September 2011

As Najib Razak speaks of his “modern, mature democracy” – and even tries to get down wit’ da kids – his Deputy appeals to another demographic…

Malaysia is not ready for the implementation of hudud law, says Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

The Deputy Prime Minister said as a multi-racial and multi-religious country, Malaysia was not ready to introduce hudud laws.

Muhyiddin said hudud laws could only be implemented when the situation was really conducive.

So, the nation isn’t ready for medieval atrocities? Leaders of the Islamist-ruled state of Kelantan are trying to force through hudud laws, much to their rivals’ fear

DAP chairman Karpal Singh…said: “The punishments for these offences are flogging 100 times for intercourse between an unmarried couple, stoning to death for adultery, amputation of hand for theft, death for apostasy, flogging 40 times for alcohol consumption, flogging 80 times for false accusation of adultery and death by sword or crucifixion for highway robbery.”

That’s cool with Muhyiddin, though…

“As a Muslim, I cannot reject hudud law…If Nik Aziz said it would be implemented in Kelantan, it is his wish.”

This is surely relevant to our conversation here. Malaysians have much to gain from liberalisation and engagement with freer nations above and below them. Their investment in their belief, though – an attachment to the identity it’s helped create; the self-righteousness it breed; the fear, perhaps, that it instills and above all the notion that it’s true – holds them back.

I began to keep an eye on Malaysian politics after Najib, the PM, gave a speech at Oxford where he bunched the people of the world on each side of a dichotomy: the “moderates” and the “extremists”. The vacuity of this is evident when you read that the Maldives, where promoting faiths other than Islam is a criminal offence, is seeing an attempt to crack down on “extremist…preaching”. So, theocrats of such imperiousness that they’d jail someone for chatting about other ideas are moderates?

How we judge a person or group depends, to some extent, on what they’re being compared to. Wladimir Klitschko is a weakling to an elephant but I’d still hate to tussle with ‘im. And there are more “extreme” characters around than the Maldivians. I wouldn’t like to live there but at least they pose no threat while I’m here. If they keep an eye on people who are more belligerent then, well –  I’m glad. That doesn’t mean they aren’t doctrinaire oppressors, though. People don’t fall easily between “nasty” and “nice”.

If it wasn’t a theocracy I’d get on in the Maldives, by the way. Their national cuisine is apparently centred around tuna and sweet potato, which I could happily eat for breakfast, lunch and Christmas dinner.

So, a grappling match between two schoolkids was filmed and broadcast on the ‘net. I don’t condone the incident – the reporting of which has spread like wildfire through the UK press – because I’m not sure kids should be having competitive bouts, and even less sure of whether it should be a spectacle for adults. It’s not something I’ve considered but the thought makes me feel a bit nauseous. I’d also be interested to know if submission moves were legal, because I’d have thought they could endanger growing bones. On the other hand, the moral panic – the squall of shock – is really pathetic. A commenter at the Mail tells us why in amusing style…

Has anybody heard of the sport “Ultimate Death Punching”? It’s pretty vicious. Each year there’s people beaten to death taking part in Ultimate Death Punching. In fact, over the last decade, 100s of people have been killed taking part. Well, did you know that in THIS COUNTRY, children as young as eleven, can and DO take part in Ultimate Death Punching?! What kind of sick freaks let their kids do this, let alone watch it?! Substitute “boxing” for “ultimate death punching” and you see why the hype about “cage fighting” is dumb.

Think kids shouldn’t be having fights? Let’s talk about it. Heck, I’m inclined to think you’ve got a point. The idea that “cage fighting” is a sinister new evil is absurd, though. It’s typical of the UK press to focus not on what’s scary but on what sounds scary. There are few things more sick-making than a tabloid panic but at least most were banned to shield the dignity of animals.

Here’s a study on how falling blood sugars can make us – especially the fatter of us – crave great big snacks…

The hypothalamus, an area of the brain, senses the change when glucose levels fall. The insula and striatum, other brain areas, become active – these areas are associated with reward, and induce a desire to eat, the scientists found.

