Archive for November, 2009

Religion And Creativity

It is one of those age old arguments that as atheists we hear trotted out all the time by those of a more organised religious bent, “look at all the wonderful things that have been created as a result of religion” this is to refer to the architecture, art,  literature and music, on the face of it they certainly appear to have a point.  The things created by those inspired by faith are indeed often most marvellous and to be enjoyed by the religious and the secular.  However does the notion of this creativity only existing as a result of faith really stand up to scrutiny?

A sub-section of this argument is how much poorer we would be if all the things created with religious intent were to be removed from the world but this is only true if one takes this in isolation rather than imagining all the things that those creative people might have done had they not had ‘God’ as their inspiration.  it would be ludicrous to assume that there would be a creative vacuum if not for religion for there are many people that continue to create despite an absence of faith, or create in spite of their faith by which I mean that it does not seem to have a bearing on the content of what they do.

As well as the great works of art celebrating faith and “for the glory of God” there are a great many that celebrate an appreciation of nature from a secular standpoint.  Likewise many great artistic movements such as Art Deco are very much more anchored in an appreciation of an aesthetic ideal than they are in the attributing of that to any particular source.  The example of Art Deco celebrates a love of angles and cleanliness and stark contrast between blacks and whites, I cannot think of where one might shoehorn a religious influence onto this, feel free to correct me if I am overlooking something.  One of the most common themes that inspires creativity is love, whether the positive or the negative aspects of this and love affects humans regardless of their religious or spiritual beliefs.  Love and the capacity for love whether enjoyed or endured is something that exists innately in humans and would do so even were it to be proven there were no supreme being, for it is most frequently, though not exclusively, intertwined with the biological necessity to reproduce.

It is also vital to remember that many of those in ancient times educated to a standard to be able to write literature and music were very often monks, subsequently the church retained a strong influence on the content of this education when it was widened out to more people and one only has to look at the primary education in most countries in the developing world to see how this continues to be the case.  This however serves only to give direction frequently to people’s urges it does not create the urge from nothing.  Humans are inherently creative and the desire for self- and circumstantial improvement and advancement has and will continue to drive us for as long as we exist as a species.  Sometimes people create in a desire to be accepted, to have their legitimacy in society underlined and this is a clear example of where in any inherently religious society their creativity may be channeled into this area.

One must also be careful to differentiate religion with spirituality, the one sucks in the products of people’s creativity whilst the other inspires them to create.  Were people intent on building great wonders to house the homeless or educate the children with all the verve and flair that many ancient architects did for religious purposes then perhaps we would have created a society a great deal more civilised.  This would not mean we were building to worship ourselves, merely that whilst a building should not be seen and created to be merely functional it does lose some of its raison d’etre if it does not function as anything.  Sometimes the sheer beauty of a thing has its aesthetic quality authenticated  by its functionality when this can be something that alleviates the depressing effect of the mundane of other things that function in this area.  The Hoover building in West London is a piece of architectural beauty to lovers of Art Deco and would be were it merely a monolith which served no purpose but it stands head and shoulders above many office buildings of previous and subsequent precisely because it is simply an office building, that someone should design with both beauty and function in mind is indeed a great thing.  Literature is a collection of words and we can appreciate words sometimes for their own aesthetic, but they are more powerful when used by an accomplished wordsmith to convey meaning within context.  This is not to strip things down to mere functionalism where the structure of something should only be considered with reference to its eventual purpose neither is it to say that things can be rendered beautiful only in spite of their purpose but that the combination of good function and aesthetic value can itself ascend to a different plane.

Humans need to be inspired, hence we have concepts like muses etc.  and in this state can create wonderful things, religion has hitherto been but one of the methods by which they can be inspired by not the only one and in my opinion it must be weighed against the many negatives it has also come  to typify.  One could say that a great many wrongs have been done in the name of love as well but love cannot be detached from the human mind whilst religion clearly can, and, to some of us perhaps, should be.

