Monday, 20 February 2006
From Buckinghamshire with Love

This has caught my fancy from the BBC.


The planning agency which designed Milton Keynes has been handed the job of reshaping a city which is no stranger to adversity: Najaf, in Iraq.

At first glance the stacks of labelled box files which line one wall of Martin Crookston's London office are a trot through some familiar locations in provincial England.

Smethwick, Birmingham, the Black Country and Telford, Newcastle, Najaf.…

And while most of the residents of the holy city have probably never heard of Milton Keynes, the company assigned the job of reshaping Najaf was responsible for designing Britain's most infamous new town.

Much has changed since 1970, when Richard Llewelyn Davies laid down plans for a new settlement to cater for the growing number of families fleeing London in search of a better life.

By the 1980s Milton Keynes had become a byword for both the pros and cons of post-war British urban planning. It was to some a spacious, modern, landscaped town, and to others a dystopic, soulless home to shopping centres and skateboard parks…..

Anybody who knows Milton Keynes will be familiar with the famous concrete cows.  Apparently the artist also made a concrete pig but it was so big she couldn’t get it out of the studio door.  Phew!                  

                      From this <--       



                        To this -->



Posted on 02/20/2006 10:07 AM by Esmerelda Weatherwax
Monday, 20 February 2006
Death of the essay (continued)

I remember, many years ago, my university tutor holding up my first essay and that of a fellow student. "I was impressed..." he said, and I inwardly breathed a sigh of relief, " neither of these essays." He then dropped the essays, which drifted to the floor, along with my confidence. (We didn't have self-esteem in those days.) What a bastard. It did me no harm, though, as I "got my act together" as people used to say at the time.

Following on from my post about the death of the essay in schools, I wondered what the position is in universities. Do students still write essays, as we did? And do tutors rip them to shreds, sometimes literally?

I googled "Death of the Essay". I was alive to the possibility that this wording might turn up only one side of the argument, unless, of course, my search returned articles entitled "Rumours of the death of the essay are exaggerated", or "Death of the essay? As if!". In fact, not much came up, apart from this article from 2001, by Professor David Punter of the Department of English at the University of Bristol. That's Bristol, England, in case there's one in the US. I was surprised and not best pleased to read that "radical changes in the structures of information and authority make the essay, and its conventional place in assessment, anachronistic":

We live at a time characterised by, among other things, the death of the signature and its replacement by pin numbers and similar techno-authorisations; and a consequence of this is that what we have all been living with for some time, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, is a furthering of uncertainty about where our students’ words (or even our own) are coming from...

My concern with the sustainability of the student essay itself within systems that have moved consistently away from exams and towards coursework, continuous assessment, periodic assessment, and all the other permutations of assessment that we now practice and encourage. The notion of the student essay is itself, of course, open to a variety of interpretations. We may say that it encourages the construction of a reasoned and coherent argument, and thus allows for the demonstration of identifiable transferable skills. We may locate it centrally in the procedures of assessment. We may regard the marking of and commentary on—whether in person or not— such essays as an essential, or in some cases the essential, component in the development of student learning....

I wonder whether in attaching this value to the essay we are now not merely living in the past, but refusing to admit to the ‘presenting’ of the future. Processes of information retrieval and deployment have changed radically over the last twenty years, changed perhaps to a point of unrecognisability...

I think that the days when we could approach student essays looking with a refined eye for originality of thought, penalising over-reliance on sources, speculating on the quality of mind shining through the odd unfortunate phrase, and all the rest of the panoply of distinction on which our grading and classification systems appear to continue to rest, are decisively over.

Bristol is a very good university, and not, as far as I know, one plagued by faddish teaching methods. So are essays dying throughout our universities? If so, I think it is a pity. I believe that they stretch the mind and encourage clarity of thought, if not originality. Of course other assessment methods may do this too, but that is no reason to jettison a tried and tested method of bringing out the best in a student. 

Posted on 02/20/2006 8:18 AM by Mary Jackson
Monday, 20 February 2006
Rothstein on Dennett and Iconoclasm

Edward Rothstein writes in this morning's New Duranty Times:

An ant climbs a blade of grass, over and over, seemingly without purpose, seeking neither nourishment nor home. It persists in its futile climb, explains Daniel C. Dennett at the opening of his new book, "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" (Viking), because its brain has been taken over by a parasite, a lancet fluke, which, over the course of evolution, has found this to be a particularly efficient way to get into the stomach of a grazing sheep or cow where it can flourish and reproduce. The ant is controlled by the worm, which, equally unconscious of purpose, maneuvers the ant into place.

Mr. Dennett, anticipating the outrage his comparison will make, suggests that this how religion works. People will sacrifice their interests, their health, their reason, their family, all in service to an idea "that has lodged in their brains." That idea, he argues, is like a virus or a worm, and it inspires bizarre forms of behavior in order to propagate itself. Islam, he points out, means "submission," and submission is what religious believers practice. In Mr. Dennett's view, they do so despite all evidence, and in thrall to biological and social forces they barely comprehend.

Now that is iconoclasm — a wholehearted attempt to destroy a respected icon. "I believe that it is very important to break this spell," Mr. Dennett writes, as he tries to undermine the claims and authority of religious belief. Attacks on religion, of course, have been a staple of Western secular society since the Enlightenment, though often carried out with far less finesse (and far less emphasis on biology) than Mr. Dennett does; he refers to "the widespread presumption by social scientists that religion is some kind of lunacy."

Mr. Dennett understands, too, that iconoclasm, with its lack of deference, can also give offense. But not even he could have imagined the response to the now notorious Danish cartoons that have so offended Muslims around the world, leading to riots, death and destruction. It was as if the problem of religious belief in the modern world had been highlighted in garish colors. If Mr. Dennett's attack is a premeditated spur to debate, the Muslim riots shock with their primordial force. Together, they leave us with a tough set of intertwining questions: Can religion — with its absolute and sweeping assertions — make any claim on a society whose doctrines require it to defer, in part, to all, even to blasphemers? Can religion be as dramatically shunted aside as Mr. Dennett desires? If not, what sort of accommodation is needed?

