It Starts in School

It starts in school, where little boys and girls (already accustomed at home to being told to sit up straight and eat their meat and stop behaving like cry-babies over the fate of the moo-cow or the baa-lamb that’s ended up on their plate) are told to dissect a frog, or the young of a rabbit untimely ripped from its mother’s womb, also killed. It’s already dead. So picking up the scalpel (behaving properly, not behaving like children, not behaving like girls, not behaving like gays, not behaving like blacks, not behaving like peasants or the poor) and making the first cut, it really doesn’t mean anything. It’s already dead.

It continues in college or university, sitting nervously, having heard stories, but determined to get through, to get on, to get it, when the professor (or the lecturer, or the university teacher, or the tutor, or just the techie cos why spare anyone else?) walks in and demonstrates the best way to kill a little white mouse. The best way. Thwack! and its head is smacked onto the bench and its neck is broken. It it it. It’s best not to use gender here. It is an animal, no, ‘a specimen’ (you have to get the language right) whereas she or he sounds too human. Sentimental.  It’s science that counts. That half-hour lecture on ethics, that essay on the pros and cons, the one for which everyone on the course, sensibly, came down on the pro side. You’ve done this. It’s all about progress.

Accustomed now to breaking necks and ending life in a variety of ways (the best way isn’t the only way and it’s best not to get involved so it’s all still it and no-one has name just a number) and a bit blasé about the whole thing. You’ve worked as a techie yourself and you’ve actually done that lecture. It’s a rite of passage, you see that now. Anyway the thing now is to get on with your Master’s. And it’s good to get in-vivo on your CV. The pain of the lower mammals never crosses your mind now. Unless you’re doing pain studies, then it’s just numbers. The guinea pigs? Well that’s what they’re for! And the rabbits are the same, so docile. The dogs, admittedly, are harder, and so are the monkeys. It’s more difficult to keep the required distance but you tell yourself it’s all about progress. They’ll be dead soon, anyway. And it is quite a noble feeling you get, especially when you see all those women running in pink. It’s all progress.

At doctoral level it’s a way of life. By now you know that it’s all about funding, and that doesn’t bother you. Everything is all about funding. And everything needs to be tested. No, not because it makes any difference, it’s just the law. The law that is written by politicians who read what you write because you’re funded to write it. You could be cynical, but why? That would involve your heart, and it’s already dead.

One ordinary sunny afternoon or rainy morning, nothing special, and you didn’t even notice, just at some point when you were slicing open yet another sentient living creature, unanaesthetised, in the name of science, you stopped feeling. It’s much easier to be heartless, and no-one notices. It’s a trade secret. More efficient. And you can still go home and play the part of the hearty husband or wife. You don’t have dogs anymore. Too confusing. And when you hear those tiresome people, again and again with the same hippy nonsense, love and peace, ban the bomb, save the animals…

…you don’t imagine what might have happened, what your life, your heart, might be like, if you  hadn’t sat up straight and had refused to eat what was on your plate, because it was a moo-cow or a baa-lamb and you cared more about that than about being childish, or girlish, or gay, or black, or a peasant or poor. Because you cared more, in caring for animals, more than breaking your neck in the rat race, more than slicing up your heart, more than becoming desensitised to conscience so that you could carry on doing and teaching entirely useless sadistic practices because they attract funding and prestige; because you cared more about being human.   

funny clip

Thanks to Anna Langova who has released her photo ‘funny clip’ into the Public Domain


Rape, Hospitality and the Sin of Sodom

A friend seeking asylum walked into the Home Office one Monday morning to discover that his new caseworker was the random guy he’d got off with, in a gay club on the Saturday night, and whose boyfriend (as he’d found out later that night) was a former flatmate! The granting of his refugee status took a week. After years of ineffectual campaigning to prove he was gay, my friend snogged his way to freedom.

I think it’s a funny story but when I recounted it to a friend who is a very traditional Muslim, his only response was: “That is condemned in the Book of Lūt.”

