Sunday, 18 December 2016

Doggy politics

Since acquiring a Labrador puppy two and half months ago I've had more delightful encounters with fellow dog owners than I can count. Today there were bad encounters. The setting was Shotover Country Park, which could be described without fear of cliché as an oasis of nature in Oxford. It's a frequent destination because we live close by, at the moment, and because it's a perfect dog walking place. Because the puppy (Dora) is still so young we tend to hover around the meadow at the top of Shotover, hoping to meet other other dogs for a bit of playtime before heading back home. Dora  is utterly sociable. She hasn't met any person or dog yet that she doesn't get on with. Today, as daylight was ending in a pretty sunset awash in pink, we came across a small group of three people and two dogs. They turned out to be a woman with a rescued Saluki cross (whom I'd met once before, in pre-puppy days) and a gay couple with a young Whippet. They had  just met too. The dogs got along, the owners got along. All was well until an un-neutered  male Staffie came up one of the hills to the meadow, his owner(s) still invisble. Dora and this Staffie were fine. The Saluki cross not so much: he'd been attacked by a black dog before and as the Staffie was a very dark brindle he took against him and had a go at him. Then the Staffie had a go at the Whippet - so much so that one of its owners had to scoop him up in his arms. The Staffie then started jumping to get at the Whippet, several times, while the Whippet's owners and the other lady tried to deter the Staffie. When things got progressively hairier, I also intervened and shouted down the Staffie's barking, interposing myself between him and the Whippet. It was then that the people accompanying the Staffie finally came into view. The owner appeared to be a young woman. The man holding the Whippet shouted at her - quite aggressively - to keep her dog under control. His tone was not good, needlessly confrontational, as no actual harm had been done. And really it was the Saluki cross who had misbehaved first. The Whippet owner continued making this demand, however. The young woman was coming towards us, as full of attitude as he was full of indignation. His 'de haut en bas' tone made me cringe, but I couldn't suddenly turn against him, and could only hope the young woman would not rise to the bait. At first she just repeated 'it's Shotover,' i.e. her dog had every right to be off the lead. Then, sadly, she did rise to the bait. All sorts of prejudices came pouring out of her, too many to detail here. But, in brief, not only did she dismiss the fact of her Staffie having a go at the Whippet as our 'opinion', she lumped us together - disconnected people, who had only just met  - as upper-class Staffie haters who basically thought they owned the world. True, we were mostly middle-aged, all pale skinned and probably more educated than not. But by virtue of her being young and darker skinned and less educated, she seemed to reason that she herself had every right to assume anything she liked about us, as group or as individuals, and still maintain that we were in the wrong for obviously - to her mind - having prejudices against her and her dog. Now, I like Staffies, and considered getting one. They are lovely with people but maybe not so reliable with other animals, which is why in the end I decided against the breed for the sake of our 13 year-old cat. To be labelled as prejudiced against them was bewildering. And 'upper-class'?? Nowhere near. 'You know nothing about me,' I eventually said to her, 'why are you so prejudiced?' Of course she denied being prejudiced. And still she clung to her sense that it was ok for her to denigrate all of us. And so the peacefulness of Shotover was temporarily shattered.  What I assumed was the unspoken agreement amongst dog owners that class distinctions do not come on walkies was also proved wrong, in this instance. I really wanted to reach out to this young woman. I wanted her to understand she was not under attack (except for the over-excitable holder of the Whippet). But the fierceness of her own sense of entitlement - as someone sinned against - seemed implacable. The only thing I can hope for, now it's all over, is that turning the 'prejudiced' charge against her will have been enough of a novelty to make her think about it a little. How to explain to someone of such entrenched opinion the subtleties of what was actually happening? If only it had been possible to convey to her that the next challenge on this tumultuous outing on Shotover, almost immediately afterwards, was an interesting contrast: the arrival of a pack of seven Italian Spinones, a Pointer and an Irish Setter. These dogs were all allowed to poo everywhere by their owner, a possibly 'upper class' lady walking with a stick, who was too frail, old and slow to deal with one of these big dogs, let alone with nine of them but refused to see it. According to the Saluki lady, who'd often encountered this group before, trying to tell the old lady to pick up after her dogs was a lost cause. Those were bad dog-walking manners too, in fact arguably much worse.Yet, beyond the unfortunate doggy politics,  these two incidents now linger in my mind as lost opportunities for a more meaningful contact between owners. Clearly, both the young woman and the old lady had deeply emotional reasons for having their respective dogs. What stories were there? And indeed, what about us middling-class owners? Maybe next time.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Mark Forsyth, "A Christmas Cornucopia"

Image result for a christmas cornucopia by mark forsyth

An ideal Christmas present for anyone who likes words, humour, history, learning about Christmas traditions  and making sense of life generally. Also excellent as a gift to self, as I can attest. Mark Forsyth is at his genial best, in the same style as previous books The Etymologicon, The Horologicon and The Elements of Eloquence, but here on a specific topic as opposed to a theme. A Christmas Cornucopia is an easy-to-read and entertaining book, steeped through with erudition and wit like a good sozzled pudding, right down to the Glossary, Bibliography and Acknowledgements (if you read those, as some of us do). To be nit-picky, because I am, allow me to point out the following quirks: there is a typo on the back cover (28 March, instead of 25 March); Forsyth surprisingly uses the trendy verb 'double down', which jars a bit; and he mis-pronouns the Holy Spirit as 'it' instead of 'He'. (I'm assuming 'mis-pronouns' is already a legitimate verb, the better to criminalise us with, in secular society, though of course not on this blog.) Having got that out of my system I warmly recommend this writer, at all times, and this particular book at this particular time. It is a bulwark against the ways in which 'Santa snowballs.' (an actual sentence in the book) while its several intriguing references to 'truth', or even 'Truth', subtly point to deeper realities. Go buy!

