All The More Reason

August 31, 2006, 12:54 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

The other day I had the chance to have a conversation in a bar with a pregnant woman as wide as tall at closing time. How shall ye name the child? An interesting conversation, to be sure, but one that never happened when I was younger. But then again, no-smoking bars in my neck of the woods were still oxymorons. However, since then no-smoking legislation has been applied with enough zeal to rule out smoking in virtually all public spaces including bars.

Of course, there’s one kind of bar that allows you to smoke without concern: the after-hours bar. This is the kind of bar that exists in a basement and can only be entered by furious knocking and the hope that those inside feel kind enough to let you in. The kind of bar whose liquour licence consists of a brave heart, a fat wallet and the perhaps-purchased indifference of the police. I can personally attest that the feeling one has entering a bar of this sort right after nursing a pint in an all too shiny legal bar is one of sheer exhilaration.

And I find that a little sad. Smoking, at least in Canada, has now been pushed to the absolute corners of public society: doorways, private residences and illegal bars. I can’t help but wonder what aspects of public discourse are pushed to those corners as well. For myself, after the initial thrill the other evening of having seen grime and filth back in its rightful environnement, I wondered if it really wants to share its new home with curtained off areas for smack users and a bathroom stall filled with teams of men stuffing their noses full of snow.

Jonathan Smith

(As an addendum, it’s interesting to note that some university campuses are trying to make their lawns all no-smoking on, I presume, the grounds that it’s private property and thus they have the right to enforce that kind of compliance. At some point surely this private/public property distinction should be exploited by bar owners.)


Hats Off!
August 25, 2006, 7:59 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Mustafa Kemal ‘Ataturk’ was the founding father of modern Turkey. After the break up of the Ottoman Empire, he refashioned the country in an orgy of ‘Modernization’ (and for ‘Modernization’, read ‘secularization’). Islamic posts and religious schools were abolished; representative, if imperfect, democratic institutions were created; a new legal code imitated from a Western model was substituted for the Holy Law, the domestic production of alcohol was encouraged (the fact that Ataturk was a lifelong drunk may, or may not, have something to do with this)

One particular preoccupation of Ataturk was the way in which the new Turkish citizenry attired itself. The veil was officially discouraged:

“In some places I have seen women who put a piece of cloth or a towel or something like it over their heads to hide their faces, and who turn their backs or huddle themselves to the ground when a man passes by. What is the meaning and sense of this behaviour? Gentlemen, can the mothers and daughters of a civilized nation adopt this strange manner, this barbarous posture? It is a spectacle that makes the nation an object of ridicule. It must be remedied at once.”

Hats particularly occupied Ataturk.

“Gentlemen, the Turkish people, who founded the Turkish Republic, are civilized; they are civilized in history and reality…A civilized, international dress is worthy and appropriate for our nation, and we will wear it. Boots or shoes on our feet, trousers on our legs, shirt and tie, jacket and waistcoat- and of course, to complete these, a cover with a brim on our heads. I want to make this clear. The head covering is called ‘hat’ ‘

Accordingly, the traditional ‘fez’ was banned as a feudalist relic.

In his book, The Closed Circle, David Pryce-Jones recounts the tale of what, donning the presumably uncivilized Holemesian deerstalker, we may take to be a rather salutary moment in the young Ataturk’s life:

‘On his first visit to Western Europe, to observe the French army on its annual maneuvers, he had bought in Salonika what he took to be Western clothes and a soft hat. Meeting him at the station in Paris, the military attache had laughed at the sight. “The suit was dark green and the hat a jaunty Tyrolean air to it.” Paris-styled clothes then had to be procured.’

Apocryphal or not, there is something quite delicious in the idea that a prospective Member State of the European Union was forged by man with a point to prove about his dress-sense.

Michael P

Qualities of Life
August 24, 2006, 8:51 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

George Bush used the first veto of his presidency to strike down a bill that would have expanded federal government funding for stem-cell research.

