How enforced ‘respect’ misses the point

As Armistice Day draws to a close for another year, I wanted to share a couple of thoughts on what the day means to me and on the increasingly sensitive subject of how the fallen should be respected.

Most people will be familiar with the excruciating pressure that television presenters and public figures are put under to honour their forebears in the ‘right way’ without cheapening the message by starting too early. One had only to witness the usually unflappable Gary Lineker desperately scrambling to clutch his poppy to his chest after it fell off during Match of the Day to realise that perhaps we’re starting to miss the point. After all, Lineker really can’t be blamed; he foresaw all too well the scathing tabloid condemnations that lay in wait for a respected presenter who, even through no fault of his own, failed to show ‘enough’ respect for Britain’s war dead.

But this uneasy pressure to be seen to be showing enough respect in the right way isn’t just restricted to our TV studios and public offices, it permeates all the way down to our streets and workplaces. Every year there emerges yet another ‘fuming cashier banned from wearing the poppy by shameful supermarket bosses’ or ‘war veterans livid at being refused permission to sell poppies in private retail outlet’. Those who choose to pay their respects to the war dead in a certain way get angry at those who don’t subscribe to their way, until the latter is invariably ‘shamed’ into a ‘climb-down’. In my own office, my meeting was abruptly hushed into silence at 11am and my attempts to quietly continue scrawling a few notes were met with disapproving ‘shush!’s and the frantic tapping of poppies and watches.

Is this really what we mean by respecting those who have gone before us? Does this tense, nervy atmosphere laced with a fear of being seen to be lacking in gratitude capture the Armistice day message we want to convey? I believe not. For me, honouring those tragic men and women who lost their lives in one of history’s greatest atrocities does not necessarily mean wearing a certain artifact or doing a certain thing at an agreed time. I don’t wear a poppy, but I have nothing against those who do. That’s their choice entirely. I feel like I respect Britain’s war dead by doing simple things like exercising my right to free speech or just by taking the time to learn about their lives through history books or elderly relatives. I appreciate the sentiment of collective observances like wearing a poppy or observing a silence, but when joining in with them becomes less of a privilege and more of a chore then the outcome actually runs counter to that which is intended.  On a day which is meant to be all about respect, why can’t we simply respect the rights of individuals to honour their ancestors in whichever way feels right for them? After all, such freedom of expression is surely what those men and women laid down their lives to ensure.

See also: Liberal Conspiracy on Remembrance Day and pacifism and Enemies of Reason on not wearing a poppy.

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People who know me will know that I’m deeply interested in the religion/atheism debate. I haven’t blogged about it much before, largely out of fear that once I get started I’ll likely never stop. Anyway, I’m not going to pen a lengthy polemic or anything just now, but instead I wanted to share something that I feel highlights a lot of people’s misgivings with regard to religion in a quite brilliant way. I’ve read widely on theistic matters, but I’ve found few more insightful and hilarious critiques of religious absurdity than the following strip from the superb Viz magazine (click on the image to enlarge):

Brilliant stuff.

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Declining standards

I feel sorry for kids sometimes. When it comes to education, no matter what level you’re studying at and regardless of your achievements, young people can rest assured that it all counts for nothing as exams are too easy and standards are too low. As a publication which likes to view young people as somewhere between cancer and blacks on the Fear & Loathing O’Meter, the Daily Mail takes particular delight in pushing this narrative.

Why, only in the last few months we’ve been offered all of the following as evidence that educational standards are plummeting and that ‘By gum! They were tough but maybe 1950s schoolteachers had it right after all!’:

“Yea, yea” I hear you cry, “more tedious grumbling from that miserable lot who could probably even find a way to complain about something as harmless as Disney films given half the chance!” (you may joke, but to see how the Mail blames Disney for the demise of the two-parent family, click here). But wait! Maybe we’re being too harsh. It seems that the Daily Mail has a genuine reason to be concerned about declining standards: it simply can’t find literate staff to tell us how to avoid catching dangerous diseases like cancer and ethnic in a coherent, legible manner! Take this little snippet from today’s article reporting on a year old YouTube video:

Ok, so the last mistake is due to the fact that the reporter just cut and pasted the band’s ‘quotes’ from their website, but still! This article got through at least one reporter, a spell checker and an editor without anybody realising that ‘they want to to hurls the 62 pianos’ doesn’t make a blind bit of sense.

A Mail journalist (possibly Janet Street-Porter) hard at work

Clearly, this puts Mr Dacre in an awkward position. His readers are going to notice the hypocrisy of his paper complaining about declining standards if it’s coming out with lines like ‘Britain childrens is learning stupid’. And he can’t hire these ‘skilled immigrants’ because they might try to ‘shank’ him or poison him with halal meat.

