Frontenac Chateau

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Recently I’ve been having a lot of fun reading Alain Badiou, who really is a sharp polemicist and particularly entertaining in his deconstruction of Sarkozy. But let’s be under no illusions here – if you tried to extract a practical political programme from Badiou, you’d be hard pressed for people not to think you were insane. Actually, Badiou, who had the benefit of hands-on experience in the French Maoist movement of the 1970s, and is still very much involved with the sans-papiers issue, is more practical than most philosophers. Imagine for a moment trying to turn the works of Foucault, or Žižek, or Baudrillard, or even Nietzsche or Heidegger into a political programme. I suppose the nearest we’ve had to an unmediated intellectualist political current, at least that I can remember, is the RCP, and, while Uncle Frank isn’t on a level with the aforementioned thinkers, the trajectory of the Füredites probably tells you something about the dangers of a surfeit of intellectualism.

You get this with Marx. There is quite a lot of Marx that is embarrassing to latter-day Marxists, or would be if they knew about it. I’m not just talking here about sexist or racist attitudes, or other deviations from 21st-century political correctness, which you can hardly hold Marx responsible for. But what I mean is that, while there’s lots of good stuff in Marx – the economic analyses, the political journalism, the philosophical speculations – well, if Badiou sometimes appears to be an extremist maniac unconcerned with sordid political realities, then he’s got nothing on Marx. It took the mass parties of the Second International, and years of hard work by people like Kautsky and Bernstein and Luxemburg and Lenin and Bebel and Jaurès and Plekhanov and many others, to turn “Marxism” into something that looked like a programme for political action – and this without even considering the split between revisionists and revolutionaries. This process, however, has meant a lot of the more hair-raising material in the Collected Works being quietly swept under the carpet.

Let’s start with a favourite of the Irish left, the idea that Marxism opposes terrorism. This is a bit tricky, because Marx’s enthusiasm for the bomb-throwing exploits of the Fenians and the Russian Narodniks is quite well known. What is actually relied on here, you will find, are the polemics of Russian Social Democracy against the Socialist Revolutionary Party, the lineal descendants of the Narodniks. These polemics are given a particular edge by the Narodnik roots of the founding Russian Marxists and by there being less of a clear dividing line between Marxism and Narodnichestvo than they would have liked. To revive these arguments is perfectly respectable in and of itself, but your problem arises when you claim your position as representing “Marxism”. If we’re going to go by what Marx himself had to say on the matter, then Sendero Luminoso or the LTTE have as much claim to be Marxist as anybody else.

Or there’s the issue of the right of nations to self-determination. A lot of effort has gone into extrapolating from Marx and Engels on Poland and Ireland, but the fact remains that if you’re looking for a general strategic orientation on the issue then you’re forced to rely on the debates between Luxemburg and Lenin a century ago. I vividly remember a talk by the late Duncan Hallas, wherein Duncan sought not only to defend Engels against Rosdolsky (a tough enough task in my view) but then went on to claim, a little disingenuously, that Engels’ position was consistent with Lenin’s. (My own intervention was to support Rosdolsky against Engels and Luxemburg against Lenin, which went down like a lead balloon.) This defence of Engels is easy enough to do in Britain – or at least England, where people imagine the national question is for far-off countries of which we know little. It’s just a teensy bit harder, if you’re a Czech Marxist, to get past Engels’ idea that the Czechs were an unhistoric people doomed to be assimilated into the superior German race. You can deploy dialectics and jump through all sorts of theoretical hoops, but it’s more straightforward to just ignore Engels on this point.

On a lighter note, let’s take conspiracy theories. I recall a conversation I had maybe fifteen years ago with a leading SWP member. At the time – this was before Lindsey German had discovered New Laddism and pronounced Men Behaving Badly to be The Most Evil Show On Telly – the comrades seemed to have a particular bee in their collective bonnet about The X-Files, and a burning desire to debunk its anti-establishment credentials. Usually this consisted of references to it being made by Fox, although that never stopped The Simpsons being wildly popular in party ranks. But this comrade was strident on the content of the show. “Conspiracy theories,” he confidently declared, “are anti-Marxist.” It’s just as well the party wasn’t holding reading groups on Marx’s Palmerston pamphlet.

The fact is that we take from Marx what we want, and ignore or explain away the rest. Every Marxist current creates a Marx in its own image. Indeed, I’m convinced that the popularity of Wheen’s Marx biography – which portrayed old Karl as a great Victorian eccentric, a sort of Charles Dickens meets Paul Foot – is that it’s a portrait of Marx that’s sympathetic in today’s atmosphere, and just a little flattering to Marxists.

