Malcolm Thorne   (26.4.10)

Sad to hear through snooker commentary this evening that Malcolm Thorne is suffering with cancer. A selfless servant of the young people of Leicester, Malcolm kept Mark Selby and many others on the rails both in their lives and into their careers during those formative years. Get well soon, Malc.


Blogger in Belgrade   (26.4.10)

There's a young political activist blogging from Belgrade:

A 12-year old Serbian boy in Belgrade has become famous after campaigning on the internet for policies like Nato membership and support for the independence of Serbia's southern province of Kosovo.

They are ideas that have not gone down well with Serbia's nationalists, some of whom have now issued death threats against him.

Here's another report from the BBC. You can view his blog here.

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Campaign Fever   (19.4.10)

We woke drugged and naked. Did our flowers
rob us and beat us over the head while we were asleep?
They were competing for the same air as us --
the thick, vegetable breath of under the eaves.

It seems like several days ago that I went
to see you to your train. A cuckoo called
and our vision drizzled, though the air was dry.
In a place I'd never noticed before, a low siren

was sounding alternate notes. I remembered
it had been going all night. Was it in distress?
I slept four times, and ate with the base,
groundless haste of someone eating alone.

Afterwards I smoked a cigarette and lay on my back
panting, as heavy and immobile as my own saliva.
The newspapers preyed on my mind. On the radio,
the National Front had five minutes to put their case.

The fiction of an all-white Albion, deludedness
and control, like my landlady's white-haired old bitch,
who confuses home with the world, pees just inside the door,
and shits trivially in a bend in the corridor.

Mr Thatcher made his pile by clearing railway lines
with sheep dip (the millionaire's statutory one idea).
When he sold his shares, they grew neglected,
plants break out and reclaim the very pavements...

I think of you trundling across Middle England,
Peterborough, Leicester, Birmingham New Street --
the onetime marginals -- up to your eyes in a vigorous,
delinquent haze of buttercups, milfoil and maple scrub.

— Michael Hofmann (1986)

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Face of a liberal society   (17.4.10)

First, a post from Norman Geras on this example of "rank, crass illiberalism":

Here's the story of a Muslim woman forced to leave her French class somewhere near Montreal, because she wouldn't 'unveil': a model student; made no demands on others; teamed up with male students for class assignments; '[t]he Immigration Department's assertion that her veil, or niqab, posed a problem for "pedagogical" reasons... unfounded'; very diligent; actively participated in class; the decision to exclude her upset the other students; and she herself left 'crying and shaken'.

"I was heartbroken. I loved my French course and I loved that school, it was like a second home to me," Aisha said in an interview.

A story in other words of rank, crass illiberalism. It is sometimes suggested in discussion of this issue that the prohibition of these face-covering garments is not coercive; it is rather the wearing of them that is coerced. Well, sometimes that is true, but when it is, it's the coercion that needs to be dealt with by law. In the present case it's clear - as it must be in plenty of others - what the woman's own choice was:

Aisha says she could not remove her niqab. "It's like ripping off my modesty, like someone asking me to take off my clothes," she said.

And a second post from him on the same topic:

Across at the sad red earth, Jay writes to express some reservations about my post on the woman excluded from a French class in Quebec because she refused to uncover her face. Jay makes a number of points, but I shall focus on one of them in particular. He writes:

Whatever religious, philosophical, or psychic justification the wearer of the niqab may offer for the dress, another individual, even a teacher, is within her own human integrity to find the obscured human face, the withholding of what others openly present - an affront. Legal restriction, it may be, should not be founded on an affront, but neither should an individual be compelled to accept it.