I can see only one solution: Britain opens its first school for Daily Mail journalists. The school could teach not only spelling and basic literacy, but could also offer additional classes in balanced interpretation of statistics and appropriate use of the words ‘fury’ and ‘outrage’, as well as holding special remedial fact-checking sessions for Mr Littlejohn. Perhaps a school nurse might even be persuaded to take a look at Melanie Phillips. It may be drastic, but this seems to be the only way to save Britain’s best-loved chip wrapper from falling victim to the declining standards which threaten us all.

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Celebrity dross of the week

Fans of X-Factor judge Dannii ‘the-one-in-between-Cheryl-and-Louis’ Minogue were anxiously awaiting news of her condition after the star apparently cheated death in a ‘terrible’ ‘plane landing horror’ during which she ‘feared for her life’. The Australian press and celebrity news sites have scrambled to report the ordeal:


The Australian

Adelaide Now/Daily Telegraph (Aus)

Here are the chilling details (aerophobic readers are advised to look away now):

Dannii Minogue was reportedly left shaken when a plane carrying her and son Ethan, had difficulty landing.

According to The Metro, the X Factor judge and her baby were flying to Cairns in Australia to film the Judges’ Houses stage of the show.

A friend of Dannii’s told the paper: “We had the most terrible landing. We were coming down to land and suddenly shot straight back up again.”

The source added: “There was too much cloud and the pilot could not see the runway. It was all very scary.”

Thankfully, the plane landed safely and Dannii is now back in her X Factor role for the first time since returning from maternity leave.

The story was bought to my attention by a pilot friend of mine, who was scratching his head as to how a missed approach, which is a fairly standard procedure in aviation, is now considered headline news. It’s not of course, until you throw in the special ingredient of a Z-list celebrity who just so happens to currently be featuring in a new series of a popular TV show.

Keep an eye out for this scoop being picked up on by the usual suspects in the UK over the next few days…

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Pastor’s Qur’an bonfire goes out with a whimper

Over in the States Christian fruitcake Pastor Terry Jones has finally backed down over his plans to hold ‘International Burn a Qur’an Day’ on the anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Quite how a rabble of rednecks and a couple of dogs having a bonfire in a field somewhere in the backwaters of Gainesville ever came to be described as an ‘International’ event remains to be answered, but the point is that Mr Jones has finally deduced what took the rest of us all of 5 seconds and has realised that this was a bad idea.

There will of course be the usual groans of ‘us backing down to militant Islam’, but that’s to be expected I suppose. Most intelligent people will have no problem understanding that this pointless act was never about The West standing up to Islam, but was rather a shameless ploy by an insignificant fundamentalist to get a bit of publicity for his miniscule church and associated business interests.

Mr Jones has never had a problem with courting controversy. His Dove World Outreach Centre represents pretty much everything people dislike about religion. Homophobia? Check. Exploitation? Check. Intolerance of other religions? Check. If we were playing Bigot’s Bingo, Jones’ nasty little church would score a full house, and so it’s no surprise that Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe this year described them as “an embarrassment to the community”. Jones’ miserable exploits include selling t-shirts and mugs emblazoned with his subtle slogan ‘Islam is of the devil’ and describing evangelism as more important than education.

You may also have noticed that he’s got a book out. Or to put it another way, it’s been pretty much impossible to follow this story without seeing him glaring sternly at the camera whilst holding up a copy of his imaginatively titled Islam is of the Devil (just in case you didn’t get the message the first time around). The Qur’an may be at the centre of this story, but I’ll wager there’s only one book that Terry Jones has ever been interested in raising publicity for. And that’s exactly what he’s been getting by the lorry-load.

On the face of it, this may seem like a pretty big story: American act of religious incitement threatens to blow apart US-Islamic relations and endanger the lives of thousands. But strip away all the hyperbole and rhetoric and what have you actually got? A crackpot fundamentalist with barely enough followers to fill a broom cupboard and a book to sell. How the hell was Terry Jones’ profile this ever allowed to snowball to the extent that you can’t turn on a TV anywhere in the world at the moment without seeing his pitiful face? How did this narrow-minded pariah, who had apparently been expelled from his previous church, end up in a situation where everybody knows his name and where, as of a few minutes ago, it was the 35th most searched for term on Google worldwide? Step forward the global press.

