Tuesday, 9 June 2020

George Floyd, racism, demonstrations and history

In the wake of the scandalous murder of George Floyd by police in the USA there has been a justifiably sorrowful and angry reaction. This tragic event has not only sparked demonstrations in its own right but has given impetus to the ongoing concerns of racism implicit in most white institutions, and anger and outrage against it. Of course these expressions of public concern have both their critics and their advocates.

It is naturally the case that any event no matter how tragic is tinged with various nuances and complexities which can be exploited by any who have an agenda one way or the other. I have heard critics comment on the less than perfect record of George Floyd as a person and complain therefore against the status of martyr to which he seems to have been raised. But that is to miss the point. The point is that what was done to him was wrong with a capital W. You cannot argue that his killing was less of a crime because of his moral status, and if you dislike his profile being raised in the way it has been, that was not of his doing but because of what was done to him.

Now that the fuse has been lit good and proper it will be interesting to see what develops. Already since the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol a light has been directed upon our tawdry history of enslaving others to be a means of great financial profit and gain. Fresh debate has been ignited over memorials, statues, road names and other types of "honour" bestowed upon those who made fortunes from slavery. We need to tread very carefully over this ground. Some voices are calling for the eradication and removal of all these statues and memorials, and the changing of road and place names to those more edifying and worthy. This would be wrong.  I say this not because I believe that those who gained from slavery and whose memories have been cherished and whose reputations are enshrined in praise deserve to continue in that favourable light. But to eradicate all memory of them would be wrong because it would be a wiping away of a part of our past that needs to be owned and settled with properly. So instead of tearing down and removing, we should make the stories which we display alongside these memorials tell more of the truth. There should be longer explanations of how they came by their fortunes which can be factually accurate without being vituperous. Explanatory plaques or "storyboards" could be placed alongside street names and statues and other memorials. Indeed, as a youngster I would have appreciated some explanations alongside Street names in my own native town as so often the street names remain a mystery to the curious youngster.

There is an even more challenging side to this honouring of a past that may not be so honourable after all. The profiteering from slavery for instance runs very deep and benefitted many white people in the north western hemisphere. We probably continue to reap the rewards of it in many of our institutions today. Much that has been done cannot be undone. The stealing of land by conquest is another hot issue. It rages curently in Israel/Palestine but Australia, the USA and Canada come to mind as relatively recent examples. There is also the unsavoury fact of present day slavery and bonded labour,
both here in the UK and many other parts of the world used in the sex trade. in sweat shops and in agriculture. This too needs to be brought into the light and eradicated.

But to return to where we started, and the incipient racism that plagues humanity. We have a tendency to pick on and exploit the exploitable, vulnerable, different. They need to be protected by social mechanisms that have the power to protect and to change mindsets too. What is needed is the political will to do it. I hope that this latest disastrous episode will be the spur we need to make these changes, just as I hope that the current pandemic of Coronavirus will galvanise more efficient action in the race to slow or halt climate change.

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Coronavirus USA rises above 100,000

Thursday 28th May and this morning's news was featuring the "staggering" and "shocking" number of casualties in the USA to Coronavirus. So here folks is another way of conveying the truth. I do wish that the broadcasters could just stop for a moment and dig a little into the "facts" so that what we get from them is less orientated to the sensational and more to the "real". For interest, Russia has about 21 road traffic deaths per 100,000, (just a little lower than Switzerland's Covid 19 count), India about 11, the USA around 10 (3rd highest world wide) and the UK has between 2 and 3 per 100,000. Density of population, amount of road traffic, are other relevant factors affecting even these stats. So let's get a little focus on our stats please before we throw a wobbly.


Monday, 4 May 2020

PPE, tests, and the hungry media.

