Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Modern Indian Spirituality

I am quite sure ladies and gentlemen, that in this august assembly nobody would envy my position at this moment. Speaking after such a charismatic and formidable personality like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is like coming out of the pavilion to play after Tendulkar has made a sparkling century. But in some weak moment I had committed myself.

There are certain things that I would like to make very clear at the very outset. Dont get carried away by my name Javed Akhtar. I am not revealing a secret, I am saying something that I have said many times, in writing or on TV, in publicI am an atheist, I have no religious beliefs. And obviously I dont believe in spirituality of some kind. Some kind!

Another thing. I am not standing here to criticize, analyze, or attack this gentleman who is sitting here. We have a very pleasant, civilized relation. I have always found him to be an extremely courteous person.

One is talking about an idea, an attitude, a mindset. Not any individual. I must tell you that when Rajeev opened this session, for a moment I felt that I have come to the wrong place. Because, if we are discussing the philosophy of Krishan and Gautam and Kabir, Vivekanand, then I have nothing to say. I can sit down right now. I am not here to discuss a glorious past of which I suppose every Indian is proud, and rightly so. I am here to
discuss a dubious present.

India Today has invited me and I have come here to talk of spirituality today. Lets not be confused by this word spirituality, you can find two people with the same name and they can be totally different people. Ram Charit Manas was written by Tulsidas. And the television film has been made by Ramanand Sagar. Ramayan is common but I dont think it would be very wise to club Tulsidas with Ramanand Sagar. I remember, when he had written Ramcharit Manas, he had faced a kind of a social boycott. How could he write a holy book in such a language like Avadhi? Sometimes I wonder fundamentalists of all hues and all colors, religions and communitie show how similar they are. In 1798, a gentleman called Shah Abdul Qadir, in this very city, for the first time translated Quran in Urdu, and all the ulemas of that time gave fatwa against him that how could he translate this holy book in such a heathen language.

When Tulsi wrote Ramcharit Manas and he was boycotted, I remember a chowpai that he had written.

*Dhut kaho abdhut kaho rajput kaho ki julawa kohu*
*Kohu ki beti se beta na biahab, kohu ki jaat bigaar na chahu*
*Mang ke khaibo, mehjid ma raihbo, lebe ka ek na debe ka dohu*

Ramanand Sagar, when he made his television serial, he made millions. I am not undermining him, but obviously he is much lower in the rung. I will give you another example. Perhaps it would be more direct and more appropriate. Gautam came out of a palace and went into wilderness to find the truth. But nowadays we see, the modern age gurus, come out of the wilderness and wind up in the palaces. They are moving in the opposite direction. We cant talk of them in the same breath. So let us not hide behind names which are dear and respectable for every Indian.

When I was invited to give this talk, I felt that yes, I am an atheist, try to be a rationalist in any given situation, Maybe thats why I have been called. But suddenly I have realized that there is another quality that I share with Modern Age gurus. I work in films. We have lot in common. Both of us, sell dreams, both of us create illusions, both of us create icons, but with a difference. After three hours we put a placard 'the end'. Go back to reality. They dont.

So ladies and gentlemen, let me make it very clear that I have come to talk of this spirituality that has a supermarket in the world. Arms, drugs and spirituality these are the three big businesses in the world. But in arms and drugs you really have to do something, give something. Thats the difference. Here you dont have to give anything.

In this supermarket you get instant Nirvana, Moksha by mail, a crash course in self realization, cosmic consciousness in four easy lessons. This supermarket has its chain all over the world, where the restless elite buy spiritual fast food. I am talking about this spirituality.

Plato in his dialogues has said many a wise thing, and one of them is before starting any discussion decide on the meanings of words. Let us tryto decide on the meaning of this word spirituality. Does it mean love for mankind that transcends all religion, caste, creed, race? Is that so? Then I have no problem. Except that I call it humanity. Does it mean love of plants, trees, mountains, oceans, rivers, animals? The non-human world? If that is so, again I have no problem at all. Except that I call it environmental consciousness. Does spirituality mean heartfelt regard for social institutions like marriage, parenthood, fine arts, judiciary, freedom of expression. I have no problem again sir, how can I disagree here? I call it civil responsibility. Does spirituality mean going into your own world trying to understand the meaning of your own life? Who can object on that? I call it self-introspection, self assessment. Does spirituality mean Yoga? Thanks to Patanjali, who has given us the details of Yoga, *Yam, Yatam, aasan, pranayam*We may do it under any name, but if we are doing pranayam, wonderful. I call it health-care. Physical fitness.

Now is it a matter of only semantics. If all this is spirituality, then what is the discussion. All these words that I have used are extremely respectable and totally acceptable words. There is nothing abstract or intangible about them. So why stick to this word spirituality? What is there in spirituality that has not been covered by all these words? Is there something? If that is so then what is that?

Somebody in return can ask me what is my problem with this word. I am asking to change it, leave it, drop it, make it obsolete but why so? I will tell you what is my reservation. If spirituality means all this then there is no discussion. But there is something else which makes me uneasy. In a dictionary, the meaning of spirituality is rooted in a word called spirit. When mankind didnt know whether this earth is round or flat, he had decided that human beings are actually the combination of two things. Body and spirit. Body is temporary, it dies. But the spirit is, shall I say, non-biodegradable. In your body you have a liver and heart and intestines and the brain, but since the brain is a part of the body, and mind lies within the brain, it is inferior because ultimately the brain too shall die with the body, but dont worry, you are not going to die, because you are your spirit, and the spirit has the supreme consciousness that will remain, and whatever problem you have is because you listen to your mind. Stop listening to your mind. Listen to your spirit - the supreme consciousness that knows the cosmic truth. All right. Its not surprising that in Pune there is an ashram and I used to go there. I loved the oratory. On the gate of the lecture hall there was a placard. Leave your shoes and minds here. There are other gurus who dont mind if you carry your shoes. But minds? Sorry!

Now, if you leave your mind what do you do? You need the Guru to find the next station of consciousness. That hides somewhere in the spirit. He has reached the supreme consciousness, he knows the supreme truth. But can he tell you. No sir, he cannot tell you. So can you find out on your own? No sir, you need the guru for that. You need him but he cannot guarantee that you will know the ultimate truth and what is that ultimate truth? What is the cosmic truth? Relating to cosmos? I have really not been able to understand that. The moment we step out of the solar system the first star is Alpha Centuari. It is just four light years away. How do I relate to that!! What do I do!!

So the emperor is wearing robes that only the wise can see. And the emperor is becoming bigger and bigger. And there are more and more wise people who are appreciating the robe.

I used to think that actually spirituality is the second line of defence for the religious people. When they get embarrassed about traditional religion, when it starts looking too down-market, they hide behind this smokescreen of cosmos and super consciousness. But that is not the complete truth. Because the clientele of traditional religion and spirituality is different. You take the map of the world, you start marking places which are extremely religious, within India or outside India, Asia, Latin America, Europe wherever. You will find that wherever there is lot of religion there is lack of human rights. There is repression. Anywhere. Our Marxist friends used to say that religion is the opium of poor masses, the sigh of the oppressed. I dont want to get into that discussion. But spirituality nowadays is definitely the tranquilizer of the rich.

