Monday, 26 February 2007

Muslims: the presumption of guilt

Posting on MSN's News discussion group, (http://groups.msn.com/News), as lala, I often find myself locking horns with a small but vocal group of posters who demonstrate a strong anti-Islamic bent. Now, let me clarify one thing immediately - I am not pro-Islam. I am an athiest with a dislike of religion in general, and the Skygod religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) in particular. So it feels abit odd for me to be finding myself defending Islam and Muslims, day after day. I feel I have to do so because there are very few other voices raised on that community to counter the tirades of the anti-Islamic crowd. Ironically, I have been chided for this, ith complaints that I am always eager to defend Muslims. I don't start the threads, so my 'eagerness' to defend is more a response to the zeal with which others attack.

So why do I do it? Two reasons, well, three reasons, but the third one isn't very good. First of all, and most importantly, is speaking up for truth. In the three cases I'm gonig to mention here, the attacks were not based on sound evidence. Second, I am always uncomfortable when a minority ethnic group is targetted. Jews in Nazi germany, blah blah blah ... but at the bottom of it, people are being picked on. Last of all (this is the bad reason) I do like a good argument, particularly if I can infuriate rightwing knee-jerk bigots.

I've already commented on the story about King Fahad academy in London, and how they were alleged to be teaching students to regard Jews as monkey's and Christians as Pigs. If you want to read the (extensive) argument about that one, follow this link:

http://groups.msn.com/News/general.msnw?action=get_message&ID_Message=2242306&ShowDelete=0&CDir=-2

Two other examples of recent jousts on News, where Muslims have been criticised, where I have felt the evidence has been weak or misinterpreted:

First, this horrible tragedy:

Father killed family for being too western
By Nigel Bunyan
Last Updated: 1:58am
GMT 22/02/2007


A father killed his wife and four daughters in their sleep because he could not bear them adopting a more westernised lifestyle, an inquest heard yesterday.

Mohammed Riaz, 49, found it abhorrent that his eldest daughter wanted to be a fashion designer, and that she and her sisters were likely to reject the Muslim tradition of arranged marriages.

On Hallowe'en last year he sprayed petrol throughout their terraced home in Accrington, Lancs, and set it alight.

Caneze Riaz, 39, woke and tried to protect her three-year-old child, Hannah, who was sleeping with her, but was overcome by fumes. Her other daughters, Sayrah, 16, Sophia, 13, and Alisha, 10, died elsewhere in the house.

Riaz, who had spent the evening drinking, set himself on fire and died two days later.

Story continues here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/02/21/nmuslim21.xml

News discussion thread here: http://groups.msn.com/News/general.msnw?action=get_message&ID_Message=2247705&ShowDelete=0&CDir=-2

Basically, my position was that there was no reason to assume the man's religion caused him to commit this horrible deed. if you read the article in full, you'll find out that he had been unable to find a decent job, was probably lonely and isolated due to his limited English and his son was dying of cancer. All of this suggests that he might have been depressed, and his mental illness might have led to his deplorable action. His family's drift away from what he saw as true Islam might have been the last straw, and might have influenced the form of his break down, but a cause? Unlikely. Millions of Muslims don't murder their families, every day. This point was ignored or attacked by the usual suspects, however, who chose not to look beyond the word 'Muslim' when looking for a reason for something happening.

And another one:

Police identify gunman as 18-year-old Bosnian
By
Linda Thomson, Deseret Morning News

Police Tuesday identified the gunman accused in Monday night's Trolley Square shooting as Sulejman Talovic, an 18-year-old Bosnian refugee who lived in Salt Lake City.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank said Talovic drove his car to the mall, parked in the west parking terrace and encountered two people who he shot before entering the mall.

There, he encountered a female who also was shot right away, then went into a gift shop where there were five people, all of whom the young man shot. Moving through the mall, the gunman tried to shoot others, Burbank said. The chief said he could not say now how many shots were involved in the entire episode.

Burbank praised an unnamed Ogden police officer who took action at the mall to intervene in the incident, and praised the many law enforcement and other agencies that responded quickly and professionally to the crisis.

Until Salt Lake police arrived, it was "basically a shoot-out between the Ogden individual and this individual," Burbank said.

(http://deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,660195221,00.html)

Again, the News debate on this story was extensive. I (lala) get into an amusing shouting match with New Yorker about 200 posts in. We have a 'difficult' relationship. Here's a link to the discussion: http://groups.msn.com/News/general.msnw?action=get_message&ID_Message=2244389&ShowDelete=0&CDir=-2

Once again, some people decided that it was enough that this young man was a Muslim. Ergo, he was crazy, and on some blood thirsty Jihad. it was suggested there might be more of them, a terrorist cell intent on shooting up the malls of America. But, think about that one for a moment. If you want to kill as many infidels as possible, would you grab a gun and head down to the mall? look what happened to this fellow: he got gunned down quickly enough. Terrorists operating within the USA would look to more effective means of causing death an panic.

The anti-Islam briade overlooked two important points in their ranting: first, 'Bosnian Muslim' is an ethnic category, not necessarily a religious one. Also, this kid was a refugee. Background investigation soon uncovered that he had fled Bosnia as the horrors of the 1990s ethnic strife unfolded. It was possible he had seen terrible things and been traumatised by them, which may have been the cause of his breakdown. As for the way he expressed it, well, getting a gun and shooting up a nearby school or mall is, sadly, the American way.