It can be all to easy to simply blame the press sometimes, and there can be an element of ‘shooting the messenger’ about it. But was this story really important enough to warrant the extraordinary amount of coverage it has received? Are the opinions of 50-odd bible-thumpers really of such critical importance that the whole world has to be able to keep up with their idiotic schemes across 24-hour news channels and the printed press? Even the local Gainesville Sun was only giving minor coverage to the story a whole month after ‘International Burn a Qur’an Day’ was announced, warning then that over-reporting would “[give] church officials the attention they’re after”.

Reaction to Pastor Jones' plans

This seems a classic case of the media creating news and then gleefully reporting on it. As the amount of coverage proliferated, it was only a matter of time before images hit the extremist hotbeds of Afghanistan and Indonesia. Once the predictable images of burning American flags were broadcast this suddenly morphed into a story about America vs the Muslim World; Christianity vs Islam; Freedom of Speech vs Censorship. Against the backdrop of the tensions over the planned Islamic Cultural Centre near Ground Zero, this minor story of one man’s religious intolerance became a global tale of warring powers and ideologies, with the press clamouring to capture it all unfolding.

And so, with Pastor Jones’ bonfire becoming a damp squib, this tiresome little man can retire from the limelight having successfully instigated the publicity drive of his dreams whilst the media can spend the next few days living off the remains of the feast they helped create. As for the rest of us, we’re left picking up the mess of religious and racial tension that the above two’s little party has generated.

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You can’t help but think that Morrissey is subhuman

In what has come as a surprise to pretty much nobody, jaded rocker Morrissey drew fresh allegations of racism at the weekend by claiming that the Chinese are a ‘subspecies’. His comments, made in an interview with Simon Armitage in The Guardian, came as he criticised China’s dubious animal rights record. Here’s what he said:

“Did you see the thing on the news about their treatment of animals and animal welfare? Absolutely horrific. You can’t help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies.”

It’s not difficult to see what’s wrong with that statement. It’s perfectly principled to bring into question some of China’s practices with regard to animal welfare, as increasing numbers of Chinese have been doing (see here, here, here and here). But to tar a whole race with such a vile term as ‘subspecies’ because of the actions of some goes beyond the pale, and places Morrissey’s comments firmly in racism territory. There really is no defending these types of comments, which are the latest in a string of accusations of racism that have been made against the ageing rocker.

Those who would seek to defend his comments (some of whom can be found, predictably, on hate sites such as Stormfront and Mail Online) by citing some of the terrible cases of animal cruelty that occur in Chinese zoos and circuses entirely miss the relevance of a term like ‘subspecies’. This slur doesn’t just refer to Chinese zoo keepers, circus owners or even the government, but rather to the entire Chinese race. There really should be no place for this type of thinking in modern Britain, particularly from an individual in such a position of influence, and you shouldn’t need me to point out why. Morrissey would do well to consider the findings of a 2005 International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) poll which found that 90% of Chinese and Asians believed ‘we have a moral duty to minimise [animal] suffering’.

Context is crucial when commenting on China. Our position in the UK of being a small, fairly homogenous country equips us pretty poorly to understand some of the issues facing Modern China. The vastness and diversity of China really makes it incredibly difficult to fit it into our tidy conceptions of what constitutes a ‘country’. China is more comparable to the whole of Europe than it is to the UK or France or Spain. It’s composite regions and provinces have a fractured history or unification and division, and although Mandarin is acknowledged as the national language, regions each have their own diverse and mutually incomprehensible dialects. Add to this the fact that China is home to a staggering 20% of the entire planet’s population and you begin to see why sweeping generic statements about the Chinese are pretty much impossible to make.

China is also changing. Fast. If you drive out of Shanghai you can travel 50 miles east and 150 years back in time. It really is that radical. Whilst the trendy cosmopolitan types of Shanghai and Beijing splash their cash in trendy bars and bistros, some 740 million of their fellow countrymen in the rural areas scrape by on a shoestring, and the urban-rural income gap continues to widen. Animal rights are of course of critical importance, but unfortunately they remain something of a luxury which affluence affords. We should be wary of being too judgemental considering that the average annual salary across China stands at close to just 15% of the UK average.

We must also consider that public opinion doesn’t carry quite the same weight in China as it does in the UK. I know from first-hand experience that Chinese people harbour numerous concerns regarding animal welfare, and they hardly deserve to be branded as inherently inferior for an inability to have their concerns picked up on by their country’s political system. The likes of Morrissey probably think they are helping bring the issues into the public consciousness with controversial comments like these, but I believe that they are in fact somewhat counter-productive as they produce a siege mentality amongst the Chinese, who are after all the people his comments are trying to affect. Take some of the retaliatory comments that have been posted on Chinese message boards over the weekend (Chinese – English translations my own):

“English people are all beasts, how many Africans have you killed? Chinese people don’t argue with the English, just wait until the time comes when all the English beasts will be boiled.”