Thursday, 10 November 2016

A mercy for Hillary and for the country

When Hillary Clinton finally delivered her concession speech she was at her best. Though dressed for the circumstance in funereal black and purple, she was calm and poised, she spoke graciously and sensibly. If she'd spoken like this during the campaign, who knows how different the result could have been? But I don't think she could have spoken like this during the campaign - or at any time during her long and persistent political career. The reason she came across so well, I believe, is precisely because she was conceding defeat. Her presidential ambitions, nurtured through decades of scheming and revearsals, had at last come to nought. There was no longer an agenda; no calculation behind the eyes, no lying, no tightly reined in fury, no shouting and screeching when the fury got the bit in its teeth, no malevolent sense of entitlement. There was only her, and she seemed like a perfectly nice lady. On that showing, the death of her ambitions was the best thing that could have happened to her as a person. If she'd conducted all of her life without a consuming political ideology, who knows how much genuine good she could have accomplished? She could might even have baked the odd batch of cookies, with a love and generosity. Defeat in 2016 also spares Hillary the physical rigours of the Presidency. She has rallied commendably since her ailments culminated in a September collapse but it is difficult to see how she could have weathered four years of a job that would make the intensity of the campaign trail pale in comparison. Where the country is concerned, it is a mercy Mrs Clinton was not elected on the basis of her being woman. This was the ever more strident demand from her and from her celebrity supporters: to elect her because she's a woman. And this is where the old Hillary peeped through in the concession speech, when she addressed little girls specifically, and pushed the limitless ambition thing on them yet again. It was cringe-making partiality and a reprehensible focus on 'gender' (or sex as it used to be called more accurately). If the tenure of the First Black President has resulted in hugely increased, not decreased, racial antagonism then a First Woman President, elected simply for being a woman, could easily have led to more, not less, gender obsession. Better to elect a woman President when the right one comes along, one who is right because of every other consideration apart from her sex.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Religion is normal

In casual conversation or when I'm out and about, I always hear people calling on God. 'Oh God!', they say, even over trivial matters. To make it more personal, they say 'my God!' Really, they do. Happens all the time. Exclamations of 'Jesus!' are also ubiquitous. With 'Jesus', the extra emphasis is achieved by adding his title, 'Christ' (Greek Christ = Hebrew Messiah = 'anointed one'). So, isn't it comforting that people are constantly paying tribute to the Judeo-Christian bedrock of Western civilisation by aknowledging the divine scheme of things and their place in it? No, just kidding. Of course that's not what they're doing. They're using the names 'God' and 'Jesus' as verbal filler. They do so, ironically, because they think these names are empty. Bet they wouldn't like their own names to be used like that. They'd get very angry very quickly if they kept hearing their name called, and kept responding with an attentive attitude of 'Yes?', and yet every single time it was a prank because the person calling on them not only ignored their gracious response but denied their very existence. We wouldn't tolerate it, so how does He? Truly, God's patience is unfathomable. But as Pascal said somewhere, more or less: we humans creatures have a God-shaped space at the core of our being that only God himself can fill. And it seems like our language cannot do without God either. We have devalued any formal talk of God to the point of ridicule, yet we still can't keep mentioning him, even if it's a debased, ejaculatory way. Likewise, society itself cannot do without God. This we see in the increasingly sinister focus on jugding, and indeed trying to criminalise, thoughts and conscience generally. In a sensible society, behaviour belongs to the realm of law, while the inner life is the realm of religion. Obviously inner life and behaviour are related but law can only deal with what is manifested as behaviour. The current trend of intolerance towards freedom of speech, association, etc is the direct result of aggressive secularisation. It is the invasion of law into the gaping hole left by the banishing of God from civic discourse. Religion is the normal mode of humanity. Trying to eliminate it from society is what allows law to grow into a monstrous version of religion.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Planet of the Apes (1968)

On a recent night flight from Salt Lake City to London, I was unable to watch many of the movies  because  the sound quality of the complimentary set of ear buds was so poor (must  acquire proper earphones). As I can't sleep on airplanes, and not wanting to disturb everyone around me by keeping the light on for the sake of the latest Sue Grafton, movies were the only time-passing option I had besides grabbing any wine on offer. Peering at other screens yielded only films I had no interest in, like "Ali" or "Mother's Day" (the two popular choices with men, strangely enough), so subtitles it had to be, except that precious few of the movies had English subtitles. One that did was "The Intern", which I duly watched by reading the dialogue instead of using the audio. It was an extended advert for Apple and Audi, with said intern - an improbably perfect 70 year-old - thrown in as padding (Robert DeNiro in his comedy, face-pulling mode). After that, it was back to slim pickings until I spotted the original 1968 "Planet of the Apes". This was manageable, as the dialogue was well articulated (and surprisingly intelligent), and the famously atonal soundtrack lent itself to the uncomfortable environment. I'd seen it before, decades ago, so it was a pleasant re-visiting of something familiar. Charlton Heston's performance is committed: he's mostly half-naked, under stress, mistreated, but he really goes for it and is totally convincing. I still have a soft spot for Heston because of "The Ten Commandments", first seen at age 10, although now it's a bit disconcerting to realise how similar his facial features are to Andy Murray's. Nevertheless there he was doing his Taylor thing, and there were the 'apes' doing their highly evolved thing with brilliant prosthetics, and it was all very well made and entertaining.  Philosophical notions of religion, scripture, animal rights, non-violence, even vegetarianism are in the mix too, testiftying to the cold war fears and hippy developments of the time. I've ordered the novel it was based on (Pierre Boulle, La planète des singes) and will be interested to see how the orignal story and the Hollywood version differ. "Never trust anyone over 30", Taylor facetiously advises young chimpanzee Lucius towards the end - though without noting the irony that he's way over 30 himself. Apparently the film was selected for preservation by the US National Film Registry in 2001 for being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant". Quite right. Whether one agrees with its politics or not, it is a memorable film. And it translates remarkably well to an airline seatback screen and bad quality ear buds.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Rio's inescapable soundtrack

