April 2012

It’s become a piece of unpleasant common wisdom that the trend towards longevity, unthinkable for the vast bulk of our species’ existence, is, in fact, somewhat unwelcome. As women produce fewer children, people warn of a “silver tsunami” as hordes of aged dependents exhaust the productivity of the remaining youth. It would be tempting to reply, “Well, fine, you kill yourself then.” Yet one must remember that disturbing fact claims have a habit of being proved correct. While the gravity of the threat posed by such demographic shifts is arguable the pressure on public services and private citizens is bound to be significant.

Our species has little experience of being old and has yet to explore its possibilities: that the aged will be unproductive and dependent is, I think, presumed. Must they be? Some aren’t. Robert Marchand can break cycling records at 100; Fauja Singh, a centenarian, has run a marathon; John Sanford was still publishing books at the age of 98 and Leila Denmark only retired from the medical practice once she’d lived a formidable 103 summers. I’m not saying all, most or many people can achieve such heights – I’d guess they’ve had splendid genes and better fortune – but as people who are young enough to be their children are considered very fortunate to be so much as maintaining their households they are evidence that improvements could be made; as well as inspiration for it.

When lifestyle choices are the objects of concern it’s typically for two reasons: because they’re lethal or because they’re fattening. As long as we’re slender and alive, it seems, there’s no cause for alarm. Yet the quality of that life – which, no, can’t be reduced to the weight at which it’s lived – is rarely granted comparable attention. Our choices of consumption, exercise, rest and so on factor in determining our physical and mental state as we travel through the decades, and the idea of losing or maintaining one’s strength and cognisance is at least as disturbing or compelling as the notion of enduring for a few years less or more, so it’s a question that deserves inquiry.

What research has been carried out is largely confined to journals but it’s interesting stuff. Marian McDurdo, for example, noting that debates around the issue of how to provide for weakened pensioners “has dominated discussion to the virtual exclusion of a search for strategies which might improve their overall health”, claimed that while fortune and genes have a sizeable role “physical activity in old age can “rejuvenate” physical capacity by 10-15 years”. Julie Mares has found that a good diet and exercise is associated with a huge decline in the risk of macular degeneration. Barberger-Gateau et al suggest that healthy eating may decrease the threat of dementia and Alzheimers (and, intriguingly, Boyle et al claim that might also be true of “a purpose in life”). I’m aware that veggies, fish and walking are hardly the stuff of fantasy but if they give one more years of strength and independence they’ll have delayed gratification on a thrilling scale.

I mentioned societal implications of ageing but while I’d have to lie to claim that they’re not serious and demanding of amelioration I’m not interested in this subject because I want to keep pensioners in work and off benefits. It’s because the idea of being powerless and dependent, with the boredom and embarrassment such a condition would produce, is terrifying and, for all the people who are trapped in it and the object of our often callous speculations, must be grim. To give people life was one of the great achievements of civilisation. To give them opportunities to maximise its potential would be as impressive.

The physicist Lawrence Krauss was interviewed in this month’s Atlantic magazine and had some harsh words for the study of philosophy…

[It's] a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, “those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.”

Krauss later admitted that he was “being provocative, as [he] tend[s] to [be] every now and then in order to get people’s attention” and went so far as to apologise. Elsewhere in the interview, however, he’d suggested that if you’re writing for the public “the one thing you can’t do is overstate your claim, because people are going to believe you”. Really? Well – with this in mind it’s worth questioning his scorn.

Here’s a question I’d put to scientists who disdain philosophy: demonstrate that science is good. One might, of course, just point at light bulbs and say, “Look! Good!” This, however, is to elide goodness with wellbeing – a contentious maneuver – and doesn’t even account for areas of science that aren’t of real consequence to the general public. No, the answer this problems demands is that one concerns ethics and such scientists find such questions awkward because they can’t justify themselves with reference to empirical data alone. In a 1995 interview, Richard Dawkins admitted as much…

If I say something is wrong, like killing people, I don’t find that nearly such a defensible statement as ‘I am a distant cousin of an orang utan’.

The second of those statements is true, I can tell you why it’s true, I can bore you to death telling you why it’s true. It’s definitely true. The statement ‘killing people is wrong’, to me, is not of that character. I would be quite open to persuasion that killing people is right in some circumstances.