Friday, 23 February 2007

Stale Thoughts on the Iraq War

Again, this is an old piece I've found in the files. It deals with the alleged 'sexing up' of the dossier that Downing Street used inflame opinion against Iraq - the one that contained the infamous '45 minute claim'.

The Gilligan Affair

Oscar Wilde declared that it is a terrible thing for a man to find out that for his whole life, he has been telling nothing but the truth; truth must be a terrible thing, as the fate of Andrew Gilligan bears witness. For telling something like truth, he has been forced to resign from his position of defense correspondent at the BBC. Heaven only knows what would have become on him had he told the whole truth.

It’s a witches brew, alright. The British government plagiarizes an out of date thesis from the web; Colin Powell offers a slickly packaged but empty presentation to the UN; the British government foregrounds a rather unlikely sounding piece of intelligence information about Saddam being able to deploy WMD within 45 minutes, which is repeated, without explanatory detail, in the House Of Commons, and drags Britain into a war.

Afterwards (If we can talk about ‘afterwards’ in the context of the Iraq invasion) no WMD are found, what-so-ever. No substantial evidence of development programs is found, even. We learn that George W Bush now wants to examine the evidence that he used to justify invading Iraq.

Yet, at the last count, Greg Dyke, Gavyn Davies and Andrew Gilligan have lost their jobs; on the government side, Blair’s snake-in-the-grass, Alaisdair Campbell, has been forced to take his services else where. So the score is 3-1 to the government. Teflon Tony survives another attempt by the envious and the invidious to do him down.

Dyke, Davies and Gilligan have come out of this with their careers ruined. Campbell, if anything, has enhanced his reputation. Whereas before he was described as a ‘Prince Of Darkess’ or a ‘Spin Meister’, now he gets to pretend to be the plucky soldier who throws himself on a grenade. An appropriate comparison, as British and American soldiers are dying because of their leader’s lies.

Lord Hutton is a very careful and sedulous man, by all accounts. If Tony Blair is innocent of the charges that Tony Blair asked him to investigate, I am sure he is. Alas, Lord Hutton’s very scrupulousness meant that the inquiry would never look at anything beyond the very strictest – and limited – interpretation of its mission.

What it all boils down to is what was said one morning when one BBC journalist, the avuncular John Humphries, interviewed another, Andrew Gilligan. It was 6.07am, that’s right, 6.07am, and Gilligan stated that “The government probably knew that the 45 minute figure was wrong, even before it decided to put it in.” By the time he was interviewed again by Humphries, Gilligan corrected his statement to “They [intelligence agencies] thought it was … not corroborated sufficiently and they thought it was wrong, they thought the informant concerned had got it wrong …”

The British government might not have invented the story, but they they must have thanked whatever dark deity politicians pray to, for its existence.

Not only did Tony Blair foreground the claim in his foreword to the controversial dossier, but the claim appeared three further times within that document. Not bad for one little uncorroborated story from an unreliable source.

One of the claims that the scrupulous Lord Hutton made was that Tony Blair’s desperate need to find something to pin on Saddam might have subconsciously influenced eager to please diligent intelligent wonks drawing up the dossier:

“the desire of the prime minister to have a dossier which ... was as strong as possible in relation to the posed by Saddam Hussein's WMD may have subconsciously influenced Mr Scarlett and other members of the JIC to make the wording of the dossier somewhat stronger than it would have been if it had been contained in a normal JIC assessment”

Forgive me for sounding skeptical, but are we to believe that John Scarlett, head of the Joint Intelligence Service, is really as intellectually malleable as all that? And if so, are we to be in any reassured by this frailty?

How does one measure subconscious influence, anyway? Might the na├»ve Lord Hutton, shielded by the walls of his ivory tower, have mistaken conscious intent for subconscious influence? Thomas a Becket was murdered because some knights with nothing better to do with their time overheard Henry II wishing himself rid of the turbulent priest; after the foul deed, his Majesty enjoyed complete deniability. Times have changed, but means haven’t.

On the 24th September Tony Blair stood up in the House of Commons and announced that “[Saddam] has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated within 45 minutes”. He described the report as “Extensive, detailed and authoritative.”

He was speaking not to the house but to the nation watching at home, who were skeptical of the reasons being advanced for war. He didn’t give any detail. He didn’t explain that the weapons referred to, if they existed, were minor battlefield munitions, not SCUD missiles crammed with Anthrax or mustard gas.

At best we have a prime minister who doesn’t know what he is talking about; more likely, one who misled the British people as to the nature of the threat Saddam Hussein posed.

Now we learn that WMD are perhaps in Syria. Strange that Colin Powell’s eagle eyed spy satellites didn’t pick them out. He made it look like a camel couldn’t fart in Iraq without it being picked up. But so far, what has been found?

Dick Cheney brings us up to date: “We've found a couple of semi-trailers at this point, which we believe were in fact part of a [WMD] program … I would deem that conclusive evidence, if you will, that he did in fact have programs for weapons of mass destruction.”

Excuse me? Cheney calls this conclusive evidence. In a world where lies are true and where arrant nonsense is accepted unquestioningly as proof, it is no surprise Andrew Gilligan had to go for almost telling the truth.

Sensing Murder

I wrote this a while ago, during the last season of Sensing Murder. I don't know when or if this ghastly show will be revieved, but I hope not.

