January 2012

I think forgiveness is important. (How could I not? I’ve spent a lot of time asking for it.) When is forgiveness due, though? God apparently extends it to all those who ask for it but, then, he’s supposedly powerful enough to rummage about in our minds so he can tell if the apology is a sincere one and if there’s a genuine desire to change one’s behaviour. We don’t have that option and, thus, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask the penitent to demonstrate their sincerity – with, say, consistently admirable deeds – before offering one’s forgiveness. Without wanting to elide political opinions and personal morality the same kinda applies to those who publically convert from some ideas to some others: you don’t just accept that they’ve become reasonable; you wait for them to explain the changes in their thoughts and see if they’re put into action.

What complicates things, as far as I can tell, is the “forget” that always seems to be attached to the idea. Must one’s forgiveness represent a wiping of the slate – an agreement to exclude a memory from one’s thoughts? I don’t see how. I think it’s well established that our actions and ideas are the products of ourselves – features of our character, shaped by our genes and our surroundings. Even if you’ve made a sincere and determined effort to change your behaviour the temptations and inclinations are liable to endure and it seems right for your companions to bear them in mind. (An extreme example: a former alcoholic. Their friends and family would have to remember that they could descend back into dipsomania. Otherwise they’re liable to pour ‘em a glass of wine and get a nasty shock as four bottles later they’re nude, wielding a croquet mallet and singing My Generation.) I guess it’s more of a process than a single deed. You forgive somebody inasmuch as you grant that there’s no resentment and acknowledge . Over time, depending on the extent to which their sins reflected their character, and how thoroughly they’ve changed to arrest them, you might just forget they happened.

This implies that one might need to hold an act against someone despite accepting their repentance. You might, for example, be initially cautious of their responses to scenarios that would have been conducive to their lesser deeds.  (To bring up an earlier example, you’d be a sod to ask a recovering alcoholic, “Mind my drink?”) At other times, while granting that someone’s sincerely regretful, you might be in no position to allow them to prove it. Take a columnist who’s spent years defying journalistic ethics. He might go out of his way to demonstrate his penitence and we might grant that he’s sincere and, yet, there’s a limited amount of column inches to be filled and lots of bright young people who’d love to have a part in filling them. Why, then, extend the privilege to someone who – as much as one might like him – hasn’t shown himself to be reliable.

I got a boxset of films noirs for Christmas. They’re great, of course – leaving me sorely tempted to drink bourbon, smoke a lot and answer questions indirectly. I’ll write more on them in time but for now here’s a tangential observation. Last night I enjoyed This Gun for Hire – a tale of murder, treachery and somewhat questionable redemption in wartime America. After it ended I pootled about on the Internet – searching for information on the actors’ lives. Good God! It was bleaker than the film itself. Three of its four stars had tragic lives and nasty deaths. I suppose fame has always attracted and enabled the disturbed, or chewed up the innocent. We like to assume that every public downfall is the fruit of individual peculiarities because our entertainment would feel much more ghoulish if we realised that it was self-perpetuating.

Veronica Lake, the film’s gorgeous heroine, had a dismal fall from grace as she succumbed to alcoholism – ending her career in a grim retelling of the classic Hitler-reincarnation tale before dying of illnesses brought on by her dipsomania. Alan Ladd, whose haunting turn as the callous yet oddly sympathetic gunman Raven launched him into the public eye, struggled with a dreadful life in which he lost his father, then his stepfather and then his mother in appalling circumstances. After attempting suicide at 48 he died of an – apparently unplanned – overdose of drink and drugs. The most fascinating story, though, is that of Laird Craig, who portrayed the rotund coward and conman Willard Gates – adding a touch of humour that made Gates all the more creepy. According to Wikipedia…

When assigned the role of demented pianist George Bone in Hangover Square (1945), Cregar decided to give the character a “romantic” veneer, and, to that end, lost more than a hundred pounds on a crash diet which included prescribed amphetamines. The strain on his system resulted in severe abdominal problems; a few days after undergoing stomach surgery, Cregar died of a heart attack. He was 31 years old.

Here’s Craig in Hangover Square

Now – and I’ll admit this post was in large part begun so I could make this observation – I don’t think I’m just stereotyping gay, upper class Englishmen who’ve depicted Oscar Wilde when I say he looks just like Stephen Fry.

The Guardian’s Peter Preston writes a hymn to multicultural London…

When I started writing regular columns for the Guardian four decades ago – scribbling on my kitchen table – Walworth, just down the road, was white, glum, working class. The only black people you tended to see were young men in old cars having their boots stopped and searched by the white, Carter Street Old Bill. Brixton, just off to the left, was still Windrush world, the West Indies come to rest. And Peckham, a few yards to the right, was where Del Boy Trotter grew up and tried to prosper.

