Tag Archives: culture wars

A lesson for us all, I feel

With the Atheist Bus Campaign now at £38,000 and climbing, Peter Black asks:

Wouldn’t all this money committed on both sides of the argument have been better spent on actually helping people have a good Christmas, the homeless for example?

Allow me to quote Matthew 26:6-13 (lolcats version):

6 So Jebuz was outside in Bethany, inside the house of Simon the lepr,7 Woman popped up wif can of tuna, and poured oilz on his head, as he sitted at cheezburger.8 But when his bfz sees it, thays angry, saying, Y to waste?9 Dis oilz might have been sold for much, and give to other kittehz wif no cheezburgerz.

10 Jebuz thinkz n sez, Y U freekn? she knows I like oilz.11 Always kittehz wif no cheezburgers; but I go bai, k?12 Thatz Y she pour on the tuna oilz, 4 2 bury mee.13 I sez 2 U, wen teh bibul iz told, it wil say wut shes dun 4 me. Shez cool. U suck.

Wise words, wise words.

Jewel of Medina pledge update: should trash be burnt?

My pledge to buy the Jewel of Medina is just one signatory away from being fulfilled, so if you haven’t already signed up, please do.

Since I launched the pledge, the publishers Gibson Square have postponed the publication of the book indefinitely, which means that the firebombers may have won. Shelina Zahra Janmohamed has also written a review of the book on the BBC Magazine.

In Shelina’s view, the book is a bodice-ripping yawn. Having read the book, I will defer to her judgement. But trash deserves the right to be published as much as quality literature. Get the trash taken off the shelves and the quality will follow. And is Islam really so fragile to be vulnerable to shallow nonsense? To be fair on Shelina, she doesn’t suggest otherwise and doesn’t call for the book for be banned. She is right to say that “If our society upholds the right to offend, then the right to be offended goes with it.” The problem is, too many people want a right not to be offended.

In my view, if you value freedom of speech and have enough spare income to afford it, you have a moral duty to buy any book under threat, no matter how dreadful it may or may not be. The book itself is meaningless, it is the precedent that is important. Can I get one more person who feels the same way before the end of the month? More to the point, can I get anyone else to set up more pledges like it?

Finally, note how spineless the BBC are – the picture of a woman reading the book accompanying Shelina’s article carries the disclaimer “Picture posed by a model” as if it would be uneccessarily inflammatory to have a picture of an actual person actually reading. Yet of course, Shelina herself has read the book, so it is completely nonsensical anyway.

US court rules God is not omnipresent

A victory for common sense:

A US judge has thrown out a case against God, ruling that because the defendant has no address, legal papers cannot be served.

So, after thousands of years of theology, it comes down to a judge in Nebraska. If he isn’t omnipresent, that rules out pantheism and panentheism and leaves us with deism and of course atheism, which I can live with.

Will Tim Leunig be burnt at the stake in Liverpool city centre tomorrow?

For those of you who missed it this morning, here is a quote from today’s Thought for the Day by The Rt Rev. James Jones:

Tomorrow Daniel enters the Lion’s Den up here in Liverpool. The author of the report that recommends ‘ the rolling up’ of the regeneration strategies of the Northern cities is coming to the Anglican Cathedral to face the music! The Dean’s arranged for him to debate with the city’s leaders and academics. Dr Tim Leunig of the Policy Exchange is an economic historian with radical views. As well as questioning the value of regeneration schemes he proposes a shift of the population ‘encouraging significant numbers of people to move , to London and the South East’

Did I hear a groan from those grid locked in traffic within the M25 doughnut? Well, there’s some serious stuff in this paper, even though some of the conclusions will raise hackles in the south and the north. Reading the report in the light of the last two weeks certainly widens the eyes not least its appeal to market forces as a panacea for our urban problems. Whatever else is going on at the moment it’s surely about the limits of the market to guarantee the common good. And although communities need markets, they also need other interventions that secure the peace and safety of the realm. That’s what these urban initiatives are all about.

Now, I have my criticisms of Tim’s presentational style and fear that the heat generated from the introduction of his Policy Exchange pamphlet obscured the light to be found in the content. But I would baulk at misrepresenting his proposals in this way.

Fundamentally, the idea was to take all the money being spent on regeneration currently and hand it over to local authorities to spend as they see fit. This isn’t even mentioned in Jones’ caricature, for all his stoking the fire with talk about entering the lion’s den. Instead Tim is being held up as an advocate of prescribing “market forces as a panacea for our urban problems” – which is utter bilge. In what way is proposing to spend billions of pounds of regeneration budgets differently count as leaving things to market forces?

Is it too much to ask the Bishop of Liverpool to have read a pamphlet which he then denounces on the radio? Worse, not only is it insinuated that Tim has incurred the wrath of God, but he apparently is flying in the face of St Tracey of Emin (no, I didn’t realise she’d been canonised either).

In other news, a new campaign has been launched to secure the official pardons of the thousands of people who were burnt at the stake for witchcraft by populist religious bigots in the 18th century. Not that there is a connection at all, oh no.

