Dispensing Witan Wisdom Since The Days of King Eggbound The Unready...

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Sunday, 11 January 2015

Epiblog for the Second Sunday of Epiphany

It has been a busy week in the Holme Valley. In the words of the late, great, Lowell George, I’ve been warped by the sun, driven by the snow, I’m drunk and dirty, but don’t you know, I’m still willing.  Well, not quite – there’s been hardly any sun – but it’s still been a wild and woolly week, weather-wise. Not quite as bad as some of my friends in the Outer Hebrides, where you could divert yourself by watching the garden sheds of your neighbours fly past the window like a flock of particularly unaerodynamic geese, and you had to choose between boiling a kettle or having the light on. We’ve got off lightly by comparison, but even so, the wind was bad enough to wake me at 5AM on Friday, and if it wasn’t flinging hailstones at my window, then there was definitely somebody in the garden urgently trying to attract my attention. Either way, I pulled the duvet up around my ears and burrowed deeper.

The squirrels have been back and nicked the rest of the prayer flags – there are now only four left, bedraggled and forlorn, but – bizarrely – the wind somehow managed, in its howling vortex, to wrap them back round the decking rail, so it looks as though they are re-attached. At least until the wind shifts to a different point of the compass, at any rate. The flag of Free Tibet, which Debbie prevented the squirrel from carrying off by yelling “Oi!” has survived the storms, but the force of the wind has snapped the dyneema that was tying the pole to one of the decking rail’s uprights, so it is now leaning at a drunken angle, semi-dipped like the British Legion do with their Union Jacks on Remembrance Day.

Considering that’s all the obvious damage, to date anyway, touch wood, we have got off incredibly lightly. I was waiting, on Friday morning, for the sound of the slates on Colin’s roof going “plink, plink, plink,” one after the other into the garden, but – thank God – it didn’t happen.

The animals (domestic, non-squirrel) have also been rather unimpressed by the weather this week. I doubt that Matilda has been in the garden for more than an hour a day, and at the moment she spends most of her time curled up on the settee under Colin’s front window, in a tight little ball with her tail over her nose and face. If it didn’t involve potential major trauma and blood loss, she looks like you could just pick her up and pop her on your head like a fur hat.  I wouldn’t recommend trying, though, especially with the current waiting times at A & E.

Even Misty, who normally just lets weather of any kind bounce off her, has taken to scuttling down the steps into the garden to do her necessaries as quickly as possible, then it’s back up to the door and in faster than you can say “fit as a butcher’s dog!” Ellie and Zak have also been staying with us on and off this week, and they are of a similar frame of mind. Zak curls in the armchair and goes to sleep, and Ellie, when she’s not curled up next to the fire, prefers the vantage point also employed by Matilda, though not at the same time, of sitting just inside the conservatory door with her nose pressed against the glass.

It was while she was engaged in this process last week that she saw what may have been her first squirrel, or at least her first one in our garden, as it pranced along the decking rail in search of more flags to steal.  I had previously tried to console Debbie over the theft of the flags by saying that in Tibet, prayer flags were regarded as expendable anyway, and renewed each New Year, and that we could get some more when we next went to Arran. She replied that next time, it would be a lot easier just to put £6.99 out on the decking for the squirrels, then they could buy their own.

Anyway, there was Ellie, and there was the squirrel. I braced myself for the inevitable. With Freddie, he could be hard, fast asleep on the settee, and you only had to murmur the word “squirrel” for him to hurl himself against the glass of the conservatory door, in a paroxysm of fury that invariably lasted at least fifteen minutes, whether there actually was a real squirrel there or not. It is safe to say, the squirrels wouldn’t have stolen the prayer flags on Freddie’s watch. Ellie, however, was made of different stuff, and started gently whimpering and whining at the squirrel – either she was frightened of it, or she wanted to be allowed out there to join in the fun and play with it, who knows? The question remained unresolved, because the squirrel took one look at her and legged it, but it was another illustration of the fact that, although two dogs may look physically similar, their personalities and temperaments can be worlds apart – another nail in the coffin, if one were needed, for the idea of breed-specific legislation. The owners are what’s dangerous, not the dogs.