Sinha believes that the stress linked to a fall in glucose levels plays a key part in the activation of the striatum.

This could be another reason why low-fat “diet” foods are such a con. Research has suggested that people, especially overweight people, eat more of them than if they’d stuck with normal products; enough, indeed, that they’re packing in more calories. To some extent that’s the result of ignorance: they equate “fat” with, er, fat and imagine that a low-fat product can’t be fattening. That’s untrue, of course, as many of them are so thick with sugar that there’s a crouton’s worth of calories between them and the real stuff. It may also be significant that these products, with more sugar and no fat to slow digestion, will give a more violent spike to their consumer’s glucose levels and leave them hungering. Even if they restrict themselves to a couple of scoops of yoghurt, then, that box of pringles may seem irresistible later.

This isn’t an issue of world-shattering significance, of course, but I think it’s pretty sad that miserable people are sold a cure that’s liable to make their problem worse. In fact, it represents the worst of consumerism: making people feel they’re dependent on products that, in many cases, will only make them feel more helpless.

Refined carbohydrates are, more broadly, God’s gift to companies and their marketers: cheap to produce and easy to promote. Pack some sugar round some bits of starch, pour ‘em into some garish packaging, call ‘em chocolate frosted sugar bombs and sell ‘em for five times as much as the food to produce. Their success in working their products into diets was considered by Alternet’s Anneli Rufus

Breakfast in America is a corporate scam.

Not all of it. But nearly every breakfast staple — cold cereal, donuts, yogurt, bagels and cream cheese, orange juice, frappuccino — is a staple only because somebody somewhere wanted money. Wake up and smell the McCafé.

Far be it from me lecture someone on what they should eat, or claim that diets should be joylessly premised on health alone. (Orthorexia or, God forbid, anorexia are as or more unhealthy than the most hoggish of diets.) But it’s odd, as Rufus says, that these are staple foods because whether or not they’re worth it they’re completely unsuitable. If you have cereal and juice you’re often, in caloric terms, enjoying sugar with a glass of sugar; a recipe for moodswings, lethargy and hunger. That this is a normal feed for kids awaiting school should bother teachers everywhere.

I don’t get why conservatives become so grouchy when diets and ill-health are linked. A lot of the problems with consumption in Britain and America have sprung from wacky modern innovations and an overly dramatic shift from traditional diets. I understand the wish to disassociate yourself from anything that Jamie Oliver’s involved with but, still – it’s odd.

There has to be a limit to the number of sex scandals involving Berlusconi. He can’t have slept with every Italian woman? Can he? The latest revelations – a veritable novel’s worth, involving wiretaps, cocaine dealers, prostitutes and blackmail – may sink his presidency – though you wouldn’t bet on it – but the awesome question is how he’s survived this far? It isn’t just the affairs, in all their copious, lurid glory; it’s the economic corruption; the shady links to masons and, perhaps, the mafia; the vocal contempt for his own citizenry.

It helps, of course, to own great chunks of the media but there’s surely something that has sustained his popularity. I think the lesson to corrupt politicians everywhere is that if you’re hankering to get your end away or make some cheeky profit on the side it’s futile to pretend that you’re a pretty straight guy. If you’re exposed the public will be angered or amused by your hypocrisy, and their spite could drive you from office. People react violently to (a) the unexpected and (b) realising that they’ve been played for fools. So, promote the image of yourself as a rascal. Make light of your misdeeds; cast them as foibles, not as sins. (People are far more tolerant of those with low standards than high, and people who seem mischievous rather than moralistic.) In time they might just become a part of the landscape. You’ll still have to be competent enough that citizens don’t grow resentful and smart enough to grasp the difference between scandal and downright villainousness but within those constraints there’s plenty of, er – wiggle room.

I wouldn’t give advice, of course, if I thought they were listening.