Scrabulous and IP Wars

When I twittered Rory Cellan-Jones to ask why he didn’t mention Wordscraper in his blog post about Scrabulous, he replied “cos i couldn’t be bothered!” Years from now, when British journalism has finally breathed its last, this phrase will be engraved on its tombstone.

The thing is, the Wordscraper thing is about the most interesting thing about this whole sorry saga. Cellan-Jones misses the point. Badly. While Scrabulous did indeed cross the line by using the same look as Scrabble and using a name that was far too close to a trademarked property, the fact is you can’t copyright an idea and they have been free to set up an almost identical game.

Intellectual property law is at its murkiest when it comes to games. History is littered with people who sold their ideas to companies before their games made it big, least of all Scrabble-inventor Alfred Butts. How do you make money out of a boardgame when people can replay it countless times? Ironically, the answer that Mattell and Hasbro have come up with is to produce a whole range of merchandise. You can buy the official Scrabble dictionary of course, and a special turntable for your board. You can get the deluxe edition and if you want a really big game why not try Super Scrabble (unbalanced in my view)? In a hurry? Try Scramble. On the move? Try Travel Scrabble. They’ve even produced a pink edition to raise money for breast cancer research. Scrabulous hardly dented that market – if anything it helped it.

The point is, they’ve already realised that the real money to be made is not in the game itself but in creating a range of branded tat for the fans to buy. With that in mind, getting Scrabulous banned looks like a pretty bad business move. It probably won’t cost them much, but it has created a lot of ill will and has been built around getting people to sign up to their own, flash heavy and vastly inferior Facebook app. Meanwhile, the Agarwalla brothers appear to have got away with it. The big guys may have won, but it is a pretty empty victory.

Ultimately, this isn’t how big businesses are going to survive in the global internet marketplace. The Agarwalla’s may have overstepped the mark, but it isn’t hard to stay on the right side of the law. Frankly, if Mattel and Hasbro had any sense, they’d encourage developers to compete to produce the best internet version of the game, offering a license that would allow people to publish the game with their blessing, so long as it included a prominent link back to the official website (admittedly, contractually they may be prevented from doing this even if they wanted do but given how long it took their developers to produce a Facebook app and the poor job they made of it, it looks like we can safely add this to their list of cock ups). Think of the free advertising! Ironically, at a different end of the empire, Hasbro has been experimenting with something very similar. Their Wizards of the Coast publishing arm, which produces Dungeons and Dragons, positively encourages other publishers to use their system (albeit with restrictions, something which has admittedly caused some bad feeling). The result was to take a failing brand and catapult it right back to the top of the industry.

Not only are intellectual property laws becoming increasingly hard to enforce, in many ways they are becoming a serious hindrance to making money, which is what they exist to do in the first place. Properties such as boardgames that were devised in the middle of the 20th century (and superheroes for that matter) are a particularly interesting cultural battleground because to those of us who have grown up with them, they feel like public property. Ultimately, this becomes a question about who owns popular culture. The corporates won’t be allowed to win that battle, whether they want to or not.

Throwing their bibles out of their prams

A very honest and perspicacious article by Giles Fraser in the Guardian on Monday about how organised religion has unedifyingly thrown itself out of the temple, or rather registry office. It puts new light on things like Islington’s Registra-Martyr.

It all feels too much like the parable of the prodigal son. You sometimes get the impression that the “great” religions are sorely in need of a big hug. Sadly though, any such attempts normally result in a rather sharp jab in the ribs.

But it also raises the question of why the government was so willing to go along with such blatant silliness. It is almost as if it has been tacitly accepted that organised religion owns the intellectual property of the Bible and religious paraphenalia and that we mere morals only have access to it with the bishops’ permission. There is plenty in the Bible for an atheist or humanist and even (gasp!) homosexuals to find of intellectual and moral value. Does the Church really consider us all so damned that the word of their precious book would be wasted on us? Clearly so.

Can Cameron Lead the Conservatives (part 587)?

Stephen Tall has pointed me to this piece by John Rentoul on the Independent Blog:

David Cameron voted against the majority of Conservative MPs who took part in the division yesterday on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. He was one of 37 Tories voting in favour; 49 voted against. The rest found something better to do.

This sounds awfully familiar. Indeed, the Embryology Bill is a fascinating case study of Cameron Non-Leadership in action.

First of all, there is the “they aren’t defying me if I make it a free vote” tactic. He did this earlier in the year when he allowed his MPs to back the Bill Cash amendment on the Lisbon Treaty. Of course, the argument against that is that the Embryology Bill comes under that catch-all of a “conscience issue”. He can probably get away with this as, aside from the apparent admission that political philosophy is completely useless when it comes to fundamental issues of principle such as the rights and wrongs of abortion, it is a view shared by politicians from across the political spectrum (while insisting that J.S. Mill & co DO have something instructive to say on, for example, the practicalities of recycling). It is hard to see how the Lisbon Treaty came under this category though. Or House of Lords Reform.

