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Monday, 30 September 2013

The difference between 'mumbo' and 'jumbo'

Two head teachers from Kirktonholme Primary school in East Kilbride were recently ‘redeployed’ after distributing material from an American Christian group, the Church of Christ. The action was taken after some parents objected to their children being exposed to what they regarded as extremist material, some of which questioned the theory of evolution. South Lanarkshire Council, having removed the head teachers and put a temporary management team in charge, issued a statement in which they assured the parents that “the West Mains Church of Christ would no longer be given access to Kirktonholme or any other local schools”.

I’m not entirely sure why there was such a fuss about this. Without wishing to offend any particular religious group, you’d have thought that Scottish educationalists would have been well accustomed to teaching codswallop, superstition and pseudo-mystical mumbo jumbo. Perhaps, as a friend pointed out to me, the authorities believe it is acceptable to promote codswallop, superstition and pseudo-mystical mumbo jumbo so long as it is the right kind of codswallop, superstition and pseudo-mystical mumbo jumbo.

One example of the ‘right’ kind of codswallop occurred a few years ago, when schools in England were instructed to show the Al Gore film An Inconvenient Truth, with no expectation or demand that there was any requirement to at least try and balance the argument about anthropogenic global warming; in Scotland, all secondary schools were provided with their own copy and accompanying 'learning pack'. Mr Gore was by no means a stranger to controversy and a number of folk had already expressed concerns about the rigour of some of the ‘science’ in his film. He once famously declared, in an article in Vanity Fair, that "We are literally … altering the balance of energy between our planet and the rest of the universe".

Literally altering the what? The balance of energy? Between the Earth and the rest of the universe?

At the very least, I think one would be entitled to ask exactly how that was measured. Did Mr Gore have access to the universal 'balance of energy' figures from 1940, 1863 or 1536? And just how big is the Universe? Do its other residents know we’ve altered its ‘energy balance’? Will they report us to the ‘universe balance of energy’ neighbourhood watch committee?

Some of his musings may have been on the same intellectual level as the horoscopes page in the Daily Record, yet Mr Gore’s film was presented, without question, to thousands of pupils. Stewart Dimmock, a parent with two children attending an English secondary school, took a case to the High Court, claiming that An Inconvenient Truth represented a form of political indoctrination. Having focused on a number of significant inaccuracies in the film (including the claim that Hurricane Katrina was caused by global warming), the court found in favour of the plaintiff and ordered the educational authorities, when showing the film to children, to make it clear that it was a political work and promoted only one side of the argument. Failure to do so would find them in breach of section 406 of the Education Act 1996, laying them open to charges of political indoctrination.

I’m not trying to make a point here about climate change or climate change ‘denial’. I’m more interested in questioning how and why educators make certain judgements about what is, or is not, appropriate educational material. If we want a system in which intellectual diversity trumps intellectual conformism, those decisions about educational material have to be underpinned by a belief that young people deserve to be presented with all sides of an argument; in that sense, the more information we make available to them, the better.

So what exactly was the point of denying those pupils in South Lanarkshire the opportunity to read about ideas that run counter to the prevailing view? The Church of Christ may well be full of deluded eccentrics, but history is littered with examples of significant figures who were once considered to be eccentric, deluded or downright insane. And surely the theory of evolution is robust enough to stand up to the feeble challenge of a tiny fringe-of-the fringe religious group? Why shouldn’t kids be aware that some faith-based groups might have a different take on the origin of life on earth? The concept of transubstantiation is taught in schools every day, so what makes creationism such a sinister and taboo subject?

Friedrich Nietzsche said that: “The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.

There are many things that our education system does very well, but perhaps it needs reminding that received opinions have no right to go unchallenged; perhaps it needs reminding that sacred cows, occasionally, need to get slaughtered; perhaps it needs reminding that it is better to teach young people how to think, not what to think.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Song of the Week: 'South'

This song goes back a few years, but it felt appropriate to revisit it and give it a little tweak in the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum. It was tempting to give it the epic production treatment, but the decision to exercise a little restraint was probably the right one. This version is just guitar, piano and some rudimentary percussion. An older version of the song utilised a ‘Hollywood western’-style guitar motif, but this less stylised reading avoids backing the listener’s interpretation into a corner.
The lyric expresses a certain ambivalence about the notion of a new geographical location being able to provide an answer to all (or any) of our problems. The protagonist, tired of chasing his tail for answers to life’s big questions, reflects on whether he has any real choice other than to pack up and hit the road. The all-embracing ‘young man, old man, bought man, sold man’ line of the chorus is designed to cover all bases, a statement about the ubiquitous power of delusion. At some level, most of us are occasionally tempted to believe that the grass is somehow greener on the other side.
There is an attempt at some Beach Boys-style vocals in the middle eight, wherein the theme of the lyric is neatly summarised by this simple line: “someplace somewhere else seems better … until we get there”.


