Not Saussure

June 17, 2007

More thoughts on Integration and Cohesion

Filed under: Community, Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 12:36 am

Having become engrossed in Second Life (see below), I haven’t yet had the opportunity to read through Our shared future, the report by the Commission on Integration and Cohesion about which I was rather rude the other day.

I have, though, been thinking about why I dislike its approach so much; it is, I fear, yet again another example of our old friend well-intentioned managerialism, at work. The way I look at the question is this; by and large, most people are tolerant by default. That is, in most counties — and Britain, thank God, is certainly one of them — people are really primarily interested in getting on with their own lives in their own way and aren’t particularly bothered one way or the other about other people might be doing so long as it doesn’t adversely affect them too much. We’re all of us members of umpteen overlapping, and at times conflicting, ‘communities’ — the area in which we live, our families, our friends, our colleagues, our partner’s family (oh, dear God… quote from my late wife, shortly before she died — ‘at least I’ll never have to put up with my brother again, and you won’t have to, either, after the funeral’ — a somewhat unchristian remark, but people like Anna’s brother were the reason the word ‘nincompoop’ was invented), other members of social, political or religious organisations to which we may belong . None of them define us; and through our experience of belonging to them, we’re all of us perfectly well able to deal with people we might not particularly like or who seem to us rather odd (my sometime brother in law, for example).

If there’s someone you don’t like, or who doesn’t like you, you either avoid them or, if circumstances — work, in particular — throw you together, most of us learn quite early on how to deal with such situations. And we do because we’re sensible adults who’ve learned how to conduct our lives so we can concentrate on pursuing, in our own ways, those ends that seem important to us, with a minimum of frustration. When conflicts arise, as inevitably they do, they’re normally between individuals, not communities — though they might well be between particular individuals who, for their own motives (usually political and financial) claim to speak ‘on behalf of’ particular communities.

Now, it seems to me that, in this fallen world of ours, conflicts between individuals are inevitable. Sometimes they can be solved by more or less amicable negotiation, but sometimes they can’t and that’s when the civil or criminal law comes into play. But for government to say, ‘conflict is undesirable so we’ll do our best to ensure it never arises’ is not only deluded; it’s downright dangerous. (more…)

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June 13, 2007

Blair and the feral media

Filed under: Blair, Politics, press — notsaussure @ 9:03 pm

What is one to make of Tony Blair’s reflections on the media yesterday? I’m linking, by the way, to the BBC transcript rather than the one on the Number 10 site because, for perfectly understandable but pleasingly ironic reasons, the BBC one is a more complete and accurate account of the great man’s words; the version on the Number 10 site excises the passages

We paid inordinate attention in the early days of New Labour to courting, assuaging, and persuading the media. In our own defence, after 18 years of Opposition and the, at times, ferocious hostility of parts of the media, it was hard to see any alternative.But such an attitude ran the risk of fuelling the trends in communications that I am about to question.

and

When I fought the 1997 election – just ten years ago – we took an issue a day. In 2005, we had to have one for the morning, another for the afternoon and by the evening the agenda had already moved on,

explaining the absence with the chaste comment ‘[Party Political content].’

I was puzzled by his description of the media as ‘feral,’ a metaphor that takes us into all sorts of strange places. What sort of wild beast does he have in mind, one wonders; are the media a tiger, on whose back he has taken a ride and is now he finds it difficult to dismount, or are they savage wolves, whom he would like to domesticate into pet dogs (very loyal to their masters, dogs)? Or are they like the feral children who so worried Mr Blunkett and Mr Blair a few years ago, and who need ASBOs to sort them out? Or does he just mean the press have been beastly to him recently? (more…)

June 11, 2007

Blair to become a Catholic?

Filed under: Blair, Catholicism, Politics — notsaussure @ 7:26 pm

Via Bel is thinking, the news from the Daily Mail that Tony Blair is, apparently, hoping to convert to Roman Catholicism after he leaves office next month. This, in itself, is hardly news; the Telegraph had much the same story last month; what is news is that Blair apparently has apparently discussed with Fr Timothy Russ, priest at the Immaculate Heart of Mary near the Prime Minister’s official country residence, Chequers, the possibility of his being fast-tracked into the role of deacon, if and when he’s received into the Church. Says the Mail, quoting

a new book soon to be serialised by The Mail on Sunday – The Darlings Of Downing Street by Garry O’Connor,

so it’s almost certainly untrue,

Mr Blair is reported as asking his confidant Father Timothy: “Would this be possible?” He was told: “It usually takes two or three years”, to which he replied: “The fact that I’m PM, could this make a difference?”