What is interesting with this Bill however, is that while Cameron supported the Bill overall, he has adopted a quite a reactionary view when it comes to the detail. Backing Mad Nad’s (I’d call her Dorries Karlof but that one’s taken) 20 Weeks amendment is particularly peculiar given the fact that her case has been pretty comprehensively quashed by the scientific evidence. 20 week fever appears to have gripped the Conservative Party. Alan Duncan was raving about it on Any Questions despite seeming unclear about what the current limit actually is (which rather suggests he hasn’t done the slightest bit of research into the subject). It has been dressed up as the safe, reasonable, responsible thing for right-minded Conservatives to do when in fact it is a blatant wedge strategy (apparently funded by the religious right, it emerges).

But the more tricksy one is this proposed amendment to the Bill regarding IVF to single women and lesbian couples. Andrew Lansley is proposing to reword the Bill’s requirement for “supportive parenting” thus: “the need for supportive parenting and a father or a male role model.”

On the surface this seems innocuous enough. Certainly a “male role model” is up there on my list of “desirable” things for a child to grow up with. Lansley was insistent that this wasn’t about excluding lesbian couples. It is certainly something worth exploring in committee. Would sticking a poster of David Beckham up on the side of the crib suffice, for instance?

And yet. And yet. While I think there is something in the argument that the current problems we face with youth gangs and violence on the streets is rooted in the lack of supportive parenting, what I’m not clear about is that it is somehow rooted in lesbians getting IVF treatment. Getting IVF is a much more stringent process than having a fumble in the back of a car, and no-one is proposing to change that. A tiny minority of women get IVF treatment. Of them, a minority of them are lesbians. Of them, a tiny minority of them are likely to end up in a gang. Just what are the Conservatives preventing here? Maybe one thug per decade being grown in a test tube?

Once again, this appears to be a “reasonable” amendment being supported by the Tory front bench which you only need to take a sideways glance at the attack dogs yapping at their sides to see the real agenda. Can you say “dog whistle”?

It all seems so tactical. I don’t know if Cameron is the liberal he claims to be or not and to an extent that is irrelevant. What I’m concerned about is how a Cameron government would behave in the face of a reactionary Conservative backbench of the kind we are likely to continue to see for decades to come. His approach since becoming leader has been to avoid confrontation where possible, and capitulate where not. In this respect he is very different from Tony Blair circa 1995. Blair loved to face down his detractors in the party; that’s why the “demon eyes” approach was so unconvincing. With Cameron, we really do seem to be getting a Tory wolf in woolly liberal’s clothing.

Why Catholic moralism makes me sick

I seem to be incapable of blogging at the moment – the problem with failing to do it for a couple of weeks is getting back into the habit is often really difficult when there are so many distractions out there.

This is a shame because there is plenty to blog about. The main thing that has been getting my goat over the past weekend has been the escalating row over the upcoming vote on the Embryo Bill, actively being stoked up by people such as Cardinal Keith O’Brien who has been come up with all sorts of colourful phrases to denounce it. He could at least get his literary allusions right – Frankenstein created life from dead matter; his beef here is about proposals to create animal-human hybrid embryos. That isn’t Frankensteinian – it is Moreau-esque. Is it too much to expect these turbulent priests to at least read? Clearly.

There is a big debate about whether Labour should allow a free vote on this. I am only too aware that both the Lib Dems and Tories are already allowing a free vote. It does rather bring into question what free votes are all about and why it is that religious bodies (and it is unerringly religious bodies) insist on free votes on such a narrow range of issues. As Laurence Boyce argues over on Lib Dem Voice these votes are hardly “free” in that the churches are only all too keen whip to their heart’s content. Is it not absurd that we regard scientific debates about the experimentation on small clusters of cells – or for that matter what two grown adults get up to behind closed doors – as “moral” issues while issues such as poverty, justice and military action are regarded as political?

It is in this context that Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor‘s article in the Guardian yesterday must be regarded. Murphy makes the outrageous suggestion that the difference between religion and “atheistic secularism” is love. Catholics love, atheists “kills the human spirit under the pretence of liberating it” (note how he frames the debate by denying atheists their very humanity). To be sure, he accepts that on occasion Catholics forget this lesson but insists that history repeatedly “shows the church rediscovering its own secret”.

O’Connor has not condemned or even mildly rebuked O’Brien for his speech on the embryo bill, in which he uses such love-filled phrases as “hideous” and “grotesque”. This, lest us forget, is with reference to scientific research intended to save lives and improve people’s quality of life. But presumably that’s okay because their “spirits” will live on.

It all but five years to the day since the House of Commons voted for an illegal war to invade Iraq. The Catholic church, to be sure, condemned it at the time, but did not seek to influence its own congregation in the Commons and require them to choose between the Pope and Tony Blair. Paul Murphy, Ruth Kelly and Des Browne – currently under intense pressure over the embryo bill – were let off the hook. Tony Blair himself has now been welcomed into the Catholic fold with open arms. Meanwhile, people with Parkinson’s are expected to suffer while in Africa and South America people are threatened with eternal damnation for using life-empowering and potentially life-saving contraception. And what does O’Connor use to justify all this and claims we atheists can’t grasp? Love.