Song Of The Day ~ Creedence Clearwater Revival – Bad Moon Rising

Executing Justice

I watched Channel 4’s parallel Britain drama The Execution Of Gary Glitter because I felt kind of compelled to as something that is likely to ignite debate about a very emotive subject.

What I think the program did well was keep out of much of the subjective judgement of the pros and cons of the death penalty in the sense that it did not overtly seem to favour one side or the other, it was after all a drama. However it did venture partially into that area by providing the arguments in the characters represented within the drama and by the closing credits which cited a Harris Poll that stated 54% of the British public supported the reintroduction of the death penalty.

Unlike some people criticising the drama I think the example of Gary Glitter was a good one because it is high profile enough for most people to have some opinion on it. There is likely to be very little debate as to any miscarriage of justice in Glitter’s case as it is widely presumed that he is guilty. Therefore, putting the judicial situation to one side for a moment, the arguments in his case come very much down to whether or not one supports the execution of people who have been proven categorically to be guilty of the most heinous crimes.

The drama focused on a couple of points that are perhaps fanciful (maybe designed to be) in the main case namely that (a) sentence should be carried out within 30 days of it’s being passed and (b) that the decision to implement the death sentence itself lay with the jury and not with the presiding judge. Both of these points I would have thought are complete non-starters in legal terms. In the model the drama described the only appeal process possible was to the Home Secretary hence the ability to keep the timeframe to 30 days. The judiciary are not likely to cede their sovereignty in such matters nor should they. To place elected politicians in the situation of having the last say in the serving of judgement would be catastrophic as it would mean the likelihood of judgement served based on public opinion and not necessarily on jurisprudence.

I was not impressed with the dealing of the counter-arguments to the death penalty which I think were restricted very much to a bourgeois middle-class liberalism that only serves to inflame the supporters of capital punishment and does nothing to further the case to prevent its reintroduction. Not everyone who stands against the death penalty is a wooly-minded liberal and neither are the most cogent arguments against it.

Looking at the arguments in favour of the death penalty which were certainly voiced in the program a lot, these press all the populist, self-righteous and vengeful buttons and, allowed to go unchecked, are as persuasive as the idea of immigration controls.

The most common view is that the death penalty is a deterrent to the most severe of crimes, though I believe most of the people who cite this could not if pressed come up with any statistics that would in any way back this up. Certainly my impression is that you are not less likely to be murdered in the states of America where the death penalty is enforced than you are in those where it is not. With very little research it appears that the FBI statistics support my position and not that of those thinking it is a deterrent.

Overall Murder rates 2007

The second idea is that there are certain people who are just evil. This rather depends therefore on whether you accept evil as a value, or a concept that exists. If so it certainly packages things into the more black and white, which humans tend to prefer, rather than successions of greys which are a great deal more ambiguous. It would be very nice and easy to say ‘well that person murders people because they are just evil’ but the debate should not actually end there, though most of the proponents of the evil hypothesis would prefer it to. If such a thing as evil exists how does it manifest itself? Are some people born evil? Is it something that people can become later on? If the former then there must be some form of genetic predisposition and therefore is it not a good idea to study such a thing in order to ascertain whether or not it can be identified? If in fact ‘evil’ is something that comes about through nurture then there must be identifiable factors at certain points of a person’s upbringing that could be studied to determine which of these changed a person’s intrinsic moral value. What if evil were to exist but be a combination of both of these factors? Therein surely still lies the basis for scientific research to determine whether there are common triggers that may make people in certain circumstances or at certain times more disposed to acts that the majority would consider evil. Furthermore once a person is ‘evil’ is that it, is there no turning back? If this were to be true are there different grades of evil, can you just become a bit nasty or is it a case of once turned you have the dark lord as your master? If there remains hope (and surely the Christians amongst you must believe this to be the case for it is written thus) then would it not be verging on sinful to deny someone the chance to realise their wrongs and repent? Apparently God rejoices far more when a sinner repents than ‘he’ does over someone who’s always righteous. Possibly because the always righteous are either sickeningly sanctimonious and therefore very boring company, or they are merely non-existent. How does God feel if you decide for ‘him’ and put someone to death?