Why, it’s almost as if we need a discipline that involves analysing and prescribing concepts of right or wrong. We could call it “moral…”, er – “moral philosophy”!

Scientists may find themselves unable to avoid the relevance of philosophy even closer to the lab. Krauss’ latest tome, A Universe from Nothing, is an attempt to explain how “something” can be produced from “nothing” and argues that particles may have arisen from the laws of quantum theory. Dawkins greeted it by saying…

Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?,’ shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages. If ‘On the Origin of Species’ was biology’s deadliest blow to super­naturalism, we may come to see ‘A Universe From Nothing’ as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is ­devastating.

Right. Yes. Except that as Edward Feser responds, the laws of quantum theory are not “nothing”. Krauss is aware of this, of course, but if he knows this means it’s not the “nothing” theologians have been pondering he never told Dawkins. The question of how matter could be produced from the void is a fascinating one and Krauss might answer it superbly but it isn’t that question. As galling as it is for some  scientists there are problems that cannot be solved with recourse to their justly acclaimed method and philosophy is useful in approaching them. As well as refining such concepts so we don’t have to make these tedious misunderstandings.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that the universe scientists detail for us seems, in many ways, a hideously bleak one. It arose, they tell us, thanks to unconscious quantum mechanisms and will linger in futile existence for millenia before breaking apart; ending the life of our bewildered, standardised species if hasn’t already expired. Whether that’s a fair account of our existential story is a matter for debate but as it’s a fair representation of the scientific view it shows why our perspective needs more than science. Some people get by without philosophies, sure – avoid worry and, to resurrect a phrase, enjoy their lives – but others of us need a more systematic defence of getting out of bed.

This is not a broad defence of what goes on within the study of philosophy. There are, perhaps, no fields of research that emit more bollocks. (And that includes creative writing.) Yet scientists do themselves no favours by acting so haughtily. Their studies have the advantage of being more evidently justifiable, yes, with a clearer path of progress, but they’re also limited in their scope: in terms of what they can achieve evidentially and offer emotionally. Whatever disciplines might claim to have monopolised the field of human inquiry, their rightful colonies will always be restricted. This is not to denigrate any of them, it’s just that they have different tools with which to harvest from different parts.

The Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, speaks out in praise of moderation…

Muslims should promote moderate values so that they can counter Islamophobia worldwide, said Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

He said extremism had led some to question the nature of Islam and portray it in a negative and hostile light.

I agree, sir, and you could start by disavowing your theocratic comrades; ending your government’s persecution of religious minorities; speaking out against the paranoid hatred they face in your society and affirming the right to the freedom of conscience.

I doubt he’s going to, and that’s why it’s hard to take this stuff very seriously…

…the contest was never between Muslims and non-Muslims rather it is between the moderates and the extremists of all religions, sects and beliefs. Across all religions, extreme voices of the periphery drown out the many voices of reason and common sense.

Malaysia’s government and society are less restrictive than those of other Muslim-majority nations and, thus, they are comparatively moderate. Yet that’s the problem with these terms: they’re dependent on context. Fleetwood Town are “good” by the standards of the conference but to most football supporters they’re not a “good” side. Malaysia is “moderate” by the standards of religious authoritarian but it’s still characterised by coercion and conflict produced by dogma and, thus, not “moderate” by the standards we try to hold our states to. This doesn’t mean distinctions between unfavourable systems aren’t worthwhile: they help us which ones pose dangers to us and which don’t; which should be carefully avoided and which may be worth cooperation with. Malaysia, I think, is among the latter in both senses; I wish no harm to its people and I hope they live to enjoy the fruits of a more reasonable age. But I’m not going to congratulate Razak for being among the best of a bad bunch. If it isn’t enough that it would be stupid and dishonest, it would be extremely condescending.

When I mentioned the possibility that Western men will turn to insects as a source of nourishment I knew some European professor would, erflesh out the idea…

Need more protein in your diet? Try adding worms to your chocolate muffin recipe mix, or spice up a mushroom risotto with a sprinkling of grasshoppers.

“The Insect Cookbook”, which comes out on Tuesday and is written in Dutch, contains these and other unusual recipes and is intended to promote insects as a source of protein.

