Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Israel and Gaza

I will start by saying that I am not taking sides politically on this, because I don't know enough in a complex situation to make a judgement.What is more, anything I say here is what I can find out and may be mistaken, because ALL of the sources of information are biased, often very strongly. This is the case for everyone - it is almost impossible to find good, reliable information on this situation, because (for whatever reason) it seems nobody is allowed to be neutral.

There have been reports of the attacks on Gaza being Israels response to mortars being fired at them. This sounds reasonable, until you look at the numbers killed by such devices. From what I can find, the total numbers of Israelis killed by missiles fired from Gaza since 2000 is in double figures - probably somewhere in the sixties. In this latest conflict, Israeli deaths are small, and military rather than civilian - not that a single death is irrelevant, just that it is worth looking at numbers to see whether the response is valid. One of the reasons is the use of the Iron Dome technology to intercept most of the missiles fired at them.

Deaths in Gaza of the Palestinians are over 1000 in this conflict alone. So to argue that this is a reasonable response to attacks does not seem to make sense. It is like a kid being held at arms length by an adult, yet trying to punch still. Occasional punches will land on the arms, and may sting, but there is no real harm done. Then the adult punches the kid repeatedly in the face, as a response.

What is worse is that the Palestinian casualties are civilian, and relatively young. I posted a video from Jon Snow about his experiences, which is quite traumatic. One response I had was a video arguing the "human shield" approach of Hamas is what is causing the problems. The arrogance of the Hamas leaders is part of the issue - undoubtedly, they are using Gaza as a base for attacks because they cannot easily be identified there, because any response would cause massive civilian casualties.

But the truth is that it is Israeli missiles that are killing people, not Hamas mortars. If Israel was to stop firing into Gaza, then less people would be killed. Given that Hamas is not causing casualties, that would improve the situation. There might then be a chance for a solution to this.

Of course, this conflict does not stand alone as a one-off dispute. The problems are far more deep rooted than this. The current problems are caused because both sides have right-wing, nationalist leadership. there is an important lesson for those European countries who have elected significantly right-wing representatives here, that these policies seem to involve aggression and hatred of others, which often - in Europe as well as other places - can lead to armed conflict. That is a place we should not go again, not ever. This year is the centenary of start of WW1, a conflict that has scarred Europe because it was the worst of a war, the most unpleasant and gruesome conflict.

The deaths of the ordinary people is so often the result of this demand to occupy land. The people who usually suffer from the political ambitions of the powerful are the powerless. That is why Jesus was so often critical of the powerful, so often supporting the powerless - nobody else would look after them.

Of course, the real roots of this conflict go back even further - they go back to 1945, when Israel decided to form themselves a state in their traditional homelands. The problems are enhanced by the support from significant portions of the west, so often with a belief that this was their Christian duty to support Israel in its homeland. I have heard it expressed simply that "God promised them this land", as if that is it.

And yet a reading of the Bible does not really support Israel having a divine right to this land. The thing is, with the most conservative reading of the texts, they were promised this land, and used this to invade and occupy the land, killing the previous occupants. But then, they were driven out of the land, also by God, because they had failed to live up to the standard demanded of them. At that point, they lost any divine right to the land.

They were allowed back - note allowed - by their conquerors. The re-established themselves there, and existed for a long time under the rule of others, until their oppressors became fed up with them, and destroyed Jerusalem.

Israel do not have any "divine right" to their land. At the best, they should seek to occupy it under the rule of others. At the worst, the current Israeli nation is an occupying force who are invading the Palestinian homeland. They are being allowed - in fact, enabled - to do this by the west. So the responsibility for these deaths in Gaza is ours, every one of us.

And I say it is time to stop.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

The Book of Eli

I know I am a little behind the rest of the world in having only just seen this film, but it does raise some interesting issues, some of which are relevant to contemporary events.

There are spoilers here, so please be aware that you might enjoy the film better before you read this. I want to explore some of the theological issues that the film raises, and there are a number, because it is a deeply theological film.

Firstly, the book is the bible. It is believed to be the last copy of the bible in a post-apocalyptic world, where most books have been destroyed. Having said that, they do find a copy of The da Vinci Code, and I struggle to believe that anyone would have kept a copy of that, over pretty much anything else. Anyway, such is the suspension of disbelief needed for these types of films.

