Respect – what is it good for?

Coming to the end of this year’s summer exam season, here is an interesting exam question and my response to it:

Respecting people does not have to include respecting their opinions or beliefs, no matter how sincerely they hold them. Discuss.

Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 11.53.19It is not uncommon for me to be accused of disrespecting people when I lay into their beliefs. I generally see this as them wanting to to either close down the discussion, or else them exhorting me to have more respect for those beliefs essentially on the simplistic basis that they hold them and a kind of implied assertion that I should therefore be trusting them in their respect for those beliefs.

Please note that I haven’t, so far, differentiated between categories of opinion/belief; religious, political or whatever. That is because I cannot see justification for doing so. Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 12.14.17Opinions and/or beliefs to do with anything should be treated in the same way; with healthy scepticism until backed with evidence and/or a coherent rationale. This is, hopefully, not very contentious, and I know that it is the manner of the debates that needs addressing in order to ensure that mutual respect remains possible despite differences of opinion and/or beliefs.

This is something that I admit to finding very challenging at times, and something that the nature of social media makes all the more difficult to maintain. Trolls, in particular find sport in going out of their way to wind people up and provoke disharmony and disrespect. I do not see it as a problem in responding directly back to these people in less than courteous manner once their troll status is clear, but it is when they provoke disrespect between others that they can do real damage. More challenging is having any sort of respect for people who subscribe wholesale to dangerous (usually right-wing) ideologies. Maintaining Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 12.24.25respectful dialogues with Tories and fascists is something most people reading this will have found beyond them at times. Strangely, however, many of of the self same people seem to have less problem with extending respect to religious beliefs that are just as dangerous and often intertwined with the political opinions/beliefs they happily slag off.

Be it politics or religion, as a teacher I have come to understand that people’s worldview (incorporating their political and religious beliefs) are shaped in their formative years and by three fundamental things:

  1. The circumstances of their birth
  2. The environment/places in which they are raised
  3. The nurturing/guidance/indoctrination they receive from trusted adults around them.

On this basis, very little about a child’s beliefs and worldview comes from within them; from their intelligence, personality and character. These factors come into play as they mature and learn to evaluate and reflect on these three factors (or not as the case may be). Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 11.55.30This is the basis, after all, on which we have notions of reaching an age of adult responsibility built into legal systems (although this opens yet another can of worms in itself).

This means that, as responsible adults, we need to acknowledge that children are not responsible for their circumstances or even their behaviours, attitudes, beliefs or actions. Thus, whenever admonishing children, we need to be clear that it is the behaviour that we have issues with not the the child as a person. We should feel compelled to maintain our respect for all children, no matter how challenging that may be, in the knowledge that they are not the finished article, the fully developed human being, and recognise that treating them unfairly for things that are not their fault is potentially hugely damaging. Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 12.26.55This is why the Trump administration’s appalling treatment of refugee children is so utterly contemptible to any decent person.

Adulthood, in my opinion, is when the young person not only completes the physical transitions brought about by hormones, but also the character transitions, brought about by self-analysis, developing intellectual capacity and the forging of their own identity. This transition is the tumultuous phase we know as adolescence. It is naturally difficult for both the individual and those around them. Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 11.59.15Acknowledging this should lead us to respect what is going on and allowing them space and no little empathy as they go through it. After all, we have all been through ourselves.

It is, however, a very dangerous phase that has the potential to set, (almost) in stone, the persons character, attitudes and beliefs throughout their adult life. This is the phase in which so-called radicalisation is most likely to happen. Not that becoming a radical is necessarily a bad thing. Au contraire. Radicalism in the arts, culture, society, science and politics can be a hugely progressive and positive thing. Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 12.02.28But when it gets tainted with, in particular, fascism and/or religion it can becomes a hugely negative thing.

This raises questions of how much freedom should give to explore radical alternatives. There is, of course, a world of difference between investigating and exploring radical alternatives and actually committing to pursuing them. A rounded and progressive education should never shy away from critical analysis of extraordinary viewpoints. We have been doing it for years in subjects like Religious Studies (although I’d argue that the critical analysis has been inadequate). As pointed out already, radicalism can be hugely positive, and in those instances we need embrace it and facilitate it. But where should the line be drawn? I would argue that it should be determined by whether or not the consequences can be undone easily or not. Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 12.03.49Radical fashion, music, literature and art are all fine. Radical surgery (perhaps ranging from tattoos to gender reassignment) perhaps needs to be deferred until the end of adolescence (although I know there are good arguments for allowing it sooner in some cases) for reasonable fear of significant regret.

Such liberalism is anathema to our conservative establishment. This is why institutions such as our schools put so much weight on conformity and discipline. Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 12.06.03We hear arguments that it is vital to a conducive learning environment for all, while in the next breath often the same people lament the lack of initiative, independent learning and invention in our kids. The truth is the system knocks it out of them at an early age, as the desire for an easy, manageable life prevails.

We need to learn to respect every individual, be they conformists or radicals, because, at the end of the day we are all fundamentally the same; the same species, homo sapiens, human beings. It would be helpful, therefore to extend that principle of admonishing behaviours rather than individuals into adulthood. Easier said than done, admittedly.

When I lay into that fascist or religious bigot (a label that describes attitudes/beliefs being exhibited – so ok in my book), I really need to focus on the views and beliefs expressed rather than attack the person. A person patently does not have to be an idiot (a pejorative sleight on someone’s intelligence – so not ok to use casually) to express idiotic views, opinions and beliefs. None of us is immune from making idiotic utterances at times, but few of us would self-identify as idiots.

Of course, simplistic labelling of anything (people or ideas especially) is never adequate. For ideas/opinions/beliefs to merit respect, however, they need substantiating with verifiable evidence (which allows them to be considered knowledge) or else supported by robust rational argument (which allows them to be considered legitimate theory). Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 12.09.09Education needs to focus on these core skills of evaluating evidence (the scientific method) and critiquing theory (philosophy). Deficiencies in these skills have allowed the phenomena of fake news to distort many people’s understanding of the world (not that it is a recent phenomena, as religion illustrates). A person that is intransigent about holding onto beliefs and ideas in the face of substantial evidence to the contrary is my definition of a fundamentalist. They are behaving in a fundamentally idiotic way, despite rarely being idiots.

