Sunday 30 September 2007
Due to my need for a break, this piece was written several weeks ago. Since then, such is the way of the world, there may well have been a major terrorist attack in a country near us.
And there may not have been.
As we become older we see bigger pictures, and truths gradually reveal themselves to us.
A realisation dawns that we are all complicit in lies of such enormous proportion that it becomes wearying to write them down.
As Greek tragic dramatist Aeschylus (525 BC - 456 BC) pointed out, "In war, truth is the first casualty."
Sometimes you just have to stick your head above the parapet and spell out some truth, so that it doesn't die a death.
We all know that the US bombing and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan is not going to defeat Al Qaeda.
We all know that the Taliban will probably prevail, however undesirable that may be. We all know that the so-called 'Coalition' will fail where the Soviet Union failed before. We all know that Afghanistan is not a country that any foreign power can occupy and impose its own peace upon.
We all know that democratic government set up in Afghanistan is no more a viable or realistic representation of the people's wishes than is the similar puppet government in Iraq.
We all know that Saddam Hussein had no links with Al Qaeda. They distrusted each other.
We all know that, as a result of the wars being waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, Al Qaeda is now growing in numbers every day.
We all know that neither war was really a retaliation for 9/11. We all know that Bush was going to do it anyway.
We all know that hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and injuries remain uncounted by Coalition forces, and that the untold suffering imposed upon local civilian populations will serve only to recruit more dissent directed against the occupying forces.
We all know all these things, and we all moan about George Bush, but by our silence we tacitly allow these wars to happen.
And they do, but not because they seek to liberate subjugated populations; not because by superimposing the Western ideal of democracy onto Arab and Asian cultures we will improve the lives of indigenous peoples.
But because western society thrives on two conditions beyond all others.
For our governments to rule us 'successfully', we must have enemies, and we must fear them.
In order to write this piece, I went on the internet to find out how many people had died in recent terrorist attacks in western Europe.
All I found was site after site raving on about the growth of Islamic terrorism; how we should be afraid of Islamic terrorists; how Islamism is destroying our way of life.
When I was a boy, terrorists were white, real and unavoidable. The IRA bombed the hell out of my home town. Nowadays, too many supposed Islamist attacks are filed under 'Imminent' and 'Alleged'.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world was starting to look peaceful, so new enemies had to be invested in.
At this point conspiracy theorists might have something to say, and I will neither sit here and rubbish their theories, nor claim that their ideas are correct.
All I can do is say what I know. What we all know:
That ever since the end of the Cold War, the US and its allies have been investing heavily in future enemies.
They have bombed and invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. They have accused the Iranians of State Terrorism and threatened their nuclear programme with military action. They have antagonised the Syrians, the Lebanese and the Somalians.
In fact, Somalia shows perfectly how American foreign policy succeeds in recruiting for Al Qaeda
Over the last ten years, Somalia has offered what looked like an ideal breeding ground for Islamic terrorism. A weak government sits alongside a traditional Islamic (or good old-fashioned 'Muslim') nation with a glut of religious organisations from which Jihadis might grow.
But they didn't, because the people wanted peace.
So the Americans, working with the Ethiopian army, chased suspected Jihadis into the southern tip of Somalia, and then sent in AC 130 helicopter gunships, which proceeded to wipe off the face of the planet all the villages and any signs of life in the area.
As a British soldier put it, having perfected the military equivalent of drift-netting, they 'kill everything that moves, and then see who you have got left afterwards.'
Sure enough, after this and many other airborne attacks, a terrified population runs to Al Qaeda to protect them from the deliverers of death from the skies.
We all know that we don't want to see innocent people die. We all know that there are dark evil people out there who happily kill murder and maim innocent people for political religious and economic gain.
We know that sometimes these killers come in the form of terrorists, and sometimes in the form of governments.
What we have to decide, each and every one of us, is where we draw our own personal lines over the old maxim, 'One man's Terrorist is another man's Freedom Fighter.'