Stem cell research involves, in the words of the president, ‘the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others’ and therefore ‘crosses a real moral boundary that our society needs to respect’ (as an aside, doesn’t the death penalty take human life for the ‘benefit’ of those who would be murdered in a society that did not contain such ‘deterrents’?)

Whether a cluster of a few embryonic cells can really constitute ‘human life’ is a question worth serious consideration. However, if the sanctity of life is a guiding principle of the Bush administration, then what are we to make of today’s news?

‘Scientists have found a way to make human embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos, a breakthrough that could overcome intense ethical objections to the research.’

Good news it seems. The embryo cells can be developed to full term after the good scientific work has been done. Except…

“…the research has raised concerns among scientists and lobby groups. Josephine Quintavalle, of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said: “We still don’t know the dangers of taking a biopsy from an early stage embryo, whether it has any effect on the baby’s future development. On paper it looks like an ethical solution, but that requires the biopsy to be completely harmless.”

The ‘ethical’ solution could therefore entail the deliberate creation of seriously disabled human beings in order to satisfy the dogma of those who believe that a cluster of 100-150 cells constitutes ‘innocent human life’. Moral boundaries are very poorly mapped nowadays.

Michael P

Denis Bauchard
August 23, 2006, 10:31 pm
Filed under: Iraq

There’s an interesting interview with Denis Bauchard in LeMonde. One question in particular caught my eye:

“Peut-on envisager une alliance russo-iranienne dans le conflit au Proche-Orient ?”

I certainly hope not. I do wonder why more isn’t generally discussed about Russia and the Middle East.

Jonathan Smith

On Gratitude
August 23, 2006, 12:59 am
Filed under: On...

Professor Ronald Aronson, in a piece linked to by, writes about the need for gratitude in a godless world. He begins thus:

“Living without God today means facing life and death as no generation before us has done. It entails giving meaning to our lives not only in the absence of a supreme being, but now without the forces and trends that gave hope to the past several generations of secularists. We who live after progress, after Marxism, and after the Holocaust have stopped believing that the world is being transformed by reason and democracy. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the modern faith that human life is heading in a positive direction has been undone, giving way to the earlier religious faith it replaced, or to no faith at all. Alone as never before, in a universe scientifically better understood than ever, we find little in its almost-infinite vastness to guide us towards what our lives mean and how we should live them.”

I’m not sure about you, but my eye stops right about somewhere between “stopped believing” and “reason and democracy”.

The rest of the piece deals with the need for a new kind of gratitude to solve the existential dilemma that one faces in a post-modern world. This gratitude, that can no longer blindly be thrown to someone above, must be turned back towards ourselves, and to the long history of our existence. He claims that Gratitude is “virtually absent from our secular culture” but I wouldn’t even know how to test that hypothesis. What about the fact that articles and papers in journals and books are meticulously referenced? Is that not a kind of gratitude within the secular world? As far as personal contact, the closest thing that comes to mind is whether or not I would be willing to bet that I could distinguish someone of faith from someone without based on their daily gratitude. Well, if outward proclamations are an indicator, then a practising Muslim might be fairly easy to spot. But I would have to argue that based on a conversation or an interaction with someone, I have never remarked this as being an indicator. On the other hand, earnest Christians are keen to turn the conversation to God in general, and invariably a shout out of respect is given soon after.

But it is the conclusion of Aronson’s paper that concerns me the most:

“One’s map of dependence stretches in every possible direction and across every possible plane, but it is always real and it is always concrete. And it sketches the paths for one’s gratitude. It tells, after all, the story of our connections with the world and the universe, and it gives us a core of obligations and a core of meaning. To give thanks is to honour this.”

Well, we could push this a little further, couldn’t we, and ask to whom we seek out our vengeance? For at one time the devil was to blame for the misgivings in nature. But if he be gone, then truly only somewhere in the inter-connectedness should lie our foe. And of course, to push this even further, perhaps only the son or grandsons of this foe remains. Should we not seek our vengeance out on them? I really wonder what Professor Aronson would say to this. I do wish he had spent a little time considering the corollary to his argument, and a little less time writing sweeping assertions about “We who live after progress…”

So maybe instead of dunking our minds completely in the trough of empathetic gruel we could save a smidgen for old dear reason after all.