Here I must say that, technically, I’ve never read the Book of Lūt. It forms part of Arabic sacred scripture that is regarded as authoritative only in the original language and I’ve only read an authorised English translation, regarded as simply giving the ideas of the original. The unnamed place is only alluded to, by the mention of the people of Lūt, and the sin condemned is a failure of duty towards God and Messengers of God. The idea in the Book of Lot (to give it its English title) is not, necessarily, that the sin of the people was homosexuality. That idea turns up as a certain interpretation of the text, in sidebars, footnotes and endnotes (or even in brackets, especially in online versions). That interpretation depends on a certain interpretation of the Sodom (and Gomorrah) story in Ch. 19 of the Book of Genesis, which forms part of Hebrew sacred scripture.

In Arabic, Hebrew and Greek (the language of Christian sacred scripture), ‘messenger’ also means ‘angel’. This meaning is included in the Arabic word ‘alamin (“mankind, jinn and all that exists”) which, interestingly, the second time it’s used in this story, is glossed by the (online) interpreter as only “mankind”, in order to give this certain interpretation.

My Arabic is practically non-existent, my Hebrew is decidedly shaky and my Greek, well, at least I try! However, I have lived in lots of countries, including very hot ones, and so I don’t dismiss the ‘hospitality’ interpretation of the sin of Sodom as most conservative ‘Anglo-Saxon’ interpretation is inclined to do. Anyway, I’m not Anglo-Saxon, I’m Celtic, and in terms of interpretative heritage, that does make a difference.

One of the main reasons why the Anglo-Saxons, in the land now known as England, made the transition of mercenaries to monarchs so quickly is their repeated ruse of the murderous abuse of hospitality. This is not an aspect of their character that the Venerable Bede, in his political propaganda, dwells on and to their Celtic hosts it was unthinkable. Still today in Scotland, out of all the evils of inter-clan conflict, the Massacre of Glencoe, ordered by the English King, is considered to be the most shameful. Generations of English literature, and politicians, have trumpeted the English virtues of fairness and sang froid; it’s only fair that other cultures are accorded praise where due and you can’t have everything.

English culture has never been famous for its hospitality and what you don’t value in your own culture you may find it difficult to value in another but, despite the appropriating sentiments in the song, Jerusalem, England is not the promised land and the Biblical events took place somewhere else and to another people. They took place in a desert culture where to offer or refuse hospitality was to offer or refuse life.

Other cultures which do prize hospitality highly, such as that of the ancient Greeks, also have stories of divine beings being placated or offended as they are offered hospitality – or not. Yet the physical climate of Greece is itself hospitable. A traveller refused hospitality there, at least in ancient times when the land was more fruitful, was less likely to perish than someone out of doors without provisions in more southern desert climes – or in the Arctic north.

As I make clear in Only Say The Word: Affirming Gay and Lesbian Love, the men surrounding Lot’s door and demanding that his (angelic) visitors be brought out to be raped were, in this ancient patriarchal desert culture, sinning on several counts:

  • By abusing hospitality
  • By abusing men
  • By attempted rape

Lot’s offer (to throw his virgin daughters out to be raped by the mob) and the parallel story in Judges 19-21 (of the murderous gang rape and dismemberment at Gibeah of an unnamed female concubine, when this kind of offer was accepted) show that the homosexual interpretation of this story was the least of the concerns of its ancient authorship. For that rape and murder, a tribe is almost entirely wiped out. However, the Gibeah story is hardly first wave feminism: the tribe of Benjamin survives only by the abduction (i.e. rape) of 600 women.

It is said of Arabic sacred scripture that it has seven layers of meaning; the same may be said of its sister scriptures. One of the insights of a kind of interpretation called ‘hermeneutics’ is that the meaning we see may depend upon our perspective. Some truths, as my friend found out, take a while to be accepted; but truth, as his home office caseworker realised, will out!

Some have decided that these terrible tales should form no part of our modern life, and this is a choice I respect. Others, like myself, do battle with their continuing narrow and life-denying interpretation in order to open them up to new insights and to remember what is valuable about ancient cultures while we throw out the trash.

So what I remember, from my own Celtic tradition, is a rune of hospitality, which comes with a Christian interpretation but is open to any human or divine being:

I saw a stranger yestre’en, I put food in the eating-place, drink in the drinking-place, a bed in the resting-place, and in the morning the stranger was gone; and the lark, in her clear song, sang, ‘often, often, often, goes the Christ in stranger’s guise’.


