Monday, 17 March 2014

The re emergence of Central Europe or how the next European War started.

I hate to say I told you so, but, I told you so. Russia under the leadership of Vladimir "Rex" Putin has only gone and proved me right yet again. Years ago I said he wasn't to be trusted, years ago, when he meddled in Georgia the World was warned that the current bunch of Empire rebuilding Russians were not going to rest until they fixed the mistakes of  Mikhail Gorbachev.  There has always been a nationalist party in the Kremlin and regardless of ideology, any regional government that tried to get away from the loving embrace of Mother Russia has paid in blood and even greater loss of freedom.

 That the Crimea or Krim which is easier to say and more familiar to me, was never a part of Ukraine, really seems academic at this point, but is worth considering if only for the intellectual exercise most rational people went through as early as the emergence of an independent Ukraine in the 1990's. Firstly, the ceding in 1954 to the then wholly artificial concept of  an independent self sufficient Ukraine within the Soviecky Soyuz by an apparently drunken Soviet leader in a fit of  more than usually strong alcoholic haze, is one of the great mysteries of modern Russian history. That most regretted it almost immediately is not questioned. Roll onto the dissolution of the Soviet Empire in the wake of  Glasnost and Peristroika, and you see the rise of nationalist elements that began to clamour for the reconstruction of what had been lost. Solely in the case of the Krim was there ever a justified case for the restitution of territory to it's proper place. If people who consider themselves Russian want to live in the paradise that is the Soviet Empire redux, that I will grudgingly admit, is their  right. Where I depart from the views of both Kiyov and Moscow is the argument that you can forcibly keep people within borders that were never really yours or that you can just take back land after a sham referendum in which every rule ever written for referendums was broken. The less than subtle armed take over  followed by the "transparent" ballot boxes and annexation atmosphere that followed the occupation of the peninsula, including the unvarnished and unapologetic propaganda machine that had hundreds of thousands of imaginary refugees fleeing Ukraine, pogroms and apparent rise of 5th column nazis rising in their hundreds of thousands ready to wage terrible war on the legacy of dear old Lenin, would have been funny had it not been so earnestly taken seriously by Russians and Russian speakers in the Ukraine. Having got the required soviet style 97 % in a vote( prior to the Russian occupation , a poll had annexation at 40%) , Putin and the ultra nationalists have the needed bit of  moral justification they wanted. They would have achieved this years ago if they hadn't spent the entire time scaring the hell out of their own citizens and those of countries around them. Who knows, if Gorbachev had ultimately succeeded in creating a truly free and democratic Russia and the IMF and others not insisted on trying to recreate in Moscow what failed so miserably under Reagan and Thatcher, we'd be looking at situation where Crimea would continue to be an autonomous, predominantly Russian speaking state that could have eventually chosen in time to 1- separate from Ukraine  then 2- negotiate it's entry into Russia..... or not.  As it stands, this brutal regime has yet again shown it will do anything, as long as it can do so without fear of retribution or loss of personal power and fortune.

The fact remains that most existing sovereign states  in central and eastern Europe today live in constant fear that Russia will next target them in the never ending crusade to rescue imperilled Russians living abroad or to repatriate territory unjustly , in the eyes of Russians, given away at one time or another and most recently in the great dissolution of the temporary madness of  Gorbachev. Having successfully bluffed the West and the rest of Europe in the Krim, Putin now has his eye on the Eastern territories of Ukraine. If the current crisis can be stopped at this tipping point between all out European war and some old fashioned diplomatic tension, we and the people of the Ukraine may yet walk away from the naked territorial grab that is next in the works without thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dying needlessly when the ultimate result is a draw in which nothing changes but the formerly intact landscape of homes, factories and farms. If shooting breaks out, the inevitable outcome is the hardening of the resolve of  millions of Ukrainians, both native speakers and Russian speakers alike v the not so paternalistic Russian forces coming to take them kicking and screaming home to Moscow. As a citizen of Europe, you surely cannot be unaware that any war on European soil that involves Russia directly like this, cannot help but escalate tensions and cause every government from Warsaw through at least Berlin or even Paris to mobilize it's armed forces where  if the desired effect for Putin is pan European war, he will get his wish. The mood that prevailed last week  where economic and diplomatic sanctions on Russia and it's oligarchs was not seen to be realistic or practical has now moved into full application. Germany and a number of other nations are moving to a position where soon a defacto boycott of  many Russian products and services will occur. Sanctions on individuals and their companies so successful against the Serbs in the last Balkan war, are the first step in a long line of steps designed to stop the  naked territorial aggression and ambitions of Putin's Russia short of having to declare War. I do have one question to which even I don't have an answer.... Can The United Nations Security council survive with it's reputation intact if a permanent member is allowed to veto any resolution stopping it's own aggression on a sovereign state let alone it's own people? I'm sure like the League of Nations it will hobble along like a dying animal for a bit, but can the Security council find a way around this? I for one hope so, the vacuum it's death would cause is too dangerous to contemplate.

