Gay Marriage – a child’s perspective

Many years ago, like most kids of my generation, I was sent to school. I still remember the primary school – the vaulted, slightly dusty corridor with a dark shiny floor, and the dim secluded annex for coats and scarves next to the first classroom door.

Each child was instructed to use a particular peg to hang their coat. This was probably the first game we played at the school, a game we went along with. I never recall anyone questioning why we had to use the same peg each time, not me. I suppose in hindsight it was an early lesson in bureaucratic efficiency and obedience.

Anyway, each peg was identified by a unique picture above it. Colourful and bold, the images were of easily recognisable cartoon-style scenes and characters. A giraffe perhaps, or a church? Possibly there was a policeman (friendly but big), a nurse (female), a doctor (male), or a roaring open fire. I don’t really recall. All I recall is my peg’s picture, the icon signifying my place in the array of coats. It showed two chaps, two business men perhaps, outfitted in identical pinstripe suits, bowler hats and bristly moustaches, apparently stepping out together on a nice walk.

Now, bearing in mind I was five, and that this was in 1976, I look back and wonder that I just assumed without  any conversation or self-questioning, that the icon above my peg depicted a male married couple, having  a stroll and being reasonably happy and settled in their relationship. I seem to remember mentioning this to someone – whether pupil or staff I don’t know – and remember being corrected into believing the two gentlemen of the coathook icon were, in all probability, friends, and not married as I had quite innocently assumed.

In retrospect, I feel I was ahead of the curve, and that same-sex marriage clearly did not seem unnatural or peculiar to me. So the idea that it would undermine heterosexual marriage seems utterly wrong.

A bad day for religious patriarchy

Last night’s The Ascent of Woman (BBC2) did a fine job of demonstrating how the recent trend for monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam being the main ones) merely inherit a somewhat older tradition of patriarchy.

The systematic oppression of women for which they have become famous, a system of male domination, of our very discourse, imagination, as well as politics and ethics and law, in short of society ‘itself’ in fact seems to have emerged with the transition to settled, agricultural civilisation, itself a fairly recent innovation in human affairs. Continue reading “A bad day for religious patriarchy”

“That the Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law. ” – English Bill of Rights, 1689

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” US Constitution, 2nd amendment, 1791

Your homework this week is to compare and contrast these statements from English and American statute.

the accidental anarchists

Just a “grain glitch” in the matrix, nothing to see here.

According to one journalist, they say of the Washington Post: ‘it’s a great paper; you never know which page will have the lead story’. True to form, the current lead headline might appear predictably anodyne: “Democrats balk as Republicans try to use must-pass spending bill to fix tax law“. On examination, the story proves more interesting, even amusing.fact

Seems the current crop of Republican legislators accidentally passed a tax break which encourages farmers to deal with co-operatives over traditional agri-business, seemingly due to the law being unable to distinguish between gross sales and net income on this occasion. Once agri-business pointed it out, Republicans immediately promised to fix it, but there are signs of resistance from Democrats who are kicking up a stink. That’s the gist of the story. What interests me is the irony, the inept element of it, and the way it’s written. The discourse, perhaps alien to an English reader, is very much of the minutia of House Democrats seizing on an issue purely as part of the game. Pelosi’s words notwithstanding, theres certainly no sense of Democrats seizing the possibility for a national debate about the general benefits of co-ops for organising trade, which i suppose inheres in their self-organising capacity.
And finally the story descends into remarking that the apparently numerous typos and omissions in the new law are par for the course.
So that’s alright then. We can, at least for today, confirm the lead headline in the Post will always leave us with ennui and disappointment after all.
 
What probably should be the lead story covers leading Republican opposition to Trump, in the form of the perfectly-named Arizona senator Jeff Flake, passionately defending the judiciary, the First Amendment, and describing the Trump administration as “chaos for its own sake, projected onto the world”. Stirring stuff but, as the reporter points out

The question remains: Where do Flake and like-minded Republicans go — to a new party? To permanent political exile? Much depends on whether the Democrats make a foolish choice in 2020, opening up space for a third party. In any event, Flake implicitly (and I think, unintentionally) makes a powerful argument that the first step is the complete demolition of a reckless, soulless party.

