Sunday, July 27, 2008

the Reason for my discomfort with New Scientist

Part of cover of New Scientist, 26 July 2008
New Scientist has produced a Special Report which the cover of the 26 July 2008 issue summarises as: The forbidden question - what's wrong with reason?. It comprises seven closely-argued essays bookended by a piece by AC Grayling entitled How humans dared to know, and an editorial, Daring to admit what's wrong, and hangs largely upon the legacy of the Enlightenment.

If you're interested and don't have this issue to hand, you can only access the full articles electronically if you have a subscription to New Scientist; otherwise, I recommend you find a library that collects the magazine, or alternatively contact your local college and , if they stock it, ask if you can access their library.

The first essay is by Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who writes:

Reason became a tool for protesting against the violence of arbitrary authority, and the great minds of the Enlightenment were confident that they were on the side of equality and universality: being reasonable was the heritage of each human person...but [we do not have grounds] for overturning the entire legacy of the Enlightenment, but for pausing before we assume that instrumental reason will answer all the questions about how to shape a moral and humane world.

The editorial ending the section refers to the Archbishop's contribution thus: "[reason can never] furnish us with absolute conviction about, say, the value of a human being and the necessity of opposing torture or racial discrimination. "

And there's the rub: Reason, as reified and deified by the Enlightenment thinkers, wasn't and isn't interested in absolute value. Its morals are encapsulated by utilitarianism, the relativist philosophical school founded by Jeremy Bentham, who preached that if people's free choice was increased in all areas, then market forces - recently defined by Adam Smith - would increase prosperity - and therefore happiness - for all. Crimes were harms against happiness and nothing else. (See the catch?) Bentham's disciple, James Mill, believed that when decisions were freely taken, they would always be in the individual's interest and the cumulative effect would benefit society - an early form of game theory. His son, John Stuart Mill, was more aware of the importance of the higher emotions, so much so that, thankfully, the father's philosophy is dead in the water before the Introduction to the son's Utilitarianism is finished.

I have to admit, however, that I was starting to feel discomforted long before the special report, as I made my way through the magazine. For example, an article on why we shouldn't fear a mega-catastrophe is illustrated by an untitled preacher with a placard reading THE END IS AT HAND. There was a Comment and Analysis piece by science writer Michael Brooks, whose earlier NS article In Place of God, which examined ways in which science could replace religion, had earned positive comments on Richard Dawkins' anti-religion website. His present article is entitled Faith in Denial, subtitled "The Catholic church's insistence on demonising IVF is making it look irrelevant and out of touch".

In the strange way that radical militant atheists have of praising Islam, Brooks contrasts Muslim views on IVF to the Catholic Church's without commenting on the prescriptions for couples to live in an Islamic way that he reports. In a different context but on the same theme, Schools Minister Ed Balls made an attack on faith schools this April that was described by Frank Field as "incomprehensible [and] near criminal", but by May was calling for Muslim clerics to teach Islam to children in schools as part of lessons on multiculturalism.

On the letters page, one of the letters mentions Galileo and the Church's From letters page, New Scientist, 26 July 2008rocky relationship with science through the ages, with the almost-compulsory cartoon of somebody about to be burnt at the stake (right). So, readers who aren't quite sure what they believe have been well-groomed even before they come to AC Grayling's introductory piece, which informs us that critics who blame the Enlightenment for state-sponsored madness from the Reign of Terror to Nazism and Stalinism have got it all wrong. Rather, "a key feature of the Enlightenment [is] namely that it opposed the monolithic hegemonies of church, state and ideology, arguing instead for pluralism and individual freedom...the tyrannies of Nazism and Stalinism were monolithic hegemonies in precisely this sense and were, therefore, as far from being descendants of the Enlightenment as could be." So, basically, if it looks like a fish and smells like a fish, it's only a fish as long as we choose not to give it another name, which would make it something else.

Thomas MorePluralism and individual freedom look very nice on paper, but human acquisitiveness in terms of goods and power cannot be wished away by a utopian theory. It's not for nothing that Thomas More (left) placed his perfect society (Utopia is Greek for no-place) on a fictional island; had Hegel, Marx and Engels, as well as Neitsche, Wagner et al, chosen Atlantis as a stage on which to play out their ideas, the twentieth century might have contained some happier times.