This is interesting in that it provides a window into the mind of a modern secularist.   He fears religion in all its forms because he rightly surmises that belief dominates and ultimately controls reason (because it sets the parameters of reason).  Unfortunately, Mr. Rothstein does not differentiate between beliefs: between "true and false".  He assumes that he is free from this kind of a priori control himself and so can be an impartial and rational observer of the irrational. 

Allow me to contend for the moment that all mind requires parameters in which to think.  Those who call themselves atheists still adhere to the dominant parameters of "religious" thought, i.e. that the observable world is rational and conforms to rules that can be comprehended by the mind, and that these rules are ultimately dependable.  These are at bottom "religious" assumptions, whether one admits the existance of God (the rule maker) or not.  

Islam is entirely contrary to this and that is why the challenge Islam poses for the modern world is so great.  The Muslim God is capricious and undependable.   Science could no more arise under Islam than Muhammad could fly to the moon, or the moon fly to him as the story goes.   Allah has more in common with ancient, bloodthirsty tribal dieties than with our modern conception of a universal loving father.  This is the crux of the conflict and no amount of quasi-historical "we've been through this in the west before, nothing to worry about" ala Mr. Rothstein, is going to change that.

Posted on 02/20/2006 7:14 AM by Rebecca Bynum
Monday, 20 February 2006
Six impossible things before breakfast.

I have often wondered how anybody could deny the Holocaust when the evidence is so overwhelming.  Especially for someone of my age whose parent’s contemporaries survived the camps, or were involved in their liberation.  It was beyond belief that so many millions of people, of different languages, nationalities, creeds, many of them enemies, could be involved in a conspiracy of such accuracy, such consistency, worldwide, for so long.


It came to me this morning when I was thinking about something else.  Leaving David Irvine (about whom more later) aside the main denyers of the Holocaust are Muslims.  The people who brought us taqiyya, and the principle “War is Deception”.  The people who consistently don’t tell us what is in the Koran. The people who insist that the Bible is corrupt, but who cannot tell us when pressed, who corrupted it, when, how, in what stages.  Who cannot produce an incorrupt version, or a partially corrupted version, but who continue to insist that it is so.


If they believe that, they can believe anything.  The “Holocaust never happened” is small beer compared to the deceptions they have practised for centuries.  Lewis Carroll understood.


"I can't believe that!" said Alice.

"Can't you?" the queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again, draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said. "One can't believe impossible things."

"I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."


Back to David Irvine, from The Times:-

The British revisionist historian David Irving said today that he would plead guilty to criminal charges of denying the Holocaust, as he went on trial at a court in Vienna.



Mr Irving faces a maximum sentence of ten years in jail under strict Austrian laws making it an offence to publicly diminish, deny or justify the Holocaust. He has been held without bail since November on charges stemming from two speeches he made to Austrian rightwingers in 1989.

But, speaking to reporters as he was escorted into the courthouse, Mr Irving said that he was no longer questioning the deaths of millions of Jews in Nazi death camps during the Second World War.

"I am not a Holocaust denier. My views have changed," he said. "History is a constantly growing tree: the more you learn, the more documents are available, the more you learn, and I have learned a lot since 1989.

"Yes, there were gas chambers," Mr Irving added. "Millions of Jews died, there is no question. I don’t know the figures. I’m not an expert on the Holocaust."

“I’m not an expert on the Holocaust” he says!  No, he knew nothing about it because he denied it existed. Because he denied it existed, he was in no position to learn about it.  Still he has changed his tune now. One down. 1.2 billion to go.

Posted on 02/20/2006 4:58 AM by Esmerelda Weatherwax
Sunday, 19 February 2006
The art of the essay is dying

In an earlier post I expressed concern about "over-googling" making one's brain lazy. In particular, children may be cutting and pasting information from the internet without thinking about it.

In The Telegraph, Dr Andrew Cunningham, who has taught at two very good schools, laments the "death of the essay":

But don't just blame our text-generation teenagers for not caring about the essay. Blame the exam boards, with their insatiable thirst for bullet points and bite-sized information. Their preoccupation with "modules", coursework and "assessment objectives" mitigates against flair, originality and individuality - the very essence of the successful essay.

As coursework now accounts for at least 20 per cent of all GCSEs and A- levels, even the slackest pupils realise they need to present essays neatly. Thus, all coursework essays are typed up. And those scripts reflect the cut-and-pasted nature of so much of the content: 25 identical essays on Romeo and Juliet, peppered with the same bullet points dictated in class to "meet the syllabus requirements".

Now, at the back of every teacher's mind, is a new worry: whether that essay has been downloaded from the internet. The spread of companies offering pre-written essays signals to pupils that essays aren't important: they're another service which, like anything else, can be bought. And what are exam boards doing about them? Very little.

Thus the art of essay-writing has become a mechanical process. The "student" will be worrying whether he has managed to tick off enough boxes in the "assessment criteria grid" that the teacher distributed.

If any parent should glance at the marked essay in their child's folder, instead of helpful comments tailored to the child's needs they will see the teacher covering himself by showing the examiners he too knows the assessment objectives. Comments like: "Jolly good - but how about mentioning Romeo and Juliet's nasty parents?" have given way to: "AO3 - yes"; "No AO5 (ii) here"; "What about some AO4?"

George Orwell's advice on writing clearly, in the 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, is of more use than most syllabuses. If parents want to help to improve their child's style and content, they should show them Orwell's rules. Perhaps someone should show the exam boards.

When I studied history at school we had to write essays all the time. My recollection of any factual content imparted in those history lessons is "numb and vague", and confined to stock phrases such as "peace with honour" and "under the British flag", or "Tory Acts, Factory Acts, Satisfactory Acts and Unsatisfactory Acts". Actually, that last one was from Sellar and Yeatman's "1066 And All That", but you get the picture. However, writing all those essays did teach one to structure an argument, and to follow one. Is this a dying art? It is hard to learn this skill later in life, while surfing the internet is something that can be picked up at any age.

Craig Brown has written a sequel to Sellar and Yeatman's classic, called "1966 And All That". It is in the spirit of the original, although not as good. Like the original, it contains those spoof test papers - "Why are you so numb and vague about Arbella Stuart?", "What price glory?", "Who was in whose what, and how many miles awhat?". Many of these are updated for the new style dumbed down GCSE paper, in which candidates are spared the pain of facts or analysis and asked to empathise:

Imagine you are Adolph Hitler. It is the morning of 30 April 1945. How are you feeling? Unburden yourself in no more than 50 words. Ask yourself: where did it all go wrong? On balance, might you have better career prospects if you had stuck to being a painter?

