A question of identity

To quote the Vorlonwho are you?

It turns out that this is a difficult question to answer, with all attempts feeling unsatisfactory. God side-steps this question with a rather cryptic (on might say Vorlon-like) I am who I am, and nobody since then has made much of a better job of it. When faced with this question over and over again, Delenn finds herself falling back on her relationship with others: “I am the daughter of…”.

Yes, one of my identities is that of a fan of Babylon 5.

I say “one of” because each of us exists at the intersection of many distinct tribal memberships and identities, the combination of which is unique to ourselves and contributes to our individual identity yet, somehow, still fails to completely define it.

I am a Christian. In fact, I am a Roman Catholic Christian. There are some Christians who would take issue with my second statement there, and say that Catholics are not Christians, they will go on to give many reasons why Catholics are different to real Christians and do not deserve to stand under the same umbrella. Conversely, there are Catholics who think that the Reformation was a waste of time and merely served to distract millions of people from the revealed truth that came through Jesus Christ and to reject certain fundamental truths left to us by the man who was also the son of God. That debate will not be resolved in a single thousand-word blog post, and I will leave it to those more qualified than I to do the arguing.

I am a member of the Scout Association. This is the newest of my identities, and I find myself fiercely proud of this membership. For reasons best known to themselves, a group of children and their parents trust me (and the other leaders) to provide a stimulating environment where they can learn new things, do new things and experience a slew of activities that are hard to come by in any other environment. I’d be happier if they paid more attention when I’m trying to teach them how to tie a knot, but that’s kids for you. The Scout Association has been working for over a century to provide youngsters with friendship and adventure in the (well-founded) belief that being a part of a wider movement with a focus on helping others and having as broad an experience of life as possible will produce well-rounded and mature adults and be a force for good in the world. We try to show the Scouts the world from as many perspectives as possible, and to instil respect for all people and for the planet. It’s not perfect, of course, LGBT Scouts can have a wide range of experiences, not all of them good.

I am a member of the World Tang Soo Do Association. They have been teaching me Tang Soo Do for a good number of years, and I am moderately not-bad at it. Their belief is in self-improvement through martial arts training. You don’t have to go out and fight everybody to get better at martial arts: the main focus is on doing better each week. That thing you couldn’t do last week is the thing you look at this week and, through practise over years, you get to the point where you can not only do the thing, but do it well. This approach works for things outside of beating seven shades of shit out of a plastic breaking-board, and the discipline of martial arts training serves well in wider life.

I am an engineer. This is one of my core identities. Since I was seven years old, I have wanted to become an electronic engineer and it was with some trepidation that I started my first job fourteen years later. You see, I had pinned all of my hopes for life on this single career path and my focus throughout my time in full-time education was on obtaining a suitable qualification and entering the electronics profession. Having completed that education, I found myself staring at that first job with considerable trepidation: what if, after fourteen years of slog, it turned out that I didn’t much like electronics after all. I am fortunate indeed that, upon starting work, I discovered that I do enjoy electronics and I am actually quite good at it.

I am an engineer. I know I just said that, but engineer is a personality type as well as being a job title. I think in certain ways, I enjoy certain activities, I value intellectual rigour and clearness of thought. I can be quite arrogant and can be unpleasant to argue with. The sum of these traits means that I am an engineer even when I’m not at work. At church, I am an engineer; at home, I am an engineer; at Scouts and at TSD, I am an engineer. Other words for this identity are geek and nerd. It is an identity I embrace freely, because it provides a shorthand to describe the way I think and the way I relate to the world around me: it also provides access to a community of like-minded individuals with whom I can have stimulating discussions that would leave non-geeks bewildered.

I am a fan of Science Fiction. Most hard-core fans would dismiss me as an amateur. This part of my identity has never been huge or all-consuming. I do not think that Star Trek is all that wonderful and I can take or leave Star Wars. I also do not spend every waking moment devouring the work of Peter F Hamilton or Frank Herbert. I find Philip K Dick to be completely impenetrable. I do, however, appreciate the thinking-outside-the-box approach that makes good SF a great read. A decent SF story is not all about talking computers or epic space battles, it is about people and what happens when you put a bunch of people (people, in this case, doesn’t exclusively mean human beings) in a certain situation, throw in a bit of narrative tension and see what happens. Put a hundred people together in a closed environment on an island and it’s mainstream; do it on a space ship and it’s SF, but the tensions are the same.

I am a man who wears skirts. I see no reason why these hugely comfortable garments should be limited to people who look a particular way, and I have no truck with those who conflate sex with clothing.  Take a peek at the Oscars (or any other glitzy event) and you will note that all of the men look exactly the same, and all of the women are wearing dazzling clothes. (The fact that the men are judged by their abilities and the women are judged by their wardrobes is a discussion for another day). I think that the notion that exciting fabrics and beautiful garments are reserved for women and that a man wearing such an item is compromising his masculinity is completely ridiculous. My favourite skirt is box-pleated blue taffeta and resembles the bottom half of a ballgown. Can’t wear it because I’m a man? Balls to that notion.

