Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Matters of life and death

I woke on Saturday to hear two oddly juxtaposed items on the radio. The first was a discussion on Farming Today about the problem of the male offspring of dairy cows. As I understand it, the dilemma is that they’re not much good for beef and so the practice has been to kill them at birth. The spokesman for Compassion in World Farming was predictably opposed to this, and I got the impression that his view was winning traction more generally. The second was a headline item on the news immediately following it. This was about the exit polls from the Irish referendum on abolishing the Constitution’s Eighth amendment, which banned all abortions except when the mother’s safety was in danger. For this there was general approbation, implying that at last the Republic of Ireland had caught up with the modern world. Later in the day when the official result of a two-thirds yes vote was confirmed, the news included prolonged and loud celebration of the victory.

What struck me was the very peculiar dissonance of our concern for the new-born uneconomic calves and apparent disregard for unborn babies. I understand that medically provided abortion is far safer than any alternatives, and I understand that women who become pregnant against their wills have a case to be allowed to choose to continue with their pregnancy or not. I also understand those who argue for the rights of the unborn child to be taken into account. The NHS website’s description week 10 of pregnancy reads:
“The ears are starting to develop on the sides of your baby's head, and the ear canals are forming inside the head.
If you could look at your baby's face, you would be able to see an upper lip and two tiny nostrils in the nose. The jawbones are developing and already contain all the future milk teeth.
Picture from NHS website
The heart is now fully formed. It beats 180 times a minute – that's two to three times faster than your own heart.
The baby is making small, jerky movements that can be seen on an ultrasound scan.” In other words from very early on we describe a foetus as a baby.

I suppose the question is, Is it really, as I recently heard, a matter of the rights of a woman against the rights of an egg? When does a baby begin to have rights? And are his or her rights ever equal to those of the mother – or even of a new-born calf? 

And I ask myself, should the unconfined celebrations of women’s choice not have been tempered with sorrow for inevitable death of the babies whose lives will be terminated?

In this country we have seen the increasing use of abortion to kill unborn children with Down’s Syndrome and disabling conditions. We have also seen it spreading to become “on demand” and as a desperate form of contraception. I hope that Ireland never passes legislation that allows abortion to be as misused as it has become here. And personally I trust that the North doesn't get railroaded into a rush to become like the rest of the UK.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Easter time

I came across this tweeted by Paula Gooder. Isn't it good? 
(Picture is the cross of hope made by the congregation of St Francis Bournville on Good Friday.)

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Holy Week Then and Now

Detail from Giotto fresco of The Crucifixion in the Arena Chapel, Padua
So we’re now into what the Western Church calls Holy Week. It starts on Palm Sunday (last Sunday) and finishes at the end of Saturday, as Easter morning dawns. It is perhaps the greatest eight-day period in the Christian calendar, following the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

This year, two events have hit the international headlines which have particular resonance to that week. One took place a week before Good Friday, and the other the day before Palm Sunday.

To take them in reverse order: St Matthew records the crowds surrounding Jesus in the magnificent Temple buildings on the first Palm Sunday: “But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ they were indignant, and they said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read,
“Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise”?’
And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there.”

Last Saturday we witnessed astonishing crowds assemble in Washington DC in front of the Capitol building. They were largely young people of school age in The March for Our Lives, protesting about the shootings which have cost so many lives in the States and calling for tighter gun control legislation. I was reminded of that first Palm Sunday when a girl aged 11 gave a three and a half minute speech to that huge crowd. Her name is Naomi Wadler. Her focus was the disproportionate number of black young people who are killed but never hit the headlines. The section that struck me was this:
“People have said that I am too young to have these thoughts on my own. People have said that I am a tool of some nameless adult. It’s not true. My friends and I might still be eleven, and we might still be elementary school, but we know. We know life isn’t equal for everyone, and we know what is right and wrong. We also know that we stand in the shadow of the capitol, and we know that we have seven short years until we, too, have the right to vote. So I am here today to honor the words of Toni Morrison: ‘If there is a book that you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.’ I urge everyone here and everyone who hears my voice to join me in telling the stories that aren’t told, to honor the girls, the women of color who are murdered at disproportionate rates in this nation. I urge each of you to help me write the narrative for this world and understand, so that these girls and women are never forgotten.”

Sometimes children see the truth more clearly than their “elders and betters” - whether priests or politicians, senators or Sadducees. I suspect the children weren’t among that night-time rent-a-mob who less than five days later were calling for blood. I suspect the young people in front of Capitol Hill won’t change their tune in a hurry. I hope not.