The apparent symmetry of the 'not... neither' statement here might suggest that a reasonable balance is being struck: on the one hand, no legal compulsion merely to protect people from affront; on the other hand, no compulsion to accept the affront either. In a liberal society, however, there is nothing at all reasonable about this balance. If individuals have extensive rights and freedoms, as they ought to have - up to the limit where their actions harm others - then, in one critical sense, all of us are indeed obliged to accept things which affront us, provided these do not also harm anyone, violate their rights or liberties. Of course, we don't have to like what affronts us, and if we dislike something enough we don't have to tolerate it in spaces over which we have exclusive rights. You don't want someone wearing the niqab in your house or your car? You don't want a crucifix or a yarmulke or a shirt bearing the logo of French Connection UK worn there? Then you aren't obliged to accept any of them. But in spaces over which you don't have rights of control you can't forbid them. And there's a second sense in which you needn't accept what affronts you. You don't have to pretend to be happy about it. You're free to tell the bearer of the affront what you think of it, and of her for putting the affront your way. But, once again, you do have to accept that she may go on putting it your way in shared spaces, and in that sense you are compelled to accept it - or should be in a liberal society.

The context of Jay's argument concerns what teachers accept from their students. Naturally, teachers are free, even in a liberal society, to restrict usages and behaviours that obstruct or disrupt the educational process. But a teacher's being merely affronted, if he can show no more legitimate complaint than this, is not to the point. Neither is the argument for keeping a certain space secular. For the space to be secular, no more is required than to keep its facilities - the walls, the rooms, the buildings - free of religious symbols. The symbols a student wears on her own person are not the school's business. In a liberal society. Of course, there can be societies that are liberal by and large, but disfigured by illiberal and discriminatory practices.

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The Greeting   (11.4.10)

Sociology of the Whole: The Greeting

The institution of listening in common became the premise of living in common. The community was called by a common name and as it responded, it began to exist. Now they could sit down at the table of life together. But the common meal united the community only at the hours in which the meal was eaten. And this meal constituted community only of those whom it actually united. Only invited guests come to a meal. But anyone at all who hears the word can obey it. Only he who is invited can come to the meal, and that means he who has heard the word. Before he comes to the meal, he does not know the other guests. He himself did indeed hear the invitation, but then each one heard only himself being invited. Not before the meal does he become acquainted with the others. The common silence of those who heard the word is still a silence of the individual. Only at table do the guests become acquainted, in the talk which springs from sitting at table together. And so, when the guests leave, they are no longer strangers to one another. They greet one another when they meet again. Such greeting is the loftiest symbol of silence. They are silent because they know one another. If all men, all contemporaries, all the dead and all the still unborn, were to greet one another, they would have to eat a pound of salt with one another — as the saying goes. But this premise cannot be established. And yet it is only this greeting, of all to all that would constitute the utmost community, the silence that can never again be broken. The voices of all who have not heard the call disturb the devoutness of listening. The quiet of the family table is not respected by the noise of those who have not been invited and pass unsuspectingly beneath the lit window. The silence would be perfect, and the community common to all, only if there were no one who were not silent. The precondition for the greeting of all to all, wherein this common silence expresses itself, would have to be listening in common, just as every ordinary greeting has for its premise at least an introduction and the exchange of a few words.

—Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, Notre Dame University Press, 1985, p322 [my emphasis]

Yes and No   (11.4.10)

Do I make my plans according to ordinary human standards, ready to say 'Yes, yes' and 'No, no' at the same time? As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been 'Yes and No.' For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not 'Yes and No'; but in him it is always 'Yes.' For in him every one of God's promises is a 'Yes.'

— 2 Corinthians 1.16-19

Today is Holy Thursday, or as it is more commonly known in Britain, Maundy Thursday. This day the church recalls the Last Supper, and in particular Jesus's act after that meal of washing his disciples' feet. The office hymn for the day declares, "Where there is charity and love, there is God." And the themes of the day, which should also be the themes of our whole life as Christians, are service, forgiveness, and unity. "Every one of God's promises is a Yes."

Our service at church this evening was momentarily disrupted by some lads kicking in one of the doors. Far from the church that says Yes, it seems that our church was for them the church that today said No. An act of liturgy can exclude people even as it bangs the drum of charity and service. And perhaps this exclusion is not deliberate; perhaps we even voice an invitation. But this is not just a matter of the words that come out of our mouths. In our hearts, in the hearts of all of us present in the church tonight, myself included, did we really want those lads to enter in? Would it not be easier if they went away? "Grant that what we sing with our lips we may believe in our hearts, and that what we believe in our hearts we may shew forth in our lives."

