The tyranny of names

Rupert Murdoch has apologised to ‘the Jewish people’ for a cartoon published in The Sunday Times on Holocaust Memorial Day, depicting Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu building a wall out of the bloodied corpses of Palestinians. Supported by the Israeli ambassador, Britain’s Chief Rabbi subsequently weighed in with an ill-considered diatribe against the author of the cartoon, Gerald Scarfe.

To the Chief Rabbi

My dear Lord Sachs

I am deeply dismayed that you have accused Scarfe, for 50 years the doyen of British political cartoonists, which we hold to be an honourable institution, of being an anti-Semite, whatever that may be.

His drawing lampooning the ghastly Netanyahu had nothing whatever to do with any so-called ‘blood libel’. It is entirely consistent with past strong attacks he has made on equally reprehensible leaders of many unpleasant regimes. Rather than employing your considerable intellect in a reasoned deconstruction of the issues it raises, you have instead foolishly walked into the conventional trap prepared by the Israeli propaganda machine by making this ill-considered accusation, which I am hoping in the cold light of day you will consider withdrawing.

It is debatable whether even the most powerful critique of Israel’s domestic policy can ever make a difference, or even be heard without accusations of religious and racial bias. You have long traded on the unique injustice of your historic persecution, as if no other religious or racial group had ever been so mistreated. (We recall the North and South American Indian peoples, of whom it is estimated 90 million were massacred, starved,  infected with diseases to which they had no resistance and forced onto reservations by European migrants in the C16th and C19th centuries.) Nevertheless, against the continual rewriting of history that goes on to justify the equivalent treatment of the Palestinian people since 1947, this cartoon has at least had the desired effect of provoking a reaction. It is a minor triumph.

For far too long we in the West have covertly assented to the worst excesses of the apartheid regime in Tel Aviv, tacitly complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity. Literally walling-up, ghettoising a civilian population and raining destruction on them (including Phosphorus, for God’s sake!) from high-technology weapons platforms whenever their young men resist with whatever is at their disposal, ultimately only their own lives, has deeply uncomfortable historical echoes, as I am sure you realise.

Of course I am aware of the existential threat to the Israeli nation, which has been countered in characteristically disproportionate fashion by the arbitrary assassinations of individuals in other sovereign countries and the construction of a nuclear arsenal capable of visiting Biblical retribution on their enemies, heedless of the consequences to the wider world. A 5-metres-high wall has been constructed, ghettoising – who? The Israeli population? And now Israeli archaeologists have been uncovering incontrovertible evidence that the Palestinians are – oh yes – Islamised Jews. They never left. Oh dear.

There is nothing ‘anti-Semitic’ in opposing such profound injustice. No religious or racial significance need be attached to our revulsion at the criminal behaviour of the Israeli state. We understand that it derives from deep insecurity: but Israel has put itself in that position and now finds it has no way forward other than escalating repression and the continuing slow slide into regional war. You no longer hold the moral high ground from which to call people meaningless names. We are not afraid of your names. We demand our freedom from the pathetic tyranny of name-calling. We demand justice.

Sincerely

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Don’t read on…

“Could be worse cause on Titanus 3 in the alpha quadrant it has been raining for the last 2000 years and that planet it has 350mph winds its the people who live there that I feel sorry for glad I dont live there and only have to visit now and then to pick up merchandise.”

The above is a not atypical Comment on a Yahoo! thread, following a report of deaths during severe flooding in Queensland, Australia. Very helpful. Another Commenter responds to a horrible story about twenty Mexican musicians and their road crew being massacred by drug gangsters after a concert with the merry quip: “A Mexican and a Jew fall off the Empire State Building. Which hits the ground first? Who cares?” (Spelling and grammar heavily amended). The Comment had not been moderated, racist abuse seldom is on Yahoo! Yet a third embellished the detail that the bodies of eight of the musicians had been found tossed into a well, with the line: “All’s well that ends well”.

This is precisely why I made a New Year’s resolution, which (with one exception, when I needed to pay tribute to the late Dave Brubeck’s stand on Southern racism) never to post Comment on this site again. What a bunch of thick, fucking idiots and, frankly, scumsucking plankton lurk in this loathsome cesspit of prejudice and ignorance. How does the human race manage to throw up these microcephalic morons in such weird profusion? How do they survive with zero empathy?