Do Olympic events in Rio need a soundtrack of deafening pop music and old rock tunes? The swimming, the rowing, the gymnastics - there's no escaping the intrusion of blasted-out music, and presumably it will be the same with the athletics. Typically starting as soon as a particular race, performance or game has finished, and only stopping while the next ones get underway, it's as though the noise becomes not the background but the purpose of the proceedings. The rehashed tracks are the point, the sport is merely an expensive punctuation. The playlist is all. This noise also invades the commentary space. To press the mute button in frustration at this aural assault means to sacrifice the experts who could (unlike the music) enhance the experience of top-level competition. Life can no longer happen without a soundtrack of overused hits, apparently: neither daily life (shops, restaurants, public spaces), personal life as lived through various tech devices, or the public spectacle of Olympic Games, where the only music that should matter is the national anthems of the victors. Maybe the pop/rock juggernaut of contemporary life as expressed in Rio is a way of trying to drown out the reality of nations, or indeed of victors. Maybe the point is to make stately music like anthems seem old and creaky, pointless and undesirable. Because diversity is strength, all you need is love and, of course, 'imagine there are no countries'.

Monday, 8 August 2016

What about Bill's health?

There's been a lot of speculation on the state of Hillary Clinton's health recently. It is entirely justified, and I mean that sympathetically. The job Hillary is campaigning for - and the campaign itself - requires a superior physical constitution. Tip-top stamina is a gift few people possess, especially as they are entering old age. She has managed to be in public life for decades already, so even if she has had high levels of stamina in the past, by now, at age 69, those levels could be running perilously low. Also, many video clips doing the rounds do show strange reactions on her part in various situations, reactions which could be consistent with neural damage of some sort. Her 'short-circuit' explanation may be very close to the truth. And of course Mrs Clinton's demeanour suggests she is by nature an introvert. There's absolutely nothing wrong with being an introvert, except that it's painful to watch her overcompensate for this by trying to look at socially at ease when she clearly isn't. Again I say this with sympathy. But what about Bill? He looks like he's about to drop dead at any minute, or at the very least be taken very ill, perhaps long-term. This raises the possibility that should Hillary become President, she could soon become a carer or a widow. A President without spousal support does not seem like a good idea in general. A President who has the care of a very ill spouse would be compromised in their ability to deal with the relentless pressure of the job.Worse, should Bill die, the thought of Hillary let loose on the world without her problematic but also stabilising husband should make every voter pause and wonder what the consequences could be. Not least of those consequences would be the further deterioration of her own health due to the grieving process. And yes, his illness or death would affect her. Bill and Hillary's lives, careers and ambitions, have been tightly interwoven for over 40 years. Any major change to their marriage would have profound consequences on her as the relatively healthier or the surviving partner.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Giving mothers a bad name

Oh dear, what a lot of mother talk at the Democratic National Convention! Only last month in the UK Andrea Leadsom was vilified for suggesting in an interview that being a mother gives a woman more of an interest in the future of a society. This was understood as a dig against her fellow contender (now Prime Minister) Theresa May, and widely condemned. Mrs May has no children because she and her husband couldn't have any so of course, in context, Leadsom's comment was tactless. But her point has validity. Just think of childless Angela Merkel who unilaterally decided to trash Europe by welcoming all comers from the rest of the world (citing 'Syrian refugees'), and was then called Mama Merkel by some of those who took uo her offer. Or think of the hideous speech by Stefanie von Berg (November 2015), where von Berg delights in predicting a German minority in German cities. And by the way, in the video clip of that speech, the three politicians looking on behind von Berg, with apparent approval, are also women.This is not to say they're all childless, I have no idea if they are. But if they do have children, how do they square nurturing the next generation with the gleeful destruction of their cultural and social inheritance? On the other hand, Leadsom's comment was inaccurate in so far as someone like Mrs Thatcher was concerned. Did Mrs Thatcher make any fuss about being a mother? I don't remember that she did, although that was a while ago and I wasn't living in the UK at the time. One could argue she made no fuss because she wasn't interested in being a mother, compared to being a career woman and politician. Or that as a career woman and politician, Mrs Thatcher had no business making a fuss about being a mother. Male politicians don't make a fuss about being fathers, and that's how it should be. They're meant to get on with the work at hand. But now, hey presto! It is perfectly ok, at least in America, to make no end of fuss about being a mother on the biggest political stage in a Presidential election cycle. Michelle Obama went on and on about being a mother during her DNC speech, to press and social media adulation. She was referring to her own role as a mother as well as to Hillary Clinton's, the person she was speaking for and endorsing. According to Mrs Obama, a key point that voters should consider is how Hillary 'raised' her daughter Chelsea 'to perfection', as if she'd been a prize heifer, or perhaps a sponge cake (except that we know Hillary DOES NOT BAKE, as she shared with the world in 1992: "I suppose could have stayed at home and baked cookies and had teas" - which is not at all an ignorant comment about 'stay at home' wives, and not sexist either). But really, Michelle? So Chelsea didn't also have an adoring father? She didn't have circumstances and advantanges that were uniquely privileged, just like the Obama girls have had? Mrs Obama also spoke about America being 'great' because her daughters could now look to a future where they too could become President one day, i.e. if people elect Hillary, a woman, now that her black (mixed race) husband, has also broken through to the highest office in the land. Well, I don't know. For some of us it's enough to want our children to grow up in a society that doesn't seek to invade their privacy and destroy their innocence at every turn, at ever younger ages, for example with state propaganda about fluidity of gender and anything-goes sexual practices. Or to hope that they won't be stabbed in their beds (Israel), or attacked with a machete (Germany), or chased down by a truck (France), or beheaded in the street (England), or targeted and killed for being gay, or a soldier, or a police officer (USA). At the DNC, Alicia Keys also garbled something about Hillary, motherhood, sacredness or some such, etc.etc. And then, of course, there was the group of women called the 'Mothers of the Movement'  - the 'movement' in question being Black Lives Matter, which at street level is basically a racist terrorist organisation, but never mind. These mothers were there to make the emotional point that death is very sad - sorry, that their apparently fatherless sons had died in confrontations with the police or, in the case of a daughter, by suicide while in police custody. The call of 'black lives matter' was chanted during their speeches and there was not a dry eye in the house, because these were mothers, sainted mothers all, of sainted children (who bore different surnames to them) and, most of all, they were black mothers. So adored were they for being mothers and black, that the audienced cheered every time they mentioned God and God's goodness. None of that jeering at God that had happened on the previous day. No, no. Black mamas are sacred, which is not at all race-biased, and they can be as religious as they want, not just in private but in the most public of spheres. Seriously, what would have been the reaction in the press and elsewhere if a group of fathers had been invited on stage at the Republican National Convention to show solidarity with and eulogise the police officers murdered because of Black Lives Matter agitation? And what if those fathers had made a point of praising God's goodness and calling out 'Hallelujah'? We know from the media treatment of Pat Smith, who accurately laid the blame for her son's Benghazi death at Hillary's (bedroom) door, that not all mothers are given a free pass. And that's fine, to the extent that mothers are not ipso facto saints. Mothers are people too, full of faults, doubts, failings, mistakes, not to mention, in some cases, stupidity, incoherence, incompetence or downright evil. What's not fine is to condemn some mothers for legitimately caring about their own children's fate or that of future generations in general, while sanctifying other mothers for no other reason than that they have children. It's even less fine to assume that being a mother makes Hillary Clinton potentially a better person and a better politician than anybody else. It's not Leadsom's mention of a mother's concerns that gives mothers a bad name, it's using the mere fact of motherhood as an unquestioned form of praise.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Brexit and "Hamilton"