What are the other critical forgotten conflict zones where it could all still go horribly wrong? Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan as well as Latvia  where fully 25% of the population are ethnic Russians. If we step away from strictly linguistic and ethnic tensions, Russia has till now been, all be it unstable at times, a partner in the greater international efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons and in ( he laughed with unease ) Syria, where it has so far ( rolls eyes) refrained from further escalating the civil war/revolution into a bigger unstable bloodbath. As and when Russia drops the pretence of being an honest broker and good global citizen, we will be back in the full grips of a Cold War we have not felt since the 80's.  I'm still not convinced that anybody will use nuclear weapons, and maybe because of this, I'm all the more concerned that full on conventional war will break out in Europe and drag the rest of the World into it..... again. The European Union and the effect it has had on nations in it and those wanting in is tangible and powerful proof that the last thing Europeans want is another European land war. Oh look at those words come out of hibernation  people, like tired old soldiers who thought they'd been retired for good but called out again for one last kick at the ball. Where was I? The EU, In recent elections in Serbia and Bulgaria, the political momentum has been away from isolationism and towards a greater integration into the European Union, the cleansing effect this has had on countries is in marked contrast to what they were like a mere 10 years ago. The one positive you can take from the crisis is that even in the UK, the anti European rhetoric will be falling on increasingly deafer ears as the fear of war and the destruction of Pax Europa is staring us down the barrel of a kalishnikov.

Some of you are too young to remember what it was like to live in the cold war.  Lucky you, but grab your towels fast because we're about to get another ride on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse merry go round. Sometime from the moment Russian tanks crushed the Hungarian revolution in 1957 to the moment of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Peace Dividend somewhere in  early 1989, the  world was in the cold war. From as early as aged 7, I lived in daily terror of dying from a nuclear holocaust. It coloured my view of relationships, marriage and my definition of long term planning. I had for years a recurring nightmare where I would be walking in the street near my home seeing my family walking away from me under threat and when I turned around to look at the house, there would be the unmistakable, yet silent, mushroom cloud of death rising over the city from behind our home. The wind would approach, trees would bend and buildings dissolve and just before I died....I would wake up. That was no way to live. When the nightmares stopped, we all thought that regular programming had resumed and to a great extent it has. This current crisis has however restored the previous levels of terror prior to the last cold war. Where in the rest of Europe the appetite of Germany, Austria, France and Britain has effectively gone away, Russia is still hungry.  It has never stopped and pushes up against the political and economic aspirations of a peaceful and unified Europe. The death of the so called nuclear deterrent only makes actual conventional war more inevitable in Europe and the European Union the only effective solution to the Russian threat.

War is neither evitable or inevitable

The first ripples of fear will manifest themselves in the Central European capitals like Berlin and Warsaw where already the new Europe is drawing up plans to put a stop to the as yet "evitable?" war with Russia. New mutual defence pacts are being drawn up or tested as we speak, gone is the hope that somehow Russians will somehow develop a healthy appreciation of  our democracy, our only desire now being to castrate the regime and it's friends enough to buy time to shore up defences, limit the damage and be clear we mean business. I would like to think that the wishes and desires of the various peoples of the emerging Central Europe that had been swallowed by the Russian Bear will be respected and encouraged to the detriment of  Soviet ambitions, but I fear at least some of the more far off western powers will still try to use us as a bargaining chip. Please be aware that once out of the bottle, powers like Poland that have joined Germany and France in the new Entente Cordiale that includes the potent mix of NATO and EU membership will be hard to break down short of the previously mentioned naked armed aggression.

Merkle and Tusk

Russia has had it's moment to be part of greater Europe and seems to have decided rather firmly that it will not even try be part of Pax Europa.  If this is the way it's meant to be for the next decade or so, then so be it, let's not drag our feet any more than we need to. No more Mr Nice Guy, time we took down the oligarchs and the dictators they are supported by.  I'm sad it's come to this, but at least I can look forward to the leadership and wisdom of Frau Merkle  who herself had to endure the horrors and deprivations of the Cold War like the rest of the new European leaders in Central Europe. There is nothing like a victim at the helm to insure the mistakes of the past are not repeated. Yet it would be foolhardy for the peaceniks too to think for a second that self defence and military alliances that mean something are a bad thing. If Ukraine asks for help from it's neighbours as it will most assuredly not hesitate to do should it come to that, be prepared to see many more millions of slavs who have tasted freedom since 1989 to stand thier ground and not roll over and die with a whimper like some in the West have done repeatedly. Some of us have lost relatives to Russian aggression and oppression in every decade since 1945, if you think  there is no stomach for a fight in Ukraine, Poland, Bulgaria or the Baltic states, etc.., think again.

In my lifetime I have seen a few things I thought I would never see.

1- Polish freedom from Russia
2- The fall of the Soviet Union
3- Irish peace
4- The end of the nuclear nightmare.... literally.
5- The restoration of Europe to it's state of affairs prior to 1900

The New Europe has ignited hopes in me of standing for election as an MEP,  the House of Commons or even the Polish Sejm. I now live on the cusp of fulfilling several long held dreams, not least of which  living in Poland again at least part time on my family's own recovered lands and properties. However that and other hopes are tempered by that old familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach I still have  every time  I watch a programme about European history and they get to the part where yet again, Poland and the rest of Central Europe are engulfed in a fight not of their own making, where our young and not so young people will yet again die for the vanity of a man in Moscow. Yet again we will be forced to rebuild our cities and towns and yet again we will be bombed into an industrial stone age, our economies in ruins. Well not  this time if we can help. And if it comes to a fight at least this time we'll be ready.

Those of you in far flung places who don't think a few shots fired in the Balkans or the Crimea will amount to anything are forgetting that the recent history between 1914 and 1989 was an interlude in which Central Europe was swallowed whole by both the West and the East, made to be the pawns of powers far away and too concerned with other matters to think our people mattered. Things are different now, we have our countries back, our power back and our dignity back. Soon jobs held in near perpetuity by British, French and American politicians, diplomats and generals will pass into the hands of  those most concerned. Central Europe is back and hoping it will not require a baptism of fire to be taken seriously.

