Friday, May 22, 2015

On today's gay marriage referendum in Ireland

Well, have voted in Ireland’s marriage equality referendum, and we’ll have to wait till tomorrow for the count.  All commentators are confident it will be passed. 

The necessity by the way for gay marriage to be put to a referendum, arises due to marriage being enshrined in the Irish constitution; and a constitutional amendment requires a referendum. The amendment voted on today is to add a clause to article 41. I would actually have preferred a different approach. Had I my way, the question on the ballot paper would have been to delete article 41 in its entirety, as it's already a hodge podge.   See for yourself.

It includes the state recognising “that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.” And it contains the grounds for divorce (living apart for at least four years and no reasonable prospect of a reconciliation). Which apart from being too restrictive, just doesn't belong in a constitution, it belongs in legislation.

I should mention the historical background to these divorce clauses being in article 41. The present constitution began life in 1937 and when first adopted included an absolute ban on divorce.  To allow divorce at all, therefore, needed a constitutional amendment; and this was done by the Fifteenth Amendment in 1995.  That was the second divorce referendum. The first was in 1986 where the proposal to allow divorce was defeated by a whopping margin of almost 2:1. The 1937 constitution was a strongly Catholic document, and in 1986 the Catholic Church still held sway to keep it that way. 
Even in 1995, divorce only got through by a whisker.  

Two referendums today

There was another referendum today. It was to reduce the minimum age for candidates for the presidency from 35 to 21. Well, OK, I did vote for this, but heavens above, there are more pressing constitutional amendments that ought to have priority, and were considered by a constitutional convention last year.  Blasphemy for one.  The constitution provides that “the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law”, though strangely
blasphemy wasn’t actually legislated against until 2009. No that’s not a typo, 2009.

Apparently there was a high turnout today in urban centres which indicates success for the Yes side,  as the No’s are likely to reside in rural Ireland where the Catholic Church still has some residual influence.  Here's this week’s Mitchelstown mass leaflet.

In this locality, mass attendance by people of my age is high, and many massgoers will, I'm fairly sure, take their lead from the Catholic bishops. Younger generations, less so. Generally, young voters appear to have been hugely energised by the Yes campaign, especially in urban areas.

According to the Irish Times whose website I've just consulted, the turnout across Dublin county was 65%, and in Cork city was above 60%.  For a referendum that's high, apparently.

I forgot to mention what would follow if my plan were to be followed to scrap article 41 entirely.  I would then enact legislation which would delete “marriage” from all laws. The state would register civil partnerships only, and all existing marriages would be reclassified as civil partnerships.  Henceforth marriage would be a cultural event that you could do in church or other venue of your choice.   If you believe that marriage is a union of man and woman, open to the procreation of children, and a gift from God, then there would be no apparent conflict between that belief and the law of the land.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Jo Baker, Jane Austen and a catastrophic election

What makes people vote against their class? is a question I saw on Facebook today, the questioner evidently as downhearted as me about the recent UK general election, which right now I can't muster the energy to go into.  Frances O'Grady, the leader of the trade union movement in Britain, warned last year’s TUC annual congress that Britain risks creating a "Downton Abbey-style" society in which social mobility has gone into reverse, with all official blame for the country's ills heaped on the vulnerable while the powerful and privileged sit pretty, and young people are converted into an army of casualised low-paid workers.  

Frances O'Grady was referring to the television serial drama Downton Abbey depicting the early 20th century English upper class and their servants. The series came up last weekend at a Jane Austen event in Dublin. Eight of us from the Cork Jane Austen group travelled up, to hear Jo Baker speak about her novel Longbourn, the servants’ version of Pride and Prejudice. In questions afterwards, Downton Abbey was mentioned as a possible parallel. This Jo Baker roundly dismissed. The programme annoys her:  everyone is happy in their place:  no they're not, she insisted … and apologising for introducing politics (and drawing applause from the audience) lamented that the UK has now got another five years of it.  By the way, you’ve heard of shy Tories, those who didn't admit when asked that they supported Cameron and skewed (so it seems) the opinion polls in the run-up to the UK election. Well I'm a shy Downton Abbey viewer, and I didn't admit this to Jo Baker
when she signed my copy of Longbourn:-