"Hamilton" is the musical about the fight for American Independence. It swept the Tony awards and continues to pack in adoring audiences with no sign of letting up. It is loved for dramatising a country's fight against faceless rule from afar. It's about 'freedom', even though the fighters were mostly descendants of the original British settlers. The battle was fought and won by white men with guns but it's ok to worship this fight because the cast of the play is multi-racial and mixed gender, and the music and choreography are based on rap and street dance. So it's cool, and even more importantly, it makes audiences feel good about a reality which, transposed today, they would find unacceptably non-PC. Brexit is a fair, ballot-won, democratic vote by universal suffrage, to end faceless rule from afar - not that far geographically, but very far in terms of philosophy and cultural affinity. So, naturally, there are currently thousands of people marching in London and York to protest against this travesty, this farce of a referendum voted for by the great unwashed, the troglodytes of our times. What's the bet that most of the marchers would be, or are, avid fans of "Hamilton" or at least would heartily approve of it?

Friday, 24 June 2016

Cameron's legacy on marriage

The Prime Minister, resigning because of a narrow defeat on the EU referendum, wishes to be remembered for gay marriage. In other words he wants to be remembered for the most flagrantly un-conservative measure ever foisted on an unsuspecting electorate by a so-called Conservative. As noted in a piece by the Christian Institute, if Mr Cameron had given voters a referendum on gay marriage it would almost certainly not have gone through ( Instead, he disguised his push for the destruction of marriage as it had been understood for millenia as a mere redefinition, a consequence-free expansion of marriage to any gender pairing, and moreover as something that is sweetly and innocently legitimised by 'love' alone. It's ironic or perverse that Mr Cameron should choose to resign over a genuinely democratic vote that didn't happen to go his way, yet request to be lauded for the high-handed imposition of a policy he denied even having before his re-election. Either way, it's doesn't say much for his views on the value of democracy.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Referendum day is also Widows' Day

Today, June 23rd, is Referendum day here in the UK. Every year and everywhere it is also apparently International Widows' Day: This recognition of the plight of widows worldwide was launched in 2005 and recognised by the UN in 2010. We've all heard of International Women's Day, but widows don't get much of a look in, which is probably why I'm assuming hardly anyone has heard of this particular day, as indeed I hadn't until earlier this week. Widowhood is by definition unsexy and nobody really wants to know. Whereas widowers are the most likely men to remarry (according to a study a few years ago), the re-marriage prospects of a widow, especially one with children, are among the lowest. In developing countries the very social status of widows is basically next to nothing. In advanced Western countries we still benefit from the enlightened, Bible-based view that widows and their children (i.e. orphans) are worthy of special care and protection. I for one, widowed in 2000 at the relatively young age of 37, with two very young children, am extremely grateful  for the state assistance I have received. I fear, however, that its continued existence is merely the last gasp of a formal regard for the family. It could all too easily be swept away by continued devaluation of traditional marriage and motherhood and especially by the new sanctification of  non-gender-specific notions of marriage and parenting. Is the surviving partner in a lesbian marriage a widow? Is she a widower? Is the surviving partner in gay marriage a widower, or perhaps a widow? Much easier to eliminate the category altogether than deal with this logistical tangle, in the same way that the words 'husband' and 'wife' are being eliminated from official documents. How the hard-won, Judaeo-Christian attitude to the care of widows and orphans will fare in such a society we will have to wait and see. But the current climate doesn't bode well for Western widows and orphans or for those of developing nations, for whom the repercussions of our ideological upheavals are likely to be even more severe.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Hillary bares arms

Hillary Clinton speaks against the right to bear arms yet does so while baring her own arms at every opportunity. By choosing to wear tops with three-quarter sleeves for speeches, Mrs Clinton seems determined to inflict on everyone the sight of her fleshy white forearms.

