Monday, August 30, 2010

Musings on tolerance and the so-called 'ground zero mosque'

It's perhaps not commonly known, but I occasionally take services at a Unitarian meeting house in South East London. I'm involved in the management there, albeit to a diminishing extent now I'm based in Birmingham.

For more information on Unitarians (like Quakers with hymns) see Our Meeting House is on the web here –

The theme of yesterday's address/sermon was religious tolerance and I include extracts below, as it's the first one I've been halfway to happy with.

I begin with a quote from the German Enlightenment writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Goethe wrote "Toleration ought in reality to be merely a transitory mood. It must lead to recognition. To tolerate is to affront."

I want to talk to you about this idea of reaching past the kind of negative toleration Goethe is criticising. I want to talk about a more difficult, but positive toleration of those of all faiths and of none based on reconciliation and recognition.

In recent weeks, some of you may have been following a controversy in the United States about an Islamic community centre in Manhattan. If you haven't heard, this is the story.

A cleric named Imam Rauf from the Sufist tradition of Islam is proposing to build a community centre with prayer rooms in Manhattan, some three blocks away, and out of sight of, from the site of the World Trade Centre. Some have compared it to an Islamic YMCA. No big deal, you might say.

Guess again. Irresponsible politicians have branded the project the 'Ground Zero Mosque' and moved to attack it as disrespectful to the dead of 9/11. Adverts have been run on the side of New York buses picturing a plane flying into one of the World Trade Centre towers and a mosque divided by the question: Why Here?

Sadly, all too many people seem willing to listen to these politicians. The German theologian Hans Kung wrote "There will be peace on earth when there is peace among the world religions." Hmm. Guess we're not quite there yet.

So, what should be a simple, local planning decision for the city authorities has become a national controversy in which the President has been forced to intervene, citing the first amendment rights of all US citizens to freedom of religious expression.

Here's what the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg has had to say on the matter:

Islam did not attack the World Trade Center-–Al-Qaeda did. To implicate all of Islam for the actions of a few who twisted a great religion is unfair and un-American.

I understand the impulse to find another location for the mosque and community center. I understand the pain of those who are motivated by loss too terrible to contemplate.

However, this is a test of our commitment to American values. We must have the courage of our convictions. We must do what is right, not what is easy. And we must put our faith in the freedoms that have sustained our great country for more than 200 years.

So, it looks as if the proposal for the community centre will go ahead. But it throws into sharp relief the limits of negative tolerance. The First Amendment or other forms of negative tolerance before the law don't require people to understand and accept the religious beliefs of others. To see things from another's perspective. A negative freedom cannot of itself create a positive understanding of others, only the space to allow us to cultivate this understanding.

Let's move back to this country and look at some of the readings we heard earlier. The French philosopher Voltaire, a noted Anglophile, praises eighteenth century Britain in his Letters on the English for its hard-won religious pluralism. In 1733, he writes of the equality of the stock exchange, "where the Jew, the Muslim and the Christian transact together as though they all professed the same religion … [where] the Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist and the Churchman depends on the Quakers word."

Clearly, compared with the wars of the Reformation and with other eighteenth century states like France, where religious tolerance was seldom seen, this kind of economic pragmatism was a big step forward.

But, wind forward fifty years to the setting of Dickens' Barnaby Rudge, the 'No Popery' riots of the 1780's, and we find that this freedom has yet to turn into mutual understanding. We find burning churches, an intolerance of difference in the form of Catholicism, a latent violence which becomes active violence under the provocation of unscrupulous politicians.

The riots find their echo today in the actions of the far right, now organised into the English Defence League. The League march against Islam in cities like Birmingham and like the No Popery riots, they target places of worship. Not far from Birmingham, they left a pig's head on the wall of Dudley Central Mosque – an outrage not only to practicing Muslims but to anyone who takes freedom of religious practice seriously.

So we too in Britain have no reason to be complacent in our negative tolerance of other beliefs, other faiths. We too need to work towards not only maintaining what we have, but also work towards a positive recognition of the worth of all religious traditions.

As one anonymous but pretty wise person put it, "toleration [...]is the first step towards curiosity, interest, study, understanding, appreciating and finally valuing diversity."

We Unitarians have long been adept at incorporating elements of all religions, all philosophies into our worship. Within our walls, each of us brings our own combination of elements such as Christianity, humanist philosophy, Buddhism, paganism as well as the other Abrahamic religions Islam and Judaism.

