Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

Priti Patel and the Barbarity of the Reintroduction of the Death Penalty

July 27, 2019

Yesterday, Mike put up a piece reporting that Boris Johnson, the raging, incompetent blond beast now in charge of the government, has appointed Priti Patel as his home secretary. And she supports the reintroduction of the death penalty.

I’m not surprised. Johnson is a man of the Tory hard right, and there’s a section of the British public that has been demanding the return of the death penalty for years. I think support for capital punishment is probably spread between both parties, but I’m reasonably sure it’s much stronger in the Conservatives. This is the party that, after all, tries to project itself as the party of law and order and keeps demanding tougher sentencing for criminals. And that includes the death penalty for murder. It’s clear that Bozza is now very much appealing to that constituency with his appointment of Patel, although he himself won’t say whether he favours it himself.

I very well understand why some people want it back. There are unrepentant criminals responsible for the most sickening crimes, who do make you feel that they should pay the ultimate penalty. Like the Nazis at Nuremberg, who planned and presided over the horrific murder and torture of millions of individuals and the proposed extermination of entire races. Before Eichmann was executed he said something about regret and remorse being for the weak and inferior. Himmler in a notorious speech to the SS at the death camps actually boasted about the horrors they were committing, claiming that it was deeply moral and that though it was hard unpleasant, they would come through it with the moral character intact, still pure. With such twisted morality, such deep evil, you feel that death really is too good for them. And the same with serial killers and child murderers, like the Moors Murderers.

But as Mike showed in his piece, there are very, very strong arguments against capital punishment. Not least is the fact that innocent people have been convicted of murder in gross miscarriages of justice. This was Ian Hislop’s argument in a clip from Question Time he put up in his article, in which the editor of Private Eye mopped the floor with Patel. Hislop said that over the years his magazine had uncovered many such cases, and that if we had had the death penalty, then the people wrongfully convicted would be dead. He also pointed out that if we had it, we would also have turned some very unpleasant people into martyrs. By that, he means the various terrorists that have shot and bombed their way across Britain since the return of Irish nationalist terrorism in the 1970s. And some of those convicted of Irish Republican terrorist offences were victims of the miscarriage of justice. Like the Birmingham Six, who were wrongfully jailed for the Birmingham pub bombings. If these men had been executed for the crime, not only would the British state have killed innocent people, but that fact would have been picked up and strenuously broadcast by the IRA as yet more evidence of British oppression. And the Islamist terrorists responsible for 7/7 and other outrages see themselves as shahids – martyrs for Islam. At one level, executing them would be giving them exactly what they want. And their deaths would be used by the other zealots for propaganda, as righteous Muslims going to their eternal reward for killing the kufar.

All Patel could do in the face of this argument was bluster about being absolutely sure of the accused’s guilt before sentencing. That’s right – judges were obliged to point out to juries in murder cases during capital punishment that if they had any doubt whatsoever, they should not convict. But as Hislop then went to argue, innocent people were still convicted even with the weight of the burden of proof. And then Patel fell back on the old canard that it acted as a deterrent. There’s no evidence of that. A friend of mine, who’d actually read Pierrepoint’s memoirs, told me that Britain’s last hangman had said that in his experience, it didn’t act as a deterrent at all. According to Peter Hitchens, who is very much one of the law and order brigade – he’d like to see people jailed for drunkenness, for example – Pierrepoint changed his mind about this just before he died. But I think the evidence is that it doesn’t. In fact, it seems to encourage violence. I can remember reading in article in one of the papers back in the ’90s – the FT perhaps, or the Independent – that there’s actually a rise in violent incidents around the time of executions in the US. The article said that it was almost as though people felt that if the state could inflict violence, so could they.

I’d also argue that there are some murderers, who should be punished, but who also can be rehabilitated. When I was working as a volunteer at the Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, some of my co-workers were convicts at the end of their sentence. They were working towards being finally paroled and released back into the community. It was quite an experienced working with these people. Although they were murderers, they weren’t monsters. They were articulate, and often creative and highly educated. Some were so inoffensive, you wondered what circumstances led to them committing their crime. I realise that the people I knew may not be entirely representative. The Museum only took those who were genuinely willing to work there, rather than just exploit the system. And I am not suggesting for a single minute that murder should be treated leniently. I am merely arguing that there are some people responsible for this crime, who can be usefully rehabilitated after their punishment. And there may well be mitigating circumstances in individual cases that should rule out the death penalty.

And sometime, letting a murderer live and contemplate his guilt can be more terrible than simply killing them. One of the priests at my local church in south Bristol was a prison chaplain. He told us once how a murderer in one of the prisons in which he ministered told him one day, that he had no idea how difficult it was for the prisoner to live with the knowledge of what he’d done.

Way back in the 12th century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the cleric who wrote the constitution for the Knights Templars, once saved a murderer from execution. He had him taken down from the scaffold. When the crowd objected, he told them he was going to take the man to do something far harder than simply being killed, and led him off to become a monk. This was during the great age of monastic reform, when life in some of the new orders being founded was very hard.

Many of the early Christians under the Roman Empire also had very strong views against the judicial system and its punishments. They objected to the death penalty, because Our Lord had been unjustly condemned to death by the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christians had no choice but to adopt and become responsible for the trial and punishment of criminals. But some bishops and clergy remained firmly against it to the end. One clergyman stated that he could not see how any Christian could have a man tortured or sentenced to death, and then lie back in ease and luxury on cushions afterwards. The Christians, who object to the death penalty are heirs to this tradition.

The reintroduction of the death penalty cannot be justified, not least because of the very real danger of wrongful conviction. By appointing Patel, one of its supporters, Johnson has shown how amoral he is in pandering to such vindictive populism. He, Patel and the other horrors in his cabinet are an affront to British justice. Get them out!

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Labour MP Richard Burgon Warns that War with Iran Could be Worse than Iraq

July 23, 2019

Yesterday’s I, for Monday, 22nd July 2019, also carried a very important piece by Chris Green, ‘Iran conflict could become ‘worse than Iraq war”, reporting the views of Labour’s shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, on the consequences of war with Iran. The article, on page 6, ran

A full-blown conflict between the US and Iran with Donald Trump in charge as President could prove to be worse than the war in Iraq, a senior Labour MP has warned.

Richard Burgon, the shadow Justice Secretary, said the UK risked being drawn into a conflict between Iran and the US as Mr Trump’s “sidekick”.

Comparing the deteriorating political situation to the build-up to the Iraq war, he said Boris Johnson and Mr Trump could act in concert in the same way as Tony Blair and George W. Bush did.

He called for the next prime minister to focus on “de-escalation” and “conflict resolution” rather than allowing the UK to become “messengers” for the US administration.

“If we end up in a conflict backed by Donald Trump then I think it would not only be comparable with Iraq, in fact it could be even worse than Iraq, and that should really scare everybody,” Mr Burgon told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme.

He added: “We need sensible negotiations. We’ve got a really important part of play diplomatically in this. We can use our negotiating weight.

“I think that our government has international respect and this country has international respect in a way that Donald Trump doesn’t.

“I think we need to use that for the purposes of conflict resolution and for the purposes of making sure this doesn’t escalate out of control.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also spoke out about the crisis over the weekend, accusing the US President of fuelling the confrontation by “tearing up” the Iran nuclear deal.