Why do this? The shapeless coat-dress tops already make her look like a Teletubby. The podgy flesh recalls the Pillsbury Doughboy, and the gestures that expose her arms to the camera come across as both school-marmish and overly intimate. It's a disturbing combination.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Considered opinion be damned

Social and political discourse has taken even more of a downturn this week, following the massacre in a gay night club in Orlando at the weekend and the fatal attack on a pro-EU MP in Yorshire yesterday. All too soon after each tragedy, blame has been heaped on people whose considered opinions go against what is being promoted by government as the only acceptable mode of thought. In the U.S. that means that anyone who supports the second amendment or does not agree with gay marriage or transgender bathroom and locker room use is somehow complicit in the atrocity in Orlando. In the U.K. it means that anyone who is for Brexit is somehow complicit in the murder of Jo Cox. This is of course outrageously wrong and profoundly insulting. Worse, the unlogic involved, held with such deep conviction, is a similar form of madness to that which animated the actual culprits.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Caster Semenya and the women's 800m

Gender and intersex issues are likely to be in the volatile Rio mix, should the Olympic Games proceed as planned this summer. These issues will make an interesting addition to worries about venue readiness, the threat of violence both social and terroristic, and the Zika virus. One certain gender controversy will revolve around 800m runner Caster Semenya. The word 'intersex' is now often mentioned somewhere near Semenya's name. When she first emerged as a star athlete about six or seven years ago, Western countries and athletics associations were censured for questioning the sex of this barrel-chested woman who looks like a man, and for being so crude as to require her to submit to gender testing. This year, it seems that her defence will be couched in terms of gender identity/fluidity, and woe betide anyone who questions that. South African Semenya is also a woman of the moment in that she has 'married' - and paid the bride-price for - her long-term female sexual partner. Though the gender testing from a years ago revealed an unusually high testosterone level, Semenya has now been exempted from having to take testosterone reducing drugs. The result is that whereas during her time of hormone dampening her performances slowed accordingly, she is now surging ahead in Diamond League meetings as an unbeatable force. She makes the top athletes she is competing against look as weak as kittens. The official line is that only Caster herself is worthy of sympathy. But what about every single one of those other athletes, the ones with normal, female testosterone levels, whose effforts and sacrifices are now all pointless? Semenya's times so far - let's say 1:55 - are admittedly not in the league of David Rudisha's 1:40, but she has achieved them apparently effortlessly, barely breaking a sweat and not breathing hard, while the elite athletes coming in behind her are collapsing with fatigue. She has been coached by former 800m star Maria Mutola (from Mozambique), who faced similar controversy about her masculine looks when she was dominant. No question, Mutola was very 'butch', but in my opinion she was more obviously female than Semenya. And she was not unbeatable. (The same could be said about former javelin thrower Fatima Whitbread, and no doubt lots of others too.) The problem is ultimately not one of looks (variable, unreliable) but of testosterone levels. The problem has no counterpoint, for a male athlete with unusally low testosterone levels would be a non-starter. Or a woman who identified as male. That person would simply would not be an athlete of anywhere near the caliber needed to compete against men at the highest level. None of this is Semenya's fault, as far as we know. If, as Semenya has apparently said, 'God made her that way' and that's all right with her, then good for her as an individual. But does it necessarily follow that she gets to overturn the lives of others athletes en masse? In the interest of not just this year's 800m runners but potentially of female athletes in all disciplines, a testosterone threshold for women athletes should be arrived at, one that doesn't make normal-level athletes look like under-achievers. Arrived at with the athletes themselves, agreed on, and then maintained.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Zamperini was not "Unbroken"

Having just read Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand's magnificent account of the life of Louis Zamperini, I can't get his story out of my head. For one thing it defies belief, in the sense that no one would believe it if it had been written as fiction. No one can suffer that much and live, we would think. No one's trials could have been that relentless. Or the Japanese POW camps couldn't have been that bad. Or certain Japanese individuals couldn't have been that evil. Strangely though - or not strangely, considering human nature - what seems even harder to believe is that Zamperini was convicted of his own sin (and a broken promise) by the Holy Spirit at a Billy Graham rally in 1949: that he was captured in the very best sense as a servant of Jesus, that he forgave all his tormentors, and went on to live a loving, happy, energetic, altruistic, Gospel-filled life. And a long life too. Though presumably he could have died of the pneumonia that afflicted him at age 2, it only ended up taking him a full 95 years later. And what a run he had of those bonus 95 years! Extraordinary by any measure, in each of their different phases. Of his early years as a right scamp, one can only be grateful he didn't live his boyhood now, when his parents would have been under pressure to get him drugged up faster than you can say ADHD or whatever else would be diagnosed. One has to note the immense contribution his close-knit family made to his strength of character. His parents married very young and stayed together trough thick and thin. They were religious (to what extent is not specified but they were Roman Catholic). They were strict but fair, and they taught their children right from wrong - supported in this by the culture at large, as parents no longer are. His young mother did not think it beneath her to cook modest but delicious meals for her family, meals that, as she could not possibly have guessed, would later on give emotional, vital sustenance to demoralised and starving men via Louis's description of them. His siblings were also important. His older brother Peter put him on track to his success as a track star, chanelling all that energy and fleetness of foot to positive purposes. His younger sisters were devoted to him, actively joining the rest of the family, during the long years of his disapperance, in not believing he was dead despite being officially told that he was. How many boys of poor background - or any background - are now blessed with these simple but crucial advantages? It's tempting to say 'none'. Even boys from strong families are now more likely to have their brains and moral compasses destroyed by the prevailing culture rather than shored up by it. The circumstances of Louis Zamperini's story are irreproduceable in today's world, in some instances for good reasons (like greater international accountability), but mostly for bad ones (social brokenness). And yet, despite his advantages, Zamperini could still have won the battle of his wartime experience but lost the war of civilian life afterwards. Many did. Unbroken gives a voice not only to Zamperini but also to his co-survivor (Russell Allen Phillips), to thousands of co-captives and, in a wider sense, to all the victims of Japanese POW camps, those who bodily survived and those who didn't.The major quibble I have with the book is with the title.  Zamperini did survive the appalling ill-treatment and degradation he was subjected to. One can say he was not broken by his experience at the time. But in civilian life his brokenness became all too evident. A chap who nearly strangles his wife thinking he is strangling his wartime torturer is not hale and hearty. A chap who gets drunk every night is not keeping it together. A chap who's tormented by post-traumatic nightmares is not wholly sane. A chap who's lost his way, his money and is on the verge of losing his beautiful, long-suffering wife and his young child  - this man is not 'unbroken'. In fact he is so broken that only the one true source of healing and salvation could repair him. And the one true source, as his wife Cynthia learned at those Billy Graham rallies, was the Lord Jesus, the Christ. Zamperini's story is one of being miraculously healed, not of being unbroken. I suppose the book's subtitle hints at this: "Survival. Resilience. Redemption." But the 'redemption' part of the narrative is confined to a few pages at the end of the book. And the questions for discussion appended in the 'Reader's Guide' afterwards undermine the obvious truth (as shown in the narrative) on two key points. Number 11 asks: "Louie believed he was the beneficiary of several miracles [...] What is your interpretation of those experiences?" - as if Zamperini had been wrong to see them as miracles. Number 21 suggests that the impact of Graham's influence on Zamperini was mainly to "restore his sense of dignity", to give him back his "self-worth" - whereas the crazy truth is that Zamperini needed to be broken further still, by conviction of his own sin, before he could be healed. Granted it was perhaps Zamperini himself who didn't want his salvation to be the focus of the book, in order to make the story more accessible to a secular audience. But after some 500 pages of  narrative and notes, wouldn't it have been ok to give credit where it was due? Yes, those were miracles. No, dignity and self-worth didn't come first: salvation did. Those caveats aside, please read this book, the measured, graceful prose of which tells such a disturbing yet exhilarating true story.