A truly engaging person. From my own review of her book you'll see that I think it illuminates Pride and Prejudice in useful ways; and in Dublin Jo Baker herself illuminated Longbourn.  A massive Jane Austen fan, she told how whilst re-reading Pride and Prejudice she got stuck on a particular line:-  

“If there had not been a Netherfield ball to prepare for and talk of, the younger Miss Bennets would have been in a pitiable state at this time; for from the day of the invitation to the day of the ball, there was such a succession of rain as prevented their walking to Meryton once. No aunt, no officers, no news could be sought after - the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.”  [1]

Who is Proxy she wondered, and how does Proxy feel about being sent in the rain and mud to get accessories for a ball she can't attend?  Baker noted both presences and absences in Jane Austen’s novel. A meal was served … a carriage was brought round ...
but I'm not hearing anything about the person who did this thing”. Absent presences such as these reminded Baker of her own great aunts who were in domestic service, and prompted her to put pen to paper. 

White gloves

A nugget from her historical research for Longbourn. It seems that during the Napoleonic wars, where Pride and Prejudice is set, there was a massive premium on male labour, with all young able bodied men either in the fields, in the army or the navy.  The government discouraged the employment of young men in inessential jobs by taxing it; which led to the unintended consequence that it became fashionable amongst the upper class to have young men standing around in white gloves serving soup, just to show they could afford it.

I'll leave you with a couple more thoughts on that election, a sore I can't help picking at.  A business insider website has analysed the votes and concludes "You'll be surprised to learn that the general election was a huge win for the British left". Whilst I can hardly support the adjective "huge", I was marginally less gloomy, perhaps wrongly so, after I came across this. Finally I do hope the Labour party doesn't in it's coming leadership election attempt to shuffle towards the ever rightward drifting so-called centre ground; though I fear it will.  Read this selection of Guardian readers letters for a flavour of the debate.

[1] Pride and Prejudice vol 1, ch 18

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Some thoughts on Germanness, a lonely tree and Cinderella

This 1822 painting by Caspar David Friedrich, The Lonely Tree (Der einsame Baum), I saw last November at the British Museum. It was part of an exhibition devoted to the many different ways Germans view their history. You may ask why out of the blue I've decided to write about this today, and there are a couple of reasons, which I'll come to.

But first about this painting. At the centre, an ancient oak stands damaged but alive, its branches dark in silhouette, projecting into the largely overcast morning sky. A shepherd shelters under the leafy lower branches, his flock grazing in a spacious meadow. In the middle distance nestles a village, with tree-clad hills that pile up into blue-grey mountains in the background. The oak tree, according to the exhibition notes, has since the romantic period been a symbol of the German nation; and one interpretation of the painting (I don't know if it's the artist’s own) is that the tree is Germany, battered by Napoleon but unbowed, continuing to shelter the German people. A potent symbol of German nationalism, 50 years before Germany existed as a state.

German nationalism: the very words make us queasy … and yet … why should the Germans uniquely amongst European peoples of the 19th century, be denied their nationalism just because we have the advantage of knowing the history of the 20th? You could say that nationalism has been the bane of world history. It might be a foolish and unhistorical thing to say: but foolish or not, I've said it. And if the statement has any value at all (though I'm ready concede that maybe it doesn't) it applies to German nationalism no more and no less than to Irish nationalism, or any other nationalism.

Grimms Fairy Tales

Now to the two reasons I'm writing about this today. One is that for my birthday six weeks ago Albert gave me Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales, translations from fairy tales assembled by the Grimm brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children's and Household Tales). This work has become a pivotal component in the idea of Germanness, and featured in the same Germany exhibition where I saw the lonely tree painting. The tales were first published in 1812, which as Neil MacGregor points out in his guidebook to the exhibition, is a significant date. 