St John records the intimate conversation that Jesus had with his friends the night before he was tortured to death. Part of it was, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” And that of course is what he did next day, which is why we call it Good Friday (as Giles Fraser explained this morning on Thought for the Day).

This year exactly a week before Good Friday, we heard about a conspicuous act of bravery, in which Lieutenant-Colonel Arnaud Beltrame (aged 42) died on Saturday after volunteering to replace a female hostage during a terrorist attack on the Super U supermarket in Trèbes, southern France. There can be no doubt that he knew it would lead to his being shot. He had served in Iraq in 2005 and received the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest award, in 2012. Last year he was named deputy commander of anti-terror police in the Aude region. There is a great tribute to him by local priest, Father Jean-Baptiste, who was preparing him and Marielle for the religious completion of their wedding. “By substituting himself for the hostages, he was probably motivated by a commitment to gallantry as an officer, because for him being a policeman meant protecting. But he knew the incredible risk that he was taking.
Photo: SkyNews

“He also knew the promise of religious marriage he made to Marielle, who is already his wife and who he loved tenderly, as I witnessed. So? Was he right to take such a risk? It seems to me that only his faith can explain the madness of this sacrifice which is today the admiration of all. He knew, as Jesus told us, that ‘There is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends’ (John 15.13). He knew that if his life began to belong to Marielle, it was also to God, to France, to his brothers in danger of death. I believe that only a Christian faith animated by charity could ask for this superhuman sacrifice.” (The whole account is well worth reading here.) To quote Giles Fraser, may he rest in peace and rise in glory.

For Marielle it must be like being one of the women at the foot of the cross, utterly heart-breaking. As Father Jean-Baptiste comments, “I could not marry him…, because he was unconscious. Arnaud will never now have children in life. But his astonishing heroism will, I believe, inspire many imitators, ready to give of themselves to France and her Christian joy.” I trust that Marielle will be given some glimpse of resurrection hope on Easter Day.

How much we need that light in these days when even I find the news unremittingly dark! Good lasts longer than evil; love is stronger than hate; life will defeat evil – they already have.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Undermining democracy and diplomacy

We used to be told, “Don’t point your finger at someone, because you’ll be pointing three at yourself.” How ironic then that in a month when as a nation we’ve been pointing the finger fiercely at Russia, over their alleged involvement in the Salisbury poisoning, it should transpire that the most massive dirty political tricks originated in the UK and the USA. 

Channel 4’s newshounds have revealed that the British political consultancy firm, Cambridge Analytica, far from being an academic research outfit as its name suggests, became in fact a mercenary dirty tricks operation which specialised in covert manipulation and sold its services to political big guns. And their source of information? It’s none other than your chatty friend and mine, the multi-billion Facebook, based in the United States. So this narrative of a malign Russia conspiring to undermine western democracy loses some credibility. It turns out that much of the undermining is home-grown.

It’s surprising that other major news outlets such as the BBC have not been more interested in the story, seemingly confining themselves to the suspension of CA’s Chief Executive, Alexander Nix, Old Etonian, and the Prime Minister’s answers about the firm’s links to the Tory Party. The Guardian has run it as a main story. I suppose it’s not so surprising that newssheets owned by millionaires don’t major on the story. (The BBC has today given it more attention.)

Photos from Huffington Post; 2 experts in diplomacy
On Wednesday afternoon, another Old Etonian, our Foreign Secretary, once again demonstrated his mastery of diplomacy when asked about the similarities between Hitler’s 1936 Olympic Games and the forthcoming Football World Cup in Russia. “Yes,” said Boris Johnson, political boss of the Diplomatic Service, “I think the comparison with 1936 is certainly right.” Aside from a hint of sour grapes for the UK’s ignominious elimination from the choice of host nation and the overwhelming support received by Russia, this comment surpassed Mr Johnson’s norm of buffoonish wit. He fires from the hip in a manner reminiscent of Mr Trump and for, one suspects, similarly populist purposes.

A couple of years ago I read Anna Reid’s Leningrad: the Tragedy of a City under Siege, 1941-44, which recounted the horrific suffering of that blockade in which 750,000 died. I’m now reading Nobel Prize Winner, Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War. Both books rely on first-hand accounts, the latter almost entirely of women who were involved on or just behind the front lines of the Soviet army, as soldiers and pilots, radio operators, doctors and nurses. 

