Linklog and blog strategy

Browsing the net, its clear that people use their blogs for different things. Some are very personal diaries, some are more true to the etymology of ‘weblog’, and use it as a log of places they’ve visited.

I don’t have the time to be as prolific as some of the other sites on my blog-roll, for whom delivering five or six posts per day is the norm. So I like the majority of my posts to be substantial things, with my own addition to the debate… rather than simply a sign-post to other sites. Hopefully this will be more engaging for the readers I am lucky enough to get. It’s a strategy of sorts, to ensure that I retain as many of the people who bookmark my RSS feed as I can.

However, I have been feeling guilty that I cannot pass on the the many bizarre websites I find, and that I do not ‘flag up’ those posts that other bloggers have put a great deal of thought and effort into creating. To this end, I have taken inspiration from QWGHLM and put a linklog on the site. By showcasing some of the sites and articles I find interesting, it should give visitors a small insight into my interests and political views, without the narcissism of posting about myself on the main blog!

Still a long way to go

A great day for democray? Iraq votes in a Shia coalition, and commentators hail the increase in participation from the Sunni minority.

The concept of a country voting along ethnic lines makes me uneasy. Is it not analagous to a UK general election with the English Party winning a majority over the Welsh Party and the Scottish Party? (With pundits revelling in the fact that the Scots have at least participated this time, the miserable gits).

It is seen as a positive step that the Kurdish and Sunni minorities both won a significant number of seats, which should stabilise the country. We hear precious little of ideology. How did the raving communists fare against the slimy fascists? That’s what I would like to know.

Is a country that could spill into civil war at any moment a democracy? Its not so much voting, as lining up two gangs to see which is bigger. Is a country that votes strictly along ethnic lines a democracy? It seems more like nationwide nepotism.

All in the definition

Thrice now, I’ve argued against something by saying that the definition used by the other person is simply, trivially, wrong.

I have also spent quite a lot of time, online and offline arguing that if a person who calls himself a Muslim does something non-Islamic, like comitting public suicide, then it is unfair to label his Muslim brothers and sisters with the same, bloody brush.

Arguments over definitions make up a great deal of political debate. Understanding that other people define things differently and have a different set of presumptions, is essential for empathising with someone’s point of view. This is also why learning alternative languages is so important.

Please do not mistake this for yet another post about reconcilliation and co-operation. Comprehending how other people define their terms is also crucial when engaging in debate with them. Many people, on both the left and right, begin their argument from such a disparate starting point to their opponent, that they barely convince anyone but themselves. The result that only people who already agree with the author are persuaded by the argument. I think this is why columnists such as Polly Toynbee and Melanie Phillips are so divisive – they are both of the “you either love them or you hate them” school of journalism.

So much of the fisking I read online also falls into this trap too. No-one else is persuaded, least of all the supporters of the alternative point of view. The debate becomes a shouting match, and nothing of interest is achieved.

Paedophiles should computer-generate their objects of lust

Protecting children from paedophiles is in the news again, when it transpired that a few gentlemen with crimminal backgrounds had been cleared by the Home Secretary to work in schools. Two men had be caught possessing indecent images of children. Another had been convicted of indencent assault of a 15 year-old girl.

Personally, I think these cases are pretty clear cut. All men have committed not just a sex crime, but one that involves children. However, it is the way we treat people with paedophillic tendencies that I would like to comment on here. Once more, it is the nature of these men and their fetishes that is being discussed. Howard Jacobson went so far as to suggest that all teachers are weird, and that being a pervert is almost a prerequisite for working in a PE department.

But should being a paedophile per se be banned? That is, should harbouring sexual desires for children be illegal? Even if one never acted upon it, and never, ever, exploited children through pornography? To paraphrase the Church of England: The crime is not the impulse, but acting upon it. In any case, banning the very thought would be impossible to police, impossible to eradicate. This is especially true these days, with atrocities like S-Club Juniors singing dance-hall classics such as Grandpa’s Secret Cuddles and Mommy, What’s All This Blood? (although I think that’s a B-side). It seems as though the sexualisation of our youth is complete.

Many types of fetish, kink and ‘deviance’ exist in the world, most of which centre around some sort of unconventional sexual partner: amputees, the elderly, the helpless, the dominant. If there exist people who get off on consuming their partners excrement (and there are plenty), then simply to be sexually attracted to pale young boys seems… well… unimaginative.

