Happy New Year (31.12.11)
A happy new year, dear reader.
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Welfare reform revisited (29.12.11)
A report to the Department for Work and Pensions warns that welfare reforms may fail to get the work-shy off benefits if the marginal benefit to the individual is too small. This is obviously true. Presuming that this is a problem (and I do), the question is how to make the reforms do what they say on the tin. It seems to me that the proposals could be improved in three basic ways: 1) by removing incentives not to work; 2) by providing greater financial incentives to work; and 3) by providing more opportunities to work.
On the first point: it is currently difficult to revoke someone's benefit payments, even if they are clearly capable of work and simply refuse an offer of work. Why not say: you can claim unemployment benefit indefinitely, BUT after three months of unemployment, you must accept a public-sector work placement in exchange for payments?
On the second point: the government currently taxes salaries of over £8,000. Why not IMMEDIATELY increase the starting tax threshold to a higher sum, say £12,000, and increase the basic rate to make this change fiscally neutral?
On the third point: currently the government pays the unemployed to sit at home all day. Without spending a penny more, the state could offer public-sector work placements in exchange (all manner of things from upskilling, training, gardening, painting, sweeping -- the stuff you can never do too much of, and which has a minimal impact on the private sector). Such placements would also provide good workers with good references, making them more employable. So, why not?
I don't ask these questions rhetorically; I'm interested to know what countervailing considerations are prohibiting these proposals from becoming policy. I suspect, though, that the answers would embarrass the government too much for any ministers to risk articulating them in so many words.
No Minchin for Wossy (22.12.11)
Tim Minchin has been cut from Jonathan Ross's show this Christmas, because ITV is scared of the tears that may be shed for Baby Jesus by the Moral Majority and Jan Moir. He's not too happy. Admittedly, it's not a very good song, but that's not the reason it was cut.
Newfred, always happy to contribute in what small way he can to irritating such folk, and in the interests of subverting such crude censorship, shares the cut section with you here.
Intentions and practices (21.12.11)
Upon being charged for an alleged racially aggravated public order offence (a charge still to come before the courts), John Terry states
I have never aimed a racist remark at anyone and count people from all races and creeds among my closest friends. [...] I have campaigned against racism and believe there is no place for it in society.
Terry may or may not be guilty; a jury will decide that in due course. But his statement interests me for a different reason. The two clauses "[I] count people..." and "I have campaigned..." here serve as supplementary to, and supportive of, the first clause denying the alleged racist remarks. It is a slightly more formal version of the pub-table retort "some of my best friends are black".
The humour in the best-friends-are-black defence is precisely that it does nothing to defend the kind of remarks in question. I could be the most liberal-minded and inclusive fellow and still be guilty of racist practices; I can indeed be guilty of racist practices even when I do not intend them as such. We have seen this in the unwitting antisemitism of the UCU. Conversely, there is the unwitting homophobia of those who count LGB couples amongst their friends without ever being able to bring themselves to acknowledge the fact publicly, preferring to introduce them as "friends" or "flatmates"... but enough already about the church!
Jingle Bells in Stockport (21.12.11)
Drunk accordion player tackling Jingle Bells in Stockport. (thx ac)
Merry Christmas, dear reader(s)!
Kaunas X: Cathedral (20.12.11)
Kaunas IX (20.12.11)
Kaunas VIII: Riverside (20.12.11)
Edgar on KJV (19.12.11)
There is a huge irony here. Although Cameron drops a nod both to the Bible's radical influence and to earlier translations of the Bible, he underplays the extent to which King James's comfortable clerics stood on the shoulders of the radical Tudor translators who preceded them. Of the seven ringing biblical phrases quoted in Cameron's speech, only one is original to the King James (as it happens, it's "how are the mighty fallen"). And, far from being heroes of our island story, those earlier translators who didn't flee our island risked – and in one case, suffered – death at the stake. Four of the major Tudor bibles were – and had to be – published abroad. The first translator of a printed English bible, William Tyndale – who provided 90% of the King James new testament – was to die at the hands of the Catholic church in Flanders, after being betrayed by an English adventurer, probably in the pay of Sir Thomas More.
What was that about biblical values? Because whatever they were, the Catholic church didn't seem to pay too much heed to them in those days. (Or rather, perhaps they did -- but they weren't the particular biblical values Mr Cameron had in mind.)
Hitchens and Iraq (18.12.11)
Predictably, much of the commentary following Christopher Hitchens' death has focused on his support for the Iraq war. In a few minutes of reading around I have found various epitaphs bemoaning this fact, one of the more moderate of which is "belonging to a lunatic fringe of unabashed warmongers at the extreme Right who are keen on policies that would engulf the Middle East in a firestorm". People are entitled to think what they want of Hitchens, of course, and he delighted in their doing just that.
But his position on Iraq should nevertheless be defended for what it was, rather than what left-wing zealots mendaciously claim it to have been. He supported the Iraq war because it was, as he saw it, fulfilling a long-overdue responsibility of the international community to depose a murderous tyrant. That so many on the left regard such a duty as a cardinal sin says more about the left than it does about the Hitch. By way of illustration, take "Darkdaler"'s comments on an obituary in the Guardian:
I'm sorry. One apologist for the Iraq war praising another apologist for the Iraq war is stomach turning. Cohen has not a single word to say for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who died and suffer as a result of a war he promoted.