By that year, Napoleon had conquered and occupied most of Germany and had annexed wide stretches of the Rhineland. Cologne was a city in France. Yet to the brothers Grimm (who were language scholars as well as folk tale collectors) Germany had something of immense value which the French could not claim: a language reaching back into the mists of pre-history. In the time of the Roman Empire, the French had abandoned their Celtic tongue and adopted Latin, the language of the conquerors. Not so the Germans, most of whom lived outside the empire’s borders, and kept their language, which along with their folktales, so the story goes, furnished them with an identity that no foreign invader could eradicate. And the tales, collected by the Grimm brothers, became part of a German political and cultural renaissance.

As to the second reason for writing about Caspar David Friedrich now: I'm just back from Vienna where with Cork Astronomy Club members I visited the Vienna university observatory and heard a fascinating impromptu talk by the senior scientist there, Dr Thomas Posch. He drew our attention to another picture by Caspar David Friedrich from the same year 1822, Moonrise over the Sea (Mondaufgang am Meer).

Why this grabs me, and what it has to do with astronomy (I doubt you'll guess) is work for another day.

Ugly sisters not ugly

Finally a few words about Grimms Fairy Tales. They include Cinderella, Snow White and Hansel and Gretel and there are about two hundred more. The Grimm versions are surprisingly, sometimes shockingly, different. Cinderella has no fairy godmother, her ugly sisters are not ugly but they do have their eyes pecked out by pigeons. I recommend an episode of BBC Radio’s In Our Time, where
a few years ago Melvyn Bragg discussed the Grimm tales with three specialists. I'm not sure I prefer Philip Pullman’s translations to an 1853 version I have, but then, without knowing German, how do I know? What I do recommend the Philip Pullman book for is the note at the end of each tale commenting on the story, drawing parallels, and giving the ATU number. Not sure what an ATU number is? I dealt with this a few years ago in connection with King Midas and his asses ears.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Islamic State puts me in mind of Bamiyan

Hatra, a fortified city that withstood attack by the Romans
Today two linked stories in the media. The Guardian reports Iraq’s director of antiquities confirming that Islamic State militants (don't like the word but more of that another day) have ransacked the ancient city of Dur-Sharrukin near Mosul. This is the group’s latest assault on the country’s 3,000 year heritage, the report following hard on the heels of news of destroyed ruins at the ancient city of Hatra.  (I'm not clear if the destruction includes the city walls in the image above.  The story was on the BBC website a few days ago.)

Bamiyan Buddhas. Left, after 1,500 years. Right, after 1,500 years and 25 days
The other linked story I came across today is also from the BBC who have interviewed an Afghani bicycle repair mechanic in Bamiyan, one Mirza Hussain. In March 2001 as a prisoner of the Taliban he was forced to carry explosives to blow the Bamiyan Buddhas up.  "I regretted it at that time, I regret it now and I will always regret it," he says. "But I could not resist, I didn't have a choice because they would have killed me."  He recalls two to three explosions every day to destroy the Buddha, and drilling holes into the statue to plant the dynamite without proper tools.  He remembers the whole process took 25 days, and that the Taliban brought nine cows to slaughter as a sacrifice.

I've blogged about the Bamiyan Buddhas before, in 2011. At that time I was exercised by the debate whether they should be left as rubble; a debate that so far as I know continues.  But now the Buddha destruction has a more urgent relevance.  The annihilation of these ancient sandstone carvings, once the world's tallest Buddhas, in an act of destruction that shocked the world, doubtless inspired the recent vandalism of Iraqi heritage sites by Islamic State fighters.   And it's set me thinking about iconoclasm generally. 
Islamic State, which controls large areas of Iraq and Syria, says shrines and statues are "false idols" that have to be smashed.  Carved to the glory of God, and in an act of performance art, smashed to the glory of God.  It could be argued, though not by me, that one act is as valid as the other.   More about this when my thoughts are in order.   