The bible was banned and systematically destroyed because, as some believed, it was responsible for the war that had caused the apocalypse. This is pretty much all we get about the cause of the war, but religious books - actually, religion - does seem to cause people to want to kill others, irrespective of what their books actually say about killing other people. The book is sought by on person in particular - Carnegie - because "it is power" - and there is some truth in that. The bible can be a tool of worldly power, if people wish to use it in that way.

Carnegie actually then explains how it can give him power: "People will do what I tell them the book says" (roughly). Which sounds remarkably familiar - there are many who claim Christian leadership who are doing exactly the same thing, telling people what the bible says, and using its authority to support their position. What is more, it boosts their personal role, as the acceptable interpreter of the biblical words.

Carnegie understands very well the earthly power of a religious book and of those who can interpret it, and so speak with divine authority.

There is also Eli, who owns the book at the start of the film. Eli owns this copy, and reads it. He defends the book violently - which some would see as denying the values in the book. I don't see it in that way. Rather, he has the words of life, and he understands how important they are not just to him, but to everyone. He knows the value of the bible, and will defend that to the utmost. Until it comes to a point where it is the book or the life of his companion. At that point, he gives it up.

He then makes an interesting statement, that he has spent so long reading the book that he is in danger of missing what it says. To my mind, that is one of the most perfect lines in the film - the book is important, but not as a precious object, but because of what it says. The crucial matter was not the book itself. The crucial matter was the words in the book, and making sure that they are available, not in the control of a few. We are sometimes blase about having copies of the bible, without always actually wanting to read it.

And by read it, that means letting it speak and challenge.

Finally, when Carnegie finally gets hold of the book, he finds that it is in braille, because Eli is, apparently, blind. So he cannot, in fact, read it. He tries to force one of his people to read it for him, but she refuses, realising that he is incapable of wielding any power without her. There is something poignant in the fact that the person who wants to wield power with the bible finds that he cannot, in fact, read it, he needs one of those he despises to engage with it.

However, Eli finally gets to a place with a printing press. He has memorised the entire text, and so can dictate it, and allow it it be produced and printed, and so made available for everyone. Eli has internalised the words of the bible - as text initially, bit he also shows that, to an extent, he has internalised the meaning of it too - and it is this internalised version that is the key to making it available for all.

In the end, that is the story of this film: that the bible is important, it is powerful, but its power is not something that can be wielded like a weapon. It is powerful when it is made available to everyone, when it is made a part of us, when it is acted on. And when the meaning and interpretation is in the hands of a few, it is dangerous.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Assisted dying

There has been a lot of discussion about this of late, mainly driven by the votes on the subject in Westminster and the York synod. It is a very emotional subject, and one that I find it challenging to comment on. However, I am going to try to discuss it here, because twitter really does not provide the space to explore properly.

I should point out that I am opposed to assisted dying, as a core starting point. I am also opposed to people suffering, which provides an interesting dynamic. So how do I find a balance between them? It is difficult.

There are two categories of people for whom assisted dying might be applicable. The issues are very different between them, very significantly differing challenges for each:

1. Those who are terminally ill. these are people who have an untreatable illness, and who are going to die whatever, within a relatively short time-frame. In some cases, these people are in significant pain, and they might no longer be responding to analgesics.

Is it appropriate that these people should be allowed to die? All they have to look forward to is a few more days or weeks of pain. the difficult challenge is that many of the stronger pain drugs - like heavy doses of morphine - tend to reduce breathing and shorten life. Is this assisted dying? Do I believe that these people should not be given these pain relief medications because there is a good chance of it reducing life expectancy?

No I don't, because the relief of suffering for these people is crucial. The impacts of this - including the earlier death of the patient - are acceptable, because the intention is to relieve pain, while accepting the effects of this. If a patient can be out of pain for their last few days and weeks, that seems to me to be a positive thing, a way of valuing their humanity.

