Sikh and ye shall find

… a primary school place.

Apparently the government’s decision to wipe out new school construction and put huge amounts of the remaining schools budget into independently run “free schools” has led to some unexpected consequences:

More than 20 pupils have been allocated places at a Sikh-ethos free school in Leeds that they did not choose, amid a shortage of school places.

The school is not a faith school, but it is run with a Sikh ethos.

As someone with a child who had little option but to attend a Church of England school, that really was a “faith school” — secular options were much further away, even if they did have places — I wonder what the fuss was about.

On its website, the Khalsa Free School stresses it is not a faith school, adding: “We are firmly committed to developing our pupils’ understanding and appreciation of the diverse world in which they live.” It says: “We welcome all children regardless of their backgrounds or faiths and we aim to help all our children develop a lifelong love of learning, which will support them throughout their academic careers and beyond.” 
“For Sikhs, education not only prepares students for work and life in society but also supports spiritual growth. Education is understood by Sikhs to raise aspirations and personal standards, encourage self-awareness and humility, and inspire all to seek a greater purpose in life.”

Humility! Purpose! No wonder parents are outraged. What impact will self-awareness have on lifetime earnings? How will humility help them get in to Cambridge? Where is the acknowledgement of the divine imperative to maximise test scores?


Abercrombie cool

I don’t know anything about Abercrombie & Fitch. I know it’s a chain of stores that sell clothes, I’m sure I’ve seen their stores, but I’ve never been inside them. Everything I know about their brand comes from an 80-year-old satire by James Thurber that begins

 I always try to answer Abercrombie & Fitch’s questions (in their advertisements) the way they obviously want them answered, but usually, if I am to be honest with them and with myself, I must answer them in a way that would not please Abercrombie & Fitch. While that company and I have always nodded and smiled pleasantly enough when we met, we have never really been on intimate terms, mainly because we have so little in common. For one thing, I am inclined to be nervous and impatient, whereas Abercrombie & Fitch are at all times composed and tranquil…

Take the one recently printed in an advertisement in this magazine. Under a picture of a man fishing in a stream were these words: “Can’t you picture yourself in the middle of the stream with the certain knowledge that a wise old trout is hiding under a ledge and defying you to tempt him with your skillfully cast fly?” My answer, of course, is “No.” Especially if I am to be equipped the way the gentleman in the illustration is equipped: with rod, reel, line, net, hip boots, felt hat, and pipe. They might just as well add a banjo and a parachute….

I was reminded of this in reading about a case that is currently being considered by the US Supreme Court, in which Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has charged the company with religious discrimination, after it refused to hire a Muslim woman, because her headscarf would conflict with the Abercrombie dress code. (As the law would require reasonable accommodation to be made for religious observance, the legal case turns on the relatively uninteresting question of whether the district manager who made the decision, and who reportedly said  “if we allow this then someone will paint themselves green and call it a religion”, is really the last man left in America so uncontaminated by media representations of Muslims that he is not even aware that Muslim women often wear headscarfs as part of their religious practice.)

According to court documents,

Abercrombie described its brand as “a classic East Coast collegiate style of clothing.” When Elauf applied for a job in 2008, the Look policy included prohibitions on black clothing and “caps”; these and other rules were designed to protect “the health and vitality of its ‘preppy’ and ‘casual’ brand.” As Justice Alito put it during oral arguments, Abercrombie wants job candidates “who [look] just like this mythical preppy or … somebody who came off the beach in California.”

From fly-fishing in an east-coast stream to a beach in California. You’ve come a long way, baby!

Come home to Israel…

Binyamin Netanyahu is back to grandstanding as king of the Jews — just days after announcing that he would be speaking to the US Congress as “a representative of the entire Jewish people” — telling European Jews that they will always be victimised by non-Jews as long as they stay in Europe, so they should move to Israel, where they can be victimised by fellow Jews instead. But at least in Israel Jews can pray in peace without armed police protecting them; because in Israel the armed police will break up their prayer sessions and arrest them (if they’re women and not Orthodox).

The Tin Woodman as Anti-Antinomian

Antinomianism — the belief that the intrinsic holiness of believers liberates them from petty concerns with moral, much less humane, behaviour — often seems depressingly prevalent. At least as prevalent as the mirror-image disposition that many believers attribute to atheists, that if there is no God to set rules, all things are permitted.

I was just reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz for the first time, and I was struck by the morality of the Tin Woodman, who hopes that the Wizard will bestow upon him a heart. Of course, the running joke is that the everyone is going to the Wizard to get something that they already have. The Scarecrow wants brains, even though he repeatedly proves himself the cleverest of the company; the Cowardly Lion wants courage despite the fact that he repeatedly performs heroic and self-sacrificing deads. The Tin Woodman, although he is made of metal and lacks a heart, is the most tenderhearted of all. At one point he rusts himself through crying over a beetle that he steps on accidentally.