Mirza Hussain today, from the BBC website
As a postscript we should note that according to Newsweek, when the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, residents hiding in the mountains at the time, heard explosions for three or four days.  Fifty cows were sacrificed at the site for Taliban dignitaries flown in by helicopter for the celebration. Mirza Hussain says 25 days and mentions only 9 cows. The sort of conflict of evidence that journalists and historians have to grapple with daily.  

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Stephen Fry’s gauntlet: the Problem of Evil

I seek expert opinion on God
From time to time I struggle with composing my atheist manifesto. But maybe I'm making too much of a meal of it, as it can actually be expressed quite simply.  I find no use for the concept of God. But nor do I believe in campaigning for atheism or mocking those who find solace in religion, and I've never felt the need to try to convert anyone away from a religious belief. (This is because I've led a sheltered life. Some religious beliefs are downright evil, and those holding them most certainly need converting.)

On an Irish television programme ten days ago Stephen Fry was asked what he thought about God and religion, and he gave an answer very much in line with the foregoing. The programme was an episode in RTÉ’s series The Meaning of Life. To conclude the 30-minute interview, veteran Irish journalist Gay Byrne asked Stephen Fry to suppose that it's judgment day, and that contrary to Fry’s expectation, God really exists. What would he say to God in these circumstances?

Here's his answer.  It's the programme's trailer, whose audience passed the five million mark several days ago, it seems, dwarfing the audience for the actual broadcast.

Fry begins by using a long word. Theodicy.  On looking it up I found this is the attempt to answer the question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil. 

Fry then launches into the speech he would make to God at the gates of heaven.  In a nutshell it's this:-

Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you?  Yes the world is very splendid. But it has in it insects whose whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind.  Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable.

He thinks the moment you banish God, your life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living.

I have a transcript if you want it. But Stephen Fry’s words aren’t what I want to concentrate on.  It's the gauntlet he's thrown down to debate the Problem of Evil that interests me; and the rest of what I have to say is about how Christian apologists picked that gauntlet up.

The Irish Catholic tried to reassure its readers with the headline “Stephen Fry was wrong about God, claims expert”.  When you examine what the expert has to say, it's pretty woeful, even though he's a professor of philosophy. All we get is that human beings cause the world’s injustice not God.  It's a result of us having free will.  So there is no Problem of Evil.  Move along please, nothing to see here.

Bad move. Everyone, believer or not, knows Christianity (for non-Christian religions see appendix) has a Problem of Evil, and it's simple to express: God can't be at the same time all-powerful,  good, and just.  I don't know much about Stephen Fry’s eye-eating worm; but it's a fair bet that if I gave all I could spare to assist in cleaning up the water supply this would kill a lot of worms and save a lot of children. Yet I don't give all I can spare … why … because of my human frailty.  Were there a just God, it would be my eye that was eaten. But it's not mine. It's a child’s in far away village.  Why is that allowed?

Giles Fraser: chutzpah.   Rowan Williams: lame
But good eggs
For those who would convince us there's a God, this is a conundrum. To which they propose four possible solutions. None is popular, and it takes courage to stand in the public square and declare any of them. Here they are:-

1.    It's not God’s fault it's ours. God gave us free will and we’ve misused it.

2.    God isn't all-powerful: we’ve read the Bible all wrong.

3.    Amends will be made in the afterlife: the downtrodden will go to heaven, and an eternity of bliss will make this world’s sufferings pale into insignificance.

4.    Our understanding is weak: if we saw the whole picture like God does, we would see it's all OK.

Option 1 (championed in the Irish Catholic) is so hopelessly off-target it's not even worth running to pick up the ball. 

Giles Fraser, The Guardian’s Loose Canon, goes for option no 2.   Hats off, he has chutzpah to claim that God is powerless and we must forget all the stuff in the Bible about creating the world and being almighty, apparently it's all metaphorical.  Giles Fraser by the way is a good egg, and if you'll forgive a digression, just read what he had to say about the burning by ISIS of the Jordanian pilot, and how he felt about watching the video of it on the internet.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams goes for option 3.   Hats off once more.  You can't help admiring someone who can stand up for a position so utterly lame.  Rowan Williams is another good egg. I mean no harm to either of them.