Now I am not what you would call a politically aligned Tory. Indeed I'm very far from it. I used to think as a very young man that Christianity kind of obliged those of us who admitted to being Christians, to be socialist in outlook. Well whether it does or not, there are very many Christians who don't feel obliged. However, I digress. I was thinking that despite the fact that I am no fan of the current government, that is not because of their current Covid 19 performance. Of neither their performance in the face of, nor in anticipation of, and not even in prospect of what remains of, the Coronavirus pandemic am I a critic.. Yes they have made mistakes. If they have a fault it's that they are very reluctant to admit this. At least our Nicola has on occasion been honest enough to 'fess up to this. But to hear the journalists questions - "Does country X have less fatalities than us because they did such and such?" You can smell the scent of their appetites for blame. Of course we didn't have enough PPE and of course they chose to priorotised the NHS over Care providers. Of course we didn't have enough testing capability. Of course we brought lockdown in too late.  And of course they will put enough words around all these choices to make us think that they weren't choices at all. But they were. We are told that there were early warnings (generalised ones about pandemics) and then much later specific ones about Covid 19 and that they were ignored. Stockpiling was not done. But isn't this the case with every life ending scenario? Not every region in the UK stockpiles snow clearing equipment which will mean rapid response and lives saved when the occasional blizzards hit. Not every region that needs to will spend as much as it could to safeguard every vulnerable home from flooding. The government will never make it so expensive, our roads so watched and patrolled, so difficult to learn to drive and own a car, that the annual death toll from motor accidents will plummet. The laying out of cash versus lives saved has always been an economic equation. The very act of easing lockdown no matter how carefully will be an economic choice, until a vaccine is found. The equation is simply a matter of how many deaths are tolerable? The answer depends on who you are, what your arena of work is, and the relationship you had with the last casualty. It is precisely because of this that if you take the high moral ground of elevating every life as non negotiable, then of course you can be a righteous critic of any group, government or other public body that actually works in the real world of the economic equation. What makes me fizz is to hear the journalists doing this. I do not believe they care to that extent. They do however want belters of headlines, and big blame stories. By all means take up a postion in this debate, for that is what it is. But please do not signal your virtue by sallying at a government who have simply done what we pay them to do, and have done with the best will in the world, and that is make decisions, that for better or worse, in this tragic instance have affected thousands of lives and have cost a good few, although thankfully not all of them.
There will be a debrief in the aftermath, name calling, blame laying, a search for that illusive thing, truth. I do not think it will be worth it. What I hope for is that the lessons which have the highest value will have been learned by the ordinary public, for we are the ones upon whom the need for resilience and co-operation falls particularly when we feel especially powerless in the face of a threat as powerfully compelling as this one. I hope we will be the winners in appreciating for and caring for those around us. I hope we will be winners in appreciating and caring for the beautiful world which we longed to see more of when cooped up. I hope we will have learned that we do not need to fly to distant locations half as much as we used to in order to be happy, fulfilled, or to work even. I hope that we will have discovered much to keep us busy and happy nearer home that we ever used to and that the mileage on all our cars will drop significantly. I hope for our planet. I hope for global co-operation. I hope.

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Words are not what they used to be

"Perfect" - how many of us have heard that response to some request to which we have said "yes", or to some choice we have made? Perfection used to be reserved for very rare occurences. Not any more it seems. "So" that brings us on to "so". This little word used to serve as shorthand for "therefore", but now it has come to mean, "Here's my answer to that question" or "Well...". This is not a complaint or a rant by the way, but a reflection on the way a particular use of a phrase or word if it catches on, can quickly spread through vernacular speech and become commonplace. Personally I like language to be as accurate as possible, with the exception of link words and noises obviously, so while I find the way "so" is being used as the new link word a tad irritating, I rail a bit more at the devaluing of "perfect". But that's just me. I recognise that I must accept the changing pathways of the way we speak, for after all the grammar and vocabulary that I have grown up with is simply the product of the evolution of the English language as it has been used in my little corner. My version cannot claim to be "perfect".

Language is also like photography. I can paint a true picture of a tiny bit of reality with it, but it may be that the wider context will show that the little bit that I have highlighted seeks to make you believe something that is the very opposite of the truth about the whole situation. Glance at any tabloid newspaper headline and you get the idea. Often, unfortuately, our conversation is a bit like that too. We pick up on a stray fact that outrages us, and suddenly it's the whole truth about a situation we know next to nothing about. I suppose that's the wind that fans gossip.

There's another use to which we put language  - and that is the one of using words not to refer to actual realties, but simply for effect. Swearing can render good examples of this. But when we muddy the waters and use language in this way in contexts which demand a better correlation between meaning and truth, we are lying. This I believe to be a major fault of the way Donald Trump uses language. He principally uses it for effect. He doesn't trust scientists, and uses language for effect to discredit them. He wants us to believe in his ability to govern sensible and wisely and uses language, mainly vocabulary since his grasp of grammar is not to say the least "perfect", to create this effect. This means we have to take a whole new approach to the task of reading or hearing him. To constantly accuse him of lying is not productive, nor is journalistic interrogation of his pronouncements. So we hear or read what he says or tweets, and simply recognise that he's reinforcing one of his mantras. I'm not saying this excuses what he does. Far from it. He is distorting reality on a massive scale and creating mayhem in his wake. The approach I like is the forensic analysis of his style and work. The terrifying thing is that this approach will not change the minds of many of the millions who voted him into office, but nor of course will chants of "Liar liar pants on fire".