But yes, no Marxist tendency – at least no sensible one – takes every word of those great volumes as gospel. Most tendencies have their basic standby bits of Marxism, primarily the economic writings and the class theory of exploitation, often dialectical materialism although nobody’s ever managed to convince me of the political relevance of dialectics. And from the post-Marx thinkers, we have Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? and State and Revolution, Trotsky’s writings on Stalinism and fascism (and possibly permanent revolution, if your tastes run that way), Luxemburg on reformism and whatever you’re having yourself from the guru of your particular group. Of course, this leaves an awful lot of empty ground, especially when you deviate from issues directly connected to economics and class and go into, say, the cultural realm. Your grab-bag of writings won’t help you very much if you’re trying to formulate a position on gay rights, so your best bet is to make up a position from whole cloth and call it “Marxist”. And where do you fill the gaps from? If the French left draws on Jacobinism, the English left draws very heavily on liberalism. (The historic exception was the old Militant Tendency, which preferred to draw on 1940s Labourism and, in Liverpool, the conspiratorial traditions of Irish nationalism.) So you get on the London left a milieu whose Marxism is really just a bit of exploitation theory supplemented by Amnesty-style good causes politics. I don’t say this is necessarily a bad thing, just that it’s worth pointing out.

And then you end up with the problem of how, to paraphrase Mr Tony Blair, to put forward old ideals in a modern setting. It’s important in a sense, because 1970s Trotskyism will not necessarily fly with young folks now. In fact, if my observations are at all correct, young people today are mostly interested in ecology and human rights. All very good, but you’re then faced with the issue of how to sell them on Lenin and Trotsky, when it can be quite easily shown that Lenin and Trotsky were human rights abusers. (Anarchists are especially vociferous on this point, and on the elements in Lenin and Trotsky’s records that Trots don’t like to talk about. Anarchists also get extremely irate when you talk about their heroes’ failings and the dodgier bits of their own history, but that just proves the point.) And Lord help you if you want to say that Mao has some relevance today. As I see it, you have two options. You can be unreconstructed, and attract a (probably smallish) audience that quite likes you for being unreconstructed, or you can try to reinvent yourself and your tradition to get down with the kids.

There’s plenty of reinvention that goes on, as you’ll notice if you’ve been around for a while, although the groups involved don’t like to admit it. This is why I quite liked Sean Matgamna’s little essay on Shachtman, openly stating that he chose which bits of Shachtman to appropriate and which bits to ignore. At least Sean’s honest about it. More usually, we get unstated, often unconscious, shifts in which bits and pieces of the tradition and programme to emphasise in the current period. And these often go together with molecular changes in the groups themselves, not obvious at first glance but certainly detectable over a period of time. That’s why neither of the two successors of the old Militant Tendency looks all that much like classic Militant any more. The Socialist Party actually looks rather similar to a 1994-vintage SWP, though with a few idiosyncrasies that can be atributed to its history. Socialist Appeal, which ten years ago certainly looked like Continuity Militant and which continues to pay fulsome tribute to Ted Grant Thought, is getting to be more and more like an early 1970s USec section, thanks not least to the young people it’s attracted around its Venezuela work.

And so here we are. It’s often said about Cliff’s multi-volume biographies of Lenin and Trotsky that they’re really books about the men Lenin and Trotsky could have been had they had Cliff around to tell them what to do. A more charitable view would be that Cliff was reinventing Lenin and Trotsky for a new audience. From time to time I get the impression that the SWP brains trust (Christopher and Alexander) are thinking about how their next generation will need a reinvented Cliff. As well they might, bearing in mind that, like the other Cliff, a lot of his material may have been great forty or fifty years ago, but it hasn’t always aged very well.

Personally, I don’t know about this reinvention malarkey. One thing I’ve always liked about the SPGB (and you should really read The Monument if you haven’t already) is that they’ve been saying exactly the same thing since 1903. I’m glad they’re still around – I don’t know if their local affiliate, the wonderfully titled World Socialist Party of Ireland, is still functional but I certainly hope it is. This continuity, as with the De Leonite SLP in the States who have been at it even longer, has over time got to be their unique selling point. The niche market really is the best place for long-term survival. On the other hand, I can respect those who take a punt on trying to break through to the big time – it’s just that there’s the constant danger of losing your identity in the process. You can’t avoid the danger, you can only be aware of it and try to decide if it’s worthwhile.