Thus, I really ought to apologise to the UKIP supporter that I recently described as a moron for suggesting that I wouldn’t have the freedom to travel around the country in a Marxist state. He turned out to be a reasonably well-educated civil servant. Patently not a moron, but someone who had simply makes moronic statements and simply needs to read a lot more!

Religion (of any and all varieties) is the foremost example of something that flies so blatantly in the face of logic and contradictory evidence, that I have no issue with it being described as idiotic, while simultaneously knowing full well that few of its adherents are idiots.

What we see with religion is copious evidence of the truth about people’s beliefs and perspectives being the product of those three key factors: the circumstances of their birth, the region in which they grow up, and the guidance/nurturing/indoctrination that they receive in their formative years. It is undeniable that the vast majority are brought up to follow the beliefs of their parents and/or to conform to their community’s norms. I know that it is hard NOT to be a Catholic in Poland and to NOT be a Muslim in Saudi Arabia, for example. To follow a different path in such places leads to consequences ranging from discrimination, to ostracism, to beatings, through to death in some cases.

I therefore struggle to respect attempts to enforce conformity and have the utmost respect for ‘radicals’ prepared to stand up and challenge the absurdities being thrust upon them. Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 12.10.58It is a brave and noble attitude that speaks to the character of martyrs throughout history (despite the questionable causes that some people have martyred themselves for). I can respect the conviction and selflessness of religious martyrs, for example, while simultaneously being bemused at the stupidity and futility of such an act. In contrast, Emily Davidson’s martyrdom at the feet of the King’s horse proved far from futile and took the world forward, such that we have recently been celebrating the centenary of what was achieved. I am sure we could still argue as to whether that act itself was an idiotic thing to do.

In conclusion, if we wish to be considered to be a fully-fledged, well-rounded, independent free thinker, we have to undertake the appropriate self-analysis to understand where our views and beliefs stem from and be willing to challenge their robustness and worthiness. We then need to have the courage to act on the conclusions of that analysis – despite the huge challenges and obstacles this may present. There is no point in martyrdom, but it should at the very least inform some of our actions, such as how we treat others, how we vote, causes we choose to support etc.

Some people will be incapable of such an undertaking. Few are good at it. Whatever, we should maintain respect for them as individual human beings while being prepared to constantly challenge their views, be they fascist, religious or some other such nonsense. At the same time, we need to keep our minds open enough to be receptive to evidence that challenges our position on things. This ability to change opinion and beliefs is a huge strength, not a weakness, and should be acknowledged as such.

Having said all this, if you ever see me becoming a fascist or ‘finding God’, you have my permission to call me an idiot and I promise to thank you rather than take any offence. Amen.

Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 12.13.41P.S. For those who may think I go too far in apparently equating religion and fascism, I’m not saying they are in any way the same beyond both being objectionable and misguided ideologies. However, this definition below, does it define fascism or religion?

“Characterised by authoritarian views and strong central control, with little or no tolerance of opposing opinions.”

An ecosocialist case for an independent Wales

YES CYMRU BRIDGEND launch meeting address.Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 23.15.33

BACKGROUND

I was born in Kent, but moved to Wales 26 years ago; I was a geography teacher for twenty years, and then an adult literacy and numeracy tutor about 10 years.

I was heavily involved in the Green Party for quite a few years, even standing to be leader of Wales Green Party in November 2014

I have since parted company with the Green Party in order to get on the Corbyn bandwagon, in the hope that he may actually bring about some socialist change, although in recent years I have found it easier, as a socialist, to vote for Plaid Cymru than some Welsh Labour candidates.

I am here, therefore, in order to outline an ecosocialist’s view of the potential for an independent Wales.

It is my desire to create a fairer, more equal, safer and healthier society that motivates me and leads me to want to get involved in the Yes Cymru campaign.  Let me try and explain why in a bit more detail.

ENVIRONMENT

Firstly, let me make a few points about environmental issues. In general, independence has to be about long-term questions rather than short term ones, but with regards to climate change, they are pretty much indistinguishable.

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 23.20.27Coal from Wales has played its part in creating the crisis we face, but in the global race to reduce emissions, Wales has huge potential to not only do its bit, but to also be a pioneer and leader in renewable technologies, especially the water-based technologies of tidal, wave and hydro power.

Currently energy is a reserved matter, with just planning policy devolved. The new powers over energy policy coming later this year, while welcome, still have a Westminster veto in the small print and it remains to be seen whether the Welsh people can exercise their will and have fracking and nuclear power banished from Wales, or see the necessary investment in giving Wales, not only complete energy security, but virtually free domestic energy to boot.

My son is a Mechanical Engineering graduate of Cardiff University, so I know that Welsh universities currently struggle to get adequate funding for their pioneering work in wave and tidal technologies. With the right backing and support, Wales could, indeed should be at the forefront of these industries of future global importance.

Independence would take control of decision making in these vital areas into the hands of the people living here, but it would also benefit our precious and distinct ecosystems.

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 23.24.28.pngWith 3 National Parks, and many Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, including the UK’s first ever AONB, along with other precious environments across the land and around the coast, it may be tempting to think that the UK does a good job of protecting Welsh landscapes.

However, the picture is far from rosy. National Park priorities are more attuned to the needs of wealthy city dwellers, especially Londoners, and/or the MoD, than the needs of local people and wildlife.

Sheep farming and conifer plantations decimate biodiversity. Draconian planning restrictions may have their place, but allied to free markets in land and housing, locals are priced out of their communities and off the land.

Too many of the relevant powers still reside in Westminster or with Crown Estates. With full control over its land resources, Wales can become a better home for both its people and its wildlife.

Welsh resident, George Monbiot hopes that independence can decentralize land ownership and be a key to restoring our wilderness. There is every reason to believe that Wales’ distinct ecosystems, from coastal seas to mountaintops, will flourish more in an independent Wales.

Ultimately, however, it is looking after the people better that matters most and why I identify as a socialist even more than as an environmentalist. And this is where I feel the strongest arguments for independence lie.

SOCIALISM

For socialists, the central question regarding self-determination and independence has to be ‘What is best for the vast majority of the people – the working class and middle class people of Wales?

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 23.26.16This has to set in the context of the economic decline of British imperialism and the un-remitting neoliberal class war that we have come to know as ‘austerity’.

The collapse of capitalism has long been inevitable, built as it is on the illogical premise of continuous growth on a finite planet.