For those of us who come from, or still feel attached to, the Christian tradition, the intolerance expressed in the Bible towards other faiths, other peoples, can be problematic. Thankfully, there are passages in the New Testament in particular which point in the other direction. In Romans 2, Paul points out that it's not what religion you practice, it's how you live your life which is crucial.

What the times now require – of everyone, and I would argue that this includes Unitarians - is taking that next step of religious tolerance. That which moves us further towards appreciating and valuing our diversity of belief.

Here we are in South East London surrounded by people of all faiths and of none. We've got Voltaire's Churchmen, Quakers and Presbyterians, Dickens' Catholics and Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and Hindus and much more besides.

Not all of them share all our liberal views on religion, but with most of them I would suspect we would find more to unite than to divide us. A commitment to truth and to peace, a love of friends and family, and a desire to leave the world in a better place than when we found it. By listening to and better understanding each other we recognise common ground and – in the spirit of Gandhi - begin to move towards a win-win situation for everyone.

For me, it strikes me that for a person who lives in one of the areas of Birmingham with the highest proportion of practicing Muslims, I know very little about my neighbours. So I'm going to make a small start by reading more about Islam and working to understand them better.

So, if you take one thing away from this talk, please do reflect on how we as Unitarians can play a role in fostering greater understanding and positive tolerance between faiths.

In closing, I want to leave you with two quotes. One is from the Prophet Muhammed himself, who said "You have two qualities which God, the Most Exalted, likes and loves. One is mildness and the other is toleration."

The second, longer quote is from Imam Rauf, the sponsor of the Manhattan community centre we began our address with.

At an interfaith memorial service for the martyred journalist Daniel Pearl, Imam Rauf said, 'If to be a Jew means to say with all one's heart, mind, and soul: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one. If to be a Christian is to love the Lord our God with all of my heart, mind and soul, and to love for my fellow human being what I love for myself, then not only am I a Christian, but I have always been one.'

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

It Could Be Worse - a fanzine-sized window back into 1995 Pt 1

Issue three of this American indie ‘zine recently fell into my lap for 50p in Swordfish records. Here are the highlights…

1001 obscure indie bands mentioned within and their terrible/awesome names

Fleshy Ranks (ok, actually a reggae artist, but…)

Nikey Fungus (conjuring up the lovely image of decaying shoes)

Crawling With Tarts (what?)

The Warlock Pinchers (don’t pinch a warlock or baaaad things will happen)

Gerrymander Bob (will play well with the Electoral Commission crowd, no doubt)

The Dead Milkmen (milk fetish, part the first)

Lubricated Goat (whaaat?)

Milkcult (milk fetish, part the second)

Linus P Smile (Wynder K Frog tribute?)

Bögsküll (not one but two inappropriate umlauts)

Ditch Croaker (See p47 of the Monstrous Compendium, 2nd edition AD&D, THACO 14)

Dumpster Juice (whaaaaaatttt?)

Wreck Small Speakers On Expensive Stereos (AS YOU WISH)

Difference Engines (the ‘zine reviewed records by two bands, both called Difference Engines. I think they should have a steam-punk duel to sort it out)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Gym musings

Yes, as heralded on Facebook, I have joined a gym. The induction is tonight but there is a problem and it's name is cognitive dissonance. In the same way that Mariah Carey, so myth would have it, doesn't do stairs, I don't do gyms.

I'll spare you the long explanation for this. However, if I say, 'PE teachers using pupils to build elite rugby-playing warrior cadre and sod the rest of the brats', which is slightly unfair (one of them at least taught me to swim) but mostly accurate, and then figure in a decade or so of mixed laziness and insecurity on my part, then I trust you'll get the point.

But, riding a surge of confidence, and with the example of my very, very indie housemate transforming before my eyes in to a tower of a half-marathon running man, albeit one in a Sunn-O))) T-shirt, I've signed up for the Council fitness scheme.

Courtesy of COW on Digbeth High Street, I now have a pair of tracksuit bottoms and a vintage blue Adidas top. I was thinking that all I needed was a pack of Gitanes, my other housemate's fake moustache and a small existentialist paperback and I'd look like some mythical 70's scrawny French footballing stereotype (left winger, naturally), when the idea hit me.

