Rumpole and the ever-eroding liberties

There’s a great series of radio plays on the BBC iPlayer. Called Rumpole and the Reign of Terror, the first one is both amusing and profound (as well as being really good radio).

John Mortimer’s greatest creation faces the challenge of trying to defend a client who is not allowed to know the charges he is facing.

An excellent exploration of the idiocy and injustice inherent in much anti-terror legislation in Britain today, and funny to boot.

What if Boris called a tapeworm ‘Liverpool’?

suicide teddyBlue Peter got off so lightly. Sure, John Leslie would, back in the day, possibly have warmed to the idea of a few lashes administered in public, but the current crop of presenters seem less up for that sort of thing. So they can count themselves lucky that they didn’t name the programme’s cat Mohammed, as a popular news-satire show pointed out last week.

Personally, I feel for Gillian Gibbons, the British teacher accused of blasphemy in Sudan. With the best will in the world and the desire to be as culturally sensitive as possible in a foreign country, one is going to slip up occasionally. Just ask Prince Phillip.

But the story raises some important questions, not least for the anti-multicultural brigade who are often heard to cry: ‘This is our country – we don’t expect other people to accommodate our culture overseas, so why should we have to make allowances for theirs over here?’ Anyone who has been to Spain on holiday and met compatriots there can see the weakness in that argument, but it was further undermined by media reaction to the ‘Bear Trial’ last week.

Radio 4’s flagship Today Programme said that the natural response to the news was ‘outrage’ and when faced with an explanation involving cultural differences in the perception of bears, called the proceedings: ‘revolting’ and ‘barbarous’; ‘cultural differences notwithstanding.’ Now please don’t get me wrong: public lashings are something I object to regardless of the circumstances. But is that what most people were reacting to in last week’s frenzy over this story? Or was it more along the lines of ‘those crazy Muslims and their stupid ways,’ once again? I ask because the same programme later suggested to one Muslim guest that such incidents justified the practice of the media making Islam the religion ‘we love to hate’. They even framed the question thus: does this case hold up a mirror to all Muslims, or is this a case of extremists getting it wrong? No possibility, then, that there might be any reasonable cultural explanation or justification for the strong reaction of Sudanese parents, then. Objective.

It seems that we are quite happy to accept cultural and religious differences if they are about dress (no, wait, head-scarves ‘create distance’); the private practice of religion (oh, hang on—let’s qualify that: ‘as long as it is politically moderate’) and language (unless we’re in ‘Londinistan,’ where we feel like *gasp!* ‘foreigners in our own country—that country being the country for English speakers). Okay, we quite like curry. But we find it quite difficult to accept when another culture makes decisions based on views we don’t understand or share. We expect Christian forgiveness, Protestant willingness to see the heart above the outward expression and Liberal freedom for individuals to disagree with the majority in countries and cultures that may have fundamentally differing views on those subjects. I personally think our values are good and right, but it would be unspeakably arrogant of me to expect someone else to accept them purely on that basis.

What we heard little of last week was why our way of approaching it is better, even for us, never mind for Muslims. And if the reasons come down to our experience of faith, can we really condemn non-Christians for refusing to behave like Christians? More importantly, when we ask others to compromise within their faith, we should ask if we would be willing to do the same. And where we have already done so, perhaps we need to assess whether we that was motivated more by a desire to fit in than to be true to our God. In which case, perhaps we have something to learn as well as teach.


Electile dysfunction

Gordon Brown has treated us like fools, apparently. He has messed with us. He has come into our tree-house despite the stringent anti-cootie policies; he has fiddled with the radio in our car while we were driving; he has rearranged the cushions on our sofas and usurped the remote control while the footie’s on. In short, Gordon Brown has made the UK public very, very cross. And how has he done it? He has failed to call an election.

I know I’m annoyed. This throws out all my plans for next month. My plans, as I’m sure yours are too, being very dependent on voting and Westminster and, um, stuff. Yeah. That’s how I feel. Sortof. The thing is, even though I’m being told by that nice David Cameron, good old Ming Campbell (Can anyone tell me why we pronounce his name like a slur from a slang-talking youf? Why do rich men not drive Mercedes Bings?) and that Scottish National party chap with a name like a fish, how angry I’m supposed to be, I’m really not feeling it. Are you? Would you have been had you not been told to?

After weeks of speculation on news programmes and in political analysis columns as to when Gordon Brown would call an election, The Prime Minister told us last week that he would not be doing it any time soon. It came as something of a shock, apparently. Though not, I’ll admit, to me. Because I don’t care. I’m sure some people must do. But I just can’t imagine significant numbers of them existing outside the professions of journalism and/or politics. Yet news report upon news report confirmed it: people are going to be annoyed; his credibility has received a body-blow; the voting public are angry. But are we? I’m not.

