Sunday, June 01, 2014

If Israel was an island

My last post, on UKIP and migration, led to a short discussion on Facebook. Friend Delia commented,
You are absolutely right about over-population but its not going to be solved by allowing this tiny island to become even more over-populated. We are surely not being unreasonable in wanting to pass on to future generations as much as we can of our countryside and way of life. Economic immigrants need to do what our ancestors did in America and colonise the under-populated areas of the world.
This made me think about Israel. It wasn't until I watched Click on the BBC's News Channel yesterday that I knew that Israel leads the way with high-tech innovation. Successive waves of immigration in Israel, attracting clever Jews from America, Europe and around the world, have resulted in a pool of technologists and entrepreneurs who lead the world in research and development. The BBC quotes entrepreneur Yossi Vardi:
If you look at how this country was created, it was really a start-up on the large scale. A bunch of crazy people came here, trying to pursue a dream of 2,000 years.
This is all very well, but at what cost? These are economic migrants in reverse, taking their money and their skills to an already over-crowded country where land and water are being grabbed for the growing Israeli population, denying the indigenous Arabs, the Palestinians, the necessities of existence.

The 2.6 million immigrants who have arrived since 1948 have made Israel the only country whose population has multiplied by nine in the space of 50 years. 
It can't continue. The determination of some Jews to carry on building settlements on the disputed West bank, the extraction of water that's damaging wildlife and people's livelihoods, and the destruction of the environment, is a consequence of this mass immigration.

What if Israel was an island, like Great Britain? What if there was no room to expand sideways? What if Israel were to retreat to its 1967 borders, and accept that that is more than enough? Of course it's a fantasy, but just as the UK is limited by being an island, maybe Israel ought to think of itself in just the same way.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

On UKIP's version of reality, and mine

Since giving up my car last year I've been using taxis to get about - buses are no use to me because of mobility problems. Consequently, I have a lot of conversations with tax drivers, almost all male. Yesterday's were interesting.

On the way into town, P commented that he was glad he didn't live in Ipswich any more. It wasn't the same as when he first lived there, he said. Too many immigrants, and groups of young men from Afghanistan and similar places, hanging around, he said. He didn't mind it if they came here to work and tried to fit in with our ways, but when they kept to themselves and expected us to respect their cultures, he couldn't be doing with that.

When you consider the violence in countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, I said, it isn't surprising that so many would want to escape it. Would he want to stay there? No, he supposed not. And maybe it wasn't fair to generalise, I said. I mentioned a Afghani taxi driver who'd driven me from the station one day, whose English was better than many native speakers, and who was very courteous. He told me he'd been here eleven years. I wouldn't be surprised if he hadn't had some sort of professional job, perhaps as an interpreter. Yes, said P, there are some like that. There will be more, I said, not just from countries where there's conflict, but because of global warming people from Africa are being driven north. The real problem, I said, is that the global population is increasing, there are too many people, and many women either don't have access to birth control or their husbands won't allow them to use it. P went quiet. I know he has children but I don't know how many. He changed the subject.

I was driven home by N, a Bangladeshi driver from a different firm, a friendly, helpful man. I know one of his colleagues well, and we chatted about him. He asked how long I'd lived in the village, and what I did before I retired, and we discovered that we both had connections with Suffolk Inter-Faith Resource, me as a Humanist and him as a Muslim. It turned out that we both knew some of the same people. He said his daughter was a nurse in the local hospital's Intensive Care Unit, one of the many minority ethnic staff who keep the NHS going. When I asked him to drive carefully because there are lots of ducks with ducklings around the village, he mentioned that his grandfather in Bangladesh has a huge pond on his land with a wide variety of water fowl. I asked if they'd been affected by flooding, and he said no, their land wasn't on the flood plain. I wondered how long that would last, since Bangladesh is a low-lying country, crammed between a delta of rivers in the Bay of Bengal.

I like both these drivers and expect them to drive me again. I didn't ask if they'd voted in the recent election, or who for. It's unlikely that they'd both vote for the same party, if they voted at all; the turnout was abysmally low.

