Category Archives: Politics

Scottish Exceptionalism

A lamentably consistent theme has developed in my recent encounters with pro-independence advocates and campaigners, which threatens to dispel my prior notions on the nature of the modern brand of Scottish nationalism. I believe that I can still say that Scottish nationalism, for the most part, is perhaps the most admirable variety that has yet been evolved. Not for the Yes campaign vulgar assertions about the purity of blood or the superiority of race. If you live in Scotland you get a vote in the upcoming referendum, regardless of whether you were born in Dundee, Dhaka or Dubrovnik. A comparison between the Scottish Nationalist Party and the British Nationalist Party is simply ignoble and inapplicable; comparing apples to racist oranges. However drawing differences between people based on where they happen to live is potentially problematic, and one of these problems seems to be manifesting among some Yes voters. I stress that my sample size is too small to be representative, and hence I am addressing precisely this idea and not the Yes campaign as a whole.

I have been told, in no uncertain terms, that Scottish independence is desirable partially because it will unleash the innate tendency of Scots towards social justice and egalitarianism from its Westminster shackles and allow Scotland to act as an example of progress to our erstwhile fellow Britons. From the first encounter of this claim I was struck by a powerful unease. Stating that an entire nation holds to a particular view, even a positive one, is both a gross generalisation and strays dangerously close to being racist. One may identify voting tendencies – it is entirely true that Scotland’s lone Conservative MP is significant – and elements of Zeigeist, but to make this kind of blanket statement is unjustified and unjustifiable. Scots desire social equality. Scots are virulently homophobic, racist or misogynistic. Scots are deeply religious. Scots are gleefully irreverent. Scots think taxes should go up. Scots think taxes should go down. As a matter of fact, Scots are as diverse as any other randomly selected group of people. Absent a North Korea-style system of systematic ignorance and isolation, you will find liberals, conservatives, socialists and anarchists almost anywhere you look.

An apparent corollary of this claimed Scottish exceptionalism is the implication that our failure to achieve such an egalitarian society thus far has been the result of obstruction by less enlightened English, Welsh and Northern Irish. Or, to soften the claim a little, the blockage is caused exclusively by Londoners (who, I am assured, get exactly what they want from Parliament). This commits the same offence in the opposite direction. Those in the rest of the UK are as diverse in opinion as those in the upper third, and to state otherwise is to demean the countless people who fight for social justice beyond Berwick or across the Irish Sea. To paint England in particular as a hotbed of right-wing politics seems to me to mistake anti-Labour feeling – after 13 years of decidedly mixed-to-shoddy governance – for pro-Conservative feeling. Citing the rise of UKIP is equally vacuous, as I firmly believe that ideas are loudest as they are losing. UKIP’s racist, homophobic and misogynistic policies have no future, and their apparent resurgence seems more death rattle than bugle call.

In the last days before this referendum I remain firmly in the No camp, having heard no convincing argument to change my position. The word “convincing” is important here. This issue is complex enough that points may be launched in both directions and discussed and, ultimately, decided upon. Whatever your view, it is essential to make an informed choice and to be able to back up this choice with facts and not empty assertions. The discourse has descended on numerous occasions to jeering in the streets, facile internet memes and simple-minded tribal loyalty. I want us all to be better than this, and claims of Scottish exceptionalism are merely a slightly more sophisticated version of this tribalism. Make your decision, make it well, but please make it on the basis of facts and not fantasies based on geographical happenstance.

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Return from the Dead, and the Persecution Delusion

I’m not dead yet, for the none of you who were curious. It’s been a rather busy six months or so, and quite a lot has happened. I can now legitimately refer to myself as more than a mere student of philosophy – a philosophy graduate. This is a distinction as consequential as that between a juggler of imaginary geese and a juggler of imaginary flaming geese, of course. But at least I’m now able to put a few letters after my name, which is an amusing novelty. Naturally such a relevant degree from such a prestigious institution has left me adrift in a veritable puddle of job offers, but for now I’m walking among my people in the service industry, selling discount books, imitation Lego and bargain Xmas decorations. Hence, my bloated schedule and inability to update this brain-dump of a blog in a timely fashion.