This is of course leaving aside the idea that evil is an arbitrary subjective concept that has been invented in order to brush things under the carpet that disturb us but we do not understand. After all a great many humans retain a naive belief that there is an innate moral justice in the world, that there will, that there must be, be some balance. The God theories are but one manifestation of this. Taking the God theory into the debate though, the bible may say an eye for an eye (better refuted by Ghandi) but it also says “judge not lest ye be judged” and Jesus says that one must forgive ones neighbour 77 times 7, he does not go on to list a hold load of caveats such as unless your neighbour is just evil or has committed certain things. Ah but the bible has commandments and ‘thou shalt not kill’ is one of them so does this not therefore show a clear transgression of the most basic moral code? Yet there is no commandment that thou shalt not rape, or interfere with children but we still know this to be wrong and it is enshrined in law. Are some laws therefore more important than others? Or is it the adherence to a code of laws that is key? If the state kills how does it square this with the thou shalt not kill commandment? Are there a group of people for whom the commandments do not apply? If so who is to say who is in these groups? Is it simply a majority thing, that if you’re in the biggest group you can decide that they don’t apply to you today? The evil and religious argument in general is riddled with holes and fraught with moral subjectivism and frankly to make a code of laws on these premises is going against all forms of logic.

A lot of supporters of the death penalty ask what one should do if you know categorically that someone is guilty. This of course depends on one’s view of categorically, it reminds me of the case of Nick Ingram who was executed in Georgia on the 8th of April 1995. For Americans Ingram’s case was no different to so many others and it only came to light in the UK because he was of joint British-American nationality. In April 1995 a retrial was called for because it emerged Ingram had been given anti-psychotic drugs during his trial which made him appear cold and emotionless and had potentially a detrimental effect on how he was seen in court and by the jury. In Ingram’s case there was no refuting that he appeared to have carried out the crime, Ingram’s defence hinged on the claim that he had blacked out after a drunken binge and remembered nothing of the bungled robbery and subsequent murder. This might be seen as an easy defence, but what if it were true? Are we really prepared to stake people’s lives on the fact that we think this is provable one way or another? Ingram served 12 years on Death Row and was granted last minute reprieves more than once including the last one one hour before his scheduled execution. Despite pleas of clemancy by the then Archbishop of Canterbury and numerous backbench MPs Prime Minister John Major who claimed to be against capital punishment refused to intervene and plead for clemency. American pro-death penalty supporters cheered the hearse that drove to the prison on the night he was put to death by electric chair. He was 31.

I am also often asked what I would do were I in the situation of the victim, ie were someone in my family killed – well this is a non-starter, the law is not made by people who are involved in a case for they cannot be anything other than subjective, the law has to take a dispassionate view as to what is right and just. You hear a great many people wronged by people who do not play the vengence card for as they rightly say “it will not bring x back.”

Another argument I have heard mentioned is cost – that it must surely cost less to put someone to death than to keep them alive at the taxpayer’s expense for their life’s incarceration. Are there any figures to support this? My gut instinct is that the legal framework that must be gone through for a death penalty case and the appeals processes etc. are probably vastly more expensive than the cost of keeping someone locked up. According to statistics in California the additional cost of an inmate on Death Row is $90,000 a year more than an inmate who is serving life with no prospect of parole in a maximum security prison.