I haven't gone into the moral turpitude of the program - the use of brutal real life slayings, the exploitation of pain and misery, the graphic reconstructions, done in the style of CSI. Most people with a brain can see that this type of TV is sick and disgusting. I've tried instead to reveal some of the deceptions used by the so-called psychics and (more worryingly) the producers of the program.

‘Sensing Murder – The Murder of Olive Senior’

Even in the age of C.S.I., Quentin Tarantino and news reports which gloatingly warn “Images may disturb some viewers,” Sensing Murder seems particularly repulsive.

In each episode of the series, we are told about an unsolved crime. Two alleged psychics use their powers to attempt to solve it. Finally, their work is analyzed to see what light, if any, they have shed.

This week, they investigated the murder of Olive Senior, a Rotorua teenager brutally beaten to death in a highway rest area in 1970.

The program starts with a reconstruction of known events. Olive was a shy, backward girl with a good heart. We are told about how she disappeared one night walking through town. Her body was found the next day, her head beaten in by a hammer or heavy spanner.

Not only do they tell us all this, the program makers show us as well, with heavy handed mood music, screams and jerky, Blair Witch style camera work. The horror of Olive Senior’s death becomes an opportunity for the program makers and audience to connive in a lurid little horror film.

After the voyeuristic reconstruction, the psychics get to work. We are told that they were not given any clues about the murder they were investigating. We are also told that the program makers “Only confirmed positive statements.” Why would a psychic require confirmation, when they are in communion with the spirit of the murdered girl?

The answer is that they were not, of course, and the whole program is an elaborate, tasteless fraud.

Let’s take a break. You can tell a lot about a program by the adverts screened during the commercial breaks. During the breaks for Sensing Murder, Channel Two played a trailer for an up coming program called Criminal Minds which boasts the tag line “Feel like a killer.” Criminal Minds, like C.S.I., Cold Case and S.V.U. uses murder as entertainment.

I don’t have a problem with that. But to run the trailer for a fictional show based upon murder, during another show dealing with a real murder, seems to be a colossal lapse of taste on the part of Channel Two.

A trend was apparent: other programs promoted during breaks included the ghoulish Forensic Investigators and the loopy Ghost Hunt.

Back to Sensing Murder. Our alleged pshychics are on the scene. They are an Australian named Deb, and a New Zealander, Adele.

First, they are given a photograph of the murdered girl to help them make a connection. Deb shows off by refusing to look at it, divining information simply by touching the back of the upside down photograph.

But why bother? If the program makers were serious about solving the murder, why bother with this interlude? Why waste precious time in a parlour trick when they could be catching the killer?

The answer is because it allows Deb and Adele to give performances that might convince the naive or unwary that they really are in touch with the ghost of Olive Senior. Both, in a few minutes of screen time, are able to describe Olive fairly accurately.

In fact the program makers have edited out an unknown amount of footage, leaving in the instances when Deb and Adele hit the mark. Put simply, the so-called psychics play Twenty Questions with the murder of Olive Senior.

Another ploy used by the program makers becomes soon apparent. Random, unclear comments are picked up and moulded to make them seem significant. Deb declares the subject of the photograph has an “Olive complexion.” The program makers pounce, declaring Deb has sensed the name of the victim.

Another example: one of the psychics declares Olive was murdered “On a hill.” A voiceover informs us that the rest area where she was found was raised above the road. It would have been more accurate to say the psychic was wrong, but they prefer to snatch at whatever straws they can.

Along the way, the psychics trot out homilies and waffle. “She’s got a pleading for this to be solved,” one of then declares. You don’t say. Though one wonders why the shade of Olive Senior waited until now to come forward, if she is so keen. Surely, she would have tapped someone on the shoulder, psychically, before now?

After this, our girls hit the road to visit the actual murder scene. They aren’t told where it is, but both home in on it quickly. Again, this looks impressive, but is easily explained. Here’s how it works:

They drive down the road a bit. The psychic says “We’ve passed it.” The program makers, who will respond to positive statements, confirm this. So they double back. Just outside town, the psychic again declares that they have passed the murder site. Another turn around, though this time the psychic knows not to go so far down the road …

At the murder scene, Deb and Adele make scared faces and mumble about things being “Not nice.” Again, they wander all over the place, saying it was “Here,” until they hit the right spot. They throw out a lot of information, most of which can not be proven: they suggest the killer might have worked at a local saw mill. They suggest he was Asian or Irish. One says she was killed with a hammer. Another opts for a spanner. No-one thinks this discrepancy odd.

In the final part of the program, an analyst attempts to pull together the ‘information’ the psychics have provided. Here the manipulation is at its most obvious. On the one hand, they ignore information that is not accurate or that can not be manipulated, such as the different murder weapons. One psychic claimed the killer was 5’10” – from his foot prints, the police calculated he was shorter than that. Again, this error is ignored.

On the other hand, the analyst jumped trough hoops to try to assign significance to the waffle. The most blatant example is when Adele, at the murder scene, turns to the camera and asks, querulously, “WW? What’s that about?” To which the obvious response is “You’re the psychic, you tell us.”

‘WW’ the analyst informs us, might be ‘MW,’ the logo of the Ministry of Works. We are assured that psychic information is often garbled in this way. It might refer to a logging truck parked in the rest area. Or we might be watching offensive, dishonest junk T.V.