Most of those who voted for UKIP did so without fully understanding all of its rubbish policies. Xenophobia played a part, as it did in the other European countries where right-wing parties gained seats. In the New York Review of Books, Professor Mary Beard warns of a general failure to challenge UKIP's ridiculous claims; politicians from the other parties, apart from the unfortunate Nick Clegg, seem to prefer appeasement. The comedian and social commentator Mark Steel takes the mickey, as usual, writing,
... if we end the movement of people across Europe, that would mean the 808,000 British who live in Spain would all have to come back, which would be the equivalent of a town the size of Brazil being dumped on our overstretched resources ...
According to the BBC,
There are about five million British expats living and working abroad, with the popular destinations being Australia, Spain and the US. Figures from 2011 suggest that about 3,000 British citizens every week move away from the UK on a long-term basis.
UKIP doesn't mention this, of course, or the other facts that they prefer to ignore. The Office of National Statistics reported in 2010 that there were 7,354,000 foreign-born people living in the UK. Some of them will have been here decades, married British-born people, raised British children, paid British taxes, staffed British hospitals, the railways, the buses, and all sorts of other services that we can't do without. Yes, some of the figures have been unreliable but not that much. We've always been a mongrel race, and subsequent waves of immigrants have diluted the mix even more.

I wonder how many of those who voted for UKIP had more than two children? Would it ever occur to them that the main reason for many of the problems we face, including nationalist, ethnic and religious conflicts, is that there are too many people on our small planet? Not just too many immigrants - too many people.
The mid-range global projection is that the planet’s population will increase from seven billion to nine billion by 2050. Broader estimates range from eight to 11 billion, depending on how effectively and quickly reproductive and development programmes are implemented in developing areas of the world to address the key drivers of population growth: the lack of reproductive health and contraception, lack of women’s rights and poverty.
Nasty as it is, there's something inevitable about UKIP. It's partly the result of a general feeling of disappointment and frustration. There's competition for jobs, but there'll never be enough jobs and too many jobs cost more in terms of waste than we can afford. There's competition for housing, as the bubble gets bigger (it must burst, leaving thousands with negative equity), city sites remain derelict and green fields disappear. Car adverts promise stress-free motoring on empty scenic routes, while the reality is cities coming to a standstill. Many feel entitled to enjoy prosperity and comfort, without having to face some harsh truths. Instead of telling them the truth, most politicians perpetuate the fantasy of economic growth, ignoring population growth. They're not brave enough to tell people that things will have to change. Wouldn't it be good to have some honest politicians, who'd say yes, we're in a mess, but we could make some positive changes? Most major social change has been in response to a crisis of one sort or another. Serfdom was ended by the black death, when there weren't enough peasants to till the land. The Thames got cleaned up when the stink became unbearable. Public health improved after disease had wiped out thousands. Nutrition improved after the military found their troops were so weedy they weren't fit for battle. And so on. Well, we're in a crisis, so let's do something about it. This planet's too small for xenophobia.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Happy

Pharrell Williams' 'Happy' makes me feel good, and lots of others too. Here's the original version.



Here's the version made by Epic Arts in Cambodia...



A group of young Iranians were arrested for having fun with their version.



In the UK, young Muslims had fun without being arrested, thanks to the freedom they enjoy to ignore criticism from miserable mullahs.  Mufti Abdur-Rahman ibn Yusuf made a video explaining what was wrong with it but I lost the will to live after the first few minutes.



Street children in South Sudan enjoyed the music...



People all over the world are having fun making Happy videos.



And even BBC Breakfast people get groovy...



Boogie boogie...

Monday, May 19, 2014

The house is empty

Audrey on the lookout for wood mice.
I don't remember a time when I didn't have at least one companion animal about the place. A few years back, we had four dogs and four cats. One by one, they've all died, mostly helped on their way by an injection. One or two of them gave a little sigh as their small bodies went limp.

It's six years this summer since Wizzy died - my Jack Russell constant companion. Lucy, an eccentric small tabby cat, died just over a year ago. And now the last of them, Audrey, named after Ms Hepburn in her little black dress, has gone. I took her to the vet on Saturday and my friend Mac came round and buried her yesterday. She's by the hedge, near the spot where she'd sit for hours, waiting for wood mice to pop out of the undergrowth. They're safe now.

It seems strange, not having to worry about where I put my coffee mug, as there's no cat to knock it over. I don't have to leave the sitting room door open, so she can come and go and she pleases. I'm not followed up and down the garden by a black cat with her tail up in the air, telling me a story that I don't understand. There's no bedtime ritual, a cat sitting on my chest, purring like crazy, having a fuss before she retires to the foot of the bed. I can't hear the cat flap clatter or the bells on her collar when she comes in from the garden, and I won't hear the cries that mean "Where have you been?" when I've been out for a few hours.