Nuer scales

The work of E.E Evans-Pritchard, the now somewhat old-fashioned, but utterly meticulous and detailed anthropologist, and I, have crossed but once. As an undergraduate I studied the first of his books from his fieldwork with the Nuer, a people of the Nile Valley

What follows are fragments of notes I took at the time.
Continue reading “Nuer scales”

Heaney’s ‘Bog Oak’

Since I mentioned my University days on Tuesday, I thought a relic of that time, on Seamus Heaney, who would have turned 80 last week, worth airing. I couldn’t bear to let this go, however, with all the undergraduate prose intact, so I’ve improved the grammar and tone. The essay attempts to see how Heaney brings ‘modern Irish problems into relationship with images from the past’ in the poem Bog Oak, which I reproduce below:

Bog Oak

A carter's trophy Split for rafters, a cobwebbed, black, long-seasoned rib under the first thatch. I might tarry with the moustached dead, the creel-fillers, or eavesdrop on their hopeless wisdom as a blow-down of smoke struggles over the half-door and mizzling rain blurs the far end of the cart track. The softening ruts lead back to no 'oak groves', no cutters of mistletoe in the green clearings. Perhaps I just make out Edmund Spenser, dreaming sunlight, encroached upon by geniuses who creep 'out of every corner of the woodes and glenne' towards watercress and carrion.

Seamus Heaney’s Bog Oak came into the world at a crucial point in Heaney’s career and in Irish history. An early poem from Wintering Out, Heaney’s first collection since the beginning of the Troubles, and also Heaney’s first since moving away from Ulster. It looks back to the past for images for a new poetry and also I think back to Ulster in an attempt, as Ronald Tamplin (1989) suggests, to glimpse a new reality of Irish identity, a reading supported by Heaney’s oft-quoted view of poetry as “divination…as restoration of culture to itself”(1974) .

The reference to Edmund Spenser appears to set the poem in sixteenth century Munster, but that the poem concerns Ulster 1969 is clear: the final word ‘carrion’ guides such a reading. The description of the oak in the first stanza then becomes somewhat loaded: for instance, ‘split’ takes on obvious connotations. ‘Carrion’ is excellent, evoking not just death but horror, waste and decay. Heaney gazes homeward in loss and separation, mourning and sorrow.

A subtle manipulation of time through precise language seems to occur. The oak, ‘toughened survivor from Ireland’s pastcarries the longevity of trees; so as Heaney traces the oak, ‘long seasoned’, backwards through time and space, he turns to the past to try and discover poetry suitable – ‘adequate’ as he put it- to the present Troubles. The images he finds there are mostly inadequate- the wisdom of the dead seems ‘hopeless’ and these old fashioned representations of Ireland, rural carters and creel fillers, seem irrelevant.

In the third stanza Heaney is outdoors now (‘a blow down of smoke/ struggles over the half door’) and he looks back along the cart track, attempting to trace the oak all the way back to its roots.  But, ‘mizzling rain’ obscures his view just as time itself obscures our view of the past. Time meaning a changing culture which always constructs the past. The final three stanzas are full of these romanticised images of the past:

lead back to no
‘oak groves’, no
cutters of mistletoe
in the green clearings.

To make the point Heaney specifies that these images are not there. It is precisely these kinds of representations that are false and perhaps dangerous, an argument redolent of Brian Friel’s Making History. Heaney does discern a classic Romantic image – the sensitive male poet, ‘dreaming sunlight’, the phrase accurately and concisely invoking the false image of the poet constructed in the popular imagination unwittingly by the likes of Spenser, Wordsworth, (perhaps) Oscar Wilde, and the mass media.

Interestingly, at this point Heaney’s time-travelling stops in suspension then reverses into a forward direction by way of ‘encroached’,’creep’ and ‘towards’ (lines 24,25 and 28); now Heaney is looking forward to the future of Ireland. But why Edmund Spenser? Well, the reality of Spenser is very different from the image Heaney presents. Spenser’s non-literary career was as an agent of the Crown in Ireland as Lord Deputy. He also wrote a ‘View of the Present State of Ireland’, which, according to Garry Waller

argues for a vigorous programme of final conquest and subjugation of Ireland and the Irish, [and attacks] the ‘Old’ English preference for a degree of accommodation with the Irish chieftans, [describes the Irish as] barabarians, licentious, and while there were certain admirable or charming aspects of ancient Irish life (Spenser’s interest in Irish poetry and song is often mentioned by defenders of the View in this context), nothing short of force and thorough rooting out of Irish identity would allow the rule of English law to be permanently established

1994

The above seems pertinent. Spenser the poet’s interest in ancient Ireland and Spenser the public servant’s advocacy of genocide is just the kind of conflict which interests Heaney. So you see how the romantic image in the poem (‘dreaming sunlight – kissing carrion’) arrests the reader who knows Spenser’s position.