Dissidence in the New Dispensation

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Wait till I tell you, the Easter commemorations were pretty desperate this year. But weren’t there an awful lot of them? Actually, there seem to be commemorations going on all the time. And this is something that strikes me, that the more the Provisionals turn into a constitutional party, the keener they are to celebrate the republican past. It’s easy to be cynical on this point, but I don’t think it can be explained purely by cynicism. I think there are other things going on here in terms of republican identity.

This was something that occurred to me apropos of the tributes to the late Marie Moore. I don’t want to seem disrespectful to the memory of Marie, one of the grand old women of Belfast republicanism and someone who was very well liked. But I was a little taken aback by the Andytown News running a double-page spread explaining to the broad masses what they owed to Marie Moore. If you took the paper at face value, if it wasn’t for Marie we would all be sitting in a hovel in Short Strand with no trousers or shoes. And this is something that, for instance, Jim Gibney has developed into a fine art over recent years, simultaneously backslapping the republican base and impressing on the base the need for gratitude to the leadership.

Departing from this for a second but sticking with the Andytown News, the other noteworthy thing has been the ongoing propaganda campaign against dissident republicans. This has actually got to the point of being scurrilous bordering on the downright hysterical – if you believe the Andytown News, every single dissident, not only members of the armed groups but even extending to éirígí activists, is a criminal of some description – glue sniffers, burglars, paedophiles, you name it. In fact it is quite possible, even likely, that there are criminal elements among the dissident ranks, although they are probably small fry compared to the Provo and Stickie entrepreneurs. But Máirtín Ó Muilleoir is not a man to be too fastidious about his propaganda.

None too fastidious, either, is Bobby Storey, who’s recently been holding forth on this point. Some folks will fall over laughing at the idea of Bobby of all people taking a high moral tone against the men of violence. But that is to miss the point. When Bobby Storey goes around saying “I know where these guys live,” there’s really only one way to take it. The question is whether the threat carries any credibility without the military wing to back it up, and with no prospect of the Provisional IRA being resurrected for the purpose of wiping out the dissidents. (The Brits might be tempted to stave off the emergence of a local Hamas by bringing a local Fatah into play, but I can’t see the DUP standing for it. During the peace process, they went buck mad whenever the Provos did in a dissident.)

But anyway, back to the criminality thing. Once we get past the black propaganda, this often morphs into the Gibneyesque line that, while the Provisional leadership have put in decades of sacrifice for the cause, the dissidents are nothing but young thugs. The fact that some of the people most strident on this issue were young thugs themselves once kind of gives the game away. Because, of course, the dissidents in themselves are not all that different from the Provos of years past. It’s the Provos who have changed – the context obviously has changed massively, but rock-bottom republican theology has never required, for instance, mass popular support, and would regard power-sharing at Stormont as an irrelevance at best.

This poses a bit of a problem for supporters of the GFA process. A few weeks back I saw a letter in the Irish News from Danny Morrison lambasting the dissidents and all their works. At least, that’s what it looked like at first glance; at second glance, I was left wondering whether Danny was completely out of touch or whether he just liked nursing his grudges. The reason for this is that Danny spent most of his time getting stuck into the Irish Republican Writers Group, a body that’s been defunct for a decade or more. Frankly, for Danny to be harping on what Tommy McKearney and Tony McIntyre were saying twelve years ago is a bit odd, at a time when Fourthwrite has at least one foot in the Big Tent, and the Blanket has folded. But this also points up a little conundrum, in that the peace process got by for a long time by simply co-opting the opposition. If you were a republican or loyalist critic of the process and you were able to string a sentence together, there was a good chance you’d be put on the payroll. In the end, virtually the only republicans left outside the Big Tent were RSF, who really are died-in-the-wool ideologues, and who, having correctly surmised that there would always be a market for traditional republicanism, were mostly content to keep their elderly cadre together until a new generation of disaffected youth came along. But that was then and this is now. The spotty youths causing most of the trouble at the moment are outwith the peace industry, are likely to laugh in your face if you tell them Martin McGuinness is a great republican, and nobody seems to have a clear idea what to do about them.

