Monthly Archives: August 2018

Feel No Shame

Buried away on page 27 of today’s Guardian is an article about naming and shaming FTSE top 100 companies who overpay their bosses. The article fails to name all 18 of the companies implicated! But there’s a deeper problem. These fat cat bosses are highly unlikely to feel ashamed if they do get better exposure than this. Many studies have shown that company CEOs tend to have psychopathic personality types. Here’s one example of such a study. You can find plenty more online.

The Ultimate Psychopath

Do you want your country led by a psychopath? The Americans have one, whether they like it or not. Trump is the ultimate example. Beneath that thick, unctuous layer of narcissism lies a true psycho. See his comments leaked from a private meeting with right-wing evangelical Christians about Antifa. No, I hadn’t heard of Antifa, either. They’re an extremist, violent fringe left-wing anti-fascist group in the USA. Note Trump’s latching on to a violent tiny minority group to justify his own threats to democratic norms. That strikes me as psychologically unhealthy – psychopathic, perhaps? As Psychology Today puts it: “Psychopaths aren’t capable of feeling any genuine remorse. They don’t accept any responsibility for hurting other people’s feelings. Instead, they blame other people and deny responsibility.” Sounds familiar?

The recent Ed Balls series in Trumpland shows that many of the faithful continue to support Trump because he “acts like a businessman” and not like a politician. What they may not realise is that they actually mean they like a psychopath as their leader!

British Psychopaths

The extreme Leavers – naming no names – all exhibit the behaviours listed in the quote above. As the extremist-supporting papers thrash around blaming everyone else for the damage done by the UK government’s “plan” to leave the EU, think hard on that. And what do the extremist-supporting press have in common? They are all owned (or in one case edited) by people from the richest 1% – those likely to be psychopaths. They will do all right in the event we leave the EU, by hiding their money in tax havens, open a branch of their business in an EU country or whatever.

I wrote about Free Market Fundamentalism being a psychopathic economic system in Why George Osborne is Only Half Human way back in 2015. And I described what it means to be wholly – and psychologically healthily – human in Being Human II: The Four Cs a couple of weeks earlier.

Hey Now

It’s been said many times that a large chunk of the Leave vote in the referendum was a protest against feeling ignored and disempowered: “Shit life syndrome” is the term coined by GPs to label people whose life chances – or rather lack of them – create health problems. Many of them are in shit jobs: there’s even a hiring company which celebrates the fact!

Having trouble empathising with those suffering from shit life syndrome? I’ve often thought Noel Gallagher’s lyrics made little sense, but, hey now, try this for size:

I hitched a ride with my soul
By the side of the road
Just as the sky turned black (a)
I took a walk with my fame
Down memory lane
I never did find my way back (b)
You know that I gotta say time’s slipping away
And what will it hold for me
What am I gonna do while I’m looking at you
You’re standing ignoring me

I thought that I heard someone say now
There’s no time for running away now
Hey now! Hey now

Feel no shame ’cause time’s no chain
Feel no shame

The rich 1%, unlike the rest of us, can run away to their tax havens, or hide their money there. Nothing will change while the Tories are in charge.

(a) Air pollution kills 40,00 a year, 9000 in London alone. And Boris Johnson, when London Mayor suppressed the report for 18 months until Sadiq Khan found it in his bottom drawer.

(b) Decent, well-paid, secure working-class jobs have all but disappeared.

General Election

The other possible Tory leaders, as Prime Minister – assuming there’s a coup from the extreme right in the Party – would be worse. Psychopaths all.

I’ve said a lot of rude things about Theresa May, and justifiably so. The hostile environment policy and the practices it has spawned have her fingerprints all over them. Such actions would be evidence of psychopathic behaviour. But I think the truth is more mundane. The inhumanity of the hostile environment comes from May’s sheer lack of exposure to poor people and her lack of imagination. It’s her incompetence, rather that psychopathy, that’s the problem.

So we need a general election. But first, Conference needs to change Labour Party policy to Remain in the EU, with or without a People’s Vote – I don’t mind. As long as we stay in. Hey now, what do you say?