Their memories are vivid and painful, and are as intensely moving account of the “pity of war” as any I have read or viewed on screen. Both books serve as a powerful reminder that just in the Second World War the country which paid the highest price for defeating Hitler and Nazi ambitions was the Soviet Union with 25 million people killed. (By comparison, UK war deaths were 450,900: World War 2 statistics) We seem to forget that in European wars since Napoleon we have been allied with Russia (or the Soviet Union) and their part in those wars has been extraordinarily costly. Twice invaded from Western Europe by small men with imperialistic ambitions and powerful military forces one can understand their fear of history being repeated – and one can understand their finding a comparison with Hitler’s Germany “offensive and unacceptable”. I’m inclined to agree with the view that it is "unworthy of the foreign minister of any country". 

A Foreign Secretary should, I reckon, have less braggadocio and more circumspection. Sadly, in its desperation to appear decisive and strong, our government has seized upon the affair of the poisoning of our spy, Sergei Skripal, and becomes more and more demagogic and less and less statesmanlike. It’s a pity - a sad example of our proud history of the subtle art of diplomacy.

PS There's a fascinating set of unanswered questions about the Salisbury affair here:/30-questions-that-journalists-should-be-asking-about-the-skripal-case/

Saturday, 17 March 2018

RIP Stephen Hawking

Today we had the AGM of our local MND Association and remembered Professor Stephen Hawking, the most famous man with Motor Neurone Disease and patron of the MNDA, who died this week. He’s widely considered one of our greatest scientists, the author of A Brief History of Time and the subject of the Oscar-winning The Theory of Everything. His MND was unique – or highly untypical – in that it lasted for 55 years rather than the average 14 months from diagnosis. He had a great dry sense of humour and an inextinguishable zest for life, despite the disease leaving him without a voice and without use of his limbs as it progressed. He claimed to have become a more convinced atheist over the years. Only once did I dare to disagree with him. In an interview in 2011 an interview with him was headlined, “Stephen Hawking: ‘There is no heaven; it’s a fairy story.’”  Which gives a beautiful picture which has circulated on social media by Australian artist, Mitchell Toy, particular poignancy.

The interview provoked me to suggest an alternative rational view, which was published in The Guardian, and as I recall attracted a quantity of hostile comment on line. I would like to think that my view and the vision of Mitchell Toy is nearer what Professor Hawking will experience than the bleakness of his own expectations.

Here is my article:
Like Stephen Hawking, I have been living with Motor Neurone Disease.  Like him, I’m one of the lucky few not to have died within months of diagnosis.  I’m nine years younger than him and have had the symptoms of the disease for only ten years, compared to his 49.  However for those ten years I’ve “lived with the prospect of an early death” also.  Unlike Professor Hawking I am not a superstar scientist.  I’m simply a small-time writer, who used to be a teacher and a vicar. 

It seems to me that, while some things Stephen Hawking says in the interview as it’s reported are unarguably true, some are also admitted hypothesis, and some are merely tendentious.  One of the features of MND both for him as for me is that it affects your ability to speak and hence pares down what you say to the bare bones. (That’s not of course the case when you have time to type a script.)  Hence sometimes you are frustrated by your inability to nuance your ideas.  And so it may be that his very categorical answers are the nub of his opinion, but not the full expression.

For example, there’s something of ‘nothing-buttery’ about his comments about death: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”  It’s unarguably true that there’s no heaven for broken down computers, as I have found to my cost when I poured fruit juice over my laptop.  The brain may be nothing but a most remarkable computer, yet there’s something generically different from a computer in a brain which, when it starts to malfunction as happens in MND, can begin to love Wagner’s music and “enjoy life more”.  That, I would say, is irrational, but not uncommon.  Human beings, it would appear, are something more than machines.  Maybe science will one day describe what the difference is.

Hawking tells us that “The universe is governed by science.”  I think I understand what he means.  It is certainly discoverable by science.  Scientific theories which don’t fit with the evidence of the universe fail.  In simple terms science is governed by the universe, not the other way round.  What’s interesting is that this is in effect what Hawking says talking about the beauty of science.  It’s “beautiful when it makes simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations”, citing the double helix and fundamental equations in physics as examples. 

I find myself admiring and agreeing with much of what Professor Hawking says, but I find his ethical deduction and his quasi-religious observation sadly lacking.  “So here we are.  What should we do?” he’s asked.  The question sounds similar to ones posed to great religious teachers of the past.  His answer is disappointing: “We should seek the greatest value of our action.”  It’s certainly thought-provoking (What exactly does that mean for this or that action?) and it is a principle which is reinforced by the experience of life-threatening illness.  One could say, “Don’t waste your life.”  Yet as a rule for life, it lacks both the impact and the practicality of the great Judaeo-Christian answer to that question, “Love God above yourself, and love your neighbour as yourself.”  Even those who are unwilling to subscribe to the first part can understand the second part and usually admit its validity.  It might conceivably be argued for on the Darwinian grounds, that those societies which have lived by altruistic principles have survived, but that very admission raises the question of the origin of that surprising pre-scientific insight.