Hitchens was a charlatan, and the world is better off without him.
To which the inevitable response must be that Darkdaler, like reams of other "anti-imperialists", has not a single word to say for the 800,000 Iraqi civilians killed at the hands of Saddam Hussein, or the million more killed in the Iran-Iraq war as a result of Saddam's aggression. I write as someone who opposed the Iraq war at the time, though if it was being debated today, I might well support it. Those who think that the costs were too high and that the chances of success were too slim, as I thought in 2003, hold a reasonable view. Sadly this pragmatic calculation has led many on the left into making unedifying apologias for a genocidal maniac.
RIP Hitch (18.12.11)
Christopher Hitchens passed away last week. A critic who was not without his own flaws, but whose ruthless independence must be admired. To me, his polemics were a constant reminder of why we religious folk must be our own loudest critics -- particularly when it comes to those in positions of power. One of Hitch's greatest polemics was against the cult of Mother Teresa, whose own power was hypocritically presented, by herself and by others, as powerlessness, humility, and simple "service". I implore you to watch it.
Lazy Tory Drivel for Squeezed Middle England (17.12.11)
David Cameron's speech about "Christianity", "moral decline", and "values" will no doubt be a screaming success with Daily Mail readers suffering from nostalgia for a fictional "Christian Britain of yore" and no capacity for independent, let alone rational, thought. Putting to one side the audacity that reading out this moralising drivel must demand of a non-churchgoing prime minister and former Bullingdon Club member, there is still much to be disagreed with in its "substance". The speech has been excellently debunked by Rev Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of St Mary's, Glasgow:
Now, you say that the Bible gave Britain a set of values and morals which make the nation what it is and we need to actively stand up and defend them. You know Dave, life is just a bit more complicated than that. What values are we talking about? Those that people in our nation used to argue in favour of slavery? Those they used to argue against women’s suffrage? Those they use still to argue against accepting the full humanity and citizenship of God’s gay children? Is it those values that you’re keen on or others?
You referred to some of these things in your speech. Curiously, you seem to think that the Bible argues for human rights. Most peculiarly, you argue that the Bible has been at the forefront of the emancipation of women. Have you ever read it? (Oh, and by the way, did Samantha promise to obey you? Just wondering).
The point of recognising that people have inalienable human rights is that we do so because we are agreed that they have them not because we have a mandate from scripture.
I hope the Church of England rank and file don't fall into this Tory honey trap, doting on Cameron's speech simply because it is a public mention of their faith. His words are empty, cynical, and wrong. (thx n)
Styles of argument (16.12.11)
Norman Geras analyses two styles of argument in the gay marriage debate.
Kaunas VII: Facade (16.12.11)
Kaunas VI: Sunset (15.12.11)
Kaunas V: Facade (15.12.11)
Kaunas IV: V. Kuzmos (14.12.11)
Kaunas III: Finches (14.12.11)
Kaunas II: Kaunas Antifa (14.12.11)
Kaunas I: Facade (14.12.11)
Come out of your extravagant churches to see the reality (13.12.11)
The reality, that is, in the Philippines:
The Philippine's only political organisation for LGBTs has urged Catholic priests, who oppose the anti-discrimination bill, to "come out of their extravagant churches to see the reality – that some LGBTs are not hired to work, some are being harassed and violated and some 144 killed because of their sexual orientation and gender identity."
A certain Revd James Gracie of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) recently posed the question "If the homosexuals, and these people, want to be treated equally, then what about paedophiles? What about polygamy?" Questions of this kind are asked as if they had no answer; as if they were just rhetorical flourishes supplementing a self-evident truth.
Except, of course, there is an actual answer to the Rev's question. But before considering it let's spell out what his question really asks. I understand it as follows:
[Premiss:] The principle of allowing gay people to marry expands the types of person eligible to marry one another. [Question:] That being the case, what grounds would we have for not expanding marriage further, to those who would like to marry minors and multiple partners?
Put it like this, and we see that there is a straightforward answer: we can justify not expanding marriage further on moral grounds. On the paedophilia front, it's not as if the law hasn't crossed this bridge before. There was a time when children were indeed routinely married to adults. And, whaddayaknow, those were heterosexual marriages too! But child marriage was outlawed because it was deemed immoral and a violation of children's dignity and rights. We accept as legitimate this constraint on marriage, because we accept the moral reasoning governing the constraint. Similarly with polygamy: society does not on the whole view polygamy as morally valuable, and so it remains outside the constraints of marriage.
The gay marriage question is arising in western democracies precisely because people increasingly see moral and social value in gay relationships where they previously saw (or rather were told to believe in) their moral depravity. What Gracie inadvertently draws attention to, then, is the fact that the debate over gay marriage rights is also a debate about the good. I would venture to suggest that public opinion has in recent decades been moved that gay relationships are of the same potential value as heterosexual ones. The legal norm of "equal treatment" Gracie mentions is a reflection of this prior belief in moral equality.
The three things Gracie namechecks (homosexuals, paedophiles, and polygamy) are associated with substantially different moral considerations. The fact that gay rights are increasingly considered a good thing implies nothing about the rights of paedophiles and polygamists. We thus see that Gracie is engaged in a slippery slope fallacy.
Blacks and gays (1.12.11)
I would be interested to hear whether the Church of Scotland also sees a problem with interracial marriage.
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