Friday, May 26, 2006

When I met.. Christopher Hitchens

I sat adrift of the right of Christopher Hitchens at today's lunch-time talk at the IPPR, there to discuss Thomas Paine's 'Rights of Man', the American revolution and secularisation.

Hitchens credits Paine's work with influencing the Constitution, a key document of the American revolution (1763-1789). That itself influenced the French Revolution (1789-1799) and the 'Rights of Man' can be understood as a defence of that. It seems to have much relevance today, for other countries (Hitchens is a UK ex-pat) and in terms of the general conception of universal human rights. Are there really basic rights that all are entitled to purely by virtue of their humanity? What are the responsibilities that follow from those rights? Do (other) animals have rights? What of our arbitary restriction of rights to the living? It's a short-coming of democracy: future generations are unable to vote on issues that affect them, while the dead leave a legacy that they don't have to personally experience. We had little time, between munching on sandwiches, for these questions - but some of my thoughts are below.

It's interesting that Hitchen's acknowledges that Paine's "self-evident truths" are only such because we deem them to be. They're as good as any 'God-given' rights and can be respected to the same degree, but nevertheless remain socially-constructed, socially-sanctioned. This is an enlightened view, going beyond 'Human rights are innate, unalienable, obvious' to say 'These aren't intrinsic characteristics - but they ought to be treated as such'. The American revolution, Hitchens proposes, is the only one still continuing. The Russian communist revolution was crushed - and the Chinese one slowly becomes capitalism without much fuss. Let's continue the American revolution, Hitchens seems to be saying, and take it global. America leading the world broadly supports my view that the UK remains on Democracy version 1.0, while the US benefits from the improvements in version 2.0.

A single, clear statement of what the British stand for would be helpful. Hitchens is part of a pressure group called Charter 88 that fights for such a thing in the UK. The Human Rights Act is the closest thing we have at the moment - but that is itself under worryingly constant attack.

Not just the State suffers from a close association with the Church. In equal measure, the Church may choose to avoid such association to protect itself. This, Hitchens proposes, is the insight of the American founders - that religion can flourish better by leaving citizens free to believe without interference (or support) of any kind. It's an important time to re-assert the principle of secularism: 'The Pope is fornicating with the emporer', as Hitchens quoted Dante.

I kept my questions to myself this session, though had the opportunity arisen I would ask on Faith schools: where moral values and collective identity can be sourced, if not religion. The lack of secular alternative to this useful purpose served by religious practices is a key concern - and the subject of recent debate in the New Humanist magazine. I'd like education to be separated from religion, so that you wouldn't need a signature from the local priest to get your kids into the best local school - but daily 'worship' (legally compulsory) does serve a necessary (if slightly misguided) purpose. Hitchen's only comment in this area was that at least religion in education serves to mass-produce athiests - were there no association, people might actually grow up into believers!

I talked with Caspar Melville, editor of the New Humanist, afterwards. This mostly consisted of 'I'm a subscriber' and 'do you remember that email chat we had about the Danish cartoons and Shad Thames?'. I also briefly talked with Paul (Clough), the IPPR Finance Director and Ruth Eldridge (IPPR Events Officer) about routes into this kind of work.

Related links:

Charter 88 for a British Bill of Rights

Hitchen's book 'Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: a biography'

Wikipedia on Hitchens

Hitchens was voted number 5 top World intellectual in a (unscientific) poll run by Foreign Policy / Prospect magazines. They were:
  1. Noam Chomsky linguistics expert and critic of US foreign policy
  2. Umberto Eco writer and academic
  3. Richard Dawkins Oxford professor of public understanding of science
  4. Vaclav Havel playwright and leader of Czech velvet revolution
  5. Christopher Hitchens journalist, author, pro-Iraq war polemicist

- The Guardian

(Noam Chomsky did a lecture at Manchester University a short while ago but I couldn't make it)

New Humanist magazine

Dante (Alighieri) wrote 'The Divine Comedy', which isn't the band - and had something to do with an Inferno.

Wettest Week of the Week

Citiskate have renamed 'National In-line Skating Week' to 'National In-line Skating Wet'; their latest email was titled 'Will we EVER skate again?'


Last week gets my official 'Wettest Week of the Week' award, awarded weekly on a week-by-week basis!

Update 27th May: News is that this is officially the wettest May since 1984. In celebration, the first drought order was issued today.