Finally Stephen Hawking’s headlined observation about death, that an after-life “is a fairy-story for people afraid of the dark” is both sad and misinformed. His proposition that there is no heaven reminds one of Gagarin’s alleged dismissal of God because he did not see him in space.  Openness to the theoretical possibility of there being eleven dimensions and fundamental particles “as yet undiscovered” shows an intellectual humility strangely at odds with writing off the possibility of other dimensions of existence. 

For someone “facing the prospect of an early death”, with probably an unpleasant prelude, the idea of extinction holds no more fear than sleep.  It really is insulting to accuse me of believing there might be life after death because I’m afraid of the dark.  On the contrary, sad though I shall be to leave behind those I love, I suspect the end of life, whatever happens, will be a relief.  And, like Pascal making his wager, if it is dark, I really won’t mind, because, of course, there won’t be a me to mind.

Strangely enough, my theory that there is a form of life after we die is not some sort of wishful thinking.  It’s based on evidence.  If the brain is a computer, then, when I was studying where Stephen Hawking now teaches, I came on a mass of data of which the most convincing, the neatest, explanation was that death is not the end of life.  It wasn’t the most comfortable nor most obvious of conclusions, but the forensic case was forceful and beautiful, providing “simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations”.  The best exposition I found was by the then Director of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies in London, Professor Sir Norman Anderson, in The Evidence for the Resurrection (afterwards republished as part of Jesus Christ the witness of history (IVP 1985)).  My disturbing conclusion was that, if it happened once, as seemed beyond reasonable doubt, then I needed to revise my whole world view.  What you see is not all you get.

One may wish to dismiss Jesus Christ, or Julius Caesar, as fairy stories, even as bunk, but, until one has examined the evidence in Anderson’s forensic manner, that’s a premature judgement.  I suspect many do that.  As for the idea that belief in an afterlife is a consolation, it is not just about heaven.  Most faiths in fact have a notion of judgement, which is hardly comfortable for anyone, although it does focus the motivation not to waste one’s life.  Moreover in our situation Professor Hawking surely knows better than that some notion in your head, whatever that notion might be, makes the frustrations and pains of a terminal illness somehow more bearable.  That’s the nonsense of those who’ve not been there.  I can’t prove it of course, but on good grounds I’d stake my life on it, that beyond death will be another great adventure; but first I have to get finish this one.

RIP Stephen Hawking.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

The Right Honourable Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition

What exactly do MPs, of all parties, reckon the role of the Leader of the Opposition to be? Do they really want a supine yes-man who fails to submit government actions to critical scrutiny? Or do they want a leader who is not afraid to ask those in power the awkward questions which remain unanswered?

Whatever the truth of the Salisbury affair, we as the public certainly have been given no more proof that the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal was authorised by the Kremlin than circumstantial evidence, such as that Skripal was a Russian spy and a British double agent, that the fourth generation nerve agent used, generically known as Novichok, was developed in Russia and has a Russian nickname meaning "newcomer", and we think the Russian president is a nasty piece of work. It might be summed up in Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s profound observation that if something "swims like a duck and quacks like a duck" it's probably a duck. “Proof” seems to add up to “you have to take our word for it,” said loudly and repeatedly. Theresa May, the Prime Minister, was more circumspect in her Commons’ statement saying merely that it was “highly likely” that the Russian state was responsible. According to our former ambassador in Uzbekhistan, Craig Murray - who is far better informed than me - it is highly unlikely that this "proof" is true. Read https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2018/03/the-novichok-story-is-indeed-another-iraqi-wmd-scam/. It is eye-opening.

Jeremy Corbyn was unflinchingly direct in his condemnation of the poisoning of the Skripals, both of the use of chemical weapons in war and on the streets. He also condemned the Putin government and its supporters for “its human rights abuses both at home and abroad”. But, much to the dislike of the government benches, he also asked some pointed technical questions, including whether they had referred the incident to the International Office for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons. A former member of that office and weapons inspector interviewed on Tuesday’s Today Programme confirmed that following a whistleblower’s revelations any “advanced” state could manufacture a chemical agent of this type. So it was also a reasonable question to ask what particularly pointed its manufacture to Russia.