Going to get fit should be fun, not a chore or a duty. But if 'I' don't do gyms, maybe there's another 'I' who does. And by bringing in an element of role-playing to the whole process it may well become fun and enable me to walk in there without feeling overawed by the paragons of gym culture.

So, when I go to the gym I may well be taking 'Alain' with me, as an idea, at least. Maybe as a totemic copy of The Myth of Sisyphus, appropriately enough. Not the moustache though.

And thank you Michael Cera. I was sure there was a reason why I sat through Youth In Revolt earlier this year. And now I know what it is.

Quote for today

"Consider that, despite endless research in Western psychology demonstrating without question that animals and people respond to love and praise more than to punishment, you persist in criticizing yourself mercilessly in the vague hope that it will somehow make you a better person. This is poison." ~ Jose Stevens

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Review: Inception

As the lights went down at the Electric, we had been talking about the use of language. How the way you write and follow the conventions of style and grammar can have a strange, pure beauty of its own. Loving the sign for its own sake rather than what it signifies.

Quite by chance, Inception, the new Christopher Nolan film, often felt like another exercise in form over content. Although not based on anything Philip K Dick wrote, it's so successful an exercise in bringing his tics and tropes to the screen that it pretty much out-Dicks any actual adaptation past in its successful conflation of the real and the unreal.

So, we get a core plot of subconscious corporate espionage: infiltrators of dreams offered the job that can't be done - planting an idea in the mind of a sleeper as opposed to merely stealing one - inception, rather than extraction. We get a vengeful female anima in the dreamscape of the male lead (Leo di Caprio) which takes the form of his dead wife. We get moments of jaw-dropping effect, such as when Ellen Page's character (Ariadne - shades of the Matrix's wearisome obsession with Greek mythology) realises that she's in a dream of Paris rather than the real thing. The cityscape explodes into fragments around her as she awakes. And we get three-ton lumbering ambiguity as characters ask themselves how you can tell whether the 'real world' is just another dream. That way, my friend, lies solipsism...

All very phildickian - and I didn't make that adjective up - only pushed through the Hollywood subtlety mincer and SFX engine. The PHD novel it reminds me the most of is Ubik, that strange little novel about dream vampires in the shared consciousness of the almost dead.

Inception is masterfully directed and carefully plotted - once the film leaves behind the slightly sluggish and confusing initial scenes it not only holds the attention rock solid, but manages to convey the woozy unreality of the dreamworld as waking minds imagine it.

There are sequences towards the end of the film where as many as four levels of dream are running in the mind of one man like Russian dolls, all on different time sequences. To keep this conceit going and make it not only comprehensible to the audience, but deliriously watchable, is a feat indeed. Nolan deserves serious credit for this.

Where Dick and Inception part company is in the film's relentless pursuit of style over depth - the sign, not the signifier again. Every Dick book I've read has been rooted - consciously or not - in his restless speed-freak paranoid world-view. You might not agree with it or understand it but every novel is underpinned by it. Inception, on the other hand, seems happy to borrow Dick's tropes without engaging with his ideas or providing others in its stead.

This is surprising given that dreams have provided such fertile intellectual soil for neurology, psychoanalysis, philosophy and so on. Instead, the best Inception can provide is a reductionist take on father-son relations which reeks of Freud 101 and a dreamworld which looks - as Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian pointed out - like a series of Bond movie locations. I wasn't expecting David Lynch (although a film which crossed Inception with Inland Empire would be awesome), but come on!

Similarly, the plot feels like a rather linear and simplistic long con. I've seen episodes of Hustle with more complexity than this.

The actors do their best too, but it's a director's film. Di Caprio as ever makes a great trickster and a lousy emoter - like the film himself, he can't be relied on for psychological depth. Tom Hardy steals every scene he's in, but doesn't get enough to do other than sneer and shoot.

But to criticise Inception for lack of depth is perhaps to miss the point - it remains a great application of phildickian style to the blockbuster format. And better an exercise in pure aesthetics than one with cracker-barrel, trenchcoat and mirrorshades philosophising tacked onto it. Yes, I'm talking to you, Wachowski Brothers.

So while I might regret the film it could have been, it's still a resounding success: fast-paced after the first third, kinetic, frequently breathtaking, not overly gratuitous in its violence and utterly watchable. And head and shoulders above the other big action movies I've seen so far this year.