But why not a little higher dose, to reduce the suffering a little more? For me, this is arguing that the persons life is no longer important. It is a fine line, and I would be very cautious about criticising someone for just overstepping this line. It is not a clearly defined position. But to actually plan and decide to take a life is a different thing. I do not believe that doctors or relatives should be put in the position of making this decision. This is killing people, not relieving their pain.

2. Those who are disabled, but not in immanent danger of dying. I should point out that, as I understand it, the discussions at the current time do not cover these situations, and there are no plans to introduce legislation to allow assisted dying in these cases. However these cases are important, because there are those in this situation who would like the right to die. The problem in this case is that the aim is not to reduce pain (suffering yes, but not pain), but to actively terminate life. It is not simply reducing life expectancy by a matter of days or even weeks, but by years.

I do not wish to diminish the suffering that physical disability causes. This is especially the case for people who were active and (maybe through an accident) lose the usage of some parts of their body. This is difficult to come to terms with, as are many changes in life situation. I do not dismiss the difficulty that people have in coming to terms with their completely different way of life that they are facing.

But I still do not believe that they should be allowed to end their own lives. There are two issues with this: firstly that physical ability is not the definition of a worthwhile life; secondly, what does this say about our attitude to disabled people?

There is, from this, the slippery slope problem. If you accept that a quadriplegic can be allowed to die, what about a paraplegic? What about an amputee? At what point does life actually be worth living, something which is different for different people. If you say that certain people can be allowed to die, the implication for others in a similar situation is that they are worthless. If you say that some levels of disability make life meaningless, what does this imply about our understanding of disabled people with lesser disabilities - that they are less meaningful? They they are not proper people?

And no, most people don't argue this, at least not explicitly, but there is an implication here that disability is a less-than-human existence. I cannot accept this, because these are still people, still valid and valuable human beings, who we should value.

"Oh," some people say, "should people not be ale to have the choice to die if they want to? Who are you to tell someone that they shouldn't be allowed to die?" Of course, individual choice is an important aspect of life, but - and for me this is the critical issue - it is not all. I have some free choice, but not in all things. There are aspects of life that I do not have choice and control over, because I am a member of society, of a community. I have relationships with others, which also impacts my freedom to do things. Should I have the right to take my own life? If I were to do so, it would impact on my family, my friends and all sorts of people who might have to deal with this act. I should not be allowed to take my own life, easily and simply, just because I am having a difficult time.

The problem with those who are disabled wanting to take their own lives is that it may ease the challenges for the person suffering, but it doesn't help those left behind. It doesn't help those left behind, because they will always have to accept that they enabled the disabled person to die - they will have to come to terms with the fact that they killed someone. The medical staff in particular will need to accept that instead of caring for a patient, they have to kill them. I am not sure that I would like to put that onto these people, who have quite enough difficult decisions to make.

So assisted dying? I think this is a wrong route to take. I know that others will disagree, and I accept that, but this is my position, my arguments, my conclusions.

I have a word from God...

And he says "Stop killing people."

As I write this, Israel is attacking Gaza, and the reports about MH17 indicate that it was deliberately shot down.

The news reports make for very grim, very depressing watching, with a range of pictures that are totally unsuitable for viewing, that should not be shown. Many people are mourning their losses from both of these terrible events, both events that are deliberate attacks intended to kill other people.

The reality is very difficult to get to in these situations, because there have been many pictures going around purporting to be from the Israel/Palestinian conflict that are actually not. The images of the children bombed as they were running along the beach seems to be valid, and is sickening.

I am not wanting to take sides in these conflicts, because I do not understand all of the complexities involved. I do know that Israel has massive military power, and the Palestinians do not, so that seems like a rather one-sided contest: Israel is killing people it doesn't want around, people who cannot defend themselves, people who were on their land decades before Israel invaded.

Both sides has a religious affiliation, but - despite my opening paragraph - I don't believe this is primarily a religious war. It is political: Israel wants to destroy the Palestinians in Gaza. And most of the West is prepared to let it.

I know that one of the reasons behind this is the belief that Israel was "given the land by God". Well, I can see that argument, if you read only those parts of the Bible that suit your purposes. God brought the people out of Egypt, and into a land for them to conquer. And then, because they were not faithful to Him, he drove them out of that land again. Many years later, they returned, supposedly humbled, and as the subjects of a foreign power. Shortly after the time of Jesus, they lost Jerusalem and much of the land again.