I strongly recomend you watch this instructive video of the evolution of the map of Europe. pick a spot, any spot and watch, then look at Poland, Germany, Russia and a few other states. Try to realize that through most of European history the nations some of us hardly reckon can muster so much as a veto were for the longest time huge military and economic powers with interests that reached far past their physical boundaries. Further take your modern history glasses off and realize that Russia is IN Europe, it , Russia IS Eastern Europe and all the states to the west of it form the centre along with Germany. Maybe now you'll realize once and for all that things have changed. There is no Warsaw pact, no Soyuz and no Soviet Empire, just free sovereign states that are part of the old Europe minus a few royal houses.

Late news edit: Russian demands that Ukraine create a new federal constitution, it remain neutral or in other words, not join the EU or NATO, give status to the Russian language and Lastly respect the result of the impromptu referendum in Crimea. The real news is that President Obama on the recommendation of Foreign Secretary Kerry, has accepted this. Again, the actual opinion of the legitimate government of Ukraine is to be ignored and Russia is allowed to dictate terms in order to get out of a sticky wicket. Typical, disgusting and a complete surrender by Obama. Who is he to speak for another country, who is Lavrov to demand these things of Ukraine? While on the surface some of the demands are even reasonable, but seen as a whole, similar to the attempt to humiliate Serbia in 1914. And if you need reminding, despite the total acceptance of even the most intrusive demands from Austria, Serbia still ended up being invaded. Can we expect better from Russia? Probably not. EU foreign ministers are to meet and are already rejecting some of the demands as extreme. Among the demands the creation of a “Support Group for Ukraine” consisting of the US, EU and Russia that would guarantee the military neutrality of Ukraine, the same sort of diplomatic construct that kept Belgium neutral till 1914 when it no longer suited the Kaiser. 

At the end of the day if Ukraine does join the EU it too will want to make military alliances with neighbours that won't threaten to invade them. Russia will have to accept at some point that they no longer can call the shots like that. This of course will take longer if people like Obama insist on telling another people that they have no free will unless he and Putin think they can have it. How very sad. Plus ça change and all that. Even sadder is it's not clear if Putin is blinking or just playing WW1, the game. Obama's words "continue to oppose any violations of Ukraine's sovereignty or territorial integrity " ring even more hollow in the knowledge that the reaction in the White House and UN are those of the old school diplomats that have blinked when they could have helped at the ultimate cost of Ukraine. The desire of Ukraine to join the EU, the very reason for the uprising in the first place now seems to be in jeopardy. Time will tell if this premature climb down by the Americans will be accepted by the European foreign ministers and Ukraine itself.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

What me? Sinner? or how to fine tune yourself

I have a question for you. Can you, the living breathing embodiment of the Mahatma Ghandi or Mother Theresa be free of sin, you who have given to every charity, recycled, voted, protested, signed petitions, been nice to minorities, adopted rescue kittens, read the Guardian and bought fair trade, be capable of sin? 

Most people won't consider themselves capable of sin so long as they still go by the old fashioned teaching that created multiple generations of Catholics ( or other Christians) who were told that disobeying your parents, not doing your homework and forgetting to throw out the rubbish was sinning.  Such a list of what we can call minor misdemeanours,  compared to actual sins and the adult  application of what is actually meant as a sin, are worlds apart and are the principle reason most people either don't understand or take seriously the word SIN.

In this season of  Lent where we are supposed to examine ourselves  and find ways to improve ourselves, perhaps a quick look at Sin itself and the way it affects our lives is in order.
Guilt is your conscience reminding you it's there.

Guilt, Catholic guilt, closely related to Jewish guilt and that thing English people do when confronted with squelchy noises and awkward situations, is the manifestation of all people asking themselves the core question, consciously or unconsciously, "Am I doing the right thing". It's another way of  being aware of sin. Sin in and of itself is not just the list of the big ones, the cardinal sins, the sins that get you locked up and fined, but the myriad of small traps that define life for ourselves and those around us, that through awareness keep us from complicating day to day life unnecessarily. And yet it is also the force that requires us to occasionally make a few waves but know also when to stop. It's hardly simple is it? But it operates in some, 24 hours a day and in others hardly at all. Sin, the awareness of sin or guilt are the only tools we have as people to navigate an often tempting world where many basic values have been left by the side of the road.

When some pray "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, ... the things: which should be changed,: and the Wisdom to distinguish: the one from the other." They are asking for guidance in knowing when to pick a fight, when to make a principled stand, when to bend and when to lead by example. This doesn't absolve anybody for a second from trying to insure a better self or a better world, but it does keep us from getting into the kind of trouble that will make our efforts wasted, misunderstood or so devalued, we may as well not have tried.

 I can hear some of you thinking, but this is about idealism and big principles. Well  sometimes it is, and it guided the actions of many great people, including the just passed away Tony Benn, who was a great practitioner of the Methodist school of Socialism. His life was about righting great wrongs and picking his moments. Sometimes he chose wisely, other times he preferred to loose than to win just a little bit. While life, especially political life is about the great debates and great reforms, it is also about the the small battles we face every day with ourselves, with others and with the limits of where our rights and obligations begin and end. 

We need to accept that if we are to achieve personal serenity and adherence to the values we hold dear and more importantly through our own example, show others that they are good values, we need to first break down the intellectual notion of what sin actually asks us to examine. In the Catholic mass, the following phrase is used when confessing to sin and declaring our souls pure and open to receiving G-d.  

"I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do. "

It's not long, but boy is it heavy laden, and yet despite multiple repetition or even mumbling over the years, the weight of those words is lost on many who still, as we have seen, believe sinning is not having made your bed and disobeying your Mother.  That somehow sinning is for small children and once you're old enough to open a bank account, it doesn't apply to you is missing the point entirely.  If you take nothing else out of a church service, then that simple sentence should be the one thing ringing in your ears everyday of your life. It is the moment during the service when you are asked, for a few seconds to examine yourself and see if you could make the week coming better than the last. 