Anyone who fights an American is now described as a terrorist. Might not the 'insurgents' of Iraq just be Iraqis fighting an occupying power?
We know that Nelson Mandela is today an heroic liberator, just as we know he used to be perceived as a mad terrorist.
We know that Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams used to be terrorist bombers, just as today we see them as peacemakers. We know that General Musharraf of Pakistan and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia preside over brutal and repressive regimes. But they are not our enemies because they do what America tells them to do.
We know that we are fed a diet of lies, and yet we choose to swallow, because it is easier to eat the convenience foods of hate that to forage, cook and serve up a little truth of our own.
We know, because we are intelligent people, that when we are told to hate certain people, our crime is to obey, because then we don't have to understand them.
Yes, some people just kill for the hell of it.
But usually, people kill because they are already in hell, and are looking for a way out.
Monday 24 September 2007
"They're not the same as us, Charlie."
Looking deep and long into his Irish eyes, I wonder if he has any idea how that sounds to this Englishman.
"And what is 'Us', exactly?"
"Sure, we're the same, kind of, y'know. These fellas are different. Nothing wrong with them, mind, but not, y'know, just not like you and me."
Oh right, so now all of a sudden we're the same, kind of, are we?
This could have been a moment of great celebration. Having first set foot upon Irish soil 15 years ago, I have been only too conscious of being English.
If this little verbal exchange had opened the door to a life free from historical slagging, from gentle ribbing all the way to lacerating livid hatred, I might have been jumping up and down with glee.
But I wasn't, because it didn't.
Far from a liberating leap beyond the muddy shite of bigotry, yer man had merely promoted me in some kind of Racism Premier League.
Mind you, if the English are suddenly looking good (or at least, not so bad) to the Irish, you'd better be sure somebody else is getting it in the neck.
For months, years, I've been in agony, listening to lovely intelligent and lucid Irish people speaking indescribable drivel about immigrants, immigration, racism and xenophobia.
And then I realised that I was wrong.
No no no. I haven't suddenly seen beauty in fascism. There will be no burning upside-down crosses on the Adley lawn.
I was wrong because I pooh-poohed and ridiculed the Irish as they raved about the size and speed of the change. I was adamant that immigrants made up only a tiny percentage of the population, and then the census showed otherwise.
It was in England last week that I realised why I had failed to see the situation clearly.
Where I grew up, people of all colours, creeds and cultures lived together with a common nationality.
They didn't always get on with each other, but few ever doubted that they came from one nation.
The reason I failed to notice how many immigrants there were in Ireland was because this place is still a million miles away from that.
I love Ireland and the Irish, but I will love Ireland and the Irish a whole lot more when the native white Catholics stop being fearful of everything and anything that they perceive as different; when they realise how ridiculous are their demands for everyone to behave as they do; when they see how ignorant it is of them to want, expect and insist different people from different countries to completely conform and comply.
I will love Ireland and the Irish a whole lot more when they learn to love difference. The reason ye all got so upset with the Rev. Ian Paisley when he criticised the 'mono-ethnic monotheistic mono-cultural State' is that it was true.
Bloody hard taking it from him, I'll admit, but true nonetheless.
Enlightenment has to first be administered by government.
The deeply sad truth is that while people like Conor Lenihan are happy to deny Sikhs employment in the Garda Siochana by banning the right to wear turbans; while it is acceptable for a Minister to display such arrogance as to declare that Sikhs must "fit in with our culture"; while we have a government that sanctions the withdrawal of that most basic human right: the freedom to worship, positive change will take generations.
When people are sent to prison for incitement to racial hatred, (as they are in civilised countries); when it is illegal for newspapers to report the ethnicity of a suspected perp (a Romanian did this, a non-national did this and a foreign national did that), unless it is relevant to the story, we might stand a chance.
I'm not crying for the moon here. Just asking hoping praying for a realisation to dawn upon the Irish psyche.