Professor Steven Reicher, an expert in crowd psychology, takes issue with the notion that trying to explain crimes entails excusing them…

THROUGHOUT history, one of the first casualties of riots has always been scientific understanding. From the French Revolution to modern-day riots such as those that caused chaos in English cities last month, concerted attempts by authorities to limit the ways events are explained make empirically grounded understanding virtually impossible.

Another way in which politicians have restricted explanation is by intimating that any reaction other than condemnation is tantamount to condoning violence. The UK’s education secretary Michael Gove reacted furiously to the suggestion by Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the Labour party, that government policies limiting youth opportunities might have had some relevance, castigating her for “making excuses for what has gone on here”. In this context, whole academic disciplines become suspect: in political vocabulary, “sociologist” and “jihadi” have acquired a kind of moral equivalence.

I agree, of course. (And the same point should be grasped by people who denounce those who suggest explanations for terrorism, rape and so on.)

On the other hand, there is another charge I’d aim at people who assert simplistic explanations, often before the fires of the event – literal or metaphorical – have died. Where people insist, without the benefit of data and compelling argument, that X can be explained within their view of Y (riots within their view of culture, say, or the cuts) they obscure the true and, it’s likely, more nuanced roots. You have to diagnose an ill before you can prescribe its cure so if you’re hampering the process you deserve a verbal boot. Obscuring, in other words, may not be the sin excusing is but it can still be harmful.

Other explanations can give an actor too much credit even if they don’t excuse them – attribute too understandable or even noble motivations even if they don’t absolve the actions they inspired. If you were to claim, for example, that a bomber merely took his anger with the Israel/Palestine conflict too far – or, indeed, a gunman took his anger at liberal elites to an unfortunate extreme – you’re not excusing the act but you’re suggesting there’s cause to empathise with the actor.

If you’re right that’s beside the point, of course. Aside from cases where a mother asks for your opinion of an ugly baby there are very few scenarios where you can be justly denounced for saying something that’s true.

John Gray proposes that belief is an at least somewhat extraneous factor to religions. It’s not the creed that matters, he insists, but the rituals. Thus, “new atheists”, who will insist on picking on the truth claims, are missing the point.

First, how does he think these rituals have been established? Because they’ve been enshrined in creeds. Why is it that you won’t find a Jew tucking into bacon? Because an ancestor of theirs ordered them not to. Why is it that Muslims can flip at portraits of Allah? Because they’re said to be blasphemous in the Quran. Now, it’s true that beliefs are more likely to be ritualised if they’re satisfying for the believer – and claims too divergent from their self-interest may be quietly forgotten – but one of the most crucial demands of any satisfying belief is grounds to think it’s true. The belief in an afterlife, for example, would be pretty hollow if you hadn’t really accepted it.

As the practices these beliefs have inspired can be extremely harmful it can be a worthwhile pursuit to mine at their foundations. Gray might note, correctly, that most people don’t have rational causes for their beliefs but they’re nonetheless built on some argumentative core one might erode with the tools of science and philosophy.

This argument, used elsewhere by Armstrong and Eagleton, is actually more condescending to the faithful than anything the nasty nonbelievers have produced. The latter would at least acknowledge that their views aren’t so absurd that no one could believe them. And, indeed, critics of new atheists like Feser, Swinburne and Plantinga would argue not merely that their ideas are reasonable but that they withstand the criticisms of today. I’m not sure they’d appreciate somebody listening and saying, “Yeah, but you don’t really believe that nonsense, do you?”