You see that the clientele is well heeled, it is the affluent class. Alright, so the guru gets power, high self esteem, status, wealth (which is not that important), power and lot of wealth too. What does the disciple get? When I looked at them carefully I realized that there are categories and categories of these disciples. Its not a monolith. There are different kinds of followers. Different kinds of disciples. One, who is rich, successful, doing extremely well in his life, making money, gaining property. Now, since he has everything he wants absolution too. So guru tells him - whatever you are doing, is *niskaam karma *you are playing a role, this is all *Maya*, the money that you are making everyday and the property that you are acquiring, you are not emotionally involved with it. You are just playing a role. You come to me because you are in search of eternal truth. Maybe your hands are dirty, but your spirit and soul are pure. And this man, he starts feeling wonderful about himself. For seven days he is exploiting the world, and at the end of the seven days when he goes and sits at the feet of the guru, he feels I am a sensitive person

There is another category. That too comes from the affluent class. But he is not the winner like the first one. You know winning or losing that is also relative. A rickshaw-wallah if he is gambling on the pavement and wins hundred rupees will feel victorious, and if a corporate man makes only 300 million dollars, while his brother is a billionaire, he will feel like a failure. Now, what does this rich failure do? He needs a guru to tell him
who says that you have failed? You have other worlds, you have another vision, you have other sensibility that your brother doesnt have. He thinks that he is successful, wrong. The world is very cruel, you know. The world tells you honestly, no sir, you have got three out of ten. The other person has seven out of ten. Fair. They will treat you that way and they will meet you that way. There he gets compassion. There he plays another game.

Another category. And I will talk about this category not with contempt or with any sense of superiority, not any bitterness, but all the compassion available one that is a very big client of this modern day guru and todays spirituality, is the unhappy rich wife. Here is a person who put all her individuality, aspirations and dreams, and her being at the altar of marriage and in return she got an indifferent husband. Who at the most gave her a couple of children. Who is rather busy with his work, or busy with other women. This woman needs a shoulder. She knows that she is an existential failure. There is nothing to look forward to. She has a vacuous, empty, comfortable yet purposeless life. Its sad, but it is true.

Then there are other people. Who are suddenly traumatized. They lose a child. The wife dies. The husband dies. Or they lose the property, they lose their business. Something happens that shocks them and they ask why me? So who do they ask? They go to the Guru. And the guru tells him that this is Karma. But there is another world if you follow me. Where there is no pain. Where there is no death. Where there is immortality. Where there is only bliss. He tells all these unhappy souls follow me and I will take you to heaven, to paradise, where there is no pain. I am sorry sir, it is disappointing but true that there is no such paradise. Life will always have a certain quota of pain, of hurts, a possibility of defeats. But they do get some satisfaction.

Somebody may ask me if they are feeling better, if they are getting peace then what is your problem. It reminds me of a story that I have read. Its an old Indian story told by a sage, that a hungry dog finds a dry bone and tries to eat it and in the process bites its own tongue. And the tongue is bleeding and the dog feels that he is getting nourishment from the bone. I feel sad. I dont want them, these adults, to behave like this because I respect them. Drugs and alcohol are also supposed to give mental peace and serenity, but is that kind of piece or serenity desirable or advisable?

The answer is no. Any mental peace that is not anchored in rational thoughts is nothing but self-deception. Any serenity that takes you away from truth is just an illusion a mirage. I know that there is a kind of a security in this which is like the security of a tri-cycle. If you are riding a tri-cycle you cant fall. But adults do not ride tricycles. They ride bi-cycles. They can even fall. It is a part of life.

There is one more kind. Like everybody who is the member of the golf club is not fond of golf. In the same way everybody who is seen in an ashram is not a spiritual person. A film producer who is an ardent follower of a guru, whose ashram is about two hours from Delhi once told me that you must go to my Guru. You will see the whos who of Delhi there. Let me tell you my Guruji is another Chandraswami in the making. Now this is a contact point
for networking. I have great respect for people who are spiritual, or religious, and in spite of this they are good people. And I have a reason. I believe that like every emotion or feeling, you have a limitation.

You can see up to a point. And you cant see further. You can hear up to a point, but beyond that you wont be able to register sounds. You can mourn up to a point and then you will get over your mourning. You will feel happy up-to a point and then you will be through with your happiness. Same way, I am sure that you have a certain capacity for nobility also. You can be as noble and no more. Now suppose if we count this capacity for nobility in the average man as ten units, now anybody who goes to pray in a mosque five times is consuming his five units, there anybody who goes to the temple or sits in the feet of the Guru, he is consuming his quota of nobility there. And in a totally non-productive manner. I dont go to pray. I dont pray. If I dont go to any guru, or mosque or temple or church, what do I do with my quota of nobility. I will have to help somebody, feed somebody, give shelter to somebody. People who use their quota in worshipping, praying, adoring religious figures and spiritual figures, in spite of that, if they are left with some nobility, hats off to them.

You may ask me, that if I have this kind of ideas about religious people, why should I show such reverence for Krishan and Kabir and Gautam? You can ask me. Ill tell you why I respect them. These were the great contributors in the human civilization. They were born in different points of time in history, in different situations. But one thing is common in them. They stood up against injustice. They fought for the downtrodden. Whether it was Ravana, or Kansha or the pharaoh or the high priests or the British Samrajya in front of Gandhi or the communal empire of Firoze Tughlaq in the times of Kabir, they stood against that.

And what surprises me, and confirms my worst feelings, that today, the enlightened people who know the cosmic truth, none of them stand up against the powers that be. None of them raises his voice against the ruling classes and the privileged classes. Charity, yes, when it is approved and cleared by the establishment and the powers that be. But I want to know which was that guru which took the dalits to those temples which are still closed to them. I want to know which was that guru who stood for the rights of the Adivasis against the thekedaars and contractors. I want to know which was that guru  who spoke about the victims of Gujarat and went to their relief camps. They are human beings too.

Sir, It is not enough to teach the rich how to breathe. It is the rich mans recreation. It is the hypocrites pretension. It is a mischievous deception. And you know that in the oxford dictionary, mischievous deception is a term that is used for a word, and that word is HOAX.

Speech by JAVED AKHTAR at India Today Conclave  *


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Britain and the Euro

April 21, 2010

Knives out. It's the fatal flaw in Clegg's plan

The Lib Dems are committed to joining the euro. Just look abroad – it would be catastrophic for Britain