Burgon and Corbyn are exactly right, as I’ve said many times before in posts about the possibility of war with Iran. Iran is like Iraq in that it’s a mosaic of different peoples. Just over 51 per cent of the population are speakers of Farsi, the ancient language of the poet Saadi and the Iranian national epic, the Shah-Nama. But the country is also home to Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, Reshtis, Luris, Bakhtiaris and various Turkic-speaking tribes. Some of these peoples have very strong nationalist aspirations for an independent homeland. The Kurds have been fighting for theirs since before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, while there was also a series of jihads by some of the Turkic nomad peoples, after the Iranian government confiscated part of their tribal lands for settlement by Farsi speakers. The Arabic-speaking province of Khuzestan is also under very strict military control, and conditions in the camps for the oil workers there are similar to those concentration camps. In addition to a very strong military presence, the inmates are kept docile by drugs supplied by the Pasdaran, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. While the majority of the population are Twelver Shi’a, there are other religions. Three per cent of the population are Armenian Christians, and there are also communities of Jews and Zoroastrians, the followers of the ancient Persian monotheist religion founded by the prophet Zoroaster/Zarathustra. Tehran also has a church and community of Anglican Christians.

If, God forbid, the US and Britain do invade Iran, the country will descend into a chaos of ethnic violence and carnage exactly like Iraq. But perhaps, due to the country’s diverse ethnic mix, it could even be worse. The Anglican Church in Iran has, naturally, been under great pressure. If we do invade, I’ve no doubt that they will be targeted for persecution, as will the Armenian Christians, simply because their religion, Christianity, will be taken to be that of our forces. They’ll be killed, tortured or imprisoned as suspected sympathisers.

And any war we might fight won’t be for any good reason. It won’t be to liberate the Iranian people from a theocratic dictatorship or promote democracy. It will be for precisely the same reasons the US and Europe invaded Iraq: to seize that country’s oil industry and reserves, privatise and sell to multinationals its state enterprises, and create some free trade, low tax economy in accordance with Neocon ideology. And as with Iraq, it will also be done partly for the benefit of Israel. The Israelis hated Saddam Hussein because he sided with the Palestinians. And they hate Iran precisely for the same reason.

If I recall correctly, Burgon was one of those accused of anti-Semitism, because he said that Israel was the enemy of peace, or some such. It’s a controversial statement, but it’s reasonable and definitely not anti-Semitic. Israel is the enemy of peace. The expatriate Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe, very clearly and persuasively argues in his book, Ten Myths about Israel, that throughout its 70 year history Israel has manufactured causes to go to war with its Arab neighbours. It has never been serious about peace. And that’s particularly true about Iran. Netanyahu was chewing the scenery in front of the UN a little while ago, arguing that the Iranians were only a short time away from developing nuclear weapons. It was rubbish, as Netanyahu’s own armed forces and the head of the Shin Bet, their security ministry, told him. In fact, the evidence is that Iran kept to the nuclear treaty Trump accuses them of violating. They weren’t developing nuclear weapons, and commenters on Iran have said that when the Iranians said they wanted nuclear energy to generate power, they meant it. Iran’s main product is oil, and developing nuclear power for domestic use would mean that they have more to sell abroad, thus bringing in foreign cash and keeping what’s left of their economy afloat. And if we are going to discuss countries illegally possessing nuclear weapons, there’s Israel, which has had them since the 1980s. But as they’re the West’s proxies in the Gulf, nobody talks about it or censures them for it. Presumably it’s anti-Semitic to do so, just like it’s anti-Semitic to criticise or mention their ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians.

I think Burgon, or someone else like him also said that conquering Iran would not be as easy as defeating the Iraqis. The Iranian economy is stronger and more developed – it was under the Shah the most westernised and industrialised national in the Middle East. And its armed forces are better equipped.

I am not impressed by their seizure of our tanker, but I think it’s simply a case of tit-for-tat after we seized theirs off Gibraltar. And despite the noise from the Tories about calming the situation down, there are strong forces in the Trump’s government and the general Republican party agitating for war. Just as I’ve no doubt there is also in the Iranian government.

Such a war would be disastrous, and the looting of the nation’s industries, resources and archaeological heritage would be simply massive theft. And the destruction of the country’s people and their monuments, as happened in Iraq, would be a monstrous war crime.

The warmongers in the Republicans and Tories must be strongly resisted, and thrown out of office. Before the world is thrown into further chaos and horror.

More Nationalist Bigotry from Johnson as He Sneers at EU Leaders

July 21, 2019

Boris Johnson and his supporters preparing for government.

Mike put up a post yesterday reporting some of the recorded view of Boris Johnson on the leaders of various EU countries. In this case, they were Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emanuel Macron and the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar. And as you would expect, they aren’t flattering.

Johnson apparently has raised and pondered the question whether Merkel was a member of the Stasi. Well, she does come from the former East Germany. However, I think she’s a Lutheran Christian, in which case the answer is, no, almost certainly not. Christians and other people of faith in the former Soviet bloc were harshly persecuted. It wasn’t illegal to hold services, but if you actually taught the doctrines of your religion in the former Soviet Union, you would be arrested. If you held a religious service in your home, not only would the secret police arrest you and everyone else there, but they’d also demolish your house if you were lucky enough to have a private residence. Some determined Protestants in the former DDR used to worship in the Anglican Church attached to the British embassy. See one of the chapters in the book, Why I am an Anglican, which contains testimony from a number of leading public figures, including Ian Hislop. Though I don’t blame you if his inclusion puts you off. Given the immense suspicion Merkel would have been under if she had been a practising Christian, I doubt very much she was a member of the Stasi.

But this is just a simple nationalistic jibe at her just ’cause she’s German and he doesn’t like her. She comes from the from East Germany, and so, to Boris, that means that she has to me some kind of totalitarian monster. However, as she’s a member of the Christian Democrats, the German equivalent of the Conservatives, he can hardly accuse her of being Commie. Still, I suppose we should be glad that he didn’t fall back on the old sneers and jokes that as she’s German, she must be a Nazi. I really wouldn’t put it past some of the Eurosceptics in the Tory party and peeps in UKIP and the Brexit party to make jokes about the German leaders all being Nazis, all while goose stepping about party headquarters with their fingers under their lips and their hands up in the air in a mock Nazi salute, guffawing and making comments like ‘Don’t mention the war!’ after that episode of Fawlty Towers.

Going on to the French president, BoJo called him a ‘jumped-up Napoleon’. Which surprised me, as I didn’t think Macron was a general in the French army or that he wanted to invade the rest of Europe. He’s a determined supporter of the EU, and as the Eurosceptic brigade are convinced the EU is descended from the plans of Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler to create a united Europe, all under their leadership, of course, it’s probably inevitable that Boris would compare him to the French emperor. Especially as the EU was mooting plans for a common European army. I thought on the other hand, that rather than being a megalomaniac military dictator, Macron was simply a bog-standard Neoliberal desperately trying to promote its policies of unfettered free enterprise and austerity, even though it was wrecking his country’s economy and society.

Johnson also seems to have found Varadkar’s surname difficult to get his head around, leading to another nationalist sneer. He’s reported to have asked why the Taoiseach wasn’t called Murphy like the rest of his countrymen. We’re heading dangerously close to the really offensive racist stereotypes here. He didn’t say it, but it’s close to referring to the Irish as ‘Pads’ and ‘Micks’. The reason why Varadkar has this as his surname is because his antecedents were Indian. It’s a reflection of the growing multiculturalism of modern Irish society. Which Johnson obviously can’t quite get his head around. But perhaps we should be grateful he only made a xenophobic sneer about the Irish, and didn’t say something really racist about Varadkar himself because of his Indian heritage.