How can such a small animal leave such a big space? My friend Don, who was fond of Audrey and brought her treats every Sunday when he came for tea, isn't very tactful. When told she'd died, he said, "Well, you won't get another one, will you? If you did, it would probably outlive you," and then he laughed. He has a tendency to laugh inappropriately. He laughs every time someone's murdered in Midsomer Murders. I didn't respond but cut the conversation short. Silly man. Doesn't he know about adopting an older cat? Or cats...

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Having ME is bad enough, without being miserable about it

I like May. All the shrubs in my garden are flowering, the countryside is lush and green, the birds are busy breeding, and summer's on the way.

Despite having had ME for 28 years, I wasn't aware that May is ME Awareness Month. I'm all for lobbying for research funds and stuff, but I avoid most ME sites and message boards because of the overwhelming negativity you find there. I dislike the terms "sufferer" and "victim". There are people with ME, not sufferers or victims. If they're associated with constant depressing "woe is me" messages, they're less likely to gain sympathy or support. Why? Because that's how it is. People with other diseases don't seem to feel the need to beg for sympathy in quite the same way, though the media does like a good sob story.

Campaign for more research funding, raise money for the same, be assertive about your rights as a chronically ill and disabled person, but please try to avoid whingeing, however shitty you might feel. Save that for your nearest and dearest, who might be used to it. As I don't have a carer and only the cat to listen, most of the time, it would be a waste of time to whinge anyway.

ME isn't my only problem. See why I love the NHS. I've found that the best way to deal with my multiple ailments and the pain is distraction; doing something, anything, to take my mind of them. Of course, when you have a disabling condition, that imposes limits. But if you're interested in what's going on in the wider world, your own problems may be largely ignored. I ignore mine, as much as possible.

Yes, I know that there are a minority of people with severe ME, who spend their lives in darkened rooms. I admit that I'm sceptical about how some of them came to be so ill, but that's got me into trouble before; nothing attracts vitriol like questioning how other people manage their illness.

I could die any day - we all could - and I don't want to waste any more time feeling sorry for myself than absolutely unavoidably. Fuck that!

Click here for previous posts on the subject.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Eric Pickles shows his ignorance, again

At the Tory Party's recent spring conference, Eric Pickles, the party chairman, is reported to have said,
I've stopped an attempt by militant atheists to ban councils having prayers at the start of meetings if they wish. Heaven forbid. We're a Christian nation. We have an established church. Get over it. And don't impose your politically correct intolerance on others.
He was referring to the National Secular Society's 2012 High Court case that ruled that it is illegal for local councils to include prayers as part of their official agenda.

Of course, Mr Pickles thinks it's OK to impose his intolerant and ignorant views on others. Baroness Warsi is also fond of airing her ignorance in public, using the term "militant secularists". For these two, the words atheist and secularists seem interchangeable, though they're not synonymous, and "militant" atheists and secularists are hell bent on destroying British society.

In 2007, I spoke about secularism at a Suffolk Inter-Faith Resource Forum of Faiths after it had become clear that faith representatives at a previous forum didn't understand what secularism is or how it benefited them. Here's a revised transcript, first published on the Suffolk Humanist website.

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I'm here to talk about living in a secular society, and why I believe passionately that it's a good thing. I feel fortunate to live in a democratic secular society, knowing that if I lived in a religious state I wouldn't enjoy the freedom to speak about what matters to me, for fear of recrimination, harassment, persecution and punishment, even death, in some cases.

The word "secular" is often misused. It doesn't mean consumerism, or entertainment, or activities other than religious activity. It doesn't mean "atheist". It doesn't mean being "anti-religious", though some who describe themselves as secularists are anti-religious while many religious people support a secular state. It doesn't mean being value-free, in terms of morality or ethical behaviour.

A secular society is one where religion doesn't dictate political decisions - where the state and religion are separate - and where freedom of religion is possible, as no one religion dominates society. George Holyoake, the agnostic British writer who coined the term "secularism" in 1846, used it to describe the promotion of a social order separate from religion, without actively dismissing or criticising religious belief. Holyoake wrote,
Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever. Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life.
When Holyoake was promoting secularism, it was unusual to acknowledge any other religion than Christianity.

