Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Things you notice about incidental music

Our school's assembly was xmas-themed this week, and a bit of Charlie Brown's Christmas was shown. Peanuts is one of those things you know about because it seems to be a formative part of most Americans' childhood experiences, rather than something I know much about myself, so I'd never seen it.

So hey, maybe you are a big Peanuts fan and already know this. WELL GOOD FOR YOU. But I didn't, so there.

Listen to the background music here!

THE RED FLAG! Is it me, or is that a weird choice for an American cartoon? I used to read the strip in my Nan's Daily Fail, for the gods' sake!

PS more cartoon strip to follow soon, if you like that sort of thing.

UPDATE: Thanks to Roobin (see comments), I have learned that in fact The Red Flag is usually sung to the tune of a German Christmas carol called O Tenenbaum, which in English is rendered as O Christmas Tree. Therefore it is just a coincidence that it appears in Charlie Brown Christmas at a point where Charlie is railing against consumerism. You Learn Something New Every Day.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Shit TV: But How Shit?

I've been contemplating obtaining some proper shit-but-fun films for xmas, to provide relief from my lowly, lonely, pointless existence. I've got the beginnings of a list, but I feel there must be more. I therefore solicit suggestions to function as addenda to this compendium:
  • Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
  • Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
  • Lethal Weapon
  • Lethal Weapon 2: Diplomatic Immunity
  • Beverly Hills Cop
  • Beverly Hills Cop 2
  • Die Hard
  • Die Hard 2
  • Ghostbusters
  • Ghostbusters 2
  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

I know I'm missing some obvious ones, but what?

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Directions in the Opiniosphere - Update

The perils of anecdata:
  1. The immediate response of a 'close family member'* to Jody McIntyre's ordeal was to blame him for being on a demo in the first place.
  2. Another 'CFM' just got home after a train delay due to a suicide and complained that their death would have 'eaten into East Midlands' Trains' profits'.

Conclusion: People are inexplicably detestable.


*Genetically. I've never thought about love when I thought about home.**

**Slight exaggeration. Although not tonight

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Pleasing Directions in the Opiniosphere

It's been an interesting few days for democracy, I'm sure you'll agree. For the first time since Iraq there's a strong public protest on the streets whose aims, at least, are backed by a big majority* of the public. Only this time there seems to be a cross-section that are supportive of the elements that the PM is calling 'hell bent on violence' and 'feral thugs'.

On a purely anecdata level, it's been brilliant to see the short shrift that a lot of the hand-wringing 'BUT TEH SNOOKER BALLZ' gang are getting. I have quite an insulated life in some ways, as I don't bother with the tabloids or the right-wing broadsheets, and I stopped that soppy 'got to read opinions from BOTH sides' crap years ago, on the same basis that I don't bother getting the Discovery Institute's reaction to every new fossil find. But the normally centrist people I know through work and through social media (I don't really have enough of a social life at the moment to canvas IRL people) seem at the very least disoriented and frequently openly sympathetic to direct action.

It's a basic tenet of Marxist thinking that revolutions offer points where people's perception of themselves and normal social truths begin to shift, and although we're obviously not at the point of storming Whitehall yet, we are witnessing people normally safely esconsced within establishment notions of 'democracy' and 'peaceful protest' genuinely questioning themselves. I think that at the very least, the Tory attempt to re-write history so that the entirety of Labour's period in office was a disaster is dead in the water. Admittedly, at least one person I know has reaffirmed today that they are 'still proud to be a Lib Dem', just 'disgusted at the leadership' - but I can't take that too seriously, 'cos what does 'being a Lib Dem' mean, exactly? And at least it's in the right general direction.

Anyway, interesting times ahead.

*H/T Adam Bienkov

Xmas - The Prologue Continues.

Are they really this obtuse? REALLY?

Currently on teh Beeb's news site:


Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Funny Thing...

... but I've become so familiar with the sleazy, dishonest ways that the Fail does business that I now only have to read as far as the words 'the author, James Slack' to know exactly what's coming next.

How long before he becomes an entry in the OED?

Slack, vb. To repeat casually racist and factually inaccurate tropes about asylum, immigration or brown people for the purposes of meeting tabloid deadlines and reinforcing readers' prejudices about 'foreigns'.

'Hey, are we meeting Tozzer down the Dog and Hammer later?'
'I dunno, it'll just be another Slackfest.'

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Religulous: I do not think it means, what you think it means, Bill Maher

I've been doing a bit of research on religious differences and conflict recently, and came across a couple of documentaries on the subject. One of them made me quite angry. Here’s why.