In it’s death throes, what we now see is the insidious ‘race to the bottom’ mentality we see in the tearing up of workers’ rights, environmental protection and human rights against the backdrop of free trade agreements that hand ultimate economic control to multinational corporations above even national government’s control.  It is all driven by the need to keep the capitalist elite’s gravy train on the rails.

It is therefore understandable why socialists see independence as a potential way out of the capitalist downward spiral.

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 23.32.58.pngThis viewpoint also informed the so-called Left Exit (or Lexit) position in the Brexit referendum.  The rightward drift of social democratic parties across Europe and beyond would have us all believe that there is no alternative to the market and the neoliberal model. I say this is patent nonsense.

It is no coincidence that the demand for independence is strongest among the youth, the radicals, socialists and the most oppressed sections of our society.  For us on the Left, then, it is crucial that we do not separate the demand for independence from that of building a mass movement to challenge austerity.

In terms of party politics in Wales, this is complicated. There are supporters and opponents of this position in all the relatively left-looking electoral parties in Wales: Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party.

We therefore need to weigh up every candidate carefully regarding their positions on self-determination AND socialist alternatives to austerity. Either/or simply does not cut it!

Crude nationalism of the ethnic variety has to be avoided at all costs, despite its appeal to the intellectually challenged.

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 23.36.11.pngUKIP have successfully used this approach to tap into sections of the population that would be best served by a socialist, independent Wales. Their brand of British nationalism is patently dangerous and needs to be countered and not mimicked.

Inspiration can instead be drawn from the success of left reformist movements across Europe in recent times: Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, Die Linke in Germany, Front de Gauche in France and the Pirates of Iceland.Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 23.40.43

We have to be seen to be advocating genuinely radical alternatives, or what is the point?

The temptation might be to present independence as “the evolution of devolution”,but this is not a radical move. Retaining the monarchy, keeping the pound, remaining in NATO and, yes, even remaining in the EU, all leave us constrained and unable to change anything truly significant.

Being tied to the pound and the Bank of England, in particular, leaves us tied to UK economic policy, dictated by the City of London. The very best outcome we could wring from this scenario would be ‘austerity lite’.

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 23.42.19With a clean break from the UK, virtually from Day 1, we could have: a fairer tax system, a Bank of Wales and our own currency, a decent citizen’s income that eliminates poverty, public ownership of energy, transport and all key utilities and infrastructure.
We could also have proper investment in green technologies and industry providing quality employment; and properly enforce bans on fracking and nuclear power.

The potential is limited only by our imaginations and ingenuity; not by externally imposed restrictions and constraints.

Of course, these freedoms could well be used and abused by groups wanting to drag Wales in a far less desirable direction.

This is has been part of the essentially negative No and Remain campaigns in Scotland and Brexit. ‘Project Fear’ it has been called, and how very appropriate. Fear paralyses and the No campaign is all about maintaining the status quo and supporting the Establishment – none of which serves us well at the moment. Their core message is a self-deprecating one of  “We cannot go it alone”.

It is saying that there is no alternative to austerity so we should just suck it up and be grateful for what we get.

In conclusion, ecosocialists would not naturally start from a position of self-determination, but this is the question being posed and it offers undeniable opportunities to end austerity and enhance the lives and interests of the working and middle classes of Wales.

As such, a Yes outcome would represent a serious blow to the corrupt and arrogant UK elite, and could even become a beacon of hope whose impact could be felt across the British Isles and beyond.

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The problems with Christian charity

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Nothing is more likely to press my buttons and get me responding than misguided praise of churches, and the Catholic Church in particular. It is something that I think is particularly appropriate for any green leftie to address as it is central to how religious belief has become a key tool of right-wing regimes around the world, but especially noticeably in the USA and UK currently. Religion is fundamentally right wing in nature because it is based on oppression, control and superiority complexes. The fact that the Jesus dude would appear to have made a good socialist, if you actually listen to what he was purported to say, is an irony that escapes most because it is irrelevant.

I have recently had conversations with a couple of people that I greatly respect, who are not particularly religious (I can respect religious people btw – just not religious beliefs or institutions) but who were being apologists for the Christian churches on the basis that they do exceptional charity work, especially in places like Africa, or in giving shelter to the local homeless (for one particularly cold night only). My robust challenging of this perspective on social media didn’t go down particularly well, leading to one of the threads being withdrawn, I suspect because the owner of that thread was wary of who else may see it given that she feels she has no choice but to send her children to a Catholic school. I guess we all have our crosses to bear!

But what of the assertions themselves?

Firstly, let’s address the meaning of charity.

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When you break these definitions down you begin to realise that charity is not the unqualified good that many seem to believe it to be. Indeed, many ethicists have major issues with the whole concept on, among others, these grounds:

  • Charities tend to target symptoms, not causes.
  • Charity often becomes a substitute for real justice, being used to patch up the effects of fundamental injustices in societies. In mitigating these injustices on a small scale, they help perpetuate them on a wider scale. (American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is worth reading on this topic)
  • Charity supports the establishment rather than challenges it to change. The effort and expense put into charity would be better spent pressurising governments to bring about the necessary change. Governments (like ours) would be forced to address the worst effects of of poverty if charities stopped bailing them out.
  • The state is the main beneficiary of charity. Dr Neil Levy, among others, has argued that charity is often self-defeating as it allows the state to escape its responsibilities. Charity to support essential services is bad because it switches provision from government to charity rather than actually increasing the benefits to the needy.
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  • Charity leads to favouritism, not fairness. Donors, not unreasonably, choose to give to causes that appeal to them, rather than the causes in greatest need. Should there be donkey sanctuaries while we still have hungry children? And what is so different about a hungry child than hungry adult in a world where there is more than enough food for everyone?
  • The preferential tax status of charities is harmful, in that it reduces the revenue the state has for social projects. Allowing tax exemptions for private schools, invariably having charitable status, can be seen to be an indirect reduction of revenues to state schools and thereby a cause of greater inequality. It is transferring money from areas that are politically accountable to organisations of, at best, highly variable accountability.
  • Charity is essentially a selfish act designed primarily to make us feel good about ourselves than to actually achieve any lasting good. (See this)
  • Charities are very inefficient, with often excessive proportions of funds raised spent on administration, advertising and fund-raising.
  • Charities are generally more accountable to the givers than the receivers.
  • Is it ethical to give charity with strings attached? Richard Nixon was occasionally honest to a fault, such as when he said, in 1968, “Let us remember that the main purpose of American aid is not to help other nations but to help ourselves”

This last point brings me back nicely to my issues with Christian charity. It always come with strings attached, usually for both the distributors of that charity and the recipients.