Bel’s looked up the qualifications for becoming a deacon and, probably by some oversight, being a former Prime Minister doesn’t appear to be among them, Anyway, you can read more of this in Bel’s excellent blog.

For my part, I was struck by the way Fr Russ seems to have mellowed; it was only in 2004 that he was being spectacularly indiscreet and not at all complimentary about Mr Blair. Then the Telegraph was reporting that

Fr Russ, the parish priest of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in nearby Missenden, Berks, told a newspaper that Mr Blair had raised the issue of conversion over lunch.”When he asked me, it was in the abstract,” the priest said. “It wasn’t, ‘Can I become a Catholic?’ but, ‘Can the Prime Minister of Britain be a Catholic?’ He said Mr Blair would be “freer to consider the matter” after he had left office. “But even if he resigns or whatever, I doubt he has the ‘necessary’ to join the Catholic Church.

“It is always a work of grace,” said Fr Russ.

“He would probably have a lot going for him, but he also has to change a lot.”

Mind you, Fr Russ’s judgement seems slightly questionable; at the same time, he was telling The Guardian, of Mr Blair,

“He’s a good person and he’s very concerned about humanity. And whether he becomes a Catholic or not, I think he’ll use his position to do something constructive, perhaps in Palestine. He’s got integrity and I can’t see him doing what other former prime ministers doing and going on lecture tours of America.

“It’s not a question of whether he becomes a Catholic but a question of where his conscience leads him.”

June 10, 2007

The Commission on Integration and Cohesion

Filed under: Community, Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 5:15 pm

I’m a bit confused by this; the Telegraph reports that

Employers will be told to pay for language lessons for immigrant workers who have a poor grasp of English, under proposals to be unveiled this week. […] The Commission on Integration and Cohesion, which was promised by Tony Blair in the wake of the July 7 bombings in 2005, says that moves to prevent immigrants from being marginalised will help to ease racial tensions and fight the appeal of extremist ideologies.As the rate of overseas settlement in Britain runs at its highest ever, the commission will argue that many new immigrants are too poor to afford tuition and should have the costs covered by their employers. That would greatly improve their ability to contribute to society and would bring long-term benefits to cohesion in Britain, its report will suggest.

I find this confusing for two reasons; first, it’s self-evidently mad (not that this means it would not recommend itself to this, or any other, government, of course) and, second, Darra Singh, the Chairman of the Commission, says nothing about it in his article in today’s Observer, though he does discuss, at some length, his proposals for encouraging people to learn English:

Some basic translation is useful and necessary, but we have not always struck the right balance. My Commission on Integration and Cohesion will publish a series of tests public bodies should apply when making decisions about whether to provide translated material. And where savings are made by cutting translation services, they should be reinvested in English lessons – both for newcomers and settled communities. It is a lost opportunity, for individuals and for society, that some people who have lived here for 30 years or more have never acquired the language skills to play a fuller role in local life.

That may well have much to commend it, particularly in Wales, where a surprising number of people even in South Wales (as opposed to traditionally Welsh-speaking rural North Wales) appear to speak only Welsh and consequently need everything translating for them at enormous public expense, but he doesn’t seem to say anything about requiring employers to pay.

It’s a daft idea for two reasons. First, I don’t quite see why anyone would want to hire someone if they didn’t think their language (or any other) skills were adequate for the particular job they had in mind. Well, any private employer, at least; certainly our local hospital — of which I saw rather more than I would have wanted during my late wife’s last years — employed whole armies of absolutely charming ladies from the Philippines as nursing auxiliaries whose English, unfortunately, wasn’t up to communicating with patients at anything other than the most rudimentary level, which meant that complicated requests like ‘please get me a bed pan’ (from the elderly lady in the bed next to my wife’s on one stay in hospital) frequently went unanswered.

But any normal employer would, one rather assumes, try to make sure that his sales staff could understand enough English to serve the customers (though possibly not to write business letters), while being rather less bothered about the standard of English attained by his cleaners, so long as they understood what they were being asked to do.

Quite why an employer should be asked to pay for training he doesn’t think his staff need is a bit beyond me; yes, it would doubtless be nice if they could all drive, too, but is he also to be asked to pay for driving lessons for non-drivers?

Second, this proposal would, almost certainly, run smack into anti-discrimination legislation, and quite right, too. I’m old enough to remember when, shortly the Race Relations Act was passed, employers who wanted to continue to discriminate against recent immigrants started introducing tests in written English for jobs that didn’t obviously require such skills to any great extent (working on a production line, for example). Quite rightly, the Race Relations Board, as it then was, stepped in and the courts rapidly agreed that this sort of indirect discrimination was unlawful; you can only insist on linguistic skills that are relevant to the job.