In general, secular societies are modern, liberal societies, not because of organised secularist movements, but through the gradual erosion of old-fashioned religious authority, the modernisation of government, and the development of ethnic mingling through migration.

Constitutionally secular states are all very different. There is no one-size-fits-all form of secular government, and there can be some confusion about how secularism is interpreted. In general, however, they allow freedom of religion or the freedom not to be religious, which makes them different from theocracies and repressive totalitarian states, including communist states, that forcibly suppress religious expression.

India's modern secular democracy was founded in 1947, on independence from British rule. India's first Prime Minister was a Humanist; Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who believed passionately that India must be a secular state where religious people had to learn to live in harmony with one another. The Muslims, led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, rejected this principle. The hasty partition of India, mismanaged by the British, caused great suffering and bloodshed. There are still religious tensions in India today, but people of different religious backgrounds can and do live and work side by side.

Section Two of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms details the fundamental freedoms everyone in Canada is entitled to, which are legally enforceable. They are freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom of belief, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of association. The Charter's preamble includes a reference to God, though this portion hasn't been accorded legal effect and has been criticised for conflicting with the fundamental freedom of conscience and religion guaranteed in section two.

The first amendment of the American constitution ensures that the state won't favour one religion over another, but the country's secular status is confused. George Bush was fond of referring to his God, who seems to have been a sort of unelected co-President, and it's almost impossible to be elected at all if you're open about being an atheist. In a research sample of 2000 households, the University of Minnesota's department of sociology found that the respondents rated atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in "sharing their vision of American society." Atheists are the minority group they were least willing to allow their children to marry. This form of prejudice is widespread, but one effect of Professor Richard Dawkins' lecture tours in the States is that an increasing number of people have "come out" as non-believers, risking the criticism and rejection of their families. It appears that America isn't as Christian as some would like us to think it is.

I was going to talk about France and Turkey, but there isn't enough time, so I'll just mention the reasons that Britain is referred to as "Christian country". It was a pagan country in Anglo-Saxon times. St Augustine's mission was to make it a Catholic country. It remained so until King Henry VIII had a little difficulty with his first wife, his brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon, who he'd married to secure an alliance with Spain. Catherine failed to produce an heir and Henry lost interest in a Spanish alliance because he fancied Anne Boleyn. Henry's marital and diplomatic difficulties led to the establishment of the Church of England. Like many male monarchs who were fixated on their wives' ability to produce male heirs, Henry was, of course, ignorant of the fact that it's the father's chromosomes that determine the gender of a baby, but women have traditionally taken the blame for most things.

It's ironic, considering how the established church was founded, that Edward VIII was forced to abdicate when he wanted to marry an American Divorcee, and that the current heir to the throne had to marry his divorcee in a register office. Not only that, but his talk about being a "defender of faiths" in a multi-faith country was ruled out of order by Archbishop Rowan Williams. As things stand, if Charles declares himself a convert to another faith or rejects faith altogether, he can forget about the crown. Some have speculated that Prince Harry isn't a religious man, after he chose to talk about his mother rather than do a religious reading at her memorial event. There are many inside and outside the Church who think it's time for disestablishment, reflecting the nature of a multi-faith, secular Britain. It's also time to stop allowing the Church to assume control of every state occasion, Government ceremonial, and many other public celebrations. I thought it was significant that the bereaved and the victims of the 7/7 bombings in London chose to organise and conduct a memorial event in a park that was entirely secular, so it included everyone.

So why is it important to defend the secular nature of our society?

There's been talk from a minority of introducing Islamic Sharia law in this country, to settle family and neighbourly disputes. It would, say those who advocate its use, be a form of mediation and conciliation service. I say that Sharia law and British law are incompatible, and the form of Sharia law that's practiced in Muslim countries is essentially unfavourable to women. Human rights and British law come before religious "rights" and the claims of some fundamentalists - you can't have a state within a state.

