Monday, April 30, 2012

Dark Horses

A report was once written about a young lieutenant in the British Army which damned his future career with the following beautifully succinct piece of faint praise.
“Men will follow this officer. If only out of sheer curiosity.”
I don’t really understand why the doings of the Church of England hold any meaningful interest for me. It’s like a horse race. I have a detached interest in which horse wins but since I’ve backed none of them, it really doesn’t matter very much. I find its politics worldly, its missiology often flawed and clumsy and many of its higher-minded proponents especially those for whom the Church is a golf club with incense, faintly repugnant. Women bishops? Who cares. Gay ‘marriages’ – half of the high Anglicans I have ever met have had more than the aroma of left-footedness about them and very competent pastors some have been. Let them hold hands if they want to, but don’t put the imprimatur of the Church on a piece of paper for which its seal was never intended.
In short, all of the above notwithstanding, I also happen to know many good, solid, valuable souls for whom adherence to it, in some form or another, is as natural as breathing. Cynicism is the disease of the modern age and hope is its cure, so let’s leave the bah humbug behind for a moment and suspend disbelief that the C of E is not short of leaders, just followers.
Noddy and Big Ears
Which brings me to John Sentamu. Brought up in Uganda as a Manchester United supporter – come on, you Reds -  and after a legal career found his way to the top of the heap in the C of E as the lady-in-waiting for Lambeth, the Archbishopric of York. He’s not signed up for the election committee to replace RW, so the smart money is saying that despite being a black man from Kampala and a thoroughly nice bloke, by all accounts, he’s up for a move to Canterbury. If he doesn’t get it, everyone will say that it’s because snobby toffs in London aren’t too keen on a coloured bloke for the top job and he’s being a bit sniffy and old-fashioned about gay marriages. He’s also been criticized for his ‘African chief’ mentality which has been likened to tribalism, which might not sit well in the corridors of power. H’m. At least you’d know where you were with him. Some kind of wishy-washy with clean hands and impeccable diplomatic credentials he ain’t. Good for him. He’s smart, unafraid to say what he thinks – a populist and a strong antithetical candidate to swing the pendulum back from Rowan’s high-minded but remote tenure.
John S is being backed at 6/4 while London’s Richard Chartres – the beaten favourite last time out is at 7/4 and Nick Baines, Bishop of Bradford is at 5/1. All might change with the dark horse coming on strong in the final furlong in the form of  Graham James, Bishop of Norwich. Good game.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Every Dog Has His Day

Not 'white power', apparently, but the military salute of the Templars

The trial of Anders Behring Breivik continues. His assertion that there has been 'systematic deconstruction of the Norwegian and European culture from multiculturalism' is by no means original, as is his muddled, anti-Marxist ideology, but his solution, an apparent attempt to murder over five hundred innocent people in cold blood  including a plan to behead a former prime Minister - the traditional medieval punishment for traitors - and without a shred of remorse, assuredly is. His calm, moonlike face and deep-set eyes surely conceal the mind of a psychopath or a self-trained urban terrorist – opinions currently differ about his sanity. The gentle, almost convivially civilised atmosphere in the courtroom of the inoffensive Norwegians is a testament to the depth of organisational charity possessed by its government and legal system. He is allowed his day in Court with all civility. 

He complains, inter alia, about the pervasive and creeping rise of Islam, concerning which, a few thoughts of my own follow. 

Observing Islamic culture from the relative safety of SW3 is rather different to daily exposure to it as an expat, but it might be instructive to imagine for a moment that one might have a conversation with oneself while overlooking Fulham Road with a glass of Amontillado to hand. Islam is heterogeneous but the unacceptable nature of some of its manifestations, both in the West and in Muslim-majority countries is what draws non-Muslims to its attention. We don't understand suicide bombers – promises of immediate Paradise plus seventy-two houris notwithstanding - the word is probably a mistranslation of 'white grapes', but, for now we can move on. We get upset about reports of non-Muslims being killed, or about women enduring appalling punishments, and feel that we, or our governments, should respond in some way.