Posted on 02/19/2006 6:07 AM by Mary Jackson
Sunday, 19 February 2006
"Edgy" art

Nick Cohen, one of the few sensible journalists to write for "The Observer", has some pertinent comments about "transgressive" art:

Last week, I went to the East End of London to witness the death of the avant-garde. At first glance, Gilbert and George's Sonofagod Pictures: Was Jesus Heterosexual?' exhibition at the White Cube did not look like a wake. The bright and glistening gallery is in Hoxton, a corner of town that has been full of life since it was colonised and gentrified by 'Young British Artists' in the early Nineties. As fashionable visitors move between its loft conversions and cafes, 'edgy' is the highest compliment they can bestow and 'taboo' the gravest insult. Taboos are taboo in Hoxton.

Even on a wet Thursday lunchtime, there were plenty of sightseers from the metropolitan intelligentsia enjoying the show rather than mourning the passing of their world. In prose that might embarrass an estate agent, novelist Michael Bracewell told them in the catalogue that Gilbert and George were engaged 'in rebellion, an assault on the laws and institutions of superstition and religious belief'.

Burbling critics agreed. Gilbert and George still get a 'frisson of excitement' by including 'f-words, turds, semen, their own pallid bodies and other affronts to bourgeois sensibilities' in their work, wrote a journalist with the impeccably bourgeois name of Cassandra Jardine in the Daily Telegraph. 'Is it the perfect Christmas card to send George Bush at Easter? Yeah, yeah,' added groovy Waldemar Januszczak of the Sunday Times

Their justifications for edgy art won't work any longer and not only because the average member of the educated bourgeoisie likes nothing better than f-words and pallid bodies on a visit to the theatre or gallery. After the refusal of the entire British press to print innocuous Danish cartoons, the stench of death is in the air. It is now ridiculous and impossible to talk about a fearless disregard for easily offended sensibilities.

Sonofagod is clearly trading under a false prospectus. Gilbert and George narcissistically present themselves as icons towering over a shrivelled Christ. 'God loves Fucking! Enjoy!' reads one inscription. This isn't a brave assault on all religions, just Catholicism.

The gallery owners know that although Catholics will be offended, they won't harm them. That knowledge invalidates their claims to be transgressive. An uprising that doesn't provoke a response isn't a 'rebellion', but a smug affirmation of the cultural status quo.

If they were to do the same to Islam, all hell would break loose. In interviews publicising the show, Gilbert and George showed that they at least understood the double standard. They're gay men who live in the East End where the legal groups of the Islamic far right - Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Muslim Association of Britain - are superseded by semi-clandestine organisations which push leaflets through their door saying: 'Verily, it is time to rejoice in the coming state of Islam. There will be no negotiation with Islam. It is only a short time before the flag of Islam flies over Downing Street.' Even if the artists found the audacity to take on the theocrats around them, they know no gallery would dare show the results.

The fear of being murdered is a perfectly rational one, but it is eating away at the cultural elite's myths. In the name of breaking taboos, the Britart movement has giggled at paedophilia (Jake and Dinos Chapman) and rubbed salt in the wounds of the parents of the Moors murderers' victims (Marcus Harvey). It can't go on as if nothing has happened because the contradictions between breaking some taboos but not others are becoming too glaring. They were on garish display last year when the Almeida Theatre, the White Cube of theatreland, showed Romance by over-praised American playwright David Mamet.

His characters hurled anti-semitic and anti-Christian abuse at each other and very edgy it sounded, too. The justification for his venom was that he had set the play against the backdrop of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. He meant the hatreds on stage to reflect the hatreds of the Middle East.

Readers with an interest in foreign affairs will have spotted that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is between Muslims and Jews, not Christians and Jews. Islamophobic abuse ought to have followed the anti-semitic abuse if the play was to make sense. Neither Mamet nor the Almeida had the nerve do that. Their edginess was no match for the desire of the prudent bourgeois to save his skin.

The insincerity extends way beyond the arts. Rory Bremner will tear into Tony Blair, but not Mohammed Khatami. Newspaper editors will print pictures of servicemen beating up demonstrators in Basra, which may place the lives of British troops in danger, but not Danish cartoons, which may place their own lives in danger.

You can't be a little bit free. If you are not willing to offend Islamists who may kill you, what excuse do you have for offending Catholics, the families of murdered children and British troops who won't?

Nick Cohen had sensible things to say about grammar schools too. All in all, a sensible chap.

Posted on 02/19/2006 5:37 AM by Mary Jackson
Saturday, 18 February 2006
An appeal to the American People

Lawrence Auster has an interesting letter from a French woman at View from the Right:

I accuse the leaders we have had for the last 30 years for the evil that they have done to our civilization, our country, our people, our religious beliefs; for allowing these people in and granting them quick citizenship.

But we are now beginning to revolt against this genocide of ethnic Europeans, against this inquisition, against the extinction of our country that many now call Francarabia. This revolutionary movement is called the Blue Revolution and it is growing rapidly. We all wear blue scarves as a sign of solidarity.

As in the former Soviet dictatorships, people who “upset the apple-cart” disappear one way or another. Methods used on Solzhenitsyn are back in vogue here and I know I am taking a great risk.

I ask for your understanding and for your support. I would like to ask for your troops to liberate us, but I know this cannot be. The important thing to remember is that we are all in the same boat, all in the same fight.

Long live Free France and the Judeo-Christian heritage!

Long live the USA!