I mean, when news reporters (not analysts, mind you, not people paid to comment subjectively but those supposed to objectively tell me what has happened) make statements like ‘this was definitely a mistake and Gordon Brown has alienated voters’ and tell me I should be angry, that admittedly grates, but I’m not riled at the PM. Sure, Gordo, who promised to free us from cynical slick political posturing has clearly just been messing with the Tories. But that’s what politicians do. The Tories’ petulant whining (like a child who has had the rules of the game changed on him and starts blubbing that he’s going to tell his mum. Or the voting public) doesn’t bug me either. Good move, I say.

I am annoyed at the media, now frothing at the mouth with rage, making unresearched and unprofessional pronouncements on your and my behalf about something we wouldn’t be fussed about if it weren’t for them. Because that’s what this is about. Gordon played them. The press. Have you heard any announcement from the PM that he was going to hold an election? No. What we have heard is analysis by awfully clever journalists who have interpreted everything that the PM has done in public as pointing towards an election around the corner. And now they feel stupid. They complain bitterly that Brown’s aides have been leaking election intentions off the record and how it’s all so jolly unfair. But think about it. Does that affect you? Hearsay, gossip and off-the-record statements might be the lifeblood of the political journalist, but they are also the bread and butter of magazines like OK, HELLO, HEY THERE, Heat and the like. Would you care if Victoria Beckham misled them? Perhaps journalists should stick to reporting the news instead of making it—that way they wouldn’t be so undignified when they got caught out.

Calmer, karma-chameleon

As a child I used to call it ‘the locust position’. This seemed to make sense, since that’s kinda what my aunt looked like when she adopted what I was later told was in fact the Lotus Position. Of course at that time I was pretending to be a real boy and following Formula One, so I assumed it meant ‘painful, behind’—which again sort of made sense. Yoga—it’s not just the name of a smarter-than-average hat-wearing bear. Actually it’s not that at all. It is, according to last week’s news, either an innocuous system of breathing and stretching that is every British child’s birthright or a sinister plot to turn skinny, bendy people towards the devil. Of course, as one of the non-skinny, unbendy classes, I am tempted to say he can have ‘em. But the charity for all mankind that my faith gives me and my love of supermodels and Fashion TV add a shot of lime to my bitterness.

Anyway, last week’s news was full of reports about two Christian churches in Taunton that refused to host a children’s Yoga class. A BBC presenter on Radio 4 pretty much chuckled all the way through an interview with one of the vicars, saying that a little bit of stretching and bending was hardly going to turn any of the children into devil-worshippers (the Today Programme producer somehow managed to edit out the sound of said presenter patting himself on the back for that one).  A case of confusion and religious ignorance, nothing more? Perhaps. But the devil-worshipping jibe betrays something else.

Beneath the banner of tolerance, under the surface of the ‘let’s not take this too seriously’ frivolity in that one interview is something troubling. It is the assumption that, as long as it is not Satanism, Christians should have no problem with it. In fact, they should embrace pretty much anything, particularly ‘religious stuff’. Why? Because underlying the attitude that cannot believe a Christian church would turn down popular activities just because their form, structure, origins and ultimate meanings are rooted in Hindu and Buddhist religion, is a belief as clear as any Christian fundamentalism. It is that there is no meaningful difference between the religions. If God exists at all , he is accessible by any path as long as it is sincere. It’s a charming belief (I mean that literally, without trying to sound patronising) and one I used to hold. But in a tolerant, religiously free society, that’s all it should be: a competing religious view that differs from that of traditional Christianity. What it has become is the new meaning of the word ‘tolerance’. What it has become is a philosophy that aims to purge society of all competitors, and last week it found many supporters in the media.

Personally, Yoga doesn’t scare me (except in the sense that most of its positions would snap me like a Yarrow stalk) and if you think it’s harmless, cool. But I am also aware that (depending on which practitioner of whichever Dharmic religion you choose to listen to) it is a way of connecting with an impersonal god who I do not recognise as the Lord, a method of attaining enlightenment in nothingness and/or one way to escape the endless cycle of karma and reincarnation. So even if it is for the kids, even if those doing it have sucked all spiritual meaning out of it, Christians have as much right not to support it as atheists have not to be forced to say the Lord’s Prayer, even if they can cross their fingers. 

Tellingly, the media last week also denounced the Chinese state for interfering in the spiritual affairs of Tibetan Buddhists.