Thanks to Petr Kratochvil for releasing his photo ‘Plant Growing in Desert’ into the Public Domain

Categorical mistakes

Coming across an RC priest-bashing piece of journalism the other day (while reading something worth reading from the same source – not from the same writer) I was struck by how much we still haven’t learned the main lesson of Aristotle: things tend to fall into different categories. In this piece of lazy reportage, one adult makes multiple attempts to invite another adult out socially. Apparently the newsworthiness stems from their gender (both male), their age gap (50 and 29), and the vow of celibacy of one of them. The writer in his profile describes himself as pan-sexual, so readers would not expect the presumed homosexuality of the presumed romantic intent of the invitations to be considered deviant and therefore newsworthy. We have the word of the recipient that he’s been textually ‘bombarded’ and a quoted text, which the writer and recipient apparently take as the depths of depravity: “don’t be shy”. I’m already bored.

So why was this unnewsworthy reportage written? Is it, for all the professed liberalism of the writer, playing on the presumed homophobia and ageism of the reader? The 29 year old (who has previously accepted social invitations from the 50 year old) describes the older man as “creepy”. Would this 29 year old male describe unwanted (presumed) romantic attention from either a female (of any age) or from his own generation (of any gender) with this term? The writer does not challenge this judgment.

Although ageism is growing in popularity among young White men and is especially endemic to the gay White male milieu, the end of the piece presents the real hook: clerical child abuse. Now that’s newsworthy! It’s just not relevant and necessitates the mention of some other Scottish RC priest entirely unconnected to this non-story. What’s the attempt at connection? That the priest, in his first and successful attempt at inviting the younger guy out, said he remembered him as an altar boy. No, it’s not the best line but he was maybe out of practice. Does the 29 year old say that, when he was a boy, the priest bombarded him with social invitations or in any other way harassed him? No. Is the writer therefore covertly collating adult (presumed) homosexuality and paedophilia? Yes.

What the writer is practicing is covertly homophobic, ageist and sectarian. What he professes to be practicing is moral panic over child protection; when the media-savvy ‘victim’ is 29.

This instance of a lazy categorical mistake (that conflates homosexuality and paedophilia, or an adult age gap with paedophilia, or multiple unwanted social invitations with sexual harassment – I admit it may be considered harassment) has repercussions. A middle-aged man, struggling with his vows, is publically embarrassed and his livelihood endangered. Do such journalists care? Riding on the wave of the moral panic over the O’Brien scandal some years ago (which did not concern children, yet child abuse was always mentioned) the Herald ran a similar story (there were a few cosy dinners before and after the adult male layman felt harassed by the priest in that particular story) and accused a priest of hypocrisy – without checking their facts. Held in high esteem by his parishioners, his RC parish church is one of the few in Scotland in which homosexuality is not condemned from the pulpit and remarried couples find a warm welcome.

This week in the news we’ve seen the categorical confusion of a bright boy with a terrorist – because of White Christian prejudice over his religion and the colour of his skin.

A few years ago categorical confusion led to the chilling murder of a man on the London Underground, because police couldn’t tell the difference between someone coming from a hot country and a suicide bomber.

It is an evil thing that we do when we confuse categories and choose to believe the thing worst possible about someone. This is not what the presumption of innocence is about, it forms no part of the social contract, it’s cheap thrill journalism and it has nothing to do with true religion.

For a reminder of what good we can do, when we refuse to confuse categories, read this account of what happened when a young, bearded, Arabic man in a scarf and khaki camouflage clothes, walked into a liberal Christian church, wearing a backpack, a few days after the terrorist attack at Glasgow Airport.


Thanks to George Hodan for releasing his image “Clock” into the Public Domain

The Other Refugees

On Saturday I attended the “Refugees Welcome” rally in George Square, in my native Glasgow, with my mother who was herself a refugee in time of war when for five years she forsook the banks of the Thames for the shores of the Irish Sea. My father’s people had crossed that sea three generations before and while my mother’s mother was from the West Highlands, her father’s father crossed the English Channel from Germany and his Hebrew surname dates back to an old story about an enslaved people fleeing for their lives across the Red Sea.