If they want to skewer Nick Clegg in tomorrow's TV debate on foreign policy, the two established parties should focus on one issue: not Trident, nor terrorism, nor Afghanistan, but a much more immediate threat to the country's political independence and economic wellbeing — the euro. But to pin down the Liberal Democrats convincingly, Gordon Brown and David Cameron will have to do more than just point to the chaos in Greece and the 20 per cent unemployment in Spain.
They will have to engage Britain's voters in a sophisticated argument that has proved too complex for many of Europe's top businessmen and financiers — although this confusion may now be ending as a result of the events in Greece.
The Lib Dems' official policy is clearly stated in their manifesto: "It is in Britain's long-term interest to be part of the euro." The manifesto then adds two politically convenient qualifications — that Britain should join only "when the economic conditions are right" and "if the decision were supported by the people in a referendum". But these weasel phrases in no way detract from the Lib Dems' analytical position, that they fervently believe the loss of monetary independence to be a national ambition.
This is a point on which the Tories could have a field day, but only by making an admission that Mr Cameron would find politically very tough. To explain why any British politician who still believes in joining the euro is either a committed euro-federalist or an economic ignoramus, the Tories would have to admit that Britain, under Gordon Brown's economic leadership, has actually suffered rather less damage from the financial crisis than most parts of the eurozone. The loss of GDP and industrial output since the start of the recession, for example, has been slightly smaller in Britain than in Germany and unemployment here remains lower than in any other economy of comparable size.
Worse still from the Tory standpoint, Mr Cameron would have to concede not only that the huge deficit run up by the Brown Government has helped to support the British economy through the crisis, but also that it will do no great harm in the long term, provided public spending is managed sensibly. By contrast, the government deficits in Greece, Spain, France and other eurozone countries, although they are actually rather smaller than Britain's, are already squeezing the lifeblood out of their economies and will end up destroying their political independence.
Why is this so? The main advantage for any nation of having its own currency, at least since the gradual abolition of the gold standard in the middle years of the last century, lies in the ability to conduct independent monetary and fiscal policies — to set interest rates and to borrow money, without regard to external political constraints. This monetary and fiscal independence is a far more important national prerogative than just the ability to devalue the currency to make exports competitive or revalue to make foreign holidays feel cheaper. And it is the permanent loss of monetary and fiscal independence that clinches the argument against joining the euro, regardless of whether economic conditions are deemed to be favourable or whether a referendum has been held.
To give up the national currency also implies, in the end, giving up a nation's independent ability to set taxes and public spending — an irrevocable loss of sovereignty on a par with ceding control of a large piece of national territory or disbanding the Armed Forces.
Compare the political and economic pressures exerted by the crisis on Britain and Greece. Both countries have government deficits of roughly 12 per cent of national income. But Greece is on the verge of national bankruptcy, while politicians in Britain can calmly engage in debates over whether to abandon planned tax increases and whether to start modestly reducing public spending in 2011 or the years beyond.
Why, then, are financial pressures so much more intense in Greece? Mainly because the British Government borrows in its own currency and can therefore simply print more money in order to repay its debts if required. This, in fact, is exactly what the Bank of England did last year, creating new money to the tune of around £170 billion. The ability to print money can create inflation if the Bank of England miscalculates; inflation rose to 3.4 per cent in March. But the independence of monetary policy gives the British Government a freedom to set taxes and public spending in response to the decisions of British voters, instead of the demands of international organisations or bond market investors.
For members of the eurozone — Greece today but, in the long run, also Spain, Italy, France and even Germany — the opposite is true. By abolishing their independent currencies, they have not just lost control of interest rates and given up their ability to devalue or revalue. They have also effectively ceded their tax and spending decisions to the European level.
This is most obvious in the case of Greece, which has no control of the euros it needs to borrow and can no longer raise them on financial markets without guarantees of support from other EU countries and the IMF. German politicians are now openly stating that Greece will have to pay for these guarantees by giving up control of its domestic policies.
But the gradual loss of fiscal sovereignty is also visible in Spain, where the government deficit of 10 per cent of GDP is only slightly smaller than it is in Greece and where deflationary policies demanded by the eurozone "stability pact" have already raised the unemployment rate to 20 per cent.
In the end, even Germany, the paymaster of the eurozone, will suffer the loss of fiscal control implied by monetary union. The Greek experience shows that the single currency can only survive in the long run if all member governments share responsibility for each other's debts.
Although such "burden sharing" is explicitly ruled out by the European treaties, it was always envisaged as a consequence of monetary union by Jacques Delors and the other instigators of the euro project.
Most likely the burden sharing will eventually be achieved through a vast expansion of the EU's ability to borrow money in its own name and then lend it on to national governments — in the same way that the US federal government issues Treasury bonds and uses the proceeds to offer conditional support to the states. While the mechanism whereby Europe will adopt a federal fiscal policy is not yet clear, the outcome is unavoidable. And that will mean Germany, as much as every other euro country, losing control of its economic destiny. If that is also Mr Clegg's objective for Britain, he should say so.

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Heaven: A fool's paradise

Why do the majority of Britons still believe in life after death? Heaven isn't a wonderful place filled with light - it is a pernicious construct with a short and bloody history, writes Johann Hari