Well, require employers to pay for language teaching in certain circumstances and, it seems to me, you’ve automatically made those language skills of direct relevance to the job and, in effect, given employers every reason to discriminate against applicants even they don’t want to. If I want to employ someone who seems perfectly well qualified for the job but the government are likely to insist I pay for training I don’t think he needs, then obviously I’m going to look for someone else who definitely won’t need the training because English is his first language.

It’s a barmy idea, and I rather wonder if the Telegraph isn’t rather exaggerating, though possibly not since Mr Singh is clearly well able to come up with pretty bonkers ideas without any help. For example, he’s got the idea that

a new citizenship ceremony – perhaps on students’ completion of their GCSEs – would be one way of more publicly marking their understanding of what it means to be a responsible citizen in modern Britain

Tim Worstall says all that needs to be said:

What really seems to be missed is that (whether it’s at 16 or any other age) the attainment of full citizenship is not some privilege that is handed down to us from on high. Rather, it’s that one is now of an age when one gets to choose who those on high are going to be. It is not the mighty who offer us the privileges of citizenship, it is us who choose who is going to handle those minor matters that cannot be handled privately, whether individually or collectively.The correct ceremony would therefore be for politicians to abase themselves before such gatherings, begging for votes so that they might continue their lives upon the gravy train. The correct response to this from those celebrating would for 40% not to bother to turn up, the remainder to view the vote stealers with the contempt they deserve: precisely the (correct) reaction of all the other adults in the Kingdom.

Mr Singh also favours the idea of compulsory volunteering, which rather suggests he could do with some English lessons, as least with regard to what ‘compulsory’ and ‘voluntary’ might mean. Apparently,

It is to be welcomed that many young people now take part in volunteering and give something back to their local area. The benefits are great – bringing together young people from different backgrounds to work together towards a common goal. I think we need to consider a national community service and we should not be afraid of asking whether this should be compulsory.

Well, yes, it’s certainly to be welcomed that people, of their own initiative, see something that they think needs doing and, quite sensibly, get together to do it themselves rather than ask the government, be it local or national, to do it for them. That Mr Singh thinks that the correct response to this is, in effect, to nationalise such efforts and to make them compulsory rather suggests he hasn’t properly thought it through. But, if we look more closely, we see that the benefits he perceives aren’t anything to do with the actual project being voluntarily undertaken; no, he likes the idea of

bringing together young people from different backgrounds to work together towards a common goal

Well, yes, I’m sure that’s a good idea. Employers do it all the time, do they not? Bring together people of all ages and backgrounds to work together to keep Tescos running profitably or what have you.

Obviously that’s not what he has in mind; I think he imagines, in effect, imposing community punishment orders on all young people, whether or not they’ve bothered to commit a crime first, which would be perfectly in line with government thinking. He might first, though, want to take some advice from people who’ve had experience of such national voluntary compulsory work schemes, though. They used to have them in the old Soviet Union, for example, for girls (boys did military service, obviously).

My interpreter and PA back there, the lovely and talented Inna, did hers at the local hospital in her home town, Kiev; from what she said, it’s a wonder the hospital ever managed to treat any patients, so busy were they trying to cope with finding jobs for — and supervising — dozens of untrained, mutinous and completely unmotivated 18 and 19-year-olds, where the girls couldn’t do too much damage (by accident or design) and wouldn’t get too much under the feet of the staff who were actually being paid to do the jobs properly.

Afterthought:  To be fair to Inna, she said that, in principle, she wouldn’t have minded doing some voluntary work, so long as it was voluntary;  it’s just that, as she said,  if you take a bright and somewhat stroppy 18-year-old who’s primarily interested in clubbing it and getting into university to study modern languages, and then tell her she’s got to spend a day a week at the local hospital helping with the filing and in the laundry (she got to help with the filing because she was one of the bright ones who was going to go on to university, you see), you’re looking for trouble…

June 5, 2007

Binge drinking and citizenship

Filed under: Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 9:09 pm

Two pieces of apparently unrelated — other than that they annoyed me — news that maybe have a bit more in common than at first I thought.

First, the BBC reports:

Health minister Caroline Flint denied they were targeting “middle-aged, middle-class hardened drinkers”, but said: “There are people, adults, who on a very regular basis are probably drinking twice the amount that is recommended.”

Just so we’re clear what that means, the Department of Health tell us that

men should not regularly drink more than 3 – 4 units of alcohol per day, and women should not regularly drink more than 2 – 3 units of alcohol per day.

and produces a handy chart so we may calculate what this means.

