Abolish the Cross of St George

Prison officers have been banned from wearing St George flag tie-pins. Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, suggested that the symbol could be misconstrued by Muslim or Arab prisoners… because the St George cross was a symbol of the crusaders. (via Popinjays and drunken blogging).

Another classic case of people not thinking things through before they try to help. Their statements are problematic in so many ways.

The first mistake is to equate an individual with the institution. A prison officer wearing a St George tie-pin (for cancer research, by the way) is not the same as the institution endorsing the crusades. Likewise, a teacher who wears a hijab does not convert the whole school to Islam.

Second, cultural symbols have different meanings depending on the person who chooses to wear them. One woman’s proof of mysoginy, is another’s statement of modesty. One man’s blood-stained crusade memorabilia, is another man’s gentle nod to Freddie Flintoff. In this sense, the St George Cross represents the corinthian values of friendship and fair play. If someone claims to be wearing the cross for those reasons, they should be granted the benefit of the doubt.

Take these thoughts a stage further, and they become more controversial. While we should allow badges to take on a personal meaning for the individual who displays them, symbols which represent a country or a community must have a shared meaning, and that meaning should be something that the entire population can subscribe to.

To emphasise the point, I must draw attention to a common flaw of logic, which ascribes attributes of the majority of citizens, to the country itself. Its an easy shorthand, but when we discuss national identity, it is unhelpful and wrong.

When Anne Winterton MP was condemned for saying she was ‘thankful’ that Britiain was predominantly white and Christian, she was condemned as a racist. At Clive Davis’ blog, Laban Tall said:

… would you consider a Kenyan pleased that his country was black, or a Jordanian proud of his Arab nation, to be loathsome?

My response was to agree: If we want to condemn Anne Winterton’s attitude, then perhaps we do indeed have to condemn a Kenyan’s pride in “black” or a Jordanian’s pride in “Arab”. They are welcome to take pride in their own ethnicity, but should they be ascribing that ethnicity to their whole country? Describing a whole country as “white” or “black” is an arrogant anthropomorphism on the part of the majority group. Calling a country “white” or “black”, I said, is certainly not referring to a country’s soil, trees, or borders… so it seems to be inherently racist to those individuals with the minority complexion.

Labelling a country Christian falls into similar discriminatory problems. According to the 2001 UK census, 72% of people claim to be Christian. This means that there are vast swathes of the population who are not Christian. Since church attendance in the UK is only 7%, and since parents respond to the census on behalf of their children, I would suggest that the proportion is much higher than the 28% yeilded of the census.

The numbers are not really the point, however. Even if there was only one non-Christian in an entire country, it would still be discriminatory and offensive to ascribe a religion to that country. A state is a different thing to its citizens. It is certainly not the sum of its parts. Calling the UK a Christian country is preposterous and wrong. It is therefore ridiculous that our national flags should be Christian crosses. These symbols co-opt millions of people into an ideology which they categorically reject.

So it is with other countries: Abolish the Scottish Saltire and redesign the Union-Jack; pull the asymetrical crosses off the Scandanavian flags; yes, pull the crescent moon off flags from Mauritania to Malaysia; and yes, pull the Star of David from the flag of Israel. I have no quarrel with Christian states, Islamic States and the Jewish State, save to say that they are figments of the imagination, which are an insult to demography and democracy. Let the individuals practice religion freely, and let them display the symbols that their conscience dictate. But let the state and its badges be secular and inclusive.

Back in the UK, a man is formally scolded for wearing a national symbol, in support of a cancer charity. But the suggestion that we change the national symbols themselves is met with a silent dismissal. Paradoxically, the one place where the St George cross should not be – up our flag poles – has become the only place where it is still acceptable.

Royal Mile Pub

So there I am enjoying listening to the folk musician, when suddenly my view is blocked by a group of tourists posing for a photograph. They are Swedish, but that is incidental. When they group together for the portrait, they wait until the distinctive red-eye flicker betrays the imminent shutter release, and then they pull a series of mirth-inducing expressions. One sticks his tongue out, another gives some sort of thumb-and-pinkie rock gesture, while a third opens her mouth really, really wide. They lean against one another.

Once the flash has been and gone, they inspect the staged chaos on the LCD screen and chuckle over their antics. Then their expressions return to normal, and they look back at the musician.

“Hey man, its easier to smile than it is to frown, you know!”

Just because I am not smiling, it does not mean that inside me, my heart does not leap with joy.

Mixing the teams up

Its a shame when you miss a post and the associated discussion first time around. Last month Minority Report bravely tackled the sticky subject of inter-racial breeding in Mixing the teams up.