John Lennon urged us: "Imagine there's no heaven/It's easy if you try/No hell below us/Above us only sky." Yet the religious aren't turning to Lennonism any faster than Leninism. Today, according to a new book by Lisa Miller, Newsweek's religion correspondent, 81 per cent of Americans and 51 per cent of Brits say they believe in heaven - an increase of 10 per cent since a decade ago. Of those, 71 per cent say it is "an actual place". Indeed, 43 per cent believe their pets - cats, rats, and snakes - are headed into the hereafter with them to be stroked for eternity. So why can't humans get over the Pearly Gates?
In reality, the heaven you think you're headed to - a reunion with your relatives in the light - is a very recent invention, only a little older than Goldman Sachs. Most of the believers in heaven across history would find it unrecognisable. Miller's book, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife, teases out the strange history of heaven - and shows it's not what you think.
Heaven is constantly shifting shape because it is a history of subconscious human longings. Show me your heaven, and I'll show you what's lacking in your life. The desert-dwellers who wrote the Bible and the Koran lived in thirst - so their heavens were forever running with rivers and fountains and springs. African-American slaves believed they were headed for a heaven where "the first would be last, and the last would be first" - so they would be the free men dominating white slaves. Today's Islamist suicide-bombers live in a society starved of sex, so their heaven is a 72-virgin gang-bang. Emily Dickinson wrote: " 'Heaven' - is what I cannot Reach!/The Apple on the Tree/Provided it do hopeless - hang/That - 'Heaven' is - to Me!"
We know precisely when this story of projecting our lack into the sky began: 165BC, patented by the ancient Jews. Until then, heaven - shamayim - was the home of God and his angels. Occasionally God descended from it to give orders and indulge in a little light smiting, but there was a strict no-dead-people door policy. Humans didn't get in, and they didn't expect to. The best you could hope for was for your bones to be buried with your people in a shared tomb and for your story to carry on through your descendants. It was a realistic, humanistic approach to death. You go, but your people live on.
So how did the idea of heaven - as a perfect place where God lives and where you end up if you live right - rupture this reality? The different components had been floating around "in the atmosphere of Jerusalem, looking for a home", as Miller puts it, for a while. The Greeks believed there was an eternal soul that ascended when you die. The Zoroastrians believed you would be judged in the end-time for your actions on earth. The Jews believed in an almighty Yahweh.
But it took a big bloody bang to fuse them. In the run up to heaven's invention, the Jews were engaged in a long civil war over whether to open up to the Greeks and their commerce or to remain sealed away, insular and pure. With no winner in sight, King Antiochus got fed up. He invaded and tried to wipe out the Jewish religion entirely, replacing it with worship of Zeus. The Jews saw all that was most sacred to them shattered: they were ordered to sacrifice swine before a statue of Zeus that now dominated their Temple. The Jews who refused were hacked down in the streets.
Many young men fled into the hills of Palestine to stage a guerrilla assault - now remembered as the Hanukkah story. The old Jewish tale about how you continue after you die was itself dying: your bones couldn't be gathered by your ancestors anymore with so many Jews scattered and on the run. So suddenly death took on a new terror. Was this it? Were all these lives ending forever, for nothing? One of the young fighters - known to history only as Daniel - announced that the martyred Jews would receive a great reward. "Many of those who sleep in the dust shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt," he wrote and launched us on the road to the best-selling 1990s trash 90 Minutes in Heaven. Daniel's idea was wildly successful. Within a century, most Jews believed in heaven, and the idea has never died.
But while the key components of heaven were in place, it was not the kumbaya holiday camp it has become today. It was a place where you and God and the angels sat - but Jesus warned "there is no marriage in heaven". You didn't join your relatives. It was you and God and eternal prayer. It was paradise, but not as we know it.
Even some atheists regard heaven as one of the least-harmful religious ideas: a soothing blanket to press onto the brow of the bereaved. But its primary function for centuries was as a tool of control and intimidation. The Vatican, for example, declared it had a monopoly on St Peter's VIP list - and only those who obeyed their every command and paid them vast sums for Get-Out-of-Hell-Free cards would get them and their children onto it. The afterlife was a means of tyrannising people in this life. This use of heaven as a bludgeon long outlasted the Protestant Reformation. Miller points out that in Puritan New England, heaven was not primarily a comfort but rather "a way to impose discipline in this life."
It continues. Look at Margaret Toscano, a sixth-generation Mormon who was a fanatical follower of Joseph Smith in her youth. Then she studied feminism at university. She came back to her community and argued that women ought to be allowed to become priests. The Mormon authorities - the people who denied black people had souls until 1976 - ordered her to recant, and said if she didn't, she wouldn't go to heaven with the rest of her family. She refused. Now her devastated sisters believe they won't see her in the afterlife.
Worse still, the promise of heaven is used as an incentive for people to commit atrocities. I have seen this in practice: I've interviewed wannabe suicide bombers from London to Gaza to Syria, and they all launched into reveries about the orgy they will embark on in the clouds. Similarly, I was once sent - as my own personal purgatory - undercover on the Christian Coalition Solidarity tour of Israel. As we stood at Megido, the site described in the Book of Revelation as the launchpad for the apocalypse, they bragged that hundreds of thousands of Arabs would soon be slaughtered there while George Bush and his friends are raptured to heaven as a reward for leading the Arabs to their deaths. Heaven can be an inducement to horror.
Yet there is an unthinking "respect" automatically accorded to religious ideas that throttles our ability to think clearly about these questions. Miller's book - after being a useful exposition of these ideas - swiftly turns itself into a depressing illustration of this. She describes herself as a "professional sceptic", but she is, in fact, professionally credulous. Instead of trying to tease out what these fantasies of an afterlife reveal about her interviewees, she quizzes everyone about their heaven as if she is planning to write a Lonely Planet guide to the area, demanding more and more intricate details. She only just stops short of demanding to know what the carpeting will be like. But she never asks the most basic questions: where's your evidence? Where are you getting these ideas from? These questions are considered obvious when we are asking about any set of ideas, except when it comes to religion, when they are considered to be a slap in the face.
Of course there's plenty of proof that the idea of heaven can be comforting, or beautiful - but that doesn't make it true. The difference between wishful thinking and fact-seeking is something most six-year-olds can grasp, yet Miller - and, it seems, the heaven-believing majority - refuse it here. Yes, I would like to see my dead friends and relatives again. I also would like there to be world peace, a million dollars in my current account, and for Matt Damon to ask me to marry him. If I took my longing as proof they were going to happen, you'd think I was deranged.
"Rationalist questions are not helpful," announces one of her interviewees - a professor at Harvard, no less. This seems to be Miller's view too. She stresses that to believe in heaven you have to make "a leap of faith" - but in what other field in life do we abandon all need for evidence? Why do it in one so crucial to your whole sense of existence? And if you are going to "leap" beyond proof, why leap to the Christian heaven? Why not convince yourself you are going to live after death in Narnia, or Middle Earth, for which there is as much evidence? She doesn't explain: her arguments dissolve into a feel-good New Age drizzle.
True, Miller does cast a quick eye over the only "evidence" that believers in heaven offer - the testimonies of people who have had near-death experiences. According to the medical journal The Lancet, between 9 per cent and 18 per cent of people who have been near death report entering a tunnel, seeing a bright light, and so on. Dinesh D'Souza, in his preposterous book Life After Death, presents this as "proof" for heaven. But in fact there are clear scientific explanations. As the brain shuts down, it is the peripheral vision that goes first, giving the impression of a tunnel. The centre of your vision is what remains, giving the impression of a bright light. Indeed, as Miller concedes: "Virtually all the features of [a near-death experience] - the sense of moving through a tunnel, an 'out of body' feeling, spiritual awe, visual hallucinations, and intense memories - can be reproduced with a stiff dose of ketamine, a horse tranquilliser frequently used as a party drug." Is a stoner teenager in a K-hole in contact with God and on a day-trip to heaven? Should the religious be dropping horse dope on Sundays? But Miller soon runs scared from the sceptical implications of this, offering the false balance of finding one very odd scientist who says that these experiences could point beyond life - without any proof at all.
But even if you set aside the absence of even the tiniest thread of evidence, there is a great conceptual hole at the heart of heaven - one that has gnawed at even its fondest believers. After a while, wouldn't it be excruciatingly dull? When you live in the desert, a spring seems like paradise. But when you have had the spring for a thousand years, won't you be sick of it? Heaven is, in George Orwell's words, an attempt to "produce a perfect society by an endless continuation of something that had only been valuable because it was temporary". Take away the contrast, and heaven becomes hell.
And yet, and yet ... of course I understand why so many people want to believe in heaven, even now, even in the face of all the evidence, and all reason. It is a way - however futilely - of trying to escape the awful emptiness of death. As Philip Larkin put it: "Not to be here/Not to be anywhere/And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true". To die. To rot. To be nothing. We wouldn't be sane if we didn't seek a way to leap off this conveyor-belt heading towards a cliff.
So yes, there is pain in seeing the truth about Heaven - but there is also a liberation in seeing beyond the childhood myths of our species. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, written in Babylon 4,000 years ago, the eponymous hero travels into the gardens of the gods in an attempt to discover the secret of eternal life. His guide tells him the secret - there is no secret. This is it. This is all we're going to get. This life. This time. Once. "Enjoy your life," the goddess Siduri tells him. "Love the child who holds you by the hand, and give your wife pleasure in your embrace." It's Lennon's dream, four millennia ahead of schedule: above us, only sky. Gilgamesh returns to the world and lives more intensely and truly and deeply than before, knowing there is no celestial after-party and no forever. After all this time, can't we finally follow Gilgamesh to a world beyond heaven?

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Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The pope should stand trial


Why is anyone surprised when Christopher Hitchens and I call for the prosecution of the pope? There is a clear case to answer




Pope Benedict XVI Holds Weekly Audience - December 23, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI ... 'severely shaken' by the abuse cases. Photograph: Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Sexual abuse of children is not unique to the Roman Catholic church, and Joseph Ratzinger is not one of those priests who raped altar boys while in a position of dominance and trust. But as so often it is the subsequent cover-ups, even more than the original crimes, that do most to discredit an institution, and here the pope is in real trouble.