According to the chart, ‘A 175ml glass of red or white wine [represents] around 2 units.’ Now, I have no real idea what a 175ml glass looks like, but a bottle of wine is normally 750ml, so that means there are 4.28 of them to a bottle. So according to my calculations, a woman who regularly splits a bottle of wine over dinner at home with her partner is already getting pretty close to twice the recommended daily amount, and if she accompanies this with a decent sized pre-prandial sherry or gin and tonic, she’s well over twice the recommended daily amount and thus, according to HMG, a regular ‘binge drinker.’

While I’m sure we’re all grateful to

Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker [who apparently] added: “It is unacceptable for people to use alcohol and urinate in the street, vomit and carry on,”

(he gets paid £90,000 a year to tell us this sort of thing), that’s not normally the behaviour I associate with women who’ve had half a bottle of wine and a couple of sherries of an evening. Presumably the women with whom I tend to socialise must be such hardened topers that they seem to take such excess in their stride (though obviously it wouldn’t be a good idea to drive after drinking that).

I’m not completely sure why I find this sort of thing so irritating; I hardly ever drink myself, on medical advice, so it’s not because I have a vested interest. Maybe, in fact, that’s part of it. My GP, whom I trust far more than I do any government minister, and who certainly knows considerably more about me than do they (though, of course, that may change with all these databases that are being set up in our own best interests), put it to me that, for various reasons, I had choice between stopping drinking and dying considerably sooner than I might otherwise expect. She also — and this, I think, is the important bit — treated me like an adult, explaining exactly why this was a particular problem for me and saying, in terms, ‘it’s entirely up to you what you decide to do about my advice, but you do need to know the consequences so you’re making an informed decision.’

The government, though, seem to prefer to treat us like children to be lectured and cajoled. By all means provide sensible medical advice, though I for one would rather have it from my GP rather than this broad-brush approach from ministers. But then, it’s surely up to people what they do with their lives; obviously we want to discourage people from getting falling down drunk in the street, but this isn’t what Caroline Flint seems to be talking about. The government seems determined — with, I’m sure, the best possible motives (which always alarms me) — to intrude more and more into our private lives.

This expansion of government interest is, I realise, one of the many things that so irritated me about another piece of ministerial nonsense, the proposal from Ruth Kelly and Liam Byrne to have a ‘citizenship day’ and give would-be citizens credits for doing voluntary work and the like. The great thing about voluntary work, it seems to me, is that is something people do because they think it’s important; it’s people getting together and deciding, of their own initiative, that here is something worth doing. No one makes them do it and the government doesn’t tell them how they ought to be doing it. Involve the government and it seems to me that voluntary work becomes an unpaid arm of the state. Indeed, there’s some voluntary work that seems to annoy the government no end; we’ve several times been told, as I recall, that supporting rough-sleepers (rather than trying to get them into hostels) is a bad idea, and I get the impression that some work some people do supporting asylum seekers isn’t always as greatly appreciated by Liam Byrne as it might be.

One of the things that I recall astonished the Mayor’s Office in St Petersburg back in the early ’90s — and, which once they’d got their heads round the concept, they thought was absolutely brilliant — was our idea of charities and community organisations doing things themselves, rather than — as had been the case under communism — the state and the party organising everything. The idea, for example, that people would actually undertake first-aid training, join the St John’s Ambulance and help provide support at sporting events because this was what they wanted to do rather than because it got them kudos with the local party was revolutionary. Seems to me that we’re in danger of losing that in this creeping nationalisation of just about everything; it’s as if state control of the economy is out, so the state has to find some other way of making our lives better for us, whether we want them to or not.

It’s enough to drive you to drink.

June 2, 2007

Louise Casey, the Respect tsar

Filed under: Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 3:03 pm

Gosh, I hadn’t realised until I read today’s Telegraph quite how much Louise Casey, Mr Blair’s ‘Respect tsar’ (tzarina, I would have thought, though more properly Tsaritsa, цари́ца,) resembles Jade Goodey; she could be her older sister. And not just in looks; here’s Ms Casey’s account of her reaction to a development in popular culture that seems to have given her some pleasure:

“Did I punch the air when the word Asbo was used on EastEnders?” she says. “Yes. I jumped off my sofa and shouted my head off.”

I suppose her family must be used to that sort of thing by now, but it seems a tad eccentric to me.

Mind you, Ms Casey seems to watch rather too much television for her own, and others’ good; what else is one to make of a remark like,

The Government is right to interfere in family life, she insists. “Look at the viewing figures for Supernanny. There’s no shortage of people who want to be bossed around a bit,” she says. “The taxes I pay are partly to try to make the country a better place and parents are the most important thing we have in the fight against every social evil.”