This isn’t the usual ‘everyone comes from somewhere else’ memo, true as that reminder is. This is about another group of refugees. Their cause cannot be proved to be as urgent as that of the millions who now face religious death squads, famine, disease, and the torturous labyrinth of the asylum process, should they be fortunate enough to even be admitted into it. Their cause is not, now, so urgent, not now, not at the moment but it has been so before and many of them fear that it may be so again. Not urgent, but important, and not just for them.

I, still, call myself a Roman Catholic, yet no-one blames me for the deaths of slaves and Christians in the Roman amphitheatres. No-one blames me for the blind spot the present pope has (for all his humility, simplicity and courage) about sexual ethics. No-one, at least no-one who knows my continued criticism of them, even blames me for the continued pastoral stupidity of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Scotland or for the vile outpourings of blatant prejudice of its clergy-fawning press. In short, the people of my country do not hold me accountable for the evils of the rulers, past and present, of the political State most closely associated with my religion and not even for the continuing evils of some of my coreligionists.

Why are some Scots not using the same common sense with the Jews?

I know racist people and I know those who hate Islam because they hate religion (usually because of vile prejudice that stems from the influence of White, Christian missionaries). Such people do not convince anyone of goodwill or who has any grasp at all of European history. I am not going to argue against racism or against Islamophobia because there is no need: they are indefensible.

Apparently some Scots don’t feel the same way about anti-Semitism.

‘I am Jewish’ and ‘I am Israeli’ are not identical statements; neither are ‘I am Israeli’ and ‘I support the policy of the Israeli government’. I do not ignore the atrocities carried out by Israeli soldiers; neither do I ignore those carried out by British or American soldiers. I do not ignore the deadly game of chess that the colonial powers, notably Britain and France, played in 1948 in the Near East (no, the Levant is not the Middle East) nor the atrocities carried out by the Christian hordes of the Middle Ages (on Muslims, on Jews, on women) nor those carried being out today by Daesh. All this must continue to provide a context for the fear (is it paranoia?) of being ‘swept into the sea’ while the surrounding powers-that-be do what they have always done for the protection of the Jews: nothing.

My Roman Catholic coreligionists who display such culpable and malevolent stupidity are stuck in the past. When the four Scottish banks wouldn’t employ a Catholic. When you had to change your school name on your CV. When you had to be guarded with your surname. This clannish fortress mentality sees the compassion and common sense that caused a country to declare that ‘it’s time’ for equal marriage as a personal attack on all they hold dear. As if G_d were not Merciful and Compassionate!

But no-one blames me for that.

Can we please stop blaming the Jews?

Do I have to mention the cultural impoverishment that happens (not ‘would happen’ yes, disgracefully, we Europeans have experience of this) when the Jews are no longer here? Do I have to recall the eminent Jewish men and women who with clear-sighted intellect have graced our progress as a civilisation? The empresarios? The entertainers? The artists, novelists? Our friends, lovers and family?

Can we, together, as Scots, realise that knowing someone’s ancestral religion gives no clue as to their current political position in regard to the ideology of another country? If anyone wants to know my position as regards Ulster/ Ireland/ Eire/ The Six Counties they had better be prepared for an intensive course in history and cultural studies, if they have the temerity to ask me, or worse to presume to know what my position is without asking. Will it surprise anyone to know that my basic view is: it’s complicated?

What isn’t complicated is to stop making assumptions. A good friend this evening told me that he is thinking of leaving this country. My country. His country. He’s thinking of becoming a refugee. No, he’s not poor, he’s healthy and he has a UK passport. He won’t starve and he won’t be homeless. But if he goes, to Manchester, to London, to the USA, to Canada, to Israel, he will be a refugee. He will be fleeing from our refusal of Scottish hospitality, from our lack of canny commonsense, from our ignorance of kinship. My father fought and suffered years of imprisonment in a war waged by those who tried to wipe out the Jews and eradicate them from Europe. I cannot but take up his cause. Times have changed since the crossing of the Red Sea. These people are our people. These people are my people. Don’t let my people go!

The Jewish Cemetery

Thanks to Carlos Sardá for releasing his photo “The Jewish Cemetery” into the Public Domain.