The case of Gary Glitter is interesting because it highlights another potential problem, the fact that the media hugely influences and manipulates our opinion about people and circumstances. Frequently we are told that other countries standards are not up to our own, the mistrust of foreigners and foreign governments is rife, and yet in the Gary Glitter case one is expected to take all the evidence of a Vietnamese court as red. Now it may very well be the case that the allegations are completely well-founded and Glitter is indeed guilty, he certainly does not come across as a likeable man nor full of remorse. However were he to be innocent of the crimes this would very likely be his behaviour, it certainly does not prove guilt one way or another. There is nothing that precludes innocent people from being bastards, you don’t have to be likeable to be law-abiding.
Finally though I have to come back to the case of the Guildford Four where in 1975 Mr Justice Donaldson, who also presided over the Maguire Seven trial, expressed regret that the Four had not been charged with treason, which then still had a mandatory death penalty. In 1977 the IRA made the British aware that the Guildford Four were innocent of the bombings but the convictions were only quashed in 1989 when the appeal judge declared that the police had lied and fabricated notes and documents in order to fit the case they wished to present. The overturning of the convictions came too late for Guiseppe Conlan, had Judge Donaldson had his way it would have come too late for ten other innocent individuals.

Song Of The Day ~ Idlewild – Love Steals Us From Loneliness

I was one of those not happy about the notion of seeing BNP leader Nick Griffin on the BBC’s flagship Question Time but knowing that it was something that had to be done in order to face up to a growing trend towards the extreme-right in this country.  My principle concern was that Griffin would be given a soft option, an apathetic audience with relatively soft questions and toothless politicians. Whilst I do not believe my worst fears were realised I have nonetheless some serious concerns regarding how the debate and Griffin himself were handled.

During the first question on whether the BNP should be allowed to adopt Churchill as one of their own, Jack Straw was afforded nearly five minutes, unheard of certainly in my experience of the program.  Straw used the time to give the usual speech about tolerance and fighting the war against fascism etc etc.  it came across, at least to me as pretty easy pickings really, there was little of genuine interest or personal stamp on it.  It was the same sort of asinine bollocks that condensed down to its minimal is the “I’m not a racist but…”

Griffin himself declared that Churchill would have found the BNP his natural home as fighting against its own foreign invasion.  Bonnie Greer pointed out that of course having an American mother with Mowhawk ethnicity meant that Churchill might not even have been allowed in the party but Griffin was undeterred.  Churchill he said spent much of his early political career fighting mass immigration and warning of the dangers of Islam.  Churchill has very much enjoyed the same sort of approach to criticism as immigration does now, I found it interesting that none of the panel mentioned that Churchill in his early political life was an ardent eugenicist and advocated the sterilisation of the mentally ill in a Home Office paper he tabled in 1911.

According to the 2001 census the population of Britain still consists of 92% of people who classify themselves as white, according to the CIA factbook 77% of the United Kingdom as a whole are English with a further 15% made up by Scottish, Welsh and Irish.  Griffin’s stated view to return to a Britain that is 99% White British is therefore clearly incitement to ethnic cleansing.  Bearing in mind London accounts for a huge amount of the modern immigrant population with, according to The Guardian an estimated 30% or 2.2 million claiming in 2005 to have been born outside the UK that leaves very little to spread around the rest of the country.

However according to Griffin 84% of the total population support the BNP’s policy on immigration.  Hang on, run that by me again – 84%, which represents 50 million people in the United Kingdom as a whole, or if you like, the entire White English population and then some.  Griffin further asserts that two thirds of the immigrant population support the policy too.  Is this an example of them pulling the rope up behind them?  We will never know for when asked where this statistic had come from Griffin could not come up with an answer.  Which is code for, I made it up and hoped I could just float it out there without justification.

Griffin’s true colours do occasionally show, he is simply not slick enough to keep himself entirely behind the mask.  Interesting though that whilst he chooses to identify the “indigenous” Britons as those who arrived 17000 years ago he chooses to say that “Britain must remain a fundamentally British and Christian country.”  Interesting because for nearly 16000 of those years Britain was not a Christian country at all.  Clearly Griffin is happy to pick and choose what he likes and offer a very subjective revisionist view of history.  This was shown up by Bonnie Greer again who criticised the lack of mention of the Romans in the BNP’s take on British history, not merely for the fact that they were foreign invaders (not that the Celts or the tribes who came before them were really any different since much of Britain had only become inhabitable after the end of the Ice Age.  People did not suddenly come out of cryogenic suspension on the land they had to come from abroad.