Jonathan Smith

Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? Yes.
August 20, 2006, 8:23 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

The recent public defenestration of George O’Dowd was instructive, not only because it demonstrated the folly of a middle aged, overweight man sporting a spider tattoo on his head, but because it also, rather unexpectedly, sparked a minor debate as to the proper role of punishment in the administration of justice.

Mr O’Dowd’s curious and, as yet, unexplained waste of NYPD police time earned him a date with a New York trash trolley as part of a ‘community service’ sentence. The idea that a criminal who ‘punishes’ the community through his selfish or thoughtless behaviour should compensate that community in kind is entirely consistent with the contractual nature of our social architecture. O’Dowd argued at the sentencing stage that his labour could be used for a more profitable purpose: a free concert; a charitable concert; a free DJ set (for charity)- the alternatives struck something of a one note symphony: can I do something that I enjoy, which will arguably provide greater utility for the community I wish to repay than a few mornings’ street-sweeping?

The uneasiness expressed at O’Dowd’s attempt to upgrade himself to a ‘better class’ of punishment was widespread. But why the unease? Surely this offer was entirely consistent with the notion of ‘putting something back’? In this, as in many other respects, the law is institutionally ddisingenuous. Punishments of this kind are not, as the label would have us believe, ‘community’ based. They are focused squarely on the individual.

They are also the norm. Prisons are full to bursting in the UK. This is not because incarceration is an effective way of reforming the character of burglars, drug dealers and the antisocial, but because of the mistaken idea that ‘prison works’ as a deterrent. If this rotten utilitarian plank is the basis for the blanket use of custodial sentences, a mere glance at the latest crime statistics should shake the edifice sufficiently for us to consider a structural overhaul of a system that egregiously wastes both capital and human resources.

It would be more intellectually honest for supporters of these types of punishment to admit that their support is based upon a personal sense of vengeance. One need not see this as pejorative. Retribution does not have to be malicious. It can be considered as an expression of justice, a vindication of ‘moral truth’- the way in which society states what is right and what is wrong.

It is because justice is, for most people, synonomous with punishment that any suggestion that things could be done differently is often met with suspicion. The Northern Ireland Youth Justice Agency has recently introduced a new scheme called ‘Youth Conferencing’. All young offenders are now obliged to sit down with their victims, ‘providing the opportunity for all those who have a stake in the offence to come together to resolve how to sort the consequences for the future.’ 

This exercise in ‘restorative’, as opposed to retributive, justice is not new and has been employed in jurisdictions across the world. The standard argument in favour of such schemes is that taking a more conciliatory, rather than a confrontational, approach to the adminstration of justice will truly effect a change in the offender’s behaviour; the self-justificatory rationale for their actions will be broken down as they are made to face the tangible consequences of their crimes. Rather than being institutionally isolated from the community, offenders are officially reintegrated after apologising and putting their side of the story forward to their peers.

This rather utopian view of restorative justice may appear to stand up to scrutiny within the coffee-stained pages of an undergraduate dissertation. but the weight of one thousand years of history is unlikely to facilitate a smooth transition to an entirely ‘restorative’ framework of justice. Its advocates often cite the practices of aboriginal communities who operated similar, concilatory systems of justice for thousands of years before being ‘civilised’ by the colonial powers. As well as harking back to the sentimental myth of the noble savage, this narrative conveniently leaves out the many acts of brutality – ceremonial spearing of tribal miscreants, to name but one- that did take place in all these years. In karma, even Buddhism has its own spiritual brand of retribution. It will be interesting to see how the experiment in Northern Ireland progresses, but removing ‘just deserts’ from the legal system goes against the grain of an innate sense of justice that most would recognise.

Michael P

André Glucksmann
August 15, 2006, 3:46 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

In the following article, here in english, here in its original french, André Glucksmann asks why some muslim deaths appear to be worth more than others. How I wish that this kind of editorial were a more commonplace kind of thinking as opposed to “what have we done to deserve this? let me count the ways” that was so catching.

Jonathan Smith