I am bisexual. Yes. It exists. It doesn’t mean I can’t make up my mind between Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley: I simply think that you shouldn’t have to. They are both aesthetically appealing and I would not feel my identity had been compromised were I to wake up in bed with either of them. It doesn’t mean that I would particularly want to wake up in bed with both of them, either. In fact, the person I most like waking up next to is my wife and I’m not going to dump her for the next good-looking guy either (even Johnny Depp).

I carry other identities as well. I’m a man, I’m tall, I’m white, I’m British (I’d prefer to be Scottish, but I was born and raised in the Midlands), I’m a father, I’m a husband.

All of these identities put me in relationship with other people yet, alone, I still carry them with me and none of them defines who I am. Some identities must be validated externally by membership of organisations, others can be claimed simply by stating “I am this”. There are people who will take issue with my claim to certain identities and others who seek to impose identities on me from outside. In order to be fully and freely human, however, my identity must be my own, and I must be allowed that identity.

I am a person.

Pope fucks up

It’s a strong headline, but it works on two levels.

During his trip to Poland for World Youth Day 2016, Pope Francis had a meeting with Polish bishops. The transcript of this meeting was released last week. The bishops spoke of various things, but one thing the pontiff highlighted was gender theory. This has been reported in various places, but here are the articles from the Washington Times and the Catholic Herald. He spoke of this last year, too.

I really don’t know what is causing the pope to get quite so exercised about this. The only conclusion I can draw is that he has never spent very much time around transgender people. In my limited experience, most people who oppose the rights of others have many theories about those others, but no experience of actually knowing them.

Let’s hypothesise. Sofia is a transgender woman living in Buenos Aires, attending Mass regularly at the cathedral. She attends social gatherings and speaks to bishop Bergolio on a regular basis. In turn, he learns much about her life, how she knows that she has always been a woman, regardless of what her parents, her brothers, her priests, the media and the whole church have told her her entire life. This is a fundamental truth about her existence. There is nothing in who she is that challenges the notion that men and women are different from each other: she acknowledges that they are different: she simply demands that the world sees her as the woman she knows herself to be. Over the course of several years, Bishop B learns more about her life, and about the huge obstacles that the world has placed in her path, that she has had to fight to overcome. Sometimes, she has the strength to climb over or tunnel through them, sometimes not. Every day is a struggle just to be alive. Sofia’s family threw her out when she was young; she has found it very hard to find and hold down a job. Everywhere she turns, people reject her because her face doesn’t look right, because her voice is too deep, because she is too tall, because she doesn’t fit the mould. Many of her transgender friends have taken their own lives, either because they have been forced to live lives in the wrong gender, or because constant rejection by everyone you love takes its toll over years: they simply could not face another day and took the only road left open to them.

Bishop Bergolio’s heart breaks every day when he thinks of Sofia, of the hardship she faces simply by being who she is. He has known her several years and has really listened to her. He knows how she ticks, and can see the full journey she has travelled: she and her transgender sisters and brothers. He can see how their society, their laws and the church all conspire to rob her of the very essence of her humanity, of her dignity as a child of God. He can see all the forces of the world ranged against her, simply because she chose to stand up and be the person God created her to be. She decided that to live as a man was to die a little more every day. Sure, it made the people around her comfortable, but Jesus never, ever, changed who he was simply to make those around him more comfortable. He delivered his message in clear, often shocking, sometimes scandalous ways wherever he went. She is fully aware of what they did to Jesus because of this: she has weighed everything in the balance and has decided that, if she is to die, it will be at another’s hand, and not her own. She will no longer pretend just to pander to those around her. He sees this in her and he understands her.

When Bishop Bergolio becomes Pope Francis, he brings this friendship with him to Rome. He sees how his church systematically snuffs out the God-given light in so many people’s hearts. He stands before the bishops of Poland and gives the example of his predecessor, Pope St John Paul II, who as a priest in Poland would go on trips with the university students in his care, taking them to the mountains and playing sport. He would listen to them, he was with the young people [from the Catholic Herald article]. He tells the bishops to listen to people, to understand their lives, and to stop forcing identities onto people from the outside and to fight injustice against LGBT* people the world over, because that injustice, so long perpetuated by the church, is driving these little ones to stumble [Matthew 18:6, Mark 9:42, Luke 17:2].

So, my headline for the week? I believe in my heart that the pope has fucked up with his comments about gender theory. I believe that he simply has not taken the time to understand what gender theory actually is before rejecting it as a symptom that we are living in an age of sin against the Creator [Benedict XVI].

I also believe that the pope is fucking up the lives of every transgender person whose lives are affected by Catholic teaching. He should look at the statistics for suicides of transgender people, the number people murdered each year simply for being who God made them to be, the number of teenagers thrown out of their homes by their families for the same reason.

The church doesn’t have to hold onto ancient laws in the face of new evidence. The church has accepted (after a century or two) that the earth is not at the centre of the universe. It does not have to cling to the theory that all humans are born with unambiguous genitalia and that those genitalia clearly and unambiguously reveal fundamental truths about who that person is as a person. The only way to determine someone’s gender is to ask them. People are usually pretty sure of their own gender, at least from the age of 2. Sometimes the answer you get is not what you expect. It may even be “some days I’m a girl, but today, I’m a boy”.