The article Mike cites for this states that Johnson is planning a European tour, including Paris, Berlin and Dublin, if he wins the Tory leadership. The snippet Mike includes on his blog says that Johnson might have a few bumps ahead of him. The other EU leaders don’t trust him because of his long history of lying and frequent comparisons of the EU to Nazi Germany. And they don’t like his British exceptionalism, which is demonstrated in the above sneering remarks.

Absolutely not. But then, what can you expect from the man, who, when he was head of the Foreign Office, described the French as ‘turds’? Actually, I’m surprised Johnson, who tries so hard to project an image of himself as someone from the Tory past, didn’t use the 17th-19th century racist term for them, Nic Crapaud, from the French word for ‘frog’, crapaud. I can’t speak French, but I think the word’s pronounced ‘crapo’, which is how I feel about him and all the other Tory candidates.

Johnson was a disaster at the Foreign Office, who seemed determined to make tensions with the Russians even worse than actually soothe them. And in Thailand he opened his mouth and started reciting Kipling’s ‘Road to Mandalay’ in the country’s holiest Buddhist temple. What’s worse, he really didn’t know how that could possibly be offensive to his hosts. He had to be told it was inappropriate by the ambassador.

If Boris gets in, he’s likely to alienate Britain even further from the other European nations as well as other countries around the world. And we’re going to need them as trading partners after we leave the EU. And it’s especially dangerous regarding Northern Ireland. There have already been terrorist outrages in the Six Counties because of the collapse of the power-sharing agreement at Stormont and uncertainty over the border with Eire. The very last thing the people of Ulster and the rest of Britain need is Boris fanning the flames of Nationalist resentment over there even further with racist stereotypes and sneers.

Ah, but I forgot! He’s not bothered about them, because he’s a big fan of Trump. As is Nigel Farage. They believe Trump will give us a good trade deal. But that must include the NHS – Trump has said that nothing must be off the table.

And despite the hollow assurance by the Tories that they’re not going to give it to him, this is precisely what Johnson, Farage and the rest of the Tories and Brexit party want to do.

 

Hindu Nationalist Persecution of Christians in India under Modi’s Government

July 4, 2019

One of the ladies at our church gave a talk on Wednesday about the growing persecution of Christians in India by Hindu extremists, aided and abetted by President Narendra Modi and his squalid Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. This is an important issue for a number of reasons, and needs to be discussed. It’s naturally important to Christians concerned with the persecution members of their faith face in many other countries, but there are other reasons why it is important. It contradicts the view being pushed by the islamophobic right, that Christians are only, or primarily persecuted by Muslims. This is being particularly promoted by the neocons and Christian Zionists, like Ted Hagee’s Christians United for Israel, who, it seems, are using it to work up support for Israel and for further western imperialist wars in the Middle East. Although the article was written for Christians, the laws criminalising Christian conversion and the mob violence they face are also part of a general persecution directed at other non-Hindu religious minorities, such as Muslims and Sikhs. Discussing the resistible rise of the BJP two decades or so ago, Private Eye’s ‘Letter from India’ described how the BJP was connected to the militant RSSS, a militant Indian nationalist organisation which was partly modeled on Mussolini’s Fascists, and which was responsible for attacks on Muslims, Sikhs and Christians.

I am also certainly not blaming all Hindus for the actions of the BJP, or trying to attack Hinduism generally. Hinduism is a religion with a bewildering number of deities and sects, and thus has an impressive reputation for pluralism and tolerance. The extremists encouraged by the BJP also target moderate, liberal or secular Hindus because of their support of Gandhi and Nehru’s vision of India as a religiously tolerant, secular nation in which people of different faiths could live together in harmony and peace. The Hindu extremists not only reject this, they also passionately and vehemently despised its founder. A week or so ago one of the columnists in the I published a piece about how shocked they were when they first met a Hindu, who hated Gandhi. The Hindu extreme right despise and vilify Gandhi because they wanted India to be a Hindu state, and believed he had done too much to appease the Muslims.

I am also very much aware that Christian has also been spread through imperialism and military force, and has persecuted non-Christians. I don’t approve of or justify this. Religious persecution is wrong, no matter which religion is doing it.

Christianity in India is very ancient. Before Europeans arrived, there was already an indigenous Indian, Syriac Christian church. The Mar Thoma Christian church of Kerala believe that Christianity was brought to India in 50 or 52 AD by the apostle Thomas, who was martyred in Chennai in 72 AD. In 883 AD Sighelm, an ambassador to Kerala from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, visited his shrine to present thank offering from King Alfred. Another apostle, Nathanael (Bartholomew) also visited India in the first century, who brought with him a copy of Matthew’s Gospel in Hebrew. Documentary evidence suggests that Christianity had reached India by the early third century AD. By 225 there was a bishop in Baith Lapat, now Shahabad in Northern India, caring for the souls of a Christian community that had been converted by missionaries from Persia and what is now Iraq. The following century, Bishop John the Persian signed the Nicene Creed, which had been drawn up as the formal statement of the Christian faith “on behalf of (the churches) in the whole of Persia, and in the great India.”

The Indian Christian population is 65 million., and comprises about 2% of the population of India, 80% of whom are Hindus. In 2016 there were 348 incidents of persecution in India recorded by the Evangelical Fellowship of India. In 2017 this increased to 736, of which 351 were violent. Many incidents probably haven’t been recorded, and so the true number is probably higher.

The BJP has also passed a series of laws, ostensibly against forced conversion, as part of their campaign against Christianity. These forbid the use of force, fraud or allurement in conversion. I’m very much aware of the term ‘rice Christianity’, dating from the 19th century. This came from the supposed tactics of some missionaries, who promised the starving a bowl of rice if they converted. The use of such inducements to get people to convert is clearly immoral. But the laws brought in against them allow Christians to be falsely accused of these tactics. In September 2017 the Jharkhand state government passed a freedom of religion law, which punishes those guilty of using ‘coercion’ to convert Hindus with three years in prison. Anyone, who wishes to change their faith, has to obtain prior permission from a magistrate. Christians have been subjected to violence and arrest, and churches disrupted because of accusations that they are breaking these laws. But the BJP is determined to roll them out nationally. The opposition party has also moved rightward to compete with the BJP, and there is fears that this will also lead to greater intolerance of religious minorities.

The tactics used against Christians not only include social exclusion, but also assault and attacks and sabotage of church buildings and private homes. They are also subject to boycotts, and a campaign, “Ghar Wapsi” (homecoming) to force Indian Christians to renounce their faith. Two years ago, in January 2017, a 50 year-old Christian convert, Bartu Urawn, and his wife were immersed in a pond by a mob for 17 hours by a mob from their village in order to force them to recant their faith. Urawn refused, dying afterwards from his ordeal. The police, however, recorded his death as ‘natural causes’. Rural Christians are especially vulnerable, and all too often the police arrest the victims instead of the perps.

Many Christians are also Dalits, formerly the untouchables, the lowest-rung of the Hindu caste system, and are considered impure and polluting by the higher castes. There is a quota system to give them access to education and employment, but these quotas don’t apply to Christians or Muslims. They’ve also suffered attacks on their homes, churches, and water sources.

See ‘Courageous faith: India’s pressured christians’ in barnabasaid, March/April 2019, pp. 6-7.