Posted on 02/18/2006 9:33 AM by Rebecca Bynum
Saturday, 18 February 2006
Indian debates Indian in Tennessee

The Cartoon riots are causing an earthquake of tremendous proportions across America.  In Nashville, Tennessee, the newspapers are under pressure for their decision not to publish the cartoons.  There have been editorials and letters to the editors flying back and forth.  Here are excerpts from one such letter:

I, too, am a native of Hyderabad, India, now an American citizen and resident of Tennessee for the past two decades. I have read Anantha Babbili’s guest commentary “Islam cartoon is not about free press; it’s about hatred” (Thursday, Feb. 16). [note: 10,000 rioted in Hyderabad yesterday]
I am not pleased that Mr. Babbili has decided to chide the West for its reaction to the Danish political cartoon flap. He accepts the fact that Muslims will burn and pillage over just about any perceived slight and concludes that we therefore ought not to slight them. I believe that Anantha Babbili is merely hiding here in the West, retaining the same class and ethnic defenses used in the old country in the guise of a welcome alien.
The picture of Hyderabad is not as rosy as Mr. Babbili paints it. It is one of the ten most religiously divided cities in India, and there are at least two or three riots there every year. There is a strong Islamic fundamentalist and pro-Pakistani element in Hyderabad, which has made a tactical alliance with Maoist extremist groups to destabilize India’s liberal democratic system. Al Qaeda is active in the city.
Muslims, though in the minority, with a few notable exceptions have never bothered to learn the majority’s language, Telugu, which is spoken by sixty million Hindus and Christians in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, whose capital city is Hyderabad. Telugu has a thousand-year history of deeply philosophical and religious literature. For Mr. Babbili to call it a “local vernacular” is highly offensive to me and other Indians.
But we’re not going to riot...
Anantha Babbili does not speak for me. He speaks for a small minority of apologists in the West who fail to understand the nature of the culture or society they have adopted. The problem is not that Danish journalists insensitively caricatured the Prophet; it is that such an inane expression of Western curiosity should send Muslim populations raging, as though they never expected to see or hear such a thing in their lifetimes.
Being raised in a cultural crossroads should have given Mr. Babbili a better understanding of the Muslim worldview. His experiences are typical of youth in Hyderabad, but so is his adulthood: overlooking religious strife in order to avoid additional strife. Here we have a career journalist teaching by example that when the going gets tough, the tough collude and play down the story.
Our right to a free and critical press is our responsibility. To censor an insulting cartoon is to do a disservice to that responsibility. Beliefs do not have to be protected, but the right to criticize them must be. 
Posted on 02/18/2006 9:02 AM by Rebecca Bynum
Saturday, 18 February 2006
Aiming to please

The other evening I went to a dinner party at which quail was served in an attempt to be topical. This, of course, was a reference to Dick Cheney's recent mishap. I was rather glad that Bill Clinton's mishap was not making headlines, otherwise our fare might have been less agreeable, as at this members only restaurant here.

Harry Whittington, pictured below, is "pockmarked and bruised", but it looks as if he will pull through.

He delivered a short statement, in which he showed that he has no hard feelings:

"We all assume certain risks in what we do, in what activities we pursue," he said. "Accidents do and will happen. This past weekend encompassed all of us in a cloud of misfortune and sadness that is not easy to explain especially for those who are not familiar with the great sport of quail hunting."

All's well that ends well, then. I was interested to read in The Times that this is not the first time that a Vice President has shot a man while in office:

That honour falls to Aaron Burr, Vice-President of the United States between 1801 and 1805. Rather than settle for inadvertently peppering a friendly Republican donor, Burr went the whole hog and shot dead the first Secretary of the US Treasury.

It is fair to state that the victim, Alexander Hamilton, had been getting on Burr’s nerves for some time. Their enmity dated from Burr’s defeat of Hamilton’s father-in-law for a senate seat in 1791. It was exacerbated by the 1800 presidential contest, which had produced a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Burr in the electoral college. Hamilton intrigued to ensure that Jefferson got the top job during the ensuing prolonged period of horsetrading.

Burr was a man of intense ambition and unquenchable libido. Hamilton suspected he was a Catiline, ready to sell out the Republic for his own ends. When Hamilton refused to apologise for making derogatory remarks about the Vice-President, Burr challenged the man who had established America’s first national bank to a duel.

Disregarding the illegality of duelling in New Jersey, the two men were rowed out in separate boats across the Hudson on the early morning of July 11, 1804, meeting for their “interview” on the Plains of Weehawken. Hamilton fired first, deliberately aiming wide. Burr replied shattering Hamilton’s rib cage. The former Secretary to the Treasury died the following day, in agony.

How unlike the home life of our own dear Prime Minister, UK readers might think. Well, what about John Prescott, our Deputy Prime Minister, who famously punched a heckler? Is there something about being second in command that makes people dangerous?

Posted on 02/18/2006 5:22 AM by Mary Jackson
Saturday, 18 February 2006

What's this nutter going to ban next?

What's this nutter going to ban next?

Simon Heffer in The Telegraph talks sense on this wretched Labour Government's craze for banning things:

Like most patriotic people, and in the spirit of the times, my mind has been concentrated these past few days on the issue of single most importance to our society: what we can ban next.

This week key steps have been taken to restrict and trammel activities many of us have taken for granted as quite lawful. If you smoke, you soon won't be able to do it in an "enclosed space", unless you happen to be in prison at the time - in which case, your luck's in.

We have also taken a crucial step towards an even greater attack on our liberty: the day comes nearer when, just for going about your business, an officer of the law will be able to stop you and ask you to prove your identity.

And if you are some vile, contemptible little nutter who likes to go around saying al-Qa'eda is glorious, your historic right to make a berk of yourself has been removed, too. And, for this, we are all meant to feel safer and happier.

Ironically, this flurry of proscriptive activity comes as we are celebrating the anniversary of the last thing Labour thought it could ban: foxhunting. What a huge success that has been. More foxes have been killed in the past year than ever, partly because gamekeepers who used to leave them for the hunt now make a point of shooting them.

And shooting foxes is not nearly so humane a means of killing them as is the instant death of being set on by a pack of hounds, so the idea that cruelty was going to be ended by banning hunting has turned out to be drivel, too.

More people are hunting now than was the case a year ago, which only proves the point that the best way to make something really appealing is to make it illegal. I am sure that Sir John Mortimer, who graced our pages this week to state he had taken up smoking to mark the introduction of the ban on doing it in public, will not be the only person tempted to try out the weed, and to discover what all the fuss is about.

Similarly, unformed minds will at this very moment be planning to go on to the streets and do something that might never have occurred to them before: to glorify terror. And there are already legions of people (and I am one of them) who would not dream of carrying an identity card as a matter of course when going about in their own country.

The utter failure of the hunting ban ought to be a lesson to the Government, and to that new breed of MPs who see their job as being not to serve the public, but to control it. Yet we know that it won't. You will think I jest, but how long will it be before a move begins to ban drinking in pubs, too?

