Friday, January 19, 2007

A clash

Tomorrow, Ken Livingstone and Daniel Pipes will debate the motion A World Civilisation or A Clash of Civilisations. I've got tickets, but I'm not going to go and maybe the best time to try to get away with writing about this without seeing it is before the event.

I've got too much work to be able to spare the time to travel down to London. All my projects are behind schedule and I need to put in the hours. But there's another reason why I am not going to try to shuffle my commitments: the closer this event has crept, the more I find myself wishing both debaters could lose.

Because the reality is neither, and it is both. In other words, it is complicated and to see two of the extremes butt heads would be depressing even before I started to analyse the audience, and attribute motivations to them all. What are we going to gain from seeing this clash of the extremes? Increased polarisation is an inevitable outcome, indeed the entire event is an exercise in polarisation.

We do have a world civilisation. This is not meant to be exhaustive, but trace the currents that brought us, say, contemporary mathematics and you'll have to bring in ancient Hindus, Babylonian accountants, Greek philosophers, Cambridge alchemists, Islamic astronomers, Indian railway clerks, French functionaries... the thin strands of the web cover much of the globe.

Look at the last five hundred years of art and you see Arabia, Africa, China, Japan, America, north and south, Australia...

Successful civilisations are omnivorous and voracious. The Western Roman Empire is still with us, in the form of the Papacy; they even dress as third century Imperial officials. That was accomplished by absorption, not by isolation. But imagine Rome in 100AD: people from every part of the known world walked the streets. So it is with London and New York today.

But that's not to say we don't have a clash right now, and if it is not of civilisations, then what is it? Broadly speaking, there is a world civilisation, but it doesn't cover all the world and even in the parts it seems to encompass, it isn't the main priority for everyone.

Pathan tribesmen, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Saudi religious police seem to be relatively unmoved by Joyce's experimentations with the form of the novel, Picasso's voracious appetite for artistic influences, and by twentieth-century physics. A part of the hard left has joined with them, and even soft left stragglers hang from the tails of the hard left.

Livingstone is a fellow traveller, Pipes is an ultra - nothing that has ever touched Islam can be acceptable.

I disavow both. Martin Amis put it well recently:

People of liberal sympathies, stupefied by relativism, have become the apologists for a creedal wave that is racist, misogynist, homophobic, imperialist and genocidal. To put it another way, they are up the arse of those that want them dead.
I detest the "racist, misogynist, homophobic, imperialist and genocidal" Islamists, and I detest those who are up their arses, like Ken Livingstone. But I'm not sure that Daniel Pipes is the answer.

Don't look back

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A light smack for women

There has been some controversy about the recent Channel 4 Dispatches programme about extremism in British Mosques. There was an exchange of correspondence in the build up to the broadcast, and a little bird has dropped into my lap a letter dated 7th January 2007 from Shouaib Ahmed, Secretary General, Markazi Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith UK to Andrew Smith of HardCash Productions Ltd, the programme maker. In it, Mr Ahmed is at pains to dispel slanders against Islam, but I'm not sure he had the effect he intended. Here is the opening of his letter:

I am writing in response to your letter dated the 28th December 2006 which appears to have been written just when you knew we would be celebrating the ‘Id al-Adha, thereby giving us less time in which to respond to what in any case appears to be a programme whose content has already been decided.

Naturally I am surprised that you appear to have already more or less decided what words you are going to put into my mouth and that you did not even have the courtesy to request an interview with me so that my viewpoint could be included in your programme. In my humble opinion the mark of balanced investigative journalism is to do just this, to talk to everyone who is going to feature in an article or documentary, even if this means that some preconceived notions may prove to be unsustainable before they are aired.

If, which I hope is not the case, this is going to be just another attack on Islam and Muslims, which is very much in vogue nowadays, then I must remind you that if I or any member of my staff or anyone who worships at the Green Lane Mosque or the Mosque itself are subjected to any form of physical attack as a result of your programme then you, HardCash Productions Ltd and Channel 4 will all be liable to prosecution for incitement to commit a criminal act.
His enthusiasm for prosecutions for incitement to violence is to be welcomed.

Towards the end of a long letter, some aspects of Islam are explained:
Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab was an 18th century reformer who sought to restore that middle way where it
had been ignored or abandoned by the people of his time. He called on them to follow the Qur’an and the Sunnah, just as all sincere Muslim teachers and leaders do, whatever group they belong to. Many views and excesses are attributed to him that were not his – and which if anything characterise those who have abandoned the middle way.
Saudi-style salafism is, you will note, moderate, and the middle way. Later:
As regards corporal punishment, the teachings of Islam permit a light smack as a mark of disapproval, but never the violent physical abuse of either children or marriage partner
I can only read that as an assertion of the rightness of giving a marriage partner a "light smack". And:
As regards amputations, whippings, and crucifixions, [...] Some of the hadd (fixed punishments) punishments in Islam work as an effective deterrent, even for those who do not fear Allah and the Last Day.
That clears things up, then. But perhaps not in a way intended by the writer.

View from Cairo

I don't think any post I've read shows as clearly as this why we need to stand with our democratic, secular friends in the Middle East, and elsewhere, and not allow the Islamists to divide us, as they would wish. The first and most grievous victims of Islamism are, of course, Muslims - including those who are Muslim only by birth. If you think Islamism is having a terrible effect on Western societies, think for a moment about what it must be like in a Middle Eastern country. Here's a personal account from Nah·det Masr:

During the early and mid nineties of last century, life was looking nice for me and for a large portion of the Egyptian population. It was a booming time for the economy, I had recently graduated then, there was no problem finding a job for an engineer in my specialization, the air was so optimistic!

I went to get a graduate degree in the US. I returned to Egypt in 1998, the local economy was stagnating, I found a job at a multinational firm with a nice salary, hence, dodged the local stagnation, and even replaced my car with a nicer one. To continue the perfect picture, a new beltway road was introduced close to my home, and I managed to reduce my work trip from one hour to about 15 minutes! Life was so good!

I was driving to work one day on 1999 when the BBC Arabic Service news announced that an Egyptian Airliner on a trip from JFK to Cairo disappeared from the radar screens. In the next several days, the news kept pouring in about a suspicion that the pilot might have committed suicide, Egypt lost very good people on this plane including scientists, industrialists, and a contingent of army officers who were studying in the US. This has created all sorts of conspiracy theories! Anyway, this kept heading the news broadcast in a way that prompted me to switch off or change the channel whenever the news is broadcast. The bad news kept pouring in; in 2000 there was that infamous visit by Sharon to Haram Al-Sharif in Jerusalem which prompted the second intifada, and the pictures of Mohamed El-Dorra getting killed by the Israelis, then the senseless suicide bombings, and Israeli revenge. The news was so bad that a broadcaster once advised men not to watch them before going to bed with their wives!