Saturday, 21 September 2013

Qatar 2022 - well done, FIFA

I feel a bit sorry for the guys at FIFA. It's really unfair the way that folk are criticising them because of the slightly chaotic situation surrounding the World Cup, which may (or may not) be played in Qatar in the summer (or winter) of 2022, or maybe even the tail end of 2021. When the tournament was first awarded to Qatar, nobody knew that in June and July, when the World Cup is usually (i.e. always) played, that that small country in the Persian Gulf gets very, very hot. The information about soaring temperatures was only made available once a crack team of scientists had looked it up on the internet. Once these scientists had produced a confidential report revealing that human beings can get 'really quite uncomfortable' at temperatures of 50 degrees centigrade, the guys at FIFA sprang into action and started floating the idea of a winter World Cup.

Another trifling point of criticism raised by some folk is that Qatar has no significant football culture, no previous experience of hosting big sporting events and, with a population of less than two million, is way too small to host a World Cup. But it is by no means unusual for FIFA to award the World Cup to tiny countries with no significant football culture and no previous experience of hosting big sporting events. France, Italy, Brazil and Germany are just a few examples that spring to mind.

Some conspiracy theorists have disgracefully tried to suggest that FIFA may have had ulterior motives for taking the World Cup to Qatar, the country with the highest per-capita GDP in the world. What these cynics don’t seem to understand is that FIFA is committed to spreading the gospel of the beautiful game around the globe, because football, as we all know, is a liberating agent of change. History has provided us with numerous examples of nations with slightly unsavoury regimes being transformed by having some millionaire footballers drop in to kick a ball around their country for a couple of weeks. One has to suspect that anyone who criticises FIFA for taking this tournament to the middle east is probably a racist or an Islamophobe, or both. The more decent and optimistic among us will hope that some kind of political and cultural transformation will take place in Qatar once it hosts the 2022 tournament. Sources close to FIFA have privately expressed the view that, within a few years of hosting the World Cup, the country may well elect its first gay or female prime-minister. Well ... maybe not a gay one. Or a female. Or an an elected one. But the hope is in our hearts.

Amidst all of these nit-picking criticisms, the conspiracy theorists have overlooked perhaps the most important factor of all. What they just don’t seem to get is that, when the bidding process for the 2022 World Cup started, the competing bids from Australia, USA and Japan had already put themselves at a severe disadvantage. In their misguided enthusiasm, they had foolishly pinned their hopes on having 'tournament-ready' infrastructures, incorporating completed stadia, hotels, rail-links, roads, communication centres etc. It was arrogant of them, or at least incredibly na├»ve, to go against one of FIFA's core objectives: namely, to generate as many opportunities as possible to negotiate lucrative contracts for building stadia, hotels, rail-links, roads and communication centres. This is clearly the basis on which tournaments are awarded by the entirely above-board-and-in-no-way corrupt FIFA delegates. When the tournament is awarded to a country that has to invest billions in infrastructure, the beautiful game benefits through all of the lucrative contracts that have to be negotiated with the huge companies that build stadia, hotels, rail-links, roads and communication centres. Fortunately, this process is always entirely transparent and completely above board; there is absolutely no chance that any unscrupulous contractor could tempt any FIFA delegate with kick-backs, bribes or large sums of money deposited in offshore bank accounts. Ten minutes worth of research on the internet will assure you that FIFA has a squeaky-clean track record in this department.

So please, let’s give FIFA a break. It has a proud and unblemished track record of looking after the interests of the beautiful game. Anyone who suggests that any of its delegates were driven by self-interest is a deluded conspiracy theorist or (see above) a racist.
When the World Cup goes to Qatar, the country with the highest per-capita GDP in the world, it may just find its spiritual home.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Think about it

I was talking recently to an acquaintance about an aspect of the sex industry that had been in the news. A local authority in England had proposed that men who were ‘kerb crawlers’ should have their driving licences revoked as a way to deter them from chasing prostitutes. My acquaintance expressed the view that the kerb crawlers should indeed be punished by law and that the punishment should not only be strict, but highly visible. “Take their driving licence away from them” she said, “then name and shame them in the press.”
Fair enough, I thought; she is perfectly entitled to her view. But when I asked her a couple of straightforward questions about the possible consequences of these actions, particularly as they related to the income, welfare and life prospects of the women who were currently working on the street, her firmly-expressed views started to unravel.
Once she had been nudged by a few gentle ‘what ifs?’, this person started to change her opinion quite dramatically until -within a few minutes and entirely of her own volition- she had moderated her views to the point that she had started to advocate a regulatory framework supporting the rights and the safety of sex workers, allowing the women and their clients to go about their business in relative peace within ‘properly-licensed’ premises.