If we are to hold, as Christ taught us, that God loves each person wholly, fully and passionately, we must give each person the right to be a person. And in this, I believe, the pope has fucked up.

Human rights are for far away places

After the second world war, the United Kingdom put together a team of legal experts to draft a document that would, they hoped, put an end to the senseless suffering and slaughter of millions and would prevent a recurrence in the future. The result was the European Convention of Human Rights, the ECHR. It lays out basic human rights granted to everyone living in territories controlled by the signatures of the Convention, and establishes the European Court of Human Rights to oversee the application of the Convention.

It’s pretty good stuff (see here for a summary).

The problem, really, is that the UK wants to withdraw from it.

Yes, you read that right. The country that wrote the rules now want to withdraw from being bound by them.

The motivation for this is different depending on which politician you ask, but it boils down to a combination of the following:

  • Article 5 links security and liberty as a single concept. This is inconvenient for politicians, particularly current Prime Minister, Theresa May, because she wants to delete large quantities of liberty in the name of “security”.
  • Article 8 gives us the right to a private life. Again, inconvenient to Mrs May, because she wants to spy on all of our internet traffic, both Web and E-Mail. Article 8 will stick right in her throat.
  • Article 2 gives us the right to life. This includes the state taking steps to avoid unnecessary deaths.

The first two of these relate to the Investigatory Powers bill currently limping through Parliament, which I have covered elsewhere.

The third is more relevant, and links to the UK’s obligations both under the ECHR but also under the UN rules because it relates to the Conservative government’s drive for austerity.

The theory given is that the UK economy is heading towards bankruptcy: we have been borrowing money year-on-year for a long time, and our national debt is growing. At some point, we’ll be borrowing money to pay interest on borrowed money and the whole thing is going to vanish down the plughole. In order to fix this, the government, under the sensitive direction of former chancellor George Osborne, has been slashing public spending on unnecessary things like public health, education, legal aid, libraries, housing and welfare. But we’re all in it together, he said. That must be why he cut corporation tax and inheritance tax, because those taxes tend only to affect those with large amounts of wealth.

The UN disagrees that the UK has done its best to keep things equitable, however. In a damning report published on 14th July, it repeatedly urges the government to amend laws and policies that are actively causing hardship to those least able to look after themselves.

This has, of course, not been widely reported across the kingdom. We’ve had our head buried in the shitstorm surrounding the vote to leave the EU, but this report does exist, and it does highlight the fact that our government doesn’t give flying coitus about its poorer citizens and wants, in fact, to further erode their footing. I suppose if poor people all starve to death, they cease to be a problem for government, but that model has, historically, proven to be unreliable. Poor people have a nasty habit of clinging on. And, truly, if all the poor people went away, who would do the washing, cooking and moat-cleaning for the rich?

Ooh, it makes me mad.

Who needs privacy anyway?

We have a new prime minister. The Right Honourable Theresa May MP took on the UK’s top job last week. Oh dear. It could have been worse, of course, her only serious challenger was Andrea Leadsom, a person who is on record as saying that marriage should only be for straight Christian couples. Delightful.

Leadsom dropped out, leaving May as the only contender, so the Conservative party didn’t bother to hold an election, and we now have our third unelected PM in my lifetime. Now, I don’t have a particular problem with this: we have a parliamentary system, not a presidential one, and the PM is the leader of the party that can “command the confidence of the House”. Theresa May is the legitimate PM and that is how the system works. The thing I do have a problem with, however, is policy.

In recent years, as Home Secretary, May has been pushing for mass surveillance of the entire internet-using population of the country. She has been guiding the Investigatory Powers bill through parliament which, amongst other things, imposes a duty on all internet service providers to log (using deep packet inspection) every single HTTP request (website visit) and the SMTP headers (every e-mail you send or receive) of every single user and retain the data for 12 months. Just in case.

Now, why does she want the UK to pursue surveillance powers only used by North Korea, China and Iran? Well, it seems that she doesn’t much like encryption. Modern cryptography is pretty good and it means that UK citizens can communicate with each other without the intelligence services being able to tap the line. She neglects to mention many problems with this, of course. Having the data is not the same as being able to find the data. The challenge faced by the security agencies is a considerable one. Going from not much data to having all the data turns it from trying to get hold of the relevant data to trying to find a needle in an entire nation of haystacks. Except that these haystacks are made of needles.

When the Paris attacks were analysed post-fact, it turned out that the people who arranged the atrocity weren’t actually using encryption at all, and that the security services probably had all the data they needed: they just didn’t know it until after the fact. Giving them terabytes of irrelevant data for every day of the previous year isn’t really going to help.