What if somebody in our pluralistic society take a personal decision to join or remain in a religion? If they also wish to work in education or the sciences, they may well find themselves the subject of bullying, to a more or less subtle degree, the bullies' aim being to chase people of faith out of universities and laboratories.

The upshot of this is that we are increasingly ruled by and cared for by those who believe that they know better, operating on a utilitarian sliding scale of values based upon benefits to and harms upon sectors of society who are not always on the level playing ground that one would imagine would be prerequisite to such calculations. We find ourselves in a society with porous moral, intellectual and legal boundaries that fêtes a professor of mathematics who has created much of the stuff of modern scientific thought, but tries to ensure that others with his disabilty don't have the chances that he had merely to survive; legislates for human beings to be born for others to feast on their component parts; tries to combat snowballing underage pregnancy and STD figures by teaching ever younger children about sex, to the point where concerns about state sponsored sexual abuse are raised.

Still, New Scientist's censors let a statement through in Archbishop Williamson's essay that I think would have attracted the blue pencil previously: "Even gentle, wise Darwin could use language suggesting that some humans were less "developed", nearer their primate cousins, than others. That language was gleefully exploited by ideologues of empire and racial domination." Given that Richard Dawkins has gone on record to say that in his opinion Darwin was the greatest human being who ever lived (in a footnote in the 30th anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene), perhaps the subs are finally starting to put distance between themselves and their present ideological masters.

Overall, though, I wonder if an honest prof grading this issue as a submitted work might not mark it "could have done better".

Thursday, July 24, 2008

society falls asleep

click to read the BBC coverageI was sitting here in the Draughty Old Fen, having a cup of tea with the radio on, when my ears pricked up at the mention of my old home town of Glasgow.

It appears that a GP from the dirty old town has been suspended from practicing for six months, after prescribing sleeping tablets to five patients. Sounds reasonable enough - except the patients didn't have problems sleeping. The conditions the five, four women and a man, suffered from were depression, terminal illness, heart problems and the man had a drink problem.

The official prescribing guide, the BNF, states that the drug prescribed, a barbiturate called Sodium Amytal, is to be prescribed for "severe intractable insomnia only in patients already taking barbiturates" (bold print from the original). The Scottish NHS statistics service concurs: "Overall the prescribing of barbiturates has fallen by 85.8% since 1992/93. Medical opinion is that barbiturates should only be used in the treatment of severe, intractable insomnia in those patients already taking barbiturates and avoided in the elderly."

The reason for this is that barbiturates are extremely addictive, with not much difference between the dose that will provide a therapeutic effect and that which will cause a potentially fatal overdose. Indeed, Drugscope notes the close association of barbiturates with suicide.

The Cautions and Contraindications sections of the BNF entry for Sodium Amytal speak volumes about Iain Kerr's intentions: for one thing, something that concerns all of his unfortunate patients is that the drug is not to be prescribed in cases where "depression and suicidal ideation" are present. It's not to be used in elderly patients - his victims ranged from 61 to 87. Hepatic impairment's out too; I wonder if a liver function test was done on the man who drank problematically. And, of course, there's the contraindication sine qua non - barbiturates are so dangerous that they are not to be prescribed to people who aren't already on them.

One of Kerr's victims had previously told him that she was considering suicide so as not to be a burden on her family. May I shamelessly quote myself in a different context:

The Archbishop of Westminster is one of many people who warned about the shift from the right to die, as enshrined in the advance directive provision of the Mental Capacity Act 2005, to the "duty to die". Older people's inadequate pensions cost too much, they fall over too often, visiting them - or finding excuses not to - uses up time that we might have happily wasted, they are too...old.
The Mental Capacity Act was brought in to see that people who wished to have their treatment terminated should their condition deteriorate to the point where they can no longer communicate their wishes. The thing is, there was already a consensus among medics that what is usually referred to as "heroic measures" was not to be used in the treatment of terminally-ill people; I don't recall pro-life health-workers having a problem with this.