To return to the image of the bog oak, Irish identity has survived the threat posed by Spenser but not escaped unscathed or unaltered by history; the ‘rape’ of Ireland and conversion to Protestantism evoked in Heaney’s later ‘Act of Union’ are what has led to the divided situation in the Ulster counties and its horrific consequences. In the poem, Spenser is ‘encroached upon by geniuses’, the days of the English are numbered as the forces of nationalism rise. Nationalism however, because of the complexity and unpredictability of history will play its part in the creation of the Troubles, creeping ‘towards watercress and carrion’. Heaney is aware, like Dennis Potter, of the subtlety of the problem of evil, that ‘a good act can lead to evil consequences’.

In conclusion, this clever poem follows lyrical conventions and subverts them, The final line creates an emotionally charged transcendent moment but, perversely and aptly it is one of death, sadness, and loss. The mood at the end of the poem I judge to be pessimistic in seeing Irish identity set back. The bleak, terse ‘Watercress and carrion’ suggest language cannot yet cope with the situation. But the insertion of ‘watercress’ is hopeful, yet at the same time suggests fragility. As if these two constituents of Irish identity in the context of the Troubles exist side by side, the first constantly threatened by the second. A poem of national mourning then (Heaney from Munster showing grief for the events in another part of his country), how far has Heaney come in these twenty-eight lines in his search for poetry suitable for the times?

Despite its evocative and complex nature I don’t find the poem a total success; the identity of the ‘geniuses’ is as uncertain as the relevance of ‘watercress’ until analysed. This uncertainty is to some extent the whole point but but the poem seems to come to an awkward stop. Anyway, if Heaney has not yet found the right poetic images and words to represent the times, he has certainly in his rejection of Romanticism demonstrated intelligently what is not appropriate or propitiate. Spenser’s presence achieves this especially well, ensuring the poem goes beyond Ireland. We may argue Heaney cannot assume an audience who would be aware of Spenser’s advocacy of the art of persuasion, but Tamplin resolves this for us: ‘a poet creates and leads a readership…it is not unreasonable that [Heaney] should hope that an audience might acquaint themselves [with the history] either from wanting to be in touch, or because they want to extend the knowledge they themselves can bring to their reading. The knowledge is good in itself…some have it before they first read the poem and others catch up…some of the audience is assumed and some acquired’. In this case, the Spenser effect is simply and starkly to show that a particular popular image is false and misleading. At the same time he has powerfully evoked the mood of a troubled place and people. Given recent events in Ulster we look forward to Heaney’s future work with excitement. If Heaney can catch this wave, as the Beach Boys might put it, he’d be sitting on top of the world.

Bibliography

Heaney 1972 Wintering Out

Tamplin 1989 Seamus Heaney

Waller 1994 Edmund Spenser: a literary life

Remote Control?

Many of us, in the current conditions, will be home working if not for the first time, then more often than usual. Automattic, the company that owns wordpress.com, WooCommerce and Tumblr, has distinguished itself by hiring many remote workers – indeed, much of its workforce is globally distributed.

Not one to let this wealth of experience or, it may be said, let a clickbait opportunity like this go to waste, the WordPress.com blog leads on Working Remotely: An Automattic Reader

The post seems like a useful collection of resources on this subject though, with tips and tricks to help everyone, whether it be the humble worker or the team manager. So I pass it on. Happy home working!

During the pandemic, the online tools so assiduously created by third parties can come into their own, and not just for work. Two yoga teachers of my acquaintance, not as far as I know known to each other, are independently using the video conferencing application Zoom to run online classes.

Indeed, on Thursday the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted Zoom “has quickly become a popular option to work and keep in touch with others in the midst of social distancing and shelter-in-place protocols”, in a great piece entitled What You Should Know About Online Tools During the COVID-19 Crisis. The piece also reproaches Slack for it’s data retention policies, points out the growth of surveillance in schools, and most pertinently in the current crisis, points out a potentially dangerous regulatory change.