How then, to allow people the freedom to explore their sexuality, something they do not have total control over, without recourse to something that is harmful to others? It seems to me that if they had a moral way to do this, then threat they present to society at large could be diminished. Via Andrew Sullivan I found a fascinating picture, an entirely computer generated image of a woman. The photo-realism is quite astonishing. And it begsraises the question: If technology can create images so real, could it create pseudo-photographs of a more sexual nature? If paedophiles could view images that satisfy their desires, without harming one hair (or indeed, synapse) of any child… where is the moral line, and have we crossed it?

Some might say that being this permissive will nevertheless encourage people to act upon their desires. However, computer games and films that regularly depict grotesque violence and murder, are commonplace. There are many people who use these offerings to relieve their agression and satisfy violent desires. Why not the same for sexual desires? Paedophilia is not the only perversion on the table: necrophilia, beastiality and the goulish Christina Aguilera are up for grabs too… although I have a notion that Christina may be computer-generated anyway.

(Very late) update

Child porn in cartoon style – man convicted

Randoll Coate – Labyrinthologist

ARCHITECT: Do I……?

LILY: What? What? (SHE GOES TO HIM) Go on. Try again. “Do I…”?

ARCHITECT: … have enough faith to design in yew?

BEAT

LILY: Design what in who?

GARDENER: Well sir. What I think: Up to you.

LILY: Me?

ARCHITECT (IGNORING HER): You have to wait so long for yew.

GARDENER: Worth it.

BEAT

ARCHITECT: In the end. But you’re never there to see it.

GARDENER: Takes a deal of philosophy.

SHOWMAN: Just a dash of imagination! Look.

– Judith Adams, Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden

I read with interest the obituaries of Randall Coate, who died in France, on 2nd December. A very good innings at 96, he seems to have lead one of those polymath lives that the obituary writers love so well. A spell at Oxford, a medalled war, a lengthy service in the foreign office, followed by a prolific career as a maze designer. He was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a friend of Jorge Luis Borges (whose collection of stories, Labyrinths, I have been extorting Biodun to read).

By far the best of the obituaries on Coate, is the one published in The Independent. This is undoubtedly because it is by Coate’s colleague and fellow Labyrinthologist, Adrian Fisher. The link inconveniently moves in to the premium section after three days, so here are the choice quotes:

He furthered the maze as a valid form of landscape art more than anyone had previously done. His maze designs abound with symbolism, from their outline shape and the internal patterns of paths and barriers, to numbers and proportions, hidden meanings, verbal allusions and puns.

His seventh rule [of Maze Design] stated: “Do not allow the cost of the maze to cloud your enjoyment of a creation which will bring pleasure to young and old for generations to come. You will have given our world of harsh reality and mindless speed a timeless oasis, a leisurely paradise, the substance of a dream.”

Moulded by the war, and allowed the luxury of travel through a world still under the influence of a waning empire. He seems the archetype of the sincere and unselfconscious intellectual, of the kind that does not seem to emerge any more. Even his name, Randoll Coate, seems to be from an age that has come to an end, replaced (as he predicts) by a world of commodified celebrities, and mindless speed.

Hoarding Magazines

Where does all this paper come from? Like Clive, I’ve being doing a spot of housekeeping – collecting together the vast piles of paper that have accumulated since I moved into my flat just over a year ago. From under the bed comes reams of catalogues, special offers and charitable calls to action that have fallen out of magazines and newspapers. Appallingly, I found a few New Statesman issues still mint in their polyethene wrapper, along with October’s National Geographic. They deliver their publications in a coarse brown packet, as if the journal has been despatched from some far flung part of the orient, rather than Surrey.

I’ve consolidated. No longer do magazines litter each corner of each room. Now, the copies of the New Statesman, a few random Prosepects, and a stray Spectator sit together in just one corner of one room, in one big and unmanageable tower. I still have several cuttings from The Times, and a couple of special reports from the Independent to file.

The packaging and loose adverts have been recycled, but I feel I should keep a hold of the magazines themselves. I do this not because I harbour some preposterous notion that I will, one day, actually go back and read what I have missed, but rather because I feel as if I am creating for myself a form of reference library. One of these days, I do not doubt that Ziaduinn Sardar’s analysis of progressive Islam will be useful to me in some way…. if I can remember in which magazine it was published.