But something has broken through into my little corner of Paradise. Naturally, I still find time to browse Facebook. How else is one to keep abreast of the developments of one’s friends and who is playing which free, inbox-bloating casual game these days? But one particular chain letter caught my eye, not least because of the grey and bespectacled visage of the author – former Nixon speechwriter and peddler of misinformation, Ben Stein. Admittedly the message was posted last Xmas, and thus this is hardly timely, but since this has only come to my attention in recent days, and since I have already extensively commented on Stein’s statements, I thought this might serve as a springboard back into blogging. If nothing else, I hope for a catharsis, and an opportunity to correct some persistent myths about the state of the persecution of Christians in the United States. There follows the text of Stein’s comments, as quoted by Steve Forbes on Facebook:

My confession:
I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejewelled trees, Christmas trees. I don’t feel threatened. I don’t feel discriminated against. That’s what they are, Christmas trees.

It doesn’t bother me a bit when people say, ‘Merry Christmas’ to me. I don’t think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn’t bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu. If people want a nativity scene, it’s just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.

I don’t like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don’t think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from, that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can’t find it in the Constitution and I don’t like it being shoved down my throat.

Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship celebrities and we aren’t allowed to worship God? I guess that’s a sign that I’m getting old, too. But there are a lot of us who are wondering where these celebrities came from and where the America we knew went to.

In light of the many jokes we send to one another for a laugh, this is a little different: This is not intended to be a joke; it’s not funny, it’s intended to get you thinking.

Billy Graham’s daughter was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her ‘How could God let something like this happen?’ (regarding Hurricane Katrina). Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response. She said, ‘I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we’ve been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives.And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?’

In light of recent events… terrorist attacks, school shootings, etc. I think it started when Madeleine Murray O’Hare (she was murdered, her body found a few years ago) complained she didn’t want prayer in our schools, and we said OK. Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school. The Bible says thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself. And we said OK.

Then Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn’t spank our children when they misbehave, because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem (Dr. Spock’s son committed suicide). We said an expert should know what he’s talking about. And we said okay.

Now we’re asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don’t know right from wrong, and why it doesn’t bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.

Probably, if we think about it long and hard enough, we can figure it out. I think it has a great deal to do with ‘WE REAP WHAT WE SOW.’

Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world’s going to hell.
Funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible says. 

Funny how you can send ‘jokes’ through e-mail and they spread like wildfire, but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about sharing. 

Funny how lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene articles pass freely through cyberspace, but public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace.

Are you laughing yet?

Funny how when you forward this message, you will not send it to many on your address list because you’re not sure what they believe, or what they will think of you for sending it.

Funny how we can be more worried about what other people think of us than what God thinks of us.

Pass it on if you think it has merit.

If not, then just discard it…. no one will know you did. But, if you discard this thought process, don’t sit back and complain about what a bad shape the world is in.

My Best Regards, Honestly and respectfully,

Ben Stein

A few points of rebuttal, covering both the simple factual errors and the lapses in logical argument, as well as the broader implications of what Stein appears to be saying.

1) America is not an atheist country, it is a secular country. The difference is subtle but significant. The only way in which to treat all faiths, and lack of faith, fairly is to offer no special treatment to any one belief. Thus, the First Amendment to the US Constitution states that Congress can make no law respecting the establishment of religion. This means that the government cannot endorse any particular religion, or lack thereof, over any others, leaving an equal playing field for all systems of belief, with neither favouritism nor oppression.

2) If God was unwilling to save victims of Hurricane Katrina simply because it is illegal for the government to promote religion in schools and government – while it remains perfectly legal for schoolchildren and government officials to believe and privately practice as they please – such a god is no gentleman, but a petty and malicious egomaniac, who is more interested in his own reputation than saving drowning people. Such a god, if he exists, merits no worship. Anne Graham’s comments, far from being profound and insightful, smack of victim-blaming and emotional blackmail. To use an analogy that I have come to adore, the difference between God and Superman is that Superman will save you whether you believe in him or not.