Pope Benedict XVI is the head of the institution as a whole, but we can't blame the present head for what was done before his watch. Except that in his particular case, as archbishop of Munich and as Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (what used to be called the Inquisition), the very least you can say is that there is a case for him to answer. See, for example, three articles by my colleague Christopher Hitchens here, here, and here. The latest smoking gun is the 1985 letter obtained by the Associated Press, signed by the then Cardinal Ratzinger to the diocese of Oakland about the case of Father Stephen Kiesle, mercilessly analysed by Andrew Sullivan here.

Lashing out in desperation, church spokesmen are now blaming everybody but themselves for their current dire plight, which one official spokesman likens to the worst aspects of antisemitism (what are the best ones, I wonder?). Suggested culprits include the media, the Jews, and even Satan. The church is hiding behind a seemingly endless stream of excuses for having failed in its legal and moral obligation to report serious crimes to the appropriate civil authorities. But it was Cardinal Ratzinger's official responsibility to determine the church's response to allegations of child sex abuse, and his letter in the Kiesle case makes the real motivation devastatingly explicit. Here are his actual words, translated from the Latin in the AP report:

"This court, although it regards the arguments presented in favour of removal in this case to be of grave significance, nevertheless deems it necessary to consider the good of the universal church together with that of the petitioner, and it is also unable to make light of the detriment that granting the dispensation can provoke with the community of Christ's faithful, particularly regarding the young age of the petitioner."
"The young age of the petitioner" refers to Kiesle, then aged 38, not the age of any of the boys he tied up and raped (11 and 13). It is completely clear that, together with a nod to the welfare of the "young" priest, Ratzinger's primary concern, and the reason he refused to unfrock Kiesle (who went on to re-offend) was "the good of the universal church".
This pattern of putting church PR over and above the welfare of the children in its care (and what an understatement that is) is repeated over and over again in the cover-ups that are now coming to light, all over the world. And Ratzinger himself expressed it with damning clarity in this smoking gun letter.

In this case he was refusing the strong request of the local bishop that Kiesle should be unfrocked. Vatican standing orders were to refer such cases not to the civil authorities but to the church itself. The current campaign to call the church to account can take credit for the fact that this standing order has just changed, as of Monday 12 April 2010. Better late than never, as Galileo might have remarked in 1979, when the Vatican finally got around to a posthumous pardon.

Suppose the British secretary of state for schools received, from a local education authority, a reliable report of a teacher tying up his pupils and raping them. Imagine that, instead of turning the matter over to the police, he had simply moved the offender from school to school, where he repeatedly raped other children. That would be bad enough. But now suppose that he justified his decision in terms such as these:
"Although I regard the arguments in favour of prosecution, presented by the local education authority, as of grave significance, I nevertheless deem it necessary to consider the good of the government and the party, together with that of the offending teacher. And I am also unable to make light of the detriment that prosecuting the offender can provoke among voters, particularly regarding the young age of the offender."
The analogy breaks down, only in that we aren't talking about a single offending priest, but many thousands, all over the world.

Why is the church allowed to get away with it, when any government minister who was caught writing such a letter would immediately have to resign in ignominy, and face prosecution himself? A religious leader, such as the pope, should be no different. That is why, along with Christopher Hitchens, I am supporting the current investigation of the pope's criminal complicity by Geoffrey Robertson QC and Mark Stephens. These excellent lawyers believe that, for a start, they have a persuasive case against the Vatican's status as a sovereign state, on the basis that it was just an ad hoc concoction driven by internal Italian politics under Mussolini, and was never given full status at the UN. If they succeed in this initial argument, the pope could not claim diplomatic immunity as a head of state, and could be arrested if he steps on British soil.

Why is anyone surprised, much less shocked, when Christopher Hitchens and I call for the prosecution of the pope, if he goes ahead with his proposed visit to Britain? The only strange thing about our proposal is that it had to come from us: where have the world's governments been all this time? Where is their moral fibre? Where is their commitment to treating everyone equally under the law? The UK government, far from standing up for justice for the innocent victims of the Roman Catholic church, is preparing to welcome this grotesquely tainted man on an official visit to the UK so that he can "dispense moral guidance". Read that again: dispense moral guidance!

Unfortunately I must end in bathos, with a necessary correction of a damaging error in another newspaper. The Sunday Times of 11 April, on its front page, printed the headline, "Richard Dawkins: I will arrest Pope Benedict XVI." This conjures up – as was doubtless intended – a ludicrous image of me ambushing the pontiff with a pair of handcuffs and marching him off in a half Nelson. Blood out of a stone, but I finally managed to persuade that Murdoch paper to change the headline in the online edition.
Never mind headlines invented by foolish sub-editors, we are serious. It should be for a court to decide – a civil court, not a whitewashing ecclesiastical court – whether the case against Ratzinger is as damning as it looks. If he is innocent, let him have the opportunity to demonstrate it in court. If he is guilty, let him face justice. Just like anybody else.

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Friday, 9 April 2010

If you're looking for class war, just read Cameron's policies


Johann Hari: 