“So you English are superior? You don’t eat beef? You don’t eat fish? Are cows and fish not animals? And vegetables have life too. Does your vegetarian food not include vegetables? What about rice and bread? How do you think that’s made if not with seeds from living things? Get real and stop trying to be smart.”

“Why do foreign countries feel the need to keep criticising us?”

“English people are like pigs and dogs. A contemptible nation.”

These puerile, reactionary responses were pretty typical of most comments, and it’s a shame that idiotic insults like Morrissey’s simply spawn more of the same in return. But what do we expect when the man says things like ‘the Chinese are a subspecies’? Not only were his remarks blatantly racist and grossly unfair to most Chinese, they seem to have had the effect of alienating the very people who international animal rights campaigners must rely on to drive any shift in China’s animal welfare practices. However noble his intentions with regard to animal welfare, it seems Morrissey couldn’t have got it more wrong on this one.

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When is a joke not a joke?

I’m back on the Daily Mail today. I know I’ve been on at them a fair bit over the last couple of days, and I acknowledge that taking on the Daily Mail and its commenters is sometimes the intellectual equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, but I’ve been tired lately so kindly indulge me. Actually, it is important to tackle these issues if, like me, you agree with Angry Mob’s concept of tabloid stories’ influence being analogous to passive smoking. The old idea that if a lie is repeated often enough it become accepted as truth is basically applicable here. This is why I felt the need to take the Mail to task over its portrayal of China and Chinese culture in an earlier article.

Anyway, today I’m not so interested in what the Mail is saying as much as what its readers are. There are a fair few images in this post so bear with me, but I think its necessary to illustrate what I believe is a tellingly hypocritical mindset amongst many Mail readers. So here’s the article that originally caught my attention today:

Basically, the article fairly objectively outlines the recent tweets of Sri Lankan-born council worker Rehana Mohamed, in which she joked in poor taste about the abuse of foreign domestic workers, saying such things as ‘Damn right they should get up and make what you want. That’s their job.’ and  ‘We never let out female servants for their own safety.’ Controversial for sure, although most will struggle to understand how the sarcastic comments of a complete nobody have wound up being discussed in the national press. Mail readers are clear though that this is no laughing matter. Here are the top-rated comments from the article:

And woe-betide those who think this is ‘just a joke’. Here are some of the worst-rated:

Clearly here is a woman to whom no mercy must be shown, despite the fact she has apologised for the way in which her comments have been construed. Mail readers have made it clear that remarks like hers are unacceptable in this day and age, and it is not good enough to attempt to excuse them by suggesting that she may have meant them in jest. This may well be a perfectly principled viewpoint. Except that Ms Mohamed is not the first ‘public figure’ to have made controversial comments in poor taste.  Consider the Mail’s previous coverage of the racist comments of Carol Thatcher, who referred to a black tennis player as a ‘golliwog’, and Anton Du Beke, who described a Strictly Come Dancing contestant as having the appearance of a ‘Paki’. Once again, commenters tried to defend both by claiming that their remarks were made in jest, but this time the ratings were awarded rather differently. Here are the best-rated comments from the Thatcher golliwog story:

And the worst-rated:

Here we see readers sympathetically insisting that people sometimes make silly jokes at inappropriate times, but that they should have the freedom to offend without it costing them their job.

Same with Anton’s ‘Paki’ remark. Once again, comments attempting to justify it are given the thumbs up, whilst those pointing out its inappropriateness get the thumbs down:

So why the double standards here? Why are the likes of Thatcher and Du Beke, whose comments of a racist nature are arguably much worse that Mohamed’s (especially considering the respective influence that these two have as ‘celebrities’), in need of some understanding whereas Ms Mohamed is to be executed at dawn? Those familiar with the traditional narratives fed to Mail readers will be able to hazard a guess or two. Could be because Ms Mohamed is foreign-born. Could be because she works in the much-maligned public sector. Or could be because her name sounds a little bit ‘Muslim‘. You can click on the three previous links to see how all of these traits are shown in a negative light time and again by the Mail and the tabloid press in general. With this in mind, should we really be surprised when Mail readers leap to the defence of two white British racists whilst a Sri Lankan-born council worker’s tasteless humour has them reaching for the pitchforks and torches? No. Should we be angry about the sheer bigoted hypocrisy and the media publications which fuel it? You bet we should.

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