Bill Maher's film about religion is so bad it's actually very funny. Just not for the reasons Maher seems to want. Made in 2006, it's full of the kind of extremist-bating stuff that Louis Theroux got bored with 10 years ago. You know the drill: find some inarticulate and/or hardline people with extreme or rigid views on some doctrinal matter, then take the piss. The only difference here in terms of format is that whilst Louis took the time to actually live in his subjects' world and was careful to keep his incredulity as hidden as possible, so that we got at least a fuller portrait of them and their lives, Maher just turns up and insults people to their faces, talks over them with his own equally strident but better articulated (and crucially louder) opinions, with occasional mugs to the camera to demonstrate how loony these people are. Then the camera can film people getting angry or defensive or begin to stutter or stumble over their words. Thus God is a LIE, sheeple!

Maher is opposed to religion, in a sub-Dawkins -Hitchens -Humphrys kind of a way and makes no bones about this. Well, that's fine. I've been a lifelong atheist and have never felt the pull of God or religion to be an important force in my life, and I once felt angry about how stupid religion obviously was. Of course, I was 16 at the time*, and didn't use my years of experience as a stand-up comedian who works rooms for a living to bully people into looking stupid for a documentary.

So I don’t object to an atheist making a documentary about religion per se, it’s just one as poorly made and thought-out as this one. Part of the problem is the obviousness of his targets, and a big part of it is the sheer pointlessness of the format. Maher goes around the world** doing his look-at-the-loony shtick but despite most of the screen time being a series of ‘interviews’, in reality they are monologues. The interviewees are just there to hear The Amazing Wit of Bill Maher and either agree with him on the spot or look offended. Bill does not at any point seem to be under the impression that anyone he talks to has anything in particular to offer him, with the possible exception of his mother.

This approach leads to quite a lot of unintentional humour. There is a scene where he ‘interviews’ a Muslim woman about some of the more disturbing interpretations of Qur’anic verses (and I do mean interpretations – although Bill never mentions it, there are a variety of variant translations of the text, and the Qur’an is famously difficult to render in English, and guess what, Bill – these books are products of particular times and places and most believers are quite capable of understanding that), and when she tries to explain how she ‘reads the Qur’an’, Bill impatiently interrupts her: ‘That’s not how you read a Holy Book!’ he exclaims. The curious spectacle of an atheist telling a person of faith how they read their scriptures has a wonderful irony to it. It was a scene that returned to my mind at the end, when Bill tells us about the importance of being ‘humble’, which apparently only atheists are capable of.

Two other things stick out about this documentary as truly repellent, however. The first of these is Bill’s self-righteous and thoroughly underserved claiming of ‘reason’ for himself and fellow atheists alone, and the second is how his unacknowledged prejudices come to the fore when he talks about two issues in particular: Islam and Israel.

Bill is convinced that because he has spotted that religious texts can be contradictory or express unpleasant sentiments, and that the figure of Jesus has non-Christian historical antecedents (a truly astonishing insight that only someone engaged in the forefront of theological disputation could have unearthed – that or an AS Religious Studies student) therefore belief in God/religion (Maher frequently treats the two as identical) is fundamentally irrational and therefore wrong.

Of course, this childish level of analysis Has Teh Dumm. He repeatedly refuses to acknowledge a social, cultural, historical or political aspect of religious belief, as evidenced in his interviews regarding Israel and Islam, and evinces no ability to empathise with people whose cultural background is different from his own.***

Israel is a particularly fascinating example of his prejudices. He interviews an anti-Zionist rabbi, who begins to outline his theological justification for his stance, before the inevitable series of accusations and interruptions. The rabbi is pretty much accused of holocaust denial and wanting the destruction of all Israelis, and the hapless man is left looking somewhat bemused by the whole encounter when Bill does an O’Reilly, quitting the interview with a smirk on his face. So we never hear much about what the rabbi does think on the subject and the whole Ahmedinejad ‘Israel wiped from the face of the earth’ controversy is brought up, Maher doesn’t do anything to acknowledge the controversial way that the comment was twisted and reported in the media and uses it to discredit the rabbi. In fact he doesn’t investigate the political nature of the Israel/Palestine dispute at all, not mentioning the Naqba, the 1964 or 1967 wars, the Oslo Accords or the intifadas. A montage of angry Muslims and some bombing scenes are what we are offered. How insightful. No refugee camps, white phosphorous, ‘targeted killings’ or anything then, Bill? What about the UN GA resolutions condemning the occupation? No? Hmm.

