Cliché watch #1

Journalists should stop citing Google search results as an indicator of how important the subject they are writing about actually is.

The Internet is a wonderful medium for communication and collaboration, but my God, it encourages lazy clichés. Many journalists are still under the illusion that using the Internet for research is still innovative and clever. In order to demonstrate to us, the pop-cultured masses, that their chosen subject is relevant, they begin their article thus: “A search on Google for x yields over 100,000 results.”

It’s a really tedious way to set the scene. No specialist knowledge or research lies behind the statistic. Anyone can use Google to search for a phrase, and everyone does. And therefore, everyone knows that the figures given are meaningless. Google includes in its results all indexed sites that contain one or more of the keywords and does not yet make any recommendations as to how relevant the results returned are likely to be. Everyone also knows that several pages in the same site can return multiple results, making the raw figure presented at the top of the screen even more meaningless.

What does the figure actually mean? When 472,000 results are returned for, say, “Margaret Thatcher Sex” have we really learnt anything new? All it really tells us is that some English words are used on some sites, somewhere on the web. And yet the journalist is wasting an entire column inch telling us this.

But it is most annoying because the phrase itself if so unoriginal. A search on Google for “A search on Google for” yields 90,000 results. So let us call a moratorium on this particular cliché, please.

Oxymoron

Terrorism is a weapon, not an ideology

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was… Terror. Our war began on or around 14th September 2001, when George W Bush asked for a ‘unity’ against terror that quickly became a ‘war’. Heads of States flocked to their press conference microphones to join the war, and soon an airborne armada was bombing Afghanistan.

What a shame, then, that our enemy doesn’t exist.

The word ‘terror’ means to be really, really scared of something. Common things to be scared of in this county range from being stung by a wasp, to being blown up in an aeroplane, and everything in between. But whatever, you are scared of, your ‘terror’ is an emotion, something within you. The only way we can eradicate terror is to annihilate our species… something we seem to be on course for at the moment.

When Dubya made his speech to the nation on that grief stricken Friday, he misused the word ‘terror,’ and in doing so dammed a generation to meaningless conflict. The word has now become a catchall phrase to describe any attack, for an reason, on Westerners. Almost three years later, the same man describes ‘terrorism’ as the new Nazisim. He talks about the ‘terrorist movement’ as if it were a political party, and vows to defeat it. What he fails to realise, and what will ultimately cause hundreds more deaths before the end of his presidency, is that terrorism is not an ideology, or a group, but a weapon. For all his bravado on the anniversary of D-Day, the President is fighting a battle he cannot win. It is as if he said he was going to declare war on guns. Or tanks, or stones. Though it pains me to ally myself with Dubya’s buddies at the NRA, terrorism doesn’t kill people; People kill people.

To eradicate terrorism, you need to stop people hating you, and if you want to do that, the last thing you need is a war. Instead, George W Bush sends in his troops equipped with rifles and ray-bans, and every shot they fire creates another American-hater who will pick-up terrorism, the only weapon they have, in order to fight back. The ideology that is ‘anti-Americanism’ now sees its ranks swelling to numbers that the Nazis could only dream of.

A terrifying thought.

Robert Kilroy-Silk is a waste of space

Robert Kilroy-Silk is not an example of human bigotry, but human idiocy

Once again, real issues have been marred by people who do not know how to have an argument. I refer of course to the embarrassing piece of human discourse that was the Kilroy affair. The article at the centre of the argument was very bad, but in some ways the arguments against it were worse, because they lent credence to Robert Kilroy-Silk where absolutely none was due.

In years to come, historians will hold up the article as a prime example not of human ignorance or bigotry, but of human idiocy. It is likely that they will give short shrift to the article itself, which embarrasses itself with inaccuracies, sentence construction, and ignorance: Kilroy-Silk says that no-one can think of anything the Arabs have ever given us. To this, the long list of retorts begins with an ‘a’ for algebra, and continues from there.

His one vaguely pertinent point – that Arab states should not be supported – is given an entirely offensive new meaning by the fact that he confuses ‘Arab states’ with ‘Arabs.’ His “grammatical error” (if we assume that is what it was) betrays a general immaturity of thought – that to speak of a people, is to speak of their government, and vice-versa. It is not racist to criticise the policies of the state of Israel, the USA, or any of the Islamic middle-eastern states. I believe all deserve the criticism ten-fold. Indeed, it can never be racist to genuinely question the policies of anyone, or anything. However, it is the very definition of racism is to ascribe the policies of a few, to a whole race, for that is a prejudice. To rail against The Arabs, The Jews, The Americans is nonsensical, for they are groups of individuals about which we know very little except where they live.