Let's look at the 4 conditions and consider them. 

"In my thoughts":  You could argue that your thoughts are your own and that if you do not follow through on killing the person who has just mistaken Tuesday for Thursday for the 3rd week in a row, costing you time and money, you have showed restraint, even mercy. In as much as you have avoided a direct action that could have been unfortunate and even possibly illegal, you may be right, but are still not out of the woods. Your thoughts, your decision making as it were, will guide your attitude towards people and things in a number of small but significant ways. If you are not open to new suggestions, new ideas, new information or the exercise of reserving judgement until you have enough information, you will choose unwisely. If you limit the sphere of consequence of your decisions to the 3 feet around you and your personal comfort, glory and satisfaction, you have in fact through your thoughts sinned.  No man is an Island and if we accept that we live in a society that is composed of more than just ourselves, we must be inclusive in our thinking.  But if you insist on me giving you a concrete example of sin through thought by even a saintly person, I give you reckless, insensitive, sinful thought, I give you... jumping to conclusions. It's a favoured sport in my tribe and that of my wife, having led us individually and together to a lot of bad decisions, some funnier than others and some, life alteringly awful, dragging on for years and usually based on absolutely nothing.

 "In my words": Words are powerful if you give them power, and other times they are just words. You need to know the difference. This diplomatic skill eludes a lot of people, especially the brightest among us. We will at times forget ourselves and say things that are inadvertently hurtful or lead to questions and consequences that were wholly avoidable. I'm not telling you to never utter a word, or never praise or never  mention something embarrassing or never correct. These are sometimes the right thing to do. Some people just need to deal with the fact that life goes on regardless, that praise is part of the learning process and that correction is the passing on of wisdom, that humour is as much part of the healing process as is comforting. Where some of us might cross the line is when we carry a joke too far or pick at a still raw, less than healed sore of another person. You have to ask yourself if it was worth the discomfort of the other person when you scored that extra point or humiliated your friend for "a laugh".  As for the less learned, you also sin with words when you use them and think, it's all the same, you can chop and change meanings and expect others to justify and support your ignorance. Do not be offended or surprised when you get something wrong. When you reject the correction or the wisdom with your words, you send a signal to the other person that they need not waste any more effort on you, and that will be your loss, not theirs.  If anything, remember always that the wisest man is the one who is still learning.

 Lastly, sometimes ignorance can in fact be bliss. Ask yourself at least three times  before you spill the beans about something too soon, to the wrong person or to the person being wronged.  I won't say who, but a person of my acquaintance was in a bad relationship. I tried to the best of my ability to meddle with a light touch, but discovered she was not yet ready to find out for herself what kind of mess she was in. When the time came and the relationship dissolved, I was there to offer help when it was needed and we are still friends. If she had in fact been in any kind of real danger, you bet I would not have hesitated to act more forcefully, but some people just won't be told and sometimes you're best staying out of it. 

A good rule of thumb before you open your mouth and can never take back what you said is to 1- know who is there 2- be sure what you're going to say doesn't open a can of worms and 3- Be sure you will be clearly understood.  How others choose to twist your words is not down to you, but always strive for clarity. 

In what I have done: This is different from words, as words, however good or bad, flawed or premature, can be rendered into a choice not taken. However, once you've crossed the Rubicon, that's it.  In doing something, you open a whole new can of worms that can't be changed. Consequences of a much more solid variety, as a rule will cost you more than an I'm sorry I said that, they will bring with them a lot of ill will, anger and retribution on you.  Are you really prepared to waste your money or time for example, on a luxury for yourself when your dependent children and spouse who have in no way wronged you or been bad, will later have to suffer themselves because of your own greed? Is it really a harmless sin when you opt to do something to  a person or persons over a matter so trivial there is no law for it but will lead to their lives being worse directly or indirectly through your choice.  I do not suggest you hold the weight of the world  like Atlas, but do think about how your choices will impact on those around you.  When you hold hostage something out of spite or out of simple seeking of fun, the person to whom the object belongs to will trust you less, expect restitution of damaged goods and likely place you on a black list you will not soon come off of.  And you had better hope and pray that whatever it is you damaged isn't irreplaceable. Sentimental objects, collector items and appliances that will cost more than a week's wages to repair or replace will also shift responsibility for the replacement of those things on others  if you yourself are not able to. How fair is it that they need to pay for your stupidity? Why should they loose something they took care of for years because you were too inept to be careful? And even if it is yours and has come to you from an older relative, does it give you the right to be the last person to ever have it or use it? In most cases we are meant to preserve and care for things and people, and it starts from the moment we are able to pass something on intact or better than when we received it. 