Afternoon of Life

For my birthday, a good friend gifted me a link to a New Age film which is part of the inspiration and industry related to a certain famous channeled body of writing. The body in question is a lively organism of many members and this film is only one of the many related works. The title doesn’t matter as, in the whole film I found nothing original. The book, ditto. I didn’t put the word ‘channeled’ in scare quotes as I have no problem with archetypal writing, or the kind of book that Robert M. Pirsig (who doesn’t use that word) calls by the Swedish word kulturbärer (culture-barer). I do, however, have a lot of problems with the culture embodied in this film.

To be fair, there is much that is good about the film. Many creative works begin by choosing a different path in midlife and, if Dante’s Divine Comedy was a momento mori (remembrance of death) than this film is definitely a reminder to live life, and to live it to the full. All well and good, and in the afternoon of life we may do well to remember that life is for living.

I can put up with the New Age smugness, the smile and the not-really-listening-to-the-question-because-you-already-know-the-answer; these are symptoms of an attitude common to all ideologies. The studied childlike anti-intellectualism, which precludes an ideology becoming a critical philosophy, the vagueness and conflation of concepts of self and universe and nature and the divine, which preclude fragmentary teachings becoming a religion (or even a full spirituality); these are annoying but not toxic elements utilised by this industry. More irritating is the gender binary, seemingly stuck in melodramas of 50’s suburban Americana awaiting the liberation of Second Wave feminism. So we hear that pre and post the ‘quantum moment’ (a peak experience that [unlike peak experiences] is enduring and simultaneously a paradigm shift, always for the better) men and women want different things. None of them surprising (for those who know the genre). But the male teacher conveniently forgets, in his universal call to service, that while human beings find our purpose in serving, women, apparently (they’ve done studies), need to do their own thing.

So I wonder, as usual with the abundance/ awareness version of the New Age, whether ‘human being’ really translates as ‘independently wealthy White US male’. Just don’t ask by what means he or his family got the money. And please don’t stop supporting this multi-million dollar industry, that prides itself on not being materialistic.

I’m being unkind and unfair, I know. Just about everything I’ve said could, with a couple of tweaks, be equally applied to scientific socialism, Roman Catholicism, or the touchy-feely micromanaged milieu of call centres. I’m not being partisan, I often take pot shots at my coreligionists, when I find them lacking in collective compassion – and don’t get me started on call centres!  But the film bothers me because it’s almost right.

Its naiveté is breathtaking. We’re told that, as we lacked nothing in the womb, as all was provided perfectly, so, with non-interference and good will, all will be well in life after birth. Without going into reproductive ethics, from the perspective of life in a woman’s womb, there are so many things that can and do go wrong – abortion, miscarriage and non-fatal damage being three. It’s also beyond me how, looking around the seas and shores of Europe at the moment, everything can be said to be working out perfectly. This is the Humpty-Dumptyism of language. If that’s what ‘perfect’ now means, we need another word to describe what it used to mean. One that doesn’t include calamity.

So the film is plain wrong about the politics of privilege, this whole industry masks its present day material relations and considers anti-capitalist protest a form of mental illness. The much-vaunted ‘purpose’ we are all encouraged to find seems to be to support the industry, while appearing not to.

So what’s good about it? This film is a reminder to live life, and to live it to the full. And yes there is much insight into creativity and wonder and play as essential elements of a life well lived. These are elements that I bring out when referencing the New Age in my novels. What is missing from the film, with all its blather about awareness, is:

  • we must live more simply, in order for others to simply live
  • we must live more justly, in order for others to just live

…and in order to do both these things, we must become aware (as native peoples, deep ecologists, feminists, anarchists and liberation theologians tell us) of all our relations, just and unjust, simple and complex. If we don’t do this hard task of honesty, ‘spirituality’ becomes a bland soporific, a boob tube of pleasant transmissions, a sleep of the critical faculties.

The wise Buddhist, Taoist and Sufi traditions from which this mental mish-mash is extracted and commodified do not conceive of enlightenment as peaceful slumber.

Wake up!   tree-13441096826dr

Thanks to George Hodan who has released this photo:

“Tree” into the Public Domain