I don't see anything in this that gives them any "divine right" to the land. I don't see anything in this that indicates a justification for using massively superior fire-power to fire at and kill unarmed people in their own land. They may have good reasons for thinking they are justified in this, but divine right should play no part in it.

The plane crash over Ukraine does not make for any more cheerful reading - and once again, I don't want to take sides, because I don't know the whole picture, and who might be responsible is still very unclear. But it would seem that someone shot down a civilian plane over a politically troubled area, I can only presume with political motives.

Included on the plane were 100 top AIDS researchers, so this will put AIDS research back some way. But there were also hundreds of other people - ordinary people - on the plane. They will all be missed and mourned for by families and friends. They are innocent victims of a power struggle over land - not that different from Israel and Gaza. The people who pay the price for these battles are rarely the ones who make the decisions to attack or to defend. Whatever the resolution of the Ukraine struggle, these people will not be brought back - their loss will be felt for many years to come.

It is the innocence of many of the victims of these battles that I struggle with. OK, nobody is entirely innocent in the eyes of God, but many of the victims are innocent of any involvement in the dispute for which they give their lives. My reading of the Bible is that God is on the side of the innocent, and is not in support of them being killed. So whatever your faith and your God, please stop killing others. It sucks.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The real problem with politics today

I am a big fan of Umberto Eco's work, and have recently finished reading Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. This is a collection of talks and essays, covering a range of topics including some interesting discussions on politics, with a focus, naturally, on Italian politics (which, in all honesty, is probably the most interesting area of European politics over the last decade or two).

One of the points that he makes is the importance of controlling the media. Berlusconi manipulated the media - dropped bombshells as appropriate times (good days to bury bad news), but also, Eco explains, manipulated events to ensure that bad news was buried, because other events were taking the headlines.

It is interesting in this country that Cameron manages to put all of the blame for problems on the LibDems. He also manages to be consistent for a day or so, which (as Eco explains) is all that is needed, because very few people actually expect consistency. Very few actually follow the news seriously. I am not unusual, I don't think, in getting my news in 2 minute sections on the radio, along with the BBC news site. My news input is actually very little, and very easy to manipulate because stories that are not "right" can always get left off.

The interesting thing is that media manipulation is not just about ensuring that your party views are always shown positively. It is about controlling the criticism as well. Two of the critical critiques of the political arena today are "Have I got News for You" and "Mock the Week" (there are others, but these are probably the main ones). These are significant making a criticism, but they are clearly defined as comedy shows, and so a lot of  people don;t take the critique seriously. People like Boris Johnson make themselves objects of ridicule, so that nobody takes their policy declarations - which are important - seriously either. that is master manipulation, and is very dangerous.

Another aspect that is, I believe, significant is the reality TV phenomena. The problem that these shows cause is that they diminish the significance of voting. Most of the time, the public treat "voting" as choosing a favorite from a TV show - and the x-factor and Strictly experience is that voting for the idiots is funny. The hype around it makes it seem like the voting is Very Important - there is a hype pretty much as significant as the hype around proper elections. I believe that many people get confused, generally subconsciously.

This is, I believe, one reason that UKIP did quite well in the EP elections. They were the funny party to vote for, for those who really had no idea who they wanted to represent them. And (whatever he says) Cameron is delighted that they did well, because it enables him to position himself as less draconian as UKIP, while moving further to the right because he can argue that this is what the electorate clearly want. They have served him very well. this is one form of his manipulation of the media and the political system.

Finally, the lack of Green Party coverage means that the socialist end of the political spectrum are criticising the BBC. This enables him to privatise it more and more, arguing that it is clearly not fulfilling its needs to be independent, while enjoying the fact that its lack if independence is helping him. Of course, as it is privatised, this will make it less independent not more - but, as Eco explains, this is simply manipulation. This is also shown in the presentation of the NHS, where they are clearly blamed for problems that might be related to privatised companies. The results of this will be that to resolve the perceived problems, the solution is to privatise more, rather than less and enabling it to work. This is manipulation of the highest order - and it is happening daily.