Walworth today is black, not white: a bustle and buzz of hairdressing salons and curried-goat houses open all hours. The Elephant they’re digging up again has become little South America, stretching down the Old Kent Road in polyglot variety. Vauxhall welcomes Portuguese. Camberwell mixes Greeks, Turks, Chinese and more. Welcome to Norbury, and the subcontinent. And Peckham, the high street where geezers grizzle to camera, is one of London’s great amazements: West Africa, its tropical fish, its rainbow of vegetable stalls and smiles, plonked down where only eels and pies flourished. And its array of brand new churches, mosques, temples: fervent belief marching on as the C of E makes an excuse and slinks away.

I hope this doesn’t sound unkind but Preston seems to like the diversity of London because it makes for more interesting strolls down the road. He doesn’t stop to think about how social changes have affected people’s lives – he’s just pleased to note that there’s more to see. The clearest example is the thing about “fervent belief”. Yes, those spires and minarets and veils and turbans are more interesting to observe than besweatered Anglicans but would it be a good thing if humbler faiths were superseded by assertive ones? I don’t think so. What’s significant to me is not how bustling, buzzing and bombastic cities are but how comfortable life is for their people. Welworth might have seemed “grim” to Preston in the ‘70s but was it to its residents? Who knows. I guess those “white”, “working class” people were too busy scoffing eels to get jobs in the media. Still, I know that while everybody likes to see and meet new things and people I suspect that most of them also desire familiarity; community; security; homeliness. Preston, in contrast, sounds like a tourist.

While we’re on the subject, I can’t believe our cities haven’t gotten uglier. I’m not blaming multicultural inclusions for that, though. The biggest and ugliest changes to hit English cities are the hordes of chintzy fast food outlets, identikit coffee bars and insipid retail stores. A characterful part of my hometown was recently supplanted by a clutch of bland, bleached buildings bearing glassy-eyed employees of Topshop and Apple. Yes, I know I’m being a snob. Yes, I know some people like them. But – dear Lord – I can’t believe there’s anything more bleak than finding that a local shop has closed and bears a sign threatening “New Look – Coming Soon”.

Nick Cohen has a bone to pick with Stieg Larsson – the author of some books that people seem to like but that I haven’t got around to reading. He’d enjoyed his work at first but then he made a strange and unpleasant discovery. Or, at least, his friend did…

My friend and colleague Johan Lundberg, the editor of the Swedish journal Axess, has done what I should have done and read Larsson’s obscure book on honour killings. He waited for the release of the film to give us his findings.

Larsson did indeed break off from writing the Millennium trilogy to intervene in the debate about the “honour killings” of two Kurdish women in Sweden. Far from worrying about the suffering of women, Larsson and his co-author said those who campaigned for the rights of women in immigrant communities wanted “to portray all male immigrants as representatives of a single homogeneous attitude towards women”. They had sexist as well as racist motives. They only talked about honour crime because they wanted to divert attention from how white men raised in the “patriarchal structures of Swedish society” abused and murdered women as a matter of course.

If all Larsson wanted to say was that the rights of women should be upheld, regardless of colour or creed, then no one could argue with him. He came close to asserting the opposite. Believe that western legal systems, for all their faults, were preferable to forced marriages, religious courts where the testimony of a woman is worth half that of a man and the stoning to death of adulterous women and you were a “rightwing extremist”, carrying on the fascist tradition. In a final descent into paranoid dementia, he accused those who disagreed with him of preparing to unleash “special operations forces, which are ready to begin the ethnic cleansing”.

Here’s a translation of the piece by Johan Lundberg. It includes every one of the quotes that Cohen offers. I have no wish to defend Larsson – I haven’t read his book and it may be as unpleasant as Lundberg claims. (And, lest someone wishes to presume that I’m dodging Cohen’s allegation of Western indifference to “honour” crimes, here are some of my writings on the subject.) What annoys me, though, is Cohen’s rank laziness. He hasn’t read the book – he’s just relied on six short quotes; none of them in context; none so much as a sentence long – and must know that his audience won’t be able to. That offends me as a reader. (He’s also been paid handsomely to reproduce Lundberg’s work and throw in a couple of insults at liberals. That offends me a person who’s unemployed.)

Paul Kingsnorth has written an affecting essay that laments the supposed decline of environmentalism – a movement that he suspects has now become “a cult of utility

We are not environmentalists now because we have an emotional reaction to the wild world. Most of us wouldn’t even know where to find it. We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called “sustainability.” What does this curious, plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the nonhuman world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens sapiens, though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people—us—feel is their right, without destroying the “natural capital” or the “resource base” that is needed to do so.

