25 March 2010

Good Schools for Everyone

Last week the Leicester Mercury carried a letter from a parent about the difficulty of getting a Hindu child into a Roman Catholic state school. See Faith-school failings .

Today the Mercury publishes an edited version of my response. I don't of course dispute the editorial prerogative, and the gist is little changed, but the mood is somewhat emasculated. Here's what I sent in under the title

Good Schools for Everyone

It is a very sorry state of affairs when parents like Sabhash Varambhia (Mailbox, 20 March) cannot find a good local school for their children. Mr Varambhia thought the ethos of any so-called ‘faith school’ would be better than a secular one – but found the ethos of English Martyrs (RC) school to be ‘we look after our own – Hindus need not apply’. How starkly does the point need to be made that religious schools are by their very nature sectarian and divisive? Isn’t it time that we did away with the concept of ‘bad schools’? We’re told of the importance of choice, but exactly which parents are the ones who set out to choose a school with the intention of having it fail to give their children a good education?

All schools should be good schools but we’ll never get there by disproportionately favouring some over others as happens at present – that way the gap can only get wider and the pressure for parents to try and out-compete others by more and more extreme religious attendance (or more corrupt forms of cheating) can only become more irresistible. Is this the ethos for a harmonious society?

We would all like our children to be polite and considerate, and also creative and ambitious – to have all the opportunities to grow in their individual ways, to achieve what they can for themselves and society, and to play their part in making the future a better one for their next generations. While some religions may claim these principles as their own, they are in fact human values and do not depend on ‘holy’ teachings. We need really good schools for everyone, not just a handful for a self-perpetuating pushy minority.

If you'd like to compare, this version was printed: Good, bad – it's devisive (sic).

08 March 2010

The Morality of War

Yes, well, you may or may not know already that I don’t have much time for the word ‘morality’ on account of it being an all-things-to-all-men (and women) concept that is just wheeled out in an attempt to reinforce an argument that lacks any other grounds of persuasion. I’ve even done it myself at times - under pressure! But because of its ubiquity it has become fairly meaningless. There isn’t even enough agreement as to whether it refers to consensual codes of rules or just individual innate gut feelings to make it worthwhile using in debate.
Last night at Secular Hall a member of the audience (in responding to the talk about artificial intelligence [AI]) referenced drone weaponry – unmanned aircraft, tanks, machine gun posts, etc. and asked whether the developers of AI ever concerned themselves with the morality of such applications. I pointed out that there was no step change involved here – these weapons were actually controlled by humans but they were based many miles from the scene – out of harm’s way. But it was just a further development of remote control and remote killing. (I might have added that even when machines have been developed that can be given a mission ‘e.g. capture the Golden Gate Bridge’ and then left to work out how to do it all by themselves it will still only be a further form of remote control, not artificial intelligence, won’t it?)
‘Democratic’ imperial powers like the US, Britain and Israel are developing remotely controlled weaponry so that their governments can engage in wars to expand their spheres of influence without fear that a rising casualty list will pull the rug from under their feet at the next election.
In reality, attempts to do maximum harm to an enemy while minimising one’s own casualties must go back before recorded history even began. At one time, one can guess, early human clans fought each other over bits of turf by engaging in hand-to-hand combat, using fists and clubs, but well within range of opponents equipped with just the same sort of kit. In considering the history of warfare one might perhaps see this as a golden age when men were men, where there was an honesty and authenticity about it – seeing the whites of the other man’s eyes before attempting to knock him senseless. It is an aspect of martial relations, perhaps, that still continues in the boxing ring, governed by Queensbury Rules that ensure no underhand tactics are used.
But this ‘golden age’ must have ended the first time someone threw a rock at the enemy from a higher and possibly hidden vantage point. Or when spears developed for killing animals at a distance were turned to killing opposing tribesmen at a distance.
I very much doubt whether, at the time, victorious tribal elders sat around the campfire after a battle debating whether such tactics were ethical. So while I abhor the further development of weapons that enable powerful and wealthy governments to impose their will on poor and weak nations without any real risk to their own position, I have to say that I think the so-called ‘moral’ questions are irrelevant.

02 March 2010

Casualties of War

While not being a pacifist I generally support anti-war movements and scrutinise very carefully any plans emerging from our government to go to war over this or that issue. I was on the million plus march against the invasion of Iraq - and I think we made our point over the Taliban's accommodation of Al Quaida in Afghanistan some years ago. It's time to withdraw. While dragging Afghan society into the 20th century (sic) might be a laudable objective the fact is that we won't succeed in doing it. The baggage is too great and the very presence of foreign troops is almost the only reason why the Taliban continues to thrive. As in Iran, the domestic struggle for progress is far more likely to succeed than is foreign occupation. The long-planned invasion of Iran will simply make the forces of religious conservatism and intolerance stronger than ever.

But one aspect of the anti-war campaign strikes me as more than a little odd. This is the concentration on the level of British casualties.

Now don't get me wrong. The death of each soldier is a tragedy and, at least from a personal perspective, surviving as a badly disabled and severely disfigured person even worse. The parents and relatives of those killed are deserving of our immense sympathy - as are those of the war victims we cause.

But it has to be said that the lads and lasses who voluntarily join up know full well what they are getting into. It is not a matter of having no other employment choice. How frequently do we hear from grieving parents that their boy died doing what he loved doing? That he always wanted to be a soldier, that he couldn't wait to see 'action'?

In interviews with front line troops it is also common to hear the comment that they can't wait to get into battle, that it is the waiting around that is so boring. Whether they have got the ideas from violent video games, are following a family tradition or acting out a macho youth ideal, it would be patronising to infer that they don't know what they are doing.

Yes, they are sad to lose comrades, but they knew that would be the price, if not their own life then a mate for whom they felt great affection.

A few, I know, have joined up in recent years to give the Islamists a taste of their own medicine. These few feel duty bound to respond to 9/11 and 7/7 in just that way. But it is only a few - and in my view it is also misguided as it merely adds to the rationale used by the Islamists in recruiting new members to counter the 'invasion of Muslim lands by the infidel'.

In terms of campaigning for British withdrawal I appreciate that rising casualties is one of the best grounds on which to convince people that they should vote for a party that holds out the possibility of early withdrawal. But my feeling is that the soldiers on the ground won't actually vote that way at all. War has become their raison d'etre.