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Abraham’s Followers

God said to Abraham “Kill me a son…”

This blog post is prompted by the Pope’s visit to Ireland – a secular, utterly changed, country in the 40 years since Francis’s predecessor visited the country. I say good to that. Let’s talk religion.

As a humanist, I obviously reject all religions (although Buddhism doesn’t require its followers to believe in a non-existent deity, so I’m OK with that.) The rest contain some superstitious nonsense about God, Yahweh, Allah or whatever and generally also a belief in some form of afterlife. Neither is for me. The Humanist position is clear and simple. We have but one life, here on Earth. And people are free to believe and practice any religion as long as it does no harm to others. That’s the acid test.

There are some deeply troubling trends in India in relation to Hindu nationalism, leading to state-tolerated anti-Muslim discrimination – but that would be a distraction from my main arguments. So I’ll stick to the main Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). For reasons of brevity and familiarity, I’ll use “Abraham” rather than the Islamic form “Ibrahim” in this post.

abraham and son

Orthodox and Enlightened

Broadly speaking, Humanists like me have most problems with the orthodox / traditional wings of these three religions. That’s because they are “book” religions and the words are taken literally by the traditionalists. Liberal Jews, Christians and Muslims recognise that the world and social attitudes have changed since the words were written. So they “interpret” what’s been written in the light of what we’ve learnt since.

There is no shortage of enlightened, liberal and even secular Jews to engage in a debate. “Secular” doesn’t work for Christians and Muslims: it’s an oxymoron – despite Home Secretary Sajid Javid claiming he’s a “secular Muslim”: logically impossible! I suppose it helps him to be more accepted by the Christian traditionalists in the Tory Party.

Judaism

The concept of “secular Jew” works because Judaism differs from the other two Abrahamic faiths in one important way. The term “Jew” is conventionally applied as both a religious and ethnic grouping. It is part of the reason we can all get quickly into hot water over debates about antisemitism. I believe that, under Benjamin Netanyahu, the actions of the state of Israel make it a rogue state: a democracy with a coalition government dependent on right-wing extremist parties. But my fundamental belief in anti-discrimination makes it easy for me to distinguish between criticism of Israel and criticism of Jews in general.

I do also believe that Jews, as an identifiable group, have been discriminated against – including genocide – more than any other over the past 2000 years. About 90% of the discrimination was done in the name of Christianity: anti-Jewish sentiment and actions by Muslims are – with one or two notable exceptions – a relatively recent phenomenon. And the Holocaust, as the most evil state-sponsored event of the 20th century, behoves us all to be very sensitive in our choice of words.

Christianity

Again, taking a 2000 year view, Christianity has been the main culprit when it comes to killing and torture in the name of religion. The Renaissance, in Christian Europe, led to a rediscovery of classical Greek and Roman art and philosophy, secular in nature. The Reformation gave us Protestantism, which, via the Enlightenment, led to secularism. This and scientific discovery have brought progress to the point where over half of Brits have no religion. There are more non-believers than Anglicans.

And yet, the Church retains many privileges in Britain and certainly in England, thanks to a combination of factors. Detritus which needs to be swept away includes state-funded faith schools, the requirement for our head of state to defend the established church and the general legislative drag on enlightened, secular policies. It is a disgrace that a part of the UK (Northern Ireland) violates the human rights of women over abortion, for example. The UK and Iran are the only two countries in the world with clergy formally and constitutionally part of the legislature.

Islam

Which brings us to Islam. Humanists have one big problem which we cannot avoid. Traditional Islamic teaching states that the Qur’an, as told to the prophet Mohammed, is the final word of Allah / God, which cannot therefore be challenged. A lot of Islamic teaching and cultural practice is not in the Qur’an itself, but in the many additions, not least the Hadith, bolted on to the faith subsequently. It’s primarily about 7th to 12th century politics, when things in the Middle East were pretty patriarchal (see Misogyny below). But asserting the Qur’an as the unimprovable word of Allah doesn’t exactly encourage open debate.

I continue to strive to gain a better understanding of Islam, for two opposing motives. The first (and by far the more important) is to enable me to be culturally sensitive in my regular dealing with Muslim people, as a matter of respect for them and their right to practice their faith. The second motive is to use my greater knowledge of their religion to disagree with Islamic beliefs from a humanist perspective. Much of the culture in Muslim groups in 21st century Britain is highly socially conservative, and I am keen to gain a better understanding of where this comes from.