Still, it’s probably a good thing that they’ve got somewhere safe to vomit up their slimy furballs of hate. I certainly wouldn’t want one in my living-room. Murder might ensue.

Yeuch.

Per Astra, ad ardua

Whenever they can’t get into their own parking space, this neighbour with an ageing silver Vauxhall keeps pinching mine. It’s the nearest spot I can find to park my car, right across the road from my cottage on a busy bend. It isn’t really my space, in fact it adjoins a large red sign saying No Parking, in the lay-by at the entrance to the building site. But the men haven’t been working for a couple of weeks, I used to park here long before they started building and put up the sign, that they can’t legally enforce as it’s a public highway, so it’s ‘my’ space.

Well, last night I got home and there was the usurper’s car again and I railed against him or her and cursed the Fates and uttered the usual foul imprecations, before parking in a huff on the other side of the entrance to the building site, not as good a spot as it partly blocks the gateway and might necessitate having to move again in the morning, if the men showed up. The other driver must luckily have driven away later, because when I went out to my car this morning there was no sign of the silver Astra. In its place was a section of the security barrier guarding the site from importunate motorists, that my curses had evidently brought down in the storm during the night.

Had I been parked there, as I should have been, it would have fallen on my lovely Alfa Romeo, doubtless snapping-off the one remaining door handle. I am grateful for this serendipitous deliverance to the other driver, for a few hours at least. And, of course, to my dear friend the Parking Angel, without whom… .

Let’s blame the Bard

It’s one of those cliches, that life imitates art. Rarely does this paradox crop up more often than in discussion of the relationship between science and fiction. It seems to many, that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein looms over much scientific progress today. The recent death of Neil Armstrong, the first ‘Man i’ the Moon’, reminds us that over 60 years before he made his ‘giant leap’ for Mankind, fantasy writer Jules Verne, and then the pioneering cinematographer Georges Meliès, had put the idea into Mankind’s head, albeit in rather silly ways. So who got there first, the Americans — or the French?

Of course, the reality of the lunar mission was totally unlike the absurdities of fictional outings to our nearest neighbour in space, as deliciously pointed up in the animated film Wallace and Gromit: A Grand Day Out, where Wallace indulges his love of Wensleydale cheese by eating moon rocks on toast and the intrepid pair encounter an abandoned gas cooker with a love of winter sports. The way things are moving, it is not entirely fantastical to imagine those ideas being one day realised.

The late Ray Bradbury wrote a story in the 1950s, in which two children watching an African wildlife show on their room-sized TV disappear, presumably eaten by the virtual lions. TV was then a new and very limited consumer technology and there were no computers more powerful than an abacus. Last week Korean company Samsung previewed their wall-sized TV at the CES Tech show in Las Vegas, while a new virtual reality interface called Oculus Rift enables the user to interact with a computer game as if from the inside. Do not be surprised therefore to find your teenage son all shot-up on the bedroom floor, a jubilant, heavily armoured alien squatting triumphantly on the bed. Mummy! Life has a way of imitating art. New bendable thinscreens will make display-capable wallpaper a reality within a decade. Often, it seems TV programme commissioners are ahead of the curve….

Countless speculative references within Sci-Fi to mind control, telepathy and so on are even now coming to pass as systems have been announced within the past year enabling the disabled user to operate robotic machinery with controls electronically connected to the appropriate areas of their brains*. The fictional ‘human reduced to a brain in a jar’ trope comes a step closer. Watch out for Daleks! The computer touch-screen is being supplanted by screens that follow the movements of the eye, but thought-control is expected to be the next generation. And, while it has been known for years that a beam of light exerts a weak propulsive force, the discovery has been announced in the past week of a part of the spectrum where the effect can be reversed and light used to attract particles, thus bringing the fictional Star Trek ‘traction beam’ a step closer.

Other scientific miracles we have had to contend with this past year include the domestic version of the 3-D printer, already now available (for a price) in colour, capable of reproducing many consumer goods that will in future be manufactured on-demand at home, from downloads, rather than delivered by courier from Amazon. Medical technology allowing biologists to culture human organs for replacements by ‘printing’ cells onto a matrix has been around for a few years, but this week saw the astonishing announcement that scientists in Cambridge have imprinted the entire canon of 154 Shakespeare sonnets onto a single strand of artificial DNA, potentially closing the loop between digital and biological memory.