I am also very much aware that the Christian right in several American states is trying to pass ‘freedom of religion’ laws with the same intention as the Hindu extremists in the above article: to exclude religious and secular minorities from political involvement. It hasn’t quite reached the level of the Hindu extremists as described in the above article, but the intolerance of parts of the American Christian right is similar in intensity.

The BJP is, if not Fascist, then certainly fascistic in its extreme nationalism. Indeed, a prayer used by one of the BJP’s allies or constituent organisations is included in an academic textbook on Fascism to illustrate Fascism’s mystical component. The BJP is part of the growth of religious and ethnic intolerance throughout the world. And as the book, Falling Off The Edge shows, a major cause of this tension and conflict is neoliberalism. The doctrine of absolute free trade without any form of government interference means that conditions for ordinary working people across the globe, whether in the developed West or the developing world, has got worse. And as conditions of grinding poverty have increased, so people have turned on minorities as scapegoats for their rage and desperation.

It’s what’s behind the growth of fascism in working class White communities in Britain. And I’ve no doubt it’s also behind the growth of Hindu extremism in India, all encouraged and promoted by Modi. It’s one of the classic tactics of the wealthy elite everywhere to divert opposition away from themselves by claiming that mainstream society is perfect. It’s only ethnic or religious minorities, who are behind all societies problems. Minorities like Jews, Muslims, Christians, Blacks, Asians or gays, depending on the society.

But one thing is absolutely certain: Fascism and intolerance has to be fought everywhere, along with the neoliberal economics that force people into poverty, despair and racism or religious extremism, whatever the colour or creed of the persecutors or their victims.

Muslim Congresswoman Ilhan Omar Joins Gay Pride March

June 30, 2019

Here’s one to make the islamophobes’ heads explode, as well as really irritate the Islamist preachers of hate. Ilhan Omar, a Muslim congresswoman released footage of herself dancing along with the marchers at Pride Day in America on Twitter, with an accompanying message saying what a great time she’d had. It’s in this clip from Sam Seder’s Majority Report.

Seder and his team, including fellow presenter Michael Brooks (off camera) look at the Tweet and make a few appropriate ironic comments skewering the prejudices of the Right. The Republicans and Fascists fear Muslims, because they believe that they’re coming to America in order to undermine American democracy and replace it with Islamic, sharia law. Which bans homosexuality.

And this Tweet clearly poses a problem for the raving islamophobes, who believe Omar’s a part of this conspiracy, because she’s a Muslim woman enjoying herself at an event they believe that she should be railing against.

And so Seder, Brooks and co. make comments about how she’s clearly doing it to implement strict sharia law there, and deliberately presenting herself so that her Saudi masters can target the crowd more accurately.

The video’s entitled ‘Ilhan Omar Implements Shakira Law at Gay Pride’ probably because her attendance at the march and dancing is more like that of pop star Shakira than sharia.

In fact, as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown said in her column in the I a few weeks ago, Islam was until very recently far more tolerant of gays, and far less puritanical in many ways than the Christian West. It’s only been in recent decades that the situation’s been reversed, and Islam has become more puritanical and intolerant, while the West has become more tolerant and hedonistic.

Now I’m sure Omar’s very public participation in the Pride events will have upset the hardliners, just as very many Christian political Conservatives are bitterly opposed to gay rights the associated events. But Omar’s just demonstrated that being a Muslim doesn’t prevent someone from being a liberal American or citizen of any other western country. And it may well upset the Israel lobby and its ‘pinkwashing’ of the Israeli state, which tries to present Israel as the only state in the Middle East, where gay people are tolerated, against a hostile and intolerant Islam. And the islamophobes and racist fear-mongers are going to have hard time trying to explain away Congresswoman Omar’s very public show of liberal support for the gay community, and by extension the values of pluralism and tolerance .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prayer for Peace between America, Iran and the Middle East

June 23, 2019

On Fridays, it seems, Trump did something unexpected and pulled back from starting a war with Iran. The past week or so he’s been blaming the Iranians for a series of explosions that have destroyed tankers in the Persian Gulf. Then the Americans shot down an American drone which they claim had entered their airspace. This is naturally denied by the Americans. Trump was all set to order retaliatory action against several Iranian military positions, but cancelled the order. He states he did so because the bloodshed involved – it’s estimated the action would have killed 150 people – was too high. His security minister, Mike Pompeo, however, is still pushing for some kind of war with Iran, and the Orange Generalissimo has said that he’s still willing to use armed force to stop the Iranians developing a nuclear bomb. There are still real tensions, and the very real danger of war breaking out.

I posted up a couple of pieces last week attacking the American right’s warmongering against Iran. As I said, it is a highly authoritarian theocracy, and I don’t doubt that the hardliners in their administration would welcome a showdown with the Americans. They have also shown themselves willing to mount terror attacks, as in the 1980s when they bombed a Berlin cafe used by Kurdish separatists. But it’s total rubbish what Pompeo was uttering about Iran sponsoring al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda are Sunni militants, who hate Shi’a Muslims with a vengeance. As Iran is a Shi’a nation, there is absolutely no chance of any cooperation between them. Quite the opposite in fact. Just like Saudi Arabia, another militant, intolerant Sunni nation, and ISIS would also like to destroy Iran.

If America does invade Iran, it won’t be to liberate the Iranian people. It’ll be for the same reasons Iraq was invaded: to seize their oil, state industries and set up the kind of extreme free trade tariff system that the Neocons want to impose on America. And the results will be the same: mass carnage, sectarian and ethnic civil war, the destruction of the country’s precious antiquities and cultural heritage, the economy will be utterly destroyed. Ordinary folks’ businesses will go under and there will be mass unemployment. Women will lose whatever rights and freedom they have, Christians, Jews and particularly Baha’is will suffer massive persecution as a reaction to the invasion. The public will lose whatever welfare and health services the state provides. And the chaos and instability will spread throughout the region. The Iraq war forced seven million people out of their homes. How many more will be turned into refugees if America starts a war with Iran?

But this won’t matter, as the American war machine will have conquered another country in the developing world. The Americans and Saudis will have stolen their oil, the multinationals the state industries and bonyads, Islamic charitable foundations, and the Israelis will have the destruction of an hostile state.

But fortunately, despite the forces pushing for war, Trump decided against it. Just as Jeremy Hunt has been calling for a deescalation of tensions in the region. And I hope this continues, and sanity prevails against the warmongers.

I found this prayer in The Methodist Service Book (Peterborough: Methodist Publishing House 1999). It’s for the Good Friday service, and calls for peace between the followers of the Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam, where Abraham, known as Ibrahim, is revered as a major prophet. The prayer runs

Eternal God,

bless all who look to Abraham

as the father of faith.

Set us free from prejudice, blindness,

and hardness of heart,

that in accordance with your will and guided by your truth

our life together may be for the glory of your name;

we ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

Peace/salaam to everyone at this time, regardless of their religious or non-religious views.

 

 

Radio 4 Series Challenging Stereotype that Religion and Science Are at War

June 12, 2019

According to next week’s Radio Times there’s a new, three-part series beginning on Radio 4 next Friday, 21st June, at 11.00 am, Science and Religion about the relationship between the two disciplines. From the pieces about in the magazine, it attacks the idea that science and religion are at war. The blurb for the programme’s first part, ‘The Nature of the Beast’, on page 131, says

Nick Spencer examines the history of science and religion and the extent to which they have been in conflict with each other. Drawing on the expertise of various academics, he begins by exploring what the relationship says about what it means to be human.