I started 2001 with high hopes, I was just assigned the task of managing a major regional project, and it was going smooth. I had a lot of business travel, staying in 5 star hotels in lovely cities around the region. In the summer of 2001, as part of my assignment, I went to attend technical conference in Chicago, at that time I decided that I will try to move the US; I met with a recruiting agency, and they told me that the outlook was bright. At last, I was going to leave the region with its bad news, and Egypt's crowded streets. I continued my trip in the US by visiting my Ph.D. advisor in Philadelphia, I then went on to give a lecture at the Georgia state university at the invitation of an assistant professor friend there, who later offered me to come and teach as visiting scholar there. Again, the outlook seemed very good, life was nice again, I didn't even mind being randomly selected for extra security check at each airport I used in the US.

After returning to Cairo, I started getting calls from my recruitment agent. There was a serious offer, and I was about to transform my life the way I always wanted. Move to the US, raise my kids on the values of tolerance, and secure their future by sending them to good schools, getting a house, basically the American dream!

On the afternoon of 9/11 (Cairo time), I left work to find that one of my car tires was flat, and was told that it was emptied by a resident of the apartment building I was parked off who though I had nor right parking there! I got furious, and decided I am going to the police station to lodge a complaint.

On my way to the police station, I heard the BBC Arabic service radio broadcaster saying that they are extending their news hour to cover the accident of a plane hitting one of the WTC towers! I said to myself, what foolish pilot would accidentally hit a building! I also felt bad because I visited the WTC towers earlier, and I had some of the best family photos taken there. I lodged the complaint accusing that resident! of course, nothing was to happen since the witnesses wouldn't testify, but I wanted that women to be called by the police so that she doesn't do it again. Anyway, I noticed that everyone was listening to the news. I didn't even turn on the radio on my way home! I was late, and hungry.

I arrived home, and was asking my wife at the door if she could imagine that an idiot pilot hit the WTC??? She was better informed! She told me to come to the living room to see for myself what was happening! I seemed like the world has gone crazy! All channels of the Nilesat were getting live feed from CNN, and replaying the second plane hitting the second tower! Of course, it became apparent that it was no accident, it was mass murder in the most cowardly way! We started getting calls from friends, and people started to float conspiracy theories, but that's beyond the point!

I got that depressing feeling again! Of course the recruiting company stopped calling me, and I called off my idea of moving to the US under the circumstances.

For the next few years, there was nothing but bad news; locally, the Egyptian pound lost half of its value, and while the invasion of Afghanistan was justified to dislodge the evildoers, Bush decided to move against the advice of the UN, and most of world, and invaded Iraq. His decision is still inexplicable to me. Iraq had no role whatsoever in 9/11! News of carnage in Iraq kept pouring in, the gruesome beheading of Nick Burg which, in my view, was a milestone in TV history, I couldn't watch it of course, but the reaction of the terrorists was to do more of it as they saw this tactic as their shock and awe , but that's another story. The Fallouja carnage, the mass murder of Shia who were accused by the insurgents of cooperating with the occupation, the revenge by the shia, it was like a competition of who shows the most graphic scenes! These news were culminated by Saddam execution and the rise of islamic militancy in Egypt, and even the judiciay took a right turn towards intolerance.

I have not only become depressed most of the time, but I started to consider taking antidepressants, and judging by the news in Egypt, and the region, I think we should all stock up on antidepressants.

A half and a half with that federal manifesto

I'm pretty familiar with this post, but maybe some readers of this blog aren't. David Farrer, the Scottish libertarian, wrote this in 2003:

... why shouldn't England have its national identity recognised? I am not convinced that asymmetric federalism is an insurmountable problem. The "problem" of a federation dominated by England is largely caused by the state doing too much in the first place. Let's gradually cut back the functions of government towards its (arguably) legitimate one of protecting the citizen against aggression - and nothing else. This means having the police and court systems under the control of the various nations that make up the UK and keeping defence at the federal (UK) level.

The Freedom and Whisky constitutional plan is this:

Withdraw from the EU

Devolve all powers - except defence and foreign affairs - to the various national parliaments

Each parliament to be fiscally independent with contributions being made to the federal government in proportion to population

The federal government should be situated on the Isle of Man, which is not in any of the home countries but is equidistant from all four of them

The Irish Republic should be invited to unite with the North and rejoin the UK with Dublin taking its rightful place in the Anglosphere alongside Cardiff, Edinburgh and London
And amen to that.

(a half and a half is an order you can place in Scottish pubs - a half pint of beer, and a half gill [or ordinary measure, depending on the pub] of whisky)

Nah·det Masr

I consider it an honour to have been linked to by the Egyptian blog Nah·det Masr, and I have added a reciprocal link to my blogroll. Here's the descriptive paragraph from this blog:

"Nah·det Masr" means "Egypt Renaissance" in Arabic. I am a middle aged Egyptian citizen, I work as an assistant professor at Cairo University. I also work as a consultant to many organizations in my field of expertise. I believe in a secular, democratic, and progressive state in Egypt. I will try to voice my views through this blog.
Vive la renaissance.

Hello GLA

I get regular page hits from a gateway computer at the Greater London Authority. Do I have a regular reader there? Well, it seems the answer is: sort of. There has been a flurry of activity this morning since someone using that machine to get internet access first read my entry Celebrating diversity.

This is a gateway computer, so will be the route to the internet for a number of computers in the GLA. It looks very much as though details of this post were circulated to a number of people in the GLA, who all clicked through to look at it. I suspect an email then went out to someone with a yahoo mail account, and they came to look. After a short pause, the page hits have started again.

So, why the interest, and who is interested?

The post in question demonstrates that a small number of people - it uses one as an example - can be very vociferous and represent more than one organisation, thereby appearing to represent more voices than is the case - hence the ironic title. It uses photographs that have all been published by other sites to make this example. It suggests that someone who complains about political persecution is a hypocrite if they are a ringleader of political persecution.

I can understand those points being annoying or challenging to professional left-wing and identity group campaigners. These faults - forming endless groups whose memberships are broadly shared to campaign against people in a way they would find intolerable if they were the victims themselves - almost define a certain section of the left, and undoubtedly define identity group politics.

Which brings us to the question of who might be using taxpayer-funded resources at the GLA to monitor my posts. At the moment, I don't know. I suspect I might find out. When I do, I'll be sure to let you know.


Michael Gove asked about the controversial Mosque "planned" for the Olympic site in East London:

15 Jan 2007 : Parliamentary Question Tablighi Jamaat Mosque

Michael Gove: To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government what discussions she has had with (a) the Mayor of London and (b) Newham council on the proposed Tablighi Jamaat Mosque in East London. [113920]

Mr. Woolas: None. There is no planning application before Newham council for such a mosque.

Movement in Iran

Following on from the reports of an imminent US attack on Iran - which I tend to discount at this stage - I notice this suggestion that there is mobilisation beginning within Iran. This report is attributed to an unnamed source inside Iran:

IRGC (Islamic revolutionary guard) is moving some point defence radars, anti ships missiles, Hoot missiles, and various anti ship equiptment and missiles that are not known to public to Iranian coast lines on persian gulf and Hurmoze. Also some air and ground equipment to north, north east, West ,south west, and south East of Iran. IRGC is not going to add more defences to those three islands (Greater Tumb, lesser Tumb and Abu Mussa) because they would be the first to be pounded by US Navy and air force. US does have a plan to capture those and several naval bases...