Yes, racism will always be with us. Despite losing 6 million of our own people to the Nazi gas chambers, I still have to endure the racist nonsense I hear in the Jewish homes of Northwest London.
But we do know that difference is good. Some people eat different food to us, sweat a different smell to us and sing a different song. They pray to a different god and go to different heavens. But they love their children, like to live in peace and enjoy good health.
Stop and wonder how it sounds when you wax lyrical about how great your country was with only one skin colour and one religion.
"Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer!" ring any bells?
Let's talk cake. Immigrants in Ireland are at the moment just the icing on Ireland's cake. They sit on the outside of your society, visible and obviously different. Already they offer something new, something sweet and exciting, but they are far from being an essential part of the fabric of our everyday lives.
With racism spared for the English, the Travelling community and Protestants in the North, the old Irish sponge cake was a bland ethnic affair. Completely white and mostly Catholic, any change or integration was resisted.
Ever since your independence, all you've had is one flavour, one colour and one shape.
Now you have the chance to add something to the sponge.
Instead of fuming about how the eastern European fella has an 05 Opel Astra, or being upset because the funny-looking woman is talking with a funny-sounding accent; instead of walking past a black taxi driver at the rank, or refusing a drink to anyone who looks nothing like your own family, add a little Essence of Wisdom to the mix.
Instead of leaving out all the new and different ingredients, to later scrape as icing hanging on the edges, why not layer the sponge with different flavours?
Irish culture is unique, strong and often wonderful. It will survive intact, but your lives will be richer with humanity, and happier for the variety.
If all this cake stuff seems a tad trite and simplistic, that is because it is simple.
Instead of hanging on to the way you've always been, make that leap: The greater the variety of colours, flavours, sugars and spices, the mightier the cake.
Sure, you never know. Maybe the Irish layer cake will taste better than you ever imagined.
Friday 14 September 2007
In the early days of political correctness we were told that it was wrong to dress girls in pink.
Apparently we were imposing cultural and sexist prejudices upon our innocent children. Exactly how much of a boy or girl they were going to be was best left to them.
Even so, we had to give them names, but had no idea at the time quite how huge an influence our choices would have on their lives.
Professor David Figlio, of the University of Florida was horrified when he heard his daughter's 'Talking Barbie' doll declare "Math(s) is hard!"
Why would a girl, more than a boy, think that?
He took 1,700 letter and sound combinations that people associated with being either male or female, and applied them to 1.4 million names on birth certificates. From his data he calculated a linguistic 'femininity' score, and then built a league table of the most and least 'feminine-sounding' girls names.
After a massive amount of research, including the study of 1,000 pairs of sisters, Professor Figlio found out that names given to girls have a profound affect on their career choices.
If Barbie was a real girl she might indeed find maths difficult. With twin daughters called Alex and Isabella, Alex will be twice as likely to study maths than her sister.
He explains: "Girls with feminine names ... may feel more pressure to avoid technical subjects"
While Annas, Emmas and Elizabeths will perform just as well as anybody else doing science, they are far less likely to choose the subject, which is perceived as 'male'. But if you're a girl with a name that sounds like a boy - a Lauren or an Ashley, for instance - people will treat you differently, and it will be much easier for you to cross sexually stereotypical obstacles.
So have celebrities got it right? By giving their children names like Twinklebot, Raindrop and Carrot will they avoid the whole business of gender stereotyping?
Maybe, but their childrens' funky names won't help them receive a good education. Professor Figlio studied 55,000 children, and discovered that those given unusual names performed poorly.
Kids whose names had modern spellings or included punctuation (you know the sort of thing: "Hi, I'm Lavinia! That's big 'L' small 'a' big 'V' and an apostrophe, small 'i' big 'N' small 'i' big 'A'. LaV'iNiA!") scored around 5% lower on all exam scores, mostly, it's believed, because teachers tend to take them less seriously as people.
As Anushka Asthana reported in The Observer, Primary School teachers find it difficult not to make judgements on children's names before they have even met them.