There are conflicts between the secular state and ideas like "multiculturalism" and "communities". Under the premiership of Tony Blair, the Government sought to appease religious organisations that made demands for recognition by granting them special channels of communication. This has resulted in unelected religious leaders presuming to speak on behalf of citizens who ostensibly share the same religion, but whose attitudes and values vary enormously. The Conservatives declared that this approach to "consultation" was fraught with difficulties, and that it's better to consult people directly, not through religious leaders. It's also presumptuous to talk about religious "communities", when this assumes a commonality that may not exist. I look forward to the day when the word "community" is only used to describe people who live in a geographical area, such as my village. We have community concerns, such as the provision of affordable housing for local young people, otherwise we're a diverse mix, in terms of attitudes and interests. We don't expect or want special privileges. Neither should groups based on religion. If a group of any sort - the Women's Institute, a sports organisation, a residents' association - wants to campaign on a particular issue, they expect people to sign up, to agree with the aims and objectives. Too often, religious leaders have spoken without any such endorsement, only an assumed authority. As for "multiculturalism“; we must be careful what we mean by that too. The last census allowed you to tick a box that identified you as "mixed" in terms of ethnicity. It's no longer appropriate to talk about the "black community", as though everyone with a dark skin shared the same interests, so why should you assume that everyone who describes himself or herself as Christian, say, share the same attitudes and values?

At a previous forum we spoke briefly about being British. That's the unifying nature of a secular state - we're all British. We have to reclaim the term from the isolationists and the extreme nationalists. As British citizens, we all have an interest in maintaining our basic freedoms, including the freedom of religion, and the freedom from religion - in other words, to keep religion and the state completely separate, and prevent anyone from seeking to impose their religious beliefs on anyone else. I'm more interested in how people behave than what they believe, unless their beliefs motivate them to behave badly. Religion has no claim to the moral high ground, and it's insulting to over a third of the UK population who don't have a religious faith to suggest it does.
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From Archie Bland in The Independent:
I’m not sure I’ve ever met an actual militant atheist. But they sound scary – probably armed, and certainly dangerous. They sound like they search your house for Bibles, or stand outside churches on a Sunday morning waving placards and booing anyone who goes in.
Update, 10/4/2014. At a reception for Christians at 10 Downing Street yesterday, David Cameron reiterated the same fallacy as Pickles:
Now, look, there were 3 things that I wanted to say tonight about what I hope we can do more of in our country when it comes to Christianity. And as Eric Pickles said this week, we should be proud of the fact that we are a Christian country, and I am proud of the fact we’re a Christian country and we shouldn’t be ashamed to say so. But I think the 3 things I want to focus on – and I hope we can all work on this – the first is to expand the role of faith and faith organisations in our country. This has been a consistent theme of this government; I’m sure there’s more we could do to help make it easier for faith organisations.

Friday, February 28, 2014

A short wedding, a long marriage, and a fish

I've contributed to a local high school's half-day marriage conference for Year 10 several times. We've talked about the cost of a wedding, which is reported as being between £15,000 and £20,000 these days. The wedding industry is a lucrative one. When I've said that a minority of couples have been happy to wed on a budget, including buying a second hand wedding dress, several of the more opinionated students didn't think much of the idea. I've told them the story of the wedding that cost shillings, followed by a happy marriage that lasted well over sixty years.

I met an old couple, years ago, who lived in tied accommodation on a Suffolk farm. They'd asked me to conduct a funeral for the wife's sister. Several years later, the wife died, and I visited the husband, by this time very frail, to plan her funeral, and heard how they got married.

Ipswich fishmonger, 1938
They met through their employer, a farmer. He was a farm labourer, she was nursemaid to the farmer's children. One day, working in the yard, he glanced up at a window on the first floor of the house and spied a young women with a lacy cap, looking down at him. "That's the girl I'm going to marry," he said to himself. Her parents were strict Plymouth Brethren, and didn't approve of the courtship. In those days, you had to be twenty-one to marry without your parents' permission, so they waited. She turned twenty-one one hot summer. They didn't have much money, but planned to live with his parents until they could find a place of their own. Their employer gave them the morning off so that they could get married. The register office was in Ipswich, about ten miles away, so they caught the bus into town. Two strangers agreed to be their witnesses at the ceremony. Afterwards, they walked back to the bus depot. It was so hot, they paused at a fishmonger's shop, to cool off under the awning next to a marble slab covered in ice and fish. The fishmonger, thinking they were customers, asked what they'd like. They had barely enough money for the bus fare home. It all looks very nice, they said, but no thanks. Bursting with excitement, the new wife couldn't contain herself, and said, "We just got married!" "Congratulations!" said the fishmonger, wrapping up a big piece of fish. He handed it to them, saying it was a wedding present. They ate it for supper. Not long afterwards, their employer offered them the tied cottage where they spent the rest of their married life and raised their daughter. When he died, soon after his wife, I think he hadn't been able to live without her. The last time I'd seen him, he was lost.