“This will serve me a lesson,” said he, “to look where I step. For if I should kill another bug or beetle I should surely cry again, and crying rusts my jaws so that I cannot speak.”

Thereafter he walked very carefully, with his eyes on the road, and when he saw a tiny ant toiling by he would step over it, so as not to harm it. The Tin Woodman knew very well he had no heart, and therefore he took great care never to be cruel or unkind to anything.

“You people with hearts,” he said, “have something to guide you, and need never do wrong; but I have no heart, and so I must be very careful. When Oz gives me a heart of course I needn’t mind so much.”

Replace “heart” by “grace”, and you see that far too many of the devout believe they have been to Oz.

Kids’ Kindness Krusade

So, there’s this president in America, and his job description definitely does not include “Defender of the Faith” or anything like that, and he’s getting bashed for having suggested that the Crusades — hundreds of years of Europeans hoisting aloft the banner of Christ and marching off to slaughter infidels and expropriate their lands, in case you’ve forgotten — might have raised some misapprehensions that Christianity is not 100% a religion of peace. He also made the (clearly revisionist) assertion, with no footnotes to back it up, that churches in the American South weren’t doing everything they possibly could to end slavery and later discrimination against Black Americans. Political and historical opponents aren’t taking these slurs lying down!
Maybe it’s because my ancestors were the first victims of lazy crusaders who thought they might as well start by killing the infidels closer to home (Rhineland Jews), but I’ve always found the Anglo-American use of “crusade” to mean an ardent struggle for a good cause — possibly hopeless, but usually a good thing (for example, the “crusade against rape culture” or against the REF), or even against equine colic). (I don’t know how it is used elsewhere. I can’t think that I’ve observed the corresponding German word used in a generic sense.
This dissonance particularly stood out for me when I saw, in an elementary school in Cambridge MA where I was doing some volunteer teaching, a poster announcing the “Kids’ Kindness Crusade”. Even without knowing the story of the Children’s Crusade (which may or may not have been a real historical event) it seems bizarre to me that people would think a “kids’ crusade” sounds like a positive thing. It seems as weird to me as promoting a “Parents’ Patience Pogrom”, or “Genocide against Germs”. Or, for that matter, “war on illiteracy and unnumeracy“.

14th Century NIMBYism

In Juliet Barker’s book on the Great Revolt of 1381 I was struck by this comment on the spread of local grammar schools in England in the second half of the 14th century:

Where there was no dedicated room or building available, classes were held in the local church. In 1373 the Bishop of Norwich prohibited this practice in the schools of King’s Lynn, on the grounds that the cries of beaten children interrupted services and distracted worshippers.

Nowadays the bishop and the local residents would have cited the shortage of parking… Continue reading “14th Century NIMBYism”

Cornpone opinions and Charlie Hebdo

When people praise the good work of Jimmy Carter for world peace, I am reminded of his despicable attack on Salman Rushdie, in the pages of the NY Times, in 1989. At a time when Rushdie was threatened with death for writing a brilliant, funny, and moving novel that grapples with religious themes (which also includes a coruscating satire of self-serving theocrats, something which is rarely mentioned in this context, and which I think was at least as much the motivation for the Iranian fatwa as any portrayal of the Prophet and his family), Carter wrote:

Ayatollah Khomeini’s offer of paradise to Rushdie’s assassin has caused writers and public officials in Western nations to become almost exclusively preoccupied with the author’s rights.

While Rushdie’s First Amendment freedoms are important, we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated and are suffering in restrained silence the added embarrassment of the Ayatollah’s irresponsibility.

This is the kind of intercultural wound that is difficult to heal. Western leaders should make it clear that in protecting Rushdie’s life and civil rights, there is no endorsement of an insult to the sacred beliefs of our Moslem friends.

To sever diplomatic relations with Iran over this altercation is an overreaction that could be quite costly in future years. Tactful public statements and private discussions could still defuse this explosive situation.

[Just as an aside, on rereading this now I am struck by Carter’s strange choice to frame it as though it were a technical American legal issue, by citing the US constitution — obviously irrelevant to Rushdie, who, as a UK citizen residing in the UK has no such rights — rather than referring to international norms of liberty and civil rights.]

I was reminded of this in reading the response of the Financial Times’s Tony Barber to the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices yesterday:

some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims.

 

Jonathan Chait has grouped this with other examples of journalists and politicians respecting, if not quite condoning, murderous responses to wounded religious sensitivities, such as this response of Time’s bureau chief in Paris to the last terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo three years ago:

Okay, so can we finally stop with the idiotic, divisive, and destructive efforts by “majority sections” of Western nations to bait Muslim members with petulant, futile demonstrations that “they” aren’t going to tell “us” what can and can’t be done in free societies? Because not only are such Islamophobic antics futile and childish, but they also openly beg for the very violent responses from extremists their authors claim to proudly defy in the name of common good. What common good is served by creating more division and anger, and by tempting belligerent reaction?