In the end, the problem with politics today is that the politicians are very manipulative, and they have learnt that by manipulating the media, that is all they need to do. By manipulating the media, we are all manipulated, we are all forced into positions that we may not want to agree with.

I hate being manipulated.

Thursday, 10 July 2014


I have a new t-shirt. I don't always post when I get a new t-shirt, but this is a labyrinth t-shirt (with a Chartres-style labyrinth on the front), and it makes me think.

The picture is a plan of the labyrinth from Chartres (not from my t-shirt). Actually, my shirt version is a little simpler, but has the same principles. The labyrinth is, I think, an important picture of a search for truth.

If we imagine that the truth that we are searching for is in the centre, as we trace through, we very quickly arrive very close to the centre. It strikes me that some people get this close, and assume that they have the truth they are searching for - a short and easy trip, and it is there. And yet the truth is actually a long way from there, a whole lot more traveling and searching until you actually get to the centre.

The next thing is that the trip takes you back very close to where you started. The journey to truth will often bring you back to almost your starting point, but not quite. It would be a mistake to assume that just because you are nearly back at the start, you have made no progress, because shortly after this, you do arrive in the centre.

But then what do you do? When you have traveled and searched and found the truth that you were after? Well the only thing to then do is to turn around and go back. In the end, you do return to where you started, you do find yourself back precisely where you were before you went searching.

The difference is that now you have traced the labyrinth. That has changed you.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Wind farms and solar panels are not enough

There is a growing - and welcome - trend have solar panels on your roof, in an effort to reduce electricity bills, and make houses self-sufficient. I am, of course, all for people providing their own electricity from renewable sources.

However, that is not the whole solution.

The problem is that, if every household was to be completely self-sufficient in electricity, and was running electric cars powered from their solar-derived energy, then there would still be a problem. The residential use of electricity in the UK is only around a third of total consumption. What is more, there are some properties that would struggle to be self-sufficient (tower blocks, for example), meaning that the excess that some would provide would be balanced out by those places that had a shortfall. So while I believe it is possible that our residential use could be self-sufficient, that is only a third of the story. If we could get to residential self-sufficiency, I would feel that we have made a difference.

The two other areas are, broadly, industrial and commercial. Commercial use - lighting and powering the offices and data centres that are the heartbeat of the economy today. While some of these could incorporate solar energy and suchlike, there is little chance that they could be self-sufficient, because their usage is high, and their available solar space is limited. Some of the high-usage areas, like data centres, can be underground, or at least hidden, meaning they are even more problematic.

The answer to the problem of commercial usage is not simple. Often lighting is used for security purposes, and computers are often left on overnight. I know mine is, not least because I will probably be connecting in remotely. The only way to make a real difference to the commercial usage issue is to reduce - using motion sensitive lighting, configure computers to have a very low quiescent usage, drive to make data centres significantly better, and, ideally, self-sufficient from relatively low power provision. Maybe the workplace gyms that are not uncommon could be used as power provision to the building. A new approach to making commercial buildings as energy-efficient as possible might make a real impact on this usage, and enable the commercial usage to be very substantially lowered.

The biggest challenge might be industrial usage. The problem with this is that we cannot easily make small reductions in this usage without having substantial impact. If we include transport, it is hard to see how we could reduce the power usage by the train networks without reducing the service (and reducing the service means increasing car usage, which is not helpful). There is no way to smelt iron without massive power usage, so reducing this would impact the steel industry.

Of course, we could just close down these places, and buy in from other countries. This is not a solution, because it just puts the energy problem to another country who may be even less able to resolve it.

This is why I argue that more and more wind farms and solar panels are not the answer. Yes we need them, but we also need to do everything we can to reduce the usage of power residentially and commercially, where is seems possible to make a difference, to the point where total residential and commercial usage is minor, meaning that the wind-farms and other such renewable sources can be utilised for the energy-heavy and difficult to reduce industrial area.

We are a long way from any of that.Wind farms are not going to save us - changing, reducing, thinking may. Is it possible for the UK to be reusable-energy-independent? I believe so, but it is not an easy journey, and it would involve changes, changes for the good, but difficult to go through. And if we could do it, then so many others could as well.