In what I have not done:  Here's a tough one that isn't any harder to understand than the power of words. So you didn't do something, so what , who got hurt? Well you didn't, but it has cost somebody else for sure. I'll use a simple example we've all seen in operation. The somebody else's problem field so well explained in Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  There are three or four of you in a house, somebody , the famous somebody, but not you, has left a sock on the floor. You see it, but it's not yours, so you leave it there, a few days go by, the others too ignore the sock, especially the person who dropped it. Eventually the sock becomes a no go zone, surrounded by dust, and for all intents and purposes, invisible.  Then laundry day  comes along  and presto, who ever was doing the laundry picked it up.  They had to go on a seek and destroy mission around the house looking for all the lost bits of clothing, it cost them time, it cost them happiness and it made them feel used and unappreciated that nobody else would pick up the damn sock. Again mining the rich vein that is Douglas Adams, there is a refrigerator, a detective and a cleaning lady.  The detective won't throw out the disgusting rotting sandwich in the back of the fridge as it's the cleaning lady's job, she won't touch it as she expects not to have to be exposed to possible new life forms that will eat her. It's not hard to see Dirk Gently is wrong, but we also recognize a huge stubborn streak in him. it's not his job, not his responsibility and it's certainly not his problem. Somebody will have to clean it up , but not him. Again I'm not  suggesting you become muggins and do it all yourself, but show some initiative, then get the problem solved in a more permanent and fair manner. Lastly, without breaking any law or being immediately and irrevocably awful, if you delay action, any action, too often, the time to do the right thing will pass and you will be responsible for the worsening of something through your inaction. Try not to leave those to do lists mouldering too long  before they become impossible to do things. Some won't affect anybody but yourself, yet others will in point of fact leave you  hoping others don't find out it was you that forgot to apply for something when it was easy but you figured " I don't need it, so sod  it" and now  your mates are wondering why they are the only ones paying full price and locked into a year long contract. BTW, if you know something seriously bad is being done and you can stop it but you don't do anything, you are as good as doing it yourself. 

It's a simple thing to do things on time, do them even if you don't feel the need for it now. It can and probably will come in handy later on and you can never predict how your decision to not do something today will impact harmfully on your friends or future relatives. Make the time to do things, think about others and how your seen or unseen unselfish act will always reflect better on people than the selfish one you hope they never find out about.  

Savings, thrift, the act of not wasting, the act of sharing , the act of asking if others want as well, are all actions you can choose not to do that are not a cardinal sin, just  nigly little annoying ones that if you let them pile up, will hurt you and those around you. 

There you have it, the four conditions, the four horsemen of Sin, not so scary, not so simple and not so insignificant.

Having got through this, let me ask you again .... You , can you, the living breathing embodiment of the  Mahatma Ghandi or Mother Theresa be free of sin, you who have given to every charity, recycled, voted, protested, signed petitions, been nice to minorities, adopted rescue kittens, read the Guardian and bought fair trade, be capable of sin? Of course you can, not even the great Mahatma was free of sin, sin as you can see is not just about the big heavy commandments, it's a life long  fine tuning of yourself ,and guilt, the little voice reminding you to look at your check engine light from time to time.


Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy: 36 years later.

In case you missed it.... it's Douglas Adams's Birthday today. One of the greatest sons of Cambridge, second only to the founder of the circling poets of Kakrafoon, 5th in line in froodness from the Jamaican roti wagon man who is the holder of the perspex pillar of justice with wich he scrapes grease from the grease trap. A man who still owes a script to the BBC which graciously has granted him yet another extension, having missed the last 8, at least 3 out of  simple habit and one out of mischief. We may yet rescue a story from one of his hard drives but I suspect it will be more Silmarilion than Restaurant at the end. In the interim, we can read, watch or listen to any number of versions of his Magnum Opus till that day comes to pass.

I was moved to write today mostly out the need to tell as many people as I could about the hoopie little features the BBC has laid on for the HHGTTG cognoscenti around the world. I set the mood first by tuning into  this wonderful site holding the radio plays   or here as they went out that  first time in 1978. I could have also gone to the specially designed BBC page complete with reconstituted retro game even, but chose to not wait till next week, tho in fairness, I need little provocation to listen again and do so at the slightest excuse or if  I have a long train ride that would otherwise be punctuated by offers of bad biscuits and overpriced East Coast hot beverages. (scripts for the radio shows here, follow the logical links)

Play the game again or for the first time
Ah yes....  er, Games,  yes. If you're old enough, you'll remember the joy of early gaming where you typed instructions and dialogue into a programme that if you were lucky, had you trained in the appropriate machine language responses required to get past the bulldozer. If however you are alive now and were not a spotty youth in 1984, you will find bewildering the manner in which you interact.  Don't Panic, the kind boffins at the BBC have included several tabs that help you navigate the Neanderthal retro game with ease. It has lots of cool sound effects and once you get the hang of it, it even begins to make sense. I having been a past master when it first came out, took only 10 minutes to finally get out the house before I was crushed to death by the bulldozer. Not bad as it's been nearly 30 years since I played it last. Truth be told, even then it was a miracle that first time when I made onto the Vogon cruiser. I won't give any more away, but if you get  onto the Heart of Gold, do please pay a visit to the Nutrimatics drinks dispenser. You know what the sad thing is ? Even now I'm getting the details from memory. 

And that's the thing about Douglas Adams, he wrote other things.... Dirk Gently, Doctor Who eps and lots of other stuff, but what sticks like glue in our collective minds , occupying precious space that could be storing valuable information like where I left that Dalek cookie cutter or the alleged safe place  I last left my datastick in, is the entirety of HHGTTG, all of it, the radio plays, the telly plays and the books. Greater even than Shakespeare and his many plays, better than JRR Tolkein's LOTR, HHGTTG has managed to be ever present babelfish Sci Fi trope treasure trove and existentialist Woody Allen sketch edited by a Pythoner filtering the rest of life for you. If you're like most of my geek mates of a certain age, that's precisely the sort of thing that would appeal to you. Give it to a young person  who's just turned old enough to start considering the question of Life the Universe and Everything, and you'll soon find out if you have a deeply curious person who may turn into scientist, philosopher or both. A constant questioning vein of humour runs throughout the entire work and distracts the reader/listener from the fact that Douglas Adams turned inconsistency, lack of continuity and writing by the skin of your teeth into an art form. If you read it correctly, you can actually hear him thinking out loud, wondering which turn to take and more often than not, wondering how to get himself out of yet another trap of his own making. His most famous such trap was left unresolved in the upstairs landing of Dirk Gently's Apartment building. Like the Gordian Knot of old, a man from the removal firm finally sawed it in half. 