Nowadays, it seems that medics who support euthanasia see themselves as heroic pioneers. I nearly fell off my chair when I read Kerr told police "that his membership of the Euthanasia Society gave patients the choice of discussing end-of-life matters". Patients are free to discuss suicidal thoughts with any GP - being manic-depressive, I've done so myself - but for the GP to then supply materia medica for the purpose is not just going above and beyond the course of duty, it betrays a Malthusian attitude assuming that there are too many people in the world, therefore any help which can be provided to help individuals shuffle off this mortal coil is a service to Gaia, combatting climate change, working for zero population growth and/or whatever is this week's cause célèbre among anxious liberals.
click to read the No Less Human publication 'how we see our disabled neighbours'
Dr CrippenIt's less than a century since Dr Crippen was found guilty of the murder of one person - his wife - and hanged. Now a man who is happy to publicise his murderous pastime - he boasted in a 2004 appraisal that he was interested in helping people at the end of their lives - is suspended from his profession for 6 months, but otherwise at liberty. The idea that people who are close to death should be helped - encouraged? - to die as soon as possible is now so entrenched that people who are physically healthy but depressed are being helped on their way. Among the few torch-bearers for sanity is the SPUC group No Less Human, which celebrates the lives of people who are valuable because they are people.

Otherwise, as we approach dystopia a prescription is unneccessary, for a somnambulant society doesn't need sleeping pills.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Genocide in Serbia, tragedy in Sudan?

Radovan Karadzic
Radovan Karadzic, the Serbian war-criminal (right), was arrested yesterday, and will be charged with genocide of the Bosnian people, including the infamous murder of 8,000 men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995. He had been hunted for ten years.

On July Omar al-Bashir15 this year, Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir (left), was charged, like Karadzic, with genocide and war crimes. In his watch, since 1989, there has been a campaign against the residents of Darfur, which appears to have assumed the proportions of genocide since 2003, when a slaughter of approximately 35,000 Darfurians was initiated, with a concomitant mass rape of females of all ages.

How is it that it takes three years to begin the hunt of a European genocidal maniac, but at least five years to indict an African one?

In Virus X, evolutionary biologist Frank Ryan quotes epidemiologist Joel Breman on diseases that emerge from Africa:

An African epidemic might be compared to a giant tree falling in the forest. Nobody notices it has fallen. When the first white person dies, the epidemic begins.
This might explain why the situation in Zimbabwe, whereby Robert Mugabe is making crumGeorge Clooneybs of the breadbasket of Africa, is in the news every day. Also, Chinese involvement in Sudan, highlighted by George Clooney in 2006 (right), may be turning the heads of newpaper chiefs keen to stay on the right side of the world's most prominent emerging economy.

It would be good to see China help progress the case against al-Bashir, if only to dispel the suspicions that it is playing the old colonial game, in several African countries, of letting opposing sides slog it out then making a deal with the weakened victor. If China were to show willing, then this jaded old blogger might think about telling friends to have a look at the Olympics.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Michael J Fox returns to health

It appears that Michael J Fox, the American actor who was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease at the age of 30 in 1991, will be starring in a four-episode series of the FX comedy-drama "Rescue Me", to be filmed later this year. His Parkinson's appears to be under medical control, which, in a world where sometimes things seem to spiral ever downwards, is a reason to look upstairs and say, "Nice one". I was a psychiatric nurse for many years and saw the effects of Parkinson's all too often.

Parkinson's disease is basically due to a lack of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the basal ganglia of the brain, which control, among other things, initiating and sustaining movement. It is treated by medications which variously are converted into dopamine in the brain, promote its production, or inhibit its reabsorption from the intra-synaptic spaces. Like many medications these drugs work within a calculable time-frame, the optimum period in the case of Parkinson's disease being known as "golden time".

In 2006, Fox appeared in a video in support of Claire McCaskill, who was standing for the Senate for the state of Missouri, and won her place on November 8, 2006, forthe Democratic Party. A key point of contention in this race was Missouri Constitutional Amendment 2 (The Missouri Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative), which would allow embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic human cloning - the latter being to find cures for diseases, like Parkinson's, by cloning human cells, most often garnered from unimplanted embryos left over from IVF proceedures. Kant, who pioneered the theory of ends - saying that nobody should unknowingly be involved in a process whose ends they do not understand - would be gobsmacked.