The average Wikipedian

"The average Wikipedian on English Wikipedia (1) is male, (2) is technically-inclined, (3) is formally educated, (4) speaks the English language to an extent, (5) is White, (6) is aged in their twenties, thirties or forties, (7) is from a predominantly Christian country, (8) is from an industrialized nation, (9) is heterosexual, and (10) is more inclined toward intellectual pursuits than toward practical skills or physical labor."

9 out of 10 ain't bad?

"Viewpoints of individuals who are focused on other projects, e.g. their work or life, will tend to be underrepresented."

Damn those time-consuming projects!

Monday, May 22, 2006

Eurovision rocks!

Amen the unstoppable mummy, Enary the manipulative valkyrie, Kalma the biker-zombie and Kita the alien manbeast?

It must be LORDI and the AROCKALYPSE!

I give a hearty 'douze point' to Finland for their brilliant, subversive entry to Eurovision. 'Douze point' to Europe too, for collectively voting this piece their favourite song of the evening - and by a country-mile, with a record breaking 292 points!

Eurovision rocks!

The UK entry wasn't too bad either. Didn't get huge points, but a fair attempt.

There is actually a band called 'Arockalypse now':


Thursday, May 18, 2006

Thought for the day

“Human beings, those at least who reflect on their situation in this world, may be divided into three kinds. The first kind includes all who maintain that there is nothing beyond the prison walls, and that the prison itself could be transformed into a paradise under an improved system of heating and lighting and with a more equitable distribution of floor space and the products of the kitchen garden.

To the second kind belong those who from chance glimpses, from leaves and scents blown over the walls, and landscapes seen in dreams, have formed an idea of another world, happy and unconfined, into which they hope one day to be liberated, but when they do not know, and under what conditions they rather apprehend than are able clearly to define.

The third kind, which in temperament bears some resemblance to the first, takes over the hints and glimpses of the second, constructs out of them a detailed account of the world beyond the prison walls, its system of government and its immigration laws, and on the strength of this special knowledge, of unique value if correct, claims a general jurisdiction over the conduct and the thoughts of the prison inmates-a claim which is naturally disputed by the first kind, for whom the prison is a self-contained and self-dependent phenomenon.”
- Hugh Kingsmill (an English writer)

From the 'Pub philosophy' group, Philosophy For All

Monday, May 15, 2006

What pension crises?

So what's with this pension crises?

Stories like this:

..claim that because more of us will be older, without new young people to support us, there will be some sort of government financial meltdown.

All the facts show that young people tend to be better educated and better qualified than older, due to e.g. spread of best-practise teaching, interactive whiteboards, more of them going to University, the availability of Wikipedia. Better qualified people get paid more. People who get paid more produce higher tax revenues per person.

So why can't we have a smaller number of people contributing enough to support a larger number of old people?

I've not done the maths so I don't know how realistic the idea is - but there's enough truth in it to make it worthy of mention in the debate. Yet it never is. Why?

Similarly 'ooh Europe has a problem because its population is shrinking relative to other regions' - but if it's the most powerful and has the best ideas.. who cares about numbers?

Both theories make the mistake of assuming people are of equal economic or cultural value. Generally, younger > older.

Friday, May 12, 2006

12 year old babies

Inspiration for this post is
I note how the girl 'fell pregnant', rather than 'got pregnant' (in the headline at least).

It's structure vs agency in that the blame in the article is laid at the door of a lack of education provided by the local authorities (structure), rather than the girl herself or her parents (agency).

Can we blame a girl for 'enjoying being pregnant', when as a society we still encourage it as 'the point' for women? In her head I expect she's fulfilled her socially-constructed role.

My evidence is: We give 4-year old girls little baby-buggies to push along. And 'self-wetting' dolls to put in them. And little 'cook for the family' sets from Tomy. In this way girls are socially conditioned to see their role as having babies.

Boys get WWF wrestling dolls (man they were so cool, PILEDRIVVERRRRRRtakethatSidtheSnake) and machine-guns. They are socially conditioned to become homicidal maniacs.

And as adults, there's all the TV programmes about 'what, you're 35 and haven't had babies yet??' and the female glossy mags..

Our society (and almost all societies) is structured to encourage, promote and condition women to have kids. There are tax benefits and paid time off work. Women may be free to take or leave it, but the structural compulsion remains.

I worry about democracy. If we stick with one person one vote, yet it's only the stupid people that have babies while the smart people have many less (which is the case) - what kind of a society are we headed towards?

I'm not suggesting we control/influence population growth (though I forsee things going that way). I suggest we need a system better than democracy - or rather an evolution of it.