Friday, 22 April 2016

New Kings on the block

The cover of this week's "Spectator": a witty illustration of  'lèse majesté', especially compared to the persona non grata stunt on the Guardian's front page yesterday (previous post). Here we have President Obama - whose 2009 inaguration was so very much like a coronation - swooping into Britain to urge us into the 'Remain' camp: surely as patronising a use of public funds as the Government's grey and po-faced pro-EU leaflet. The term 'lèse majesté' literally means 'injured majesty'. Does even the Queen still have the power to proclaim herself slighted or insulted? Even if she did, one suspects she never would. Whereas President Erdogan freely makes use of it, and Chancellor Merkel goes along with him. There is always Kingship, in one form or another. The vital question is: what form will it take? Do we prefer sovereignty backed up by history, kinship and accountability, or do we let political leaders make a power grab for a majesty of their own devising?

Thursday, 21 April 2016

"Guardian" appoints new Queen

Today was Her Majesty the Queen's 90th birthday, and every national newspaper noted the fact on its front page - every newspaper that is, except one. "The Guardian" made no mention of the monarch's milestone, either above or below the crease. Below the crease it had news as usual. The space above the crease was all - all! - taken up by the announcement that Victoria Wood had died. A photo of the comedienne/actress/writer was set against a somber background with the simple caption: "Victoria Wood, 1953-2016". Without implying any disrespect to Ms Wood, who was certainly talented, and no doubt a lovely person, it seems to me that for "The Guardian" to communicate the news of her death in that manner was both churlish and petty. Churlish  for not being able to knock the chip off its republican shoulder and acknowledge what is a remarkable royal life, any way you slice it. Petty for driving the point home by reporting the death of Wood exactly as if she were a Queen. On the other hand, it does illustrate the broader the point that refusing to acknowledge King or Queenship where it is due merely results in the setting up of idolatries elsewhere.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

O.J. Simpson: too dim to do it?

If only there had been a real Lieutenant Columbo, he could have sorted out the O.J. Simpson case,and rescued the LAPD in the process. The last episode of "The People v OJ Simpson; American Crime Story" aired on Monday on BBC2. The series did a good job of portraying the 'trial of the century' with the complexity and crazyness it had at the time. Yet bizarrely, even this excellent last episode failed to make a clear case against O.J. - as the series obviously wanted to make. For example, the question as to why there hadn't been more blood in the Bronco and thereabouts was blink-and-you-miss-it. But it's a good question! It can't be left as a throwaway line from a biased juror in the heat of an argument in the jury room. The attacks on Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman were so savage that it defies belief the killer wouldn't have been soaked in blood, and suspiciously injured himself, yet Simpson was neither. Some of the evidence does point to him being at the scene (shoes etc) but not necessarily to being the perpetrator. This is where a TV-grade CSI team would have come in handy too. But in 1994 crime scene work was not sophisticated enough to make the most of the evidence. DNA testing was new, and no one seems to have known about blood splatter analysis or other go-to methods featured in the "CSI" shows. And in the Simpson case, the crime scene and the evidence collection were infamously mismanaged anyway. Come to think of it though, Columbo might have come a cropper over the issue of Simpson's IQ. The "Columbo" films were about criminals who thought they were too clever to get caught. Is O.J. clever? Everything about him, and everything about the case, suggests he isn't. Champion sportsman, good as a celebrity, yes, but not intelligent. Dimness could help to explain his dopey demeanour during the trial (as if he couldn't quite keep up), or his decision to accept media money to celebrate his acquittal with a flashy party, or his cringe-making vow to pursue and catch the killer. Dimness goes a long way towards explaining his subsequent robbery lark, for which he has been jailed for several years (eligible for parole next year). Apparently more people now believe he's guilty of the murders than believed he was in 1994/95. My inclination is to do the reverse. I was in America at the time of the murders  and also in the year of the trial, so was able to watch all the coverage live. Though he seemed to be guilty, I'm not so sure now, especially after seeing "The People v OJ Simpson". Besides the problematic forensics, the show brought home again the prosecution's insistence that being a savage knife-muderer is but a progression from being an abusive husband. Is it really? Why haven't more people questioned that assumption? It can't be true, any more than abusive wives seemlessly turn into frenzied murderesses as a matter of course. Who knows, maybe that was one of the things that didn't quite gel for the acquitting jury. Simpson's behaviour to his wife during and after their marriage suggests a bully rather than a maniac. It suggests someone who, for all his success and his ground-breaking 'cross-over appeal', still felt out of his depth and on the defensive. It suggests someone who craved acceptance by rich white folks yet took out his insecurities on the beautiful white woman closest to him. In that light, the casting of Cuba Gooding Jr as O.J. makes some sense. "The People v OJ Simpson" was well cast with actors who were dead ringers for the people they portrayed - except for he O.J. character. Cuba Gooding was trying his best, but he is too small, too crinkly, too squeeky-voiced, too unimposing, in short nothing like the real O.J. It seemed like the one major flaw in the series, but maybe it was an accurate representation of what O.J. felt like on the inside, the big statue of himself in his garden notwithstanding. One thing I learned from the series is that Robert Kardashian gave O.J. a Bible to read in prison. O.J. is shown to give the Bible back to Kardashian on his release, apparently unread, possibly unopened. It's a powerful moment, also indicative of O.J.'s lack of insight into what that gesture might mean to the recipient.The loyal Kardashian is by now convinced of O.J.'s guilt and the return of the Bible only reinforces that impression. Kardashian is later shown leaving the Bible in O.J.'s house at the party, giving his former friend a wounded, I-wash-my-hands-of-you look. But what could have happened if, instead of merely giving O.J. the Bible, Kardashian had made a point of reading it with him during the long months he was in prison? O.J. might not have been a reader, but he might have grown up in an environment where Scripture still counted for something. One-on-one Bible readings with his friend Bobby could have worn down the Juice's defenses and allowed the truth to emerge. If the episode is to be believed on this point, that huge but wasted opportunity is one of the sadder aspects of the whole sorry saga.