If you're new to the obsession, I warn you that you'll need all of it. Well maybe not the film, it was a mess and you'll only mutter darkly afterwards, but the rest, you'll need it all. Here's why.  Our boy could never leave anything well enough alone, consequently  when the radio plays were made into telly plays and books, details would change, some not so important others more so. If you have heard the radio plays, you'll know there is a giant statue with bird people living in the head, they are never heard from again but the statue reappears later in a cave. If you read the books published separately, the perspex pillar is also the award for the most gratuitous use of the word fuck in a screenplay, but in the omnibus, it's now Belgium. You're not even safe with the omnibus editions, I'm not sure but I think that from the the one without "Zaphod plays it safe" to the one with, there are more minuscule alterations.  My point is that if you pick up any of the books out there, from the radio scripts to the novelizations to the omnibus, you can have a differently spiced version every time.

Our book club is reading Hitch Hiker this month, I know some of them won't get it. The undisciplined mind that created the Electric Monk and the interconnectivity of all things is just too scattered and easily distracted for the type that prefers a traditional beginning , middle, end going somewhere with this story. HHGTTG is not one of those books, it's more of an exploration of reality, spirituality and the universe through humour and viewed via the filter of the British stiff upper lip  that dances on the border of madness and control. One of the tensest scenes in the entire story takes place in a railway dinner in which a single packet of biscuits is shared by two people who each think the other is stealing their biscuits. Propriety and fair play in the midst of bureaucratic intransigence arises time and again as if it were a game of cricket. In fact cricket as life and as philosophy of life is never far from the surface. 

Marvin the Paranoid Android is the fatalistic Russian Jewish side of the story that springs up at you
forever pointing out that life is hard and that G-d, if he exists, has it in for you. The planet Krikkit is inhabited by Daily Mail readers who hate outsiders and Arthur Dent is himself a shlemiel who finds out the long hard way that it's the little things in life and tea, that remain constant, not the same, but constant, that sometimes certain people are in fact the centre of the Universe and the rest of us will never be.  I could explain that in greater detail, but I would much rather you read the books.

The only way to enjoy these books is to let go of  structure and allow the narrative to take you on a ride through surrealism and  alternate streams of thought occasionally resting in a oasis long enough to have a go at yet another social blunder, security blanket or fad. I'm not saying he's Joseph Conrad, Tolstoy or Kafka, tho at times you would swear he'd been reading them just before he sat down to write. Then again, if  you like Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Kafka, it stands to reason you like Adams. You need a corkscrew  sort of mindset to get into the stories, they are all about everything and about nothing. 

I'm going to have a piece of Faery cake and a cup of tea now, even in the darkest depths of space in the most advance ship ever known, there is always time for tea and a bit of a bath.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Dawkins Atheism, Right Wing fundamentalism and the death of indifference

 I hadn't meant to write this today, but a few things happened that made me question the state of  dialogue, academic pursuits and the general public's ability to perceive things beyond a few simple catch phrases.

Let me begin at the beginning.  A few days ago I wrote a piece about Lent. Those who read right away were predisposed to being of a particular spiritual bent, others were less quick to read it. Had it been about say Daleks or  the rise of the Ultra right wing in Central Europe, they would of gladly clicked the link. But no, each group in it's way seemed less inclined to explore the territory it felt less comfortable with. One of my mates, a devout defender of the down trodden seems to have developed a blind spot for Russia, another for Israel and yet others just avoid anything about religion on the basis it's all rotten and not worth wasting the time on, yet others hate politics all together. There are multiple dogmas.... atheist dogma, ultra left dogma, feminist dogma, you can't say that ...can you ? dogma, classist trade union dogma, working class dogma, anti Catholic dogma, anti Muslim dogma and lastly, anti sick and poor dogma ( I can go on). I apologize if I  in any way insinuated the existence of a functioning class system btw, there of course isn't one . Some of the avoidance is down to not wanting to stray from favoured topics and opinion trends, some of it is frankly fear of being challenged. This I regret and it grieves me that even among some of my smartest friends, they have allowed these little oases of  fear to flourish.

The particular thread in facebook that got some of us going was an article about Richard Dawkins in the Independent. It matters little what the  piece said, but if you must know, it stated that saying no it's not a lot won't stop a load of people from going to church or believing in G-d or spirits. There was one person in the conversation who took the early Dawkins approach and the rest of us aligned, rather surprisingly along the centre, and managed a nice well developed discourse without a single person going " No it's not", "Yes it is"  then going off in a strop. But it did bring forward the rather amusing notion that I had decided to go back to church mostly as a reaction to Dawkins telling me I was a silly person if I did and that I would burn in his Atheist hell if I did. Thanks Richard Dawkins , I think.... but the kind of discourse you represent is not how humanity ever reached for the stars, pasteurized milk or created Democracy.

Watch the Python version of this article
Just because some people can't spell, doesn't mean grammar and spelling don't exist. Dawkins and his kind are quite clear that the spirit world and all things associated with it do not exist. I cannot help what he can't feel and I can. His not feeling or knowing something will not eradicate my knowing or feeling. Scientifically and philosophically his position is untenable.

The argument goes like this. I say that I just had a cup of tea ( because as far as I can tell... I did) He says I didn't because apparently I washed the things and put them away after I finished and there is no evidence of my drinking tea. He says I'm delusional because he does not believe. At least with the cat in the box there is a 50 50 chance it's dead or alive. Here I am a liar or I drank some tea.