Debbie’s first week back at the chalk-face passed largely without incident. Except for Thursday morning when she did an outreach class at one of the far-flung community centres they send her to from time to time, in the lee of the M62. They were doing vowels. Debbie wrote C - T on the whiteboard and asked them to complete the word, using a vowel, expecting either cat, cot, or cut. Guess what word the entire class chorused as one?  As I said to her, well, at least you know there's one word they can spell.

Apart from the weather, it was shaping up to be another dreary week in the outside world. A Scotsman had been arrested by police for bouncing along a dual carriageway in Dundee on a spacehopper. I didn’t chase up the full story, though I suspect “drink had been taken”, but it is the sort of story that makes me inordinately, disproportionately, proud of the few cc of Scottish blood that course somewhere through my veins.  I was greatly amused by it, and I was greatly vexed, to a similar extent, by a programme on Channel 5 entitled Benefits: Too Fat To Work.

This was the latest effort from a bloke called Guy Davies, who is some sort of Commissioning Editor at ITN, who make the documentaries for Channel 5. This time he was working with a producer called Ian Rumsey, of whom I have never heard, although I doubt he’s heard of me, either.  Mr Davies’s previous efforts involve an “instant” documentary on the Philpott case, and other programmes intended mainly to bash people on benefits.  What they do is they find a couple of really extreme examples (the couple in this one were obese to the extent that really, some sort of medical intervention seemed to be in order) and then produce a piece of highly edited, highly exploitative “reality” television that does a hatchet job on them and also suggests that everyone else in the same position behaves likewise – the premise of the latest offering being that everyone on benefits is morbidly obese and swinging the lead.  It’s freak show television, car crash television, made by cynical manipulators to reinforce the misapprehensions of morons who can’t see past the next Daily Mail headline.

Where’s the Channel 5 programme about David Clapson, who starved to death with just £3.44 in his bank account after his benefits were sanctioned? Where’s the Channel 5 programme about Mark Wood, a vulnerable man with mental health issues who also starved to death when his benefits were cut? Or Mark and Helen Mullins, who decided to give up the struggle against poverty and hunger in a mutual suicide pact?  There isn’t one, and there won’t be one, because Channel 5 has decided to turn itself into the Iain Duncan Smith propaganda company for some reason. I don’t know what the link is between Guy Davies and the DWP, but I am certainly suspicious that one exists.  Otherwise how can we explain the uncritical, laudatory, re-cycling of DWP lies in the name of entertainment?

A more critical view of the Junta’s achievements was given this week by Paul Krugman, the Nobel-Prize-winning economist, writing about the UK in passing, in an article which was actually about Obama’s recovery.  Krugman’s assessment of what George Osborne has achieved (and which created the climate in which these people died in hunger, desperation and poverty) is fairly terse, but no less devastating for its brevity:

Let’s start with a tale from overseas: austerity policy in Britain. As you may know, back in 2010 Britain’s newly installed Conservative government declared that a sharp reduction in budget deficits was needed to keep Britain from turning into Greece. Over the next two years growth in the British economy, which had been recovering fairly well from the financial crisis, more or less stalled. In 2013, however, growth picked up again — and the British government claimed vindication for its policies. Was this claim justified?

No, not at all. What actually happened was that the Tories stopped tightening the screws — they didn’t reverse the austerity that had already occurred, but they effectively put a hold on further cuts. So they stopped hitting Britain in the head with that baseball bat. And sure enough, the nation started feeling better.

To claim that this bounceback vindicated austerity is silly. As Simon Wren-Lewis of Oxford University likes to point out, if rapid growth after a gratuitous slump counts as success, the government should just close down half the economy for a year; the next year’s growth would be fantastic. Or as I’d put it, you shouldn’t conclude that hitting yourself in the head is smart because it feels so good when you stop. Unfortunately, the silliness of the claim hasn’t prevented its widespread acceptance by what Mr. Wren-Lewis calls “mediamacro.”