I’ve said enough lately about people who want to mobilise the power of government to try to make the world (or even the country) a better place, so I’ll content myself with the observation that I suspect the viewing figures for Supernanny reflect, rather, some people’s epicaricacy, their pleasure at watching other people’s horrible sprogs misbehaving, rather than any serious basis for policy-making.

Reading through the article, one realises that she really does seem to derive many of her ideas from the telly;

She wishes soap operas would paint a more positive picture of the country. “I hate the fact that everything is gloomy, everybody is sleeping with each other, everybody is killing each other, everybody is committing anti-social behaviour all the time when Britain doesn’t look so awful in real life.”There’s a public service responsibility to try to uphold certain standards of decency.”

Well, most of us do, in fact, realise that soap operas are a made-up story rather than documentaries; what’s she so bothered about?

Anyway, the article offers a couple of rather more significant insights into Ms Casey’s manner of thought. First, apparently

After eight years in Government, the leader of the Respect task force says: “I am still an outsider.”She finds Whitehall jargon “bizarre”. “Each department has its own word for the same thing – boundaries is social work, rules is school, law is the Home Office and regeneration, well what is regeneration?”

Apart from the fact that, after 8 years in a senior role, most people would be rather ashamed to admit they still didn’t really understand the terminology their colleagues were using, it seems to me her confusion typifies the way this government thinks. Most people can understand the difference between the boundaries of socially acceptable behaviour, the rules of a school and the law of the land — related and sometimes overlapping concepts, but each of them distinct — but it’s something with which this government clearly has problems. That’s why, to my mind, every time something’s identified as ‘a problem’ — that is, a problem in the sense that focus groups and newspaper editors express concern about it (teenagers being teenagers, for example) — the government’s response is, ‘There ought to be a law… I know, we’ll pass one’.

Ms Casey goes on to explain,

She wants a new spirit of politeness. “I’d love London buses to have announcements telling passengers to give up their seats to pregnant women.”

Personally, I find it rather depressing that there is a need for such notices (if, in fact, there is such a need — my impression is that many people using public transport in London and elsewhere normally will offer their seats to pregnant women anyway), but I started to wonder why she hadn’t asked Transport for London to put up such notices. They have them on buses around where I live, after all, and there are similar notices on most trains I’ve used recently. Then I realised what the problem must be; a notice politely asking you to offer your seat, not only to pregnant women but also to anyone else who looks as if they might need it, would be no use to Ms Casey. She almost certainly wants to tell you you’ve got to, or face a fine. That’s the only way she, and the government, can be seen to be doing something.

She also observes,

we’re a nation that wants to keep our heads down and be polite, we don’t have a culture of being over-confrontational in shops, we need to queue at the bus stop.”With our reticence comes our need for some structures that mean we can fit in.”

There’s a couple of half-truths in that, at least insofar as any statement that starts with the generalisation, ‘we’re a nation that …’ means very much. People certainly want, in general, to be polite and to have a sense of structure because experience has taught most of us that, in a large and complex society of free individuals pursuing their own ends, some general rules of social interaction make life far more pleasant for everyone. It’s the ‘wanting to keep our heads down’ bit of her analysis that irritates me, with its implication that everyone’s somehow cowed or frightened. ‘Having better things to do with our time than fight over trivialities,’ might be a better way of putting it; I’d certainly rather be gracious and let someone through the door ahead of me, or onto the bus first, rather than get into a row with him about it, not because I’m scared to stick up for myself but because life’s too short to get vexed about such things, at least most of the time.

It’s this idea that we need the state, complete with a Tsaritsa, to enforce codes of behaviour that’s worrying, and perhaps takes us back to Ms Casey’s confusion between boundaries, rules and laws. Yes, social boundaries are very important, and we start learning at a very early age how to play nicely together, take turns and not push and shove. So are rules, much of the time; some of the ones I’ve internalised are maybe rather archaic — almost by Pavlovian response, I stand up when a lady enters the room, at least in social circumstances — but others — giving up your seat on the tube to a pregnant woman — are quite important. It really just comes down to a combination of showing consideration and of finding a modus vivendi that allows all these total strangers to live close to each other and pursue their own ends without coming blows or tripping over each other too frequently. The law, to my mind, only needs to get involved when there’s a conflict we can’t sort out by mutual negotiation or that the nuisance someone’s causing is insufferable.

