Archive for November, 2007


Thursday, November 22nd, 2007

This one is specially to make American readers feel better today — provided they are in the USA, that is: I was out walking today and noticed that the price of petrol has risen to £1.04 a litre, which is roughly $7.77 per US gallon. I suppose you’ll all have riots before then. In fact it will probably be taken as the end of the world when it rises to $6.66.

Ultimate procrastination

Tuesday, November 20th, 2007

Thanks to John Naughton I have just stumbled upon a site which appears to list every public or semi-public talk being given in or around Cambridge University. It is a glorious searchable toyshop of interesting ideas and almost the best thing about it is that each talk is accompanied by a sidebar listing others that seem almost entirely random. So I went from

And a whole lot of other stuff I have already forgotten. See? It’s like Google, but with real learning at the end of it.

A memory of imperialism

Tuesday, November 20th, 2007

We were sitting around the kitchen table talking about the violently aborted holiday in France, and my mother said, reminiscently, that her mother hated the Irish; an odd sentiment seeing as how the whole of the rest of my family is (protestant) Irish, including my maternal grandfather as well as my father. But my maternal grandmother was a Scots-English woman, and she hated the Irish. She thought they were dirty, dishonest, and violent.

I asked my mother why this was so, and she finally explained. When she herself was about three, and her mother was pregnant with the third child, their father was in India (he was a judge there) and she needed somewhere to live in England. So she rented a house big enough for all of them in Ireland and was astonished to discover the natives hostile and ungrateful. Whyever could this have been? Smart readers will be ahead of me at this point: the year this pregnant Englishwoman decided to holiday with two small children in Southern Ireland was 1921 …

It really is one of the oddest features of imperialism that the ruling class think it is evidence of a poor character in their subjects if they are not loved, even in the middle of a war of independence.

On hating the French

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

I should have been writing this in an agreeable hotel in Avignon. The room was booked, the first class tickets bought. We rose at five to catch the train to London. At the St Pancras retail destination (with attached railway station) the ticket machine would not allow us onto the 10.00 am to Lille. We were directed to the ticket office. It turns out that there were no TGV trains running anywhere in France today, and so no possibility of reaching Avignon.

The Eurostar office made no difficulty about refunding the train tickets, which leaves me out only one night in a hotel (cancelled too late); £40 for two returns to London; £8.00 for two single tube tickets from King’s Cross to Liverpool Street; £10 for two coffees and two croissants while deciding what to do in the absence of trains and £12 for taxis to and from the station. I did learn one new rip-off. The café in St Pancras, rather than charge £6.00 for a sandwich, sells the bread and the filling separately at £2.95 each and the customers get to assemble it themselves.

It might have been more sensible to ring and check the progress of the strike before setting off, but I had the impression that no one at Eurostar had any idea which trains would be running until they were actually cancelled, if you see what I mean.

What could be more agreeable

Saturday, November 17th, 2007

than to see the Eurabia crowd denouncing anyone else as paranoid fascist nutters? Yet this is the spectacle offered by the latest schism on the far right. The paleofascist nutters around the Brussels Journal hate muslims, of course (no linky goodness from me; but it was, for example the site which popularised the story of the preacher who supposedly brunt burnt himself to death in protest against Islam); but they also have some understanding for the traditional European fascist attitude towards Jews.

This has brought down on them the wrath of the neofascist nutters at Little Green Footballs, who hate Muslims, of course, but regard (the right sort of) Jews as exemplary Americans. So they are now denouncing BJ as repulsive fascists etc, with all the self-righteousness at their command.

In a similar vein, the collapse of the European neo-fascist parliamentary group—after the Italian neo-fascists denounced Romanian immigrants as scum and the Romanian neofascists took exception, probably claiming that thee were all gypsies —has been especially welcome to people who might otherwise appear to take a similar attitude to the EU and to Muslims, like Daniel Hannan, the Europhobe MEP, who was able to write an article denouncing these vile neo-fascists.

In constantly warning about a “far Right menace”, Lefties aren’t really attacking the handful of blackshirts still left in Europe. Their true targets are small-state Tories, who couldn’t be ideologically further removed from the skinheads, but who can neatly be bracketed with them as “Right-wing”. Clever, no?

Yes, that would be the same Daniel Hannan, MEP, whose name appears on the masthead of the Brussels Journal. Clever? No.