Why do Christian do charitable work? Because they are told to. They do it primarily through their own charities rather than join in the work of secular charities with different agenda. They do it because it is part of the reward and punishment regime imposed on them by their church, as set out in many biblical quotes:

  • In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ Acts 20:35
  • Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. Hebrews 13:16
  • Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed. Proverbs 19:17
  • Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27
  • Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 2 Corinthians 9:7

I swear I remember this last one so well because I heard it so often (just before the collection plate was passed around) in my days as a church goer. If all this cheerful giving was so beneficial, its hard to see why there is so much poverty and strife in the world. But then again, the Catholic Church is that bit more hypocritical than most. You don’t become, arguably, the wealthiest institution on the planet by giving all this money away frivolously!  It has a long and well-established history of shameless wealth accumulation. Churches have historically sought tithes of around 10% of its parishioners earnings, and I’d be surprised if they spend more than this % of their vast incomes year on charitable works. Getting figures for any of this is nigh on impossible of course.Screen Shot 2018-03-06 at 14.05.51
The quote from James 1:27 is particularly poignant. The Catholic Churches ‘work’ with orphans has, of course, been particularly pernicious. The endemic pedophilia amongst the clergy has highlighted the wisdom of hanging on to substantial reserves. Compensation claims run to many billions of pounds for claims that are just the tip of an iceberg. And of course, that most celebrated of orphan preyers, Mother Teresa, has long since been exposed (but such sound minds as Christopher Hitchens and Tariq Ali, among others).

As for Africa in particular, a paper entitled “The impact of Christianity on Sub-Saharan Africa” by Matsobane Manala of the University of South Africa came to the following conclusions:

  • It has done serious harm to the African way of life leading to a serious identity crisis for many, resulting in self-hatred and self-denigration.
  • It has seriously undermined women’s roles in all levels of society, with the imposition of the Christian family model of the “male breadwinner, dependent housekeeping wife and mother, dependent school-going children”.
  • It was the starting point for racial discrimination, that lead to things like church-supported apartheid in South Africa, for example. Indeed, apartheid can be traced back to a decision by the Dutch Reformed Church in 1857 to instigate separate eucharist services for white and black parishioners.
  • Christian churches and charities have played a key role in improving literacy standards and has been at the forefront of education services. But this has been at a price. The driving forces of change were the churches and the colonial industrialists and the education provided reflected their agenda accordingly.
  • Similarly, involvement in health care programmes has been substantial, but with inevitable strings attached (especially regarding abortion, family planning and sexual health) that may have exacerbated rather than helped major issues such as the HIV epeidemic.

Screen Shot 2018-03-06 at 14.10.08This last point has been thrown into greater focus with the recent ‘epidemic’ of violently oppressive homophobia in Africa, in no small way fanned by the ‘charitable’ works of US evangelical Christians. But this is not a new phenomenon. Anti-gay laws were introduced to Africa from the earliest days of Western colonialism.

 

In conclusion, charity of any sort is a dubious and ill-conceived enterprise more often than not. It diverts attention and resources away from achieving lasting solutions to humanitarian issues. But when it is driven by religion, it is particularly pernicious. It trades a vaccination or meal for the imposition or entrenchment of misogyny, inequality, bigotry and abuse. And all for self-indulgent motives rather than a genuine desire to change the world for the better.

A good starting point, for that better world, will be ousting Christian Conservatives like Teresa May and Donald Trump and replacing them with atheistic (understandably reluctant to label themselves outright atheists) socialists like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. These elections are where we need to focus our charitable instincts and cash!

P.S. I do support a few carefully chosen charities that focus on lobbying Governments directly, and/or direct action, for the kinds of change humanity as a whole needs to see. These include Amnesty International and Greenpeace, for example.

AFC Fylde working in partnership with Cuadrilla, Centrica and BAE Systems

Sent to the club, the supporters club and a range of local newspapers s around the club.

Dear Sir/Madam,

On visiting members of my family that live around the Fylde coast area, and being a keen lower league football fan (an Ebbsfleet Utd fan exiled in South Wales), I decided it was time I took in a game at AFC Fylde. IMG_2318With a nephew being a Barrow fan, the televised Bank Holiday fixture was perfect.

We enjoyed the game (me more so than my nephew, of course), and were hugely impressed with the Mill Farm stadium and the quality of the pitch. However, the evening was sullied after reading the programme in more detail after the game. The problem was found at the foot of the wholly inappropriately named COMMUNITY COUNTS page.

Why inappropriate? Well, it transpires that David Haythornthwaite, AFC Fylde chairman and owner, has no idea what COMMUNITY COUNTS means. The five sponsoring ‘partners’ of the AFC Fylde Community Foundation include the Fylde communities biggest threat, the disgracefully incompetent frackers, Cuadrilla; fellow frackers Centrica; and just for good measure, unscrupulous arms manufacturer and peddlers in violent death, BAE Systems. (See links at end of post)

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 22.39.12

This would all be shockingly inappropriate in itself, but children are the focus of the foundations work, with its website proclaiming this lofty goal: “to educate, motivate and inspire future generations to build better communities for all”. It would be hard to imagination less appropriate ‘partners’ in pursuing this goal that Cuadrilla, Centrica and BAE!

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 22.42.10

For all the impressive work that Haythornthwaite has done in building up the football club, I cannot help but question this man’s moral compass and what his long term vision actually is. I recently visited Forest Green Rovers FC. The parallels in terms of the progression of the respective football clubs are obvious enough, but the contrasts in the values and integrity of the respective owners could not be starker.

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 22.45.48FGR are owned by Ecotricity boss, Dale Vince, and it is heralded as one of the ‘greenest’ and most progressive clubs in the world. It is the world’s first totally vegan club, for example. This is the sort of club that can draw families from a huge catchment area. I would urge families in the Fylde area to think long and hard about getting involved with a club that is happy to take your kids and ‘work in partnership’ with such a truly appallingly bunch of of filthy frackers and death merchants.

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The Fylde area is blessed with plenty of good football clubs to choose from. Community does indeed count, so pick wisely. Boycott AFC Fylde until Haythornthwaite gets the message that your support is not at any cost to your community and your kid’s futures.