The two problems with this government (not that I’m convinced the alternative is much better) are that they seem to think we can have a trouble-free life and that it can be achieved by legislation and enforcement — the only sort of rules and boundaries it seems to recognise.

I wonder if Ms Casey and her respect unit will long survive Mr Blair. It might well be a significant indication of the way Mr Brown intends to proceed.

June 1, 2007

I’m from the government and I feel a moral duty to intervene to make the world a better place….

Filed under: Politics — notsaussure @ 9:26 pm

Via Matt at An Insomniac (to whom I am very grateful for sparing me the irritation of having to read the Guardian more often than is necessary) a profoundly confused CiF article by Julian Baggini in support of Tony Blair’s views on intervention; it starts with the puzzling observation that

The Blair paradigm is of the Samaritan crossing over to the other side

and continues downhill rapidly from then on. I mean, that could be taken as quite a good, though cruel, joke about Mr Blair’s good intentions and confused religiosity, in the spirit of Tony Hancock’s impassioned plea,

Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain? Brave Hungarian peasant girl who forced King John to sign the pledge at Runnymede

but since Mr Baggini seems to be sticking up for Mr Blair, I think we have to put this down to ignorance, pure and simple. Similarly, I fear we must take juxtaposition of the second half of his observation,

opponents prefer to talk of the road to hell, paved with good intentions – that’s if they can allow themselves to accept that his intentions are indeed honourable.

with the link in the right-hand column of that page, to an article called We had the very best of intentions, as an unfortunate — though grimly amusing — coincidence.

‘What,’ asks Mr Baggini,

what is this dangerous, arrogant doctrine which Blair is promoting? In his own words, it is the belief in “the power of political action to make the world better and the moral obligation to use it.” Pre-Iraq, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone left of centre who didn’t think that was not just uncontroversial, but a founding principle of progressive internationalism.

Strangely enough, Mr Baggini seems to think this is some sort of recommendation; to my mind, long before Iraq, most people — left, right and centre — viewed political action taken to make the world better in the name of ‘progressive internationalism’ as something rather suspicious, at least when it was undertaken by states. There’s the problem, you see; I’m perfectly prepared to believe that many people in the Politburo genuinely did think they were acting out of a spirit of progressive internationalism when they intervened, in 1956, to stop reactionaries disrupting their Hungarian comrades’ attempts to make the world a better place and when, 12 years later, they responded to their Czech and Slovak comrades’ pleas to

lend support and assistance with all means at your disposal

I’m not being ironic (that’s Clio’s job); I’m sure the reaction of many of the locals left the chaps in Moscow genuinely wondering,

Why should anyone feel angry about us?

Then, of course, when, in the cause of ‘progressive internationalism,’ their successors deployed the 40th Army in Afghanistan, coming out with transparently spurious arguments about uprooting feudalism and preserving secularism and progress from bandits and religious fanatics, we — or at least most Western governments — saw through them and knew on which side to intervene and whom to train and arm. Oh, didn’t we just? That girl Clio has a really nasty sense of humour at times.

My point, which I fear I labour, is that making ‘the world better’ is a rather more complex trick than might first appear, at least when it’s undertaken by governments. Agreeing on what constitutes ‘a better world ‘ would be a start, and that’s before we start to worry about how to achieve it. Indeed, if we contemplate the mixed — to say the least — results we tend to see (‘we’ being citizens of any country, not just the UK) when our own governments attempt to make the country they actually run ‘a better place,’ and the not-always-unjustified scepticism with which we regard their promises so to do (not to mention the sense of impending disaster one usually experiences when politicians start talking about the ‘moral obligation’ they feel to do something), it’s a bit surprising anyone would think they’ll do a better job trying to improve things in a country several thousand miles away.

I’m all in favour of making things better when you can, of course; it’s just that I think it’s a job best done as and when you can. Big place, the world. I mean, it would undoubtedly make the world a considerably better place, at least for the people directly involved, if the government were to declare an amnesty for the illegal economic migrants and failed asylum seekers already in the UK. That, we know, would make life better for them, and considerably more certainly than would some grandiose scheme to ‘intervene’ in their home countries, which strikes me as a pretty uncertain proposition. I don’t hear the government proposing that, though, because it would be highly contentious. Far easier, as a rule, and far less trouble to spend other people’s money on grandiose gestures.

Mr Baggini concedes, at one point,

The only sensible basis for a case against intervention is that it is ineffective or counter-productive. Well, sometimes it is, but to say we have a duty to intervene does not mean we should always do so, without any regard for the consequences.