It is therefore nonsense to say that Mr Kilroy-Silk has a right to free speech over this issue, because his article has nothing logical or interesting to say. It is as if he had declared that he was actually a Vauxhall Astra 1.6 convertible, and then someone said “Well, I disagree with him, but everyone has a right to their opinion.” With free speech comes the responsibility to string your words together in a proper order, a task at which Mr Kilroy-Silk has manifestly failed.

The right to free speech is also attached to the responsibility to research your topic. We should not expect everyone in the UK to understand that Iran is not an Arab state (indeed, their proximity makes this a forgivable mistake). However, such knowledge is a pre-requisite for someone such as Kilroy-Silk, who was commenting directly on the issue. The BBC took the ridiculous step of suspending Kilroy-Silk and his programme only after complaints were made. They should have sacked him immediately: not because they disagreed with the article, but for proving beyond reasonable doubt what a rubbish journalist he actually is. The Sunday Express should be vilified for printing what is unarguably shoddy journalism.

The editors at The Sunday Express are the chief culprits in this tale of human stupidity. Their response to the complaints was to remark that the article had been printed in April, and no one had complained! This is an argument that could be used to justify any of the holocausts that stain our history. If something is only made racist or wrong by the number of complaints received, then every unreported crime is acceptable… Perhaps during the article’s first publication, the complainants were reading a better newspaper. More likely, they were too busy complaining to the Express about something else.

Every day, the foolishness of our media, and the inability of our politicians to ever make a proper argument, draws me closer to my depressing conclusion: we still live in the dark ages, where false arguments justify false aims. Historians of the future will group this new century in with all its predecessors, and call it the pre-enlightenment age. They will not bother trying to learn anything from this era, for it is already stained with the mark of a village idiot. The controversy surrounding Robert Kilroy-Silk’s article is the latest in an infamous tradition of mad hatter tea-parties. Like the dormouse, we shall sleep through many more.

Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden

Creating the play

In a small and half formed garden in the quaint town of Pitlochry, Sweet Fanny Adams became incarnate in a human form. Playwright Judith Adams‘ creation Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden was performed by a troupe of actors in the Scottish Plant Collector ‘s Garden. They were assisted by: costumes; a container of props; some sets; a sound system; and an array of sophisticated digital technology. In two hours they told the stories of three women, three men, and a little girl dressed in red (who may have had wings). Audiences were on the whole delighted by the piece, which combined the fairy tales of their past with a distinctly 21st century sense of humour. Sweet Fanny Adams & was a promenade performance, with scenes taking place simultaneously across several locations around the seven-acre space. Despite this ambitious approach, reviews from favourable across the board. In common with the audience, the summary was always I’ve never seen anything like it!

And “You’ve never seen anything like it” is spot on – It is the conclusion to this article. It may appear a paradox therefore, when I declare that the reviewers to a large extent missed the point. Despite a lengthy briefing by the playwright herself in the pre-show interviews, there was little comment on the way in which the play had been created. In failing to do this true nature of the achievement escaped the reviewers, like a butterfly from a net.

After the Stellar Quines Theatre Company commissioned Adams, she began researching the characters and the gardens upon which it was suggested the play should be based. She quickly found that there were myriad ideas and several interlinking themes, swimming around in her own head, and in the writings and words of her subjects. How to connect them in a way that made sense?

Collaborating with the design and multimedia production company Fifty Nine, Adams found that existing Internet authoring technology could be adapted to her needs. As the characters’ words were typed into the computer, so too were the links between the scenes, and ‘core texts’ to which they referred.

Many scenes in Adams’ earlier work are characterised by a certain antagonism to linearity, with the various characters’ words and worlds overlapping and mirroring one-another, creating what may be described as a symphony of speech. Just like a musical composition, the individual instruments (in this case, human voices) are each a part of a greater whole. The Internet (or more specifically the HTML pages that may also be viewed on a computer without an online connection) provided a much better medium with which to generate this sort of writing. Overlapping and concurrent scenes may be presented just so. If a character repeats a refrain from an earlier scene, well, that scene with all its richness may be ‘linked’ to its counterpart in the later acts.