A telling point halfway down:

Recently, a popular stress on cultural identity, has worked to apply fresh paint on racial boundaries.

This reminds me of an article I read recently. A argument against inter-racial relationships, by a mixed-race American who married a white woman, is surely worth a read. Dell Gines post (found via Clive Davis and Booker Rising) asserts that since the pool of eligible black males has decreased in the USA due to social problems within those communities, if a white woman dates/marries one such eligible black man, she is reducing that pool even further. Black women are of course free to date white guys, but in both cases, the end result is the decrease of the black community. The erosion of the black community is a negative effect of all this.

My response is to reiterate that cultures are not fixed. They change and evolve over the generations. Black culture is certainly to be respected, but can and should it be preserved? (The same, of course, may be asked of white culture). The answer to all these questions is “probably not!” Even if the insidious eugenics proposed by Gines were employed, and a black racial purity was preserved in the USA, the black culture itself would change anyway. So why not accept this, and let black and white cultures merge with each other? As the author Hanif Kureishi suggests, multiculturalism is the idea that “purity is incestuous”. That cultures change into something else is not necessarily a cause for concern.

Revolution now, stasis later?

That the Internet is a radical innovation, on a par with the Printing Press, is an oft-repeated mantra, and with good reason. It excites me to think of these decades as a time that profoundly changes society, like the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century.

Jeremy Clarkson, of all people, made a very pertinent point on last week’s edition of Who Do You Think You Are? while he was slagging off enviornomentalists. Admiring the architecture in Huddersfield, he remarked that the industrial revoluton could not have occurred, had the environmental constraints we have today been in place 150 years ago.

So it is with other regulations such as town planning. I was in Glenrothes earlier this week, where the post-war new town atmosophere seems soulless and homogenised. Its all roundabouts. What a relief to return to the mangle of buildings that make up Edinburgh’s Old Town, where ancient buildings, subjected to countless ad hoc modifications and uses, give it charatcter and keep it alive. I would never seek to now abolish town planning or building regulations… but part of me yearns for a time of rapid change and progress.

This is why I am drawn online. It is interesting to watch new online societies, like The Committee To Protect Bloggers, at their fledgeling stage, and to see blogging standards and web ethics evolve. We are still in the innovating, barnstorming phase of this technology, and the rules for its proper use, its ‘best practice’ are being hastily scribbled out. I am glad I am here, and participating. In 150 years, will the codes of practice now being devised be entrenched? Will the standards and methodologies be codified and fixed? Perhaps our sites will need a licence, planning permission, and a signature from the ever-so-expensive Institute of Chartered Web Designers?

Crazy Creationists

I am not sure whether I am more scared of a British Police State, or an American Religious one. In the same five minute bulletin, I also heard that eleven parents in Pennsylvania USA are suing their school board, which has decreed that since evolution is just a “theory” it must be taught as such in schools, and only presented alongside alternative theories such as “intelligent design”, a form of creationism.

I continue to be both annoyed and puzzled by the shallowness of the “intelligent design” lobbyists, for a number of reasons. Why do they find evolution so offensive? What is wrong with being descended from monkeys anyway? I think it is demeaning to suggest that we simply appeared, perfectly formed, from the dust. I am not a clay model like Morph. The evolutionary struggle gives us a nobility, a triumph against ridiculous odds. How fantastic it is to believe in a theory which says that over the millenia, my ancestors evolved slowly from the trees, to the point where I can now be talking to the world from a laptop computer… And what rapture when I realise that despite the arbitrary and unjust nature of evolution, my genes and I have had the good fortune to succeed!

Why God cannot be described as a force of nature, or indeed the architect of the laws of Physics, has never been fully explained to me. For an omnipotent God, that should be a bagatelle! If one persists in beleiving in a God of the Abrahamic (i.e. Jewish/Christian/Islamic) ilk, then surely She would have the power to kick-start evolution at the beginning of the Earth. Since God is outside of time, She would presumably have the foresight of everything and everyone, including you, me, and Charles Darwin.

Why undermine the science that has introduced us to the idea of adaption, and therefore why species may become ‘endangered’? Why undermine the science that allows us to understand and cure genetic diseases?

Geologists deny that the earth created in six days. They say it is 4.55 billion years old. Are their theories criticised too? And if so, should we listen to what they have to say about volcanos, earthquakes, and tsunami?

Even if evolution is a theory, it is by the far the most rigorous we have. While we know we have not described the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about evolution, there is huge intellectual gulf between a few paragraphs in Genesis, and the mountains of peer reviewed experiments and tests that together make up the cannon of evolutionary theory. Let Genesis into science labs, and you may as well let in the Spaggeti Monster, and the Fundamentalist Aesopians. Its enough to make you tune in to MC Hawking.