I’m not relating this story in order to illustrate my ability to get someone to change her mind on a tricky topic; I’m relating it to show that an intelligent person appeared to have very firm views on an issue, yet those views had clearly never been exposed to examination, had never been challenged with so much as a fleeting thought about what that issue might look like when viewed from a slightly different angle. In this case, the individual concerned had never considered the possible consequences of getting what she thought she wanted; that is, the law to support her gut reaction to kerb crawling. She considered it a distasteful activity and wanted it discouraged or even outlawed. Something, she thought, had to be done about it. But her idea of that ‘something’ changed more or less as soon as she started to think about it.

On an all-too-regular basis, I hear (or read, via social media) folk espousing views that sound like they have been formed by a process which has managed to avoid even a modicum of thought. Some of us seem content to adopt ‘off-the-shelf’ sets of opinions which take no cognisance of the possibility of ambiguity, nuance or subtle degrees of complication on any single issue. Depending on which politicians we like or dislike, depending on whether we read the Guardian or the Daily Mail, these easy-fitting, off-the-shelf opinions stop us considering the possibility of nuanced positions on the EU, the NHS, climate change, Syria, the economy, Scottish nationalism or a host of other topics.

It might be over-egging the pudding to claim that independent thought is actively discouraged, but with huge black holes of dogmatic consensus on the left and right, each exerting a massive gravitational pull towards rigidly-held orthodoxies, it would appear that prickly intolerance is now the default position for lots of folk.
But to have any hope of developing a mature cultural discourse, one in which dogma would be recognised and rejected as a feeble weapon on the battleground of ideas, we’ll need more folk to escape those gravitational pulls, more folk to resist those illiberal impulses.

In short, we’ll need more folk to start thinking about stuff.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Reality, in inverted commas.

Originally published in 1965, Dr Bloodmoney (or: how we got along after the bomb) traces the story of a group of people living on the west coast of the USA in the aftermath of a nuclear war. Dick paints a strange landscape in which the post-blast radiation has produced bizarre mutations like talking dogs, intelligent rats and ‘evolved’ humans with highly developed skills.

Meanwhile, circling the earth, the lonely astronaut Walt Dangerfield is still in orbit seven years after the conflagration, growing weaker by the day but faithfully maintaining his broadcasts to the survivors. With enough supplies to last for several years, Dangerfield, with his avuncular homespun humour, is a purveyor of hope, an orbiting disc jockey /town crier, connecting the disparate and far-flung communities as he relays messages, survival tips, recipes and advice on how to rebuild civilisation.
Down on the surface, the ‘evolved’ humans are not always (or even often) tolerated, but in the case of Hoppy Harrington, the community of Marin County is prepared to overlook his 'otherness' because of his extraordinary technical skills. Born with no arms and no legs, Harrington is embittered and scarred from the discrimination he had encountered in the pre-war world, but finds his own peculiar niche after the bombs have dropped. A humble TV repair man before the conflict, he becomes a brilliant and indispensable mechanic, developing his own personalised servomechanism technology, along with his incredible gift of telekinesis. These skills and powers make him one of the most feted, then feared, people in the country. As his influence and capriciousness grows, we start to realise that his ultimate goal is to dominate first Marin County and then the rest of what remains of the United States.

When Walt Dangerfield starts to experience symptoms of an unknown medical condition, his listeners are worried, mindful of the fact that they rely on his transmissions to maintain some sense of continuity with the old world. We assume the astronaut to be ill, or perhaps a hypochondriac, until we discover that he is actually under psychic attack from the increasingly powerful Harrington, who has not only mastered Dangerfield’s voice and idiom, but has developed the ability to run the equipment in the orbiting satellite by remote control.

In a typical Dickian twist, Harrington meets his nemesis in the unlikely form of Bill Keller, a sentient foetus living inside his seven year old sister, Edie. Bill experiences life and interprets it through dialogue not only with his sibling, but with the spirit world. He can communicate with the dead, read the thoughts and feelings of others and has the ability to envisage future events. As the story develops, so does his yearning for an independent life; he begins to perfect a technique for leaving his sister’s body in order to 'occupy' living beings. After a couple of false starts, he finally gets his wish to see, hear and feel for himself when he transfers briefly into the body of an owl and then, at the climax of the novel, into another human being.

Because his mental health was not always entirely robust, it has been claimed that Philip K Dick didn't merely write about ideas that he dreamed up; perhaps, some folk believe, he wrote about things that he actually experienced, or thought he experienced, in his everyday life. For those who subscribe to that theory, the fact that he had a twin sister who died after only a few weeks will be considered significant to the plot of this novel. However we analyse it, it is clear that when Dick is on his A-game, he can cram more ideas into one book than some writers stretch over an entire career. He is a deep thinker on a variety of themes: artificial life, parallel universes, theology, metaphysics and, above all else, the illusory nature of ‘reality’.

And by that, I don’t mean reality. Philip K Dick’s ‘realities’, you see, are always in inverted commas.