I dreamed I saw Saint Augustines

Saturday, November 17th, 2007

(this is, by coincidence, Entry 1500: apologies if you thought the blog would suddenly go all profound and witty)

Am off to Avignon for four days tomorrow, travelling first class on Eurostar, because it is only an extra 30 Euros. Actually, it turns out that this is not first class, but second class, since the three price levels available are “business”, “leisure select” and “standard” or something like that. In any case, there should be power outlets and free coffee. Avignon makes one think of Popes, which in turn reminds me of a conversation I had with someone at Lambeth Palace on Wednesday. I was ranting about the schism, and how Rowan appears to me now to resemble a rabbit surrounded — and partially hypnotised — by blood-crazed stoats. In particular, I asked what the hell they thought would happen when two people turned up claiming to be the Bishop of Pittsburgh.

“Oh”, said my interlocutor, with the air of one who has solved an important puzzle, “Well you do know that all the time that St Augustine was Bishop of Hippo there was another Bishop of Hippo, too. So we have been here before.”

I’m afraid I was completely struck dumb by this. A better journalist or even a quicker thinker would have had a follow-up question, something like “well, yes, but which one was SAINT FUCKING AUGUSTINE? Doesn’t that matter?”

And now we will never know. If it’s any consolation to Anglican readers, I doubt that in 1600 years time anyone will think it mattered who was the Bishop of Pittsburgh in 2008, either.

Midgley and metaphysics

Friday, November 16th, 2007

I pulled down Science and Salvation last night and it fell open at a discussion of the truth of large metaphysical assertions which is a useful way of following on from the comments to my earlier piece. It’s quite a long quote, but worth it

[I also know that the styling of the comments section is importantly broken. I am too busy to fix it today]

To deny that God and the soul existed seemed only the logical next move after denying doctrines such as the Trinity or transubstantiation or the efficacy of prayers for the dead. And all these denials appeared, in an important way, like denying that there were unicorns or that witches could kill by cursing. They all seemed to concern matters of fact, determinable by evidence.

By this method only two alternatives are considered. There is, or there is not, a unicorn in the garden. If there is not, then there is nothing there at all. The rhinoceros or antelope that may be there is of no interest, no matter for surprise or wonder. Nor are the flowers, the trees or the soil. It is not guessed that they might now need to be looked at differently. If a unicornless world proves to be one drained of significance, then it is concluded that the significance, as much as the unicorns, always was a mistake.

Without significance, however, people cannot live. To see life as having a meaning is not just to add an indulgence, a colour or a taste, to its raw data. It is to find any shape in it at all, any connexion among its elements. This is not a luxury; it is the condition which makes thinking possible. The question is not whether we are pro- or anti-God. It is: how do we now map the connexions in the world if they are not to be described by talk of God? What sort of world do we now have? Connexion itself is not a superstition that we can get rid of. It is work that must be done one way or another. To refuse that work will not stop it being done. It will only leave it to the uncontrolled play of the imagination.

Failure to see this complexity is not a new fault, invented by the modern world. It is a batch of ancient faults taken over unnoticed from the Christian tradition, or, more exactly, from its entanglement in political feuds, which committed it to constant polarization about simple dogmas. In the seventeenth-century wars of religion, as in earlier disputes, enormous issues of doctrine were repeatedly treated as factual questions with a single right answer, reachable through controversy.

Once political sides had been taken, it became extremely hard to suggest that the truth is so vast that both these doctrines may be only attempts to grasp at a part of it. Instead, nations confidently drilled their peoples to accept one of two solutions, while dissenters, just as confidently, died proclaiming the other. With the same sort of confidence, atheists now pronounced their own final solution. As a matter of simple fact, they explained, there was no God, and – equally as a matter of fact – the physical world was (by sheer good luck) orderly, constructed just as it needed to be for scientific enquiry every bit as well as if God had done it.

Vast propositions like these, however, are not very like everyday matters of fact. Are they matters of fact at all? What does it mean to call them so? What is the alternative? Current usage thinks only of ‘value-judgments’ which is far too narrow. Very general statements about the way the universe works, such as that it is ordered, or is – as Monod claims – totally contingent, or that it is, or is not, an illusion, or that it is in the hand of God, or that all events in it are causally determined, or that it is only a social construction, are not judgments of value. Least of all are they unaccountable judgments of value, of the vague kind which people often seem now to mean by that term. They certainly do not just say ‘boo’ or ‘hurray’.

What they have in common with ordinary, modest factual statements is that they are intended to be true or false – to describe some actual state of affairs, not to be fiction. Where they differ is in that it is much less obvious how we can know them. We cannot compare them directly with any actual thing or things; they are far too wide. We cannot test them, as we do reports about unicorns, by the ordinary rules of evidence, relating such reports to a batch of neighbouring facts. There are simply too many facts involved.