It’s true, of course, that the dissidents don’t have much popular support. When a raft of dissident candidates stood in the last Stormont election, between them they got something under 10,000 votes – not entirely insignificant, but not much in the grand scheme of things. There are, mark you, some caveats that need to be entered. The vote for anti-Agreement republican candidates doesn’t necessarily equate to support for a renewed armed campaign. On the other hand, those candidates were a motley bunch hampered by poor organisation and a lack of a coherent alternative. The majority of them were from Republican Sinn Féin, who are not universally popular even with other hardline republicans; most of the others were in or around the IRSP; and there was Gerry McGeough, the nearest thing to a green fascist we’ve seen in sixty years. It did show that there might be some limited potential for a well-organised political alternative with a knack for populism and a track record of grassroots activity, but the likelihood of a follow-up along those lines isn’t great.

The other thing said about the dissidents is that, as well as having no support, they have no strategy. It’s tempting to believe that if you’ve ever been to one of the periodic meetings that happen in places like Derry to discuss alternatives to the peace process. The usual format is that a bunch of people will talk about the need for an alternative, although they may not have any idea what that should be, and then someone from the Real Republicans will get up and insist on their inalienable right to take potshots at the Brits, regardless of whether taking potshots at the Brits is a good idea. But there is a hazy strategic conception at work. Partly it’s the strategy of tension, which I don’t think the Brits are going to fall for any time soon, but on a more prosaic – and effective – level, it consists of asking the question, “Which side are you on?”

Here’s the thing. It’s often said in dissident circles that the Provisionals have given up on the goal of the 32-county socialist republic. But, while you can make some rhetorical hay around them sitting in the Stormont executive, it’s not true to say they’ve ditched the goal. It’s on the first page of their programme, after all. You can talk about people being corrupted, or institutionalised by a process they thought was going in another direction, or simply worn down by war-weariness, but you’re still, in the main, talking about people who want to be republicans on some level. That’s why the parades, and the tributes to past heroes; that’s why Martin McGuinness was talking just there about winning the republic by 2014.

What anti-Agreement republican activity does, whether it’s low-level disruption by the armed groups, or whether it’s éirígí’s brand of agitprop politics (parenthetically, while I have my doubts about éirígí, the ferocity of the attacks on an unarmed political group suggest that they’re annoying the right people) is to ask the question “Which side are you on?” Do you, in essence, support the state against republicans, no matter how deluded you think those republicans may be? Imagine this being asked to a panel at a debate. It wouldn’t be a difficult question for an RSF member, who would simply answer No. It wouldn’t be a difficult question for a member of the SDLP, which has been collaborating with the state for decades, and who would simply answer Yes. The leftist on our imaginary panel would huff and puff and say that this was the wrong question, and we should really be talking about water rates. But for a PSF politician? Totally committed to the peace process, yet subjectively unwilling to openly pledge loyalty to a partitionist settlement, or even to recognise that that’s what the settlement is. For that reason, it’s still problematic to support the state against republicans – that’s why they don’t say they’re defending the state, they say they’re defending the Good Friday Agreement.

Ah, the vagaries of being slightly constitutional. You can ride two horses for a while, but it doesn’t really add up to a long-term perspective. Eventually the dissonance has to be worked out one way or another.

More thoughts on this point from WorldbyStorm.

Shooting the messenger

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From the Beeb:

The first and deputy first ministers have met the Belfast Telegraph‘s editor to express concerns about its reporting of the executive’s economic policy.

Last month’s meeting followed a letter from Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness to the newspaper’s proprietor, Sir Anthony O’Reilly.
The letter, sent on 2 March, accused the Telegraph of “demonstrating relentless negativity”…

However, Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness said the paper was “putting a negative twist on the executive’s handling of the economy”.

“It does seem to us that the Telegraph has been going out of its way not just to highlight negative stories, but to create them and give a negative twist to issues and give them a significantly greater prominence than any of its competitors,” the letter said.

Listing a series of complaints, the letter expressly complained about the newspaper’s coverage of job losses.

And here’s me thought the Tele was doing its bit by predicting every month that house prices were going to start rising again. As an estate agent by profession, surely Robbo could appreciate that.

They added: “We do not seek to fetter in any way the freedom of the press, but by the same token we do not expect to see a campaign ostensibly about creating jobs being used to denigrate and undermine the executive and the assembly.”

A spokesman for Sir Anthony said the letter had been “sent to a non-existent” address and was not received by him “for some weeks”.

Still, it’s nice to see our leaders have their priorities right.

Badiou on the communist idea

For your further edification, here’s Alain Badiou speaking at the Communism conference at Birkbeck the other week. Jeepers, I’m glad he’s still around. And if you haven’t read his book on Sarkozy, I thoroughly recommend it.