If the Labour Party had any sense, they would quote that back at Osborne every time he starts braying about having “fixed” the economy.  But, of course, they don’t, so they won’t.  And, very sadly indeed, Krugman’s torpedo in the engine-room of “austerity” went completely un-noticed because after Wednesday, the entire world was swamped by the Tsunami of media reporting on the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

My own first thoughts, on hearing that several cartoonists and other staff members had been gunned down in cold blood in their offices, were, strangely enough, of horror and astonishment that this had happened at all, but also that it had happened in Paris.  Paris is a place I always think of with fond memories, and inevitably at some point, I will start singing Nana’s Song by Ralph McTell to myself:

If I take you dancing down the street to watch you laughing
And stop still in the spring night air, just to watch you smile again
Understand I’ll hold your hand a little tight, as if by this
To try and stop this night, from slipping into morning light too soon
Ice-cream and candy bars, a Paris moon and Paris stars, can you count the times,
That we heard the chimes of Notre Dame, across the Seine…

Yes, like Joni Mitchell before me, I was a free man in Paris, I felt unfettered and alive, walking from café to cabaret, and all that. Paris is made for sharing Iles Flottantes in late night bistros, discussing existentialism over strong coffee, nipping out for a baguette and leaving your rag-top Citroen Dyane double-parked outside the boulangerie, then spending long afternoons wandering round the art galleries.  How can those bastards have done such a thing in Paris, in my Paris. Et in arcadia ego.

I also have to confess that, up to that point, I’d never heard of Charlie Hebdo. In that respect, the murderers have done them an enormous commercial favour, although I am sure to those who lost loved ones on Wednesday, they’d willingly trade a million-issue print run in return for their murdered colleagues back and a return to relative obscurity. I also had no idea what the cartoons for which the artists had been murdered in a gruesome revenge attack looked like, although that was easily rectified: again, the idiots with the guns have scored a massive own-goal there, because now millions of people, including me, have seen them on the internet, who would not otherwise have done so.

On seeing them, I have to say, as well, that I was reminded of that Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch where he says that he has been to see the Leonardo cartoons at the National Gallery and he “couldn’t see the bloody joke, actually”. They were vicious and satirical.  Their saving grace seemed to have been that they were like that to everyone, politicians and religious leaders alike. There were those who said, though, that in a country with as much Islamophobia as France, and therefore a ready supply of people who were happy to miss the point and assume that the cartoons were simply denigrating all Muslims, that it was unwise for the staff of Charlie Hebdo to have taken such an uncompromising stance.

So, did the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo bring it upon themselves? Various right-wing commentators have suggested that they went in for “Muslim baiting” and this meant it was only a matter of time before something like this happened.  What this ignores, though, is three things – firstly, that Charlie Hebdo attacked not only Muslims but a wide variety of quasi-religious bigots and hypocrites, some of whom are now getting their revenge in last, crowing in triumph over the corpses of the shot cartoonists; secondly, that the “Muslims” attacked by Charlie Hebdo had about as much to do with Islam as I have to do with crewel embroidery or Pilates, and thirdly, that whatever Charlie Hebdo published, it was by definition within the law of their country, and therefore they were, just, on the legal side of the line between freedom of speech and hate crime.

It’s worth unpicking that last point a bit further, I think. We should bear in mind that we don’t have an ultimate right to freedom of speech, freedom of expression, that trumps all other rights. This is why civilized countries have laws – democratically decided, as much of any of our laws ever are – about incitement to hatred, libel, and, indeed, in some cases, blasphemy.  In my opinion, your right to free expression ends if and when you overstep the boundary of a law.

If I do a cartoon (taking it out of the context of Muslims, for a moment) which portrays all Jews as evil, hook-nosed child murderers, and couple that with a call for them to be exterminated from our society, clearly that would be a hate crime, for which I would rightly expect to be prosecuted. If I do a cartoon of an Orthodox Jew trying to read his electricity bill by candlelight on the Sabbath because he refuses to turn the light on, to me that has a different intention – to question whether this belief in not using electric light one day a week is still relevant in the 21st century.

In the case of the second cartoon (the Jew sitting in the darkness) it is open to people to come back and rebut me on the point I am questioning. Of course, given the broad spectrum of human response, there will be people who will still be offended, even by the second cartoon – but if it’s legal, it’s fair comment, and they have to deal with it, and move on. Or take me to court and let he law decide.

The problem that has arisen with cartoons criticising Islam is twofold – one, that it is actually insulting to any Muslim to have their prophet depicted in any way, and two, that since 2001, we have busied ourselves in the West with creating a whole army of intolerant, medieval-minded bigots who will not brook any criticism of “Islam” as they interpret it, however mild or well-intentioned. They have blasphemy intolerance levels equivalent to, or worse than, those of the late Mary Whitehouse, and, unlike her, they have access to semi-automatic weapons. They are like a cross between the Spanish Inquisition and the people who organised the Salem witch trials, without the redeeming features of either.

