1st March 2006
Catherine Fieschi (February) takes a rather benevolent view of the legislation she calls “symbolic,” in the sense that government undertakes it in order to send a signal to the public and to trigger debate, rather than to prevent or punish. She cites the racial and religious hatred bill, which, since the appearance of her article, has happily found itself severely amended. For all its stimulus to debate, may I suggest that such legislation is only useful and benevolent in so far as it is defeated. Symbolic legislation has a habit of becoming hard law. Far better for stimulus to debate to come from elsewhere—commissions, think tanks, writers, journalists. Legislative signals can, like smoke, pollute the public sphere.
Deputy president, English PEN
NHS survival rates
14th February 2006
The Cruncher (February) is wrong to conclude that the NHS comes out poorly just because British five-year cancer survival rates are lower than in other countries. An alternative explanation is that Britain does not waste money on extensive testing procedures for diseases it cannot cure. For such diseases, and many cancers are among them, earlier diagnosis merely serves to raise the number of years between the identification of the disease and death—it does not affect expected mortality.
Cameron and the EU
19th February 2006
Anand Menon (February) is right to say that David Cameron is toughening his attitude towards the EU, but misses the basic reason for a positioning which is harder than that taken by both Hague and Duncan Smith. In a reworking of the New Labour strategy of the 1990s, Cameron requires a touchstone issue to keep the right-wingers on board while he moves to the left back home—like the way Labour insisted on the minimum wage at every opportunity while moving to the centre on crime and benefits.
Cooper on aid
19th February 2006
Robert Cooper’s essay (February) reflects a growing trend to question the fundamental premises on which the “development” sector is based. He is right that African citizens cannot expect “development,” in its true sense, until they are governed by people who are more accountable to them and until individuals and enterprises can operate more or less equally within the rule of law. Up to this point, his argument is reminiscent of the speeches and documents of the department for international development (DfID) and its equivalents in other capitals. But his argument then deviates from DfID. He goes on to point out that despite its name, “development aid” does not bring about development.
Cooper’s essay reflects the recent trend among those working within the aid world to ask hard questions, some of which seem to put at risk the entire aid enterprise. This trend is not sufficiently reflected in the current DfID white paper consultation. DfID is rightly recognised for its intellectual leadership in the development sector. It can justifiably claim to have been instrumental in throwing up the questions Cooper, Matthew Lockwood and others raise. But its consultation conveys a sense that it has stopped asking tough questions.
International Alert, London
Strauss the neocon
25th February 2006
Edward Skidelsky’s “No More Heroes” (March) is one of the clearest essays on the ideas of Leo Strauss I have read. Strauss thought that liberalism would inevitably destroy the possibility for human greatness, and he felt that this was a sorrowful prospect. It would strip human beings of their beauty and leave them no more than machines. Admirer that I am of Strauss, however, I believe he failed to take seriously the possibility that equality might have its own form of beauty—one that could rival the beauty of aristocratic greatness. Perhaps more time with Tocqueville would have made Strauss less gloomy about equality and opened him up to some of the peculiar beauties introduced by both equality and the modern spirit in general.
New York, NY
Morals of area bombing
27th February 2006
I think that both Michael Axworthy and AC Grayling, the author of the book Axworthy reviews (March), fail to understand why area bombing worked and how it made a vital contribution to the defeat of Germany in the second world war. It was effective because it forced the Luftwaffe to defend Germany against the bombers and thereby deprived the German armies, both in Russia and the west, of air support. I was an officer in the field artillery during the battle of Normandy in June-July 1944. In all those six or seven weeks, I never saw a German aeroplane.
Consoled by AJP Taylor
27th February 2006
On reading Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s attack on AJP Taylor (March), I was reminded of an evening in Magdalen college, Oxford, in 1963. I had just heard of my failure in the foreign office exams, and was moping about, seeking sympathy. Then the head porter waved from the lodge. “Mr Taylor’s compliments, he would like you to go up to his rooms straight away.”
For the next couple of hours, Taylor worked at making me feel better. He produced bottles. He assured me that I was well out of it: the life of a diplomat today was far from the agreeable existence it had once been. The modern world beckoned. I should heed its call. And so on. Whatever he had had planned for his evening, Taylor dropped it to work at making me feel better. For all the failings that Wheatcroft points to, this ex-pupil will never forget that kindness.