Of course, once the non-linearity of the medium became apparent to the playwright, the proverbial floodgates proverbially opened. If one were not constrained by notions of ‘before-and-after’ or ‘here-and-there’ (just like the fictional, fairy-tale characters, and just like our imaginations), why stay in one time, or one place? Presented with an entirely new method of writing plays, Judith Adams presented an entirely new type of play. Worlds collide. One word shoots a fountain of others in all directions. Embracing the medium, the playwright created scenes that did not require a place in a linear narrative.

Video was introduced as a means by which a character could physically exist in more than one place. Moreover, in this context of suppression and dominion, video also represented an alternative mental space.

A web of stories

Taking stock, then: The play that appeared as a scruffy CD-ROM in the hands of director Muriel Romanes was text based, but non linear. The constituent parts of the script (I hesitate to call them pages) existed in their very own piece of cyber space, one that neither preceded nor succeeded any other. They therefore made as much sense when put in one order, as they did in another. This matters, because non-linearity better reflects the human mind, thoughts, history. We are constantly affected by the actions of others, and each thought (indeed, each life) is affected not by one, but several narratives that have gone before. A scene has two meanings, one for each character. A scene may have two meanings, depending on what has preceded it. There is circularity to our lives and our history that is ideally represented by a non-linear medium.

Let it not be said that Sweet Fanny Adams has no discipline, or that the scenes are ordered without thought. A finite number of carefully considered words make up the text. No more may be added. In this way, the play is like any other. Eventually, a certain order was imposed on the piece so that it could be presented to actors and then used in physical rehearsals (Eight or more Palm-top computers were not available at the time). Fifty Nine used computer modelling to determine which combinations of scenes were possible in Pitlochry. The proposed order was carefully considered, with the writer, director and production team examining its implications, and the interpretations of the story that were likely to be inferred as a result of the imposition.

However, devising this order did seem a betrayal, and alteration of the piece. Clicking ‘print’ and creating a paper version was an act of adaptation, moving the composition out of its natural environment. While the audience were ultimately allowed to choose an order for the scenes themselves (and therefore the performance changed for them, depending on their whims and preconceptions), their choices were nevertheless limited to those possible within the space and time of the performance for which they had bought a ticket.

The current proposals, submitted to the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) and Arts Council England (Yorkshire), push this audience interaction a stage further. They suggest the creation of an online version of the performance with specially recorded scenes. In this way, they seek to return Sweet Fanny Adams to is natural habitat. There in cyber space, each performance will be unique for each audience member. Indeed, the audience member becomes an important character in the play. They take over the role of Smith the Showman, who gives voices to, and then silences, the women he keeps under surveillance. That the audience may take on this role is the mark of true interactivity, something that only the Internet may deliver. So far as text-based performance goes, it is very rare for a play to even acknowledge the existence of an audience, let alone allow the character of the audience member to influence and bend the proceedings, according to that character. Even in Pitlochry and especially on the Internet, Sweet Fanny Adams achieves both these things.

The actors, their characters, and the audience

Leaving aside the creation of Sweet Fanny Adams in Hyperspace Eden, there is a second important point about the structure of the piece. This was very pertinent in the case of the Pitlochry performance. Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden requires of the actor a whole new type of text based performance, a subtly different type of acting that not all can master. The Pitlochry performance literally redefined what it meant to develop a character. On successive nights, the actors rediscovered what the website had demonstrated all along  that their words could be delivered in any order. Towards the end of the run (when usually the actors might be settling into a tiresome repetition, with one eye on their next audition) the Pitlochry cast were inventing entirely new scenes, and thus finding new meanings in the play, new insights into their characters. Crucially, this was not improvisation, because what could and could not be said had been clearly defined by the writer some months before, and rehearsed during the previous fortnight. Instead, they evolved scenes that revealed secrets about the world of Sweet Fanny Adams that even the writer had not consciously understood. The four-week run allowed the kind of character development that is not possible in media other than theatre, and rarely explored in conventional (linear) theatre. It was the unique construction of the script online that gave the actors the confidence and inspiration to play, create, and innovate in this way.

While Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden is conventionally entertaining, with a set of strong characters, and Fairy Tale themes given a defiant twist, it is nevertheless the method of its creation that sets it apart. This piece simply could not have been created before the advent of HTML language, and not practically before the introduction of web authoring tools (such as Adobe GoLive). It is one of the few examples of Internet technology being used as a medium for creation in itself, rather than as a substitute for the page or the TV screen. It is thus quintessentially of its time. Furthermore, it has inspired new techniques for actors, and presented an entirely new form of performance art to the audiences of Scotland. Back in cyber-space, it will bring this new art to the rest of the world.

The word for today is meme…

An old letter to a sibling, part of a word game we played for a while. Thinking about God is the ultimate meme-bomb.

An old letter to a sibling, part of a word game we played for a while. Added here for convenience. I do realise that ‘meme’ is a well known phrase online, often referring to those online questionnaires which purport to read your soul, and categorise you into one of twelve easy soundbites. I prefer memes in their covert forms, ideas with a momentum of their own. That is when they are at their most potent, and their most fascinating.

The word for today is meme, pronounced ‘meem’. A meme is an infectious idea. The best adverts are memes. Charismatic politicians use them. They plant a word, a phrase, or a concept into your head, and it circles around and around like an eel swimming in a pond. Eventually, they hope, the phrase that they have planted becomes some sort of truth for you. You believe what they have told you. Other memes of this kind tend to be songs, the kind that you hear on the radio in the morning, and find yourself singing, or whistling at work. If, at the end of the day, your friends and colleagues have begun to hum the same tune, you know you have a meme on your hands and you would do well to sing some other song, just to be rid of it.

The memes that burn themselves onto your brain in that way are the very obvious kind. They do nothing but annoy you. More powerful are the subliminal memes – the kinds they use in the most sophisticated adverts. They need not show anything more than their logo in a certain situation, for us to associate the two. Before we know it we actually believe that the swoosh makes us more athletic, or the golden arches make us better parents. Memes can be very sinister things, more harmful than drugs because once infected, there is no comedown, no hangover that sobers you up. They stay.

Thankfully, memes can be altered once they are inside you. Culture-jamming is the art of fucking with other people’s logos (I have a McShit™ t-shirt). You take their idea, twist it, and then send it back into society. Your idea hooks onto the back of theirs, and wherever the multi-million pound logo travels, hopefully your idea will too. You plant a seed, which flowers inside others.

One day, when humanity progresses, we will still have conflict. But instead of catapulting vast quantities of ordinance into random market squares, as we seem to be doing at the moment, maybe we will engage in meme-warfare. Thousands of egg-heads will be employed in the bowels of the Pentagon, devising the most fiendish meme possible. When they have it, they will encode it into an innocent turn of phrase, or maybe a child-like picture, and send a lone agent provocateur behind enemy lines to set it off. If you give a computer a sum that works out at infinity, it will cause an internal error and stop working. Likewise, once a meme has been set off inside a military or economic unit, that unit will cease to function and collapse from within. Tell one person in Basra or Tikrit that Saddam Hussein wears a nappy to bed, and three weeks later you find the entire Iraqi government collapses without a shot fired.

The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote an amazing story called ‘The Zahir’. It is only nine pages long. Apparently, the Zahir is the name Argentines give to an ordinary coin, and the narrator receives one in his change, in a bar. Inexplicably, he finds himself captivated by the coin, until he can think of nothing else. He remembers that in India, Zahir means ‘Tiger’, and that there was a legend about a man who spotted a magical tiger, could think of nothing else, and ended up painting tigers all over the walls of his cell in the lunatic asylum! The Zahir is a destructive meme. (Borges thinks that by thinking of the Zahir you will eventually learn a truth about God – and trying to think about God is the ultimate meme-bomb).

So, memes are like viruses. They grow and germinate inside one head, and then they work their way out of one mind, through the lips or maybe through a pen, and into another mind through the eyes and ears. I like to imagine that ideas are in fact alive. They feed on brain cells and breed. When two ideas – memes – meet, and argument ensues between their hapless human hosts. If two memes meet inside a brain, well, their battle is your insomnia.

I love the thought that memes could be another type of life. But the thought that amuses me most is this: the idea of memes… is a meme itself! Ever since a friend of mine mentioned the word to me some weeks ago in a pub, I have been thinking about them, passing the idea on to those who will listen. When it came to sit down and write about a word for you, o best beloved, there was really no other choice I could make.

Has Democracy Failed?