It was also quite evident that Griffin is not a lover of homosexual men, he claims to be speaking for many people when he says the sight of two men kissing makes him feel deeply uncomfortable.  I wonder if he finds two women kissing equally unpleasant.  None of the politicians on the panel made a particularly big play against this point either.

The program, in general, was in a way reminiscent of George Galloway in Big Brother, a man who claimed to be in it for the ideals and yet shown to be quite clearly out of their depth due to the arrogance of their own self-belief.  Griffin wrought his hands and tried to smarm and obfuscate the direct questions wherever he could.  It was compere David Dimbleby though who brought up many of the cogent points that showed Griffin up for the rank amateur he really is.  “If you look at the things I’m quoted to have said…” Griffin protested, to which Dimbleby asked immediately which quotes had been attributed to him that were not true.  “Too many to mention” Griffin replied.  This was not however a BNP broadcast, or a short radio interview, or standing outside court being questioned by journalists, this was a serious political program compared by a presenter of considerable experience.  Dimbleby did not let Griffin off the hook and queried if Griffin had therefore never denied the holocaust.  Griffin’s answer spoke volumes for its lack of substance.  “I’ve not got a conviction for holocaust denial.”

I think all but the most rabid fascist party supporters knew quite clearly what this meant.

Suffice to say I believe the only two people who came out of the affair with any dignity were Bonnie Greer and David Dimbleby.  What worries me very much about such an event is that there still seems to be this naive consensus amongst the neo-liberals and neo-conservatives that no-one really supports the BNP they’re just doing it out of protest.  As such they drastically underestimate the lack of education about serious issues of our time and by refusing to engage on proper policy debates and publicly shoot down the odious characters of the far-right they allow a continued perception that these people are somehow swashbuckling political mavericks who say what everyone is thinking but no mainstream politician dares say.  This has happened before on numerous occasions and is generally a clear road to fuel fascism in society at large and at the very least an acquiescence of policies that one might expect educated people to be appalled by.  The three politicians on the QT panel were considered to be relative heavyweights at yet their arguments were sufficiently dilute as to almost be tacit acquiescence.  They have for too long hidden behind the notion that there is no place for extremism whilst the political hegemony has become more and more right-wing, such that some things considered mainstream now would in days gone by have been seen as very much on the path to fundamentalism.

In truth Griffin came across for what he was, an arrogant man with fascist-leanings who is not especially erudite but has been ostracised and vilified to the point of having become practically a living martyr and regarded as a dangerous intellectual only amongst his party cronies, themselves perhaps the lowest common denominator of cerebral evolution.  I expect to hear him come out and say Enoch Powell was right in his “rivers of blood” speech but I do not expect to hear people allow him to get away with that unchallenged.  When are the rivers of blood coming?  There are now enough immigrants in Britain that would have made Powell’s eyes pop out but there is still no rivers of blood.  Tension, yes, there is plenty of that, caused in no small part by the polarisation of communities into immigrant and non-immigrant by the right-wing anti-immigration agenda.

What Griffin is not is out of touch, and herein lies the chilling postscript of the piece for he has, like the failed Austrian painter he would so dearly love to imitate, managed to exploit public malaise and disenfranchisement and stir up division and hatred against easy target sections of the populations.  Those even more disenfranchised than the “indigenous.”  He has used the classic tactics of inaccurate hyperbole and erroneous statistics and the mainstream politicians have consistently allowed him and his party to dictate the agenda due to their own failure, or inability, to address the central issues on the table.  Make no mistake this is not the end of the story and if we are to avoid the examples of Germany and Italy of the 1930s a great deal of work is to be done.

Song Of The Day ~ Fleetwood Mac – Dragonfly