In this video, Fox is subject to many choreo-athetotic movements, God help him, that anti-Parkinsonian medication is formulated to combat in the "golden time".

As a neurologist with a large number of Parkinson's disease patients, my impression of the video is that Fox displayed the poorly-controlled "choreo-athetotic" movements seen when advanced Parkinson's patients take their medication to turn "on" and emerge from their natural state of rigidity and rest tremor. At some point after taking a pill, a patient's voluntary movements are freed up, without much excess involuntary movement. The issue, then, is one of timing.

Fox himself has no doubt utilized this timing to affect a near-"normal" appearance on various TV late night talk show appearances over the past few years. [Rush] Limbaugh twigged to the obvious observation that he appeared much worse in the Missouri Democratic Party ad than he has ever allowed himself to be seen in public before. Indeed, a few days after his political ad came out, Fox appeared at a Democratic event in Chicago with his movements under good control, a situation he called "ironic".

The reference to Rush Limbaugh is to an American conservative commentator with an idiosyncratic style who picked out that, although Fox was suffering from Parkinsonian choreo-athetotic movements, he always managed to keep his eyes on the camera. Limbaugh says what he thinks in a way that can lead to him being lampooned in the take-no-prisoners American media, but look at this news report, and decide if the debunker is any more morally justified than the debunkee.

All in all, I am glad that Michael J Fox's symptoms are being controlled by medical management. Long may they be so. Personally, being manic-depressive and taking meds that can have Parkinsonian side-effects, I am starting to feel those effects, and it's scary. But I have no desire to encourage those who would butcher - I can find no other word - unborn children for relief of what is nothing other than the side-effects of life. What do they think they're offering me, eternal life? I have a friend who is an atheist and isn't taken in by that sort of disingenuous snake-oil salesmanship.

Although my friend disagrees with me, I believe I know a better way to eternal life, which doesn't involve any film star supporting a measure they haven't read, or any human beings being conceived primarily for purposes other than being born. With this way, even though it might not always seem like it, every second is golden time.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

catching street voices

Street Voices is a band formed by people living in hostels for the homeless in Cambridge or who are otherwise members of the street community. I'm not very good at catching them in performance.

On 20th June, I went to the Leper Chapel in Cambridge to hear the group rehearse for a memorial service for seventeen members of the street community who had died in the past year. They were practicing the first verse of a traditional song arranged by Bob Dylan, He was a friend of mine:

photo courtesy of the Willow Walker He was a friend of mine
He was a friend of mine
Every time I think about him now
Lord I just can't keep from cryin'
'Cause he was a friend of mine

The verse was sung six times, with band member Carolyn Perkins (Caz) intoning the name of one of the deceased in between each personal-pronoun-adjusted line.

For seventeen members of the street community to die in a year is a terrifying figure in the context of Cambridge City Council's most recent statistics on the number of homeless people (including those in hostels). There were roughly 200 homeless people in Cambridge in the quarter ending 31 December 2007. If the attrition is solely inflicted upon this group, we are looking at a mortality rate of 8.5%. However, provision of a roof, as essential as this is to moving onwards and upwards, does not necessarily remove somebody from the street scene by itself, for the same reason that somebody who retires from a factory will find themselves attending the attached social-club for a while afterwards.

The statistics show that the English Churches Housing Group's tenancy sustainment team were supporting 21 tenants who had moved into permanent housing for six months or less, 73 people who had been housed for 6-12 months, 61 for 12-18 months and 90 for 18-24 months. The figures for the tenancy support team attached to Jimmy's Nightshelter are one, four, four and four respectively. So, taking all of these into consideration, the most precise statement we can make is that the mortality rate for the Cambridge street community lies somewhere between 3.7-8.5%. (I emphasize that these are the figures from the time of the study; Jimmy's, for instance, currently supports 29 people in their tenancies, including 14 in the 2-5 year range.)