We are all so very human, and, according to UCLA Psychology Professor Albert Mehrabian in his book 'Baby Name Report Card', we are drawn to certain names and repulsed by others.
Some names sound like success on a plate, while others make people form images of drug addicts and homeless people. Old-fashioned and traditional names still appeal. Rachel and Robert seem to sound like particularly popular people.
While Breeze scored a miserable 16 out of 100, Christopher got top marks for respect in the name league table.
The book's author has strong feelings on the subject:
"A name is part of an impression package. Parents who make up bizarre names for their children are ignorant, arrogant or just foolish."
Certainly there is a strong case to be made for the old adage 'Give a dog a bad name...'.
Simply, if we are told we are intelligent and beautiful, then we are more likely to believe it of ourselves.
The day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, a wonderful schoolteacher in Iowa called Jane Elliot conducted a tremendous experiment on her class.
After splitting her pupils into groups depending merely on eye-colour, she told first one group and then the other that they were inferior.
Just as she suspected, each person who had been told they were a lesser being displayed feelings of self-loathing, fear, and proceeded to perform worse than ever in academic tests.
Since then, scientists at Stanford University have taken her research, and proved beyond doubt that the observable differences in exam scores between black and white students is nothing to do with genetic differences, but wholly down to what is known as 'stereotype threat': that is, people who feel stereotyped, who have been stereotyped all their lives, are likely to fulfil those expectations.
Hence black kids from poorer areas tend not to perform as well as their white equals.
Meanwhile, Anya Hurlbert (now there's a name that forms an image in my mind!) has thrown all this modern research on its liberal head.
As Professor of Visual Neuroscience (you wot?) at Newcastle University, she has discovered that women like pink and blokes like blue.
Well cor blimey guv'nor, give her an apple. Not an Apple Paltrow, just a piece of fruit.
Apparently, women react positively to pink because they needed to find it when we were hunter-gatherers, back when we lived in caves.
In tests that covered populations around the globe, she amassed tons of data that confirmed that women were drawn to the colours of berries, because, according to Hurlbert (yikes, I just saw that image again!): "Women were the primary gatherers and would certainly have benefited from an ability to home in on ripe red fruits. A clear blue sky signalled good weather, suggesting a good day (for men) to hunt."
And then she goes and spoils it all by saying something stupid like
"Clear blue also signals a good water source."
Doesn't that defeat her own arguments? After all, don't both men and women need a good water source?
Ah me, there's nothing like a big stinky pile of scientific research to confuse the hell out of us.
If we give our sons manly names, are we depriving them of the right to do the Billy Elliot ballet dancer thang?
Should we call our daughters Samantha and Jessica so that they feel all womanly, or are we wrecking their chances of winning a Nobel Prize for physics later in life?
Only one thing is certain. Whatever we call them and whoever they feel like being, they are going to need loads of guidance and plenty of encouragement to make the best of their lives in a world full of experts that can't tell a peeper from a punanny.
Monday 10 September 2007
"Oh my good God! What have I done?"
A black line, carrying behind it a greying area of screen, is descending from the top of my computer screen, slowly spreading to the bottom, veiling my beloved desktop in a chilling shroud.
Oh no! Oh no no no! Have I somehow managed to download a virus onto my iMac?
Or was that grey cascading down my monitor an Apple Safety Curtain, a protective shell built within to protect my compootchah from scabrous net scum?
A dialogue box jumps up on screen, telling me to restart my computer, but does the order come from within Apple's software, or from a new invader?
Is that voice of the virus, the disguised plea of lurking cyber lurgy, hoping only that I will ignorantly obey, thus somehow opening the micro passages and nano doorways it needs to copy and probably dissolve my data?
What the heck!
I hit restart and sit, dry mouthed, as I wonder whether my faith in Apple is about to be trashed.