The paragraph about the programme on the preceding page, 130, by Sue Robinson, runs

Are science and religion at war? In the first in a three-part series, Nick Spencer (of Goldsmith’s, London, and Christian think-tank Theos) takes a look back wt what he terms the “simplistic warfare narrative” of these supposedly feuding disciplines. From the libraries of the Islamic world to the work of 13th-century bishop Robert Grosseteste in maths and natural sciences, Spencer draws on the expertise of a variety of academics to argue that there has long been an interdependence between the two. I felt one or two moments of consternation (“there are probably more flat-earthers [believing the earth to be flat] around today than there were back then…”) and with so many characters in the unfolding 1,000-year narrative, some may wish for a biographical dictionary at their elbow… I certainly did. Yet somehow Spencer produces an interesting and informative treatise from all the detail. 

We’ve waited a long time for a series like this. I set up this blog partly to argue against the claim made by extremely intolerant atheists like Richard Dawkins that science and religion are and always have been at war. In fact no serious historian of science believes this. It’s a stereotype that comes from three 19th century writers, one of whom was reacting against the religious ethos of Harvard at the time. And some of the incidents that have been used to argue that science was suppressed by the religious authorities were simply invented. Like the story that Christopher Columbus was threatened by the Inquisition for believing that the world war round. Er no, he wasn’t. That was all made up by 19th century author Washington Irvine. European Christians had known and accepted that the world was round by the 9th century. It’s what the orb represents in the Crown Jewels. The story that Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, in his debate on evolution with Charles Darwin, asked the great biologist whether he was descended from an ape on his mother’s or father’s side of the family is also an invention. It was written years after the debate by Darwin’s Bulldog, T.H. Huxley. A few years ago historians looked at the accounts of the debate written at the time by the students and other men of science who were there. They don’t mention any such incident. What they do mention is Wilberforce opening the debate by saying that such questions like evolution needed to be carefully examined, and that if they are true, they have to be accepted, no matter how objectionable they may be. Wilberforce himself was an extremely proficient amateur scientist himself as well as a member of the clergy. Yes, there was opposition from many Christians to Darwin’s idea, but after about 20 years or so most of the mainstream denominations fully accepted evolution. The term ‘fundamentalism’ comes from a book defending and promoting Christianity published as The Fundamentals of Christianity published in the first years of the 20th century. The book includes evolution, which it accepts.

Back to the Middle Ages, the idea that this was a period when the church suppressed scientific investigation, which only revived with the Humanists of the Renaissance, has now been utterly discredited. Instead it was a period of invention and scientific discovery. Robert Grosseteste, the 13th century bishop of Lincoln, wrote papers arguing that the Moon was responsible for the tides and that the rainbow was produced through light from the sun being split into various colours by water droplets in the atmosphere. He also wrote an account of the six days of creation, the Hexaemeron, which in many ways anticipates the ‘Big Bang’ theory. He believed that the universe was created with a burst of light, which in turn created ‘extension’ – the dimensions of the cosmos, length, width and breadth, and that this light was then formed into the material and immaterial universe. Medieval theologians were also often highly critical of stories of demons and ghosts. The 12th century French bishop, William of Auxerre, believed that nightmares were caused, not by demons, but by indigestion. If you had too big a meal before falling asleep, the weight of the food in the stomach pressed down on the nerves, preventing the proper flow of vital fluids.

The Christian scholars of this period drew extensively on the writings of Muslim philosophers, scientists and mathematicians, who had inherited more of the intellectual legacy of ancient Greece and Rome, along with that of the other civilisations they had conquered, like Persia and India. Scholars like al-Haytham explored optics while the Bani Musa brothers created fascinating machines. And Omar Khayyam, the Sufi mystic and author of the Rubaiyyat, one of the classics of world literature, was himself a brilliant mathematician. Indeed, many scientific and mathematical terms are taken from Arabic. Like alcohol, and algorithm, which comes from the Muslim scholar al-Khwarismi, as well as algebra.

There have been periods of tension between religion and particular scientific doctrines, like the adoption of the Copernican system and Darwin’s theory of evolution by Natural Selection, but the relationship between science and religion is rich, complex and has never been as simple as all out war. This should be a fascinating series and is a very necessary corrective to the simplistic stereotype we’ve all grown up with.

Examining Jeanette Winterson’s Ideas on AI and Literature

June 4, 2019

Last Saturday’s I for 1-2 June 2019 carried an interview in its ‘Culture’ section with the literary novelist, Jeanette Winterson, about her latest work, Frankissstein. This is another take on Frankenstein, with one strand of the book set in the contemporary world and exploring AI, the downloading of the human mind into computers and literature. Winterson’s the second literary novelist, following Ian McEwan, to turn to the world of robotics for their subject matter. I’ve critiqued both of them, based on reviews in the papers, because this comes across to me very much of another instance of ‘literary’ novelists appropriating Science Fiction subjects and issues, while disdaining and ignoring the genre itself.

Winterson’s interview with Max Liu was also very interesting in other respects, and worth reading. While I am not remotely inclined to read her book, and have real objections to some of her statements on philosophical grounds, I also found that there was much that she said, which I agreed with. Particularly about the exploitation of British communities under Brexit.

The Interview

The article, on page 49, was prefaced with the statement Jeanette Winterson talks to Max Liu about AI and why the novel could die if it doesn’t reinvent itself’. It ran

Jeanette Winterson would like to upload her brain to a computer. “It were possibl, I wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to find out what it’s like to live without a body,” she says when we meet to discuss Frankissstein, her new novel about artificial intelligence. “I had a very religious upbringing, so to me, the idea that the body is just a house is normal.”

The 59-year-old wrote about her Pentecostal childhood in her semi-autobiographical debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), and her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011). For the past couple of years, she has been reading about AI and robotics at the same time as thinking about Mary Shelley’s Gothic classic, Frankenstein. In her latest novel, the young Shelley appears as a character.

“I started writing about Mary in Italy at the beginning of the 19th century then worked my way to the present,” says Winterson. “There was no point setting a novel about AI in the future, because I wanted readers to realise the future is here. We don’t know how far big money has gone in developing AI, but I suspect it’s much further than we think.”

Winterson believes “we’re living in an ahistorical world where people don’t know how we got here”, the pace of change since the Industrial Revolution leaving us bewildered. “By its nature, reading slows us down,” she says,”so I’m pushing against the acceleration of modern life, creating imaginative space for readers to inhabit. Anybody who can imagine something is in control.”

Her new novel’s present-day characters include Ry, a transgender doctor, and Winterson says: “One of my godchildren identifies as transgender and I’ve been reading a lot about that because I thought I needed to understand. The idea of identity being provisional fed into this novel. Much Western thought rests upon the idea that there is a core self that we can know and perfect, but probably there isn’t.

Ray falls in love with Ron, who is trying to make his fortune by designing sex dolls. Ron plans to exploit post-Brexit tax breaks by opening a factory in Wales. “I hate to see how my class has been manipulated by people who have no thought and no care for them,” says Winterson. “I’m ashamed of my country for turning its back on a European project and choosing nationalism.”

Were she to live for another 100 years, Winterson says she would retrain as a scientist. Does this mean she doesn’t see a future for the novel?