Looking just at the smaller figure and extrapolating it to other groups at national level, 3.7% represents 55,500 NHS employees, 18, 690 civil servants, 27 members of the House of Lords or 24 MP's. Or 15,891 members of the Armed Forces, whose former members can be represented among homeless people much more than those of the other categories. I cannot think of any estate in life, other than the street community, where even the lower mortality rate of 3.7% would be tolerated without a massive and government-toppling outcry.

I was gutted that I wasn't able to stay for the memorial service, but Maxima had enmeshed me in the sort of complex babysitting situation that only women can understand.

The next time I missed Street Voices was when they opened an exhibition by Missing Links click to go to the Corrugation Street pagecalled Corrugation Street - Thinking inside the Box, which featured several cardboard boxes with pictures and writing by homeless and recently homeless people on the inside describing their experiences of homelessness. There was one touching testimony of a man who had been given permission by a disabled lady to live in her shed, and in return he walked her dog, something she was unable to do.

It was facilitated by puppeteer/community artist Linton Bocock. Described as "a project straight from the heart of Cambridge's homeless community", each installation was composed of "a cardboard box, some materials and some intense experiences [to give] a glimpse of a side to medern life that most people don't see".

Minima and I were late because she'd gone over on her ankle, so we had to take two buses to get there instead of cycling. We were in time to catch artist and Willow Walker editor Kirsten Lavers and Caz, who were showcasing some of the goods sold by Cambridge Link-Up, a company managed and ran by homeless and recently-homeless people. Stock had gone fast, but there were still some items left: handbags knitted from plastic bags (Minora had two of these, both featuring the colour pink), mobile phone pouches crocheted from plastic yarn derived from aforementioned bags, hats made from videotape and presented in the original boxes (mine was in The Rain Man), and picnic bags which, when un-velcroed, folded out into ground-mats.

I started to panic a little when Kirsten started to explain the technique for ironing the plastic bags together to Minora, as the house is littered with the detritus of her hammerbeads experiments. I was mercifully distracted by Caz explaining that Cambridge Link-Up, which runs a monthly market stall and will also have a stall at the Cambridge Folk Festival, has received support from John Lewis and a visit from senior civil servant Sir Gus O' Donnell, as well as Street Voices receiving lottery funding to produce a CD which should be out around November. Personally I'm looking forward to it, having heard the samples posted on the Cambridge Link-Up audio gallery - where you can hear the concert performed at the Leper Chapel.

It's really good to see Cambridge Link-Up providing a service for the homeless community in Cambridge from within that community - in the words of one motto, it gives a hand up, not a hand-out. It is a resource that unfortunately may become even more urgently needed in the light of current financial trends - mortgage arrears were given as a factor in respondents' homelessness in 0% of cases in the quarters ending June and September 2007 in the study linked to above - and in 6% of replies in that ending December 2007, the quarter on which the study concentrated.

Some music started up - but Street voices had left; this was Rough Beast, who'd come to lend support. "Now that's real blues," I commented as they jammed but Minora, a High School Musical devotee, looked at me and blinked.

Street Voices will be performing a summer jam from 11am-1pm on 22 August in the Community Room at 82 Akeman Street. I'm going to try not to miss it. Honest.

click to enter the Street Voices site

Related post: Homeless not hopeless

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

women bishops - Y not?

Some time ago I sent an email to Fr Colombus, parish priest of St Quadraginta. I wrote that I considered him as one of the most morally and intellectually courageous people I've ever met, but that I had doubts about the wider Roman Catholic Church that prevented me from remaining a communicant thereof. He replied with a very nice email thanking me for all my work.

For some time I've been attending services at St Gallicus' in the draughty old fen, ably presided over by Rector Peregrina and her curate, Revd Cantiana. Somewhat appropriate, as one of the reasons I found it impossible to remain within the RC church was the unwillingness to contemplate, let alone officially discuss, the ordination of women to priesthood in its three degrees - deacon, priest and bishop.