This astounding development opens the way to a world in which information can be programmed into any system, stored, acted upon and retrieved. It might include other life forms, of which one could cite any example: buy your pet dog pre-loaded with obedience training.  Memory will become a utility, independent either of brains or computers. Patients with brain damage or memory loss could have artificial replacement memories and skills inserted; as could non-human replicants, robots, and other machines, as foreseen in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and elsewhere. People could record their memories and store them for access in old age, the way we store photographs now: but accurately, drawn directly from their current experience. Would children need to spend 14 years in school, or fighter airplane pilots be expensively trained, if the learning could be downloaded directly into their brains at a molecular level? DNA memory not only allows us to use computers, it allows computers to use us.

And in Scotland, physicist Dr Di Falco is perfecting the ‘invisibility cloak’ of fictional stories, famously the Harry Potter saga – although her single-layer ‘metamaterial’ still cannot work flexibly.  Invisibility has long been a goal of imaginative humanity, exerting a powerful fascination: hence The Invisible Man, a story by the frequently prophetic HG Wells, that has spawned numerous films. Invisibility, the power to appear and disappear at will, is the stuff of myth and fairytale. A true superpower, it has been hitherto only partly achieved by imitating the chameleon and the cuttlefish, using camouflage: colouring objects to blend in with their background. An ‘invisible car’ was created for a recent Bond film, using video cameras to project the background scene onto the front surface of the object, fooling the onlooker. Special ‘stealth’ paints and surfaces reduce the reflectivity of military machines and installations. In those cases, movement gives the game away. But the Holy Grail of invisibility is to use light itself to confound the viewer, and it seems this is now being achieved experimentally in the USA. Would we know? No sooner have we come to understand the physical principles of the universe, apparently, than they are used to dupe us.

Invisibility has its attractions, but of all the new inventions it is possibly the least responsible. Invisibility will enable the terrorist to get closer to his target; the tyrannical regime to carry on unlimited surveillance; the enemy to hide in plain sight. It is potentially a game-changing development, enabling epochal events like the assassinations of Julius Caesar, Archduke Ferdinand or JFK to become commonplace, with who knows what consequences for the future. It could have an upside: invisible cities, for instance, could be built on sites of outstanding natural beauty and the traveller approaching the hidden ugliness of the city limits would see only mountains, lakes and trees, as in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. But I am hoping that, when we do invent time travel, someone invisible will be sent back to shut this experiment down, for all our sakes.

This stuff is arriving thick and fast. It is as if we are living in a dream, where anything we can dream of is becoming possible. We are discovering, perhaps too soon, how to change not just a few things around us, but the universe itself; unpicking the woolly fabric of reality to knit new garments. Why? Why is this happening to us now? We are transiting so rapidly between technological paradigms it is as if we have been travelling to distant planets and met advanced scientific cultures without ever leaving Earth. We are becoming one of those higher civilizations ourselves, of the kind that Sci-Fi writers have been imagining for years, where everyone is immortal and Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver unlocks all doors in space and time. The new technology confounds us: we who were not born to live in this Brave New World can only gape like savages in awe of the magical and miraculous powers of the High Priests of science and their teenage acolytes.

For many of us, it looks like the endgame, as if we are rushing to complete something before everything dies.  Our social, economic and political systems are fast revealing themselves to be threadbare, dysfunctional anachronisms. People waiting their turn hopelessly at the dry pumps of prosperity and progress are reverting to the old barbarities, the old superstitions. The medieval mindset has never really gone away. War looms, as we know, because we can, have imagined it in our art. And art, as we know, prefigures death on an unimaginable scale. Pilotless aircraft, driverless cars, powered exoskeletons… are we entering the time of The Terminator? Of an endless, unwinnable conflict whose cause has been forgotten for centuries, prosecuted by self-replicating machines equipped with artificial intelligence but no sense of irony?

A Canadian research project, announced within the past month, sets out to prove or disprove the idea that the universal ‘reality’ which we perceive is in fact a computer simulation. It’s an idea that has been imagined before in fiction, from Plato to The Matrix; even if it is not yet true, it soon might be. Was it not Shakespeare who wrote, ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on’?

Yep, let’s blame the Bard.