The health fascists, sensing they have won on smoking, are already making minatory noises about alcohol and, indeed, certain foods.

From where we are now it is a short step to making it a criminal offence for a publican to serve someone who has already drunk his government-specified quota of alcohol for the evening, or to sell such killer substances as pork scratchings to anyone whose body mass index is deemed to be too high.

And, of course, once you ban these things in order to help the public be happier and healthier, it is a short further step to criminalising their glorification - such as arresting the scriptwriters and broadcasters of EastEnders and Coronation Street if people are depicted as having an unduly good alcohol-induced time in the Queen Vic or the Rover's Return.

And there are other killers that need to be controlled. Motoring should obviously be banned at once, and Jeremy Clarkson locked up for glorifying it every week on Top Gear. And, inevitably, the Government will have to get round to banning sex.

After all, as a result of it, people are born who do terrible things, such as joining terrorist organisations, smoking in the presence of others, or hunting foxes. And, worst of all, everyone who is born faces certain death. It's amazing they haven't thought of this before, isn't it?

Winston Churchill smoked, of course, and drank very heavily. Presumably his trademark cigar will be airbrushed out of photographs, as happened with the front cover of a schoolbook about Isambard Kingdom Brunel .

Can I write this piece without mentioning the word "Orwellian"? Yes, I think so.

Posted on 02/18/2006 4:56 AM by Mary Jackson
Friday, 17 February 2006
Useless? Think again

I will always be grateful for my grammar school education, which gave me and many others like me the opportunity of learning Latin. The grammar school system was the greatest engine of social mobility that the UK has ever known. I will write more about it on another occasion. For now, here is Nick Cohen, whose argument can be summed up as "poor but talented children are (now) confined to the worst schools".

I was pleased to see a defence of the classics by Anthony O'Hear, writing in The Telegraph:

According to the higher education minister, a Mr Bill Rammell, it is "not necessarily a bad thing" that there have been sharp falls in the number of students applying to study history and the classics at university. At the same time, he welcomes the considerable increases in those choosing what he calls "more vocationally beneficial subjects", such as nursing, social work and pharmacology.

Certainly we need nurses, chemists and even social workers, but a civilisation needs much more than that. One wonders whether Mr Rammell has ever thought about the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages were precisely those centuries in which classical learning was lost in the West, except in a few monasteries geographically on the very limits of the known world. It was kept alive only in Byzantium and, remarkably, in parts of the Islamic world.

And what does Mr Rammell think the Renaissance was about? It was precisely the rediscovery of classical antiquity in western Europe and a new sense of its riches and beauty.

For the sake of argument, let us suppose that the Renaissance was a 15th-century phenomenon, although of course its roots were earlier, in the poetry of Dante, in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and in the art of Giotto.

In Europe, in every century since the 15th, there had been rediscoveries and re-evaluations of the classics: the humanism of Erasmus, the painting of Titian, Rubens and Poussin, the poetry of Milton, Dryden and Pope, the plays of Corneille and Racine, the architecture of the baroque, the archaeological researches of Wincklemann, the art of David and the poetry of Goethe - Goethe, who, on seeing ancient Greek coins from Sicily, said that it gave him new hope for mankind that so utilitarian an object could be so beautiful; and then on in the 19th century, to the Greek revival in architecture, to the painting of Ingres and the music of Berlioz, and the very different rediscoveries of what the classics actually meant by Matthew Arnold, by the great German philologists and by the philosopher Nietzsche.

It would be no exaggeration to say that European culture from the 14th century onwards has been defined by the way each age and each artistic movement has gone to the wells of ancient Greece and Rome, has drunk deep and has arisen refreshed and invigorated - every age, that is, until our own.

Nowadays, the study of classical Greek in our schools has declined to such an extent that, out of 5.7 million GCSE papers taken by 675,000 pupils, fewer than a thousand are in classical Greek and entries for Latin and Classical Civilisation number only a few thousand.

The artistic and cultural giants of eight or nine European centuries were not wrong. In Homer and Greek tragedy and in Greek sculpture, we find, as Nietzsche pointed out, a beauty and a drama that is sublime because it gazes into the abyss, without either illusion or despair.

Classical Greek architecture, as everyone who sees it recognises, is an astonishing balance of proportion and detail, luminous in its stone and marble, and never since surpassed. Western philosophy is, essentially, just the legacy of Plato and Aristotle. The poetry of Virgil, marmoreal in its splendour, lapidary in its language, has, along with that of Ovid, furnished the European imagination for centuries.

And the history of Rome is the source of the history of Europe, and the cradle both of Christianity and of the notion of the rule of law.

We are depriving our children of knowledge of all of this in our futile efforts to be modern and focused on the instrumental. We are forging a new dark age, in which the decline of the study of history is also to be welcomed.

Mr Rammell would apparently have us rejoice in the fact that we have no sense of the past; but a person with no sense of the past is a person who is a stranger both to his or her own roots and to the human condition more generally. For human beings are not creatures of nature; we are inheritors of the history that has made us what we are. Not to know our history is not to know ourselves, and that is the condition not of human beings, but of animals.

And even from a practical point of view, to be ignorant of the past is to make us impotent and unprepared before the present. How can someone without a sense of medieval history have the slightest inkling of the meaning of the current impasse the West finds itself in in its dealings with Islam?

The Crusades were not, as is often implied by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, a unique moment of anti-Islamic aggression. They were actually but one blip in the astonishing growth of Islamic empires in Europe and elsewhere, from the time of Mohammed onwards, right up to 1683 when the Turks were turned back from the gates of Vienna and 1686 when they were expelled from Budapest.

But who now remembers any of this, or ponders its consequences? It is not, needless to say, taught in National Curriculum history, which prefers to dwell on the Aztecs, about whom we have only the vaguest knowledge in comparison, and (endlessly) on the rise of Fascism (not communism) in Europe, studied by pupils who know nothing of the history of Italy and Germany before the 20th century.

Is it any wonder that, with no sense of our past or identity - as, in other moods, politicians increasingly complain - we are a culture obsessed with celebrity, football, and reality television? Most of our population know nothing else, and they have no yardstick from either history or culture with which to judge. As long ago as the 1920s, the great (classicist) poet T S Eliot stared at what he saw as the collapse of European culture: "These fragments I have shored against my ruin." Most of us have no knowledge now even of the fragments. We, or our children, will have only a desolate sense of loss, but we won't know what it is we have lost. Welcome to Rammell's world.