Sometimes, indeed. But the bit he fails to consider there is who is doing the intervening. In his peroration, he tells us,

If you are really opposed to interventionism, then at least be consistent. Cancel your direct debit to Oxfam, because that too is the rich world “meddling” with Africa. Boycott fairtrade coffee, which imposes “our” ethical standards and social programmes on producers. Tell Bill Gates to stop lavishing his millions on tackling HIV/Aids in Africa and leave it to the continent’s own people to take care of themselves.

Hang on, though; what, I ask myself, have these three examples of ‘intervention’ common? Why, none of them are anything much to do with governments. Fairtrade coffee — for all Mr Baggini’s sneering about

market fundamentalists, who believe that the only way to improve the world is through the invisible hand working through free trade

— is a pretty good example of free trade in action, to my mind; there’s a market in the west for ‘free trade’ coffee and some producers are benefiting from it. It’s not governments who’re behind it; it’s customers and producers entering into a voluntary relationship. It’s Bill Gates handing out his own millions, without having to give a moment’s thought, if he doesn’t want to, about some people’s enthusiasm for promoting abstinence rather than the use condoms. I’ve got nothing against, I hasten to add, people using their own money to fight HIV/Aids in Africa by promoting abstinence, if that’s what they think is the best use for their money, and can find local groups with whom to work, but I’m not sure that I necessarily want my taxes thus used, and I certainly wouldn’t want my MP wasting his time arguing about it in Parliament.

The point, I think, to return where we started, or one of the points, at least, about the Good Samaritan is that, rather than passing on the other side of the road and then, when he got home, started agitating for political action to make the world a better place by doing something about the bandits on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho — give ’em Asbos, that’ll learn them — he actually did something of his own volition to give a hand to just one poor bugger where he could. Far more practical, to my mind.

May 31, 2007

Our son of a bitch….

Filed under: civil liberties, Politics, press — notsaussure @ 12:03 am

Via Matt at An Insomniac,the depressing, though perhaps unexpected, spectacle of a huge assembly of Guardian readers queueing up in Talk is Cheap Comment is Free to endorse censorship and the shutting down of TV stations by Hugo Chavez, criticism of whom is apparently now punishable by 30 months in prison. One of the few dissenting voices notes,

Chavez may be a son of a bitch but he’s the liberals’ son of a bitch.

My favourite, though, is someone who quotes Article 57 of the Venezuelan constitution, apparently protecting freedom of speech, and asking

Can you now state the law that protects freedom of speech in the UK or USA for example?

Someone else helpfully draws his attention to

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievance.”

I thought of pointing to Article 125 of the Soviet Constitution of 1936

ARTICLE 125. In conformity with the interests of the working people, and in order to strengthen the socialist system, the citizens of the U.S.S.R. are guaranteed by law:

1. freedom of speech;
2. freedom of the press;
3. freedom of assembly, including the holding of mass meetings;
4. freedom of street processions and demonstrations.

but I don’t think CiF readers do irony too well.

There may be a case for shutting down these stations, or, at least, not renewing their terrestrial broadcasting licences — I don’t know; Venezuela’s recently had an attempted coup, so maybe we shouldn’t expect things to work the way we’d like them to — but I do know that ‘Chavez is getting up George Bush’s nose something dreadful, so pretty much anything he does must be OK’, which is just abot the level of most of the CiF comments, isn’t a particularly convincing one.

May 30, 2007

Politics, Religion (and some recommended light reading)

Filed under: Books, Politics, Religion — notsaussure @ 6:40 pm

Apologies for not posting yesterday; I was sitting in my new satin pajamas engrossed in John Connolly’s latest noir thriller, The Unquiet, and very good it is, too. He’s back on form, I think, after The Black Angel, which I thought overdid the supernatural elements, rather. He’s at his best, to my mind, when you’re never completely sure whether they’re actually supposed actually to exist or are a suspicion — no more than that — in the mind of the first person narrator, Maine Private Eye Charlie Parker, haunted as he is both by the murder of his first wife and child and by the dark areas of his soul — and those of others — he keeps on discovering as he plies his trade as investigator of particularly nasty cases.

If you’ve not come across Mr Connolly, and you like noir thrillers, you’re in for a treat. I’d suggest starting with the first of the series,Every Dead Thing, and reading them in sequence.

Then, having finished The Unquiet, I started his other new book, The Book of Lost Things, which is a delightful, though still very dark, riff on some well-known (and some not-so-well-known) children’s fairy tales. It explores the same sort of territory as did some of the late Angela Carter’s re-workings of Grimm.