“I see this as the next step towards the introduction of insects on restaurant menus in the Netherlands. I also expect people to buy the book and start cooking with insects at home,” said Marcel Dicke, a professor at Wageningen University which specializes in food and food production.

Prof. Dicke has explained his ideas at greater length before.

Come on them: what insect-based ideas set you slavering? “Egg fried lice”? “Fish n’ thrips”? And, for dessert, perhaps a cheeky slice of fleascake?

I’m not going to turn this blog into Islamic Firebrand Watch but it’s a theme I’m going to continue pursuing. Theocrats are easy to ignore when you’ve presumed that they’re a marginal phenomenon but when the thought occurs that they are actually a pervasive, influential force one tends to dwell on their appearances in the public eye. That they are more than a fringe of impotent ideologues is hardly a consensus opinion, of course, but that’s a reason to share the fascination.

I’ve mentioned Haitham al-Haddad: a Saudi Sheikh whose totalistic ideals lead him to strive to make Islamic law “dominant in the world”, with its accompanying threats to apostates – who “deserve…capital punishment” – young women – whose mutilation is virtuous - gays – “criminal[s]” to him – and so on. Travelling to Denmark he was greeted with a storm of controversy and faced the threat of deportation. In Britain he presides over Sharia courts; is a regular guest at Mosques and a favourite of Islamic societies and now, rather disgustingly, has spoken at a school.

It was a Sixth Form College, yes, but a school nonetheless: the former Leyton Senior High School for Boys; whose alumni include Alan Booth, a marvellous writer on Japan, and Sir Giles Brindley, who you may be unaquainted with but might one day come to appreciate for his research into the treatment of erectile dysfunction. The subject of Haddad’s speech, with grim irony, was “Does Islam Oppress Women?”. A man who feels that half his audience might profit from having their labias hacked at and that spousal abuse is none of our business should answer in the affirmative but I doubt he did. This was just part of “Discover Islaam Week” at the school. Elsewhere one Adnan Rashid asked the question “Sharia Law – Curse or Cure?”. Mr Rashid is the author of a lengthy essay which attempts to make the case that “peace and justice emanat[ed] from the Islamic system” so I think one can predict where his judgement fell.

Rashid, and the like-minded Hamza Tsorsis, who also spoke at the Leyton College, are speakers of the Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA). It’s concerned with “educating the public through lectures, seminars and publications”. If we visit its website we find that one of its trustees is Abdurraheem Green: a theocrat we’ve encountered before who, among other things, has defended wife beating and claimed that gays and adulterers should endurea slow and painful death”. Their advisors have included Bilal Philips – who’s most famous for endorsing the execution of homosexuals – Hakim Quick – who’s called for Allah to “clean and purify [Israel] from the filth of the Yahud” (Jews) and joined his comrade in wishing death on gays – Hussein Yee – who’s claimedthe Jews” are “the extremists of the world” and “kill because they believe that they are the chosen people” – and the all too familiar Haitham al-Haddad.

These are the sort of cruel, doctrinaire theocrats who’ve been touring British universities for years and now, with a mere whisper of controversy, are taking their message into schools to feed into e’er younger minds. This demands for more attention and anger than it has received but the most serious and discomfiting problem isn’t just that theocratic speakers occupy such platforms but that there’s such an imposingly large audience for them.

The Egyptian commentator Mona Eltahawy has written an essay that details the abuse of women in the Middle East. The scale of it is, indeed, staggering. Ninety percent of Egypt’s women, for example, have had their genitals mutilated. The literacy rate among their Yemeni equivalents is about half that of men. Generally, women are subordinated to their fathers and then – all too soon in millions of cases – their husbands: their lives devoted only to the production of new ones.