Then there is the problem of information security. The only way to properly secure a computer is to disconnect it from everything, encase it concrete and bury it in a very very deep hole. Then back-fill with more concrete. This has obvious disadvantages, of course. If the ISPs spy database is to be made available to police services, it is going to have to be accessible. This data is going to be the target of the large body of computer crackers who seem to relish the challenge of grabbing hold of data that others want to keep safe. At some point, at least one ISP’s database is going to be leaked. I wonder which ISP the PM uses at home. I’d put money on that ISP being the first to go.

But it’s OK. I have nothing to hide.

After all these years, it looks like time to turn on TLS on my mailserver. Sorry, Mrs May. Years of effort thwarted by a two-minute change of configuration. Now, if only there was a way to do that for outgoing web requests. Or a cheap and easy project that made the whole thing trivial.

Pointless and counterproductive laws anyone? It’s what we do best. Welcome to the United Kingdom.

Christianity, in a nutcase^H^H^H^Hshell

Douglas Adams pulled out a fundamental truth about Christianity right at the beginning of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change…”

Ah, but it’s more complicated than that, I frequently hear people argue. Usually the people who keep a hammer and some nails about their person, (it pays to be prepared, after all).

Case in point: I recently commented on a Facebook posting about a fundamentalist “Christian” woman who was whingeing about those nasty gay people getting married and how, as a Christian, she felt obliged to condemn, loudly and publicly, people who fall in love in a manner she disapproves of. I’ve lost the FB thread now (in the seconds-long news cycle that is modern social media), but the gist of it was that I said that I get annoyed by people claiming the name “Christian” using it as fuel for hatred of others. As is pretty much standard, someone replied quoting Leviticus 18:22. As is also standard, I replied alluding to Leviticus 19:19, and also Leviticus 11:12 for good measure (tl;dr: polyester-cotton is an abomination unto God, as is prawn cocktail). I was feeling restrained, so I didn’t push forward into more uncomfortable territory with Deuteronomy 22:2829 (tl;dr: if a man rapes a virgin and they are discovered, they must marry, with no hope of divorce).

Christianity gets its name from Jesus Christ, who commanded his followers to emulate him, and to disregard Jewish practice that oppresses people. His teaching on the Sabbath was shocking to those who heard him. Jewish tradition, compliant with the written word of God, was that you should do no work on the Sabbath day (in modern terms, the Sabbath runs from sunset each Friday to sunset on Saturday). This included helping people who need helping, or rescuing your animals. Practice at the time, it seems, had got a bit rigid. Jesus argued that the Sabbath was created by God so that his people could get a bit of relaxation time in. He points out that it is not particularly relaxing to ignore the needs of others, or to watch your livestock die before your eyes when you could quite easily lend a helping hand.

The point to which I am sidling is that Christianity should model itself on the life and practice of Christ. Christians should not get too obsessed with picking out single verses from the Old Testament law and clinging on to them. Particularly verses that contradict utterly the way Christ modelled his life in God. (I am often called a “Cafeteria Catholic” because I pick and choose my practice as one picks and chooses choice morsels in a café. This accusation ignores the fact that all Christians pick and choose: I just admit that I do.)

When faced with some obnoxious ancient command from the Old Testament, my first port of call is always the life of Christ (I am a Christian, after all). The way Jesus treated those different from himself is telling.

  • When asked “whom can I exclude from my love”, Jesus turns it around and says that you are defined by those whom you include (Luke 10:25-37)
  • A non-believer asks Jesus for help and he helps, asking nothing in return, not even that said non-believer converts, nor even takes home a pamphlet explaining why the only way to salvation is through him. No, he holds up the non-believer’s faith as an example to all. (Luke 7:1-10)
  • When a righteous man invites him to dinner and the local woman-of-disrepute barges in and makes a spectacle of Jesus, Jesus points out the shortcomings of the righteous man and sends the woman on her way with his blessing (Luke 7:36-50)
  • He invites himself to dinner at the house of one regarded as a huge public sinner (Zacchaeus had enriched himself by being a corrupt tax collector). He does not condemn Zacchaeus’ life, nor does he highlight his sin. Jesus simply goes to dinner with him. Tellingly, Jesus loves the man and allows that love to do its own work in his life. The conversion of Zacchaeus comes from within Zacchaeus in response to Jesus’ acceptance of him (Luke 19:1-10)
  • He reserves his harshest words for those who turn others away from God (Matthew 18:6)

So very often, I observe people who call themselves Christians clinging on to that verse of Leviticus I began with, yet utterly disregarding the actions of Christ. When a man falls in love with a man and they devote their lives to each other in a love that lasts longer than many heterosexual marriages, and someone outside that relationship strolls along and condemns it because of Leviticus, that person is not imitating Christ and, in my book, cannot legitimately claim Christianity.

When someone stands in a pulpit and declares that those youngsters in the congregation who feel same-sex attraction are sinful (or objectively disordered), they drive those young people away from God.

When people demand that others change themselves before encountering Jesus, or demand that they change themselves in a particular way having encountered Jesus, they are simply disregarding Jesus’ example.

Jesus told us to love one another as he loved us. He told us that the defining characteristic of his followers would be love.

And that is why we nailed him to a tree.