At the end of the day, Sensing Murder is its own worst enemy. In spite of the efforts of Deb and Adele, the killer of Olive Senior has not been apprehended. Thatin itself proves the program is phony.

Olive Senior’s family was involved in the making of this. Presumably, they had given credence to the idea that the psychics might uncover something. The makers of this program are guilty of exploiting the naivety and desperation of people who have lost a loved one.

From the bogus claims of authenticity made at the beginning, through the offensive reconstructions and cut-price slasher movie techniques, and the phony display by the psychics, the program is an insult to the memory of Olive Senior.

Is Labour trying to lose the next election?

Well, they must be, surely. They are not fools, any of them. Not even Trevor Mallard (incidentally, can you imagine Mallard as PM - how chaotic, but amusing that would be). But Labour seem Hell-bent on annoying people to the extent that soon no-one will vote for them.

This has to be deliberate. Labour have decided they've had enough of power, and think that John Key deserves a turn. Perhaps Cullen has scrutinised his crystal ball and detected some monstrous economic calamity on the horizon, and a strategic decision has been made to let this manifest itself on National's watch.

I'm not sure if I am joking here. Think about everything Labour has done in the last ... month ... year ... for a very long time. None of it seems designed to make the voters smile fondly and say, "Yes, we liked that, we'll have another three years of that, thank you very much."

Even the things they have done that people have liked - the smoking ban, for example, they have presented in such a bad way as to make themselves look bad. And then there are thew times where they seem to have decided to annoy the electorate, and set about it with a bloodyminded determination.

Think election spending and Clarke seemingly trying to appear sleazier than Don 'Brethern' Brash. Think Taito Phillip-Field being allowed to hang on for months. Think the stadium debacle - a magnificent effort in double pissing off of people, first of all by trying to foist a waterfront carbuncle on the country, and (once that had been kibboshed), throwing a sulk and not contributing towards Eden Park, so the glorious 2011 World Cup will be viewed from temporary seats.

If the government wanted something that would set them forever in the memory of a grateful populace, they could have coughed up enough for a stand at least. It could have been appropriate as Helen's constituency office is within spitting distance of Eden Park.

But no, that might not have riled up enough people. I'm only surprised they didn't think of the smacking ban first - chagrined by the way the Greens have stolen their PC thunder, Labour can only loyally suppot, and hope that they cop maximum blame for the bill.

Side door

For reasons cryptical, I can't log in directly, and can only access this blog by replying on an existing thread. So this is the thread that shall be used for such purposes, otherwise proper rants will be disfigured when I can't think of anything intelligent to say, which is more often than you might think.

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Why are pigs banned from the Year of the Pig?

Not because the Chinese government wishes to avoid offending Muslims. that is what they say, but why trust them?

The story goes like this:
Year of the Pig sparks some porkies
By Rowan Callick
February 01, 2007 09:36am

ON February 18, the Chinese world will usher in the new year of an animal, but its identity will be suppressed.

A billion people will view China's - and the world's - most-watched annual television show, the Chinese New Year's Eve variety spectacular, but the viewers will be no wiser as to which animal is involved.

The Chinese Government has decreed that the Year of the Pig will be celebrated with the least possible offence to the country's 21 million Muslims, for whom the porker is a dirty, offensive animal whose flesh must not be eaten.

So this year, China Central TV's big event will be more like a politically correct school Christmas pageant in which participants must not mention Jesus for fear of being seen as biased.

The Shanghai Islamic Association told The Australian: "In the last festival TV show to celebrate this year (12 years ago), the program was full of images of pigs, some of them quite grotesque, and many Muslims were unhappy and complained.

"So we're pleased the Government has made this move."

The director of the Minorities Association in Shanghai, Huo Engjie, who is a Muslim, said: "Although we comprise fewer than 2 per cent of China's population, this ban shows how much the Government respects us. It's very moving."

Advertising agencies have received a letter from CCTV telling them: "Since China is a multicultural country, and to respect the religious beliefs of Muslims, images of pigs should be avoided during 2007." The letter adds, in case the renminbi hasn't dropped: "We have received an instruction to this effect from the top level of the Government."

Acquiring air time during the variety show is difficult and immensely costly, and most of the corporations with slots have completed their advertisements.

This creates a big challenge for companies such as Nestle, which have focused on the theme of the Year of the Pig in their commercials. A spokesman said Nestle would naturally comply with the official request. But the company has just a couple of weeks left to shoot a new commercial to fill the slots it has already bought.

China gets most of its oil from Muslim countries in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa, where Sudan is its biggest supplier. It is also working hard to build its influence as a country that empathises with, rather than hectors, smaller nations.

China will be pleased to see its anti-porcine edict reported globally, showing its multicultural credentials and sensitivities. But this does not mean it is inclined to give hardline Islamists the benefit of any doubt - for example, police recently raided a training camp in the northwest region of Xinjiang, whose indigenous population, the Uighurs, are mainly Muslim, and killed 18 people they said were terrorists.

But Beijing will not be able to expunge all trace of the troublesome animals, with their jolly red-and-gold images already ubiquitous in stores and markets and many public buildings. And the state-owned China Post has launched a new series of "Year of Piglet" stamps featuring the Winnie the Pooh character as promoted by Disney.

The pig - with pork the most widely eaten meat among China's dominant Han population - is widely viewed as an animal of the zodiac that is honest, trustworthy and, because it is often seen as fat, prosperous. Bookings in hospital labour wards are climbing as couples seek to have children born in the auspicious but awkward Year of the Pig.