In many circles Eltahawy’s piece has been met like a fart in a perfume shop. Even among the more serious criticisms there are tiresomely facile arguments. Nesrine Malik, for example, complains that she particularises the abuse of women despite other people facing hideous treatment. They do. Yet that doesn’t mean there aren’t specific features that distinguish such phenomena and sexist abuse is clearly individuated by, if nothing else, its scale and pervasiveness: in Egypt alone most women endure the torment of mutilation; a full third of them are said to have endured spousal abuse and hundreds are killed in honour crimes. Elsewhere, Max Fisher tries to absolve religion of responsibility by noting that rituals such as FGM predate Islam and remain common among local non-Muslims. Indeed, and if the argument at hand was that it was uniquely to blame that would be wrong. Yet the fact that something isn’t the originator of a trend needn’t mean that it doesn’t exacerbate it, and you’d be hard pressed to deny that the many scholars who justify such abuses with heavy reference to religious texts isn’t an enormously significant factor.

The critics have a point, however, in charging Eltahawy with being simplistic: not because the situation is any less appalling than she says but because she attributes it to mere “hatred”. The deeds are certainly hateful but the motives behind them have to be more complicated: not every father – or mother – who’s complicit in female genital mutilation, say, actually hates their daughter. This does not mean hatred isn’t at the root of the ideas that drive them to behave so terribly but it’s a shallow explanation. The word “hate” is chucked about a lot these days – to describe the motives of just about everyone whose beliefs disadvantage any person or people. I think that it’s assumed that one achieves greater moral clarity by defining their supposed evil in simple terms. Yet while the ideas are often characterised by scorn, loathing and revulsion – and that’s rarely truer than here – those aren’t feeling that have sprung into being: to understand them one must look for the impulses, theories and circumstances that incited the formation of such hostile attitudes. Only then will its form be comprehensible.

Tell me – is this necessary?

Mein Kampf, one of the most notorious polemics of all time, will enjoy mass distribution in Germany for the first time since the second world war following a decision by authorities to publish an annotated version of it, as well as bringing it out in ebook and audio formats.

Academics are working on producing an annotated version of the book which will include commentaries on the text that will seek to dissect and rubbish Hitler’s arguments.

One can imagine the surprise German readers will feel when they’re informed that global domination and Aryan supremacy may not, in fact, be good ideas. “I was gobsmacked,” Christian from Berlin will say, “All that stuff about invading Poland made a lot of sense before I read the annotations”. “It was a shock,” Fritz from Munich is going to add, “To hear that demonising a marginal ethnic group could be a dangerous thing to do. If only there was an infamous historical precedent that could have showed me this.” There could be a whole series of books in this style. I forsee an edition of Dianetics with “L. RON HUBBARD WASN’T A PROPHET” scrawled in the margin, or The Prince with “SEIZING DESPOTIC POWER IS NOT ADVISABLE”.

Simon Kelner, who edited the Independent, tells of being abused by Murdoch fils after his paper had disparaged the family name…

I sat on a sofa, Brooks perched on the arm of another sofa, and Murdoch walked and talked. He was excitable and angry. “You’ve impugned the reputation of my family,” he said at one point. He called me “a fucking fuckwit” and became furious at my bemusement that he should find our campaign so upsetting, given that one of his newspapers famously claimed that it did indeed decide elections.

Brooks said very little, but, when her boss’s rage blew itself out, chipped in with: “We thought you were our friend”. Their use of language and the threatening nature of their approach came straight from the “Mafioso for Beginners” handbook.

The Mafia comparison fell flat when voiced by Tom Watson but Kelner likes it and so do I. (His mistake, as Alexander Chancellor notes, was to accuse James, the consummate consigliere, of being the boss.) As Jeremy Hunt is accused of aiding the family in their attempt to purchase BSkyB it seems that like the Cosa Nostra the Murdochs have apparent public servants who are willing to serve their business interests. Their gang idly transgresses ethical and legal boundaries. Their critics are liable to be subject to campaigns of persecution and disinformation. And, yet, as with all the most notorious of Mafiosos, they appear to stay ever so slightly detached from the misdeeds of their soldi, er, employees and are still perceived as upstanding members of society by the dignitaries that they bump into at functions.

Crucially, their empire is one that defies the conventions of society while feeding off and corrupting it. This doesn’t merely refer to the scale of the criminality that much of it seems to be founded on but the scope of its ideological penetration. Let’s recall that almost everyone one of Murdoch’s titles backed the war on Iraq (the exception, it seems, was the Papua New Guinea Courier Mail). So, let’s tear apart the doors that reveal the backroom dealings that our supposed enlighteners have worked so hard to conceal. I only hope the Leveson Inquiry is as or more effective than Giovanni Falcone’s Maxi Trials.