Monday, January 15, 2007

Science roundup

Via Advanced Nanotechnology, I read that:

quantum cyptography company id Quantique SA (Geneva) has teamed with Australian cyptography company Senetas Corp. Ltd. (Melbourne) to create what the partners claim in the world's first 1- to 10-Gbit/s secure network that combines uncrackable quantum keys with classical encryption.
The uncrackable codes rely on single-photon emitters and receivers that detect whether a hacker has viewed a polarized photon—flagging the intrusion by switching any bit that has been observed, thereby alerting the recipient to an eavesdropping attempt.
So that's Australia and Switzerland. Over to Egypt, where Egyptian Researcher Dr. Abd Al-Baset Al-Sayyed Explains the "Science" behind His Demand to Abolish Greenwich Mean Time and Replace It with Mecca Time:
Abd Al-Baset Al-Sayyid: When British colonialism or the British kingdom were in control, and it was "an empire on which the sun never sets," it imposed Greenwich Mean Time. This creates two problems for the world. The first problem is that in Greenwich, the magnetic field of Earth is 8.5 degrees, whereas in Mecca the magnetic field is zero.


Interviewer: Before the break, we talked to Dr. Abd Al-Baset about the centrality of Mecca, and about the importance of measuring time according to the latitude of Mecca, and not according to the latitude of Greenwich... Why is it?

Abd Al-Baset Al-Sayyid: It has been proven that there is a certain discrepancy if we calculate it according to Greenwich. This discrepancy has been estimated as 8.5 minutes between the northern and southern hemispheres.

Interviewer: How much?

Abd Al-Baset Al-Sayyid: 8.5 minutes. Air traffice cannot be organized this way. They are aware of this, and so they try to change it.

Interviewer: Really?

Abd Al-Baset Al-Sayyid: Yes. If they calculated time according to Mecca, it would be the same in the northern and southern hemispheres.

Interviewer: Surely they know this...

Abd Al-Baset Al-Sayyid: Yes, but we have to work on these things. We must declare this, and we must convene a large conference with them, and tell them that time must be calculated according to Mecca.

Interviewer: What other benefits are there to calculating time according to Mecca?

Abd Al-Baset Al-Sayyid: If you calculate time according to Mecca, those 8.5 minutes... The magnetic field of Earth, for example... What I say is that there are people at the North Pole and the South Pole who cannot come here in multitudes.

Interviewer: Really?

Abd Al-Baset Al-Sayyid: This is because the magnetic force is concentrated there, which affects people's blood and the biological movement of life. It has been proven that if magnetism, anywhere, exceeds 1,000 gauss, which equals one tenth of a tesla, it affects the ability of the hemoglobin in the blood to carry oxygen to the body's tissues, the ability of the blood to carry oxygen to the tissues.

Interviewer: In other words, the ability to live...

Abd Al-Baset Al-Sayyid: Yes, to live... This means is that when you are in Mecca, the ability of the blood to carry oxygen to the tissues is greater than anywhere else in the world.

Interviewer: That's why, when people travel to Mecca, they return full of energy.

Abd Al-Baset Al-Sayyid: In Mecca, you don't exert any effort. That's why you may see an old man, who cannot walk, or who walks with crutches, and even though it gets very crowded around the Ka'ba, he is filled with great strength, and he circles the Ka'ba. You do not exert any effort, and you are filled with energy, because you are in a place in which there is no magnetic force.


Anybody who studies human chemistry knows that all circulation in the human body is to the right. All the components are called "dextro-rotatary," which means circulating to the right. They call it dextro-rotatory, which means circulating to the right. When I'm circulating [the Ka'ba] from right to left, anti-clockwise, I increase my body's circulation, and consequently I am filled with energy.

Interviewer: I get filled with energy too?

Abd Al-Baset Al-Sayyid: Yes, because the right-to-left circulation in my body increases.
(via lots of blogs)

One of these three countries is a net recipient of international aid. Can you guess which?

Meanwhile, The Guardian gives a platform to Intelligent Design and militant religious advocates.

Last time there was a prolonged period of Labour government, we had to be bailed out by the IMF. Nice to see the Guardian working to make that happen again, in its own way.

Celebrating diversity

I enjoyed reading The Guardian's summary of the controversy surrounding Simone Clarke, a dancer with the English National Ballet, and her membership of the British National Party. And the article was illustrated by a photograph of the demonstration outside one of the ballet's performances.

The organisers of the demonstration have a website, with a page full of information about past and future events, which is also illustrated by photographs - like this one:

Unite Against Fascism enjoys support from a number of groups, including the NUS Black Students' Liberation Campaign! (the exclamation mark comes from their website), which also has some photographs breaking up the text. Here's an example:

Meanwhile, on a related subject, the black students’ officer for the National Union of Students (NUS), Ruqayyah Collector, spoke to Socialist Worker. Here's her picture:

She said:

A whole community is being criminalised in an attempt to make it impossible for Muslims to talk about political issues.
Which is a sobering thought. People being attacked, maybe even hounded out of their jobs, in an attempt to suppress their political views! Perhaps we should organise a demonstration?

UPDATE: This post has generated some interest

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Blair and Iran

Tony Blair will resign from office in April 2007, according to an unnamed source in the White House.

But, arguably, that isn't the most important part of this report from the Arab Times:

Washington will launch a military strike on Iran before April 2007, say sources. The attack will be launched from the sea and Patriot missiles will guard all oil-producing countries in the region, they add.
According to the source, Vice President Dick Cheney highlighted the threat posed by Iran to not only Saudi Arabia but the whole region. “Tehran is not playing politics. Iranian leaders are using their country’s religious influence to support the aggressive regime’s ambition to expand,” the source quoted Dick Cheney as saying. Indicating participants of the meeting agreed to impose restrictions on the ambitions of Iranian regime before April 2007 without exposing other countries in the region to any danger, the source said “they have chosen April as British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said it will be the last month in office for him. The United States has to take action against Iran and Syria before April 2007.”
(all emphasis added)

I came to this via the excellent and hawkish Iranian exile and blogger, The Spirit of Man, who has also written:
I was talking to an Iranian who has just come to Canada, and I asked him how Iranian people still feel about any possible US invasion or overthrowing the mullahs by any possible means, and he said that most people are still for these two options because things have got worse since 2-3 yrs ago and people are sick of the regime. Inflation is worse, human rights abuses have got worse, basic freedoms are being restricted more than ever and people are fed up with this new mental person aka Ahmadinejad.
So what's going on here? American soldiers arrested five Iranian "diplomats" in Kurdistan a few days ago, and now there is a leak, apparently, to an English-language Kuwaiti newspaper.

1. Perhaps an attack is planned. Perhaps Blair will go in April.


2. Perhaps the Americans are softening up the Iranians ahead of their security surge, telling them by proxy to get out of Iraq.