Andy Chyba

PS – I’ll post any responses as comments on this post.

Supporting links:
Cuadrilla incompetence: http://frack-off.org.uk/cuadrilla-resources-planning-breaches-technical-failures/
Centrica fracking: https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/press-releases/british-gas-owner-centrica-funding-climate-denial-group-linked-trump-20161216/
Centrica and Cuadrilla: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/shale-gas-centrica-puts-160m-into-fracking-fields-around-blackpool-8656883.html
BAE arms traders: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2010/apr/12/bae-systems-weapons-arms-manufacturers
AFC Fylde Community Foundation: http://www.afcfyldefoundation.co.uk

GCSE Religious Studies – I couldn’t resist.

I invigilated a GCSE Religious Studies exam today. I had to have a go, didn’t I?

 

RELIGIOUS STUDIES

COMPONENT 2

CHRISTIANITY

Time: 1 hour

 

1. Beliefs and Teachings

a) State two beliefs about Jesus (2 marks)

 

1.   He was alleged to have been born to a virgin woman; a story spun to hide his mum getting pregnant out of wedlock.

2.   In similar vein, his dad was purported to be a non-human deity who impregnated his mum via the ‘holy spirit’.

 

b) Describe Christian beliefs about the Trinity (5 marks)

 

This is the somewhat ridiculous concept that despite their belief that there is only ONE god (the several thousand other claimed gods being dismissed as nonsense), this one ‘true’ god somehow manages to divide itself into THREE distinct manifestations.

These manifestations are held to be two male figures – the ‘Father’ and the ‘Son’ – and an asexual/non-sexual entity variously known as the ‘Holy Spirit’ or the ‘Holy Ghost’. Although thinking about it, this must also presumably be male if it did get Mary pregnant (with her consent?). This probably explains why Christian Churches have a long history of sexism and misogyny.

The only one that is claimed to have ever taken any physical and/or visible form is the ‘Son’ a.k.a Jesus Christ. Having supposedly been born to a virgin, the story goes that he grew up to become an itinerant Jew preaching largely socialist principles of social justice and equality. Not surprisingly, the Roman authorities had him down as a trouble maker and eventually lost patience with his impudent claims and had him executed. But all good stories need a happy ending, so he allegedly rose from the dead, only to disappear off the face of the Earth a few days later to join and ‘be one’ with Father and Spirit i.e. never to be seen again.

Many believe that he will come again, presumably by similar methods. So if your daughters ever get pregnant and claim to still be virgins, perhaps you shouldn’t be too hasty in jumping to the obvious conclusions.

 

c) Explain why Christians believe in life after death (8 marks)

 

The obvious reason is that it is because they have been indoctrinated to believe this from a very early age. Only by perpetuating this myth can people be persuaded that they will face some sort of post-death judgement of their lives; a judgement with eternal consequences no less!

This has been a classic tool of control by many, if not most, religions throughout history. We have yet to devise a better myth to subjugate people and keep them subservient. This deceit persuades people to put up with all manner of injustice and pain on the basis that, so long as they keep the faith, do as they are told and repent for their ill-deeds (and ill-thoughts even), then they can expect eternal joy/happiness/paradise/orgies etc in the ‘next life’.

The beauty of this con is that it can never be categorically disproved. As with Russell Bertrand’s ‘Cosmic Teapot’ analogy, it is a logical impossibility to prove that something that does not exist actually does not exist. This is the only plausible reason why this nonsense still persists.

 

 

d) ‘The Resurrection is the most important belief about Jesus’

Discuss this statement showing that you have considered more than one point of view. (15 marks)

 

To the believer, or perhaps more accurately, to the churches, this is probably the most important tenet as it reinforces all the ‘life after death’ nonsense just discussed. It also engenders the myth that this character was more than a mere mortal man, but was actually some form of superhero.

It is certainly one of the less trivial and trite ‘miracles’ credited to him; after all David Blaine and Dynamo (and the like) regularly trump tricks like walking on water and turning water into wine. Dynamo’s trick with the bucket pouring out ‘impossible’ quantities of fish would probably have had him deified back then too.

Jesus appears to have outdone Dynamo at levitation though. It was cute of Dynamo to levitate 40 odd meters above the ‘Christ the Redeemer’ statue in Rio, but Christ apparently levitated up into the clouds and was never seen again.

There are, of course, many other important beliefs about Jesus that can be argued to be more important, depending on your perspective. Many, for example, believe that the Jesus character is purely a work of fiction.  They point to the lack of consistent, irrefutable evidence.

Others (of which I count myself) are prepared to believe that all the extraordinary legends and myths are loosely based on the life of a charismatic dude living in that era (a bit like Robin Hood).

 

 

2. Practices

a) State two roles of the Church in the local community (2 marks)

 

1.   Church buildings act as ‘beacons’ in the local community to signify that there is a group of that particular sect in that community.

2.   The church thereby creates divisions and degrees of segregation in those local communities by competing with all the other religious brands pitching up in that community for a congregation to fleece and manipulate.

 

 

b) Describe a Eucharist/Communion service (5 marks)

 

This is probably the most obscenely repulsive concept in the whole pantheon of repulsive concepts promoted by Christian churches, but especially the Roman Catholic church.

The service involves a priest uttering a few words (a magic spell) over a wafer and a goblet of wine. The RC church would have you believe that this spell, through the obsequiously grand sounding but impossible process they call ‘transubstantiation’, ACTUALLY turns the wafer into the ACTUAL flesh of the long dead Jesus, and the wine into ACTUAL blood (without actually looking, smelling and – thankfully – tasting like anything of the sort). Believers are then encouraged to cannibalistically consume this supposedly now raw meat and blood.

Slightly less deranged Christians hold that this service is, of course, merely symbolic rather than actual, as if that makes the whole concept significantly less hideous.

 

 

c) Explain why Easter is an important Christian festival (8 marks)

 

First and foremost it is a hugely important festival for the chocolate industry in many Christian countries. It produces a huge spike in their revenues and profits that can help sustain them through the rest of the year. It does of course focus on pagan symbols such as eggs and rabbits as nobody wants to munch on a chocolate crucifix with a dying man on it.

It can be argued that this emphasis on pagan symbols (seen in Xmas traditions too) shows a degree of admirable inclusivity and multiculturalism on the part of a Church that has a history of forcing itself upon folks in the aftermath of conquests.