Deomcracy is no longer the sheild of diversity, but a tool of homogenisation

First published in The LIP magazine, February 2003


 

Democracy should be the champion of diversity. The word conjures in our minds the image of a Greek city state, where each citizen has his own, considered and educated opinion. They talk, they listen, and then they vote. A decision prevails, and we progress.

However, some things have happened to our world over the past thousand years. First, the democratic system has been clogged by the powerful and the ignorant, who are often the same people. The economic system, however amoral, has allowed some people to buy louder opinions. Second, we have created an education system that manages to yield citizens who have no discernable opinions of their own, nor the tools of imagination, inquiry and logic that will allow them to form some.

Now, then, the ‘tyranny of the majority’ has become manifest. Instead of a constant stream of dialogue between people and between groups, we have a partially-elective oligarchy that itself exists only to influence the opinion of a single mind. If that mind is already made up, all dialogue is pointless.

Other opinions are voiced, but even if they are heard the very nature of the system ensures they cannot be heeded. Democracy has switched sides, and instead of being the shield of diversity, it has become the tool of homogenisation. We have a rubbish excuse for democracy, and it is not something to be valued, or fought for.

The politics surrounding the war in Iraq, and the protests against it, illustrate these points—if we have to resort to massive direct action, why have democracy? Our opinions count for nothing, because those who didn’t have an opinion at election time are happy to let the oligarchy think for them now.

What has been forgotten at every level of the debate is that democracy should be more than just voting for a president. ‘Democracy’ in Zimbabwe means just that, and it has created grotesque results. In Iraq we send our brothers and sisters to kill and to die in their thousands, in the name of that same confused ideal. We do not know what we are fighting for, and so our humanity is eroded in the deserts of Arabia.

What is to be done, then? Democracy should be reclaimed. Once again, it should be about engaging in rational, critical and political discourse at every level, not just in Westminster and Washington. Debate should not be run by the national media but by every group of people in the country. The group of souls who label themselves students are not doing this, despite being seeped in the diverse and many subjects they study. This is shameful. Only when democracy has be reclaimed, and real plurality of thought is really considered, can true diversity flourish.

We cannot ask for a simple paradigm shift. Such a change in the way we conduct our lives, our interactions, will take generations. But the seeds must be planted now, for our grandchildren will reap what we sow. This is our project, and with this modest offering it begins.

Humane Being?

Narrow minded people damn our species

The asylum issue has been marred by groups of people who simply have a narrow perspective on the nature of the world. They see the problem in a typically Anglo-centric fashion, never stopping to consider what is happening in countries that are not their own. It is this narrow-mindedness that is damning the human race as a species.

We can talk about the economic implications of the asylum problem all we like. Critics of the government, and indeed those actually making the decisions, consider only the ‘pull’ factors, the reason people come to this country. They suggest we are a soft touch, that we house them, give them benefits, and this is damaging the economy of this green and pleasant land.

No-one ever stops to consider the ‘push’ factors, the reasons people bother to emigrate in suffocating containers or freezing cargo trains. Why on earth would anyone endure thousands of miles of hunger and abuse to live in an alien place where language, customs and culture are hostile? The reasons are obvious, and many. Widespread poverty, soaring violent crime, economic mismanagement on the part of their own government, stellar inflation, institutional corruption, natural disasters, sub-standard water, zero health-care, zero social security, zero secondary education, low life expectancy, poor civil rights for women, sexual assault, AIDS. And these are in ‘stable’ countries without a civil war.

Why do the selfish anti-immigration campaigners not perceive the wider world? We humans must accept our embarrassing truth, that most countries are shit-holes for most people. Until we, fellow homo sapiens of the West who have won the birth lottery, make serious efforts to help the developing world industrialise, economic migrants will try and get into our country by any method they can. And who can blame them? Who can deny them that essential human trait—of desperately trying to make your life bearable. Would you not do the same?

In the meantime, we have to accept that dealing with immigrants will cream a percentage of our taxes off the top of the Treasury pot. And gee shucks, the trains might well be late, again. That is the price we must pay for living as privileged, Platinum-Plus humans.

Stephen of The Trains

Perhaps he sees ringtones as the purest, tightest form there is, where the composers have to work with only eight notes?

All vagrants have their haunts and their tasks, which they pursue like Tantalus. Most will wander around a particular district of the city, though some will haunt the sewers and crypts below. One or two men walk the earth, preaching their crazy philosophies, selling their crude drawings and foil sculptures, or maybe urging people to repent before tomorrow’s Armageddon.