Postscriptum

*Much later… the story appears in the news that Swedish researchers are working on technology to allow dogs to communicate directly with humans. They have called the technology ‘No More Woofs’.

Post-postscriptum

It is January, 2017. Doctors have learned to communicate with people who are essentially non-functioning, trapped in completely immobile bodies with so-called ‘locked-in’ syndrome and apparently unable to signal any responses to external stimuli. Four test subjects successfully answered 200 ‘yes-or-no’ questions put to them by the researchers, who monitored chemical changes in their brains responding to the inputs.

All four reported feeling happy with their condition.

Our brightest hopes

Just been invigilating an exam at the local uni. About fifty students (2nd years), would-be Cell Biologists, have been given a paper asking them to answer four questions, one from each section – and four answer books, but no specific instructions as to how to present the answers.

The logical inference would surely be that the examiner wanted the students to answer each question in a separate book, so that each can be separately marked. Otherwise, why put out four books? Two or three students ask the invigilators for clarification. Others give in four books, each with an answer in it. Still, around sixty percent of the candidates write all four answers in one book and hand in the other three blank, without questioning what they were for.

Next time I get a diagnosis of cancer, or am told my DNA is an exact match for the killer’s, I shall take the news philosophically.

A win-win situation

As if the Sandy Hook junior school massacre was not a promising enough Christmas present to set the childlike pulse of the US arms industry racing, the taking of 600 hostages by Al-Qaeda affiliated cadres and random cigarette smugglers in a suicidal attack on a well defended Algerian desert gas complex operated by BP has provided them not just with the toys, but with an entire new playground to romp in.

As NATO extricates itself messily from one flyblown mid-eastern desert conflict after another, the US State Department must be hugging itself with glee over the opening-up of this new front in its astronomically expensive and futile ‘War on Terror’: the gigantic sand-trap known as the Sahel, that ever-expanding treeless waste of human misery and deprivation to the south of the Sahara, where ‘militant Islamists’ are racing their Toyotas far from the drone-strikes of Yemen and Waziristan.

Already, we are hearing the tired old refrain that interventions such as that made by the French in Mali last week are highly necessary to keep hardworking taxpayers safe on the streets of (insert name of northern NATO country). The media is hurriedly producing maps and explanatory graphics of northern Africa, Googling the forgotten names of its outlandish  capitals. The In Amenas plant attack could not have come at a better time. It has vindicated the unpopular hardline stance on Mali of the soft-bellied Francois Hollande; it has rescued Dave Cameron from the embarrassment of a scheduled speech on Europe, that he really didn’t want to make; and it will very likely save the US from having to open a new front in the War on Terror by invading Iran, a tricky proposition not supported by the majority of Americans.

Now, we have a vast area of virgin territory (size = 1 Spain + 1 France) in which to carry on the War Without End: the perfect enemy in a bunch of hotheaded camel-humpers not (yet) possessed of ground-to-air missiles; some really rotten dictatorships to prop-up in the name of national security, letting Big Oil and the mining corporations off the hook; and no civilians to get in the way. At least, none that weren’t already on the point of starving to death. Failures and setbacks can be laid at the door of the African Union. Even the demoralised Swiss banks can be happy as the aid pipeline swells once more, circulating vast amounts of arms dollars through the pockets of local warlords.

It’s a win-win situation for everyone, until we lose.

Cross-currents

Extraordinary hypocrisy corner:

The European Court has published four decisions in cases relating to appeals against UK Supreme Court rulings over defendants’ right to allow their religious beliefs to override anti-discrimination laws and company dress codes.

Three decisions went against the appellants. In the fourth, relating to the wearing of the cross as jewellery (over which British Airways has already backed down and amended their uniform code), the appellant won.

Had this been a case about, oh, prisoners’ voting rights, the right-wing press in Britain would have thundered and railed against the monstrous interference with our sacred judicial process by slippery, garlic-chewing foreigners in Strasbourg.

As it is, they have written only of their disappointment at the European Court’s failure to safeguard religious freedoms against the disgracefully liberal British courts – for which, read the freedom of Christians, specifically, to parade their noxious brand of social exclusion.

We look forward to the Telegraph, the Times, the Soaraway Sun and the D*** M*** publishing further editorials expressing high hopes for the European Court in the months and years to come.

Our Religion Correspondent, the Very Rev Pious von Bogl is on a working holiday until 28 January.