I take #2 right now.

Dennis Waterman too old?

I can't wait for the TV series based on this genuine police internal job advert

Post: Sergeant - Uniformed/Detective
Unit/section and OCU/branch/directorate: Emerging Issues Desk, Communities Together, Strategic Engagement Team (CT SET), Diversity and Citizen Focus Directorate (DCFD).


You'll probably have read that a (singular) Muslim medical professor has advocated special health services within the NHS for Muslims. You might even have read something like this:

Muslims Want Special Treatment from UK Health Service

Yet another demand for special treatment for Muslims, accompanied by claims of victimhood: NHS ‘should treat Muslims differently’. (Hat tip: LGF readers.)
Note the pluralisation of the professor.

Here's where this all started:
Head to head

Should Muslims have faith based health services?

At a time when many government and public bodies are recognising the importance of engaging with faith communities, Aziz Sheikh advocates that the UK should provide specific health services for Muslims. But Aneez Esmail argues that such services could enhance stigmatism
The previous issue's Head to head feature was:
Should smokers be refused surgery?
I can't find earlier examples, but this (perhaps new) feature is plainly intended to be controversial. The smokers piece, for example, could perhaps have been headlined Christians want discrimination because it includes this phrase:
To fail to implement such a clinical practice (refusing treatment to smokers) in these select circumstances would be to sacrifice sensible clinical judgment for the sake of a non-discriminatory principle.
(My emphasis)

It is regrettably unsurprising to see such illiberal sentiments about smoking expressed in the BMJ.

It is equally regrettable that, while it is almost inconceivable that anyone from any other religion should express, in all seriousness, a wish for seperate health facilities, it just raises an "Oh not again!" reaction when it comes from a Muslim.

This sort of special pleading is doing immense damage to community relations. It gets extrapolated from "a Muslim professor" to "Muslims" and contributes to an already widespread and deep resentment in other parts of the community.

Recently, someone who works in a large teaching hospital in London told me about a break period, during which a group of nursing assistants were sitting together. None were Muslim, though only a small minority were English. The subject of Muslims came up and it was as though the flood gates had burst. Everone was complaining about Muslims - Africans, Poles, Hindus.

Professor Sheikh is one of a small number of Muslims who are doing the image of their community, and its long term interests, immense damage.

Map of the world

As we try to make sense of the new world order, it helps to consider who might vote against a UN Security Council resolution that called on Myanmar to:

"cease military attacks against civilians in ethnic minority regions ... put an end to the associated human rights and humanitarian law violations ... including widespread rape and other forms of sexual violence" and to "permit international humanitarian organizations to operate without restrictions."

It urged Myanmar, the former Burma, to cooperate with the International Labor Organization to eradicate forced labor, to begin a political dialogue leading to "a genuine democratic transition," allow freedom of expression and release Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy and "all political prisoners."

The measure also endorsed U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's "good offices" efforts to help the people of Myanmar.
(My emphasis)

Against: China, Russia, South Africa
Abstained: Congo, Indonesia, Qatar

Friday, January 12, 2007

Can Polish migration help solve N. Ireland's troubles?

The Times reports:

The force formerly known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary has been inundated by applications from young Poles desperate to become officers.
Most are Catholics. Northern Ireland is stuck right now over the problem of support of the police force by, mainly Catholic, Republicans. The force has been in a catch 22 situation, whereby few Irish Catholics join while it is mistrusted as an overwhelmingly Protestant force, but until there are enough Catholic officers this mistrust will not be overcome.

Poles don't have the baggage their Irish co-religionists carry and can join the police in Ulster with fewer qualms. But by so doing they are altering the balance of the force in a way that can only help to build trust in the Republican section of the community.

I don't think this was planned or anticipated when Poland joined the E.U. but it might just turn out to be the best consequence of our membership of that swollen and corrupt organisation.

Stupid journalism

A Times report on a recent archaelogical find includes the following:

An ivory carving appearing to show the head of a human being marks Modern Man’s first attempt at figurative art, archaeologists believe.
How on earth would anyone know whether or not this carving was modern man's first attempt at figurative art? In fact, given the nature of archaeological evidence, we can say with confidence that it is no such thing. It might be the earliest such attempt so far found, but that is all.

Journalism has to condense, and there is a danger of simplification approaching innaccuracy whereby the simplified description is no longer the phenomenon being discussed - this problem is particularly acute with popular science books on subjects like quantum mechanics - but there is neither need nor excuse for it in this report.

Cartoons summary

An excellent summary of the history and implications of the Danish cartoons affair has been posted at Middle East Quarterly.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The BBC is biased

Stephen Pollard has been leaked an internal memo from Jeremy Bowen, the BBC's Middle East Editor. The "Mini briefing on Israel and the Palestinians" is absurd. He mentions Israeli attempts to gain the freedom of a kidnapped soldier, but not the kidnapping, which had nothing to do with the circumstances the Palestinians now face, according to Bowen. Instead:

Palestinian society, which used to draw strength from resistance to the occupation, is now fragmenting.

The reason is the death of hope, caused by a cocktail of Israel's military activities, land expropriation and settlement building – and the financial sanctions imposed on the Hamas led government which are destroying Palestinian institutions that were anyway flawed and fragile.
It's all Israel's fault. This is the most partial, biased summary I have ever seen. If you have a strong, or empty, stomach, read it all at the above link.

No comment

As Anglican traditionalists celebrated a ruling permitting them to refuse women priests, their colleagues demonstrated with representatives of other religions outside Parliament for their right to discriminate against gays.

Brave New World

In the Telegraph today, we read firstly that:

Council bosses today defended a decision to investigate an "alleged odour nuisance" caused by a couple smoking in their own home.

Jeanette and Gavin Gordon-Crawley were stunned when they were told officials were to probe their smoking habits following a complaint from a neighbour.
And secondly that:
Council tenants' groups are to be given the power to apply for anti-social behaviour orders to tackle nuisance residents under powers put before Parliament today.
We have to wait for the next Queen's Speech for the proposal that children should be given merit badges for reporting their own parents to community re-education centres if they fail to recycle their rubbish properly.

I demand an apology

The phrase "must-read" is widely overused in the blogosphere, and I see no reason to break that tradition. Christopher Hitchens is a must-read in Slate:

It was quite witty of Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., to short-circuit the hostility of those who criticized him for taking his oath on the Quran and to ask the Library of Congress for the loan of Thomas Jefferson's copy of that holy book. But the irony of this, which certainly made his stupid Christian fundamentalist critics look even stupider, ought to be partly at his own expense as well.