It is very hard for the British people to make a serious choice in this election without talking about one factor above all others - class. This isn't about David Cameron's background; it's about his policies. It is a provable fact that he will redistribute wealth - substantially - but in a strange direction: from everyone in the big wide middle and bottom of British society, to the very top.
Here are the facts. He will give a £1.2bn inheritance tax cut to the richest 2 per cent in Britain - with most going to the 3,000 wealthiest estates (including his wife's). Then he promises to end the 50p top rate of tax, giving another £2.4bn to the richest 1 per cent. Then he has pledged to cut taxes on the pensions of the richest, handing another £3.2bn to the same 1 per cent. Then his marriage tax relief policies will give 13 times more to the rich than the poor. To pay for this, he will slash programmes for the middle and the skint, like the Child Trust Fund, SureStart and state schools.
But this is not called "class war". No. The nasty "class warriors" are the people who try - with hard statistical facts - to point out this rip-off by the rich. This exposes the assumptions that underpin our politico-media debate. Money being endlessly shovelled up to the top by the state is considered the natural state of affairs; anybody trying to speak for the interests of the majority is considered a rude and irrational "warrior." These premises were best rebuffed by the billionaire Warren Buffett, who quipped: "Let's face it - if there's a class war, my side's winning."
Yet the media is trying to render all of this taboo, by claiming that any discussion of class is an attack on Cameron's childhood at Eton. One front page screamed: "Now The Class War Begins!" - referring not to Cameron's policies, but Gordon Brown's mild reference to himself as "middle class." But how can the British people know what they are choosing, if we can't discuss which class will benefit from Cameron - and which classes will lose?
Yes, the differences between New Labour and the Conservatives are far too small, on this as on all issues. There are myriad ways in which the current Government has also spoon-fed the super-rich. They cheer-led the economy-crashing deregulation of the banks; they turned Britain into a de facto tax haven for non-doms; when you add it all up, a tycoon still scandalously pays a lower proportion of his income in tax than his secretary.
But it is wrong to say, on this issue, there is no difference at all. The gap is real, and millions of people live in that gap. The Institute of Fiscal Studies just published a long-term study of how Labour's tax changes have affected different classes, compared to the last Tory government. It found that the richest 10 per cent have seen their incomes cut by 9 per cent, to pay for an increase in the incomes of the poorest 10 per cent. A rich man has lost on average £25,000 a year; a poor woman has gained on average £1,700 a year. I have seen these changes among my own family and friends: gaining £1,700 is the difference between struggling to pay the bills, or being able to give your kids a summer holiday. Yes, there should have been much more - but the cigarette paper between the parties is big enough to make a pretty fat roll-up.
Cameron's policies make it pretty plain: this redistribution will be slammed into reverse by him, with state cash flowing in the opposite direction. Is this due to the fact that Cameron has lived his life in a bubble of extreme privilege, and thinks it is natural that People Like Us should be the primary beneficiaries of government action? This is a question that matters - but it needs to be answered carefully. It is idiotic to attack somebody for a decision their parents made when they were a child, or money they earned before he was conceived. There's nothing wrong with being an Etonian: George Orwell went to Eton, and went on to become the greatest left-winger this country has ever produced.
The problem isn't Cameron's extreme privilege - it is that he has never tried to see beyond it. He keeps accidentally revealing how warped his view of Britain is, and how little of it he understands. For example, Cameron said in an interview: "The papers keep writing that [my wife, Samantha] comes from a very blue-blooded background", but "she is actually very unconventional. She went to a day school."
Read that sentence again. Now imagine how Britain looks from inside David Cameron's head, where the 97 per cent of us who went to day schools are "very unconventional". (In the Bullingdon Club, he called George Osborne "oik", because he had gone to the £20,000-a-year St Pauls, not the £30,000-a-year Eton.) This points to a wider mindset. The group he considers "conventional" and "normal" are the only people he has ever really mixed with, and they are the people he chooses to staff his office with today - very rich people. Is it any surprise he makes policies that serve them, not us?
But this attempt to stop the British people understanding the class differences underpinning the election campaign is part of a wider effort to stop us understanding how our society still works. Cameron keeps saying class doesn't matter any more, and "it's not where you're from that matters, it's where you're going." But today, a child born into a poor family has to be 20 IQ points smarter than a child born into a rich family to have the same income when he is an adult. To a kid born in east London, the glistening towers of the City - just a 10-minute walk away - may as well be on a different planet.
But any discussion of this is stigmatised as old fashioned, gauche, or even "spiteful." Look at how the term "middle class" is used in our political discussion. The median income in Britain - where half earn more, and half earn less - is £23,000 a year. That's the middle class. Yet routinely the media will refer to taxes on people earning more than £100,000 - the richest six per cent - as "attacks on the middle class." Even the BBC has been referring to Cameron as "upper middle class", when he is related to the Queen and, with his wife, is estimated to be worth £30m - more than 1,000 times the middle-class wage. How is that the middle? The middle of what - White's gentlemen's club? By creating a false middle in this way, they obscure how much Cameron's policies serve a tiny clique at the very top.
Labour must not be intimidated into silence on this issue. On this, it is closer to public opinion than Cameron or his media cheerleaders. Poll after poll finds 75 per cent believe Britain is too unequal, and virtually nobody believes tax cuts should not be targeted at the rich. Indeed, public opinion is substantially to the left of Labour, choosing more progressive policies almost across the board - revealing yet again that New Labour's tragedy has been its conservatism and capitulation to the right. Despite all the disinformation, the British people are whiffing the truth: a Populous poll found that 50 per cent think Cameron is on the side of the rich, compared to only 42 per cent who thought he was on the side of ordinary people.
Yet Brown keeps lapsing into a feeble technocratic line of attack instead, complaining "the Tories' sums don't add up". This will fail and fail badly. People are so disgusted by politicians they assume all their plans are lies anyway - so finding a supposed "£6bn black hole" leaves everybody cold. He needs to appeal to people's visceral instincts instead.
The truth is plain, and it is provable. David Cameron's policies will take money from the hard-working majority of Brits, and hand it to his friends and relatives on landed estates and in tax havens. He is not on your side; he is on the side of a tiny clique who have every luxury in life and now bray for even more. Cameron bragged to his supporters last month: "Nothing and no one can stop us." It's up to the majority who will lose out if he become PM to say - oh yeah?

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How Wikileaks Shone Light On Some of the World's Darkest Secrets



By Archie Bland

08 April, 2010
The Independent

How does a website run by just five full-time staff generate so many scoops? Archie Bland investigates

When the Ministry of Defence first came across Wikileaks, staffers were stunned. "There are thousands of things on here, I literally mean thousands," one of them wrote in an internal email in November 2008. "Everything I clicked on to do with MoD was restricted... it is huge." The website, an online clearing house for documents whose authors would generally prefer them to stay in the private domain, has since been banned from the MoD's internal computers, but it did no good: eventually, that email ended up on Wikileaks. And when a US Army counter-intelligence officer recommended that whistleblowers who leaked to the site be fired, that report ended up on Wikileaks too.

The authorities were right to be worried. If any further proof were needed of the website's extraordinary record in holding the authorities to account, it came this week, in the release of shocking video footage of a gung-ho US helicopter attack in Iraq that killed 12 people, including two unarmed employees of the Reuters news agency.

The US government had resisted Freedom of Information requests from Reuters for years. But when an anonymous whistleblower passed the video on to Wikileaks, all that quickly became futile. An edited version of the tape had received almost 4 million hits on YouTube by last night, and it led news bulletins around the world.

"This might be the story that makes Wikileaks blow up," said Sree Sreenivasan, a digital media professor at New York's Columbia Journalism School. "It's not some huge document with lots of fine print - you can just watch it and you get what it's about immediately. It's a whole new world of how stories get out."

And yet despite Wikileaks' commitment to the freedom of information, there is something curiously shadowy about the organisation itself. Founded, as the group's spokesman Daniel Schmitt (whose surname is a pseudonym) put it, with the intention of becoming "the intelligence agency of the people", the site's operators and volunteers - five full-timers, and another 1,000 on call - are almost all anonymous. Ironically, the only way the group's donors are publicly known is through a leak on Wikileaks itself. The organisation's most prominent figure is Julian Assange, an Australian hacker and journalist who co-founded the site back in 2006. While Assange and his cohorts' intentions are plainly laudable - to "allow whistleblowers and journalists who have been censored to get material out to the public", as he told the BBC earlier this year - some ask who watches the watchmen. "People have to be very careful dealing with this information," says Professor Sreenivasan. "It's part of the culture now, it's out there, but you still need context, you still need analysis, you still need background."

Against all of that criticism, Wikileaks can set a record that carries, as Abu Dhabi's The National put it, "more scoops in its short life than The Washington Post has in the past 30 years". By earning its place as the natural destination for anyone with sensitive information to leak who does not know and trust a particular journalist - so far, despite numerous court actions, not a single source has been outed - Wikileaks has built up a remarkable record.

Yes, it has published an early draft of the script for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Wesley Snipes' tax returns; but it has also published the "Climategate" emails, an internal Trafigura report on toxic dumping in Ivory Coast, and the standard operating procedures for Guantanamo Bay.