Whatever the details of the Salisbury affair turn out to be, if we’re ever allowed to know them (and official secrets are a well-used governmental fig leaf), far from playing tawdry political games that proved he wouldn’t defend us (Daily Mail), Jeremy Corbyn proved himself a serious opposition leader, unafraid to do his job – subjecting the government to critical scrutiny and awkward interrogation. This was evidenced in the hostile personal attack with which the Prime Minister answered him. It is a shame that he is not receiving the support he deserves from some members of his own Parliamentary Party.

Another thing that seems to have riled the Conservatives is Mr Corbyn’s pointing out on Monday how much the Tory party has received in donations from rich Russian oligarchs now domiciled in the UK with British nationality – over £3million since 2010, and just since Mrs May took office more than £820,000. Of course they want to hold on to it. One wonders why these fabulously wealthy exiles choose to buy favour with the British ruling party.

An irony of the affair in the House of Commons is that in Russia and its predecessor, the Soviet Union, those we most admired were the dissidents, the brave people who dare to challenge accepted orthodoxy. And yet here the powers that be, political, media and plutocracy do all they can to shut his dissenting voice up. It’s perhaps no coincidence that his speech contained this comment about dissidents: “I join with many others in this house in paying tribute to the many campaigners in Russia for human rights and justice and democracy in that country.” One of those no doubt was Alexei Navalny, the hero of John Sweeney’s Panorama programme last night of which Vladimir Putin was the villain. 

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, we should welcome the fact that we have in Parliament an opposition leader who holds our government to account - however uncomfortable that may be.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

The Russian affair in Salisbury

Oh, here we go again! The now traditional English sport of demonising Russians has kicked off once more. A Russian poisoned on the law-abiding streets of Britain leads to lurid headlines within hours. Russia responsible for a spy’s poisoning… we’re told. Speculation is rife. Vladimir Putin is quoted as saying that spies will never go unpunished. The deduction is made that Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia are victims of Kremlin vengeance.
Salisbury Cathedral

The police and security services urge caution in attributing responsibility until investigations have led somewhere, and Russia experts do the same, but still Boris Johnson, our really quite bright Foreign Secretary, described Russia as “a malign and disruptive force”. The incident gave rise to a meeting of the national emergency committee, COBRA, although it’s not clear to me at least in what way it is a “national emergency”. However, one thing that’s clear is that it’s in the Government’s interest that this story should run and run, as it brings to our headlines a tale of espionage and intrigue which does a great job in covering the incompetence of our Brexit negotiations, the imposition of a young dictator as a royal lunch guest and the cardboard thin presentation of, for example, its house-building initiative. No doubt we are in for days of speculative journalism and counter-terror activity that will be useful in giving an appearance of governmental activity.

Russia is a very convenient cockshy. Russian sportsmen are the targets for doping scandals – for example, did you know there were four competitors disqualified for doping from the Winter Olympics, from Japan, Slovenia and Russia? The ones we heard about, of course, were the Russians. I’ve written before about the sophisticated use of TUEs (Therapeutic Use Exemptions). I’ve no doubt that more than a few honoured athletes and coaches from wealthiest nations know how to play that system.

However there’s a more significant aspect to this convenient "malign" narrative. The more you demonise someone the harder it becomes to recognise your common humanity. The harder it becomes to remember that Russia is the country that paid the highest price in defeating both Napoleon and Hitler, and to remember that this is the nation that launched both Helen Sharman and Tim Peake into space and brought them safely back. This is the nation that gave us Tchaikovsky and sublime ballets, Rachmaninov and haunting orchestral music and Shostakovich and Stravinsky. It’s the homeland of Pushkin, Chekhov, of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, of Solzhenitsyn and Akhmatova, Kandinsky and Chagall. All right, it’s the land of borsch and frozen steppes. But perhaps most of all it’s the land of the gulags and the unparalleled history of courageous dissidence.

If you start with a demonic presuppositions, you will miss the human and see only the sinister, even in the good. You will engender fear and antipathy in the other side. And you will interpret the resulting defensiveness as aggression – and so begin a vicious cycle endangering them and yourself.
St Petersburg, Church of the Resurrection

From my limited experience of Russian people, they are very like me, albeit a bit braver. Shylock, the Jew demonised by the Christians in The Merchant of Venice, should surely have taught us what common humanity means?
“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”

I suggest that our Russian xenophobia is as unpleasant and unproductive as the Venetians' anti-Semitism in Shakespeare’s play. It may be politically convenient, but it will not lead to a more just and peaceful world.