(http://www.news.com.au/story/0,23599,21152378-401,00.html)

This story is doing the rounds of the rightwing blogs and being promoted on discussion forums by the usual suspects. While it is rather odd of the Chinese government to ban pigs from adverts, it is not my place to fathom the logic of the totalitarian mind set. Suffice to say, the article is misleading. It is absurd to say, as it so plainly does, that "viewers will be no wiser as to which animal is involved." Those with an axe to grind about Islam have started up the usual chorus, claiming the despotic government of China has caved in to Muslim special pleading.

The ban, as far as we can see from the information provided here, applies only to ADVERTS. The main show may well be awash with pigs, for all we know. Only the ad breaks have been declared pig free. Why this must be is a mystery, but as I said i don't pretend to know how the bastards of Beijing arrive at their decisions. Why not ask a Western leader or trade minister, as they have seen fit to move most of our industrial base to South East Asia, simultaneously giving two fingers to their own workers (with their pesky unions, rights and expectations) and the human rights of the Chinese, Tibetans and all the citizens of the world, as we suffer the consequences of China's industrialisation.

Here is a thought. Why might the Chinese government wish to be seen as being extra nice to Muslims? Not through fear or because of oil. I think the real answer is alluded to in the article, but the writer prefers to suggest that the facisto-communist bastards of Beijing have caved into the shadowy hand of international Muslimry. Bullshit. The Chinese junta doesn't give a toss about anyone, they know the whole world depends on them for boxer shorts and toys. Their focus, I suspect, is internal - they don't want to give the Muslims any sort of rallying cry. The government forces, the article mentions, is carrying out raids in Xinjiang province, aimed at the mainly Muslim Uighurs. According to Amnesty International, the Uighurs

... have been the target of systematic and extensive human rights violations. This includes arbitrary detention and imprisonment, incommunicado detention, and serious restrictions on religious freedom as well as cultural and social rights. Uighur political prisoners have been executed after unfair trials.

"In recent years, China has exploited the international "war on terror" to suppress the Uighurs, labelling them "terrorists", "separatists", or "religious extremists".

(Source: http://asiapacific.amnesty.org/apro/aproweb.nsf/pages/appeal_china_gulja)

It is unlikely that the Chinese government fears the hapless Uighurs, but they might be scared of what other people might think about their brutal treatment of them. So best appear to be being extra nice to Muslims sensibilities with regards the pigs-on-TV thing, while shooting the real people in the real world.

'White Teeth' by Zadie Smith

Okay, so I know I am a little bit late, as White Teeth was published a few years ago. I only got around to reading it at Christmas time, however. I was very disappointed, as the book had been hyped so much. It had been hyped so much that I had gone through the 'It can never live up to this degree of expectation', beyond churlish 'I'm going to dislike this book on purpose because everyone else likes it so much' and reached a state of eqilibrium where I was quite willing to like the book if it was good. Which is, I suppose, the natural condition of people who aren't bitter, cantankerous and befuddled by too much reading of critical theory. People not like me, in other words.

I go as far as to say I really wanted a good book. I was marooned in Oamaru, a very small town in New Zealand, without many books to choose from. I'd finished the book I'd travelled with. I'd bought a second hand copy of Marx's Capital from a local book store (which claimed to specialise in New Zealand authors - I had been unaware of Marx's Kiwi roots until now) and my father-in-law could offer a couple of thrillers involving airplanes and very long books about Japan by James Clavell. Like Clara near the start of White Teeth, I didn't have many options. But inspite of my palpable need to like the book, I didn't. This is my attempt to explain why.

First of all, let me explain I'm not having a go at Zadie Smith and White Teeth as such, though it will come across like that. She was in her 20s when she wrote it and gets credit for giving it a go. And at least she's tried to be ambitious - she could have written a novella about how difficult it is to be Zadie Smith. And she's pretty dismissive now about White Teeth, herself. What rankles is the praise heaped upon the novel. The cover of my edition boasts that it won the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Guardian First Book Award and the James Tait Memorial Prize for Fiction. It is "The outstanding debut of the new millenium", "Extremely funny", "Relentlessly funny", and so on, even unto the inside cover. I know the purpose of blurbs is hype the book to the point that you part with money for it, but what possessed the reviewers to use use adverbs like "Extremely", "Relentlessly", and "astonishingly"?

You might have experienced an uneasy feeling when reading a book, when the writer selects an option that you feel is the wrong one. It is a horrible sensation, as you suddenly realise that THINGS ARE NOT GOING TO PLAN. You don't know where the novel is going, but the gut reaction is often right. It suggests a two-fold flaw, both in plotting (the perceived failure to select the most interesting option) and in writing (the failure on the writer's part to present the information in a manner that convinces the reader that it is a good choice). In White Teeth, I got that feeling early, on page 26 in fact, when Clara meets Archie, and Smith immediately announces "Six weeks later, they were married." Uh-oh. Wrong turn. Bad choice, poorly presented. Sinking feeling.