“The novel is only on its way out if it doesn’t change,” she says. “In the 80s, it was too middle-class and too male. Then Angela Carter came along and was so fresh, but she had a terrible time initially. The example of English literature’s conservatism that kills me is when Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac won the Booker in 1984 and Carter’s Nights at the Circus wasn’t even shortlisted. It was the year before I published Oranges and I just thought: “This is so dull.”

In Frankissstein, one character says the urge to write comes from vanity, but Mary counters that it’s about hope. Which is it from Winterson? “My writing is a message in a bottle. I won’t be here long enough to get my brain uploaded, so I’m chucking this message overboard in the hope it will move the conversation on.”

Moravec, Transhumanism and Max Headroom

It would be interesting to find out what Winterson had been reading as her research for her book. My guess it would almost certainly include Hans Moravec and the downloaders and transhumanists. They aim to upload their minds into machines. A little while ago they held a party at which they avowed their intention to meet each other on the other side of the Galaxy in a million years’ time. Which is some ambition. I think Moravec himself believes that by this middle of this century the technology should have been perfected that will allow a human brain to be read in such minute detail that its functions can be reproduced on computer. This was the premise behind the Max Headroom pilot, 20 Minutes into the Future. In this tale, broadcast on Channel 4 in the 1980s, Headroom, a computer-generated TV personality, is created when his human original, an investigative journalist in a dystopian future London, knocks himself unconscious going through a crash barrier to escape the villains. The journo’s body is retrieved, and used by a teenage computer whizzkid, Brice, who seems to spend his whole life in the bath, to create Headroom as an experiment. The character takes his name from the last thing his original sees before he goes through the barrier: a sign saying ‘Max Headroom’.

Sladek’s The Muller-Fokker Effect

I also wonder if she read any of the SF literature about downloading and cyberspace, including one of the first novels to tackle the subject, John Sladek’s The Muller-Fokker Effect, published in 1970. This is about Bob Shairp, a man reduced to date and stored on computer tape. I haven’t read it, but according to Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove in their history of Science Fiction, The Trillion Year Spree,

it is a deeply satirical book, homing in on the US Army, evangelism, newspapers and the like for its target, with an overall sense of fun reminiscent of the work of Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick and Sheckley. (p. 307).

Future Shock and the Global Rate of Change

Winterson’s comment that it was useless to set the book in the future, as the future is already here, is very similar to the remarks I heard about two decades ago by William Gibson, one of the founders of the Cyberpunk SF genre. Speaking at the Cheltenham Festival of literature, Gibson said that the future was already here, it was just wasn’t spread out the same everywhere, so there were parts of the world, such as the developing countries, where it wasn’t present to the same extent as the more advanced West. As for her comments about living in an ahistorical age, where people don’t know how we got here, and the pace of change is accelerating, this sounds very close to Alvin Toffler and his idea of future shock, where societal change is now so advanced and rapid that it is profoundly disorienting. But it is possible to exaggerate the speed of such changes. I can remember reading an article a few years ago, that argued that the impact of modern technology is vastly overestimated. The internet, for example, it was claimed, isn’t half as revolutionary as it is made out as it is only a development of earlier technologies, like the telegram. It’s a contentious claim, but in many ways the most rapid technological, social and economic changes were in the century following Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1937. That was when Britain was transformed from an agricultural, almost feudal country into a modern, industrial society. Britain’s empire expanded massively, communications improved allowed the rapid movement of information, goods and people across the globe. It was the period when new transport technologies like the railway, the automobile, the electric tram, dirigible balloons, aeroplanes and the rocket were created, along with inventions like the X-Ray, electric light, the telegram, telephone, radio and the first experiments in television, and, of course, sound recording and the cinema. Contemporary technological advances can be seen as refinements or improvements on these, rather than completely new inventions.

Transgender People and the Question of Core Personality

I also have objections to her comments about whether or not there is a core, human personality. I’ve no doubt that one argument against it is that many people would be very different if they had had a different upbringing. If they’d been born into a different class, or allowed to study a particular subject at school or university, or if they’d decided to pursue a different career. And, obviously, if they’d been born a different gender. But twin studies suggest that people do have some aspects of their character determined by their biology rather than their upbringing. And I don’t think she makes her argument by pointing to transpeople. As I understand it, many transpeople believe very strongly that they have a core personality or nature. It’s just that this is at opposition to their biological gender. Hence their desire to change. It isn’t simply that they simply decide at some point that they want to change their sex, which would be the case if it was simply the case that they had no core personality. But perhaps Winterson’s godchild is different.

Computers and the Existence of Self 

I’m also suspicious of the idea, as it sounds rather close to the ideas of Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmoore that consciousness is an illusion and that the brain is simply a meat machine for running memes, discrete units of culture like genes are discrete units of biological information. On the other hand, when she says that existing as a disembodied entity on a computer doesn’t seem strange to her because of her religious background, she’s in agreement with Paul Davies. In his book, God and the New Physics, he stated that he’s prepared to accept that life can exist outside the body because of the way computers could be used to simulate human personalities. I can remember reading that the wife of one of the leading downloaders was a Methodist minister. He commented about this apparent contradiction between their two disciplines by saying that they were both trying to do the same thing, but by different methods.

The Manipulation of the Working Class

I do agree wholeheartedly, however, with Winterson’s comments about how her class is being manipulated by people, who give them no thought and no care for them. The idea that the creation of tax breaks for businesses after Brexit would allow an amoral entrepreneur to build a factor for sex robots in Wales is all too credible. Just as I agree with her about Britain turning it’s back on the EU, though I also have strong criticisms of the European Union. But Brexit has been and is being used by the Tory extreme right and its related movements, like UKIP and Farage’s noxious Brexit people, to manipulate the working class and exploit them. If you look at what Boris Johnson and Farage want, the privatisation of the NHS to American private healthcare firms is very much on the table.

Conservatism, Sexism, Literature and Literary Snobbishness

She was also right about the conservatism and sexism of the literary world in the 1980s. Private Eye’s literary column attacked Hotel du Lac for its snobbishness at the time. And the Orange Prize for literature was set up because it was felt that women were being unfairly excluded from the main literary prizes. However, the remarkable success of women writers in winning the mainstream awards has also, in the view of Private Eye a few years ago, also called into question the reason for Orange Prize. Why have a separate prize for women when that year the lists were dominated by female writers? And as for Angela Carter, I wonder if some of the problems she had didn’t just come from her writing feminist magic realist tales and fairy stories, but also because the genre SF/Fantasy crowd liked her. Flicking through an old SF anthology I found in one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham yesterday, I found a piece by her about literary theory along with pieces by other, firmly genre figures. A few years ago Terry Pratchett commented that the organisers of the Cheltenham Festival looked at him as if he was going to talk to his fans about motorcycle maintenance, and he was certainly subject to appalling snobbery by the literary critics when he started out. I think it’s therefore quite possible that Carter was disdained by those who considered themselves the guardians of serious literature because she was too genre. But I also wonder if Winterson herself, despite her deep love of Carter’s work, doesn’t also have the same attitude that sees genre fiction as somehow not proper literature, as she, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and the others write.

I have to say that I don’t see the death of novel being anywhere near imminent. Not from looking along the shelves at Waterstone’s, and particularly not in the genre fiction, crime, horror, and SF. But it says something about the apparent lack of inspiration in literary fiction that it is turning to SF for its subjects. Winterson said some fascinating things in her interview, but to me, genre SF still did AI, robots and downloading first and better than the mainstream novelists now writing about it.