Gora eusko gudariak!


This blog is currently experiencing some connectivity problems, so the usual tomfoolery is a bit more sporadic than normal. We ask readers to bear with us.

In the meantime, here’s a little number from our Basque friends, who haven’t let the humble art of the protest song die out.

The sound of two men missing the point

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There’s an old Jewish joke about atheism that I’ve always liked. It centres around a young man in a shtetl in Poland who wants to be an atheist, but doesn’t know how. He doesn’t know any atheists, and there are none in the surrounding area, but he has heard of Mendel the Atheist, who lives far away in Vilna. So our hero makes the long trek to go and study with the famous Mendel.

On arriving, he presents himself and says, “I want to be an atheist.” “All right,” says Mendel, “let’s talk Lurianic Kabbalah.” “I’ve never studied Kabbalah,” says the young man. “Well then,” says Mendel, “we’ll work on a criticism of the Talmud.” “I’ve never really studied the Talmud,” says the young man.

“Oh come on,” says Mendel, “at least you know your basic Torah and Rashi.” “I’m not interested in any of that stuff,” says the young man. “I told you, I want to be an atheist.” “Young man,” says Mendel, “what you are is an ignoramus. To be an atheist you have to know religion very well.”

This sums up some of the problems I have with Dawkinsite evangelical atheists, and was brought to mind on coming across Johann Hari (aged 13¾) interviewing Mr Tony Blair. Although it isn’t quite fair to say that Johann knows nothing about religion. As a committed homosexualist, he knows one thing, which is that organised religion has historically been none too hot on gay rights. Therefore Johann concludes, with the zeal of a commissar, that it’s necessary to destroy religion in order to advance the gay cause.

Johann’s position is a bit weird – religions may oppress gays in passing, but that’s not the point of religion – but what you can say in favour of it is that what it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in logical consistency. And he does have the advantage of being an equal-opportunity antireligious polemicist – he doesn’t like the Catholics much, but you’re equally likely to find him bashing the Muslims or Buddhists. The other thing his position has going for it is that he doesn’t expect organised religion to validate his lifestyle.

This sort of moral courage, of course, is too much for Mr Tony, who loves to be all things to all men. Although he’s only been a Catholic for five minutes, he now reckons that the Pope should get with the times and modernise, and his new club should change itself to fit in with progressive metrosexual mores. Not only that, he thinks all religions need to modernise:

“Organised religions face the same dilemma as political parties when faced with changed circumstances,” he said.

“You can either A: Hold on to your core vote, basically, you know, say ‘Look let’s not break out because if we break out we might lose what we’ve got, and at least we’ve got what we’ve got so let’s keep it’. Or B: You say ‘let’s accept that the world is changing, and let us work out how we can lead that change and actually reach out’.”

The trouble is that, as I’ve been pointing out, the Catholic Church is not the Labour Party – it is supposed to deal in moral certainties. It’s not even the C of E, which actually will have these debates in General Synod and decide that what was a sin yesterday is quite permissible today. But let’s say that Pope Benedict went on Channel 4 News and declared that fornication was no longer a sin (as long as you use a condom, of course.) It might win him some friends, given the overwhelming popularity of fornication, but he would be a pretty poor excuse for a Pope. His job description involves being tough on sin and tough on the causes of sin.

“There is a huge generational difference here,” he said. “There’s probably that same fear amongst religious leaders that if you concede ground on [homosexuality], because attitudes and thinking evolve over time, where does that end? You’d start having to rethink many, many things.” He added: “If you went and asked the [ordinary Catholic] congregation, I think you’d find that their faith is not to be found in those types of entrenched attitudes.”

You know, I have my doubts about that. Perhaps it’s true of middle-class Catholic congregations in North London. Probably it’s less true in Spain or Poland or Brazil – or even in Ireland. But, and here’s my point, where does Mr Tony get off deciding that he’s going to rewrite Catholic doctrine? I don’t agree with the Pope on homosexuality any more than he does, but it seems an odd position to take for somebody who’s going around speaking about his faith all the time. If he regards Catholic moral teaching as so much Clause 4-style ideological baggage that can be comfortably jettisoned to win approving headlines, doesn’t that call into question the seriousness of his conversion?

Or, to put it another way, why did Benny let him join in the first place? If he wants to be a reforming moderniser – well, that sounds a bit Protestant to me.