This surreal fortnight in politics

The thing that makes me most upset about the events of the last two weeks is that none of this needed to have happened.

Here’s a quick summary.  It begins long ago, of course, but in a galaxy much closer to home.

In the 1980’s, Margaret Thatcher presided over a huge industrial decline in the North of England, in Wales and, basically, everywhere that isn’t London. The miners’ strike was the most visible manifestation of this, but the industrial backbone of the UK was broken in many places by the time the Tories, finally, got kicked out in 1997.

Fast forward a few years and we have a posh bloke, educated at Eton and Oxford (where he was a member of the infamous Bullingdon Club) facing a general election. He’s already been Prime Minister for five years and now he would like another five. The only thing in his way is the former city banker and all-round xenophobe, Nigel Farage, who has been stirring up racial hatred around the country and inciting people in the aforementioned post-industrial wastelands to blame “immigrants” and “the EU” for their plight. Farage has no real chance of making significant electoral gains this time around, but he looks a lot like he’s going to take a big bite out of the Prime Minister’s vote. A bite that is going to cost him enough seats that he’ll lost the top job.

Here’s a brilliant idea: let’s promise to hold a referendum to ask the people of the UK (and Gibraltar, it turns out), if they want to remain a member of the EU, or if we would rather go the way of the UK Independence Party (Farage’s UKIP) and leave the EU. It was all far-off in the future and very abstract, and all the opinion polls predicted a hung parliament anyway. In short, PM David Cameron never expected that this would be a promise he’d have to keep. He fully expected to be in coalition, or some form of minority government, which would give him just enough wiggle-room to announce that he was unable to keep that promise.

In a shock to everyone (especially Paddy Ashdown’s hat), the Conservatives came out of that election with a (wafer-thin) parliamentary majority. It was here that Cameron’s plan began to unravel, and it was here that a courageous and decent man would have stepped up and taken responsibility for making such a rash promise.

David Cameron is not a courageous and decent man.

He went on a tour of the EU, cosying up to all of the other leaders in the Union, and begging them for crumbs to take back to the UK in the hope that he could pat them together and say “look, this is cake: vote for cake.” He announced a date for the referendum: 23rd June 2016. A date that will live on in infamy.

The battle lines drawn, the campaigning begun, and descended almost immediately into a cesspool of lies, misdirection and xenophobia. Enter Boris Johnson, another bloke from Eton, Oxford and the Bullingdon Club who, incidentally, thought that the EU is a pretty good thing, to lead the campaign for the UK to leave. Yes, that’s right. A guy who thought that the UK should remain in the EU decided to lead the campaign to leave the EU.

This was never about the EU.

Within the Conservative party, it was a bun-fight between two rich old-Etonians. Cameron had the top job; Johnson wanted more power than he had enjoyed as Mayor of London. Let’s have a big jolly on the telly and get all the poor people to line up in the rain to cast their ballots and we can get back to business as usual, thank you, only you give me a good job in the government. For his part, Cameron thought this would be a jolly jape too, and seemed to concede that he’d have to put up with Boris.

Neither of them, it seemed, were prepared for a third party to take their little game and use it for his own advantage. Nigel Farage, frustrated at getting 12% of the votes in the general election yet only scoring 0.15% of the seats in the Commons, came storming in with a campaign consisting mostly of blaming Brussels for everything and pointing the finger at “migrants” for the economic problems of that post-industrial wasteland. Neither the EU nor migrants were responsible for the mess, of course, that was all about UK government policy over forty years, but they made a photogenic scapegoat.

It truly didn’t matter that the people on that poster weren’t from the EU, and it also didn’t matter that the UK has obligations, under international law, to accept refugees (who just happen to be fleeing a brutal and deadly grinding civil war).

This was not about the EU.

It was about Cameron’s spinelessness and a big game between him and Boris Johnson that was being exploited by Nigel Farage (and newspaper giant Rupert Murdoch, but that’s another story) for political gain.

Anyway, neither side covered themselves in glory, and lies and fearmongering characterised both sides of the debate. Actually, there was no debate. There was a lot of shouting and a lot of restatement of lies, but no actual debate.

Then came 23rd June. And 24th June.

And the horror that Cameron and Johnson’s little tiff, their little game to sort out whose dick was more manly, their viewing the British population as nothing more than pawns for their amusement, had produced the result that neither could accept.

The UK voted to leave.

So, on the Friday morning, Cameron told us he was quitting as PM. In the fortnight since, thousands of people who voted leave have announced that they never actually wanted to leave they just wanted to give the “establishment” a bloody nose; every promise made by the Leave campaign has been exposed as a lie; a Tory leadership fight has erupted; Michael Gove (Johnson’s right-hand man) knifed him in the back; Johnson announced that he would not, after all, be running for the PM’s job; Nicola Sturgeon has announced that Scotland will be remaining in the EU, even if that means that Scotland leaves the UK; Michael Gove has all-but vanished from the running for that same job and Nigel Farage has also resigned as leader of UKIP.