Alternatively, it can be argued that this absurd mish-mash of symbols and ideas embodied in modern day Easter celebrations underlines the inherent nonsense we have been ‘sold’ throughout the Christian era.

To believers, it should be pointed out, Easter is supposed to be (from the Churches’ point of view at least) the most important festival in the calendar, as it acts as an annual reinforcement of the Holy Trinity and ‘life after death’ myths previously discussed.

 

 

d) ‘Christmas is a more important festival than Easter’

Discuss this statement showing that you have considered more than one point of view (15 marks)

 

To the vast majority, this is certainly true. The whole set of myths and traditions (again largely pagan) that have been built around Christmas make it a lot more fun than Easter overall.

In theory, Christians are supposed to rate Easter as more important (due to reasons just expounded by the controlling church hierarchies). However, despite the attraction of chocolate and hot cross buns, Christmas wins hands down in terms of joy and fun.

As is often key in the capitalist world we now live in, the marketing people have done a brilliant job of taking the naff story of three supposedly ‘Wise Men’ proffering useless luxury goods as gifts, and turning this in to the ultimate festival of excessive consumerism imaginable. On this basis, the economic importance of Christmas simply dwarfs that of Easter overall.

How can we understand homophobia and especially the persecution in Chechnya?

I’ve just re-read the chapter of my book, The Asylum of the Universe, on homosexuality and it still does its job of helping to understand homosexuality and railing against homophobia. Its closing paragraph is, however, more pertinent than ever. Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 11.47.42It was written in 2010, at the time of the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill going through its parliament. (I’ll post the chapter at the end of this article).

That bill proposed the death penalty for “aggravated” and/or “serial” homosexuality. Aggravated homosexuality was defined as gay sex involving under 18s or disabled people, or by anyone with HIV, irrespective of condom use. Serial homosexuality was having same sex relations more than once. Life imprisonment used to be the more lenient punishment for same-sex intercourse, but that was to become the fate for anyone caught indulging in any form of homosexual behaviour, such as kissing or holding hands, or even living together in a same-sex (but possibly sexless) marriage. Condoning or promoting homosexuality will get you five to seven years.

Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 11.53.57I ended by suggesting that this was all just a short step away from the sort of ‘final solution’ (genocide) policies we have seen elsewhere to eradicate perceived menaces. And now we see ‘concentration camps’ and the rounding up of people in Chechnya.

As with so many spheres of life, we are clearly making no progress and the waves of fascist intent sweeping around the globe are taking us backwards alarmingly fast. It is time, I would suggest, to try and change societies mindset on theses issues.

For too long homosexuality itself has been thought of as ‘the problem’. In fact, the real problem is not homosexuality, but homophobia. Any phobia is an extreme, unjustified and/or irrational fear; it is a psychological problem that needs to be overcome and in so doing enhances the lives of all concerned.

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An alternative view

Homophobia is a pervasive, irrational fear of homosexuality. Homophobia includes the fear heterosexuals have of any homosexual feelings within themselves, any overt mannerisms or actions that would suggest homosexuality, and the resulting desire to suppress or stamp out homosexuality. And it also includes the self-hatred and self-denial of homosexuals who know what they are but have been taught all their lives by a heterosexual society that people like themselves are sick, sinful and criminal.

As I describe in my book, homosexuality is as valid a lifestyle as any other and found throughout the animal kingdom. Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 11.57.21Homosexuality has been practiced in all societies throughout history and has been openly accepted in many cultures. The taboo on homosexuality in so many parts of the world has largely been the result of the widespread dominance of the Abrahamic religions, with their inbred repression of any form of sexuality unrelated to childbearing.

Thus, we need to alter the discourse and stop asking questions like:

  • What are the causes of homosexuality?
  • Can you tell if you are a homosexual?
  • Can homosexuality be cured?

The questions that really need to be asked are:

  • What are the causes of homophobia?
  • How can you tell if you are a homophobe?
  • Can homophobia be cured?

In tackling these questions, we really need to look at them in different contexts. At the scale of us as individuals, the answers can be fairly obvious. But at the scale of the nation state, where things get enshrined in law, a whole set of other issues has to be involved. But a common denominator is invariably religiosity, as this piece of research shows:

The 40 or so countries examined show a statistically significant correlation that has three main exceptions: Philippines (a lot more tolerant than may be expected in a strongly Catholic country) and China and Russia (both a lot less tolerant than may be expected in supposedly atheistic states). I want to focus on Russia as it is very much in the forefront current homophobic atrocities – especially in its federated republic of Chechnya.

Russia started following a similar path to Uganda in 2011. The Russian Duma unanimously approved a law that prohibited the distribution of homosexual “propaganda” to minors. Holding gay pride events, speaking in defense of gay rights, or equating gay and heterosexual relationships can now result in massive fines. Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 11.58.45Before the vote, gay rights activists who attempted to hold a “kiss-in” outside the Duma were pelted with eggs by Orthodox Christian and pro-Kremlin activists. Anti-gay protesters also gathered, with one holding a sign that read: “Lawmakers, protect the people from perverts!”

The argument that a young person can be “propagandised” into turning gay may seem outdated, but it’s actually not out of place in modern Russia. In the Soviet Union, homosexuality was a crime punishable by prison and hard labour, and Stalinist Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 11.59.35anti-gay policies persisted throughout the 60s and 70s. Gays were considered “outsiders” and homosexuality was thought to be the domain of pedophiles and fascists. Reports child sex scandals amongst the churches and right wing elites of the West in recent times can only have reinforced these prejudices. Measures like the propaganda ban show that many Russians still haven’t shed these views, even decades after the fall of the regime that kept homophobia in place.

Since the 90s, Russians have faced incredible economic turmoil, a loss of public services in many areas, and widespread corruption — all factors that combine to reinforce negative stereotypes. “To the degree that a given society that is insecure about its political, social, economic, and uniting cultural identity, it will mask that insecurity with a swaggering show of gendered strength,” said Yvonne Howell, a Russian professor at the University of Richmond. We can relate to the propensity for hard times (austerity) to lead to an increase in scapegoating (immigrants) in what we have seen in the UK in recent times. Homophobic hate crimes in the UK have dramatically increased simultaneously.