Update: I found a quote from W.N.P. Barbellion:

I take a jealous pride in my Simian ancestry. I like to think that I was once a magnificent hairy fellow living in the trees and that my frame has come down through geological time via sea jelly and worms and Amphioux, Fish, Dinosaurs and Apes. Who would exchange these for the pallid couple in the Garden of Eden?

Crazy Congress

Competing with the news of high-jinx at the UK Labour party conference is the story that Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) has been indicted on charges of electoral corruption. He allegedly channelled illegal corporate donations to Republican candidates for the Texas legislature. The plot thickens when we discover that his accuser, attorney Ronnie Earle, is a Deomocrat.

Is there a case to answer, or are these political manoeverings? Both men seemed pretty earnest and pretty dour on the news bulletins, so I don’t know who to believe. This seems another classic case where the benefit of the doubt will be given to those who’s political opinions match your own. I confidently predict Clive’s excellent blog will come down in favour of Rep. DeLay – at least for now.

I would of course feel the schadenfreude if the accusations to be true, as it would reinforce my long held suspicions of US Republicans, and would undoubtedly harm the party’s chances in forthcoming elections. However, there is a chance that the allegations will not hold up to scrutiny, which would be a terrible thing for the Democratic cause. Good will only be done if justice prevails, of course.

Crazy Conference

I turn my back for a moment, and the world goes crazy. All I did was watch The Ring Two for an hour or so, and three crazy events have hit the headlines at once.

First, we hear that an 82 year old man has been ejected from the Labour Party Conference for heckling Jack Straw over Iraq. Now I welcome this sort of vocal exhibition of democratic rights, prompted by the party’s failure to have a proper, cathartic debate about this problem at any point in the past two and a half years. However, I do understand the need to keep some sort of decorum: noise-mongers should be ejected.

What is totally unacceptable is the idea that terrorism laws were used to prevent the pensioner from returning to the conference! Need I ask what threat this man posed? Terrorism powers should be used sparingly, on the basis of evidence gathered carefully and methodically by the security forces. Applying them to what was obviously nothing more than a public order issue is dangerous, offensive, and bordering on the totalitarian.

Stressing Similarities

Integration won’t work, when community leaders are always stressing the differences. So says Sunny, the editor at Pickled Politics. Finding common ground, and treating each other with much more than just “toleration” is the whole point of multiculturalism. It is not simply a case of living side-by-side without interaction.

I would have thought that an artwork which emphasised the similarity between the three Abrahamic faiths would be welcomed by Britain’s top art gallery… but apparently this not so. John Latham’s God Is Great has been banned by some reactionaries at Tate Britain because it features slightly damaged Holy Books. It was anticipated that someone might complain, so I suppose it is a pre-emptive reaction against the reactionaries! If pressure groups can affect change without actually saying anything, then clearly they do have the influence that Pickled Politics ascribes to them.

Against Homogenisation

In recent days, a few media outlets have mentioned the amusing The Meaning of Tingo. It is a compendium of words from other languages that name rather specific or complicated concepts, that have no English counterpart. My favourite is Backpfeifengesicht, “A face that cries out for a fist in it.”

The preservation of languages is the first front in the battle against homogenisation. People who speak in a different way also think in a subtly different way too. For example, there is a real conceptual difference between “I had a dream” and the French “J’ai fait un reve” (which means “I made a dream”).

We need these alternative ways of thinking, in politics and art. They can remind us that things may not always be what we preceive them to be, and they can help us solve problems.

Running Amok/Ambling Along

Bridge, by Tommy Perman

I recently attended the opening of Running Amok/Ambling Along, an exhibition by a friend and colleague of mine, Tommy Perman. His work centres around the idea of urban spaces, and how mandkind interacts with these environments.

At the event I was reminded of the organic nature of cities. I am entertained the thought of one set of people building something; then some other people extending it in a different archtectural style; and yet some more people knocking half the walls to reuse the space for something else. These mutated forms are what humanity has created as a collective, over centuries. They are as much a part of our history as the perfectly preserved stately homes under the control of Historic Scotland and English Heritage.

I enjoy revelling in these thoughts when I look at the antiquated prints one finds on the walls of pubs (which are themselves buildings that have gone through many uses and users). I like picking out the landmarks which remain, and the features which have been pushed aside due to the march of progress.

I see Tommy’s drawing in this tradition. Perhaps future generations will look at them, then close their eyes, and try to imagine what life was like in the twenty-first century, “the olden days”.