Monday, 18 April 2016

The genius of "Columbo"

The best way to get through some overdue housework on a Saturday afternoon may well be to break it up with snatches of an old "Columbo" episode on television. I tried this last week and it worked a treat. The episode in question was "Lady in Waiting" from 1971. It's a slightly unhinged tale of a rich but repressed young spinster who kills off her controlling older brother in order to get a life, and who gets a life with knobs on within a week of the inquest ruling the death an accident (as she'd planned it). She acquires a Ferrari, a groovy new hairstyle, lots of even groovier clothes, she unilaterally annouces her engagement to her by-now thoroughly perplexed love interest and, sweetest of all, she assumes control of the family firm, vigorously wielding a figurative new broom (which fitted in with the housework theme). The young spinster is now rolling in money and an unstoppable force of nature - or is she? For of course Lt. Columbo, LAPD, has come onto the scene after the murder and, as we know, Columbo never fails to uncover the truth. His polite, respectful manner might make him seem like a pushover, his shabby appearance might suggest someone who is of no consequence, but we know better, and it's always fun to watch the cuplprit trying to fight off the steely reality of what he or she is up against. This particular episode had the usual technical delights of the series: long takes, solid camera work, not much background music, and the fresh, newly-hatched look of 70s colour technology. Like most of the others it also featured a swanky L.A. location and a muderer played by someone with excellent elocution. By focusing on wrong-doers from the upper strata of society, on people who've had every wordly advantage, "Columbo" strikes a quiet blow for the 'nurture' school of thought (that crimes arises from deprivation). The genius of the show is that it unobtrusively shines a light on the fallen state of our common nature. Or, as the prophet Jeremiah put it, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (17:9) Who indeed? In the world of light entertainment, however, it's reassuring that Columbo knows. Long may he continue to do so in afternoon reruns, preferably on a Saturday. Oh, and 'Just one more thing': the meek shall inherit the earth. "Columbo" knows that too.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Feminism eats itself

Once upon a time in the West, it was thought that protecting women and children was a jolly good idea and people were taught accordingly, especially men and boys. Now, not so much. In fact the reverse now holds true, as has been shown by online pornography, and is encapsulated by current controversies regarding mass migration and transgender toilet use. The toilet use issue is ridiculously small in scope compared to the ongoing misery caused by claims that Europe welcomes all comers from disadvantaged countries, but that is another matter. For the moment, let's just say that both have an impact on women and children. Where the 'bathroom bill' is concerned, the result is that for the sake of perhaps 0.3% of a given Western population we destroy the separation between men and women in public toilets, changing rooms etc. This is a good idea? No, it isn't. Single sex facilities are places of refuge in a mixed society and one of the prized assets that allows that mixed society to maintain itself. Trashing this separation is potentially as psychologically destabilising to women as allowing women in front line combat would be to men. It means putting the vast majority at risk for the sake of the rare and particular. It means everyone always having to watch their back instead of others 'having your back'. It's the end of implicit trust, or in other words, a form of social suicide. What about the huge, epoch-making problem of EU migration? In the recent Munk debate in Toronto, Mark Steyn was scorned  to laughter by his two opponents for focusing on the sexual crimes visited on women and children in Europe by alleged refugees. Steyn magisterially took down one of these opponents (Simon Schama), while being more restrained towards the other, the lawyer and former UN human rights commissioner Louise Arbour. Madame Arbour's jibe was the lesser of the two, so Steyn's focus on Schama was understandable as well as gallant, especially as he had very little time to object to their comments. But let's have a closer look at Arbour's comment, to wit: that Steyn, and fellow debater Nigel Farage, were 'newborn feminists'. That is, by implication that conservative men are only interested in crimes against women and children in order to score a political point. Furthermore that only feminists care about what happens to women (no mention of children). So men concerned about sex crimes against women and children are either pathologically obsessed with sex (said Schama) or frauds (said Arbour). Have we got that? Well maybe that's why, after 40+ years of feminism, no Western men seem to have been on hand to defend the women and children when these crimes occurred. Feminism has been so ideologically focused on rights, and bewitched by an ideal of 'equality', that practical morality has become vilified and women and children are left to bear the brunt of these two most recent PC goals (loos and large-scale migration), no objections allowed. Feminism has in effect eaten itself. In the clip from the Munk debate that I saw, Arbour also stated that in the last few decades feminism had gone about achieving its noble aims without harming anyone, all cosy and fluffy and non-discriminatory. I was reminded of Naomi Wolf in the 1990s claiming that feminism had been a 'bloodless revolution', apparently forgetting that the abortion practices feminism is built on are always, by definition, bloody. We could just as well think that meat and fish somehow get bloodlessly packaged for consumption. The problem with 'rights' as currently understood, is that they are human inventions, and therefore finite. One right must expand at the expense of another. Always. In a closed room you can sweep one corner clean but the dust has to be heaped in another corner. Feminism, by scorning the goodwill and the enlightened interest of men, has become as oppressive to women as its own notion of a malign old patriarchy.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Prayer v trolling, and waspish wit