The US department of health is “allowing health care providers to use applications such as FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, Hangouts, Skype, Zoom, etc so they are able to provide care to patients remotely”.

The EFF suggests that if our healthcare is conducted remotely in this way, we should check what safeguards they have in place to ensure patient privacy.

In other COVID-19 surveillance-related news, the EFF also report a tweet sent by the Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner of the US customs and border agency, who co-incidentally shares a name with one of the co-creators of Judge Dredd:

The EFF repeat their call for a ban on facial recognition technology, under the headline Face Surveillance Is Not the Solution to the COVID-19 Crisis

Opiatic For The People

On becoming an undergraduate, I soon looked up Karl Marx’s well-known, and often quoted remark on religion: the opium of the people.

Nuance and subtlety drift over time. We may assume Marx dismisses religion as a soothing crutch, or more pejoratively as a harmful addiction. But we can assume nothing from one out of context quotation. For Marx and his world in 1844, opium’s connotations would have been so different from ours, it seemed to my new undergraduate brain trite and naive to assume anything at all about Marx’s remark. Besides, Karl’s pipe was tobacco-laden. It’s just a metaphor. I wanted to look at the whole text of the remark, and to understand, without prejudice, the whole argument.

The remark comes from Marx’s Introduction to his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844), which begins:

For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed, and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.

Two bold claims. Let’s see if we can unpack this.

Continue reading “Opiatic For The People”

Covid-19 in the UK

One week into the UK’s so-called ‘lockdown’, and I thought it would be good to look at the UK response to the virus, and round up some political and social developments within this benighted territory over the past few weeks. Coming so soon after last year’s late general election, which confirmed the Johnson administration in power, it’s difficult not to see the Covid-19 crisis as a test of this government’s mettle and fibre, and it’s an interesting political story. But much more broadly, I’m solidly of the opinion that this crisis presents an opportunity to consider, and reconsider, where we are as a society and as a culture, and specifically to refresh our political vision and ambition. Personally I find the idea of ‘going back to normal life’ horrifying; to even consider that option I’d call tragic, and a wasted opportunity. Going back to the interminable boom of traffic; the illegally filthy urban air, a killer in itself; to go back to how we were: now that’s what I call a zombie apocalypse. This crisis, it seems to me, exposes very clearly where the unacceptable has been normalised. To expect to go back to accepting the unacceptable is to lower ones expectations so far one might as well have no expectations at all.

The gathering storm

Think back to another age: mid-March, just about half a lunar cycle ago, when pubs were open and I could go see XOM play Pink Floyd at the Dark Horse. I do some work with the NHS, chairing a monthly networking meeting for service users and professionals, and it was around this time all ‘non-essential’ meetings and training within the Birmingham and Solihul Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust (try saying that after six jam sandwiches) were cancelled. Precautionary measures were being taken as the scale of the epidemic on the continent became apparent.

As an excellent round-up of the story of UK politics in the time of Covid-19, found of all places in the New England Journal of Medicine, reminds us, it was only around this time, March 12th, that Johnson held his first major press conference on the issue, but, despite increasingly concerned communiques since January from the UK’s public health community:

there was no appetite for banning mass gatherings, since we were told […] that doing so would have minimal impact […] there was no recommendation, far less any instruction, to shut down one of the busier weekends on the sporting calendar. Such inaction continued despite the prime minister’s warning that “many more families will lose loved ones before their time.”

[…]

In the absence of a government policy, the football authorities (both rugby and soccer) acted with admirable responsibility: they postponed the matches despite the financial losses…

Hunter, D. Covid-19 and the Stiff Upper Lip, 2020

Indeed, it now looks like civil society was way ahead of the government; but so were other governments.

Herd it through the grapevine

Sir Patrick Vallance, who going by the surname is affiliated with the followers of William the Conqueror, used to preside over R&D at big pharma company GlaxoSmithKline. These days however he slums it as the UK government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, and it was Sir Patrick who used the term ‘herd immunity’ to describe an aspect of the government’s strategy. Quoted in the Guardian, Sir Patrick argued:

“Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; […] to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission […] “

He added: “This is quite likely, I think, to become an annual virus, an annual seasonal infection.”