Up until then, I had been experiencing positive, glowy feelings. The opening pages were good. Archie's botched suicide, his rescue and subsequent invasion of the squat were all done and amusing enough. I was willing to overlook the rather clumsy use of "muggins" on page 10. It didn't sound authentic, but maybe this social worker did talk like that. And the clever-clogs description of Archie's near-death flash back as "obligatory." And the rather Fawlty Towers-esque presentation of the family of Archie's Italian ex, the futility of Archie's ruminations on "whether 'Hoover' had become a brand name for vacuum cleaners or wheter it was, as others have argued, just a brand name" on page 11, and the crass, obvious description of the vacuum cleaner's tube as "a great flaccid cock". All these things struck me as bum notes, but I was still comfortable with where we were going and most of what I was reading. Some of it was very good - the berserk, pigeon hating Mo, though he's only in the book a couple of times, and the hilarious epistlatory interventions of Horst Ibelgaufts (who doesn't even appear in the book). And the quiet, resigned coin flipping by which Archie decides to live or die - I didn't realise that Smith was going to carry on flogging the ground, vigorously, after that particular dead horse had long been reduced to atoms.

So Archie, fresh from aborted suicide, crashes a hungover squat on New Year's Day, gets boozy with bohemians and topless Chinese chicks. I over look the fact one of the bohemians is called Petronia, because I get distracted visualising "every puckered goosepimple around Wan-Si's nipples." Yup, that works for me. Fine writing. If the whole book is another 500 pages on Wan-Si's anatomy, I'll be happy. Alas no. More clever clogsyness: "Now, as Archie understood it, in movies and the like it is common for someone to be so striking that when they walk down the stairs the crowd goes silent." Has anyone ever seen a film where this happened? But, still, things seem to be going okay, the Clara chick seems interesting, maybe we'll get a description of HER nipples ... "Six weeks later, they were married." Oh. A turn which held less promise than the other options I could envisage. And I felt that the novel was going to be a disappoinment, dragged down by some terrible literary form of gravity.

What happens after that is ... soap opera. Archie's suicidal tendencies and his surrender of control over his destiny, his discovery of scuzzy pseudo-bohemianism and Wan-Si's nipples all had potential. Smith decides to put away these interesting things and instead plays with sloughed off plots from East Enders and Coronation Street, and populates her book, not with topless Asian chicks, but a bland allsortment of caricatures, none of whom engage our interest for long and who dare not convincing. This may be controversial, as Smith has been praised for her characters. The Economist assures us, "The comedy fizzes up through the characters". They do not work for me. They are hollow, lifeless cut outs that Smith pokes about, to suit her need for constant drama and event. No sooner has Clara ambled sensuously down the stairs of the squat, all toothless gorgeousity, than she immediately settles down into a lifestyle of domestic mediocrity and hardly figures in the stor after that. The character's sole purpose seems to be to marry Archie and give birth to Irie. Once Irie is on stage, however, Smith can't find anything much for her to do either, so she introduces more characters, in the hope that if she shoves enough people together, interesting things will happen.

So we get the Chalfens, a grotesque, ill-handled caricature of the chatterring classes. If the Chalfens were to work, they would have needed a far more sympathetic rendering than Smith gives them. We would have to believe in 'Chalfenism' (ugh!), that it really was a valid option, but Smith can barely resist heaping scorn on them. She doesn't understand these people, what makes them like they are, and she is not able to make them real. But, it is okay. If you don't like them, here's a collection of animal rights anarchists on collision course. But the contempt for anything Smith doesn't agree with manifests itself again. She even goes as far as to call their leader Crispin, which should tell you all you need to know about her treatment of them. Similarly, the Black Power-esque K.E.V.I.N. is portrayed as laughable and silly. Smith isn't able to get inside the heads of people who might want to belong to these organisation, so she assumes that they are useful only for broad (and botched) comedy. Her treatment of the headmaster at the local comp is equally poor - if Richard Littlejohn were to write a novel, I'd imagine it would be polluted with caricatures of PC-ism like the headmaster. That Smith has indulged herself like this shows her naivety. In the real world, principals work so hard they don't have time to to arse around in the (largely fictitious) outer-reaches of PC lunacy. Still, the plot called for a mechanism to crowbar Irie, Millat and the Chalfens together, so one is engineered, crudely.

That said, there isn't a plot as such, just lots of stuff happening for no good reason. The book is described as "epic", with audacious "scope and vision", it is "sprawling", "big, splashy, populous" and even "reminiscent of books by Dickens" and more beside. For plot, though, all we really have is a lot of stuff happening, to various people at various times between 1857 and 1999, between Bangladesh, the Carribean and England, but with no real connection between them, in spite of Smith's attempts to pretend otherwise. Stuff happens, but there are only relationships between these different time frames and locations because Smith says so. Mangal Pande's ill-fated preface to the Indian Mutiny doesn't really have anything much to do with what befalls Samad in London, nor, tellingly, do the events of one part of the novel impact on any other part. The novel starts with Archie's suicide attempt which should be a life-changing event, successfuk or not, but it isn't. Rescued by the likeable Mo, Archie reverts to background mediocrity almost immediately. His failed suicide, put plainly, has made no change in him. He goes on as before, inspite of Smith's assurances that, as he emerges from his fume choked car, "Archie ... wanted life." Things that happen in White Teeth don't have consequences. Samad has an affair with the wholly unconvincing Poppy, but once it is over, it is over, and nothing happens as a result. He packs a son off to Bangladesh, without telling his wife this is happening, but nothing much happens as a result, though her decision to stop answering questions directly was one of the more amusing ideas in the book. Finally, devastatingly, the climax of the book leads to ... no consequence. Even the homicidally inclined Millat doesn't face a consequence for his attempted murder.