In summary, David Cameron was scared of Nigel Farage, so he made a promise that he never thought he’d have to keep, in order to cling on to political power. His old mate, Boris Johnson, thought it would be a jolly jape to jump into the party and wave his dick around and see if he could have some fun, and maybe pick up a couple of free drinks. Nigel Farage saw an opportunity to pop in his crowbar and gain maximum leverage. Michael Gove slipped in behind Boris Johnson in the hope that he’d sail back into a powerful position (he did such a fine job in the Department for Education, you see) in his wake. And it all went horribly wrong.

To summarise the summary, a spineless Prime Minister created a clusterfuck, and now every single one of the people involved this disaster has decided to walk away and leave the sorry mess for someone, anyone, else to fix. Because they never wanted what they asked for and are too gutless to face the music.

Politics, anyone?

Politics just got serious

We’re having a referendum this week. One friend of mine described it thus:

Never in the whole history of people choosing cake or death, have so many people voted for death.

Now, there are many intelligent people on the Leave side who maintain the delusion that the UK will be able to maintain preferential access to the European Single Market without retaining free movement for EU citizens, but I remain unconvinced.

The entire campaign has been based around FUD and xenophobia. The main rallying points of the leave campaign have been immigration and how much money we send “to Brussels”.  The Leave battle bus has “£350 million a week” scrawled down the side. This is, simply put, a lie. Personally, I think whoever authorised and endorsed this figure should stand trial for electoral fraud, but that’s just my opinion. Boris Johnson, the most prominent leave guy, has even acknowledged that the figure is a lie, but he doesn’t care. It gets conversations started that seem, inevitably, to come back to how many different things that fictional money could be spent on if we left. Add up these figures and you come to at least a billion pounds a week. There’s something not quite right there.

The other point is immigration. In spite of the fact that EU migration results in a net profit for the exchequer, we are invited to hate all of those people with brown skin and/or funny accents. Because they are simultaneously stealing our jobs and scrounging off our benefits system. Never mind the fact that the NHS employs a bajillion immigrants because Tory cuts have meant that there simply are not enough home-grown doctors, nurses or other essential skilled staff.

Most disgusting of all, perhaps, is Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP (whose wife is German), who stood proudly in front of a large poster depicting a long line of refugees waiting to cross the border between Croatia and Slovenia. A poster that was only distinguishable from a Nazi propaganda picture by the fact that Farage’s poster is in colour. Nicely done. Of course, UKIP decided to try to shut down argument by invoking Godwin’s Law. Personally, I think that we can put Godwin aside given the specific nature of the picture and what UKIP is trying to do, but that is, obviously, just my opinion.

With tension between the Remain side and the Leave side rising – intelligent debate disappeared some months ago – it was inevitable, I suppose, that someone would do something really stupid before long. And so it came to Thursday of last week. Yorkshire MP, Jo Cox, was just leaving a library where she’d been meeting with her constituents when Thomas Mair (allegedly) shouted “Britain First” before shooting and stabbing her. She died fairly promptly thereafter. He gave his name, in court, as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” Of course, all the people who have been stirring up xenophobic hatred are quite convinced that this act is nothing to do with them. There is nothing more likely to calm tensions than people and newspapers howling about how awful foreigners are and how they are taking away opportunity from “hard working” British (actually, usually English) people.

By all accounts, Jo Cox was an excellent MP who worked passionately for the underdog. She had a particular interest in the plight of refugees, and was outspoken about our duty of compassion to our fellow humans. She lost her life, apparently, because she thought that we are all people, and that those of us with resources to spare have a duty to care for those in greatest need.

Her murder underlines the toxic mood that has overtaken the UK recently. A mood that was loud and clear in the last general election campaign (where UKIP got nearly four million votes) and was, arguably, the reason David Cameron promised this godforsaken referendum. That mood has only been stoked by the referendum campaign, and risks getting the UK a reputation for arrogant xenophobic hatred. Admittedly, that attitude did make us the richest nation on the planet back in the days of Empire. We probably thought we were over it in 1948 when we drafted the European Convention on Human Rights. We probably thought we had grown up. We had begun to consider ourselves better than that, that Britishness implied openness, decency, diversity and compassion.

It seems I may have been mistaken.

For the love of God, can we please stop killing each other?

So, it happened again. The 133rd mass shooting on US soil this year, is the deadliest in US history. One person decided that he had had it with all those disgusting gay people holding hands and kissing each other and making each other happy and that the logical solution was to kill as many of them as possible. Where better to do it than at a place where they gather in large numbers to hold hands and kiss each other and, you know, have fun like humans do when they are hanging out together.

President Obama, only a fortnight ago, spoke to a gun shop owner and said that he could put known terror suspects on a no-fly list, but he did not have the power to stop that same person from buying as many guns and bullets as he could fit into his car. The last time there was a major mass-shooting, the president expressed his utter exasperation with the situation. Too many times, he’s had to address the nation because someone has decided to take an automatic weapon and unload it into people who were simply going about their lawful business.