Richardson contra pornographiam

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And so we’ve had Channel 4 bringing back their smash hit Sex Education Show, starring Anna Richardson, or “that mad sex woman” as she’s now known up our way. I dealt in passing with the last series, but here I just want to ponder the show in a bit more detail, and some of the issues it’s brought up.

Firstly, what’s right with it. A lot of the show’s success does really depend on the presenter, and la Richardson is tailor-made for this sort of thing. She’s no-nonsense without being unsympathetic, and has a natural ability for talking to young people. She also seems game for just about any wacky stunt the producers throw her way, which is maybe why I do have some misgivings about it. The thrust of the show may be educational, but this is C4, so the powers that be (I’m guessing middle-aged blokes in the commissioning department) want it to be Phun. That means a self-conscious wackiness often veering into Eurotrash territory, which does sometimes clash with the serious tone in other segments.

But maybe that’s fitting, because this series is billed as Sex Education vs. Pornography. We’re talking here about how the rampant pornographication of popular culture rubs up against the traditional prudishness and prurience of respectable British culture. As our host kept repeating, 90% of teenagers had seen porn and 30% claimed to be using it for educational purposes. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure that things have changed qualitatively since the days when teenage boys would pass around top-shelf magazines, and the Auntie Jayne column in Escort was about as near to sex education as anything you could find.

Of course, the net has changed things massively in terms of quantity. Porn is much more accessible now, in no more time than it takes a teenager to click “Yes, I am 18” on a computer screen. And yes, much more extreme material is readily available online, stuff that fifteen or twenty years ago you would really need to search for. Although, from the sniggering of the boys talking about bestiality or coprophilia, and bearing in mind what teenage boys are like, I suspect that their downloading of these clips and passing them round on their mobiles has more to do with the gross-out factor than any actual arousal, the same way kids of a previous generation used to dare each other to watch video nasties.

And yet, this huge amount of explicit material still goes hand in hand with stunning ignorance in matters of sexual health and even basic biology. It was amusing to notice that the teenage boys, voracious consumers of porn though they may be, still didn’t know how to locate the clitoris. Probably that says something about most porn’s lack of attention to female arousal. Other clues are that teen pregnancy remains at very high levels, and chlamydia is almost endemic amongst British teenagers, when you would expect them to be better informed than ever. There is probably more sex education in schools than ever before, but it clearly isn’t doing the job; condoms are readily available, but kids don’t seem to know how to use them. Whether this is the crisis it’s hyped up as, I don’t know, but it seems obvious that something is wrong somewhere. I suspect, though, that it’s got at least as much to do with the culture as the availability of porn.

This, of course, is where Richardson and her crack team of health professionals come in, with frank advice for the kids. A particular highlight is seeing their faces when confronted with graphic pictures of the outcome of gonorrhea or syphilis, a shock tactic that military doctors have applied to good effect for decades. But it’s this more worthy material that doesn’t sit too comfortably with the wackiness, and perhaps demonstrates why Antoine de Caunes isn’t presenting.

It is true that the influence of porn can be seen, particularly when it comes to body image. 45% of the girls surveyed were unhappy with their breasts. Some 27% of the boys admitted to being insecure about their cocks, and presumably the other 73% were lying. It was predictable, if depressing, that when the boys were shown pictures of ten pairs of breasts, all of them chose the single fake pair as the most attractive. It was much more depressing when the girls did likewise – with all the eating disorders about, they really don’t need more unrealistic images to live up to. And, as one might expect, everyone regarded pubic hair as somehow gross and abnormal – not something that you start out with and can choose to remove or not, according to taste.

There was, mind you, one of the stunts that worked quite well. This was when our foxy presenter got a porn star makeover. This involved fake nails; fake eyelashes; fake tan; about a yard of hair extensions; waist painfully corseted; tits hoisted up to throat level; and enough mascara to put Alice Cooper to shame. And all topped off with an outfit straight out of Footballers’ Wives. This led Anna to say, “I feel like a slag.” Then she went out on the street, noticed the stares and whistles, and started to see why some women get a kick out of dressing that way. Her insouciance lasted until the vox pops, when the punters said that she looked “up for it”, and, on being shown a picture of her in her normal state, that they found that much more attractive. Aww. (And they were right, too.)