Which brings us to Smith's art. This echoes what I wrote earlier about the feeling you experience when you detect an author making the wrong choices. It goes further, percolating down through levels of plot, theme, character, down to the voice of Smith's writing. I've already intimated that I found Smith's style overly-clever and laboured. Now, I appreciate cleverness and artifice in writing - I worship Anthony Burgess and William Faulkner, for goodness sake, but it is a risky strategy. It can lead to disaster, with the writer failing to create the desired tone, ofr tripping over themselves, or ending up sounding like they are simply too clever to be bothered with their book, and only wrote because they were so clever and wanted everyopne else to know it, too. Smith's style is arch and artificial and the results are 500 smug and over-written pages. Lets start with the title: White Teeth. It sounds dangerous and interesting, but ultimately it doesn't belong to the book. there are plenty of references to teeth - Clara has her front teeth knocked out, Irie plans to become a dentist, and there are chapters with titles like "The Root Canals of Mangal Pande." The point is ... elusive, or, more likely, there isn't one. It is a conceit to allow Smith to show that she is smart and can fill her book with references to teeth, but why she would want to do this remains obscure. More problematic is the narratorial voice which sounds smug and self-satisfied, as Smith strains for effect. How can passages such as this survived editing:

"And all these people are heading for the same room. The final space. A big room, one of many in the Perret Institute; a room seperate from the exhibition yet called an exhibition room.; a corporate place , a clean slate; white / chrome / purple / plain (this was the design brief) used for the meetings of people who want to meet somewhere neutral at the end of the twentieth century; a virtual place where their business (be that rebranding, lingerie or rebranding lingerie) can be done in an emptiness, an uncontaminated cavity; the logical endpoint of a thousand years of spaces too crowded and bloody. This one is pared down, sterilized, made new everyday by a Nigerian cleaning lady with an industrial hoover and guarded through the night by Mr. De Winter, a Polish nightwatchman (that's what he calls himself 0n his job title is Asset Security Coordinator); he can be seen protecting the space, walking the borders of the space with a Walkman playing Polish folk tunes; you can see him, you can see it through a huge glass front if you walk by - the acres of protected vacuity and a sign with the prices per square foot of these square feet of space of space longer than it is wide and ..."

And so on. The full version runs for about 40 lines and ends like this: "renamed, rebranded, the answer to every questionaire nothing nothing space please just space please just space nothing please nothing space". Note the lack of full stop. Thing is, I know what Smith is trying to do here, but she has done it badly and in the wrong place - page 518 is not the correct location for stylistic excesses and it does not heighten tension. One is not wondering, "What will happen in this remarkable space?" Instead, the reader is tempted to skip to the start of the next chapter, in the hope that something will happen. Point is, if you are trying to communicate an idea, in whatever medium, it should be done in the plainest terms. Sound and Fury wavers on the edge of incomprehension because it is told, in part, by a lunatic. Shakespeare mashed the English language into new forms because he had to to try to convey his character's interior broil. Smith forgets this rule, and lards her writing with too much cleverness for the sake of cleverness. She is showing off, letting us know she can do this fancy sort of writing, but only so we'll be impressed by her verbal facility, not because she feels this was the only way of conveying what she was trying to say. And the book is full of such unconvincing passages, thankfully usually brief moments rather than page long soliloquies on emptiness. These little things add up. The wrong word in a character's mouth, or a snooty aside. At one point, the narrator smirks at a character's "invalid syllogism." Again, this is Smith showing how clever she is, so much cleverer than the little people in her book, who wouldn't know what an inalid syllogism was, and perhaps smarter than you, dear reader, who may have to pause and try to remember what a syllogism, even more so what makes one invalid.

So,there you have it. White Teeth is an apprentice piece, not the blinding white hope (see what I did there?) of British literature. As such, it should not be judged too harshly (but,wait a minute, what have you been doing for the past thousand words ...? Eh?) (You think this is harsh? I didn't even point out that Smith, for or her invalid syllogisms, doesn't know the difference between jealousy and envy.)(But you just did!) (True, I'm a bastard.) But, interior dialogues aside, I think it is important to be honest in appraising a book. A lot of people have said White Teeth is very, very good. I did not find it so, and have tried to explain why here. I am not suggesting Smith should never write another book (There is some good in the book, for all my gripes), but that reviewers should be more circumspect in their comments. It isn't a great book and it shouldn't be described as such, because this will only leave people disillusioned, and is unfair on Smith, who needs time to develop as a writer, without the constant attention, and acclaim, and the slavering hope that she'll trip up spectacularly concealed barely beneath.

Thursday, 15 February 2007

King Fahad Academy 'teaches hate'

This has been nagging me for some days now. I've been arguing about it on a discussion forum, but there all that is generated is heat, and little light.

Basically, the story is this: a British school, King Fahad Academy, in London, has been accused of using textbooks which contain offensive descriptions of Jews and Christians, and are derogotary towards other religions.

This is the story, reported by one British newspaper:

February 06, 2007
Saudi-backed school ‘taught racism’
Sean O’Neill

A London school that is owned, funded and run by the Government of Saudi Arabia is teaching an offensive and racist view of nonMuslims, according to a former teacher.

Colin Cook, who taught English at the King Fahad Academy for 18 years, alleged yesterday that pupils were taught from Arabic textbooks, which described Christians as “pigs” and Jews as “monkeys”.