So what should our attitude be toward “bad” Islam, which one might conveniently call the “I” word, a term embracing terrorism; intolerance and active persecution of other religions; inequality and mistreatment of women; imposition of extreme sharia law without recourse to a democratic judicial process and opposition to freedom of expression?
What choices are available?

1. There is no point in ordinary people holding or propagating any opinion about it, because there is nothing we can do about except direct our votes in our own countries’ elections to the parties with the best policy on the matter, assuming we hold an opinion on what constitutes 'best policy'.

2. The West, past and present, including its Christianity, is so irredeemably wicked that we have forfeited any right to make a judgment about any other system or culture. This is a little like chopping off the branch on which we sit.

3. Radical cultural relativism. No system is any better or worse than any other, and if “I” word proponents do things differently from the way we do, then that is their business and none of ours, and it is arrogant for us to think otherwise. Fine as long as both sides get a voice.

4. Patience. Eventually everyone, including “I” word supporters, will come around to seeing that liberal, pluralist democracy and some sort of market economy is best, but they have to come to that decision for themselves, and though it might take decades or centuries, there is nothing we can do to hurry up the process, and it is always counterproductive if we try.
No, they won't. Despite periods of co-existence and with few exceptions, 'once an Islamic country, always an Islamic country'. They can afford to be patient.

5. Respect for democracy. Muslims, given the opportunity, sometimes give the majority vote to (what seem to us) repressive, militaristic and illiberal parties, as happened in Gaza and seems to be happening as an outcome of the so-called Arab Spring. We may need to allow democracy to self-destruct in other countries; but we have a responsibility to preserve it in our own and a right to make decisions accordingly. This may require refusing admission to a group that either has a history of not assimilating or holds an undemocratic or aggressive article of faith with evident sincerity. In the US they expect assimilation, and by and large they get it. In the spirit of Ellis Island, they still welcome and open their hearts to Muslim or any other immigrants who wish to embrace secular and free political principles, while alert to the possibility of failures outweighing success stories.
Respect for sovereign national borders is a two-way street. Must we fear for our lives because foreigners object to cartoons in our newspapers? With regard to the principle of national sovereignty, there is only so much an American or a Canadian, for example, can say to European countries like France whose standard operating procedure .with immigrants is not assimilation but pillarisation. I wouldn't want them to be among those democracies that self-destruct because of Trojan horses.

6. Military intervention. It is possible that the mostly detestable governments in Iraq and Afghanistan will survive, and evolve into something viable and acceptable (just as the Seoul regime in South Korea, originally scarcely better than communism in the North, emerged eventually as a liberal and prosperous democracy), but that looks very unlikely at the moment. When a society consistently violates the underpinning principles of international law and justice, do we have a right or a responsibility to intervene and to what extent? Libya represents a partial success story, perhaps, and Syria is, of course, ongoing.

7. Perhaps we just have to face the fact that appalling things go on under strict I-regimes, but take the attitude that they are none of the West’s business, and all that Western countries can do is protect themselves through measures such as screening of immigrants and airline security, and let them all go to hell in a handbasket. An attractive proposition perhaps but completely unworkable because we're all addicted to oil.

8. As far as possible, maintain friendly relations, both for our own economic benefit and in order to exert discreet pressure for incremental human rights improvements. Precisely our position with China. Time will tell.

9.Write to or email offending governments, or support human rights advocacy groups which are doing so. George Smiley called this 'jumping up and down and calling it 'progress'. However, better this than Breivik's ultimate solution. 

It is perhaps not without significance however that the media feeding frenzy surrounding the court in Oslo has had a curious and disturbing spin off. The Norwegian anti-immigrant organization 'Stop the Islamisation of Norway' (SIAN) received several donations - up to $9000,  it would seem - and more members signed up after the terror trial began this week.