In the first place, concern over Ellison's political and religious background has little to do with his formal adherence to Islam. In his student days and subsequently, he was a supporter of Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, a racist and crackpot cult organization...
True enough, and we must see how Ellison performs now. But then Hitchens gets going on the subject of Jefferson's interest in Islam:
A few years later, in 1786, the new United States found that it was having to deal very directly with the tenets of the Muslim religion. The Barbary states of North Africa (or, if you prefer, the North African provinces of the Ottoman Empire, plus Morocco) were using the ports of today's Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia to wage a war of piracy and enslavement against all shipping that passed through the Strait of Gibraltar. Thousands of vessels were taken, and more than a million Europeans and Americans sold into slavery. The fledgling United States of America was in an especially difficult position, having forfeited the protection of the British Royal Navy. Under this pressure, Congress gave assent to the Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated by Jefferson's friend Joel Barlow, which stated roundly that "the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion, as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen." This has often been taken as a secular affirmation, which it probably was, but the difficulty for secularists is that it also attempted to buy off the Muslim pirates by the payment of tribute. That this might not be so easy was discovered by Jefferson and John Adams when they went to call on Tripoli's envoy to London, Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman. They asked him by what right he extorted money and took slaves in this way. As Jefferson later reported to Secretary of State John Jay, and to the Congress:

"The ambassador answered us that [the right] was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise."
As Hitchens says, that rings a modern-sounding bell.

But a million slaves? I demand an apology.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Bad Ideas

Over at, I read:

The world is full of conformism masquerading as profundity, says Fred Halliday, who explodes twelve global falsehoods.
Entertaining stuff, to begin with:
Number twelve: Human behaviour can be predicted

[it can't]

Number eleven: The world is speeding up

[it isn't]

Number ten: We have no need for history

[we do]
Then a touch of dogmatism creeps in:
Number nine: We live in a "post-feminist" epoch

The implication of this claim, supposedly analogous to such terms as "post-industrial", is that we have no more need for feminism, in politics, law, everyday life, because the major goals of that movement, articulated in the 1970s and 1980s, have been achieved. On all counts, this is a false claim: the "post-feminist" label serves not to register achievement of reforming goals, but the delegitimation of those goals themselves.
Yes-ish. The term is used to delegitimise the goals of 70s and 80s feminism by some people, but that isn't to say these goals haven't been at least partially achieved. Halliday is striking a false note with the phrase I have highlighted in bold. But then he goes off the rails:
Number eight: Markets are a "natural" phenomenon which allow for the efficient allocation of resources and preferences

Markets are not "natural" but are the product of particular societies, value systems and patterns of state relation to the economy. They are not efficient allocators of goods, since they ignore the large area of human activity and need that is not covered by monetary values - from education and the provision of public works, to human happiness and fulfillment. In any case the pure market is a fantasy; the examples of the two most traded commodities in the contemporary world, oil and drugs, show how political, social and cartel factors override and distort the workings of supply and demand.
This has nothing to do with the most persuasive arguments for a free market, one of which was best expressed by Sir John Cowperthwaite, who introduced his 1961 budget in Hong Kong as follows:
….in the long run the aggregate of decisions of individual businessmen, exercising individual judgment in a free economy, even if often mistaken, is less likely to do harm than the centralized decisions of a government; and, certainly the harm is likely to be counteracted faster.
I'm not sure what would count as "natural" by Halliday's definition. Even sexuality is influenced by society and value systems. This is as convincing as the argument that homosexuality is wrong because it is unnatural, in that it cannot lead to reproduction. In other words, it is not convincing. That something is not natural is hardly an argument against it, even if such a remark can be meaningful (which I doubt).

Halliday's two remaining points are just silly. The idea that education and public works have no monetary value is absurd, and human happiness and fulfilment are aspired to along routes that require money - money, or (perhaps more accurately) price, being nothing more than a measurement of the value we are willing to place on any given commodity - including a beach, clean air, and a National Park. State funding, financed from tax revenues, involves money; at least, my local tax inspector seems to think so.

Nobody in their right mind suggests markets don't get distorted. Here's Milton Friedman:
With some notable exceptions, businessmen favor free enterprise in general but are opposed to it when it comes to themselves.
o Lecture "The Suicidal Impulse of the Business Community" (1983); cited in Filters Against Folly (1985) by Garrett Hardin ISBN 067080410X
Galbraith said as much in The Affluent Society. This is not obscure, nor contentious, nor partisan, but it seems to have passed Halliday by.

What is it about the idea of the free market that makes otherwise intelligent people lose their marbles? Whatever the daemon is, it leaves Halliday briefly, for this:
Number seven: Religion should again be allowed, when not encouraged, to play a role in political and social life

From the evangelicals of the United States, to the followers of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, to the Islamists of the middle east, the claim about the benefits of religion is one of the great, and all too little challenged, impostures of our time. For centuries, those aspiring to freedom and democracy, be it in Europe or the middle east, fought to push back the influence of religion on public life. Secularism cannot guarantee freedom, but, against the claims of tradition and superstition, and the uses to which religion is put in modern political life, from California to Kuwait, it is an essential bulwark.
But he hasn't quite recovered:
Number six: In the modern world, we do not need utopias

Dreaming, the aspiration to a better world and the imagination thereof, is a necessary part of the human condition.
Utopianism - a disease of the left we are by now entitled to suspect afflicts Halliday - is not some kind of dreamy aspiration to a better world. It is Communism, Fascism, Islamism. It is what drives people to slaughter in the name of a paradise not to be postponed.

Cultural self-loathing permeates the non sequitur of the next entrant:
Number five: We should welcome the spread of English as a world language

It is obviously of practical benefit that there is one common, functional, language of trade, air traffic control etc, but the actual domination of English in today's world has been accompanied by a tide of cultural arrogance that is itself debasing: a downgrading and neglect of other languages and cultures across the world, the general compounding of Anglo-Saxon political and social arrogance, and the introverted collapse of interest within English-speaking countries themselves in other peoples and languages, in sum, a triumph of banality over diversity. One small but universal example: the imposition on hotel staff across the world, with all its wonderful diversity of nomenclature, of name tags denoting the bearer as "Mike", "Johnny" and "Steve".
Reading the question, one might expect the argument that follows to be against the development of a world language. But no, with the exception of the "triumph of banality over diversity" phrase, it's against the fact that the language in question is English. Halliday might reflect on the reasons why English has done this, and on what would be better as an alternative. On second thoughts, that sort of relection seems unlikely.

Then we read:
Number four: The world is divided into incomparable moral blocs, or civilisations

This view has been aptly termed (by Ernest Gellner) as "liberalism for the liberals, cannibalism for the cannibals". But a set of common values is indeed shared across the world: from democracy and human rights to the defence of national sovereignty and belief in the benefits of economic development. The implantation of these values is disputed, in all countries, but not the values themselves. Most states in the world, whatever their cultural or religious character, have signed the universalist United Nations declarations on human rights, starting with the 1948 universal declaration.
If observation of the 1948 declaration were as widespread as its signature list, Halliday might be on to something here. But it isn't, and nor is he. The "conflict of civilisations" argument is indeed simplistic but we learn nothing of why that is the case in the above.