Leaving aside the argument that the classics are indeed relevant to the present day, the idea that education should be concerned with "relevance" in its narrow sense, for example that black children living in tower blocks only want to read about other black children living in tower blocks, is extremely patronising. But then the Left, the driving force behind the abolition of the grammar schools and behind educational "relevance", is nothing if not patronising. The Left, especially the wealthy Left, wants the working classes to remain working class, to know their place. Their own children are safely in private schools or comprehensives in rich catchment areas, and it would be quite upsetting for them to be overtaken by grammar school upstarts. 

Posted on 02/17/2006 7:28 AM by Mary Jackson
Friday, 17 February 2006
Trial by tabloid
In a post two or three weeks ago about the trial of Abu Hamza, I argue that a defendant in a criminal trial should be tried solely on the evidence and that other aspects, such as the fact that he is generally agreed to be a "bad lot", or even, in this particular case, that Islam is a malign ideology, should not influence the conduct of the trial or its outcome:
The job of the prosecution counsel in the Abu Hamza trial is to demonstrate, beyond reasonable doubt,  that the defendant has broken the law. At the moment, preaching from the Koran is not illegal so the Koran is irrelevant to the prosecution argument. What is relevant is whether Abu Hamza's words - Koran-inspired or not - could incite murder and racial hatred. The prosecution counsel is quite right to distance himself from the words of the Koran, to state: "This prosecution is not brought to criticize Islam or criticise the teachings of the Koran. It is brought because of what the defendant says." 
Conversely, the job of the counsel for the defence is to defend his client, regardless of whether he personally thinks he is guilty, or, certainly, whether anyone else - the public, The Telegraph, The Sun,  - think he is a "bad lot".
Ross Clark in this week's Spectator (subscription only), makes a similar argument with regard to the trial of Sion Jenkins.
I have no idea whether Sion Jenkins — the former Hastings deputy headmaster who was this week acquitted of murdering his foster daughter after juries in two successive trials failed to reach a verdict — committed the foul deed or not. I wasn’t there...All I do know is that had I been on the jury sifting through five months’ worth of evidence in one of the most eagerly followed murder trials of recent years, I would almost certainly have been one of those members who felt unable to convict. After three trials and nine years there has not been a single piece of convincing evidence which implicates Jenkins as the killer. And that, in any civilised legal system, would be that: the prisoner must go free.

Different rules apply, however, in Britain’s alternative legal system, otherwise known as tabloid journalism....The past few days have seen Jenkins tried for a fourth time in absentia — the tabloids, though choosing their words very carefully, effectively reaching the verdict that it woz Jenkins wot done it. ‘What the jury was not told’, the Mail screamed on Friday, listing three pieces of ‘missing evidence’ it claims should have been presented in court. What evidence? Jenkins, according to Lois, had a foul temper and sometimes slapped her in the face, leading her on one occasion to hide in the loft....

The Jenkins case has highlighted a little commented-upon change in the law under the Criminal Justice Act 2003 which permits use of ‘bad character’ evidence in criminal trials. In future, juries will be fed much more in the way of previous affairs, acts of dishonesty and errors of judgment which have nothing to do with the crime under consideration, and invited to draw conclusions. ...

It doesn’t take much imagination to see where this could lead: accused of rape and with little evidence to prove it, the prosecution is now free to contact your spurned girlfriends for comment and to cite in court any visit you might have made to a porn website....

We are approaching the world of Albert Camus’s Outsider, where a man is condemned to death not so much because he killed a stranger — which he maintains was done in self-defence — but because he failed to cry at his mother’s funeral.

I couldn't agree more. In the course of my recent jury service I was impressed by ordinary jurors' ability to stick to the evidence and not let irrelevant factors, opinions or prejudice cloud their judgement. Of course this was not a high profile trial and was not splashed all over the tabloids. The jury system is not perfect but generally works most of the time. However, it is in danger of being undermined by the admission of "bad character" evidence and by "trial by tabloid". This must not be allowed to happen.

Posted on 02/17/2006 7:14 AM by Mary Jackson
Thursday, 16 February 2006
Butt out, Blair

Two opinion pieces from The Telegraph dealing with the way in which Britain's wretched Labour Government wants to control and regulate our lives.


First, Boris Johnson rails against health and safety legislation, "elf and safety" as he calls it. He begins by discussing how a Japanese children's television programme "responds to a deep and unmet need in modern British life".

It is the need to see real risk, real danger, real humiliation, and of course real failure: all the things that are so expensively and so ingeniously airbrushed out of our mollycoddled and over-regulated lives...

Our modern pathetic airbagged society is the product of the lust of politicians to regulate and above all to be seen to be regulating, even when the law they are proposing is wholly unnecessary....

All they think about is whether they will appear to be "doing something", whether they look strong, whether they look in control; and of course it is always easiest to look strong and in control if you are passing some coercive piece of legislation.

Look at Patricia Hewitt, and her magnificently invertebrate performance in the smoking ban debate. She began the day wanting to preserve the right of clubs to have smoking sections; she ended on the side of a total ban - not, as she later claimed, because she had "listened to the arguments", but because she had succumbed to the politician's overwhelming lust to be seen to "act".

Secondly, the Telegraph leader argues that "the Government's appetite for passing oppressive laws grows with the eating".

Yesterday's vote in the Commons to make the "glorification" of terrorism an offence was justified by ministers as essential to combat the rise of extremism. It is nothing of the sort.

The existing laws on incitement to murder, to violence, and to racial and other forms of hatred provide all the scope needed to prevent extremists from encouraging others to support violent attacks.

There was plenty of "glorification" of terrorism in the demonstrations in London a fortnight ago over the Danish cartoons: but it also constituted incitement to murder, for which the police have not yet seen fit to have anyone prosecuted.

The "glorification" law was said to be needed to stop the likes of Abu Hamza: but without it, Hamza is already in jail. It all helps support the case eloquently put by the shadow attorney-general, Dominic Grieve, that yesterday's proceedings were merely a stunt designed to make Tony Blair look tough...