Donald Trump, of course, has decided that an incident perpetrated by a US citizen born in New York, on US soil, is a good reason to close the borders to Muslims. Because locking yourself in a room with a killer is a truly sensible way to protect yourself from a killer. He’s also called on Obama to step down and for Clinton to drop out of the presidential race. Because they didn’t use the phrase “radical Islam” to describe the killer or his killing. Classy.

The arguments against mass gun-ownership by US citizens are getting very very old, and it may well be that argument is not going to convince US gun owners that they should stop owning and using weapons of mass-acceleration. When the UK suffered a mass-shooting, the government proposed a blanket ban on all handguns. The UK’s gun lobby complained loudly, but handguns were banned anyway. That’s not going to happen in the US, possibly because of the psychological make-up of the people concerned. Let us assume, for now, that thousands more people will be shot and killed by US citizens in the US by legally-procured weapons and that US law will not change.

As the gun lobby says, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. Of course, what they neglect to append is “with guns”. By that argument, you could say “guns don’t kill people, bullets kill people”, and further, “guns don’t kill people, blood-loss and soft tissue trauma kill people”, or “if people weren’t so squishy, guns wouldn’t pose a threat. It’s the people’s fault.”

But I digress.

Even a limitless supply of firearms and ammunition wouldn’t be all that dangerous in the absence of someone willing to point those firearms at squishy people and pull the trigger. Over and over again. And here is where we can take a look at what is more dangerous than all the guns in America: blame.

World War I began when someone shot someone and lit the powder-keg that was Europe at the time. A blamed B, who blamed C, who blamed A and B, who blamed D, and so on, and it all went south from there. World War II began when some guy blamed the Jews (and the gays and the gypsies). Which begat the Cold War, when the Soviets blamed the West and the West blamed the Soviets. In Russia, Putin is blaming the gays again and, of course, the West, and is marching into Georgia and Ukraine. Closer to home, the Leave campaign is blaming immigrants for most of our problems and, in turn, blaming the EU for the immigrant “problem”. The former Education Secretary blamed the teachers; the current Health Secretary is blaming the doctors; the Home Secretary is blaming encryption; Trump is blaming Muslims, Mexicans, women, Obama and political correctness; North Carolina is blaming transgender people and so on and so on.

When someone wants us to act against our own best interest, a simple and effective technique is to find someone else to blame for a problem that can be “solved” by excluding them. They then build up a case based on fear, uncertainty and doubt and let tribalism do the rest. Truly, it is the side that is trying to get people to do things to improve their situation that has the hardest time doing it. Mostly, I think, because the improvement campaign relies on information and hope and humanity seems predisposed to cling to the status quo and to fear: fear of change and fear of the other.

The world would be much happier place if we stopped for a moment and saw everyone else as people. But that would require us to open our minds to those who are different from us. And that is scary.

Women? Surely it’s time they shut up about equality.

Feminism, eh? Who needs it? We live in an equal society now, don’t we (at least in the “West”)?

Today’s essay begins at Facebook, with some text in an image.

Feminism didn't teach me to hate men, but it did teach me to stop prioritising them over women and it turns out a lot of men think that's the same thing as hatred

Feminism: it’s the same as hating men, right?

It sums up rather well the entire debate about feminism and why we seem to feel the need to have a debate at all. The best definitions I have seen of what feminism actually is is that it is a movement dedicated to the equality of people regardless of gender. This article describes the spread and evolution of a particular image online, an image that perfectly captures so much about equality that it deserves the fame it has acquired. It contrasts the concepts of “equality” and “equity”. Giving each of three children a box to stand on so they can watch the sports game is equal treatment, for sure, but it is not particularly equitable, as one of the children is tall enough to see the game unaided and another still cannot see, even when standing on one box. The obvious solution is to take the box from the tallest child and give it to the smallest. Equitable treatment: giving each the help they need so they all get equal access to the prize.

And so it is with feminism. Even in today’s modern “Western” societies, women are at a significant disadvantage compared to their counterparts who are perceived to be men. The simplest solution would be to give everyone a box to stand on, thus raising everyone up. Seems fair, certainly seems equal. As we can see, however, raising everybody up by the same amount does nothing to combat the inequality that existed beforehand. To raise everybody up to the same level, however, does two things: it does not treat everyone equally and the people who previously had the advantage now have competition for that which previously they simply took as their birthright.

But men and women aren’t treated any differently these days! Except they are. Time magazine looks at the experiences of trans* people who have crossed the hall. They have experienced life on both sides and can describe, first hand, the differences between the two. It is entirely real to suggest that men are treated better than women are in many places, in many ways.

To attempt to bring some equity into the arena risks a very strong backlash. This woman’s experience in South Africa shines a light onto various sides of the problem. Women are expected, even now, to be silent about unfair treatment (Not All Men syndrome). At the bus stop, a young woman was being verbally harassed by a couple of men. The woman writing the article snapped and decided to intervene. The rage she expressed was not entirely caused by the two men: it had built up slowly over years. Their bad behaviour had simply caused her to open the floodgate that had been keeping back a constantly-growing reservoir of grievance. Did those guys deserve the full flood of her rage? Actually, I’d say yes. Their behaviour was despicable, and they seemed to have no concept that it was wrong to attack someone in that manner. The bigger questions, really, are why did they find nothing wrong with their behaviour and what do we do about it?