We can go back through the last 14 years and plot he development and growth of these “radicals” in response to our own misguided foreign policy in the wake of 9/11, and we can deride the stupidity of their beliefs and the barbarity of their lives and their stone age attitude to women, but nevertheless we can’t escape the fact that they believe, however gaga we might think it is, that an attack on one Muslim is an attack on all Muslims, that their self-appointed duty is to unite all Muslims in one overarching caliphate (whether they want to or not!) and that Allah has told them to avenge any insults to him or his prophet because, despite being an all-powerful supernatural deity, he does get rather miffed and put out by certain examples of line drawings in newspapers, apparently.

Normally, when confronted with such behaviour,  of people getting offended on behalf of supernatural entities to the point where they commit murder, the natural reaction would be to go to the cupboard and take out a strait-jacket, while looking up the trains to Colney Hatch, but the fact is there are thousands of these buggers, and they are armed, and undoubtedly dangerous.

The only saving grace is that there are still millions, not thousands, of Muslims who don’t think like this, despite what Nigel Farage with his talk of “Fifth Columns” would have you believe. It is, however, all too easy to fall into the trap of indulging in tit-for-tattery, or whataboutery, when something like this happens. I almost fell for it myself. In my visceral anger at the murders in Paris, I started drawing a cartoon.  Two Jihadis, in black, with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, in the desert, each having sex with a pig. On the ground all around them, a welter of blood, guts, bones, severed heads. The caption was “Freedom of Speech is now what we say it is”.  I tore it up in the end. It wasn’t much good – things drawn in anger never are – but the main reason I tore it up was that I could see some people looking at it and chortling and saying “Ho ho, yes that’s exactly what all them Muslims are like…” and the thought of it being used to taint all Muslims, or even worse, of some meathead sharing it on one of those Proto-Fascist Muslim bashing sites like Britain First, run by people who have sex with their sister to keep the gene pool small and white, was mortifying.

What is needed, instead, is a cartoon showing somehow people coming together in peace, and a positive outcome springing from the sorrow of murder, in a way which makes these black-clad wingnuts with their death cults and their RPG launchers irrelevant, but that’s not going to happen any time soon. We’ve been in a hole now for 14 years and there is no sign of the idiot politicians stopping digging. One of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different outcome, and given Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now Syria, maybe we should be actually be re-evaluating who it is who gets the one-way day trip to London Colney in a waistcoat with no arms.

So, coming back to my original point: do I think the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo deserved to die for their art? Assuredly not. What do I think should have happened to the perpetrators? When I first heard of this outrage, my initial reaction was that I hoped the French police would catch them, string them up somewhere by their goolies, and use them for target practice, which is, in the end, pretty much what happened. But once  I had the chance to think more coolly about it,  I thought the only sane response by the French authorities would be to put them on trial, and, if found guilty, sentence them to he maximum penalty for multiple murder which exists under French law. (Do the French still own Devil’s Island?) Anything less, any backlash, any retribution, any firebombing of Mosques, will only play into their hands, create yet more “Jihadis”, and will also stoke the fires of Islamophobia which are already burning strongly under the surface of French society.  What France needs, more than ever, in the wake of this tragedy, is the equivalent of the hashtag which was trending in the aftermath of the Sydney café siege, #illridewithyou. Possibly #jevaisvoyageravecvous.

In the end, of course, they decided themselves to go out in a hail of bullets, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, thus taking matters into their own hands. But then they were never likely to get off with a fine and community service.  What was heartening was the way in which humanity pulled together in the aftermath, with the Je Suis Charlie hashtag trending world wide. I took a picture of my hand holding up my pen, since I couldn’t go to Paris and hold it up in person – it’s at the top of this blog.

Neither should we forget that one of the police assigned to protect the offices of Charlie Hebdo, killed by a burst of automatic fire as he lay on the ground already wounded, was himself a Muslim.  People were quick to say, in the hours after the shootings, that “ordinary” Muslims must speak out and condemn them.  And ordinary Muslims did:  Mohammed Samaana said:

As a Muslim, I strongly condemn the attack on Charlie Hebdo and those behind it. These terrorists do not represent me nor do they represent Islam. Their wicked ideology is an existential threat to Islam itself. Part of the problem is that these extremists and Islamophobes – responsible for burning mosques and attacking women wearing hijab – need each other in order to exist. We, the majority of ordinary people of every faith, race and colour, should stand together to these extremists and say enough is enough.