More on the smoking ban at Samizdata, commenting on one of the few exceptions to the ban - prisons:

But what about the health of non-smoking prisoners in the confined space? What about passive smoking by prison officers, whose workplace it is? N'importe. The tobacco allowance in prison is a means of control used by the authorities. Removing it would remove something of their capacity for arbitrary reward and punishment of individual prisoners. Plus withdrawing it would lead to riots, both acutely in fury at withdrawal, and chronically on losing the calming effects of nicotine.

So the lesson for prisoners in what Shami Chakrabarti calls HMP UK who do wish to smoke is plain. Threaten violence. You will either get your way as other aggressive sub-groups do, or be sent to the segregation block that is the officially acknowledged prison system - and there you may smoke all you like, provided you behave yourself.

As a non-smoker, I find this ban abhorrent. There is precious little evidence that "passive smoking" does any real harm. People who are prissy about smoking have usually got their priorities wrong. If you have people round for dinner, it is the height of bad manners to send someone outside merely because they wish to smoke, while letting someone who wishes to be boring stay put at the table. The boring should stand outside in the cold, together with their fellow bores. The same goes for offices and pubs.

This Government is getting on my nerves. I wish it would butt out. 


Update: It seems Theodore Dalrymple agrees with me. A comment in "The Sun" by one opposed to the smoking ban amused me: "Cig heil".

Posted on 02/16/2006 4:50 AM by Mary Jackson
Wednesday, 15 February 2006
Tapping into our credulity

Christina Odone writes about the bottled water myth that so many of us appear to have swallowed:

I DID IT, TOO. I carried a sleek plastic bottle of water to the gym, sat a fat glass bottle beside my computer at work and asked “still or sparkling” of my dinner-party guests. Yes, I was a bottled water fanatic.

But no more. The Earth Policy Institute, an American independent environmental research organisation, has just published a report that paints a galling picture of a giant con being perpetrated upon a thirsty and gullible people. Every time we buy a bottle of water — carbonated or still, in plastic or glass — we are enriching people and businesses that not only rip us off, but also mock us as sentimentalist, innumerate and scientifically illiterate.

For years the sales strategy of the large mineral water conglomerates has tapped into our bucolic myths of sparkling clear streams and pure Alpine lakes. It didn’t matter that almost 40 per cent of bottled water began its life as tap water from a municipal source; we were led to believe that a sip of this stuff and our urban, stressed-out rat race of a life would be instantly detoxed. After a glass or two, we would be as close to Nature as a Rousseau hero in his birthday suit, as alive with pleasure as Julie Andrews trilling and twirling in those hills. We were assured that there was a genie in every bottle, and our wish for a long and healthy life was its command.

While luring us with the promise of purity and regeneration, the makers of bottled water sneered at our inability to play the numbers game. It was clear from their booming business that we, the consumers, could not work out that by selling a bottle of water for £1 that had cost them pennies at source, the producers were raking in 1,000 per cent profit. We had obviously not figured out that the £57 billion spent each year on bottled water was nearly seven times the sum that is invested in providing safe drinking water in developing countries.

Worst of all, the producers of bottled water sneered at our scientific ignorance. They figured that we could not possibly know that a plastic bottle of water takes 1,000 years to biodegrade; or that distributing 154 billion litres a year by train, truck and boat would incur huge costs in terms of energy and pollution.

When it came to water, we were mugs. But not a drop more will pass my lips. Turn on that tap.

I couldn't agree more when it comes to still water. Fashionable restaurants such as London's Nobu charge £5 for a small bottle, which is outrageous. However, sparkling water is rather different. The bubbles do add value, although not as much as the price of the bottle. And sparkling water is preferable to ghastly soft drinks like coke or orange juice if you are ever in the unpleasant position of not being able to drink wine. More usefully, it is a good palate cleanser between glasses of different wine. But I have never bought a bottle of still water in a restaurant, and this will not change.

Posted on 02/15/2006 6:23 AM by Mary Jackson
Tuesday, 14 February 2006
Stuttaford on the Cartoons

Andrew Stuttaford is another bright spot at National Review.  It's probably just a coincidence he's English.

It was this freedom that van Gogh was testing, it was this freedom that Jyllands-Posten is testing, and it is this freedom that the Dutch foreign minister will be compromising when he travels this week to the Middle East alongside Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, for talks aimed at reducing the tension over the cartoons, a pointless and humiliating exercise that can only reinforce the dangerous impression held by many of the region's Muslims that Europe's governments somehow control Europe's newspapers and can thus be blamed for their contents.

The fact that such a mission is unlikely to take much account of the opinions of Dutch voters should surprise nobody. Europe's leaders have long tended to prefer the top-down and the technocratic to the views of electorates they see as atavistic, irrational, and prone to disturbing nationalist enthusiasms. This is why they had the arrogance to prescribe multiculturalism as an appropriate response to mass immigration, an idea of remarkable stupidity that goes a long way toward explaining the predicament in which Europe now finds itself.

Of course, we don't yet know what this delegation to the Middle East will be saying, but comments made in an interview with the London Daily Telegraph by the EU's sinisterly named Commissioner for Freedom, Security and Justice reveal some clues. Saying that millions of Muslims felt "humiliated" by the cartoons, and referring to a supposed "real problem" faced by the EU in reconciling freedom of expression with freedom of religion (actually, there's no "problem" at all, unless fanatics choose to make one), he suggested that the press should adopt a voluntary code of conduct. By agreeing to this "the press will give the Muslim world the message: we are aware of the consequences of exercising the right of free expression, we can and we are ready to self-regulate that right." Why the "Muslim world" outside Europe, much of which is represented by dictatorships, mullah-states and kleptocracies, should have any say in the contents of the continent's supposedly free press was not discussed.

In fairness it should be mentioned that the commissioner, Franco Frattini, subsequently put out a vague, ambiguous, and confusing press release purportedly intended to clarify his remarks, but once you have cut through the waffle, checked out the full text of the original interview, and grasped the fact that he was already talking about some sort of code before the current crisis, the commissioner's intentions become all too clear. One way or another, he wants the press muzzled...

After the events of these last days, we can be sure that other acts of censorship or self-censorship will pass insidiously and in silence, unnoticed, un-mourned, or, at best, explained away as a gesture of that "respect" that Europe's elites are now so eager to proclaim.