There is then a lurch into partial good sense:
Number three: Diasporas have a legitimate role to play in national and international politics

The notion that emigrant or diaspora communities have a special insight into the problems of their homeland, or a special moral or political status in regard to them, is wholly unfounded. Emigrant ethnic communities play almost always a negative, backward, at once hysterical and obstructive, role in resolving the conflicts of their countries of origin: Armenians and Turks, Jews and Arabs, various strands of Irish, are prime examples on the inter-ethnic front, as are exiles in the United States in regard to resolving the problems of Cuba, or policymaking on Iran. English emigrants are less noted for any such political role, though their spasms of collective inebriation and conformist ghettoised lifestyles abroad do little to enhance the reputation of their home country.
Except... except... In the case of Iran, Halliday is perhaps thinking of contemporary emigrees, but the Iranian diaspora of the 1970s is now in power in that country. One suspects that Halliday dislikes Florida-based anti-Castro Cubans so much he overlooks their entirely warranted strength of feeling against a totalitarian government that persecuted them, restricted them, or that they just hated, so much they were driven to take extraordinary risks, often, to escape. Perhaps this whole entry is just here so he cvan have another pop at the English.

A return to form next:
Number two: The only thing "they" understand is force

This has been the guiding illusion of hegemonic and colonial thinking for several centuries. Oppressed peoples do not accept the imposition of solutions by force: they revolt. It is the oppressors who, in the end, have to accept the verdict of force, as European empires did in Latin America, Africa and Asia and as the United States is doing in Iraq today. The hubris of "mission accomplished" in May 2003 has been followed by ignominy.
Iraq was motivated by the idea that "the only thing they understand is force"? What??? WTF??? Not even Galloway suggests that. By Halliday's argument, the British withdrawal from Empire following the Second World War was a military defeat - the acceptance of "the verdict of force". That isn't even right enough to be wrong. I refer Halliday to his own point number 10 (see above).

The final item - top of the pop parade - is this:
Number one: The world's population problems, and the spread of Aids, can be solved without the use of condoms

This is not only the most dangerous, but also the most criminal, error of the modern world. Millions of people will suffer, and die premature and humiliating deaths, as a result of the policies pursued in this regard through the United Nations and related aid and public-health programmes. Indeed, there is no need to ask where the first mass murderers of the 21st century are; we already know, and their addresses besides: the Lateran Palace, Vatican City, Rome, and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC. Timely arrest and indictment would save many lives.
Nothing at all is said in the argument here about population, just in the question. Slipping in a point like this then ignoring it is a base debating tactic. Equally, the idea that condoms will solve the world's population problem is wrong. This requires women to gain the ability to control their own fertility, which only involves condoms in ideal circumstances. In other, more common, situations we are talking about abortion and the pill. And that's right - abortion as a means of post-conception birth control. That's what has happened, rightly or wrongly, in countries with low birth rates.

Note the unhinged ending, though. A moral, if imbecilic, objection to birth control and promiscuity warrants arrest and indictment as the 21st century's first mass murderers. I hear a distant echo of maniacal laughter. Is it echoing from the direction of Khartoum? Or perhaps it's coming from Fred Halliday.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Spare a thought

for Seyran Ates.

African Addendum

The worst legacy of colonialism is the post-colonial mindset of African leaders who took part in liberation struggles. While Thabo Mbeki makes common cause with the governers of Sudan and with Mugabe because he sees them as comrades, Africa stands no chance at all.

Time cures many things, and it will help cure Africa. When they have all died, the continent will stand a better chance of success.

A Laffer minute

Good analysis from a Heritage Foundation bod at Fox:

The International Monetary Fund is supposed to help nations grow faster, but the international bureaucracy is frequently criticized because its officials often tell poor countries to raise taxes and devalue their currencies.

This characterization may be a bit unfair, since the IMF has more sensible views on issues such as trade, regulation and privatization, but it’s also true that the organization generally is seen as an obstacle to market-based fiscal policy.

A good example is a recent IMF study attacking the flat tax.

The IMF study actually reveals strong evidence that flat tax reforms have yielded Laffer Curve effects. But the authors attempt to mislead readers by claiming that tax reform is successful only if the revenue feedback is at least 100 percent. Even more astonishing, they assume that this revenue feedback effect should happen within one year of reform. So even though taxable income climbed significantly in most flat-tax nations and income-tax revenue generally has exceeded expectations, readers are supposed to conclude that the flat tax is a failure.

It’s unclear why the IMF is hostile to pro-growth policy.

The big lie

In The Guardian, Gary Younge keanes about American war dead. American's are very moved:

By the time the service was over their steps were inaudible amid the chorus of sobs and sniffles. Vollmer died two weeks ago when a makeshift bomb exploded near his vehicle in Salman Pak, Iraq.
Except the ones who aren't:
The mounting US casualties have relatively little effect on America's views on this war.
Though they really are:
"Public approval rarely gets lower than this," says Christopher Gelpi, an associate professor of political science at Duke university who studies US public opinion and war.
But Bush doesn't care:
as he plans to rebuff popular opinion, political opposition and establishment advice and call for a "surge" of between 20,000 and 40,000 troops in Iraq to "stabilise" the situation.
And the American people hate him for it:
A CBS poll last month showed that 18% wanted to see an increase in troop levels compared with 59% who want them either decreased or withdrawn completely.
And it can't be too soon because - YES! - it's Another Vietnam™:
"How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" a young John Kerry asked the Senate foreign relations committee in 1971. We have long known it was a mistake. Sadly, the last person to die for it is still a long way off.
The Big Lie in all this is the tacit suggestion that the alternative to war is peace. Peace wasn't on offer. We had, though it is apparently forgotten by the perpetually outraged today, been at war with Iran for 12 years before the 2003 invasion.

Sometimes, the alternative to war is a bigger war, later.

The Aid epidemic

Norman Geras quotes Peter Singer:

In the same world in which more than a billion people live at a level of affluence never before known, roughly a billion others struggle to survive on the purchasing-power equivalent of less than $US1 a day.
And he asks:
... what is owed by 'the rich' to the task of eliminating global poverty. There are two aspects to the question. First, is there a moral obligation, on the part of those who can, to contribute some of their wealth? Second, what are the economic practicalities? I don't say anything about the second aspect of the question here. But the ethical case is in my view unanswerable.
... if we say the opposite, say that those who could help to stop 30,000 needless child fatalities a day have no moral obligation to do so, we thereby define ourselves as inhabiting a moral universe in which, whatever happens to anyone, they have no moral claims upon the support of others, and - universalizing - no one therefore has any moral claims upon others, however terrible their plight. That is not a moral universe that humankind should be willing to countenance.
The title of the piece is:
Singer and the obligation of aid
Singer's argument is, inter alia:
The late Nobel Prize-winning economist and social scientist Herbert Simon estimated "social capital" is responsible for at least 90 per cent of what people earn in wealthy societies. By social capital he meant not only natural resources but, more important, the technology and organisational skills in the community, and the presence of good government.

This undermines the argument that the rich are entitled to keep their wealth because it is all a result of their hard work.