I’ll admit it, then: I care about environmental issues – first and foremost – because of the dreadful consequences that environmental degradation could wreak on humans. Felled rainforests and bespoiled waters are, as far as I’m aware, unconscious to their plight while starving children, drowning women and poisoned men are all too acquainted with the pain that they’re experiencing and the facts of their impending tribulations or deaths.

I’m also concerned, like Kingsnorth, with “preventing the destruction of [the] beauty and brilliance” of the natural world. To some extent, however, this is a human-centred” desire. Picture a world without humans. Mountains rise with all the grandeur of those we’ve climbed; winds howl with all the drama of those we’ve experienced; birds skim through the air with all majesty of those we’ve seen. Yet – with no desire to seem crude – what’s the point of it? Mountains don’t know they’re rising; winds don’t know that they’re howling; birds are dimly aware that they’ve taken flight, I guess, but they don’t have the brains to grasp the wonder of the fact. I can’t help but feel that the beauty and brilliance of the world is significant only so long as there are creatures to appreciate it. Thus, I preserve it – in part if not in whole – for the pleasure and inspiration it instills in us.

On the other hand, I empathise with Kingsnorth’s frustration with contemporary environmentalism. It does, as he asserts, seem to be filled with people whose talk of “sustainability” expresses the desire to sustain their opulent lifestyles or, more nobly, to sustain their dreams of endless human progress and universal enrichment. My environmentalism – idle as it is – is premised on the need for human modesty in consumption and experimentation; so as to make life as bearable as possible for the swollen masses of our kind while trying to preserve the wonders of nature. This is partly so that we and future generations can profit from its bounteousness and beauty, yes, but not entirely; hey, if there is some kind of universal consciousness imbued in Gaia that I’m neglecting we should give it time to surface.

Time for two brief updates on affairs that were the subjects of this blog in recent times. The news? There’s no real news. And that’s interesting in itself.

Earlier promises notwithstanding, I feel compelled to note that the inquest into Gareth Williams’ death was said to have been organised for some time before Christmas. Two weeks later there’s been no mention of it. None. Not an informative sausage. That’s a shame as answers – and apologies – are due.

I’d also like to note that it’s been four months since Colonel Gaddafi was deposed. Where are all the papers demonstrating Libyan involvement in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing? Why haven’t former officials – anyone remember Moussa Koussa? – been arrested? Why isn’t anyone interested in pursuing answers as to who conceived the biggest terrorist atrocity to hit British lands, and how it was planned and executed? It’s all up for question – but these are questions nobody in power seems to be asking. And that, while not “news” as such, is intriguing.

I’d like to attach a few provisos to this one. First, I wasn’t personally hurt by Diane Abbott’s strange comments so there’s no need to remove your tiny violins. Second, I’m under no illusions that in criticising her I’m boldly standing up against or for anything – the vast majority of an imposing body of opinion that her tweeting has provoked is hostile and the fact that I’ve seen people standing up for her is a measure of the eccentric circles I happen to move in. Third, I accept that the media’s response has been unpleasantly shrill. In fact, I’m not sure anybody saying anything – except, perhaps, the Queen musing the loveliness of Hitler – could deserve it.

With all that dispensed with, they were nasty comments, and not just because of her use of the term “white people”. (Now being said to be a comment on 19th Century colonialism. Goodness – if I hinted darkly at the nefariousness of Asians could I say it was a reference to Genghis Khan?) What’s more interestingly offensive about the tweet is that her claim that “white people love playing divide and rule” was in response to a black journalist’s questioning of the soundness of the notion of a “black community” and the value of the “community leaders” who purport to or are said to represent it. I don’t know a lot about race or racial politics but the claim that people who’ve been said to be the “voice” of black Britons have done little but humiliate themselves seems evidently true, and the point about the dangers of communalistic politics is, at the very least, a serious one. Abbott – one of those “leaders” herself – responded to these thoughtful points by essentially implying that the journalist should pipe down as she was doing the white man’s conspiratorial, pernicious work. That, to me, smacks of paternalistic fearmongering – the evasion of tough questions via the introduction of gratuitous and unhealthy suspicion. This goes some way towards affirming the original concern about the presumptuousness of “community leaders” – as well as ensuring that if people say her dissident perspective is being quashed I’m inclined to reach for a little violin.

By the way, there’s nothing – nothing – more painful than watching people on Facebook debate the meaning of racism. Alex DeLarge had it easy in comparison.