And as for the Danes, they must be feeling very, very alone. The notion of European solidarity has been revealed as the myth it always was. Denmark, and its tradition of free speech, has been left to twist in the wind, trashed, abused, and betrayed. An article published in Jyllands-Posten (yes, them again) on Friday revealed clear frustration over the way that the country is being treated. It's in Danish only, but one phrase ("Ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed. Der er intet men.") stands out, and it deserves to be translated and repeated again, and again, and again: "Free speech is free speech is free speech. There is no but."

Fine words. Is anyone listening?

Posted on 02/14/2006 8:19 AM by Rebecca Bynum
Tuesday, 14 February 2006
the foretelling

The Pakistan Daily Tribune carries an op-ed by Syed Mateen saying this:

To make clear to the blasphemous cartoonists and the publishers of the newspapers, let me remind them that Jesus Christ (PBUH) was the second-last prophet of Al-Mighty Allah. He foretold the coming of the last Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

Ah yes, I do seem to remember something in the Gospels about "beware false prophets" and "you will know them by their fruits."

Posted on 02/14/2006 7:52 AM by Rebecca Bynum
Tuesday, 14 February 2006
Dalrymple in Cato Unbound

NER's own Theodore Dalrymple writes in Cato Unbound, Is "Old Europe" Doomed?

Doom or further decline is not inevitable, however, though avoidance of it requires active effort. The auguries are not good, not only because of the political immobilism that elaborate systems of social security have caused in most European countries, but because of the European multinational entity that is being created against the wishes of the peoples of Europe (insofar as they can be gauged).

The European Union serves several purposes, none of which have much to do with the real challenges facing the continent. The Union helps Germans to forget that they are Germans, and gives them another identity rather more pleasing in their own estimation; it allows the French to forget that they are now a medium sized nation, one among many, and gives them the illusion of power and importance; it acts as a giant pension fund for politicians who are no longer willing or able successfully to compete in the rough and tumble of electoral politics, and enables them to hang on to influence and power long after they have been rejected at the polls; and it acts as a potential fortress against the winds of competition that are now blowing from all over the world, and that are deeply unsettling to people who desire security above all else.

Apocalyptic thought is curiously pleasurable. Doom is too strong a word, in my view; I think it would be more accurate to say that Europe is sleepwalking to further relative decline. But we should also modestly remember that the future is, ultimately, unknowable.

To which I would simply add, the fact that the future is unknowable, is often its greatest mercy.

Posted on 02/14/2006 6:18 AM by Rebecca Bynum
Tuesday, 14 February 2006
Credit where credit is due
Editor's Note
Why we reproduced the Mohammed cartoons.
by William Kristol
02/12/2006 12:35:00 PM
TO ACCOMPANY the editorial in the new issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD, we have reproduced  the page with the Mohammed cartoons from the September 30 Jyllands-Posten. Readers should be able to see what this controversy is about. More important, in light of recent instances of capitulation to the threats of radical Islamists, and in response to eloquent pleas by individuals like Walid-al-Kubaisi in Norway to publish the cartoons in order to protect freedom of expression, we wanted to do our small part to stand against intimidation by extremists.
--William Kristol
Posted on 02/14/2006 5:37 AM by Andy Bostom
Monday, 13 February 2006
Carry on up the Kaba

Mark Steyn has a good piece on blow-up doll rage. Yes, you did read that correctly:

From Europe's biggest-selling newspaper, the Sun: 'Furious Muslims have blasted adult shop [i.e., sex shop] Ann Summers for selling a blowup male doll called Mustafa Shag."

Not literally "blasted" in the Danish Embassy sense, or at least not yet. Quite how Britain's Muslim Association found out about Mustafa Shag in order to be offended by him is not clear. It may be that there was some confusion: given that "blowup males" are one of Islam's leading exports, perhaps some believers went along expecting to find Ahmed and Walid modeling the new line of Semtex belts. Instead, they were confronted by just another filthy infidel sex gag. The Muslim Association's complaint, needless to say, is that the sex toy "insults the Prophet Muhammad -- who also has the title al-Mustapha.'

In a world in which Danish cartoons insult the prophet and Disney Piglet mugs insult the prophet and Burger King chocolate ice-cream swirl designs insult the prophet, maybe it would just be easier to make a list of things that don't insult him. Nonetheless, the Muslim Association wrote to the Ann Summers sex-shop chain, "We are asking you to have our Most Revered Prophet's name 'Mustafa' and the afflicted word 'shag' removed.".....

...When Samuel Huntington formulated his famous "clash of civilizations" thesis, I'm sure he hoped it would play out as something nobler than shaggers vs. nutters. But in a sense that's the core British value these days. If it's inherent in Muslim culture to take umbrage at everything, it's inherent in English culture to turn everything into a lame sex gag. The "Mustafa" template is one of the most revered in the English music-hall tradition: "I've been reading the latest scholarly monograph -- 'Sexual Practices of the Middle East by Mustapha Camel.'" If they wanted to appease the surging Muslim demographic, the British could conceivably withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan but it's hard to imagine they could withdraw from vulgar sex jokes and still be recognizably British. They are, in the Muslim Association's choice of words, "afflicted" with shag fever.

That is not true. If a Sun editor sees a lame sex gag in his paper he will whip it out straightaway.

Posted on 02/13/2006 1:21 PM by Mary Jackson
Monday, 13 February 2006

UK readers, take a trip down memory lane. The BBC  is featuring classic public information films from the last 60 years.  Any US readers who consider the English to be rather quaint with poor dress sense and plummy accents will find that this is really true.

"Today's film is a real treasure. It's got everything you could want from a public information film - a slogan, dated costumes, a bit of nostalgia - but is also unintentionally amusing.

The Green Cross Code was introduced in 1971, with "splink" as a supposedly handy mnemonic. But surprise, surprise children found it too complicated. The Times of 10 July, 1974 (before this Pertwee film was released) reported that in a survey of 595 children aged between seven and 15, precisely none could remember the drill in full. Furthermore, only 18% of children chose the safest place to cross the road. "

"Splink" has to be the worst mnemonic ever.  Not only is it meaningless, but the individual letters don't stand for anything that makes sense. The video clip is a must, though, if only for those tank tops.

Posted on 02/13/2006 8:54 AM by Mary Jackson
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