As Hannibal Lecter once remarked "We live in a primitive time, don't we?"

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Excitement of Perfection

Like the late Steve Jobs, I still get excited by numbers as well as operating system logos. 
Not the kind of numbers that politicians bandy about - whether Hollande against all odds is going to squeak past Sarkozy in the run-off in the French elections or the irony of the six million inhabitants of Israel which another despot wants to annihilate. No. Newton believed in the perfection of seven, which is why we still parrot in classrooms 'Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain' when trying to remember which colour follows which in the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Personally, I tend to remember wavelengths in a vacuum, but kinder readers will put this down to my training rather than any particularly obnoxious personality defect. 

Nine - or rather nine million, is the amount in pounds which has just bought St Cuthbert's Gospel of John for the British Library. In phenomenal condition, the book, written in Latin, was held for many years, first at Lindisfarne where he was entombed then later at Durham Cathedral, where, four hundred years after it was written, contemporaries of Thomas Becket were allowed, if they were sufficiently generous, to wear it for a while in a bag around their necks, hoping, presumably, that some holiness might rub off on them.

Looking at the front cover, the remarkably well-preserved goatskin has a plant motif with obvious Pythagorean overtones together with what at first sight looks like a Fibonacci - like structure represented by the stems. The book's pages have dimensions of 138 by 92mm which when divided give us a pleasing value of 1.50 exactly, but some way away from the ubiquitous Golden Ratio of 1.618, Kepler's "precious jewel", which Fibonacci popularised but was probably known to Euclid seventeen hundred years previously. 

The magic number, representing aesthetical perfection, has been exploited by designers in all fields. Most notably here. The spectacular beauty of this design when decrypted is almost breathtaking - at least to me. 

As is the fact that the Gospel writes the name of G_d in its  rabbinically correct format. How very exciting...

in principio erat verbum  (In the beginning was the Word,) et verbum erat apud d__m ( and the word was with G_d) et d__s erat verbum (and the Word was G_d)

Monday, April 09, 2012

Tin Drums

I read 'The Tin Drum' many years ago. The main character who refuses to grow up is gifted with a piercing shriek which can be used as a weapon. It seems his creator is recalling old skills in the nadir of his long and illustrious career. Günter Grass is undeniably Germany's most famous living writer. A Nobel prizewinner - the inevitable passport to comment on global politics - his postwar emergent role as the country's moral conscience was rather undermined in 2006 when it became known (much too late) that the teenage Grass had served in the Waffen SS. But 'with his last drop of ink' Grass has triggered a furious row with a poem which criticises Israel. How very European and moralistic of him and how beautifully timed. The European tradition of accusing Israel of mass murder at Passover is hardly original. Grass raises the unlikely spectre of Israel "annihilating" the Iranian people – using a German verb, auslöschen, which comes dangerously close to evoking the Holocaust. To call him antisemitic is naïve – instead he seems to have a pathological need to be thought of as one, banging his tin drum being nothing more that attention-seeking. He seems remarkably unaware, as so many European commentators are, of the real state of affairs in the Middle East, in consequence the weight lent to the propaganda machine in Tehran by his remarks is likely to add fuel to a smouldering ember rather than extinguish it. He suggests, quite disgracefully, that there is a moral equivalence between the Israeli position and that of Iran – Netanyahu has had little choice but to bang his tin drum as aggressively as the mad despot in Tehran whose puppet masters tell him what to say in respect of Israel and its right to exist. Quite rightly, neither country is prepared to allow the world to use it as a chessboard to reconfigure the realpolitik of the region simply because they wish the problem would go away. Will the Israelis strike pre-emptively? I think not; they merely bang away as loudly and aggressively as their enemies - the latest being Grass is persona non grata  in Israel and there are howls to strip him of the Nobel. The ayatollahs in Persia realise only too well, however, that their enemies are capable of sending them all back to the Dark Ages in a flurry of gamma rays.