If the church has anything distinctive to offer contemporary society, it is in turning the No of a fissured world into a Yes, and not just a quiet Yes, not an assenting, not an acquiescing, but a resounding and judgemental Yes!, a Yes! that welcomes, radically welcomes, welcomes into a demanding place and a demanding life, a Yes! that accepts and empowers, even at the risk of violence. If people perceive the church as an institution that says No, they will say No right back. And why wouldn't they? "Our word to you has not been Yes and No."

The knowledge and security of which we are speaking are therefore not in the world: rather, they are the possibility of our language and the nexus of our world. [...] At the heart of the desert, in the growing wasteland, this thought, which fundamentally no longer seeks to be a thought of Being and phenomenality, makes us dream of an inconceivable process of dismantling and dispossession.

— Jacques Derrida, 1967

In the warmth and comfort of our predictable liturgy, reading the gospel can feel like a source of knowledge and security. And perhaps it is. But the gospel is not just there to be read; it is there to be lived. And living the gospel paradoxically means shaking off the provisional knowledge and security it gives us. A shallow reading of the gospel gives us buildings and rituals and music. Surely the lived gospel will ultimately mean renouncing these things. If we consider the church our possession it will only ever be bricks and mortar; we lock possessions away when we're not using them because we think they're ours. This is not good enough. The gospel is a call to dispossess ourselves of our securities, of the locked doors behind which we shelter our own fears about the world outside.

What is positive about this kind of experience is that it shows us as a church just how provisional that security is. No matter how many gates we lock, no matter how many security lights we put up, other people can always compromise us. The next time an unwelcome visitor is standing in our church's doorway, I hope we can find a new way to say Yes! A way to meet them which responds to their needs first and our needs second. Is this not what the washing of feet symbolises? An uncomfortable and unconventional act, an act which breaks received cultural rules. Our needs that night were liturgical; perhaps theirs were not.

As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Marianne Williamson

If we, the contemporary church, can't imagine ways to take our ministry past our own front doors, perhaps we have no right to call ourselves churches at all.

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Blahspeak (formerly known as Blairspeak)   (3.4.10)

Stefan Collini (a professor of English at Cambridge and Fellow of the British Academy) writes a review article in the London Review of Books dealing with three reports: "Unleashing Aspiration", commissioned by the government to report on "fair access to the professions"; The latest British Social Attitudes survey; and "An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK", another government commission. Collini's is an exceptionally fine analysis and well worth a read (though it comes in at 7,000 words, so I'd go and get a brew first). Here's an extract, which gives a taste of Collini's way of debunking the centre-left's failure of logic of recent years:

In one of those phrases we have heard so frequently that we no longer register their absurdity, the Milburn report says we need to see how parents 'could be empowered with a new right to choose a better school for their children'. What does this actually mean? A 'right' is something universal, something everyone in the relevant category – in this case, parents – has. But if all parents have a right to choose a 'better' school for their children, won't we have to maintain in each locality a number of ghostly 'worse' schools to which no children are actually sent, whose function is to show that some schools are 'better' than others? This rhetorical pattern has become depressingly familiar: each individual has a 'right' to something 'better', where 'better' tends, in practice, to mean 'better than someone else's'. Over and over, the Milburn report uses the rhetoric of a 'race' in which 'everyone' is 'entitled' to have a 'fair chance' of winning. But if there are winners there must be losers, and sporting metaphors such as this one are intended to deflect attention from the basic fact that the most important determinants of who ends up in which category are not the miraculously independent qualities of 'ability' or 'effort' on the part of the individual, but the pre-existing distribution of wealth and power in society.

Collini ably illustrates that centrist politics of all hues, while sharing a commitment to "fairness" in varying degrees of sincerity, routinely fail to recognise that fairness is itself a limited good which needs distribution. The real argument to be had is not about aspiration, but about what amount and what kind of redistributions can be called just.

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