This links directly to Maher’s characterisation of Islam. After his casual dismissal of anyone who opposes or criticises Israel as effectively in favour of suicide bombing, he decides to characterise Islam as a whole through a few of the high profile incidents of recent years – the Muhammad cartoons being a favourite, though he’s not above using 9/11 footage during the film’s epilogue. He says that when things start getting blown up, it’s usually Muslims behind it (which conveniently ignores the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions – presumably they’re hiding behind the huge elephant with ‘Israeli state terror’ written on it in fluorescent neon letters that’s already in the room) and actually goes so far as to say that his Muslim interviewees are only saying they’re peaceful because he’s an ‘outsider’ – that’s right, Bill’s implying that there’s some global Muslim club that is setting out deliberately to deceive people about their hidden agenda to take over the world, probably concealed in that funny ‘writing’ of theirs and that gibberish that so many of them speak. If they’ve got nothing to hide, why don’t they say everything in English, like the rest of us, eh? Tying everything back together, I particularly loved the bit when we see the Temple Mount, with subtitles helpfully informing us that ‘The Temple of Solomon is the holiest site in Judaism ... but Muslims built the Al-Aqsa mosque right on top of it’. Nice.

The end of the film has Maher standing in Megiddo, saying that unless we give up religion right this second we’ll all die in a nuclear holocaust. Because we’re not rational and unprejudiced like what he is.

In short then: thanks for flying the flag for atheists and reason there Bill, really appreciate it. You did everyone a service, really you did. Did you ever wonder exactly why those guys in the al-Aqsa mosque said they'd never found you funny?

*That's actually an exaggeration for comic effect. I used to get annoyed about it in a New Atheist way well into my early 20s. Eventually I grew up a bit though – my motto became encapsulated on a t-shirt you can get from Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science store: ‘I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.’

**In that curiously American way where you go and see people around the world but never leave America in your head.

*** This got me thinking about exactly what Bill was missing out in his view on religion. Here is a rough list.
1. The idea that religious practice is part of your family life. By his own admission religion played only a limited part in his own childhood, but he seems not to be concerned enough to see how children incorporate their understandings about religion and practices – such as when to fast, when to pray, how divorce happens into their early experiences.
2. Social influences. If your religion is something practiced by family members, friends, authority figures, people you look up to, this will influence how you see your religion.
3. Political considerations. Religion, as Marx noted, is a reflection of and an expression of resistance to class society – it is a place where the unspoken or unspeakable desires of the oppressed and the solace and justification of the oppressors can find a voice. People look to their religion and their God for an expression of peace and justice that cannot be found in their own lives, as well as to express the right of the haves to their lot. The Church of England is a good example of this – at one level it is the state religion, represented in Parliament and led by the head of state, but internally split between a High and Low Church – one of the establishment and one of the People. Around the margins you have the denominations concerned with ecumenicalism and social justice – the Nonconformists, the Methodists, the Quakers, where so much progressive thinking and leadership has come from.
4. The ineffable. Whether Bill likes it or not, many people have an experience of something Other, alien to ourselves. This experience cannot be quantified, it seems to be entirely personal, and yet often intensely profound. This experience can be attributed to God, insofar as it can be named. If pressed, people often describe this as their conviction that ‘there is something greater than themselves’
The extent to which these factors and others I’m still ignorant of interact within an individual are entirely unpredictable. It certainly doesn’t make someone irrational because they are influenced by any of these.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Xmas - Part 1

As part of a new service to humanity I'm offering, here is the first part of an ongoing saga I like to call 'Xmas'. Conveniently, I've also titled it 'Xmas'. Enjoy.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

So, Kids.


I was getting my hair cut this afternoon. One of the hairdressers was sounding off about education, one of those dreary, depressing 'bring back the birch, kids don't have no respect' monologues that I've talked about elsewhere, but it did remind me of one of those topics I've thought about a lot recently - just what should a teacher's relationship be to their pupils?

I think it goes without saying that part of being a teacher is not beating children, but what should we be prepared for? I used to think that as long as I'd given the pupils a lesson, moved them on through their curriculum, that they'd learned something new, that was enough. The longer I've been doing it, though, I've started to come to the conclusion that it isn't, not really. The ideal, I now think, is a bit more complex than that, and one which I'll be outlining in a shamefully overly sentimental and lachrymose way below.