Mr Cook, 57, claimed that when he spoke to senior staff about his concerns he was told: “This is not England, it is Saudi Arabia.”

The teacher, a British Muslim, made his allegations in documents submitted by his lawyers to an employment tribunal.

Mr Cook is taking legal action against the school alleging that he suffered racial discrimination because he was not a Saudi and that he was unfairly dismissed after blowing the whistle on systematic cheating at a GCSE exam.

The academy was established in 1985 in Acton, West London, with the aim of providing a high-quality education acceptable to the Saudi and British authorities for the children of Saudi diplomats and other Muslim families in London. Some of the children of Abu Hamza al-Masri and Abu Qatada, the jailed extremist clerics, are pupils at the school, which charges fees of up to £1,500 per year for day students.

The academy, which is registered in Britain as a charity, has more than 600 pupils. In 1998 the educational emphasis was shifted to ensure that the full Saudi state curriculum was made available to older pupils.

In his statement of claim, copies of which have been obtained by The Times, Mr Cook said: “Most of the Saudi teachers on the Saudi curriculum do not speak English fluently or at all. The Saudi curriculum courses are taught in Arabic with the exception of the English course, which I taught.”

Mr Cook said that he issued proceedings against the school when he was still employed there, alleging that he was victimised after complaining about the exam cheating.

He also complained that the academy operated a two-tier system that allowed Saudi teachers to work shorter hours and enjoy longer holidays. His statements allege that only Saudi pupils were taken on a trip to the World Cup in Germany last summer and that one English pupil was criticised for supporting the England team during the tournament. In December 2006 Mr Cook was was dismissed by Ahmad al-Dubayan, the academy’s director.

Mr Cook has submitted translations of Arabic teaching material used at the academy, which he said confirmed his belief that the school is “institutionally racist”.

He said in his statement: “The schoolbooks presently in use describe Jews as ‘monkeys’ (or apes) and Christians as ‘pigs’. The textbooks apparently state that the Jews are cursed. Pupils are asked to ‘mention some repugnant characteristics of Jews’.

“The textbooks are produced by the Saudi Government (Ministry of Education). Dr al-Dubayan is a Saudi who was appointed by the Saudi Government. He is the head of the Islamic Cultural Centre (which incorporates the London Central Mosque) . . . I understand that he has diplomatic immunity as a result of his appointment, but I do not believe that the immunity should extend to his role as trustee of the academy.”

An Ofsted report on the academy, published last year, concluded that it was “a satisfactory school” where the quality of teaching was “mostly good”.

(Source: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/education/article1336853.ece)

There is a bit more, but that is the important parts. Click the link if you don't believe me.

This was followed up by Newsnight, Britains premiere current affairs programme, which prides itself in being tough-as-nails with its targets. The Newsnight investigation consisted of two parts, a investigative report into the allegations, giving background to the case, and a atudio interview with the school's director. The interview was chaired by Jeremey Paxman, the toughest of all the tough-as-nails Newsnight team. He was particularly unpleasant towards the director of the school, who tried gamely to answer his questions when he let her. Generally, however, he preferred to cut her off and bully.

Right, so it is cut and dried. The books called Jews pigs and Christians Monkeys, or perhaps the other way around, but this is unacceptable, right?

Not so fast. The newsnight investigative report mentioned some imoportant details, though it signally failed to pursue them. There are also several key weaknesses that make it impossible to make a judgement at this stage.

First, Newsnight mentioned (but did not comment on) the fact that the passage about the Jews being monkey's and the Christians, pigs, were quotations from an ancient Islamic source: Ibn Abbas, one of Mohammed's cousins. This in itself should have been enough to set alarm bells ringing, but the Newsnight journalist, to his shame, did not see fit to comment on this. he also mentioned that the comments were included in a chpater of the book dealing with Islam's relationships with other religions. So, wow. We have a text book doing exactly what it is meant to do - that is, give information, in this case about the history of Islam's relatinoship with other religions.

Various rightwing frothers are - um - frothing about this story, some of them may be exploding as we speak, their blood pressure is so high, but it is a non-event, a nothing, at this stage at least. It is like accusing a history book about World War Two of being anti-Semetic because it quotes from Mein Kamff, to show that Hitler didn't like Jews.

Now, I don't expect the rightwing mob who inhabit discussion forums to care very much, and I amn't to surprised at the Times taking the line it did - it is a Murdoch paper, after all. But I am very disappointed that Newsnight bought into the story so readily. I can only guess that they are worried about being seen as too leftwing and politically correct, and wanted to be able to say "No, we can't be leftie and PC, we were nasty towards that Muslim school, remember?"

What is this place?

I've colonised this bit of cyberspace to flesh out thoughts and rant, generally, about the crapness or glory of things.

It is called lefthandpal because I live in Palmerston North, New Zealand (Palmerston North = palm, geddit) and I'm leftwing in my views. I'll talk about politics, the Environment, local and international issues.

Mostly, there will be a combination of political / social commentary and me posting my thoughts on books or films, becaue these are the things that interest me. I might talk about the environment, because I'm a bit green, or Iraq, because that makes me very angry. Or some random book I found in a second hand book shop and really liked.

Hopey-changey stuff

First of all, people are talking about a 'vote for change' based on the combination of Labour, Greens and New Zealand First. ‘Chan...