Anyway, back today. When I haven’t been reading John Connolly, I’ve been thinking about a very interestig discussion over at Stumbling And Mumbling, where Chris Dillow considers — and finds himself in broad agreement with — Johan Hari’s worries about Gordon Brown’s Social Christianity; says Hari:

I think faith is a dangerous form of bad thinking – it is believing something, without evidence or reason to back it up….Yet at the same time, when there are so many Murdochian pressures on a British Prime Minister dragging them to the right, pressing him to fellate the rich, isn’t it good to have a countervailing pressure to help the poor – even a superstitious one? If religion drives Brown’s best instincts and whittles down his worst, should we still condemn it?

I can’t, I fear, resist noting that whatever Johan Hari relies upon is clearly even worse than faith, since it leads him to believe things not only without evidence but despite evidence; he’s under the impression that ‘Jesus said to follow “every jot and tittle” of the psychotic Old Testament,’ which, quite simply, He didn’t, at least not if accurately reported by Matthew 5:18; He there refers to the Ten Commandments, and in the context of explaining that the Sermon on the Mount isn’t a replacement for them but, in fact, is a summary of them and an extension of their implications.

Anyway, Mr Hari’s inability to verify his sources aside, Chris argues that Hari is right in that religious arguments play, or should play, no part in politics; says Chris, (more…)

May 18, 2007

Boris Johnson on teaching

Filed under: Education, Politics — notsaussure @ 7:42 pm

While my admiration for the greatest living British Conservative normally knows no bounds, I’m rather worried by this:

We need whole-class teaching, and we need to insist that all pupils are taught to read by synthetic phonics, so that we end the disgrace whereby 44 per cent leave primary school either illiterate or innumerate.

If we sort that out, it would be a greater advance for social justice than anything achieved by Labour. We need to re-yuppify the teaching profession, so that first-rate graduates once again think of teaching as a rewarding, holiday-rich alternative to the City or the law.

Let’s take this one bit at a time, and start by imagining Mr Johnson accompanying one of his children on the child’s first day at school. He introduces himself to the Head and to the class teacher and then, before delivering young Borisina to their charge, says,

Oh, but, before leaving you in loco parentis, I must first assure myself that you’re going to teach her to read by the synthetic phonics method. No other method will do.

Well, wouldn’t the teacher be justified in thinking this is a bit odd, even by the standards of the man who gave Petronella Wyatt a job? ‘Well, if you insist, Mr Johnson’, one imagines them saying, ‘But, err, why?’

I don’t want to argue about the advantages or disadvantages of various different methods of teaching children to read, because it’s a subject in which I have no expertise or experience, any more than does Boris Johnson. In fact, I’m not at all sure I’d recognise a synthetic phonic, as opposed, I suppose, to the natural variety, Nor, I think, would Mr Johnson pretend, if you asked him, to have any great expertise in the strengths and weaknesses of various methods of teaching reading to young children, classroom management and so forth.

My late mother, as it happens, did know, from her career, a fair bit about the teaching of reading; her take on the matter always seemed to me pretty sensible. Different methods and reading schemes, she reckoned, all have their strengths and weaknesses and all, in practice, do the job pretty well for most children. What’s important, she always said, is to have a good teacher who, first, actually understands the principles and practice behind the scheme she’s using and, second, has the expertise and insight to spot when an individual child is having difficulties and then both to identify the difficulties and decide on how best to help that particular child overcome those particular problems. This would obviously involve understanding a multitude of different techniques.

With that understood, she reckoned, the best thing was for the teacher to use, as the default method for her particular class, was the method the teacher best understood and felt most comfortable with.

That always seemed to me like basic common sense. Hire professionals who understand the job and then trust them to use their professional expertise.

Which rather neatly, to my mind, leads into Mr Johnston’s second point. I assume, since he must have thought about the matter, that his call to ‘re-yuppify the teaching profession’ cannot mean that he wants to pay teachers what they might expect to earn had, instead of entering teaching, they’d instead gone to work for city trading firms or either City or large West-End law firms. If he does actually mean that, I’m going to worry a bit about what my income and council tax bills will look like under a Conservative government.

If, on the other hand, he means treat we should treat teachers as the skilled professionals they are, then why, for heaven’s sake, does he think they’d appreciate MPs –who know as little, in practice, about teaching as do they about commodities trading or the law of contract (and why should they?) — bouncing up and down spluttering ‘we must insist you do your job — which you’ve trained for and we haven’t , but anyway, we know best — in such and such a way’? Why, in the name of God, does he think this would be a sensible idea. I thought we’d established that the state running — as opposed to funding — things usually ends in disaster.

I’d always associated such behaviour with New Labour. That Boris Johnson, of all people, is emulating it fills me with foreboding.

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