A Bitter Pill – A Bedfordshire man has received an apology from his local chemist after its employees refused to give him his prescription as they were closing the store. It turns out their clock was wrong. It seems brutal, though, to deny somebody their prescription however late it is. I mean, you have to close the store at some point or another but where’s the line between the urgency of the customer’s need and the staff’s desire and, indeed, right to close the shop and leave? “Please! I need it for my heart!” “Hmm – is there a risk of death?” “Well – no. But I’m in pain!” “Would you call it crippling pain?” “What? I – ow!” “I mean, I sympathise, sir, but it’s nearly time for Dr Who…”
What Is And What Should Never Be – A Missouri-based fan of Led Zeppelin has changed his name to “Led Zeppelin II”. I congratulate Mr II on this development but really, Led, what were you thinking? LZ claims that Plant, Page et al’s second outing “changed [his] life forever” but it now defines his life. If he introduces himself to somebody from now on they’re not going to be intrigued by his work, personality or curious opinions on the nature of the universe; they’ll want to know why in the hell he changed his name to Led Zeppelin II. On the other hand, it’s better than wearing a t-shirt with somebody’s face on it. Then people don’t even have to speak to you before judging you by your association with Che, Jim Morrison or Clement Attlee.

Knows His Onions – Peter Glazebrook, a pensioner from Newark, has set a new record for the world’s heaviest onion. Congratulations, Mr Glazebrook! This is touching, naturally, but one has to feel for whomever had grown the onion it’s surpassed. Tonight, I suspect, they’ll remove it from the case where it has sat in triumph, chop it up and sauté it while tears run down their cheeks.

They said I was mad when I claimed there was a popular desire to eliminate the ginger-haired from the species. Well, what do they say to this?

The world’s largest sperm bank has started turning down redheaded donors because there is too little demand for their sperm.

Thankfully a hip young gunslinger has arrived to dissect this unquestioned prejudice…

So, a social science prof was speaking at York University and offered the assertion “All Jews should be sterilised” as an example of a vile opinion. Unfortunately, one of his students leapt to the conclusion that he was endorsing this view. Here’s what she did…

Instead of raising her hand to ask for clarification, she abruptly stormed out of class and informed an Israel advocacy group that her professor was an anti-Semite. Press releases were churned out and sent to Jewish groups and the media, calling for Johnston’s firing. The campaign instantly went viral.

Many are deriding this bewildered lass – and fairly too – but though it was extremely dumb of her to go beserk without questioning the prof she was but one person, whose volatile moods could have swayed her reasoning. What’s funny, though, is how easily this “advocacy group” accepted her claim. They would have been unprecedentedly appalling words, spelling an end to his career and the beginning of a media storm, but they didn’t even feel obliged to ask him if they said them. And then other people took them at their word, without question; even with blatantly questionable details like this

[The student] urged her fellow Jewish students to walk out of class with her — none did.

Did they ever think there could be more than one explanation for their passivity? Did they ever think to, y’know, ask somebody else before assuming it was acceptance of genocidal racism? Truth be told, this a classic and not-actually-extraordinary example of the confirmation bias. They expect professors to be anti-semitic so when they’re claimed to be so their prejudices ratify the charges before their scepticism has taken the job. I wouldn’t surprised to hear of similar reactions, in other contexts, from watchers of Islamophobia, misogyny, misandry, homophobes, anti-Americans, phobophobes et cetera.

The student is obviously the type of person who’d see themselves as a victim as they kicked a puppy’s head in. She went on to affirm the most pessimistic analyses of the confirmation bias. Psychologists have written of the ‘continued influence effect of misinformation’, which means people are in thrall to bogus claims even after they’ve been corrected numerous times. Check out these doozies

[The student] said Tuesday she may have misunderstood the context and intent of Johnston’s remarks, but that fact is insignificant.

“The words, ‘Jews should be sterilized’ still came out of his mouth, so regardless of the context I still think that’s pretty serious.”

[The student] also expressed skepticism that Johnston was in fact Jewish.

Asked directly by a reporter whether she believes Johnston is lying, she was unclear.

“Whether he is or is not, no one will know,” she said. “. . . Maybe he thought because he is Jewish he can talk smack about other Jews.”

Or, in translation:

Okay, he didn’t. But he sort of did. He totally did.

Don’t you love the notion that her outrage was justified because “the words…came out of his mouth”, by the way. Come to that, they’ve now come out of her mouth. Serious stuff!

This is amusing…

This is inspiring…

And this is terribly endearing…

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