The Guardian, 13 March 2020

Regardless of the wisdom or otherwise of this approach, I think the term ‘herd immunity’ got people’s backs up: people don’t on the whole like being regarded as cattle. The public quickly got the impression the national plan was accepting “a large number of deaths soon, to ultimately get the population to a Covid-19–resistant state”. Some, including the Guardian, implied the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), the so-called ‘nudge unit’ which has been a feature of British politics since the ascendance of the Cameron/Osborne double-act, were partly responsible for fashioning a response based on behavioural psychology.

Regardless, the policy did seem out of step with other governments, as Eire and France had already by this point closed schools, universities, and moved to ban mass gatherings. The Guardian ran an Op-ed titled I’m an epidemiologist. When I heard about Britain’s ‘herd immunity’ coronavirus plan, I thought it was satire. Jeremy Hunt, former Health Secretary and the candidate Johnson had beaten in the final round for the leadership of the Conservative Party, and therefore the Premiership, registered his concern that more serious measures were not being taken, and government strategy at this point became politically untenable.

Their finest hour

In civil society, consciousness of what was before us became crystallised, focused. At the pub that weekend, there was talk of little else, and of making the most of a last opportunity to socialise. One colleague from another NHS Trust suggested that the usual tensions within the service had abated:

all parts of the service are now pulling together and coming into line in an unprecedented manner – co-operation and flexibility amongst front line staff has been extraordinary

Silver linings, unexpected consequences.

The Monday evening following I walked past the same pub, guitar in hand, and I caught sight of an MC of my acquaintance, so I went to over say hello. He was predicting the forthcoming lock-down, in characteristically Biblical tones. Noticing the guitar, he asked me if I had been practising. “No,” I replied, “I’ve just played an open mic in Kings Heath”. “We do what we do, don’t we” he observed stoically.

Johnson announced more stringent advice that Monday; the NEJM argues these vague announcements only added to the confusion. By Wednesday, March 18th, the government announced school closures for the end of the week. On March 20th, at the spring equinox, the NEJM could write:

Throughout the past few weeks, the U.K. mantra has been “we will act at the appropriate time according to the science.” Many clinicians and scientists have been pushing the panic button, but the alarm, if heard, was not acted on publicly until the third week of March. Everyone is hoping that their gut instincts, the experience of other countries, and now the models are wrong. What is not in doubt is that barring a miracle, a treatment, and ultimately a vaccine, the NHS in the United Kingdom is about to experience a challenge unlike any other in its 70 years of existence.

Hunter, D. ibid.

Four days later, the government announced the UK ‘lockdown’, to last a minimum of three weeks, with emergency legislation planned for later that week to enforce it. As has been pointed out though, these measures are less draconian than in other countries – there’s no actual curfew or travel ban as such, and the Civil Contingencies Act has not been triggered. The new regulations are however fairly strict, and and enforceable by new police powers:

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England)
Regulations 2020

Meanwhile, outside our island, news of riots and breakouts across prisons in South and Latin America reached me, as people began to take matters into their own hands.

Join me soon, when I’ll be looking at life since the ‘lockdown’ began. I’ll look at further political, social and cultural developments, as we begin week two, and try to ascertain what might happen next.

Watching the Detectives

Tremendously interesting article in today’s NYT on the power of police unions.

When Steve Fletcher, a Minneapolis city councilman and frequent Police Department critic, sought to divert money away from hiring officers and toward a newly created office of violence prevention, he said, the police stopped responding as quickly to 911 calls placed by his constituents. ‘It operates a little bit like a protection racket,’ Mr. Fletcher said of the union.

Two days ago this happened:

Full 40 second WBFO news video, including aftermath. Contains blood and violence, and the suppression of the press.

When the officers were suspended, the entire Buffalo Police Department’s Emergency Response Team resigned (from the team, not from regular duties), in ‘solidarity’ with the officers responsible, who have now been charged. The NYT article includes this extraordinary invocation of the Nuremberg defence:

The president of a police union in Buffalo said the union stood “100 percent” behind two officers who were suspended on Thursday after appearing to push an older man who fell and suffered head injuries. The union president said the officers ‘were simply following orders.’

Well worth a read.