3) Madelyn Murray O’Hair campaigned successfully for the removal of school-led prayer in public schools, as such a practice is a palpable violation of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. To characterise this effort as her own personal prejudice being adopted by the government is an attempt to tar this necessary and just development with the legacy of the “most hated woman in America”. Prayer is still perfectly legal in schools, so long as it is not supported by the government-owned establishment. This is entirely the point of a secular government – in refraining from legislating any religious behaviour, any given citizen is free to practise their faith in their own way, or not, as the case may be. And once again, any god vindictive enough to allow the deaths of thousands because his pride has been bruised is worthy only of pity and contempt.

4) As above, reading the Bible is perfectly legal in public schools, so long as it is not a mandatory reading of the book, enforced by the school. Any student may bring their own Bible, and read it during any time that is their own during school hours. The more worrying implication is that we would have no basis for saying that murder and theft are wrong if not for the Bible. Firstly, ethics are a concern entirely independent of religion, and this is plain enough due to the fact that we make ethical judgements about the actions found in religious texts. Secondly, the Bible also teaches behaviour that would make any school environment, and society at large, a much more miserable and inhospitable place. Ought we stone disobedient children (Exodus 21:17), fire all female high school teachers (1 Timothy 2:11-12), or teach children to despise their families (Matthew 10:35-37)? Simply put, the mandatory teaching of the Bible and its morality will do nothing to curb “terrorist attacks, school shootings, etc.”

5) Not merely Dr. Spock, but the American Academy of Pediatrics opposes corporal punishment for children. Minimising the issue by attributing it to one man – and taking a low potshot at his own personal tragedy – is a miserable strawman and appeal to emotion. Is Stein really suggesting that to make beating children illegal is an infringement of religious liberty? If so, this rather undermines his prior point that violence in society stems from a lack of religion.

6) “Now we’re asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don’t know right from wrong, and why it doesn’t bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.” – I must ask Mr. Stein for his sources as to a general homicidal, sociopathic tendency among American youngsters, as compared to their pious forebears. This is simply a vile generalisation based upon a few extreme cases – Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook – in order to make the political point that the US Government ought to be in the business of indoctrinating children into religion. In the simplest possible terms, conscience is an innate part of our self-awareness and social instincts, right and wrong are meaningful only insofar as they relate to the suffering and flourishing of conscious creatures, and only those who are seriously mentally aneurotypical – psychopaths, for instance – are not bothered by murder.

Mr Stein is mistaking a loss of privilege for persecution. If a Christian is receiving special treatment, above and beyond the treatment meted out to non-Christians, it is not persecution to remove such treatment to the point where all are treated equally. If we are to believe that all people are equal before the law, then the body making those laws, the government, cannot show preferential bias towards any one group in society.And the pitiable complaint of the majority about their loss of privileged position, and their being forced to be treated equally to those they used to look down upon, shows nothing but that the plaintiffs have yet to progress beyond the level of spoiled children.

Funny that a group comprising 80% of the US population regards itself as a put-upon minority.

Funny that those who believe in an all-powerful and all-loving God can find ready, weaseling excuses for his absence during times of real need.

Funny that those who claim a higher moral character must resort to mischaracterisation, ahistoricity and emotional blackmail to advance their cause.

Actually, it isn’t funny. Rather, it is exactly as funny as Stein’s attempted irony. A final analogy: If you have received, every day of your life, a full-body massage, while everyone else must do without, it is not persecution for your shiatsu privileges to be revoked. Rather, for societal equality to be achieved, either everyone must receive special treatment, or no-one. In the case of religious liberty, special consideration for every faith is contradictory and self-defeating – one cannot privilege both the Jewish notion that Jesus was not the Messiah, and the Christian one that he was – and thus secularism, the removal of bias for any particular religion, is the only viable path.

My Best Regards, actually honestly, but only respectfully as far as such respect is merited,

J. Millar

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