Moving away from my bete noire, D Trump, to one of my favourite subjects, The Bible, we find the same challenges of language there. The language that served the English speaking readership for centuries, faded fast during the 20th Century. There is now a plethora of very good renderings of the original Hebrew and Greek. But those who translate and those who read must remember that cultural context and literary genre are everything. There is no (or very little) plain surface meaning to be harvested from the pages of this complex and ancient document, which contains so much wonderful narrative, wisdom and truth. That makes it ripe for exploitation by the ignorant and the fanatical. But then, nothing much worthwhile ever came without effort and thought. So we need an educated group who can help us to navigate this book, which is why I deplore the dumming down of academic rigour when it comes to awarding degrees to people who need them to enter the professions. Don't get me wrong, I approve of allowing non academic people who have shown through practise that they can handle their area of speciality with care, respect and skill, to preach and lead in church groups. This doesn't apply only to religious leadership. We have seen this in many areas of life: surgeons used to go through a practical non academic apprenticeship before becoming accredited, (hence the now promoted to status title of "Mr"), teachers and nurses too followed this pathway. Sometimes I think there was huge merit in this, because if you were useless you were quickly weeded out or sorted, whereas now, the gaining of a certificate or degree seems to confer some kind of entitlement or authorisation which practical exposure can in some cases reveal as completely unwarranted. Here again we see an evolution in our approach to the professions and trades. The late 20th century produced I hope a hiccup in our development which the light of experience will correct. Long live apprenticeships, rigorous academic standards, examination results which mean something, and to get us back where we started, words upon which we can depend.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Outings Pun by Police

We have been treated to some arial footage from Derbyshire Constabulary which has sought to shame some people who drove to beauty spots for a bit of exercise. A new pun on "outings" eh?

There has been a fair bit of debate around this behaviour on social media both of the police filming and the behaviour of the public. What are we to make of it? The government advice is plain: stay at home, exercise once a day. The implication is that we should walk from home for our exercise. I can understand though if you live in the city and it's a long way to a park or the countryside from where you live, that it will be very appealing to get in the car and drive to a beauty spot. It's easy for me, with the open country literally yards from where I live, to get into the big spaces. I do think that this matter has to be a case of balance, flexibility, understanding and conversation. Many police forces for instance are "having conversations" with people they suspect of antisocial behaviour, and trying to persuade them to change their behaviour before resorting to more draconian measures.

I know that at some beauty spots there is such a build up of visitors that the whole thing looks like contagion world, and councils are resorting to blocking access. I think sometimes we do need help like this to change our behaviour. If the car park is blocked off it sends me a very clear message. You might say that it's a shame that councils and police have to resort to this, but when you have the behaviour of millions to try and manage, that I reckon is the deal. If I know that I am not perfect, then that should be explanation enough for me of your imperfect behaviour. Our imperfections manifest themselves in very different ways. I don't feel I am qualified to judge yours. Mine are quite enough to be going on with. We pay our taxes so that the complete idiots and antisocial nuisances can be managed in a civilised way. Occasionally I have been one of those who needed managing.

How do I feel about the countryside visitors? I truly believe that for some it is an entriely reasonable and appropriate thing to do. Where the parking is not crowded and people walk keeping their distance I would want to say, "What's the problem?" I know that there are counter arguments - the increased demand this creates for fuel, for the road rescue services, and the example it gives to those of us who are more conservatively minded. It's the same with hillwalking activities. The mountain rescue services are trying to discourage long mountaineering or hillwalking trips as they regard call outs which involve them working in close proximity with one another as something to be avoided. Now for me, a walk up my local mountain is just that - a walk. But if I did trip and twist my ankle, which is possible, and I had to call them out, what a selfish prat I'd suddenly have become.

There is also that really bad entitlement behaviour. A shop assistant was interviewed a few nights ago on the news, and her stories of badly behaved customers were to say the least, horrifying. People when asked to maintain distance telling her "Don't you tell me what to do....etc". Of course there are people out there who make it worse for all of us, and whose behaviour makes us want to have tighter restricitons in place and tougher punishments for the worst offenders. May I include in this category people who hang their dog poo bags on branches and never retrieve them?

So, it is difficult. Stay at home within the guidelines does seem the best thing. However I don't think I'm going to view every driver who takes his partner and their dog or their kids to a countryside location for a longer walk as a social pariah, but there will be some among them, for sure.  But if tighter restrictions come into force I shall simply have to shrug and see it as a necessary evil forced upon us by the heedless behaviour of a very badly behaved minority, who most of the time manage to look and behave like everyone else much to the consternation of the shop assistants who suddenly discover that nice Mrs Brown isn't quite so capable of holding her alter ego in check when push comes to shove. Ah, welcome to the human race. But that's why I like the message of Christianity: "You're bad. Let God make you better." Amen.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Corona - what will it give?