Danish cartoons 1
3rd March 2006
Anatol Lieven’s “A Long Voyage” (March) makes curious reference to “Hindu” and “Muslim” newspapers in India. There are national and regional papers, papers in most Indian languages and English, dailies and weeklies, but no “Hindu” or “Muslim” papers as such, nor have there been instances of deliberate religious offence leading to the kind of mayhem Lieven suggests.
Indian high commission
Danish cartoons 2
8th March 2006
Anatol Lieven argues that no editor would allow a cartoonist to depict Jesus dropping cluster bombs, and so neither should they be allowed to present Muhammad as a proponent of terror. But this misses the point: Jesus specifically exhorted his disciples to respond to hatred with love, and to forgive someone who wrongs you, thus making the connection with a bomb simply misplaced. Islamic terrorists, though, can justify their acts of violence by reference to the Koran, so the Danish cartoons were raising a legitimate point that is not gratuitous or inappropriate.
Interestingly, Sarah Joseph (Debate, March), who advocates limiting freedom of speech in such matters and describes herself as a convert to Islam from Catholicism, sees nothing ironic in the fact that she herself benefits from this kind of freedom. Converts from Islam in Muslim-majority societies routinely suffer persecution and even death for leaving their old faith, again in accordance with Islamic tradition. Joseph is concerned about double standards; here is a situation which calls much more urgently for attention than the matter of the cartoons.
Evolution and religion
3rd March 2006
It seems reasonable that we unbelievers should try to explain why the human instinct for religious or spiritual belief seems so widespread (Prospect online, March), even at times when people were at risk for holding these beliefs.
Paul Bloom suggested in the Atlantic Monthly that belief in God is an accidental by-product of the way human cognitive faculties evolved. This seems compatible with Daniel Dennett’s ideas that religion is a “profligate expense” which emerged, among other reasons, because humans naturally want to look for animate causes behind earthquakes or bad weather. The problem with these points of view is that they fail to explain why humans are “naturally” so inclined, and why this accidental expense hasn’t been evolved away.
Surely a stronger hypothesis is that the religious instinct (like the language instinct) evolved because it was beneficial. It seems to me, without solid data, that people with strong religious or spiritual beliefs tend to be more successful in society, measured from an evolutionary perspective. If the analysis were done, I would guess it would show that believers, on average, have higher social status, wider social support networks, longer marriages and, of course, more grandchildren.
So how is religion beneficial? In a social species, behaviours such as “tit for tat” reciprocal altruism, respecting property rights and avoiding incest are good for the selfish genes. Also, human brains were “designed” by evolution, at least to a large extent, to handle complex social, status and sexual interactions. Surely the most effective way to program a socially obsessed brain to adopt beneficial social behaviours is to build in a super-high-status, male mega-chief who (literally) lays down the law.
Thus I suggest that the religious instinct co-evolved with the social brain to deliver a cost-effective method for producing those social behaviours which advantage the genes which built the brain (and the instinct) in the first place.
A Damascene objection
12th March 2006
As the main character in Aatish Taseer’s piece “A Damascene Conversion” (March), I wish to object. In this article, every form of religious devotion was mildly scoffed at and condescended to. Taseer implies that religious affiliation hinders critical thought. The Islamic school Abu Nour and its environs are described as a rabbit warren of extras in a jihad film. What Taseer doesn’t mention is that Abu Nour is actively engaged in promoting peace. Yes, it is foreign and intimidating to attend a Friday sermon where the imam says that Muslims must give their blood for the Prophet. Middle eastern rhetoric can be scary to a westerner. But what is scarier is the lack of self-criticism both in Damascus and in western newspapers. Generalising about Islam is just as narrow-minded and unnerving as the Friday sermons at Abu Nour.
Taseer takes the west as the standard for society and spiritual conviction is looked down upon as medieval. I think that we need to consider why people give up their western lifestyles and long for a deeper commitment. Don’t these questions deserve attention?
The middle east harbours many tensions, some caused by western interventions, oil interests and orientalist prejudice. Analysing the anger in Muslim countries as an issue about cartoons and freedom of speech is a great misunderstanding. I’m not proposing a new blame game; all I want is some understanding—both of ourselves and “the others.”
A theology student
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