But let me return to the apparent fact that Russians buck another major trend in modern homophobia: more religious countries are far more likely to be less accepting of homosexuality. As pointed out, the data suggests that Russia and China seem to reject both God and gays. Russia ranks as one of the least devout countries on earth, with only 33 percent of Russians saying religion was very important in their daily life in 2009. But this hides the reality of the people’s religiosity. Even though Russians aren’t churchgoers in the traditional sense, most (80-90%) are still incredibly supportive of the Orthodox Church, which wields power both politically, as an ally of the Putin government, and as a symbol of national pride in much of the population. In satellite republics like Chechnya, the same role is played by Islam. In 2010, a poll revealed 95% of the population were muslim adherents, predominantly of the more the more homophobic Sunni Islam.

Indeed, many Russians/Chechens today view Church affiliation as a way to reaffirm their national identity. In a 2007 (Russian) poll on the subject, the majority of respondents said religion for them was a “national tradition” and “an adherence to moral and ethical standards,” while only 16 percent said it was about personal salvation. The two great ills of the world, religion and nationalism, reinforcing and supporting each other!

Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 12.00.48It’s no coincidence that the punk band Pussy Riot was sent to jail for performing in an Orthodox church, specifically. Orthodox Church elders have also served as occasional Putin campaigners, issuing bizarre declarations that mash together Christianity and the longevity of United Russia. One said that “liberalism will lead to legal collapse and then the Apocalypse” and referred to Putin’s presidency as “a miracle.” Archpriest Dmitry Smirnov warned once that “one needs to remember that the first revolutionary was Satan.”

In some countries, homophobic laws might seem like a sign of religious influence run amok. But in Russia, it’s part of a broader anti-opposition push and a crackdown on a wide array of civil liberties. Homophobia, more often than not, derives not just from one’s faith, but from being anti-liberal. Russia is an illiberal country, and Putin’s government capitalises on the illiberal sentiments expressed by the church. Chechnya may be a different context, but the same forces are at work.

Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 12.04.26We can all, fortunately, challenge individual homophobes we encounter and help them to enlightenment. But when it gets embedded in politics and law, reinforced by religion, it is hard to envision any painless solutions. The pain in Chechnya right now, is however, intolerable.

I am not a huge fan of petitions, but we are limited in what we can do to affect things in Chechnya. Voicing our disgust and abhorrence, through any and all of the many petitions that have emerged on this issue, is therefore important.  Amnesty International are consistently at the forefront of these campaigns, so I commend this one to you in particular (and please join them, if you haven’t already).

 

TRANSCRIPT OF ‘HOMOSEXUALITY’ CHAPTER FROM ‘THE ASYLUM OF THE UNIVERSE’ (apologies for issues with page formatting). Click the link:

HOMOSEXUALITY pdf

Berlin – some lessons

I have recently returned from a 3 day visit to Berlin. It was in the company of three generations of the same family: grandfather, father and son/grandson. The grandfather was born in the late around the start of World War II. The father was born just after the Berlin Wall went up. The son was born in the last few days of the 20th Century. This is of little relevance to what I am about to write other than adding, perhaps, some additional poignancy to impressions the city gave me.

The first thing that struck me was just how exceptionally flat the whole city and surrounding area is. It makes Holland seem, well, bumpy at least. The next thing I noticed was the network of blue pipes going around the city centre at about 4 metres off the ground. It turns out that these two things are connected. The blue pipes are not, as urban myth would have it, carrying beer, but are temporary installations carrying vast quantities of melt water away from deep building sites. You see, Berlin is built in the middle of a vast glacial outwash plain and is fundamentally unstable to its very foundations. That is a  major analogy for the city’s history for you!

Historical instability is evidenced at every turn in the city centre, focussed around Potsdamer Platz, which was at one time the busiest road junction in Europe. Google its name and look at images over the course of the 20th Century. There are plenty of these historical images all over the place in central Berlin. One old building caught my eye in particular.

Where had I seen something very similar? Where else but Hiroshima.

The main difference between these is that in Hiroshima, the building has been preserved within the boundaries of the Peace Park, whereas in Berlin, it has beed razed to the ground and replaced with impressive modern high rise edifices. But these have been a very recent addition (since the wall came down). Prior to this the site was in (or adjacent to) the notorious Death Strip – the barren empty wasteland, c.150 metres wide behind the Berlin Wall. Peace Park v Death Strip; a very different post war experience.

The situation in Hiroshima and Berlin in 1945 was, of course, very different. Hiroshima was pretty much abandoned initially and had to pick up the pieces with negligible foreign assistance. Berlin, on the other hand, was overrun by foreign forces from both East and West. As the capital of the Third Reich, it was a prized token of victory for all involved. It was to be carved up, in a faintly ridiculous compromise, as the tensions between the communist ‘Victors from the East’ and the neoliberal ‘Victors from the West’ manifested themselves.

As Europe found itself divided down the centre of Germany by the Iron Curtain, Berlin found itself 100 miles behind the curtain. The Western Allies were not having that! Berlin was too symbolic to be ceded entirely to the dastardly commies! Thus it was that a bunch of politicians sat around a table, a bit like they once did to crudely carve up Africa, to rip Berlin in two, half to the East and half to the West, with the Western Allies further carving their half up into three portions – British, French and American. Was this absurdity the work of the same fools that conjured up the State of Israel? Probably not, but it was symptomatic of the imperial arrogance of the victors that they felt empowered, by military success, to do pretty much as they liked with territory and people for whom that territory was home.

Not that I have a great deal of sympathy for Germans, and especially Berliners, of the time. In the final analysis, they facilitated the Nazi rise to power; they provided the massive labour to create a formidable war machine; they were complicit (by, at the very least, turning a blind eye) with all the atrocities of the regime. I have always struggled to get my head around how that could ever have happened. A visit to the Typography of Terror exhibition (on the site of the SS HQ) helps to shed some light on this. Here some extracts on display.screen shot 2017 02 19 at 11 45 48

screen shot 2017 02 19 at 11 46 06

I have studied such material before and struggled to conceive how it actually happens like this. But the politics of the UK and USA over the last few years has seen this sort of history repeating itself via the Tories/UKIP in the UK and the Republicans in the USA. It confirms all my worst suspicions that we are on a very slippery slope indeed.