Whatever the gaps in its procedures, there is little doubt that the website is at the forefront of a new information era in which the powerful, corrupt and murderous will have to feel a little more nervous about their behaviour. "There are reasons I do it that have to do with wanting to reform civilisation," Assange said in an interview with last month. "Of course, there's a personal psychology to it, that I enjoy crushing bastards. I like a good challenge."

Full disclosure: What we wouldn't know without Wikileaks

Trafigura's super-injunction

When commodities giant Trafigura used a super-injunction to suppress the release of an internal report on toxic dumping in the Ivory Coast in newspapers, it quickly appeared on Wikileaks instead. Accepting that the release made suppression futile, Trafigura lifted the injunction.

The CRU's 'Climategate' leak

Emails leaked on the site showed that scientists at the UK's Climate Research Unit, including director Phil Jones, withheld information from sceptics

The BNP membership list

After the site published the BNP's secret membership list in November 2008, newspapers found teachers, priests and police officers among them. Another list was leaked last year. The police has since barred officers from membership.

Sarah Palin's emails

Mrs Palin's Yahoo email account, which was used to bypass US public information laws, was hacked and leaked during the presidential campaign. The hacker left traces of his actions, and could face five years in prison.

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Thursday, 8 April 2010

Beyond Law And Order

The political class cannot abdicate responsibility for leadership and make the Naxal problem into a mere security issue. The way Pakistan deals with its tribal-belt in FATA should not be a role-model to emulate in central India
There are two Indias.

The dazzling India which we see every day on our TV channels, in the spins of our political leaders and in the writings of our so-called strategic analysts. This is the India which, according to them, is moving rapidly forward to take up its position as a world power, which is courted by the other nations of the world.

But there is another India which we rarely see or write about. This is the India of grinding poverty-- a victim of social exploitation of the worst kind, where the inhabitants--mainly tribals-- are treated like chattels and domestic animals by the upper caste political leaders, landlords and forest contractors.

We rarely see India of negative images because it has been sought to be pushed under the carpet by the dazzling India, which feels embarrassed to admit to the world that such an India exists 63 years after independence.

It is this India kept pushed under the carpet, which has managed to struggle its way out from under the carpet and is hitting out with ferocity at all its perceived exploiters-- whether in the Government or in the society.

It is this India coming out from under the carpet, which is flocking to the banners of the Maoist ideologues and taking to arms against the Government and its social exploiters. For it, the Government is not of the people, by the people and for the people, but of the exploiters, by the exploiters and for the exploiters.

Unless we have the moral courage to admit this harsh reality we are going to see more and more incidents of utter savagery as we saw on April 6, 2010, in the Dantewada district of Chattisgarh where a group of Maoists --estimated at between 300 and 1000-- ambushed and butchered about 75 members of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), who had gone into the jungles for counter-insurgency operations.

This is not the first incident of butchery of the security forces  in the history of our counter-insurgency operations. This will  not be the last unless and until we realize that counter-insurgency is not only about putting down violence against the State and Society, but also about making resort to violence unnecessary by addressing the problems and grievances of the tribals.

It would be very easy to dismiss the Maoist insurgency as the political manipulation of illiterate or semi-literate tribals by Maoist ideologues from cities to achieve political power through the barrel of the gun. Yes, there is an element of cynical political  manipulation of the tribals by many city-bred Maoist ideologues.

But the claim of political manipulation alone cannot explain how hundreds and hundreds of tribals are flocking to the banners of the Maoists. Intense anger over the failures of successive Governments to recognize and address their problems are driving them  to heed the calls of the ideologues to massacre their perceived class enemies.

Unless and until we have a two-pronged approach to the problem--better counter-insurgency to put down violence and better governance and administration to remove the expoitation of the tribals by the non-tribals and improve their quality of life, blood will continue to flow in the jungles and roads of the tribal homelands in Central India.

Tribal India had always posed law and order problems. The tribal homelands in the North-East did so when Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were Prime Ministers. They put down the Chinese and Pakistani supported tribal insurgency in the North-East with a firm hand. At the same time, they interacted vigorously with the tribal people and addressed their problems in an attempt to wean them away from violence. Nehru started a special service called the Indian Frontier Administration Service (IFAS) and inducted the best officers from other services into it to improve governance in the tribal areas not only in the North-East, but also in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. They were always ready for a dialogue with the tribal leaders--even with those who had taken to arms against the State.

They addressed poverty and social injustice not only in the tribal areas, but also in  the rest of the country. Indira Gandhi used to start her day every day by mingling with poor and exploited people outside her residence and listening to their tales of woe. Her shoulders were always available to the poor and exploited to rest their head on and cry.

After Rajiv Gandhi, we have had a succession of Prime Ministers without a human touch in governance and administration in the tribal areas. They tend to look upon the tribal revolt in Central India as purely a problem of law and order, but not also as a problem with human dimensions.

The Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh is rarely seen or heard. He hardly ever mingles with the poor and downtrodden in the tribal belt of Central India. He deals with the tribal belt of Central India in the same way as the Pakistani leaders deal with the tribals of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)-- as mainly a problem to be tackled by the security forces as if the political class has no responsibility for leadership.

There is hardly a medium and long-term strategy -- with a judicious mix of the law and order and hearts and minds dimensions. All new ideas on counter-insurgency coming up are about how to make the security forces more effective. It is important for them to be effective . But it is equally--if not more--important for the political leadership to be seen by the tribals as caring and sensitive to their anger and bitterness towards their exploiters.

The time has come for the Prime Minister to take up in his hands the responsibility for working out a comprehensive political, operational and human strategy for dealing with the problems of the tribal homelands in Central India

If we continue to dither  as we are doing now, Mao Zedong may have his last laugh in India. 

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Wednesday, 7 April 2010

"But none of the priests used condoms so at least they're all good Catholics."

Mark Steel in The Independent on 7 April 2010

Gordon Brown has one genuine chance left. He must employ the Vatican, as their public relations team operates at a level of utter genius. Somehow, while they're embroiled in an international paedophile scandal, they've fixed it so the person who's had to apologise is the Archbishop of an entirely different faith, for suggesting on Radio 4's Start the Week that the scandal has caused the Catholic church to lose credibility. Gary Glitter must have been straight on to 118 118 to gasp "Give me the number of the Pope".

The Pope's own preacher managed to make life even trickier for his boss, complaining that criticism of the Catholic Church on this issue was similar to anti-Semitism and "Collective punishment for Jews." Of course. I'm sure when a priest is told the children he abused want action to be taken against him, he thinks "I tell you what, now I know exactly how Anne Frank felt."

Still, I suppose we should be grateful he didn't add "But none of the priests used condoms so at least they're all good Catholics."

In a way this follows the history of the church, which has never been keen on owning up to its bad behaviour until the last minute. As a guide, having threatened to kill Galileo unless he withdrew his astronomical discoveries, they did manage to apologise, in 1996. So if the child abuse victims can be patient for three more centuries that should get everything cleared up.

You could argue there's something in the nature of the priesthood that makes this sort of activity more likely. A shrink for example might suggest that if you're seen as a conduit between your parishioners and the creator of the universe, and have to be celibate and even masturbation lands you with an eternity in unimaginable agonising torment, that could lead to behavioural issues in certain cases.