In the 10th century, a phenomenon known as closing the gates to Itjihad occurred: in plain English, the law-makers of the time “laid down the (sharia) law” and there it stays until this day. One thing I can say for sure: Islam has never had the equivalent of Christianity’s Reformation. But it’s more complicated than that! (Read on in the Wiki article linked above to get a brief overview of 19th century Islamic modernism and Salafism – but many of the most extremist groups in Islam and individuals such as Osama Bin Laden hark back to a mythical “Golden Period” of early Islam – which only makes things worse!)

I think what really matters is that nearly all Muslims living in Britain get on with their lives in such a way that they do no harm: that’s the Humanist litmus test. It’s a key tenet of Humanist thought that all people, of all faiths, are free to act this way without fear of discrimination.

Misogyny

All the Abrahamic faiths, but especially Christianity and Islam, seem obsessed about women and what they may, or may not, do with their bodies. There is a strong propensity towards misogyny. It’s easy to spot where this comes from in Christianity and orthodox Judaism. Women are unclean, as a result of menstruation and childbirth (Leviticus 12). (Incidentally Leviticus 18:22 is the only Biblical source of Christian anti-gay bigotry.) It’s worth reading Leviticus in full, as I have done. You’ll learn that it’s OK to eat locusts but not prawns, it’s a sin to wear a garment made with more than one fabric and how to deal with mildew as a nomad in the pre-Christian Arabian desert. And a whole lot more: how times have changed.

The other great driver of religious misogyny is the Adam and Eve myth. Specifically, it’s in the role Eve plays as temptress with the apple (Genesis 3:6). Echoes of this myth filter down to today in Islam around the issue of Muslim women’s right to wear what they choose or forced to by men(?). This Polly Toynbee article intelligently addresses the issue.

Misogyny and the violation of women’s rights remain the biggest example of what I meant by “legislative drag” in the earlier section on Christianity.

The Pope and Catholicism

Which all brings us back to the Pope’s visit. Good luck to Francis with his reforms – if he truly means it. Church politics will resist all moves towards a more enlightened position. Thought control is hard-wired into the Catholic hierarchy. And the interests of the Church always take priority over the victims of abuse. Steve Bell’s cartoon from 8 years ago got there first.

Sorry
Not really sorry…

The Catholic Church is intrinsically evil. It has caused more anguish and misery than any other man-made institution in the past 2000 years. (Its supporters will argue it has brought comfort too. That may well be true, but the evil is greater than the good). To be Catholic is to learn guilt at a young age. If I remember rightly, wanking is a sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church. So that gets 90% of Catholic schoolboys for a start!

The pope said some words earlier this week in advance of his visit to Ireland. But victims’ groups were unimpressed: it was just words with no sense that anything will change. A bit like the “prayers and thoughts” offered by Trump and other NRA apologists in the USA after each school mass killing.

I hope that everyone has a nice time in Dublin today, even those with whom I disagree over matters of faith. But, like gun control in the States, don’t expect real change any time soon.

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Hostile Means Nasty

Between 1990 and 1995, I needed to walk on many occasions to an office in Croydon for work meetings, passing Lunar House on the way from the station. Lunar House is where asylum seekers and others seeking to regularise their UK immigration status would queue up to speak to a Border Agency official. By the body language and blank expressions in their eyes, I could tell these were desperate people near the end of their tether in their quest to navigate the Kafkaesque nightmare of UK immigration.

Lunar House
Lunar House

Dysfunctional Home Office

The Home Office has been a malignant, inhumane Government Department for at least 30 years. It has seen off the more sane and humane Cabinet Members quite quickly. At the time of my visits to Croydon, it was Kenneth Baker (who lasted 16 months) and Ken Clarke (13 months), followed by the evil Michael Howard, who saw out the end of Tory Rule until the 1997 victory by Tony Blair and New Labour. Labour got through six Home Secretaries with ever-shorter tenures: Jack Straw (4 years), David Blunkett (3 years), Charles Clark (16 months), John Reid (13 months), Jacqui Smith (2 years) and Alan Johnson (11 months). [Home Secretary dates from this Wikipedia page]

In a class of her own, Theresa May lasted over six years. Amber Rudd, aka mini-May, lasted nearly two, until she was deposed by taking the rap for her predecessor and boss. It’s anyone’s guess how long Sajid Javid will last. But May’s long tenure speaks volumes about what sort of a person she is.