This hoarding betrays an egotistical desire to be ‘well read’. The gentleman scholar. Of course, in the 21st century this appetite can never be satisfied, as the sheer volume of data exceeds an individual’s capacity to take it all in, even if the RSS bookmarks are all in order. Yet still I worry if I have spent a day without reading a newspaper, and the idea of cancelling a subscription to something is a heresy.

At the moment I am reading The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. He tells the story of a conspiracy in a medieval monastary, the clues to the mystery held within the pages of ancient texts, buried in the depths of a labyrinthal library. In his later book, Focault’s Pendulum, the characters take the connection of ideas to an extreme, constructing wild conspiracy theories from the most disparate sources. Both books a riddled with quotation and historical allusion, a style that John Updike once described as a permenant ‘orgy of citation and paraphrase’. It’s not clear whether Updike considers this a compliment, but I enjoy Eco’s work for this very reason. Thinking laterally and connecting ideas is part of the fun of reading and writing. The more you read, the more connections you can make, the more ideas you can have.

English Icons: Cliche and innaccuracy

english flagsThe Icons of England initiative looks like yet another attempt to define the undefinable, reducing culture to a set of simplistic cliches. The nominated symbols are a bizarre set, not least because many of them trivially do not qualify. The man who gave his name to the King James Bible was Jame VI of Scotland before he took on the English throne, so it is hard to see how his initiative is quintessentially English. The Spitfire won us the Battle of Britain, and seems to me a British rather than English icon. Likewise with the mini. The FA Cup takes in Welsh teams, and Stonehenge is made from Welsh stone. The Routemaster Bus has (a) just been abolished and (b) surely an icon of London, not England.

I think we have difficulty in defining Englishness precisely because it has for so long acted as a dominant culture. The English are the dominant group in the wider nation of Britain. The history of the country has percieved no cultural antagonist to guard against, and therefore there has been no need to exclude its smaller partners from sharing in the creation of ‘Britain’. Thus anything that we might hold up as an achievement for the English will invariably have hadsome Scottish, Welsh, Irish or Colonial input along the way (e.g. King James Bible, Spitfires) that makes ‘British’ an obviously more accurate description. Perversely, England’s history as the dominant part of Britain means that it cannot claim any icon or innovation as exclusively its own. If we search for icons local to a particular area, we find it difficult to prise ownership of the icons away from the locality (e.g. Routemaster Buses, Angel of the North).

Almost by definition, anything that is specific enough to be English and not British, but general enough to apply to the whole country and not a locality, is going to be an odd beast: The hymn ‘Jerusalem’ might fit the criteria we are looking for, although the flag waving patriotism associated with it alienates as many people as it inspires. It also suggests that we should make our green pleasant land more like an ancient city in the Middle-East, which should, I think, rule it out.

In the delightful Notes From A Small Island, Bill Bryson gives this observation:

To this day, I remain impressed by the ability of Britons of all ages and social backgrounds to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a hot beverage.

Here in Edinburgh, I do not perceive any less enthusiam for a drink which is an infusion of leaves from a plant grown in India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Kenya… in fact, anywhere but England. Even the trusty old cuppa is more a British than English icon.

The post meridiem counterpart to the cup-of-tea is, of course, the pint-of-beer in a traditional pub. And once again, we find these icons too pervasive throughout the union to be simply ‘English’. In Notes From A Small Island Bryson also points out the physical proximity of France to our shores, something that the British tend to ignore. But visiting a pub in Inverness presents much the same experience as walking into a pub in Dartmouth, both very different to visiting a bar in Cerbourg. Again, ‘The Pub’ is British, not English.

The same logic holds true for fish n’ chip shops. We need not discuss curry.

Once more, the flaw is in the very design of the quest. ‘English’ is not in the same genus as ‘Scottish’ or ‘Welsh’. By seeking actual things made and found in England we are looking in the wrong place for an English icon. We forget that since England has been a political force for centuries, the English language has persisted and grown in influence. It is the language, not the borders, that we should celebrate. In this sense, our net for English icons may be cast much wider. My nominations: The Gettysburg Address, Waltzing Matilda, The Simpsons… and The Indian Parliament.

Anyone else?