It transpired that the reason for the hairdresser's diatribe against this new fad for not throwing things at children was the presence of a schoolgirl in the shop, who had obviously got herself a Saturday job. This girl in turn was giving her strident opinion on the uselessness and stupidity of teachers in general. I found it all quite fascinating, in a way. I've often heard pupils say that what they want in a teacher is someone who can 'control a class' and this girl was no exception. To illustrate her point she mentioned a case when a supply teacher had been unable to get her class to be silent to the point where she had left the room. The touch of bravado in her voice as she told this story said it all. Although I doubt she'd ever admit it, she obviously felt guilt over this incident. The hairdresser's confusion of 'fear' with 'respect' had stemmed from this.

Here's where I know I have a long way to go as a teacher developing their practice. I know that children are not young adults, that they are rapidly developing individuals, often with fragile egos, and that part of the job is to provide the kind of guidance and structure that will help them to make academic progress as they go through the godsawful process known as 'adolescence'. So you can't treat them as adults, no matter how grownup they seem to be - not because of their intellectual capabilities but because of everything else. I don't like to cite non-peer-reviewed sources when talking about child development, but here's some good shorthand to cut through my waffling:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.*

Or to put it another way: you can never go home again.

To grope my way slowly towards this post's destination, then. Despite my knowing all this, a part of me wants to give The Speech, every time I encounter some child who's worked it all out and knows everything (i.e. all teenagers, everywhere). Since I could never give the speech in a professional context (and hence it's something I've always had in my head and has never been said aloud), I've decided to reproduce it here, in my nice pseudonymous blog.

'I have absolutely no doubt that you think you know what school is, and what classes are for, and I'm guessing you think it's something like 'to pump you full of facts and some skills and get you some GCSEs then shove you out into a job'. Maybe you think this is a good thing, maybe not. But if you do reckon that's what all this is for, I'm afraid that's not quite it.

You are, and I appreciate it probably doesn't look like it to someone who has to go to 25 lessons a week and spend hours on homework as well, plus whatever hells happen outside of school, really lucky. For most of human history, most people have received little or no formal education. A hundred years ago, most people didn't get much past primary school, even in the UK. Today millions still go without any formal education at all.

But having the opportunity to learn about algebra and thermodynamics and Shakespeare and slavery and Sikhism and how cities grow and how to play cricket isn't the only reason you're lucky. You're also lucky because your teachers are people who won't hit you, or threaten you, who want to encourage you to be your best**. You're lucky because the CBI ideology that you get an education to get a job hasn't won yet, and because a lot of teachers do what they do because they think you should have a chance, at least once in your life, to learn about some of the things that make this universe and this planet and humanity so absolutely fascinating and give you a flavour of all the possibilities that your life has to offer you, that we've not yet given in to the turgid utilitarianism of 'get a trade, son' thinking - the kind of thinking that leads straight back to throwing chalk and sitting in silence with textbooks.

The proto-existential philosopher Nietzsche saw two possible futures for humanity - one where people dared to be great, and one where people lost sight of their own souls. He called this second possibility the 'ultimate man,' and wrote of him like this:

Behold! I shall show you the Ultimate Man.

'What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?' thus asks the Ultimate Man and blinks.

The earth has become small, and upon it hops the Ultimate Man, who makes everything small. His race is as inexterminable as the flea; the Ultimate Man lives longest.

'We have discovered happiness,' say the Ultimate Men and blink.

Well, some of your lessons will be dull and some of your teachers won't understand you and you'll probably get shouted at sometimes, and if you make it through your school life without at least one detention you'll be very weird, and life isn't perfect, and the next few years might see classes grow larger and resources get fewer, and there probably will be a bully who makes your life miserable at some point - and that bully may even be in school - but underneath all that stuff, what we really want to do is more than give you a good education, one that doesn't turn you out at 16 any more jaded and cynical than you're forced to be because you're 16, we want you to leave with self-confidence and skills and if at all possible the understanding that the world is an amazing place that you've barely begun to explore.

But I couldn't give that speech of course, because I'd have to explain what the CBI is, and utilitarianism. And that would be a picnic compared to Nietzsche. And because kids' attention spans aren't long enough. And it's soppy. And it doesn't really solve anything.

But basically I'd model all education on Doctor Who if I could.

*Admittedly, this is being used as a metaphor for awakening to the love of Christ, but I think it's more useful if you look at it more literally.

**For a given value of 'your teachers'.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

A Party You Just Don't Want to Go To.

I get emails from Cage Prisoners. It's a worthy cause. Sometimes though, you think 'was that really how you wanted your header to look?