Blogging on the Catholic Herald website, a priest, one Ed Tomlinson, espouses option 4.  His blog is worth reading because Fr Ed admits that natural evil is a tricky issue for believers, and there’s no glib or easy answer to the question of why God, if he exists, allows suffering.  But then he subtly changes the subject - and he's not the only one I've detected in this sleight of hand. He says “removing God from the equation does nothing whatsoever to eradicate the problem of suffering in this world”. 

In other words, never mind how I deal with the Problem of Evil, how do you atheists deal with the Problem of Evil? A fair question (and actually a far more interesting question, the answer to which is another day’s work) but hey, if you change the subject, you lose the argument! 

Two appendices

An appendix regarding other religions. So far as I know the Problem of Evil exists in exactly the same form in both Judaism and Islam though I'm no expert and am open to contradiction. In Hinduism karma appears to be a complicating factor.  Suffering in this world of the seemingly innocent can be explained as the outworking of karma from previous lives.  A very handy get-out clause, you have to admit ... but don't place any reliance on my words, as they are gleaned from Wikipedia.  More research needed.

Another appendix. For a semi official one-page summary of the position of the Catholic Church, approved by the Archbishop of Perth, I can direct you The Problem of Evil has been solved on the Why Not Catholicism website. In summary: Evil is the result of the abuse of free-will. Since evil now exists, God will use it to bring about a greater good. What about the agonising death of a child? Since God is Love, we can reasonably hope that His infinite justice and mercy will somehow compensate for the apparent harshness of the child's horrendous death. A Catholic sees not the problem of suffering but the meaning of it. When Jesus comes in glory the forces of evil will be definitively overcome. Follow the link for yourself if you don't want to take my word for it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Greece: let's prove the Cassandras wrong ... oops

Tsipras: The Cassandras will be proved wrong
I wish Alexis Tsipras well and foresee that soon socialists across Europe will be called upon to demonstrate in support of Greece’s new anti-austerity government. Already two days after being elected it is set on collision course with Brussels, as corporate-friendly politicians and central bankers try to beat the Greek people back into submission.

Cassandra: gift of prophesy
Nonetheless, the Classical Association of Ireland has drawn a faux pas to my attention and I feel duty bound to draw it to yours.  Before an audience of thousands of supporters, Tsipras announced: “Friends, the new Greek government will prove all the Cassandras of the world wrong. [There will be] no mutually destructive clash … We have a great opportunity for a new beginning.”

As the Guardian put it: Cue gasps of horror from Hellenists around the world.

We know of course what Tsipras intended.  By employing the Cassandra trope, he was making a reference to all the aforementioned politicians and central bankers who have variously predicted the end of Greece / the Euro / world economic policy / life as we know it, should his party Syriza get elected.  Cassandra’s prophesies of doom were all wrong, and all today’s prophets of doom will be proved wrong too.

The trouble is that when Cassandra foretold doom she was always RIGHT.  So drawing a parallel with today’s politicians and bankers was the very opposite of what Tsipras wanted, and has exposed him to Twitter ridicule. 

Cassandra was right (but not believed) when she foretold that her brother Paris, by abducting Helen from Sparta to Troy, would cause ten years of war and Troy’s downfall. She was right (but not believed) when she advised the Trojans to leave the Trojan Horse on the beach, and by no means to bring it into the city.  See Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

Trojan Horse: Cassandra got it right
So who was Cassandra? A princess of Troy, both beautiful, and considered insane and a liar. This was the consequence of being cursed by the god Apollo. She had consented to have sex with him in exchange for the gift of prophecy, and then broke her promise. The curse was that she was simultaneously given the gift of prophesy, and destined never to be believed. This is how the myth is told in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. There are other versions  if you’re interested, but you shouldn’t be, and neither should I, as we should be interested in what's going to happen in Greece.