In 2009 the Green Lane Mosque invited two men, Sheikh Faisal Al-Jassim and Sheikh Abdul Aziz As-Sadhan, to lecture at their Winter Conference. Muslim liberals claimed that the two men had a history of voicing anti-semitic, sectarian and jihahist sentiments. In the case of the former they attributed the claim that…

…the Jews are among the most potent of those enemies who do not spare any effort in fighting [Islam] and corrupting its people…

As well as the assertion that…

…jihad is fighting to crush polytheism and raise the word of Allah and make governance in the earth according to the sharia of Allah…This is the mujahid for the sake of Allah to whom The Prophet has pinned many rewards…

The latter, meanwhile, is said to have insisted that…

History testifies that the band of Jews were responsible for every disorder and fierce war whether directly or by preparing it by night or by encouraging it…and among them are the first and second world wars which the Jews were responsible for igniting their flames…

The Mosque released a statement that denied that he was he was an extremist but, as I observed, didn’t question the authenticity of their critics’ citations. Thus, their protestations were essentially worthless. Claiming that someone could hold those views and be a moderate is like saying that a car can periodically catch fire but remain safe.

Passing by the website of the Mosque I saw that two years on Al-Jassim has returned: he’s going to address a seminar next month. Browsing further, I stumbled onto a page that lists the “visiting scholars” and “students of knowledge” that they’re proud to boast. Al-Jassim is there, along with As-Sadhan, and what a crowd of totalists and supremacists they are among.

There is Abdurraheem Green: a theocrat who has proffered the view that homosexuals and fornicators should endure “a slow and painful death by stoning”. There is Murtaza Khan who’s loudly endorsed the execution of gays and was exposed by Channel 4 as warning Muslims that they “have become Jews in [their] clothing, Jews in [their] eating, Jews in everything [they] do” and proclaimed that “these people are enemies to us”. There is Assim al-Hakim, who runs a useful question and answer series where he’s endorsed female genital mutilation; claimed that wives can never resist the sexual advances of their husbands; demanded that apostastes should be killed and joined his theocratic comrades in abusing homosexuals – or “animals” as he prefers to know them.


Will Self floccinaucinihilipilificates critics of his wordiness…

Both general readers and specialist critics often complain about my own use of English – not only in my books, but also in my newspaper articles and even in radio talks such as these. “I have to look them up in a dictionary”, they complain – as if this were some kind of torture.

…although the subject matter of my stories and novels – which includes such phenomena as sexual deviance, drug addiction and mental illness – has become quite unexceptionable, the supposedly difficult language they are couched in seems to have become more and more offensive to readers.

There are indeed anti-intellectual voices that react against displays of erudition as if someone else’s knowledge is a personal affront. In the interests of accessibility prose can be reduced to pools of terms so miserably shallow that the ideas and experiences they’re conveying can’t be accurately still less adequately expressed. This is not merely boring, it’s dangerous inasmuch as their implications can be elided under a carpet of facile phrases. (Think of people who fill tinkertoy verses with baffling terms like “progress”, “moderate” and “fairness”.)

On the other hand, there’s an opposite extreme…

English, being a mishmash of several different languages, ha[s] a large and exciting vocabulary, and…it seem[s] a shame not to use it – especially given that it [goes] on growing all the time, spawning argot and specialist terminology as freely as an oyster does its milt.

Specialised terms and obscure words can be employed to express the profound if enigmatic implications of formidable theories. On the other hand, they can also be used to present dull and disingenuous theories as more intriguing than they are: tarting up their claims with promiscuous polysyllables and gratuitous jargon that makes theses that might otherwise be thought trivial, absurd or ugly hard to answer. (The Sokal Affair has been referenced so many times that, like a classic Fawlty Towers scene, it can grow tiresome to revisit – yet that doesn’t mean its quality has been diminished.)

Oversimplification and overcomplication are agents of obscurantism inasmuch as they render the fathomable communication of one’s views far harder than it needs to be. And, of course, they fail to appreciate the textual and phonetic richness of the English tongue. Which is to say that they’re, like, totally boring.

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