 

Jeanette Winterson’s Cyberfeminist New Tale of Frankenstein, AI and Sex Robots

May 26, 2019

A week or so ago I put up several articles criticising Ian McEwan’s latest book as another example of mainstream, literary writers’ appropriation of Science Fictional subjects. As I said in these articles, what annoys me about this is the higher respect given to these works, even though genre authors have frequently tackled the subjects much better. Private Eye in its piece describing how the literary set were turning to robots and AI said that after McEwan’s book would come one by Jeanette Winterson. This is Frankissstein: A Love Story, which was reviewed in Friday’s issue of the I, for 24th May 2019 by Lucy Scholes, on page 44 of the paper.

I realise that it’s dangerous to comment on a book you’ve never read, and that reviews can be notoriously inaccurate guides to what a book or other work is actually like. I can remember the Oxford poet, Tom Paulin on the Late Review about two decades or more ago really attacking the Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, as a piece of Nazi cinema in precisely so many words. He had a point in that some groups had felt that the film was somehow racist and discriminatory, particularly in the portrayal of Jar Jar Binks. Binks, it was held, was a caricature of Blacks, Hispanics or gays. But many others didn’t find anything racist or homophobic in the movie, and Paulin’s attack was itself a grotesque misrepresentation of the movie itself.

But Scholes’ brief description of the book and its themes raise issues that deserve comment and criticism.

The Plot

The book is split between two periods. The first is that night in 1816 in the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva when Byron, his lover, Claire Clairmont, the Shelleys and their doctor, John Polidori, all met to write a ghost story, the evening which saw the birth of Mary Shelley’s tale of the monstrous creation of artificial, human life, Frankenstein. The second is a contemporary tale about a romance between a young transgender doctor, Ry Shelley, who meets and falls in love with the charismatic Victor Stein at a cryonics facility in the Arizona desert. Stein is a leader in the field of Artificial Intelligence, who, according to the review, ‘envisions a bodyless utopia in which race, faith gender and sexuality no longer exist.’

Caught up in this tale is Ron Lord, a millionaire, who has made his fortune from advance sex robots, and his partner, the evangelical Claire, who has designed a version for Christians, and an investigating journalist, Polly D. Ron Lord’s empire of sex robots its misogynistic. His deluxe model offers three orifices and interesting conversation, in which they tell the user he’s very clever and asks him if he knows anything about Real Madrid. Looking at their names, it seems very clear to me that they’re supposed to be the modern counterparts of Byron’s party 200 years ago. But it’s a moot point how accurate this portrayal is about what they would be like if they lived now. As for Claire’s invention of the ‘Christian Companion’, this seems to be a gibe by Winterson at Christian hypocrisy. Winterson’s a lesbian, who had a miserable childhood growing up in an extreme Christian sect. This formed the basis for his book Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which was adapted as a TV drama by the Beeb. This seems to have established the 9.00 Sunday night slot as the venue for intense dramas about gay women. It was followed a few years later by Fingersmith, a lesbian drama set in the Victorian underworld. And now there’s Gentleman Jack, now playing on BBC 1, based on a real Victorian aristocratic lady, who married her gay lover. I’m very much aware that many Christians do hate gays, and that in response many gay men and women have turned away from Christianity and religion. But this isn’t necessarily the case. I know one woman, who was brought up by her mother and her lesbian partner, who grew up perfectly well adjusted. She was deeply religious herself, and went on to marry a vicar. She also loves her mother, and respects her for the excellent way she feels her mother brought her up.

Cyberspace as Disembodied Platonic Realm

Some of the ideas in Winterson’s book also seems strangely dated. Like the idea of AI as offering a utopia in which people are disembodied entities without race, gender, sexuality or religion. This sounds like it’s based on the views of some of the cyberfeminists back in the 1990s. They hailed the internet as forum in which women would be free to participate as individuals without gender. Now there is a real issue here with misogyny on the internet. There are some sites and forums which are very hostile to women, so much so that a few years ago there were comments that there no women on the internet, as those who were seemed few and far between. But the solution to that problem is to create a culture in which women are free to participate and interact without their gender being issue, rather than forced to disguise or deny it.

It’s also vulnerable to the opposite criticism from feminist academics like Margaret Wertheimer. In her The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, Wertheimer criticised cyberspace for being too masculine. It was a disembodied, Platonic realm of mind like the heaven of religious belief. Women weren’t interested in such ideal states, and so were put off it. This idea was influential. One of the museums and art galleries held an exhibition of Virtual worlds created by artists experimenting with the medium. One of the women artists, whose work was featured, included as part of her world the sound of the viewer breathing as they entered her artificial reality. She had done so, she told New Scientist, because the absence of any kind of physical interaction in these Virtual worlds was the product of male scientists and engineers, who made the passage through them like that of a disembodied being. As a woman, she wanted to rectify this through the inclusion of details that made it appear that the viewer was physically there.

It’s over 20 years since these arguments were made, and much has changed since then. There are now very many women on the internet, with female sites like Mum’s Net and the feminist Jezebel. And some of the online games and worlds, like Second Life, do allow their users to interact as physical entities as the games’ characters or citizens.

Robot-Human Romance and Sex

As for her view of sex robots, it’s true that the creation of an artificial woman purely as a sex slave is misogynist. At the moment such machines aren’t really much more than sophisticate sex dolls, and some of those, who use them do seem to be very misogynist. One of the denizens of the Manosphere, the Happy Humble Hermit, who really does despise women and feminism, apparently has a link on his web page to a firm making them. But despite dire warning that these machines are a threat to women’s status and real, genuine, loving or respectful sexual relationship, the existing sex robots aren’t popular. A Spanish brothel which specialised in them has had to get rid of them because of lack of custom. Women don’t have to fear being replaced by compliant, subservient female robots, as in Ira Levin’s Stepford Wives, just yet.

But science fiction also shows that there is an interest, at least among some people, for genuine romantic relationships between robots, and humans and robots. One of the Star Wars spin-off books published in the 1980s was Hardware Honeymoon, whose cover showed C-3PIO holding hands with a female robot. The robot seems to have become the subject of some women’s fantasies. One of the independent comics from California was Wet Satin, whose female creator based her stories on women’s sexual fantasies. One of these was about a robot, which looked remarkably similar to the Star Wars robot. Rather less luridly, Tanith Lee wrote a book in the 1980s about a woman having a romance with a robot in The Silver Metal Lover. You could go on. There is a desire for sex with robots, but this seems in most cases to be within the framework of a romantic relationship with a genuinely sentient being, not a mechanical sex slave.

Stein’s Disembodied Utopia Horrific

As for Stein’s idea of a post-human utopia of disembodied minds, this is profoundly unattractive, as Scholes herself says in her review, saying ‘As with all brave new worlds, though, the reality is rarely perfect’. It seems to be based on the Transhumanists hope that in the near future technology will have advanced so far that that humans will be able to download their minds into computers, so that they can exist as pure disembodied entities in cyberspace, or move into robot bodies, like the hero at the end of the South African SF film, Chappie. But Winterson’s, or Stein’s cybernetic dream of posthuman, post-flesh utopia is horrifically sterile. Part of what makes diversity and multiculturalism such powerful ideologies is that people are naturally drawn, fascinated with and treasure difference. It’s why western tourists travel around the world, to Asia, Africa and South America, to enjoy the experience of different cultures and meeting people of different races and religions. There is friction and hostility between different peoples, all too often exploding into horrific violence. But the reduction of humanity to disembodied minds doesn’t solve the problem. It doesn’t genuinely promote tolerance, equality and the feeling of common humanity so much as negates the problem by destroying the physical and spiritual differences that form the basis of human identity. It’s certainly not an idea that’s popular in SF. In just about all the Science Fiction I’ve read, people retain their gender and other aspects of their identity even after they cross over into cyberspace. When they appear, either in cyberspace itself, or conjured up in computer displays for characters in the real world, they appear as they did in life, complete with their gender and race. And I’ve no doubt that the vast majority of people would find that far more preferable to the strange disembodied existence Stein offers in Winterson’s book.