Thomas Pogge, a philosopher at Columbia University, has argued that at least some of our affluence comes at the expense of the poor. He says international corporations are willing to make deals to buy natural resources from any government, no matter how it has come to power. Successful rebels are rewarded by being able to sell the nation's oil, minerals or timber.

In their dealings with corrupt dictators in developing countries, Pogge says, international corporations are morally no better than someone who knowingly buys stolen goods. In this light, our obligation to the poor is not just one of providing help to strangers but one of compensation for harms that we have caused.
This is a nineteenth-century harvest festival of straw men. (Apparently, "straw man" is a blogosphere favourite, along with "egregious", and should not be used by anyone with higher pretensions. Ah well.)

Who actually argues that "the rich are entitled to keep their wealth because it is all a result of their hard work"? More likely is the argument that the rich are entitled to keep their wealth because it's their wealth. There isn't, or shouldn't be, some kind of committee of Singer's favourite academics deliberating over which of our possessions we're entitled to keep.

Let's try inverting one of Singer's sentences:
In their dealings with international corporations, corrupt dictators in developing countries are morally no better than someone who knowingly sells stolen goods.
But that's not what Singer wants to say. He goes on:
It might be argued that we do not owe the poor compensation, because our affluence benefits them - wealth trickles down, helping the poor more effectively than aid does. But the rich in industrialised nations buy virtually nothing made by the very poor.
The trickle down effect argument is contemptible and wrong, but what we do offer is a market through which - if they have access to it - the poor can get richer. By definition, the poor make virtually nothing, so the fact that the rich buy just that tells us nothing.

Every line of Singer's piece calls for refutation, but that would be bickering. The fact is, Geras is right; we have an overwhelming moral obligation to help people who are starving. What's less clear is how we might best help them. As he geared up for the Live 8 concerts, Bob Geldoff remarked on Radio 4 (no link available) that he had been campaigning for African poverty relief for twenty five years and, if anything, matters had got even worse. When Gordon Brown subsequently announced a $40 billion debt relief package, the Ugandan Trade Minister (again on Radio 4, no link remains) remarked dryly that a 1% increase in trade between Africa and the EU would be worth more per annum, every annum.

But we place tariffs and quotas on African imports, dump subsidised agricultural produce on them, then brush a few crumbs off our table and wait for the O.B.E.

Singer says:
The remedy, it might reasonably be suggested, should come from the state, not from private philanthropy. When aid comes through government, everyone who earns above the tax-free threshold contributes something, with more collected from those with greater ability to pay. Much as we may applaud what Gates and Buffett are doing, we can also be troubled by a system that leaves the fate of hundreds of millions of people hanging on the decisions of two or three private citizens.
So our present system is one in which "the fate of hundreds of millions of people [hangs] on the decisions of two or three private citizens? Talk about egregious straw men!

It "might reasonably be suggested"? Really? Why is this reasonable? Because we all contribute according to our means. Why is that reasonable? This is like saying that, in order to flog this particular dead horse, we're all going to take it in turns and the strongest and youngest can do the most flogging. When the dead horse doesn't seem to be pulling, despite the flogging, we'll lash another - even better - dead horse to its side and take it in turns again. We'll all flog according to our ability and come away with the special sort of sweaty warm glow that comes from strenuous and egalitarian exercise in a good cause.

Aid hasn't worked. Aid. Hasn't. Worked. Aid has done some short term good (and some short term harm - see Tanzanian aid funded collectivisation:"This ujamaa system failed to boost agricultural output and by 1976, the end of the forced collectivization program, Tanzania went from the largest exporter of agricultural products in Africa to the largest importer of agricultural products in Africa.") but no long term good at all.

We need to help less, and to hinder less. Our moral duty is much more difficult than just allowing ourselves to be taxed. It means opening our borders to African imports - fully, without stint. It means stopping subsidising our agriculture. It means stopping this despicable habit of regarding Africans as children who can neither fail nor succeed without the responsibility falling on white people.

Jefferson's Koran

So Keith Ellison has been elected the first Muslim member of the American Congress. He wanted to take his oath of office not on a Bible, but on a Koran and asked to use the one that used to belong to Thomas Jefferson. lgf is not pleased:

The lefties are all crowing about the huge political points they think Ellison gained by using Thomas Jefferson’s Koran.

But I have a Koran too.
Not just the lefties, however. Egyptian blogger the Sandmonkey wrote:
An african American who converted to Islam gets elected to congress and gets sworn in on the Koran once owned by Thomas Jefferson. Tell me that isn't cool!

Only in America, man. Only in America!
And in a later post the pro-American Sandmonkey predicted:
The same people who were so excited about Keith Ellison voted into congress are not going to be as excited when they know of his stances on the Middle East!
If we follow the link, we read, on Ellison's website:
Right now Hamas represents the greatest obstacle to this path, and until Hamas denounces terrorism, recognizes the absolute right of Israel to exist peacefully and honors past agreements, it cannot be considered legitimate partners in this process... At this point the Palestinian Authority (PA) has yet to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza and the West Bank. The United States cannot support any government that condones or embraces terrorism... The other serious threat to the security of the region is Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. This must be stopped.
lgf has now acknowledged there may be more to Ellison that met their eye initially.

Ellison's election and his subsequent request to swear his oath of office on the Koran was met with a deluge of criticism from bloggers and other, including Rep. Virgil Goode, who said it was an attack on American values. Asking for a book that linked with one of America's founding fathers is hardly an attack. What's going on here?

While immigrants can't demand that the host society change to accommodate them, integration is a two way street. At the very least, the host population has to open itself to the possibility of the integration of immigrants. Integration doesn't mean the annihilation of migrant culture, or their exclusion from elective office, it means the melting pot.

But Ellison isn't an immigrant, he's an American who converted to Islam and he wanted to swear on a book that is holy to him, yet in doing so to link himself with the oldest traditions of his country. But a vocal part of American society isn't even open to that, because he's a Muslim. The message has been clear: you're wrong because you're a Muslim, period. Where does that leave Muslim immigrants whose sense of belonging might be less well developed than that of the new Congressman?

Do you want them to integrate or not?

Boldly going

Fox News picks up on a Telegraph piece about Stephen Hawking:

Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking says he wants to undertake a zero-gravity flight aboard an airplane this year as a precursor to a journey into space, a newspaper reported Monday.

"This year I'm planning a zero-gravity flight and to go into space in 2009," he was quoted as saying in The Daily Telegraph newspaper.
Good luck for 2009, Prof.


I've disappeared beneath an avalanche of work and stuff. Will last at least another week. Meanwhile, some time for a few posts this evening.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Little Chef

I read, with the deepest sorrow, that the Little Chef chain of roadside cafes has gone bust, but the brand has been saved and the restaurants will continue to trade.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Dangerous animals

I own three large dogs - Humphrey the labrador, Ben the English mastiff and Sam, who is probably supposed to be an Old English bulldog. All are rescue dogs.

I first heard about Sam when an email arrived from a dog rescue organisation about three years ago. He was in Portsmouth, and booked in to be put down unless someone said they'd take him. His name was "Warrior". He had never been walked, never trained at all, didn't even recognise his own name.