A sixteen-year-old girl was raped by 30 people in Rio. Thirty people. And not one of them thought it was time to stop. Not one of them decided that it was the wrong thing to do. She was clearly begging for it. They could tell that from the way she was unconscious. Unconscious people are all gagging for sex. It’s obvious. If they didn’t want sex, they’d have remained conscious.

Let’s make this really clear: unconscious people don’t want tea. They certainly don’t want 30 different people pouring tea into them whilst they are unconscious.

Both of those stories are from far away places, though. That kind of violence towards women, that kind of silencing of women’s voices doesn’t happen in the civilised West, though. Not now. Not in 2016. We’re all modern now and we have grown up. Except we haven’t. This judge decided that he was quite sick of a lawyer representing her client whilst being a woman that he clapped her in irons. And, that’s how it is done. An example I am sure many white men are keen to emulate.

Feminism. It’s about equity. And it’s about men accepting that they are not God’s gift to the world. They are simply half of God’s gift to the world.

We are all people.

Where are the disciples?

For a very long time, I have felt a disconnect between the church I see when I go to Mass and the church I see in the news.

At Mass, you see normal people with normal lives coming together in a shared act of worship. What we do for worship may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and there are Christians who would swear blind that we are worshipping statues and rending a human corpse with out teeth. Mass might be a bit more interesting if we did, but that’s not normally what we get up to on a Saturday evening. That said, what we do do on a Saturday evening is gather as a community and turn our eyes towards God for a moment.

Well, that’s the theory, anyway. I read a book last week that suggests that 95% of Catholics are at the “infant” level of faith and drift in and drift out without ever actually engaging with the thing that is going on there. I’ve got some ideas on that front, and only time will tell if they are going to work.

But, back to the point, we gather for worship  and, afterwards, a decent number stay to drink tea, eat biscuits and talk to each other. In other circles, that would be called fellowship (some even turn it into a verb). To me, that is where church happens, when people come and relate to each other.

I guess that is where the church you see in the news falls down. It doesn’t relate to anybody. As an example, take a look at the diocese’s newspaper for this month. If you can’t be bothered to download the pdf, this sums it up in a single image: just imagine a newspaper with a photograph, smack in the middle of the front page, of a bunch of grown men dressed as Santa’s little helpers. It must have been a cold afternoon in Norwich that day with the guys all dressed in matching fur-trimmed, bright magenta shrugs. Very fetching. Now, I am certain that this particular ceremony marks an important moment in the life of the cathedral (the guys in pink get to advise the pope’s advisor when it comes to choosing a new bishop), but I am struggling to see how this actually affects anybody’s relationship with anybody. To me, at least, when I see that picture, all I can see is yet another example of how very disconnected the institutional Catholic church is from… well, reality.

When Jesus walked the earth, he went around doing good for people and teaching people to be good to each other. He constantly criticised the priestly class of the time (the Pharisees) for their ostentatious garments and their tendency to draw  attention to themselves and their own devoutness whilst judging others for being “sinners”, less devout than them, and apt to get their hands dirty with actual hard work from time to time. It is worth noting that Jesus never sought official recognition from the religious authorities of the time and was never particularly specific about what is the best form of worship. In addition, when he encountered people, he met them where they were and never demanded anything of them before coming to them. His method was to meet them, love them, and let that love do the work within them.

Jesus ate with tax collectors (hated then as now: not only did they work for the Romans, but they were frequently corrupt as well, and took more than was due in order to line their own pockets), prostitutes and sinners. He went out of Jewish areas and met with gentiles. He even had such a profound conversation with a Samaritan woman that she converted her whole town to be followers of his (the Jews hated the Samaritans and vice versa, and we’re still having the debate about women in the church even now).

The institutional church waves its big stick about, and it usually waves it in order to hurt someone. This theologian is suppressed, that movement is declared to be in error, that entire group of people is deemed intrinsically disordered. And, of late, there are Catholic priests and bishops joining in with the haters on the great American bathroom debate. It’s funny that the church is utterly silent on the issue in the UK where it is illegal to prevent a transgender person from entering the public toilet of their choice.

Enter the New Ways Ministry, a group within the church dedicated to making the lives of LGBT people a little more bearable. Jesus came to gather everyone into God’s love. At no point in his entire recorded ministry did he say “love the sinner, hate the sin” and at no point did he tell anyone who had been pushed to the margins of society that there was no place for them in God’s kingdom. In fact, he said exactly the opposite: that those deemed most acceptable in society would get the lowest places at the banquet in his father’s kingdom. He said that to be great in the kingdom of Heaven, a person must make themselves the servant of all, the lowest of the low.

Needless to say, New Ways Ministry is not popular amongst the movers and shakers in the church but, when I compare them to the guys in their little matching pink capes, I know which of the groups I would rather associate with, and I am fairly sure which group Jesus would hang out with.