Kings Cross United

Six months on from 7th July, Rachel from north London and her friends demonstrate how to combat terrorism:

The bomber hated us all, he didn’t care who died, he wanted to kill as many as he could. The more I know of people from my train, the more I look at strangers – anyone – and see in them a fellow passenger on a journey. One man on a train with hate in his heart and a bomb on his back, seeking to divide and kill, versus dozens of passengers drawing together, caring for each other, comforting each other, remembering the dead and injured and bereaved – and celebrating life with new friends.

Out of such terrible darkness, light has come.

As we said in the pub ‘Take that, terrorists. Cheers’

*clink*

Still defending Political Correctness

It is always slightly annoying when someone makes a pithier version of your point, although Howard Jacobson only published this in yesterday’s Independent, so I have a few days head start on him:

… however much we dispise the uses to which political correctness has declined, it originated in the sound conviction that our inherited grammar and vocabulary shape our ideas and deed, and that by drawing attention to the biases implicit in language we can eliminate them to the benefit of everybody.

Is Political Correctness a noble cause? I claimed it was, but Talk Politics disagrees:

I wonder if Robert realises or appreciates just how sinister a concept he’s putting forward when he talks of the purpose of political correctness being to identify and eliminate ‘discrimination in our everyday language’ for there is far more to this particular idea than merely the removal from common parlance of certain words

I promised a short response to this.

First, I don’t think that refinement of language is the same thing as Orwellian Newspeak. The language that Political Correctness advocates against is still understood, and the concepts they express still exist. I am thinking here of the casual language that actually demeans and therefore harms other people, who we are supposed to be co-existing with in the Polis. For example, I think magazines like Nuts and Zoo are ‘un-PC’. Why? Because I think they endorse a casual objectification of women. That they then delight in this un-PC reputation makes them even more preposterous. Another more subtle example of this is the language surrounding asylum seekers, as Katherine Houreld explained in the LIP. They are often branded as ‘illegal’ or ‘bogus’ in the press, despite being neither, by definition. They are not illegal immigrants.

The crucial phrase from my previous post was “everyday language”. We are not advocating the elimination of certain thoughts and phrases completely… far from it. Who does ‘Political Correctness’ apply to? The answer is surely not ‘everyone’, but those who wish to participate and be taken seriously in political debate.

Thus ministers, government bodies at all levels and their agencies are more or less obliged to toe- the-PC-line, because they are supposed to be speaking for everyone. The media keeps to the guidelines too, because journalists hope to be speaking to or for everyone. We are very particular about who should and should not be Politically Correct. Robert Kilroy-Silk the TV presenter must be PC, but Robert Kilroy-Silk the fringe-politician can say what he wants. How ironic we took him seriously when he claimed we should not, then could not take him seriously when he asked that we should.

The other group of people to whom PC should matter are those who value diversity, friendship, and the concept of human equality. Why use language that offsets this equality? Why not use the names that people have chosen for themselves? And why not be extra sensitive to how particular groups of people are portrayed in the media? It is indeed the ‘elimination’ of undesirable phrases and patterns of thought from one’s vocabulary, but I don’t see this as sinister, just something like good manners. Howard Jacobson again:

Anyone who finds fault with that must never have paused before his own selection of a word, never reordered a thought to suit the company or occasion… some call [this process] self censorship but which it would be wiser to think of as judgement.

To use Politically Correct lanaguage is to think before you speak. The triumph of reason over impulse. Clearly there is a place for the latter (the boy shouting at the naked Emperor, or heckling Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1989), but political policy-making tends to require more sober debate.

However, the ‘Politically Correct’ battle I would rather fight is not over language, but over the problem Anthony Browne and others have with “self hating white liberals”, a cod-psycological slur for those who dare to criticise mainstream British culture and history. This is rich, given the frequency with which, say, the black or muslim ‘community’ are told to embark on some sort of self-criticism. Why should the majority not embark on similar introspection?

A funny take on Anthony Browne’s pamphlet at Third Avenue (via The Sharpener): And the people who don’t agree with [PC]? The Frederick Forsyths, the Melanie Phillipses, the Boris Johnsons? These poor benighted souls are reduced to publishing bestselling novels and hiding their despised views in weekly columns in mass-circulation newspapers, where no-one apart from the entire population can read them.