I found out yesterday that a few days after my last post, Richard Dawkins had a stroke and this news caused the Church of England to post a tweet requesting prayer for him, which in turn caused a hoohaa in the Twittersphere, as if such a call to prayer were somehow the equivalent of trolling the dear Prof - as if asking people to call Godly blessing on this man was the same as grotesquely revelling in his plight and wishing him harm. Really? Is that where religious illiteracy has led us at last, to rank ignorance of what Christian prayer is for? Ironically, the people misinterpreting the C of E's request would probably defend to the death the right of Islamic calls to prayer, maybe even of having them broadcast across English cities.And would those prayers include a fervent wish for good to come to unbelievers, let alone those who vocally hate God and His Word? Doubtful, isn't it. Praying for 'enemies' of the faith and of the faithful is a Christian thing, people, and a good one. The allegation of trolling was still almost fresh when poor Stephen Fry apparently got lambasted on Twitter for his joke about the top costume designer who collected a Bafta award dressed, as he quipped at the time, like a bag lady. Except when this was reported, Fry was the victim of bone-headed users who failed to see the joke, and his impatience with such ignorance something to be commiserated with. In contrast, where the C of E was concerned, it was the bone-headed 'trolling' charge that was affirmed and the Church put on the back foot, having to somehow prove it was no such thing. See the difference? For the secularly-sainted ('national treasure') Fry, the knee-jerk, unthinking reactions are seen as precisely that; for the beleaguered National Church, the ignorant reactions are seen as potentially genuine.In a further irony, Fry's off-the-cuff, bitchy wit - and it was funny, I was watching - is exactly the kind of thing he was hired to deliver. That his target in this instance was an unprepossing older woman (even if a friend of his), was entirely in keeping with the gay-influenced culture that rates women primarily on glam and grooming. Anyone paying him to MC their gig will know this. Job done.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Richard Dawkins, Entertainer

Richard Dawkins ought to be on the stage as a solo comedy act. Seriously, I am so grateful to him for his entertainment value. Take a recent two-page interview in The Times, for example (Saturday January 30 2016). It was headlined with what was no doubt deemed to be his most provocative statement ('It's time feeble feminists started to condemn the misogyny in Islam') but contained some pure Dawkins gems.The best of these, in my opinion, was the summation of his brief disussion on how everything, including evolution, is a 'continuum': "If you go back, take your great great great grandfather and add a couple of hundred greats you've got a fish." Did his two interviewers keep a straight face? I laughed out loud as I was reading this in a public place. Earlier in the piece, the dear Professor trashed Adam and Eve as one of the 'idiotic non-facts' allegedly taught to children in faith schools. Well, the story of Adam and Eve makes complete sense in terms of understanding the fissures of the human predicament, whereas a seemless line to a fish ancestry really, you know, does not. What makes the story of the Fish more probable that the story of the Fall? It does have the advantage of not requiring us to grapple with the awkward question of why we human beings are beautiful and complex yet so false and vile, I suppose. Another Dawkins gem is his lament for the decline of Christianity and Christian education in Britain - very proper, well done - almost in the same breath as his fierce denunciation of Christian education as something 'wicked'. His dogmatic insistence on the completeness of science is also comic. Why does no one call him up on this when he spends so much energy denouncing dogmatism elsewhere? Why does no one also point out that, by the way, he's wrong? Science cannot explain everything. Even where it does a good job at addressing 'how' it cannot explain 'why'. This Dawkins is blind to: "It's staggering that we can understand why life exists, why we have plants and animals, carnivores and herbivores", he says. It would be staggering indeed if it were true, but it isn't. Dawkins fudges this issue so he can express his sense of wonder at the marvel of Creation without having to refer to a Creator, let alone bow to Him. Moreover he complains that children - those alleged victims of faith schools - are denied this wonder by not being taught the absoluteness of evolution. Leaving aside that Dawkins's view of what gets taught in schools seems more supposition than reality, Christianity (and Judaism) are precisely the go-to educations to foster wonder at the world, and therefore poetry, music etc, which he himself ackowledges as influences for good in his life. Yet another Dawkins gem is his assumption that children should learn things dispassionately, scientifically, multi-laterally, and then make up their own minds about what they want to believe. On the one hand, that is simply not how children learn. Their minds feed on values. They will have values of one sort or another, they must have them, they ascribe value to everything that goes on around them, whether they're consciously aware of it or not at the time. That is the rationale for teaching them those values we think are good, and proven by long usage to be good (like Christian ones). Later on, of course they can choose for themselves, and indeed they will - as Dawkins himself did. To think they are not taught how to think, while they are being encouraged as to what to think, is nonsense. After all, did religious education blight Dawkins's mind? He is still praising it , even though he wants to deprive others of the same advantage. On the other hand, is the dear Professor himself dispassionate and scientific? Not a bit of it! Especiallly not when engaged in his war against religion. Altogether, I'd say that Dawkins's sloppiness in language and intent makes him the most unscientific of prominent scientists. But he is funny.