Little Miss I-Know-Best

In my earlier post The Modes of May, I described the three modes: Little Miss I-Know-Best is the most apt here. May clearly has a problem in mixing and communicating with “ordinary” members of the public. She has not the wit, imagination or empathy to see how life is for people outside the leafy, Tory-supporting, prosperous streets of her Maidenhead constituency. This was exemplified in her disastrous 2017 election campaign, where she stuck to addressing hand-picked supporters in near-empty warehouse buildings. It reached its nadir on the morning after the Grenfell Tower fire, when she shunned the company of grieving relatives of the victims and confined herself to speaking to the emergency services personnel.

Although no longer Home Secretary, the notorious Hostile Environment policy, first publicised for the Windrush generation but now seen to affect many, many more people, has May’s fingerprints all over it. This took the previously dysfunctional, nasty Home Office to whole new level of hostility. Her soulmate Ian Duncan Smith took the same hostile approach to benefit claimants. This can be seen most in the inhumane approach taken to the harsher sanctions regime. The same “assume guilty unless the asylum seeker / benefit claimant can prove innocence beyond all reasonable doubt” approach can be seen in both the Home Office and Department for Work and Pensions.

We’re Not Special

Although Theresa May tamely supported Remain in the referendum campaign, she switched to being the most rigorous supporter of the most extreme form of leaving the EU. She’s a prisoner of the DUP (of her own choosing) and the Leave extremists in her own party. Reality is beginning to bite: the extremists are blaming everyone except themselves and May is strangely silent on anything of substance. But her earlier, ill-advised “red lines” have left her no room to manoeuvre. What a fuck-up.

All of this, I think stems from the same basic delusion. Namely, that the British, and especially the English, are somehow special. This springs from a distorted, whitewashed version of our imperial past. The best comment I have heard as an antidote came from a Danish politician about six weeks ago. He said something like this: “The EU consists of small countries and of nations who have not yet realised they are small countries”. I wonder whoever he had in mind?

Post-imperial hubris and delusion drives the Leave extremists (Dunces I call them) who refuse to accept reality: in particular, the complexities of unravelling 45 years of ever-closer interworking between the countries of the EU. It’s not just about trade – and that’s not simple either.

Jeremy Corbyn

Owen Jones wrote for the New Statesman in 2015 about what would happen if Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party. Part of that was a concerted character assassination attempt by the Tories and their right-wing press outliers. The predictions are remarkable accurate, judged against what has happened since. For a balanced, sympathetic but not uncritical analysis of Corbyn’s foreign policy history as a backbencher, read this piece by Ewen MacAskill.

Over the past 30-40 years, the right-wing media and the Tories have been remarkably successful at shifting the Overton Window sharply to the right. Labour needs to start a campaign of decisively shifting it back to its proper position, in line with actual human experience for the many. John MacDonnell and Corbyn hold the middle-ground view on economic policy, not Hammond, austerity and the Tories. Public opinion is turning against austerity and supports most of Labour’s policies where they differ from the Tories e.g. rail and utilities nationalisation. But Labour is still seen as some left-wing cult in the eyes of far too many people.

Irony

It’s ironic that it was May herself who first warned the Tories 15 years ago that they were being seen as the Nasty Party. Yet her incompetence, rather than malice, has led her to introduce some of the nastiest policies seen from any government in my lifetime.

The referendum vote was almost evenly split and public opinion has swing sharply towards Remain or a proper People’s vote. Yet May plods on along her disastrous path. Favourites to succeed her are too awful even to contemplate. What have we done to deserve this?