We Mac-ites are of the belief that the vast majority of the world's cyber viruses, trojan horses, worms, bats, crabs (and probably slugs by now) are designed to battle with the might of Microsoft. As long as you stay away from Outlook Express and Windows, Vista or whatever operating system the PCs of the world are running, you're safe as houses.
Thus, there I was, deleting crap from my inbox, musing upon how bleedin' useless email is as a form of communication, when my eye struck upon a message that looked vaguely legit.
Yes, it had an attachment, which might be enough to extinguish it on sight, but it wasn't offering me an enlarged penis. This email wasn't trying to sell me Viagra, and it wasn't inviting me to buy stocks and shares, or invest in a new block of flats. It wasn't written in a foreign language and it didn't say 'H®éDT£16n#™¦'.
Don't know about you, but when emails announce themselves with a subject like 'H®éDT£16n#™¦', I tend not to think 'Oh, that must be a message from my sweet cousin Jenny!'.
A man could feel pretty excited and popular if he were to take his Spam (junk email) seriously.
Last week I was invited to become an honorary member of a Rambling society. I won a lottery. An old classmate (who I suspect was neither old nor a classmate) wanted to contact me. A bloke in Nigeria wanted me to look after ¤36,000 for him, and some other bunch wanted to help me make my tadger grow to the size of a small tree.
I never used to get Spam, but inevitably, as I visit more sites, so my email address appears more often, and I end up deleting loads of messages each day.
In fact, these days, I tend to just delete anything and everything that I do not recognise or trust, which rather begs the question: 'What is the point of emails?'
Outside of the business world, the whole point of one human communicating with another is that the interaction might feel personal.
I know I'm about to sound incredibly old-fashioned, but while the internet and email have revolutionised my working life, for which I am eternally grateful, I used to like writing a letter, and receiving one back.
There was something sensual and intriguing about the envelope, the notepaper, the twist and whorl of a girlfriend's handwriting.
To hold a message, a piece of news, an impulsively-included sweet nothing in your hands, to take in the scent was quite magic.
Letters helped you to feel close to, or more aware of, the sender.
Email is instant, inhuman and cold.
We don't write letters any more, and increasingly, we don't write emails either. We just write txts, which could never be accused of either expanding or enhancing the language, and yes, even on your mobile phone, the spam/service message junk comes pouring in.
Spam accounts for over 85% of all email traffic worldwide. According to the Ferris Research Group, University of London, the average office worker spends 49 minutes 'managing emails' each day.
If you make the dizzying heights of Senior Management Worker, you will apparently spend 4 hours a day 'managing emails'
Anyway. what's all this 'managing emails' stuff? We just used to call it 'sciving' when I were t'lad.
Once again, the need to ask how efficient a form of communication is email, when we not only fear for the health of our computers, but also, when spotting the real messages amongst the detritus is harder than Viagra overload?
Over the years, I have received hundreds of emails from readers, but nowadays, unless they make real and understandable reference to the piece, or the newspaper in question, I might well be missing out on bona fide reader messages.
If they look dodgy, I delete them.
At least with junk mail that comes through your letter box, you have the chance to read it, judge it and then chuck it out, without threatening the fabric of your household. But on a computer it's just not worth the risk.
As I said, up to now, being a Mac user, I have often felt arrogantly indifferent to viruses, trojan horses and all that. It occurred to me that they might become more of a target to begrudgers after the success of the iPod, but there I was, struck fearful and shwetty, staring at the screen in front of me.
Why oh why did I open that email? Haven't I always sniffed and scoffed at how the silly people who open their silly emails and then click on their silly attachments get what they deserve?
And now is it time for my comeuppance? Has pride finally earned this fool a fall?
Was it a virus that made my computer go all wonky, or was it a brilliant piece of Apple software that sensed something unwelcome in the machine, and has since chewed it up, kicked it right up its cyber jacksy and spat it out through a portal in the Ethernet?
Sounds good, doesn't it? Almost like I know what I'm talking about?
Thankfully my compootchah still seems mucho intacto, so all power to Apple.
Now, pass me my pen and paper.