The problem here is not the lack of condemnation from ordinary Muslims, it  is that the media, instead, when something like this happens, automatically seeks out people like Anjem Choudary, who actually speaks for about a dozen followers, for comments on these issues, because they know that what they have to say will be offensive, inflammatory and make a good story, reinforcing the prejudices of their readers.  So as well as Je Suis Charlie, we also need Je Suis Ahmed, and – because it is necessary sometimes to remind ourselves where all this comes from, Je Suis Une Victime Innocente d’un Drone Strike.

Somehow, we have staggered to Sunday, then. The second Sunday of Epiphany. It was only a couple of weeks ago, writing about Thomas a Becket, that I said then that you never know when the four armed knights are going to turn up at the doorway. Becket pushed his luck with an irrational and powerful opponent and, some 700-odd years later, so did Charlie Hebdo. For broadswords, read Kalashnikovs.  You never know the minute or the hour.  

There seems to be some disparity, as usual, over what the actual Bible readings are for today. The first source I consulted seems to suggest that the Gospel for today is the story of Jesus turning the water into wine, at the wedding at Cana, one of my favourite Jesus miracles, if one can be said to have favourite Jesus miracles. It’s in St John 2, verses 1-11 if you want to look it up.  This must mean it’s year C, according to the Anglican Lectionary, and so this is used for the second Sunday unless 6th January itself falls on a Sunday, in which case these readings are used on the third Sunday. All got that? Good.

If that is the case, then another of today’s readings is 1 Corinthians 12, 1-11, which contains, inter alia:

Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.  And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord.  And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal.  For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit;  To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues:  But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will.

Which seems to be strangely apposite to a week where people have been killed for what they believe/don’t believe. It would be a dull world if we all had the same talents, and it would be a poor football team that had 11 goalkeepers (although Hull City should maybe give it a try, especially this season). Or, as W. B. Yeats wrote – the leaves are many, yet the root is one. It seems to me that it’s worth keeping this in mind, every time the urge takes us to be suspicious or scared of others. That is the only way we will come out of this with the minimum of further bloodshed, the only way to negate the UKIPS of the world, and to keep those leaves which are withered and cankered and deformed to a minimum.

I suppose I like the idea of a non-judgemental spirit infusing all creation because it seems to me to embody a much more realistic idea of Big G than an old man with a beard, sitting on a throne, pausing occasionally to hurl a thunderbolt.  I could see myself communicating much more easily with a God who suffuses all creation with the healing sap of spring, and maybe I have been looking in the wrong place in my bid to mend my relations with the Almighty.  But, I hear you cry, doesn’t that deprive morality of any religious authority, leading ultimately to a state where Aleister Crowley’s dictum of “Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be The Whole of the Law” rules instead?

Not necessarily. Mankind can, and does make laws, and in fact, some of these are founded, ethically, on principles which go back to Biblical times and/or are common in the teachings of the leaders of the world’s greatest religions. What we might lose is the blind adherence to some outdated shibboleths that are no longer relevant, and we might lose the “my God is bigger/better than your God and is coming round to duff him up” mentality, and best of all, we might lose the pernicious practice of people getting offended on behalf of other people who probably don’t give a stuff. Especially when the person who might be offended is well capable of fighting his own battles with the odd thunderbolt.

Anyway, it’s going to be another grim old week next week, by the looks. The media brouhaha over Charlie Hebdo will keep going until at least after the funerals. In my own life, I need to step things up a gear or two and get on top of some of the tasks that are currently getting on top of me. I’ve already had 11 days of 2015 and I have achieved absolutely nothing. Oh, I tell a lie, I have done my tax return. I had a strange and unsettling dream the other night where I had lost two of my sheep  (I don’t actually have any sheep, in real life) and couldn’t find them.  The weirdest bit about it was that Bert Fry was helping me look for them, which reminds me, I must post this blog before The Archers comes on the radio. And I still have to feed my cat, my dog, and my wife.

Let’s hope for a quiet week next week, without man, proud man, dressed in a little brief authority, playing such fantastic tricks before high heaven, as makes the angels weep. I’m not holding my breath, though.

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