Yes, indeed, how could one possibly interpret a satirical cartoon about a religious figure other than that the author is “begging” to be murdered? In this view, the editors of Charlie Hebdo got discouraged by Dorothy Parker’s poem (the one ending “Guns aren’t lawful; \\Nooses give; \\Gas smells awful; \\You might as well live.”) and thought that drawing caricatures of Mohammed would be a clever alternative. They were begging for it, as the rapist said. They might as well have drawn the cartoons on the way down after leaping from the Eiffel Tower. It surprises me that I’ve yet to hear of anyone advocating banning Dante.

People have real emotions over religious symbols, and this needs to be recognised. But emotionality can also be an effective power strategy. Saying, “I (and my coreligionists) are incapable of modulating our responses. We are an uncontrollable doomsday device.” is an effective way of compelling compromise, as long as you can convince the rest of society that you are really incapable of restraining the emotional responses of the mob. (And as long as you can avoid a violent backlash against your religious group, if they happen to be in the minority; but even a violent backlash would serve the interests of those interested to radicalise their people.) It is really an expression of contempt for these others, to suppose they are incapable of rational reflection, requiring the rest of us to pre-emptively reckon with their reflexive violence.

I often think of a lesson from the Talmud, that the rabbis ruled that to save a life a Jew is permitted to violate any religious precept except three prohibitions: idolatry, murder, and incest (including adultery); and there seems to have been considerable disagreement about idolatry. But, they went on, this only applies to freak occurrences: For instance, if a bank robber takes you hostage and forces you at gunpoint to drive his getaway car on Shabbat, you are permitted to obey; but you may not save your own life by agreeing to kill another hostage. If this is a time of general persecution, on the other hand, one may make no accommodation at all, not even to change the way one ties the sandal straps.

The point is that symbolic actions depend on context. I am all in favour of avoiding unnecessarily wounding people’s sensitivities. Under normal circumstances, I would not go out of my way to shock true believers with intellectual critiques of religion or with satire. But as soon as men with guns insist, “You may not speak of (or draw) the Prophet,” they have made him a symbol of violence, and oppression, and ideological repression. And others are entitled — indeed, are obliged — to attack that symbol. This is the same problem that plagued efforts to ban burning the US flag back in the early 1990s. The US Supreme Court ruled that this was protected free speech, and the right wing went crazy, trying to amend the US constitution and turn the next election into a referendum on burning flags. The natural response of people who cared about free speech was to burn more flags. The US flag had been transformed, temporarily, from a common symbol of American love of country and shared ideals, into a partisan political symbol of oppression of minority opinion.

Everyone needs to accept, living in a pluralistic society, that there will be discussions and publications and activities going on in various corners of our society that we don’t like, and either come to terms with their contents or learn to ignore them. No one forces me to attend a mosque or a church, and no one forces muslims to read Charlie Hebdo. I would not be astonished to learn that in some mosques negative comments are made about my own religion and its symbols.

The apparent goals of those advocating violence in the name of Islam in the west are purely fantastical: The alternative to pluralism in Europe is obviously not a society devoted to Islamic values. But that merely underscores the gap between the stated and real objectives. The real target is surely not the non-muslims, but the moderate muslims. The goal, I presume, is to convince the broader society that muslims are violent, and so cut off the access of ordinary muslims to acceptance and assimilation.

This is why the appeasers’ policies of avoiding offence is doomed to failure, even on its own terms.

People like Carter and the Time journalist Hambly think that freedom of expression is such an important thing that it really should be kept safe and secure in a quiet place, not endangered by taking it out into public. This attitude (like so much else) was well satirised by Mark Twain, in a line I have quoted before:

It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.

Bayesian theology

I was reading (finally, after seven years in Oxford) Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, and found the following quote from John Henry Newman:

My argument was … that absolute certitude as to the truths of natural theology was the result of an assemblage of concurring and converging probabilities … that probabilities which did not reach to logical certainty might create a mental certitude.

 

“He does not miss church”

A modestly interesting article in The Atlantic about the influence of parents on their children’s politics includes a delightfully ambiguous sentence. It quotes a Christian conservative Floridian:

“My son, when he was 16, thought he should be able to decide for himself whether or not he would go to church,” he recalls. “I explained to him that I agreed with him and when he moved out and was self-supporting, he could certainly make that decision for himself. Today as an adult he does not miss church.”

So, does the son attend church or not? From the smug context I presume that, in fact, the son attends church regularly — that is, he “never misses church”. But on my first reading I missed a few cues, and thought that the son never goes to church, and he “does not miss” it.