This from an article by David Grossman in today's "Haaretz" newspsper. 24 March 2020. He is reflecting on some of the ways in which we might be changed by this defining moment in the history of humanity, and his thoughts include the following:

"There will also be those whose political outlooks will suddenly look mistaken to them, being based exclusively on fears or on values that disintegrated in the course of the plague. Perhaps some will suddenly cast doubt on the reasons that have made their nation fight its enemy for generations and believe that war is a divine edict. Perhaps going through such a difficult human experience will induce people to detest nationalistic views, for example, and reject attitudes that promote separation and xenophobia and self-containment. Possibly there will also be some who will for the first time wonder, for example, why Israelis and Palestinians continue to do battle against each other, afflicting their lives for more than a hundred years with a war that could have been resolved long ago."

Every cloud they say, has its silver lining. Like Grossman I cherish hopes that there will be radical reassessments in favour of what is just, wise, good. Grossman ends his article on an ambivalent note - he wonders also if any radical effects might only be temporary, and in the end, we will all go back to business as usual once the threat has subsided.

The threat will only subside of course if we have an exit strategy that is as sensibly paced and uniformly heeded as the strict instructions we Brits heard on the news yesterday will no doubt be. (I know that there will be debate about how sensible this country's pacing has been, so please put the phrase "sensibly paced" above in quotation marks if you like. I'm not really interested (in this post at any rate) about debating that.) There is another factor too that will inform our behaviour and interactions in the future, and that is whether or not an effective vaccine against the virus will be found. A continuous threat in the absence of a vaccine will result in a very different world from the one we know now, and a threat rebutted by a vaccine might well return us to "business as usual" in the long run.

One of the things the pandemic has made us do as church and community where I live, and no doubt in most parts of the world, is to get us to use our technology to work collaberatively and imaginatively, and to reach out to one another to check and reassure. (Sure, there have been other not so welcome effects too, like the panicked stripping of consumables from the supermarket shelves.)
So we are dealing with the situation as best and sometimes as worst as we can. I believe that if those of us whose instincts and whose comittments are orientated towards the good of all and not merely ourselves hold to our vision, keep our hope for a positive endgame alive, and engage responsibly with the advice or instructions we have been given, the good will win out. There will be tragic losses to come, of that I have also no doubt, and if these losses do not teach us, do not inspire us to higher better things, then we will have dismissed the losses with crocodile tears, we will not have honoured their lives, their suffering and their dying. My prayer is, "Let it all have been for something worthwhile. Help us forge from this crisis something truly better. Give us the determination to make it so."

Monday, 16 March 2020

Biden won't topple Trump but Corona might.

Until a few weeks ago Trump looked unstoppable in his bid to achieve a second term of office. The Democrats it seemed did not have a character who could really stand up to and compete with Trump. However it may be that Trump's reactions to the virus outbreak may be his undoing. He has been singularly or perhaps I should say, more noticeably in the eyes of the electorate than usual, wrong footed and misleading and not in command of his information. We'll see.

Corona may be responsible for more that just Trump's inability to win a second term. It is also making a hiccup in the process of Global Warming. Much drastic and quick response to the virus has resulted in the massive shut down of industry in China and in many other places too, along with suspension of much air travel. Now it may be that this will help many to wake up to the fact that we can do something which will have  a massive impact on that process (at massive cost), or at least help us to make more measured but effective responses which may well slow or halt the process in the nick of time. It may of course have the opposite effect. The big corporations having lost so many billions of dollars due to lack of economic and industrial activity, may well respond with a massive reaction in terms of redoubled industrial and commercial output which will only make matters worse. We have yet to hear of anyone making a link between the virus outbreak and global warming in terms of one affecting the other, and of course all the commentators and analysts are far too busy reckoning the impact in terms of human and economic cost in the here and now. But when a crisis hits, it often takes a counter crisis to help us find our way forward. Of course these crises have their cost both financially and humanly, but when did finding a way out of tough spot not carry a cost?

For the moment the arguments rage nationally and internationally about what procedures are most effective in combating the pandemic. Too much, not enough, just about right are all defended and supported by reams of experts. We just don't know. I suspect that no matter what, the thing will run its damaging course. Could a million be killed and 20 - 40 million be seriously sick or disabled permanently even? No, they reckon possibly tens of thousands killed at the end of the current outbreak. The drastic statistic above was the car accident annual statistic. Ordinary 'flu' takes out about half a million a year. The problem with Covid-19 is that it spreads easily and fast and the carriers have it before they know it. But just look up the stats for the outbreak of Spanish Flu (1918).

Meanwhile, let's take care, wash our hands as they advise, avoid too close contact with others, and watch out for and check up on the most vulnerable and at risk. We do what we can, right?