In its 1976 "Declaration on the Ordination of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood (Inter Insigniores), the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (later headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI), states: "by calling only men to the priestly Order and ministry in its true sense, the Church intends to remain faithful to the type of ordained ministry willed by the Lord Jesus Christ and carefully maintained by the Apostles." In Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone, he recalls that Pope Paul VI

reminded Anglicans of the position of the Catholic Church: "She holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God's plan for his Church."
The passage is a quote from a reply to Archbishop Donald Coggan in an exchange of letters between the leaders of the two churches on the Anglican Communion's plans to ordain women, in which Lord Coggan stated:

It is with this in mind that we write now to inform Your Holiness of the slow but steady growth of a consensus of opinion within the Anglican Communion that there are no fundamental objections in principle to the ordination of women to the priesthood.
In the RC church there are indeed objections to ordination of women, but none are fundamental. Inter Insigniores seeks to sideline the issue by stating that female ordination was restricted to "A few heretical sects...especially Gnostic ones" which were condemned by Church Fathers. It wasn't just the Fathers who were ambivalent about women - St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was of the opinion that:

The reason...for woman's being less persevering and constant than man is the weakness of her bodily complexion and the frailty of her temperament: "...ex naturali dispositione: quia videlicet habent animum minus constantem, propter fragilitatem complexionis. Et hoc modo comparantur feminae ad masculos..." Effeminacy is the name given to the vice which opposes by deficiency the virtue of constancy or perseverence, since women are generally lacking in this virtue. That is why some men are called effeminate, because they are soft and womanish, because like women they yield readily instead of persevering against difficulties.
It seems that in seeking ordination, women are facing a sort of institutionalised mysogyny that has never gone away. Pope John Paul II concludes Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, 1988), alludes to 1 Pt 2:9 in saying that "Christ looks to them [women] for the accomplishment of the 'royal priesthood'", but finds himself unable to invite women to join the ministerial priesthood - to the extent that he briefy joins the ranks of Gnostics marginalised by Inter Insigniores when he explains, in para. 26, relationship between "what is 'feminine' and what is 'masculine' when a priest celebrates Mass".

The first could it be magic?blow against mysogyny in the churches came not from religion but from science when, in 1953, Watson and Crick published the structure of DNA. Through time it was discovered that the main difference, genetically, between the genders is that women have two X chromosomes, and men have an X and a Y chromosome (left). I have never seen any evidence around what is so magical about this length of 58 million base-pairs forming 86 genes which code for 23 proteins that should restrict the priesthood to men alone.

Genetics, in fact, becomes very interesting when combined with the Gospel story, and perhaps gives us an insight into the identity of the first woman priest in Christian history. Matthew and Luke tell us that Mary conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, as a virgin. Jesus' genetic makeup would have been the same as Mary's. Fr Columbus, in training lay Eucharistic ministers, went as far as to say that part of Mary's agony in watching her son on the cross was that the blood falling from him was her own blood. Poet Frances Croake Frank takes this one step further in her poem, "Did the Woman Say:

Did the woman say, When she held him for the last time in the dark rain on a hilltop,
After the pain and the bleeding and the dying,
‘This is my body, this is my blood’?

The RC Church has always maintained that it's position is not that it won't ordain women to the priesthood, but rather that it has no right to - for example Cardinal Walter Kaspar's (President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity) speech to the Church of England House of Bishops in 2006. The sticking point is that Christ chose men to be Apostles - but note that the title Apostola Apostolorum was given to Mary Magdalen by the Roman martyr and bishop Hippolytus in the 3rd Century. Did he have access to some information no longer available?

As Kaspar noted, ordination is one sacrament, and admission of women to the priesthood opens up admission to the episcopate. He also states that the Roman Catholic Church sees ordination of women as invalid - which seems a puzzling thing to say to the Church of England's House of Bishops, as Pope Leo XIII declared all Anglican orders invalid in 1896.

Personally, I'm glad that the Church of England Synod voted today to open up the path for women to become bishops, because surely the point is overseeing the clergy and people of God, not the chromosomal makeup of the incumbent.

Jesus' attitude to women showed St Paul up to be the man of his time that he was. Pope John Paul appeared to be of the opinion that Mary may have been present at the Last Supper as a participant - a comment that cannot be found now - and stated in the Angelus of 5 June 1983 that "every Mass puts us into intimate communion with her, the Mother, whose sacrifice ‘becomes present’ just as the sacrifice of her Son ‘becomes present’ at the words of consecration of the bread and wine pronounced by the priest".