The Vatican has objected that the percentage of paedophiles in the priesthood is lower than in society as a whole. Who knows what polling company produced those figures but the problem isn't that some priests abuse children, it's that the ones who do it have been protected by their holy bosses.

It may be that a similar percentage of gas fitters are child abusers, but if they're caught they're sent to the police, and not told that as long as they quietly slip off to a different parish they can still advertise themselves as Corgi registered.

For example, one Father Lawrence Murphy is said to have abused around 200 boys at a deaf school over a period of 24 years in South Wisconsin, and when this was reported to the Vatican he was asked to move to North Wisconsin. And if they'd thought of it they'd probably have suggested he tried the blind school instead as at least they wouldn't be able to identify him in court.

Or there's the government commission in Ireland that concluded in one institution: "For six years priests and nuns terrorised boys and girls with physical, sexual and mental abuse."

If that was any other body, the press would plaster photos of all the abusers on their front pages under headlines saying "Boil this scum." And with your normal paedophile case, if someone suggests the institution that protected them will lose credibility as a result, the media reaction isn't "Hmm, well that seems a little strong."

But there's an assumption that if someone's a religious leader they are by definition wholesome and a bit saintly, so even a paedophile priest must mean well. And the person in charge of the branch of the Vatican that dealt with these misdemeanours was Cardinal Ratzinger, the current Pope, so it must all be a result of a bureaucratic mix-up or something.

So the Pope will just have to offer a semi-regret, send a couple of the worst offenders to a clinic, maybe suggest in future if a priest can't help himself with a bit of child abuse, he should use patches to wean himself off it, and then complain how upsetting it is if in spite of all this someone suggests his church is losing credibility.

Or maybe we've all been fooled and the Archbishop's comments were part of a publicity stunt for the show he made them on, in which case it was a huge success and similar tactics will be used for other shows. So the first question on next week's Gardeners' Question Time will be: "Can the panel tell me why my hydrangeas have been riddled with greenfly since the Church of England has been effectively finished as a religion? And that comes from the Dalai Lama?"

Sunday, 4 April 2010

‘Essay factory’ offers 2:1 degree or your cash back


IT is the academic equivalent of "phone a friend". Students are being sold foolproof dissertations written for them with a cashback guarantee if they fail to get at least a 2:1 degree.
Instead of burning the midnight oil, all the students have to do is put the cost on their credit card. The company selling the service also says its contributors can ghost-write a first-class version of the essay for £1,440. An MA dissertation will cost up to £15,000.
The offers by the website are the latest evidence of the growth of "essay mills", widely condemned as cheating aids. The firms claim they do not encourage dishonesty and say they tell students to use the essays as a "resource" and not hand them in.
The tailor-made work is becoming increasingly popular as universities become better at detecting direct plagiarism from the internet.
Most universities now use anti-plagiarism software to scan work that students submit, but they have done little to combat the essay mills. promises to put the completed essay through its own anti-plagiarism scanner to make sure it cannot be detected.
The firm is among the most successful of the essay mills. Its parent company, Academic Answers Ltd, recently reported profits of £241,598 for the year ending November 30, 2008. Its founder, Barclay Littlewood, 31, a qualified solicitor, has an estimated fortune of some £7m, according to The Sunday Times Young Rich List.
The company claims to have 4,000 contributors, ranging from serving lecturers to solicitors, retired doctors and recent graduates, who write the essays on behalf of students.
It says it has regular customers from universities including Durham and York. It claims none of the essays it recently provided for 240 students at Nottingham and Nottingham Trent universities to pilot its new guarantee was detected.
Many university degrees now award all marks — or nearly all — through coursework and dissertations rather than final exams, making them vulnerable to students plagiarising work or buying essays online.
Last week a Sunday Times researcher posing as an Edinburgh University undergraduate asked the company about providing a final-year dissertation and essays for a course in English literature and classics.
A member of staff at told her that a 6,000-word dissertation, which would count towards her final degree, would cost £1,440 at first-class standard and £720 for a 2:1. She advised that students should not try buying essays that were of an improbably high standard.
Tony Eynon, managing director of, based in Nottingham, said the new guarantee was a "real breakthrough in contemporary academia".
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, a think tank, said: "It is potentially very serious and undermines the whole fabric of higher education."

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Friday, 2 April 2010

The secrets in some English surnames

Terence Blacker

They reveal family origins, as well as insights into one's life and character

There are moments in one's life when a powerful curiosity about family origins begins to niggle. An urge to talk to older relations about interestingly eccentric great aunts is one symptom of this malaise; researching one's family tree on the internet is another.
Ancestors rarely live up to expectations. When Michael Parkinson was dropped from the genealogical celebrity show Who Do You Think You Are? because the Parkinsons were simply too dull, his experience reflected a wider reality. I am said to be descended from a ninth-century king of Denmark, belong to the family of one of Napoleon's mistresses, and be a distant cousin of Stephen Fry - but then it turns out so is virtually everyone else.
Surnames are different. They not only reveal family origins but quite possibly contain insights into one's own life and character. Recognising how helpful names are as a key to self-knowledge, Professor Richard Coates of the University of the West of England launched a project researching the surnames of Britain this week.
Can the origin of a family surname inform the way we behave today? Perhaps some familiar names can provide a few clues.
Cowell. In Anglo-Saxon times, a cowell was a tool for picking up animal droppings, particularly those of cattle. Because cowpats were then highly valued in dried form, being used as insulation, cushions and an early form of Frisbee, those who collected them and sold them, cowellers or cowells, gained great respect for making money out of muck and were often revered local figures.
Darling. It is wrongly assumed that the family name darling was earned by court favourites who were easy with their sexual favours. In fact, the name originates from the old Wiltshire verb "to darl", meaning to render a person unconscious by means of speaking in a tedious, dull manner for a long time. Darlings were much in demand among residents of Salisbury and other major towns who had difficulty in sleeping.
Windsor. During the reign of Henry II, a pejorative term "wind sir" was used to describe particularly useless, vacillating members of the aristocracy. (By contrast, the name Winslet derives from the Viking "vintslett" or "wind-slayer", denoting a powerful and attractive warrior).
Rooney. Surprisingly, the name Rooney, or Ru Ni to give it the correct spelling, originates in Mongolia where it denoted a strong but less than talkative stone-carver. The name is thought to have transferred to English during the 19th century.
Widdecombe. As indicated in the old folk song Widdecombe Fair ("The maid with eyes so fair and fay/ Took me twa to Widdecome Fair, wehay!"), the word "widdecombe" was a euphemism for physical delight. The highest compliment that could be paid to a woman of mature years was that she was "wise, wide and widdecombe".
Clarkson. In 15th-century Basildon, the town clerk employed his son to make public pronouncements on his behalf at every possible opportunity. Thereafter a self-important loudmouth who liked to claim rather more attention than he deserved became known as a clerkson, or clarkson.
Osborne (or Osbourne). Literally "dog-skinner" in the local Worcestershire dialect, an Osborne was someone who did unpleasant things on behalf of the community. As a result, he became something of an oddity, a social outsider. Despite their apparent and superficial differences, recent osbornes - George, Ozzy and John - share this common heritage.


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