle (or they should be), and attempting to explain it in a single article is always going to be impossible. You need at least a book.

A cartoon that appeared in The Spectator a couple of months ago has two guys talking at a cocktail party. One says: “I thought I had a book inside me, turns out it was only a blog.” This week I have endured two instances of friends laughing in derison, when they heard I’ve been writing a blog. They assumed I was writing about what I had for dinner, and what I watched on TV. I explained that blogs are scrap-books where people paste their thoughts and findings. Mine is not really a diary, but is becoming a place where I store my own thoughts, and those of others. If anyone asked me to explain my political philosophy, I would give them my URL, and tell them to get reading.