I look forward to worshipping in a more integrated church which has a commitment towards tackling the stained-glass ceiling, and in which the priest celebrates in persona Christi regardless of gender, celebrating the sacrifice and victory of the Man who had all of humanity engraved within the very building blocks of his body and blood. The RC Church has obviously decided it doesn't have enough gender issues to be going on with, because dark comments are being made about Anglicans who can't accept women bishops swimming the Tiber. The point about that particular river, however, is that it's swimmable in both directions.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Third Way gasps for oxygen

Via Media it ain't
Leaving St Gallicus' after a concert tonight, I picked up a copy of a magazine that I'd never seen before, called Third Way.

Much of it seemed to be a middle-class intellectualist meditation on the vagaries of life, and therefore relatively harmless.

However, I was concerned to see an interview with Khalid Mish'al, who is regarded as the most senior figure in Hamas, which won a landslide victory in the Palestinian Authority elections of Wednesday 25 January 2006.

I was initially interested in the article, and looked forward to reading a neutral view of the situation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. But my expectations were shattered, not by one of Mish'al's answers, but by one of the questions:

"Nelson Mandela famously said, 'The struggle is my life', and for many people that sums up the heroism of the man. It occurs to me that if he had been speaking Arabic, he would have used the word jihad. Can you explain what jihad means to Hamas, and in particular to you?"

If Khalid Mish'al were to choose to compare himself to Nelson Mandela that would be one thing, happy?but it is in fact the interviewer, Huw Spanner, who suggests the comparison first. This allows Mish'al to continue the metaphor at a later point in the interview:

"the Palestinians, like Nelson Mandela, feel that their life is struggle and resistance. When you live every day under occupation, your natural behaviour - This is what people in the West should understand: every day, we suffer aggression, killing and siege, with houses destroyed and families homeless."

Spanner, does have form, however: on his website, he claims to have interviewed Richard Dawkins, Philip Pullman, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. This is, of course, a highly selective list, but the devil's in the detail.

I think his sympathies come through in asking whether he clarifies whether Mish'al classifies what al-Qa'ida does as jihad, to which the answer comes:

"I don't want to talk about others, but if anybody is in doubt about Hamas they need only answer the questions: Has Hamas ever fought outside Palestine? And has it ever resisted anyone other than the Israeli occupation? Any fair-minded person will see the difference."
While wondering what was the question that Mish'al thought he was answering, I can see a parallel between this outlook and that of the last two members on the above list, Messrs Adams and McGuinness. Their original organisation, the IRA, tended to act within the confines of the United Kingdom, but the operatives were no less terrorists for that.

During the 1980's, in the context of the IRA's bombing campaigns, Margaret Thatcher spoke of the necessity of starving terrorists of the oxygen of publicity, perhaps not fully realising the degree to which terrorism would become an anaerobic beast - it is the yeast that makes the circulation and viewing figures of certain media outlets rise.

So what's the answer to the problem of magazines like Third Way giving a sympathetic platform to terrorists wishing to present themselves as oppressed freedom-fighters? The answer, I think is twofold:

Firstly - it's obviously up to the magazine what they publish, but for the sake of a balanced viewpoint I would liked to have seen an opposing viewopoint in the same issue - from Anglican Friends of Israel, for instance.

Secondly, if it's impossible to starve terrorists of the oxygen of publicity - and this appeared to be the case even in the days before the internet - then, with due deference to Mrs Thatcher, let's blast them with the stuff. Make every published sermon and piece of propaganda by Islamic extremists available to every household in Great Britain, so that those who are interested can see the agenda for themselves, without having to peer round the edges of liberal-tinted glasses of pet reporters determined to present themselves and their country in surrender mode.

click to read Margaret Thatcher's 'oxygen of publicity' speech

Friday, July 4, 2008

out of the mouth of madness

In the Mouth of Madness I've recently added In the Mouth of Madness to my list of favourite films. It begins with Sam Neill confined to an old-style asylum, and flashbacks flesh out the story, or alternatively peel the layers of sanity from John Trent's (Neill's character's) mind.