I’ve expressed scepticism towards claims that the prevalence of eating disorders is the fault of a “size zero culture” in the media. (I doubt the claims, that is. I don’t deny that they might be true.) The “size zero culture” of the media is certainly responsible, however, for the eating disorders among its inhabitants – the models, that is; the actresses and singers. I’ll grant that most people – including me – view slimness as generally attractive but there’s acres – or should I say kilograms – of distance between that and the emaciation often on display on catwalks across the globe. It’s no coincidence, one suspects, that mental illness claims the lives of models so frequently – just last month a famous fashionista said that early in her working life she’d been told, “The look this year is anorexic. We don’t want you to be anorexic, just look it.”

One of the less important but intriguing things about this phenomenon is that the truly waiflike models are – well – unattractive. That’s not just me, is it? I mean, you’ll get the occasional Kate Moss, whose bone structure is so exquisite that she can pull off “heroin chic”, but typically their faces and frames look atrophied; more skeleton than human being. The industry figures who encourage and enable this trend aren’t just unethical for letting this continue, then, they’re downright weird to feel that it’s desireable. The thought this inspires is that wherever a community is geared around producing something to a vague aesthetic standard it’s entirely possible that they’ll devise and, with the self-reinforcing confidence of a tribe, enshrine values that seem absurd to those beyond them. When people disdain entire fields of culture we tend to think – and often with good reason – that they’re mouthing off and can’t know what they’re on about. Sometimes, though, they’ll be right.

To continue this blog’s occasional celebrations of alternative rock bands from the 1990s – who remembers Failure? The thing about Nirvana – the inevitable touchstone for American groups with fuzzy riffs and bad hair – is that their appeal – with some exceptions – was in the spontaneous vitality of their music. The familiarity that twenty years of veneration has burdened it with, then, has made it kinda boring. For the jaded punk who’s still not quite prepared to grow up, then, something more challenging – more sonically ambitious – is required. The grim but diverse and expansive riffage of Albini alumni Failure provides the comfort (and disquiet) they’ve been searching for. The detailed sonic textures of their music serve to build a technical range that tests the cerebrum and emotional range that appeals to the heart. The tight rhythms and lyrical edge, meanwhile, ensure that unlike airy prog rockers of decades past they don’t neglect the gut.

Hillel Offek has written a long and interesting piece entitled “Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science”. After describing the illustrious “Golden Age” of Islamic civilisation he surveys the less fertile environment of their descendants…

Muslim countries have nine scientists, engineers, and technicians per thousand people, compared with a world average of forty-one. In these nations, there are approximately 1,800 universities, but only 312 of those universities have scholars who have published journal articles. Of the fifty most-published of these universities, twenty-six are in Turkey, nine are in Iran, three each are in Malaysia and Egypt, Pakistan has two, and Uganda, the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, and Azerbaijan each have one.

There are roughly 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, but only two scientists from Muslim countries have won Nobel Prizes in science (one for physics in 1979, the other for chemistry in 1999). Forty-six Muslim countries combined contribute just 1 percent of the world’s scientific literature; Spain and India each contribute more of the world’s scientific literature than those countries taken together. In fact, although Spain is hardly an intellectual superpower, it translates more books in a single year than the entire Arab world has in the past thousand years. “Though there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West,” Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg has observed, “for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer working in a Muslim country that was worth reading.”

The question Offek returns to is that of what’s to be done about this intellectual stagnation. Well, I’m no great thinker but it seems to me that the answer is — nothing. Western intervention – even if we set aside the death and destruction – has consistently served to radicalise and aggravate the people of nations it’s meddled with; to give them cause to feel their troubles are entirely the consequence of others; to aid them in presuming that the work of secular nations is destructive. As for the vocal platitudes that leaders like Obama offer them – well, it’s a sort of cuddly imperialism. He can’t even teach his people how big their own country is; who’s he to think he can renew the cultures of whole regions?

I don’t believe Islamic dogmatism will endure forever. People will grow sick of it. That’s not an optimistic view as such because there’s a great deal of harm that it can do while it’s around but I maintain the belief that its effects are so deleterious to the societies it grips that the fundamental self-interest of its believers will eventually cause them to reject it. Take the Maldivians: they’re doing their best to alienate their tourists – whose custom the islands depend on. If they manage to dissuade these people from returning they’re going to sit around, getting very poor, and sometime, with no one else to blame these conditions on, they’ll begin to question if the doctrine that inspired them to impoverish themselves is, in fact, all it’s cracked up to be. Then, perhaps, wherever this dissatisfaction occurs, they can look elsewhere for healthier ideas to adopt.

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