If all arguments are reduced to a need for absolutely empirical proof of a statement, then even the invisible pillars that hold up democracy, law and good order would be unprovable. And yet here we are with an imperfect system that manages to keep us all from eating each other with mint sauce.

Trust is a belief, love is a belief, forgiveness is a belief that the person or thing will not revert to previous form. Without it we would be savages. Yet you cannot touch or smell or quantify any of these things. As strong as water or wind, these beliefs are at least as responsible for the direction we walk in every day.

But if we surrender to the questionable dogmatism of unvarnished Dawkins theology, we find ourselves becoming very bitter unhappy un trusting greedy people who's only joy is to stick our fingers into other people's wounds to prove they aren't lying. Oh look there, I accidentally referred to the new testament.... Better edit that out before somebody says I'm preaching.

Dogmatic atheists like  Richard Dawkins and their crusades to rid the world of any religious influence whatsoever are no better than the loons on the right that take things written thousands of years ago, translated poorly, lost in a jar, found  and transcribed even more poorly sometimes, then translated yet again., poorly... as the basis of a divinity's literal unalterable message to man. In either case, if you disagree with them they will make sure you are branded as some sort of social deviant or worse.

Where these atheists and myself part company is at the fork in the road that asks us to accept that things change, things evolve and that not all things that were true or appropriate 2000 years ago, are now.  If a text attempting to teach a person, usually in the form of a letter, instructing us in a particular duty is important, it will do so using 2000 year old context and examples. The core message may remain the same ( principle )  but the details ( dogma) will change. Atheists and particularly those who have taken an extreme dislike of religion,  which can be separated from spiritualism  for the purposes of this discussion, have not allowed for the abandonment of what might have once been sacred holy law  but is now anathema to most people, neither have they allowed for the fact that some eras in history have created interpretations of the basic tenets of scripture based on who was regarded a "person" or worthy of inclusion in the club.

I don't see Democracy being rejected out of hand by humanists scholars because the principles were applied to male Atheneans only, and that those outside of the city were treated as no better than slaves at times. If anything, in the grand scheme of History, as political philosophies go, democracy has been a failure, having been the guiding principle of most of  Western society for less than 250 years.  It is the critical thinking required to recognize the goodness that any movement is capable of and that like all things the movement too changes and usually for the better, over time. The scientific method itself springs from the desire of  religious people to understand the beauty and mystery of nature and how it works. Frankly the more I see, the more terms like G-d particle and the fingerprint of G-d come up.  As for modern social reforms that even now are being dismantled by the greedy right and alleged G-d fearing conservative streams in the USA, Canada and the UK, these sprang from the desire of  church going people of means to spread the simple but important principles laid out in Torah and the Christian Bible of  sharing the wealth, being honest, not being greedy and trying to build a better world where we all share in the bounty of that which surrounds us,  all the while making sure it's preserved for future generations. Nothing happens in a vacuum . The catalyst for much of the good in the world started with a few religious  types saying what if we were a bit more like the people asking us to be good and  answering the question ; What makes the world work and how do I fit into it. By what miracle is it that we don't just collapse into a heap of spineless jello? ( Nick Clegg, boom boom )

Now let's  let's have a go at the equally dogmatic religious and fiscal right. Theirs is the only way of doing things and all attempts at reform and tinkering ,but  heresy writ large. Heresy of the kind that denies the luxury of some among us to close their  minds to the changes and new conditions that constantly erode the absolute certainty with which we hold the idea that that which was irrefutably correct 6000 years ago let alone half an hour ago must still be true now, however retrograde it appears. These people have used this orthodoxy to disallow rational reforms in dietary laws, as well as intellectual, social and scientific day to day activities. They have, on the basis that change is bad, isolated themselves into communities who over time had to detach from general society a bit more with every new reform. But where the Mennonites and other ultra orthodox sects of Christianity, Judaism and other faiths kept to themselves, others have attempted to impose their particular brand of conservatism on a community that is nothing like them. Out of the the same belief the Atheists share.... they are the anointed ones, the only carriers of the truth and no one else shall matter, because they know best and we should just go along with it.

 Jesus and his followers said to the Rabbis at the temple "We would like to continue with the principles of what makes us Jewish, but we'd like to modernise it a bit, if you don't mind, pretty please" they went on to say , "it's been a few thousand years since the laws and teachings were written and things have changed a lot, can we at least try to reflect some of  that?". And now depending on what part of Christianity you look at , some are clinging on dogmatically to out of date practices set up about 200 years after that particular conversation, and others are making room for change on the basis of simple questions.... What and who are people? What does history, science and medicine bring to the application of  principles that have survived in the case of Judaism 6 to 8 thousand years and Christianity and the Muslim faith, a little under 2000 years. I would argue the case that most of those principles are the very same ones viewed from a slightly different angle. Jews in fact have had conversations like this several times resulting in the creation of Hasidism which rejected  growing bourgeois tendencies and reforms of the top layers of Jewry in the 14th century that themselves are later viewed as conservative and worth preserving in the Voltaire era debate that questioned the need for isolationism and  supported the desire to integrate more into general society without destroying their own inherent Jewishness. Catholicism of late, starting with Benedict and now going full steam with Pope Francis is conducting a root and branch review of the Dogma. It will shock people who cannot tell the difference between the "literal word of G-d" and a good story or the equally important codes of conduct that are not per se in the Bible, but allegedly based on interpretation. As we've seen from the above, interpretation, like the conditions, changes, but the basic ideals do not, that is what makes an institution or belief system solid. I take this moment to ask those who have till now have gone out of their way to avoid information, to take note. Things are changing  due to pressure from below, pressure from regular Catholics and maybe you need a new whipping boy.