Stephen wanders around train stations some of the time, but most of the time he will be found on a train. I first met him on the long haul down to Exeter one spring afternoon in 99, but since then I have seen him on a couple of suburban services out of Victoria, and once, I think, getting off a train at Derby. A good friend of mine claims, astonishingly, to have seen him in the restaurant car of the Glasgow sleeper.

Stephen does not sit down when he gets one the train. Or rather, he does sit down, but not immediately. He roams the carriages, back and forth, searching out the person he is destined to meet. Sometimes he will make several passes before he finds the seat he is looking for.

And then a mobile phone rings.

When the shrill tones chime throughout the compartment, Stephen will settle himself down next to the phone user, the callee, and begin singing the mobile phone he has just heard. I guess this must be rather boring for him most of the time, singing in a literal monotone, although in my case (oh yes, I was one of them) he got to sing the first eight bars of the Imperial March by John Williams.

I kept the encounter of this strange man to myself for a few years, until I overheard someone else on a train telling their neighbour about this man, whom they had also encountered. I could not resist changing seats and joining the conversation, and it was there that I learnt Stephen’s name. As soon as I got home I wrote a letter to the Times newspaper concerning him, and received several replies from those who have been disconcerted by his impromptu appearance and performance in reaction to their mobile ring-tone.

The sub-community of people who have met him has grown, and there are several theories as to why Stephen has embarked on this mission. Some people with little imagination suggest that the ring-tones are so annoying that he has been sent mad, and his odyssey is an active protest. This does not sway me. Such a person would engage with his victims, shout at them, or at least explain his motives. Stephen simply sits down, sings in pure tenor, and leaves as soon as the call has been completed, leaving the person in a state of bewilderment.

Others suggest, cynically, that Stephen is actually twenty or so people, secretly employed by the rail companies to prevent people using mobile phones on trains. This is ridiculous, because the companies would never have the imagination, nor would they spend that sort of money on a hair-brained scheme. Furthermore, I have corresponded with several people (some might call them fans or followers) who all describe Stephen in the same way, a description in keeping with my own encounter: Long hair, big nose, bow tie. He is only one person, of that I am sure.

My own theory is that he is a music lover, and sees the tones as a simple form of the art. Perhaps he sees the rings as the purest, tightest form there is, where the composers have to work with only eight notes (nine if you include the silence) and five lengths of time from the brieve to the semi-quaver, and his mission is to seek out masterpieces within the theme. Or perhaps, which is the more likely alternative in my opinion, he loathes Nokia’s rape of Beethoven’s Seventh.

And I am left with a dilemma. Do I turn off my telephone when I board a train? I still find it very hard to do so, despite my former embarrassment at the hands and vocal chords of this enigma. I think that if my telephone rings, then perhaps a man in a bow tie will come lumbering down the aisle, and I may see him again, and ask him what he is doing. I have a notion that to switch of my telephone is to deprive Stephen of his work, to deny him fulfilment.

I find myself taking the train more often nowadays, even if it is inconvenient and expensive to do so. I wear a bow tie when I travel, and always carry my telephone in my top pocket, ready to ring. One day it will do so, and Stephen will be there, singing beside me.

The Case For War

If your opponent creates the rules of the game, he will win and you will lose. If you let the opposition frame the debate, the argument is all but lost.

War looms. The troops have been shipping out to the Persian Gulf for months. Now we wonder whether to provide Turkey with the protection it will surely need. The US Secretary of State asks for a second resolution that will sanction war, apparently blind to the fact that the institution he addresses, the United Nations, has its days as an effective organisation well and truly numbered. Our Prime Minister attacks us for marching against him.

The tide turns in their favour because the diplomats who matter all play the Hawks’ game by the Hawks’ rules. Only one rule matters: It is up to the anti-war lobby to prove its case. Unless a decisive and watertight argument against the war is presented, Iraq gets levelled by the twenty-fourth.

We all know how terrible a war is. We have seen the pictures on TV, in our newspapers. War truly must be the last resort, the action we take when we know that beyond reasonable doubt, all else has failed. War is so terrible, the burden of proof must always rest with those who wage it. This must be a fundamental of human politics.