LGBTQ and Transgender Issues With Winterson’s/ Stein’s Utopia

Which also raises the question about its handling of LGBTQ issues. The inclusion of a transgender character seems to be a deliberate attempt to make the book very relevant to contemporary issues, now that transgender rights have overtaken gays as the issue of the moment. Some transgender people seem to look forward to a future without physical gender. I can remember reading an interview with the first, or one of the first, people to undergo the operation, April Ashley, in an interview in one of the Daily Mail’s Sunday supplements years ago. She looked forward to a time when humanity would have moved beyond gender, and pregnancy would become a matter of simply taking a pill. But I think such people are a very small minority. Back in the 1990s there was a demand from gay Science Fiction fans for Star Trek to tackle homosexuality and include gay characters or stories. This was several years before the new, revived Dr. Who did so, and so would have been extremely controversial. Star Trek – The Next Generation tried to make an effort in that direction with a story in which Lieutenant Riker formed a relationship with a member of an alien species, the J’Nai, who had evolved past gender. However, from time to time there were throwbacks, who were persecuted. They would be hunted down and then treated so that they were proper neuter members of their society. The alien with whom Riker has fallen in love is one such throwback, a female. She is caught by the authorities. Riker tries to free her, but it is too late. She is now neuter, and so has no interest in any sexual or romantic relationship with him. The story’s a metaphorical attempt to deal with the underlying issues around homosexuality, gender identity and forbidden sexuality, but was bitterly criticised by gay SF fans because it didn’t tackle the issue of homosexuality overtly. The Federation was, remember, an organisation in which humanity had moved beyond racial and cultural prejudice and sexism, and gay Trekkers and their supporters felt that the prejudice against homosexuality would also have no place in such a future. But they were also highly critical about how the story presented gays. They felt that it showed them unfairly as wanting to abolish gender. And Winterson’s book does seem to do the same with its depiction of a romance between the transgender character, Ry Shelley, and Stein, with his dream of an asexual disembodied world.

Conclusion

I may well be doing Winterson’s book a great disservice, but it does seem peculiarly dated for a book which is trying so desperately to be acutely relevant. And I do feel that readers would probably get a better idea of the issues about cyberspace and AI by going elsewhere. I think there’s probably a better fictional treatment of these subjects waiting to be written. And as for human-robot romance and sex, this has also been very extensively explored in genre SF. And some of this almost certainly represents what people really want from such relationships than simple sex robots.

As for the book’s inclusion of Mary Shelley, Byron, Claire Clairmont and Polidori, Brian Aldiss also did it, or something like it, in his 1970’s SF story Frankenstein Unbound. This was filmed by B-movie maven Roger Corman. It’s not supposed to be a good film, but even so, it seems far more to my taste than Winterson’s book.

 

 

 

Rees-Mogg’s Book Savaged by Critics

May 21, 2019

Here’s an interesting piece from yesterday’s I for 20th May 2019. It seems that Jacob Rees-Mogg fancies himself as a literary gentleman, and has written a book about a number of eminent Victorians. And it’s been torn apart by the critics.

The article by Dean Kirby, ‘Rees-Mogg’s ‘silly’ book torn apart by critics’, on page 5 of the paper, reads

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s new book has been panned by critics as “staggeringly silly”. 

The work by the Conservative MP, The Victorians: Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain, tells the story of 12 figures from the era. 

But, writing in the Sunday Times, historian Dominic Sandbrook described the book as “so bad, so boring, so mind-bogglingly bad”. And in a Times review, A.N. Wilson said it was “staggeringly silly”. 

Rees-Mogg clearly has literary as well as political ambitions, and it looks very much like he’s using the one to boost the other. Boris desperately wants to be the leader of the Tories, and published a biography of Churchill a year or so ago. Presumably this was partly to show how he was a true Tory intellectual – if such a creature can be said to exist – and was somehow the great man’s spiritual and ideological are. Rees-Mogg is also angling for the Tory leadership, and he’s done the same, though in his case it’s a selection of the 12 great figures from the Victorian period that he feels have created modern Britain.

I’m not remotely surprised he’s chosen the Victorians, and even less surprised by the rubbishing its received from Sandbrook and Wilson. The Victorian period was an age when modern Britain began to take shape. It was a period of massive social, economic, political and technological change, as Britain moved from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one. New scientific ideas emerged, were debated and taken up, there was rapid technological innovation with the creation of the railways and the spread of mechanised factories. Overseas, the British Empire expanded massively to take in Australia, New Zealand, the Canadian West, parts of Africa and Asia. It’s a fascinating period, and Tories and Libertarians love to hark back to it because they credit Britain’s movement to global dominance to the old Conservative principles of free trade and private property, as well as Christian benevolence. It is a fascinating period, and certainly Christian philanthropy did play a very great part in the campaigns against the slave trade and other movements for social reform, such as the Factory Acts.

But it was also a period marked by grinding poverty, misery and social upheaval. Trade unions expanded as workers united to fight for better pay and conditions in the work place, Liberal ideology changed to keep up with the movement in practical politics towards state regulation and interference, and socialism emerged and spread to challenge the dominance of capitalism and try to create a better society for working people. The Victorian period also saw the emergence of feminism following the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman in the late 18th century. And the massive unrest in Ireland caused by the exploitation of the Roman Catholic Irish peasantry by absentee landlords, and the hostile reaction by some elements of the British establishment during the Potato Famine, has created a legacy of bitterness and violence that continues to this day. I doubt that Rees-Mogg or any of the other Tories are very enthusiastic about tackling or describing these aspects of Victorian history.

I’m also not surprised that the book’s been savagely criticised. Rees-Mogg supposedly read history at Oxford, but nobody quite knows what period he studied. And his ignorance of some extremely notorious events is woeful. Like when he claimed that the concentration camps we used against the Afrikaners during the Boer War were somehow benevolent institutions. In fact, they were absolutely horrific, causing tens of thousands of deaths from starvation and disease among women and children, who were incarcerated there. And which, again, have left as lasting legacy of bitterness right up to today.

I think any book on the Victorian period written by Rees-Mogg would be highly simplified, ridiculous caricature of the events and issues of the period. Like Boris’ book on Churchill, I doubt that it’s a serious attempt to deal objectively with all aspects of its subject, including the more malign or disturbing events and views, rather than an attempt to present the Tory view. An exercise in Tory historical propaganda, as it were.

What’s also interesting is that it’s been the right-wing press – the Times and Sunday Times – that’s savaged it. This seems to me to show that Rees-Mogg’s ‘magnificent octopus’, to quote Blackadder’s Baldrick, was too much of a travesty even for other Tories, and that there is a sizable body of the Tory party that doesn’t want him to be leader. Or at least, not Rupert Murdoch. And as the Tory party and the Blairites have shown themselves desperate to do whatever Murdoch says, this means there’s going to be strong opposition to a bid from Mogg to become Prime Minister.