The fact that there is so much ossification in both the left and the right with each pointing to an idealised world that never existed or if it did, not for long, is the manifestation of a human desire to grasp something and hold onto it like a blanket that was there when you were a child. The reality is that my youngest son's blanket was reduced to a thread, as far as I know, he still had it on him to remind himself of the security and simplicity of  when he too was a baby till he was about 14, then he grew up. If we accept that to get the same result every time we need to do things  differently sometimes, we then are ready for reform. Great ideas are exposed as flawed, flawed ideas are recognized as not entirely awful. From this we get growth and reform and the preservation of those things most precious to us.

I discovered from my own reaction to the extremes on both sides  but particularly the Atheist who wanted to exclude even my most basic manifestations of my faith from popular culture and politics, that it was worth fighting for. It was worth going back to Church for those regular masses and it was worth defending the principles and the history that was being white washed as I stood there waking up. I grew up as those who've read me before will know, in a multi ethnic, multi religious and multi cultural community. We shared holy days, we helped each other and learned from each other. If I let the isolationists and atheists win I would be denying myself, my own experiences and the possibility of future generations to also experience that eye opening education you only get if you dive in feet first.

There is an other important aspect as I said in the beginning,... nobody is going to determine for me what I have seen, felt, smelt and tasted. No one is going to force me to retreat from my own experiences on the grounds they think they never happened. No one will ever be able to convince me or anybody else that the essence of being as we feel it and know it, is a figment of our imagination. This is why indifference is the last complacency to fall. When my way of life, however benign and harmless and even to be frank, dull, is being actively denied me by an Ivory Tower brigade from both the religious right and the Atheist left, I feel the need to make a stand and protect my boring, benign, simple principled life that these people seem to think is so flawed that in practising it I will corrupt others with it.  I never stopped people from not doing things or doing things, I never demanded of my closest or even farthest acquaintances to recant football, dancing, chic flics, animé or anything else that fell well within the norm of generally accepted political, social and moral codes we all claimed to be familiar with.

Yet now I am accosted from both sides with demands that I set aside decades of tolerance, openness, and curiosity in the name of the safety of the great white Christian nation, the great non de-script humanist nation  that dare not define itself  lest it offend anybody and the great me me me nation that is frankly interested in itself only and cares little for the rest of the world  and the future.  I am often confused by the commandment that I must accept evolution as a scientific principle but  not also go along with the logic that some functions and abilities are weaker or stronger depending on where you are and what your role in society is. That's code for race, gender, social standing and other environmental variables. I'm asked to believe that we are all equally abled and there are no differences. I am asked to say mouthfulls  like baby woman or pregnant person, as  pregnant woman is sexist. If I point out that Kenyans are on the whole incredible runners, I am racist. If  I, using a large representative sample of people within a general area come to the conclusion that Poles don't trust Russians, I'm told I'm making assumptions and how could I know that?

I have a real problem with the informationally challenged,  or using the more sensitive term "morons". There is almost a pride in ignorance, knowing too much leads to opinions and as we all know, opinions are dangerous and could lead to facts and differences of opinion which again we are told , are bad. This should at all cost be avoided.  So then how are we supposed to evolve or grow if we cannot know or say such things? How can we begin to question when some fundamental questions are taboo themselves? How can I predict the reaction of Ukranians to the acts of Russians in the Crimea If I don't allow myself the ability to see that the people I'm looking at are in fact nothing like London bankers or farmers from Corwall. Why must I pretend to be nice and nod agreeably when some barely there person tells me there is no such thing as a New York school or London style of photography or poetry? Of course there are diffirences, and they matter. The fact some can spot a person to within 50 miles of where the family is from by the way they speak, react and phrase things, surely is testament to the need to stop sublimating things to the point that we are nothing. I had to fill out a survey and it asked me if I was Asian, black or white. I'm a slav, that will tell you more than me telling you I'm white any day of the week. I'm a Catholic, it shapes my thinking, I'm an upper class twit socialist who loves G-d. But no they just want t know if I'm white and male. When knowledge dies,questioning dies, so does curiosity and the ability to reason and absorb new ideas

This is a great time to be a demagogue with simple answers to complex questions. In this last week the Tories were revealed as having held back economic studies that backed up multiple other such studies that showed immigrants were not a danger or a drain, if anything they were good for the economy. Not without coincidence , within days the government used the chief vet to launch an attack on Halal and Kosher. Nice one, I call that fancy skating if ever I saw any. Shift the focus back onto something the Tories can play with.  As and when it becomes patently obvious to even the thickest, that the large corporations and multi nationals are the reason there is such a huge deficit through non payment of tax  and abuse of  government latitude on regulations, I have to wonder how long it will take to  shift it back on the the shoulders of the poor and the sick? Ignorance is bliss say some, I'm sure the dogmatists agree.

Between the PC left and the equally dogmatic right, the centre has been squeezed and along with it the ability to debate, tolerate and get along. People who might otherwise be prepared to try something new, won't. People who were prepared to accept that sometimes some things are not possible due to basic immutable facts and that one must find ways around them are now often faced with intransigent fanatics on both sides that will not allow for reality,  however weird and wonderful it is, to unfold and do it's magic.  Yet others who retain the basic curiosity we are all born with, feel the need to suppress the questions and the explorations lest they themselves be seen in a bad light by one or the other side.

I like to think that I represent a growing part of society that is militantly reclaiming the middle ground of life, the universe and everything. That wonderful mix of science, curiosity, G-d, spirituality, imagination, innovation, humour, exploration, comfort with the known , the unknown and the bits that work, that for better or worse has gotten humanity this far. Join me on the shady side where nothing is ever as black or white as it seems on first inspection. If anything, it's very colourful.