What I would add to this is only that it is an interesting question, to which there might be answers, why metaphysics and politics become from time to time entangled. Rowan Williams said the other day that the relationship between religion and conflict was not that religion generates conflict, but that conflict generates religion, and I think this is true, and subtle. It is precisely the empirical unarguability of religion that makes religious or metaphysical positions so politically useful — if what you want is a fight to the death without compromise. So they will always be reinvented and rediscovered. That is why it is so important that we understand the possibilities of reconciling sacrednesses, or at least making them compatible with one another. However, that’s drifting off into another point, and I feel in general that any argument which concludes that interfaith relations are a good thing must have something radically wrong with it. How can anything so boring and pious save the world?

Hicks and wiseguys

Thursday, November 15th, 2007

Ophelia Benson and others are having fun with a survey in Christianity Today asking what are “the most compelling arguments for Christianity”. The choices are

  1. The exquisiteness of the physical world (6%)
  2. The reliability of the Scriptures (21%)
  3. The life and character of Jesus (44%)
  4. Christianity’s positive influence on culture and individuals (5%)
  5. The experiences of individuals (10%)
  6. Something else (13%)

and of course the Pharyngular atheists point out that none of these are arguments for the truth of Christianity. But of course they’re not. Even most Evangelical Christians (79% if we can trust this survey) are smarter than to suppose they are arguments for the truth of Christianity. They are arguments for calling yourself a Christian, for trying to act as you believe a Christian should and all the other things entailed by actually being a Christian, rather than supposing that “Christianity” — whatever that may be — is “literally true” — whatever that might mean. They are all versions of the argument given me by a wicked priest, who said that at an early age “Jesus got me by the bollocks”. That’s not an argument for the truth of his beliefs. It’s a justification for his actions, and one which is both sufficient and entirely comprehensible. Am Anfang ist der Tat. For all but a tiny minority of philosophically trained intellectuals, theology is just decoration — primroses round the power station — an attempt to rationalise the principles they try to act on. So the Pharungular strategy of pissing on the primroses, or even digging up the flower beds, isn’t going to affect the actual generating mechanisms at all.

You’d have thought that people who pride themselves on being smart as much as the pharyngular atheists do might be worried by the discovery that nearly 80% of even American Evangelicals know something they don’t. And they might, if they were prepared to notice that this was true. But they are so convinced that all Christians must be ignorant bigoted yahoos that they never will.

There had to be a youtube post sometime

Monday, November 12th, 2007

And here you are. It has no soundtrack and no colour. Courtesy of TNH, it is newsreel footage from the last twenty minutes of life in the trenches at the Somme, before the men go over the top, which they do right at the end. One man slips climbing out and lies motionless on the front of the trench as the others scramble on around him. I was just wondering why he did that when I noticed two more of the walking men drop with the same irrelevant speed as they approach the wire. Then the film cuts out.

The other thing one remembers is the face of the young man nearest the camera in the slow shots of the men waiting in the trenches for the order to go over. He knows his last few minutes will be watched soon in cinemas where everyone is warm, safe, and, strangest of all, alive.

Mailer and Waugh

Monday, November 12th, 2007

A note in the Telegraph’s obituary of Norman Mailer leads me to ponder the distinction between egomaniacs and shits. They might seem indistinguishable, but the comparison with Evelyn Waugh shows they are not. Mailer, it’s obvious from his biographies, was a dreadful egomaniac: often abominably selfish, violent, petty and aggressive. But he was not mean-spirited. He really wanted other people to be happy, providing this did not interfere in the least with any of his other desires.

Waugh, though he was much more restrained in his behaviour, as in his prose, seems to have been a very pure shit in that he had no benevolent impulses towards anyone for the last thirty or so years of his life. Witness the awe-inspiringly dyspeptic account from his diaries (quoted in the Telegraph obit) of a party thrown in Somerset by one of Mailer’s mothers in law:

“very lavish… Two bands, one of niggers & one of buggers, a cabaret, an oyster bar in the harness room, stables flood lit, much to the discomfort of the horses. One bit an American pornographer who tried to give him vodka.”

The American pornographer was of course Mailer. In general, the tone of the whole Telegraph obit is remarkably ungenerous. It is impossible to discern from it why anyone might want to read Mailer, and that, it seems to me is something that you really ought to explain if you are gong to give the whole of the obit page over to a writer.