The Irish left wing deputy Richard Boyd Barret commented this week:

“While [Irish prime minister] Enda Kenny hob-knobbed in Davos this week with the very people who inflicted such misery on the people of this country and Europe, the Greek people have shown us that our real allies are the ordinary citizens of Europe and that we need a European-wide movement of people power to demand debt relief and an end to austerity."

In closing, let's note alarm that Syriza has felt obliged to go into coalition with the right-wing Independent Greeks who (if my information is correct) are racist and anti-immigrant ... and there are signs already of Tsipras compromising on
Syriza's programme and dropping some of their more radical proposals. But all the more reason to manifest support for Syriza outside Greece. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Coins in a museum - not as dull as it sounds

To the British Museum to see coins. Accidentally though, as my intention was to view a small exhibition about Indian Ocean trade in ancient times, of which more another day perhaps. Weaving my way last Tuesday through the galleries in search of room 69B, coins were in truth far from my thoughts. I normally have little difficulty walking past these quintessential museum objects, as they squat unblinking in their display cabinets. But a cluster of visitors round a small table aroused my curiosity. I discovered they were passing a small collection of coins from hand to hand, encouraged by a young curator named Kate whose only stricture was that we had to hold the coins over the table in case they fell through the cracks between the floorboards.

The bronze bar is mighty heavy. It's a tax remittance
Apart from the bronze bar, the heaviest was a copper 2d (bottom right, that’s a two-penny coin pronounced tuppeny piece) dated 1797. Jane Austen may have handled it. But unlikely, as it proved unpopular due to its excessive weight, and was withdrawn after a couple of years.  Known as a cartwheel.

A gold Dinar from Egypt around 1052 CE (top row, middle). Famed for the purity of its gold, it was much coveted in the West. Also much counterfeited in the West, using low quality gold.

When I was small my father read me Treasure Island of which my only abiding memory is a parrot chattering "Pieces of Eight" perched on Long John Silver’s shoulder, the prototype of all pirates. And that’s more or less all I knew. But now I can tell you that a piece of eight was 8 Reales (top right), also known as a Spanish Dollar. Struck from South American silver, it was the form in which the Spanish galleons transported their bullion across the Atlantic. By the late 18th century Pieces of Eight had become the first worldwide currency. 

A massive bronze bar weighed well over a kilogramme.  To pay your taxes in the Roman Republic, about 300 to 250 BCE, you had to buy one of these 'struck bronze' objects and take it to the tax office, or so we were told.  They are mentioned on this Wikipedia page, but not the bit about tax.

Silver siege money of the English Civil War (bottom row, middle). Minted in Newark in 1646, though minted may not be the right word as it wasn’t really a coin.  'Money of necessity' was issued by towns loyal to the King Charles, perhaps to reassure mercenaries, or simply to allow everyday transactions. Siege money was made from jewellery donated (I wonder?) by the citizens, and the one we handled had a hole near one corner, suggesting it was made into a pendant after the Restoration to proclaim “I fought for the king”.

Fakes, ancient and modern. £1 coins on the left, Roman on the right.
That was the end of the hands on session. Next, in a nearby case I came across the fakes. Roman coins and £1 coins. But the fake Roman coins weren't modern fakes to fool collectors, no: they were faked around 340 CE.  A hoard of 815 coins was found in Suffolk, faked from copper alloy. How do curators know they are fake, one wonders?  It's all here. And another fact: one in every 35 £1 coins in circulation today is a fake.

Lastly, what desperate circumstances impelled someone to bury this jug of gold coins under the floor in a house near Corbridge in Northumberland in 160 CE? They wedged two bronze coins in its neck in an attempt at deception, and never came back to reclaim their hoard. But whoever they were hiding it from didn't discover it either. It was found in 1911. When the jug was lifted the bottom fell out.

If you'd told me I was going to write a blog about coins in a museum I wouldn't have believed you. So there's a little lesson for us all.