After an anxious couple of weeks when he was as good as he possibly could be, the reasons for his earlier date with the vet became clearer. Sam was quite dangerous. When he started to get excited the afterburners would suddenly kick in and he'd start jumping up, biting, and getting more and more crazed. He weighs about eight stone and can do a standing jump almost six feet straight up in the air, so that's a lot of dog to be behaving like that.

A month in, I really thought I was not going to be able to bring him round. I can remember one evening pinning him down as he struggled ever more insanely, wondering how on earth I'd ever be able to let go.

But I got there. Nobody who meets him now can believe he was ever a problem. He has been involved in two scraps with other dogs. Once when a beautiful golden retriever attacked him and ripped a three inch tear in his chest, and I grabbed Sam before he could retaliate. The second time when a black labrador that had run a couple of hundred yards from its owner became aggressive towards Ben the mastiff, bit him, bit Sam and then bit me - I still have the scar. Neither of my dogs retaliated until I was bitten.

Golden retrievers and labradors are not controlled by the Dangerous Dogs act, but "pit bull like" breeds are. Is Sam pit bull like? My vet says not, but it's so arbitrary a definition that this might not be a defence. Mastiffs are banned as dangerous dogs in Germany. Ben the mastiff weighs half as much again as my girlfriend and tries to sit on her lap. He has been attacked three times by labradors. Following the killing yesterday of a young girl by a "pit bull like" dog, the subject of dangerous dogs is again in the air. On the discussion pages of the Times we read:

I suggest that dogs above a certain size and weight should not be allowed as household pets.

These killer dogs should be banned from domestic homes where they are kept as pets.

An animal is an animal and no matter what you do or say it has an inherent instinct to kill. The right place for animals is the wild, not captivity for the pleasure of mankind.

My sisters and I have facial scars dating from the 60s and 70s as a result of attacks from dogs kept by our parents as family pets. The dogs were spaniels rather than purposely bred fighting mastiffs.
Spaniels aren't covered by the Act, either.

Mastiffs were bred for fighting, or the defence of property, and a very good thing it was too in the ninth century. A skull of a dog like Ben was uncovered in Anglo Saxon levels in Ely, a few miles away. That puts my mastiff in a line of English dogs that stretches back at least a millenium and a quarter. Bulldogs were bred to be fierce, too. The 18th century English bulldog is extinct, and looked nothing like the modern breed. This is why people are trying to recreate the breed. But not for fighting.

Just as you can breed aggression into a line, you can breed it out, and that's what has happened to bulldogs, bull terriers and mastiffs. To call them "purposely bred fighting dogs" is today straightforwardly untrue. Not so with pit bulls. Dog fighting is still an underground sport and dogs are still bred for "gameness". But, oddly enough, this disposition to fight other dogs does not translate straightforwardly into aggession towards humans:
A Georgia-based group called the American Temperament Test Society has put twenty-five thousand dogs through a ten-part standardized drill designed to assess a dog's stability, shyness, aggressiveness, and friendliness in the company of people. A handler takes a dog on a six-foot lead and judges its reaction to stimuli such as gunshots, an umbrella opening, and a weirdly dressed stranger approaching in a threatening way. Eighty-four per cent of the pit bulls that have been given the test have passed, which ranks pit bulls ahead of beagles, Airedales, bearded collies, and all but one variety of dachshund. "We have tested somewhere around a thousand pit-bull-type dogs," Carl Herkstroeter, the president of the A.T.T.S., says. "I've tested half of them. And of the number I've tested I have disqualified one pit bull because of aggressive tendencies. They have done extremely well. They have a good temperament. They are very good with children." It can even be argued that the same traits that make the pit bull so aggressive toward other dogs are what make it so nice to humans. "There are a lot of pit bulls these days who are licensed therapy dogs," the writer Vicki Hearne points out. "Their stability and resoluteness make them excellent for work with people who might not like a more bouncy, flibbertigibbet sort of dog. When pit bulls set out to provide comfort, they are as resolute as they are when they fight, but what they are resolute about is being gentle. And, because they are fearless, they can be gentle with anybody."

Then which are the pit bulls that get into trouble? "The ones that the legislation is geared toward have aggressive tendencies that are either bred in by the breeder, trained in by the trainer, or reinforced in by the owner," Herkstroeter says. A mean pit bull is a dog that has been turned mean, by selective breeding, by being cross-bred with a bigger, human-aggressive breed like German shepherds or Rottweilers, or by being conditioned in such a way that it begins to express hostility to human beings. A pit bull is dangerous to people, then, not to the extent that it expresses its essential pit bullness but to the extent that it deviates from it. A pit-bull ban is a generalization about a generalization about a trait that is not, in fact, general. That's a category problem.

So mastiffs, spaniels, bulldogs, pit bulls, golden retrievers and - to read the statistics (pdf) for America at least, terriers, collies, sheepdogs and great Danes can all be dangerous. Maybe the commentator was right in the Times (link above) when they said:
The right place for animals is the wild, not captivity for the pleasure of mankind.
There are extremist animal rights activists who'd agree with that, but there's an error of fact in the distinction between animals and humans. We've known conclusively for a century that this is a false distinction. We are an animal. For almost the entirety of human existence we have lived with other species, hunted them, formed companionships with them. The state of living without other species seems to me to be sterile and perverted, but then I am typing with a young cat asleep across my shoulders and a labrador snoring under the table at my feet. I am willing to concede that not everybody feels like this. But I am not willing to concede that anyone, individually or collectively, is entitled to stop me interacting with other species as I do.

I am also not willing to descend to the depth of hypcrisy that would lament the extinction of a subspecies of black rhino and expect Indians and Africans to live with tigers, elephants, lions and thousands of other dangerous animals, yet call for the extermination of a few breeds of dog in parts of the world where the majority of the populations have less well developed suntans. Either we learn to live with animals, or we will eventually exterminate all the large species.

The first thing we need to do is understand that all animals can be dangerous and this puts the onus on us. If, as I hope is the case, we see the continued reintroduction of large mammals like wild boar and wolves to these islands, we need to learn that if we get hurt by one it's our own fault. We can behave sensibly and take precautions as people do everywhere else in the world.

That means taking personal responsibility, which is what we should require of animal owners. A Scottish ghillie once said to me "there's no dogs, just owners". he was right. Owners, including me, should be entirely legally responsible for the actions of their dogs. And they should be able to own any dog they like.

The problem with this is that if we start insisting that people take responsibility for themselves and their actions we start to slip down that slippery slope away froma rights culture towards one of freedom and responsibility.

And that would be terrible. Wouldn't it.

Pluto the puppy

Steve Martin at The Huffington Post:

Oh, my Saddam, how I loved your funny little ways. The way you held your teacup; the way you enjoyed those who coaxed a smile from you. I love that you found a way to exist in this mixed up world, how you thought, "why be mean when you can be nice?" Saddam, I will miss the way you would point to someone and then they would be dead, the way your puppy Pluto became a rug.

Via Libertas