Perhaps the reason that particular film has been on my mind is that my own illness, manic-depression, is active again. No flying weetabix this time, merely an ineluctable descent into a pit whose bottom I can't yet see, accompanied by my sleep-wakefulness pattern flipping so that, cognitively, I'm on the nightshift.

Often an affective disorder such as mine varies in intensity during the day, a phenomenon known as diurnal variation. I've spent a lot of time in the bedroom in the last days until my mood's started to come round late on, because supportive although my family is at these times I'm aware that I don't want to push them too far by being conspicuously slowed-down and irritable in their midst. Yesterday, in fact, able to get a bit of strength together, I went out a took a bus ride while Minima and Minora were still at school, so that Maxima could get a bit of a rest.

As may be obvious I'm not at work right now. I may find it difficult to return, for reasons I can't go into right now due to contractual considerations. At night I'm applying for jobs online, things like working in cafés or libraries. But the prospect of not managing to return to work at all has been preying on my mind, so I got off the bus at the Jobcentre, where I explained the situation to the lady at the front desk.

"To receive Incapacity Benefit you would need your doctor to agree that you couldn't work," she said, with emphases so heavy that I'm not sure they shouldn't be in bold rather than in italics. I nodded and walked off, reminded of an acquaintance from the Cambridge Clubhouse - as was - who had his Incapacity Benefit stopped, and lost his appeal in no small part because he was able to appeal. One of the staff helped him get back about this, on the basis that his mental health problems were impacting on his mental state, not on his ability to pick up a pen and write. Recovered now, he's back at work programming computers.

For me, signing on to benefit would be the last resort of last resorts. I've nothing against people who are on benefits because they are unable to work, indeed at one point I was among their numbers. I find myself baulking at the prospect of returning for three reasons.

Firstly, I genuinely believe that work confers a dignity that is not attached to the size of the wage it brings in, something Pope John Paul II (a factory-worker during the Nazi occupation of Poland) referred to when he said, "the sources of the dignity of work are to be sought primarily in the subjective dimension, not in the objective one". It's good to come home and revel in that delicious change of mental scenery when work-related concerns are pushed out by Minora sings the latest song she's learnt at school, or relates how Kelsy told her that she heard from Dean that Sky says that James told Mrs Smith that...(do writers for soaps get their ideas from their children?)

Secondly, I am aware that a culture has arisen in Great Britain whereby people who could work don't want to, or don't want to do the work available, and I don't want locums etc who meet me to assume I'm part of this group. Ann Widdecombe found this in the course of making a documentary about Incapacity Benefit claimants. Martin Townsend, editor of the Sunday Express, wrote in a column called "Don't Call in Sick:

"Sickness absence accounts for £10billion [per year]...I’d like to believe that the vast majority of those claiming these benefits are doing so honestly. Indeed, I’m compelled to believe it every time I write about this subject because of the large numbers of letters I receive from genuinely sick and disabled readers pointing out how alienated they feel by the 'sick-note' tag."
Earlier this yeaclick to go to Transworld reviewr, Townsend received the Mind Book of the Year for his The Father I Had, which details the relationship between the author and his father, who was manic-depressive. This brings me to the third reason: when you don't have to go somewhere at certain times to do certain things, then despite your best intentions there comes a time when you stop. Work keeps you going, because if you are well enough to do it, then you have no option but to keep going. It keeps you thinking, and if nothing else then hopefully you will have worked through the worst of your mental state before you get home.

Anecdotal evidence shows that people who are manic depressive can point to at least one person in their close family who either has been diagnosed with a similar disorder, or whose behaviour points to similar states of mind. If the worst comes to the worst and one of my daughters should inherit the condition, I don't want a great tranche of her memories of my coping mechanisms to be allowing myself to become "stopped" to the extent that I forgot how to work.

It's 2.25am. My mood's starting to lift, but I'd better get to bed so that I can be up early enough tomorrow morning to be at least tired by this time tomorrow night; that can be half the battle to get back to the plâteau between the valley of death and the Weetabix flightpath.

Please remember me and all like me in your prayers.

Related post: Mad about the fen