As soon as the ball returns to their court, the confusion of Hawks’ case is apparent: The link between Al Q’aeda and Saddam is hearsay. The link between the CIA and both is not in question. The weapons of mass destruction have not yet materialised. Hans Blix criticises Colin Powell’s attempt to mimic Stevenson. Hans asks for more time to carry out his task.

UN sanctions have strengthened Saddam. Sanctions have killed children, and war will kill some more. Anti-Americanism (however misplaced) will increase in aftermath of an invasion which is seen as blatant imperialism by many. And at the back of our minds, we know that Bush and Cheney are both ‘oil men’ waging war against the country with the fourth most abundant supply of oil in the world.

Finally, they shout Fourteen Forty-One, and we retort with Two Forty Two.

There has been no vote in the House of Commons. The case for war has not yet been proven. We are not just on shaky ground – we are sitting on the moral equivalent of the San Andreas fault.

Despite this, we have been watching our soldiers head Eastwards, and we have come to realise that none of this matters. We are incredulous, that with so many questions to be answered, a decision has already been made… last summer. This amazement, at the complete lack of mature dialogue, is what inspired hundreds of thousands of people to walk down Piccadilly on 15th February.

We are angry that our government has not addressed any of the issues, which buzz around this war like flies around a corpse. And just like the corpse, the case for war stinks.

But somehow, we find ourselves in a situation where it is up to the peaceniks to justify their case, not the governments who wish to attack! George Bush has led the debate, and formed the rules in his own image: irrational, and leaning towards revenge. We will go to war, and it will be terrible.

How to be multicultural?

Religious beliefs have the same status in logical argument as the parents who shout, “Because I said so!” at their children.

It is very easy to say that you are pro-multicultural. Politicians, religious leaders, journalists, all declare that they are in favour of diversity. And yet, they all, each and every one, have their own personal faith, that is almost always at odds with everyone else’s. How can we respect and tolerate someone, if our own beliefs are contradictory to theirs? If this question is not answered, then all talk of cultural diversity is meaningless.

Imagine three guys sitting around a table during freshers’ week (that’s shouldn’t be too hard). During their opening chit-chats, it becomes apparent that they have different faiths. One is Christian, another is a Jew… the third declares he is an atheist. During their discussions, the following beliefs emerge:

The Christian believes that Jesus Christ was the Son of God; The Jew believes that God exists, but Jesus was not His son; and the atheist believes that there are no gods.

These are three mutually exclusive viewpoints. They cannot be held simultaneously. No one knows who of the three is right, but we can be certain that at least two of them are wrong. Two of the eager students are embarking on a university career, their entire belief system based on falsehood. Is it not doublethink to respect faiths and religions, when we know that the great majority of them (including, probably, our own) must be completely wrong?

The problem with this stance, trivially correct though it may be, is that it focuses on the central tenets of a particular belief. This does not advance our understanding, nor does it help us when we realise we have to live next door to these people. We must recognise that everyone has to put blind, illogical faith in something. Even the atheist has to bridge a gap of logic if he is to believe that no gods exist. These beliefs have the same status in logical argument as the parents who shout, “Because I said so!” at their children.

What is open to discussion, however, is how those tenets effect the way people lead their lives. For example, to Christians, the most important thing about Jesus Christ is that he died and was resurrected for the sins of humanity. For non-Christians, i.e. most people, the love and forgiveness Jesus is said to have preached, and that their Christian neighbours try and do the same.

There is a challenge therefore, which extends to any group of people and not just the religions used in the example above. The challenge is to show the rest of the world how they approach life, how they treat fellow humans, based upon whatever traditions and tenets they subscribe to. (This is a particular challenge for atheists, who have to explain how they live without recourse to an ancient text). Explaining your moral system to others is interesting, rational, and most importantly it allows us to form a consensus with other cultures, on what exactly those morals shall be. Mutual respect all around the table.

Simon Schama suggests how we should conduct our political discourse:

Put another way, the fight is between power based on revelation (and thus not open to argument), and power based on persuasion, and thus conditional on argument; militant theocracy against the tolerant Enlightenment.

Competing groups may follow their own traditions and code as they interact with others, but at no point must they use their own articles of faith as a reason for political action. “We have the right to do this, because God says so” is an irrational argument and will not wash in polite debate. Sadly, many politicians on the international scene use this sort of rhetoric, over and over again. We know who they are and we should ask them to stop, because then we might be able to have a proper conversation.