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A Slow Death

I received good news this week. After 24 doses of my main chemotherapy drug at the cancer unit in my local hospital, I am in remission. They’re giving me an extra 8 doses, just to be sure. (Currently, I’ve just had dose 30.) The not-so-good news is that my cancer is incurable. But it probably won’t kill me. At my age, it will probably be from something else. I call that good news: you can call it what you like!

In my 30 visits, I’ve undoubtedly spoken to people who have been given a terminal prognosis and are receiving palliative treatment. For most in that position, they will find that dying of cancer is a slow death. Compared, I mean, to being shot, having a fatal heart attack, being run over by a bus, drowning – or any of the many ways we die.

It was 14 months between the time my first wife and I were told she was terminally ill and the day she died. She had with secondary breast cancer which had metastasised. The night following the news of her terminal condition was the worst of my life. The night following her actual death was a doddle, by comparison. Her death, at a hospice, was peaceful: what is known as a “good death” – albeit, tragically, far, far too young.

deathbed scene

But this talk of cancer is not the main point of this post. I want to talk about two other forms of a slow death which affect the whole country.

Slow Death of the Economy

I first want to nail, once and for all, that the Labour Governments of Blair and Brown trashed the economy. Gordon Brown played a leadership role internationally when he took decisive action to avert a 1930s style recession following the Wall Street crash of 1929. Read this Wikipedia entry if you don’t believe me. Some even think Brown may have saved the world from something worse. And remember, the crisis started in the USA and spread to all western countries, not just the UK.

So eight years of austerity, first by George Osborne and then by Philip Hammond, have precipitated our slow decline.

The UK economy is weak, even by the poor standards of the last decade. Productivity, the driver of real earnings growth, has flatlined. Today’s FT reinforces this point:

R&D expenditure is a big driver of productivity. UK R&D expenditure, already below the EU average, is further threatened by the referendum result: industries which are particularly vulnerable to the UK leaving the EU make up the lion’s share of business R&D spending.

The UK economy is lopsided. We rely too much on consumer expenditure for our GDP growth. Household debt, at 86.7% of GDP is way above the Eurozone average at 58% (December 2017 figures). As price rises squeeze median earnings, we are spending more than income for the first time in 30 years.

Every economist, except the one or two “true believers” in the Leave campaign, believes that leaving the single market and customs union will make things worse. Look forward to days of further decline. The changes won’t be dramatic – unless we crash out of the EU under a “no deal” position – but will be slow and inexorable.

Slow Death of Civilised Values

The damage to our economy from leaving the EU is well-known by all except those in denial – which includes some Cabinet ministers. But the fundamental reason I voted Remain concerns a deeper issue: about the values we hold dear in this country. I have written about this before: even before the referendum itself: see, for example, the closing paragraphs of What Sort of People Are We?, written just after the murder of Jo Cox MP by a far-right bigot.

Membership of the EU is not just about trade – although trade seems to be the only thing the Tories care about. A variety of EU-wide programmes recognise the mutual nature of our relationship with our neighbours and the values we hold in common. A good example is the Erasmus programme where ideas about education are shared between EU countries. Our school has been engaged in one such Erasmus project and I have seen the effect on staff in re-energising their approach to teaching and learning. Cooperation on an EU-wide GPS system and on security are other examples.

The Social Fund is based on the principles of additional help for the poorest regions in the EU from funds contributed by all 28 countries. But, above all, the EU has a set of principles to which all current and aspiring countries must adhere. (Enforcement has been patchy: Hungary and Poland are the obvious examples, but Italy has been an Achilles heel since the Treaty of Rome.) That’s why Erdogan’s Turkey has never had a snowball in hell’s chance of joining the EU any time soon. It is moving away from the principles laid down for entry. The Leave campaign’s scare story was just one of their many lies.

There is a danger that the Tory party is taken over by the Leave zealots. Far-right individuals from the USA are actively collaborating with these zealots to undermine our democratic norms. Membership of the EU, imperfect though it may be, is, in my view, a way of demonstrating we still hold civilised human values dear to our hearts.

When I heard the referendum result two years ago, something inside me died. It was a mixture of two things. One: I was wrong about Britain. It’s a nastier country than I thought. Two: the slow death of hope. Hope that my children and grandchildren could look forward to a better life than my generation.

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