What was interesting about that was that the vox-popped punters were older – not middle-aged necessarily, but past school age. And this is why I tend to be a little more sanguine about whether there’s a crisis. Get together a group of fifteen-year-olds, ask them about sex, and you’ll get all sorts of strange ideas and attitudes. By the time they’re 25, most of them will have outgrown most of those attitudes. The question is, whether they do themselves any damage in the interim, and this is where decent education comes in. I have a feeling Anna Richardson may be trying to turn the tide back, but one can only salute her indefatigability.

I bet you I beat you at dominoes

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Hullo Brian, hullo Sue. You know, in a very real sense, I’m quite pleased that Catholicism is still making the headlines. Our economy is collapsing, manufacturing jobs are being lost left, right and centre, and you’ve had the G20 summit, but this week what’s been preoccupying the Norn Iron populace is Gordon Brown’s plan to reform the Act of Settlement. Predictably, the unionists have gone buck mad about this. Jeffrey Donaldson thinks it’s a Papist plot. So does Eric Waugh. For my part, I hope that some day Jeffrey and Eric will drag themselves into the eighteenth century. What it really is, of course, is a typical New Labour wheeze, something that looks progressive and will grab a few headlines at very little cost.

And, while the row over Pope Benny and condoms has been stretched almost to breaking point, it still isn’t quite going away. But what I want to look at is the cultural background, and as good a place to start as any is the confrontation between Jon Snow and the mad Catholic woman on Channel 4 News. The immediate thing that struck me, of course, was that Snow had expected the mad Catholic woman to be defensive or even apologetic, and was genuinely taken aback when she got aggressive. But there are a couple of subthemes as well. One is Snow’s apparent belief that the Catholic Church is a bit like the Labour Party – that its social thought is not an integral whole but a pick ‘n’ mix of policies, and it’s reasonably straightforward for the leader to change the policy. Religion, of course, is all about revealed truths and just doesn’t work that way.

There’s also a social question. Some of the more Anglophile elements in Irish society, like the Irish Unionist Alliance or the Socialist Workers Party, like to bang on about the need for a separation of church and state. This suggests to me that they haven’t read the 1937 constitution. But, while there is a constitutional separation of church and state, both north and south, Irish culture is still very much informed by the mix of Catholicism and Calvinism. By contrast, although England doesn’t have a separation of church and state, English society – especially in terms of the metropolitan middle classes – is one of the most secular in the world. Culturally speaking, English secular liberals tend to know very little about religion, they don’t have much experience of dealing with religious people and so they often flounder when having to deal with religious questions.

This cultural background is something that works against Pope Benny big time. Theologically speaking, Papa Ratzi is arguably a good deal less reactionary than his predecessor, JP2. But then JP2, the rock ‘n’ roll pope, had a degree of media savvy that Ratzinger doesn’t have, and importantly could shuffle off unpopular pronouncements onto Ratzinger. Benedict, on the other hand, likes to make these statements himself. This grates on the secular liberals, who like their religious leaders to be like the Dalai Lama or Bono, “spiritual” in a vague way but not very religious, and certainly not prone to tell people how to live their lives.

But there’s also an issue of specific anti-Catholic sentiment. Historically speaking, British popular anti-Catholicism has based itself on an identification of Catholicism with absolutism. This isn’t entirely untrue, but it’s only partially true. One obvious elephant in the room is that it’s been precisely a British Protestant tradition to turn the church into an arm of the state. There’s also the issue of Catholic political theology, deriving mostly from Aquinas, which isn’t free of its own ambiguities and contradictions, but which has a few subtle distinctions that are usually missed. Most important for our purposes is that, while Catholic doctrine doesn’t recognise a sharp separation between church and state in the American revolutionary sense, it does draw a serious distinction between the two. Indeed, since at least the Counter-Reformation one major preoccupation has been keeping the state from meddling in the Church’s internal affairs.

But anyway, it’s worthwhile returning to Locke on the question of religious toleration. Here you have to realise that, while Locke made a courageous argument for the toleration of the Non-Conformist sects, he explicitly excluded toleration of the Catholic Church because of, well, its intolerance. (You’ll note the obvious parallel with much modern discourse about Islam.) This continues to the present day, in a sort of Beavis and Butt-head form – like when Cardinal O’Brien makes a speech on abortion, and lots of Guardian liberals start fretting about the problem of Catholic MPs potentially voting their conscience on the issue. Sometimes this even expresses itself in dopey ideas like preventing them from having a say on issues dear to the heart of secular liberals.

Yes, to come full circle, liberalism can often develop quite an illiberal streak when confronted with views that nice progressive-minded people see as irrational reaction. The British tradition of the state meddling in the church legitimates this. Or, if you’re on the left, you can draw on the French Jacobin tradition, although advocates of French-style laïcité do at least get embarrassed by things like the Jacobin attempt to set up a civil religion, complete with its own temples. But still, even in New Labour there’s an element of this. Take the gay adoption row, and the refusal to exempt Catholic adoption agencies. You had New Labour attempting to legislate the Catholic Church into a pro-gay position, and not many Guardian readers seemed to think this was illiberal.

Look, my preference is for the setup you have enshrined in the American constitution, where it’s laid down that the state doesn’t establish any religion, nor does it interfere in any religion. Furthermore, although I’d be sympathetic to Catholic reform movements such as exist in Germany and Austria, you can’t get away from the fact that these movements are led by Catholics, not by secular liberals. Frankly, I may agree more with Peter Tatchell or Eamonn McCann or Johann Hari than with Pope Benedict, but I don’t think it’s up to Peter or Eamonn or Johann to say what Catholic doctrine should be.

Finally, let’s return to the condoms issue. Where Benny has gone astray is in departing from the realm of theology (where he knows his stuff) to that of science (where he doesn’t). The evidence of consequences – which is where social science comes in – suggests that his approach isn’t the most effective in fighting HIV. But there are a couple of things that need to be taken into account. One is that, in a country like Angola, the Catholic relief agencies are so thick on the ground that you can’t have a development strategy without them. By contrast, you won’t find many humanitarian projects run by the National Secular Society or the British Humanist Association, who are much too busy trying to get onto Thought For The Day.

And it must be reiterated that we’re not talking about a single development strategy that the Pope is wantonly sabotaging, but about two distinct strategies for changing the culture. There is the strategy based on getting African peasants to use condoms. There is the Pope’s strategy for getting African peasants to live a Christian life – by which he doesn’t mean watching The Vicar of Dibley and putting a quid in the collection plate, but abiding by some basic standards of sexual continence. To be honest, neither is a magic bullet, both fall down on real-life lapses in behaviour, and I suspect that the condom-based strategy is both more effective and an easier sell. But those are the real parameters. Caricaturing them doesn’t really get us very far.

Credit where credit’s due

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I must confess that these days I read Private Eye more out of duty and habit than real pleasure. Certainly, I don’t anticipate its arrival every fortnight the same way I look forward to the latest issue of, say, the American Conservative or the Journal of Forensic Sciences. In fact, it often succeeds in annoying me not inconsiderably. Oh yes.

But the latest issue has picked up a bit. As regular readers will know, one thing that tends to get up my goat is the flagship Street of Shame section. This is where the Eye exposes bad journalism, with a nice little sideline in exposing cronyism in the press. Sadly, it’s been undermined over the last few years by the whole phenomenon of the Decent Left. Concretely, it’s either ignored or actively defended some shocking examples of bad journalism, and it often looks as though this is not unrelated to the perpetrators being mates of the bloke who writes Street of Shame. For instance, the Grauniad‘s infamous faked interview with Chomsky, which wasn’t given the treatment it deserved, I assume because Francis was off signing open letters demanding that the Graun retract its retraction.

But this issue, we finally see an appearance from Nick Cohen, who’s been a frequent beneficiary of this sort of thing. This is apropos of Nick’s inebriated rant at the Orwell Prize, which gets covered in some depth. Now, if only the Eye scribes would make an effort to remember that having a go at targets close to home increases your credibility… I know Ingrams was very aware of that.

We also have regular Decent columnist ‘Ratbiter’, who takes time off from bashing the Mooslims to deal with the question of electoral fraud. In particular, Birmingham, where the combination of postal votes on demand and the patriarchal relationships in the Kashmiri community have created an electoral regime that would make Bob Mugabe blush. Maybe it’s me, but I honestly can’t remember any Decents previously having a problem with this outrage. Possibly it’s because the main beneficiary, as Ratbiter points out, is the Labour Party. Possibly it’s because, as Ratbiter doesn’t point out, one of the main critical voices has been Respect councillor Salma Yaqoob, and because those disenfranchised have been Asian women and youth, who are much more likely to vote Respect. Still, good to see the issue get an airing.

And we also discover that the Kuwaiti royal family have, for a considerable sum, retained the services of Mr Tony Blair. Taken on the back of Mr Tony’s million-dollar bung from the Israelis, you can see why he’s an ideal honest broker for the Middle East peace process.

A return to form, then. Keep it up, guys.

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