The stark clash of ideologies between the left and the right, and its ability to divide people, is graphically in your face the moment you walk out of the Typography of Terror exhibition. For there is one of the longest remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall, preserved for posterity.

screen shot 2017 02 19 at 11 56 58

This is 200m of what was once 150km encircling the whole of West Berlin. It was put up in a matter of days in 1961 by the communist East German authorities, calling it the “Anti-fascist Protective Wall” (they saw the Western neoliberals as tantamount to fascists). They had grown impatient of way the existing borders were proving porous and allowing literally millions of East Germans to ‘escape’ to the West. The reality was that prior to the wall going up, Berliners were commuting backward and forward across sectors, for work or visiting relatives, largely unhindered. This came to an abrupt end as the Cold War’s icy grip took hold of the city.

The symbolism of this outpost of western liberal values in a sea of communist oppression made West Berlin an irresistible magnet for many, especially musicians and artists; the likes of David Bowie, the Beatles, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen and many more all took inspiration from time spent there.

A visit to the GDR Museum gives the lie to the propaganda that life was unremittingly grim in the East. Living standards for the poorer working classes were probably higher than the west with good quality, well equipped homes for most. But the inefficiencies of the Soviet economic model meant that access to a good range of what might be considered ‘luxury’ goods was pretty pathetic and bound to generate discontent when things were so patently different just across the wall. Nothing embodied this more than cars. While West Berliners had their Mercs, VWs and BMWs aplenty, East Berliners had 15 yr waiting lists to get their hands on a Trabant!! That today you find Trabi World just along the road from Checkpoint Charlie, paying tongue-in-cheek homage to this piece of shite simply underlines the farce of the situation.

Farce played its part in the moments that led to the wall finally coming down. Russian President Gorbachev was leading a peaceful revolution based on glasnost (creating openness) and perestroika (economic reconstruction) but the East German leader, Eric Honecker was a hardliner who was having none of it. It was a botched news conference that tipped the dominoes. Under growing pressure to make concessions similar to those in Russia, some minor changes to travel rules were to be announced. The bumbling Politburo member running the conference, Günter Schabowski, read the news release for the first time on air. Much of his reading was garbled, but a few phrases popped out: that trips abroad would be “possible for every citizen,” starting “right away, immediately.” Shorn of their context, these phrases mistakenly gave journalists and TV viewers the impression that the wall was open. With the public awaiting news eagerly and with confidence that the times were a-changing, huge numbers descended upon the wall in Central Berlin and the sheer weight of numbers forced the guards to stand aside, despite a lack of instruction to do so, and the Wall was joyously overwhelmed, and Honecker’s regime was swept away with it.

Today, fragments of Wall dominate the souvenir shops. ‘Wallpeckers’, as they came to be known, hacked away all around the wall, creating holes and breaches very quickly. It was a symbolic act and everyone would have wanted a piece of the action and a piece of the wall. Some stretches have been preserved, but even those bear the scars of the Wallpeckers.

This ‘pecked’ hole is in the preserved section that runs along where the SS HQ once was. Across the road that was once part of the death strip, is the former Nazi Air Ministry building, that survived pretty much unscathed. That authoritarianism has not been banished is symbolised by the modern CCTV on the wall. Layer upon layer of oppression in one image!

This is what I have found, looking back at my pictures from Berlin. Most of them tell multi-layered stories. These were taken from the top of one of the modern skyscrapers in Potsdamer Platz, built on the east side of the wall, in what would have been in Death Strip less than thirty years ago.

This is looking due north towards the Brandenburg Gate. Built in the 18th Century as a monumental gateway to the Prussian monarchs’ palace, it survived two world wars to then find itself just on the east side of the Wall that ran up the road from Potsdamer Platz, with Tiergarten Park on the west side of the wall. The wooded parkland extends for 210 hectares (520 acres). Originally part of royal hunting grounds, they were completely stripped of all trees towards the end and after WWII as the Berliners desperately needed firewood to survive the bitter winters. The cleared land ended up as vegetable allotments as they fended off starvation too. The trees are back today, largely replanted by Berlin residents apparently, but it still comes as a surprise to learn that none of the trees there are much more than 60 years old. The area to the east of the road/wall was once the fortified communist-imposed Death Strip. That it now has the Holocaust Memorial and huge US Embassy on it, side by side, seemed appropriate and disconcerting in equal measure. Just off picture in the Tiergarten (in the old West Berlin) are much smaller individual memorials to other groups targetted by the Nazis: homosexuals, Sinti & Roma, Russians.

To the SE of Potsdamer Platz is the what was the nerve-centre of the Third Reich. It used to be called Prince Albrecht Strasse, but was renamed by the East Germans after a prominent member of the communist resistance to the Nazis, so is now Niederkirchnerstrasse. It was a sector border street and had the Berlin Wall built along it in 1961, running up to Checkpoint Charlie.

The Government building dates back to the Prussian Landtag but was subsequently used for Berlin City government functions right up until very recently, including during the Nazi era. The Exhibition Hall, built in the late 19th century has been a cultural and art establishment throughout the turbulent times around it. It is severely pock marked by gunfire, but avoided major damage. During my visit, it was the central venue of the annual Berlin Film Festival, not that I had chance to partake. The one film that did catch my attention will not surprise regular readers – an Israeli comedy called “Holy Air”. It is set in the Arab Christian community of Nazareth, and tells the story of a man who, after his wife gets pregnant, decides it is time to make it big and provide for his family by selling bottled holy air to tourists. Sounds like the perfect scam – as bits of Berlin Wall will run out eventually. (Or will they?) The juxtaposition of this film being promoted literally next door to the exhibition describing the systematic programme to eliminate the Jews, which in turn leads to the formation of the Israeli state got my head in somewhat of a spin.

Walls, barriers, divisions. Separatism, fascism, communism, neoliberalism. All in evidence, often simultaneously, from many vantage points, but especially around Potsdamer Platz. The line of the wall is marked on the ground along its full length, except where it has been built over. This mostly takes the form of a double line of cobbles. Around Potsdamer Platz alone, this threw up some incongruous and/or poetic images.

Here we have the double line of cobbles crossing a footpath and road before disappearing for 30m or so under a new office block. Parked across it is, facing east, a woman’s bicycle; facing west, a brand new BMW i3 electric car on a free charging point. Two very different perspectives on sustainable transport staring at each other across an entrenched divide.

Here we have the line of the wall interrupted by the modern reincarnation of underground station. An historic site, it saw the city’s first rail terminus in the 1830s and the city’s first underground lines in the 1930s. The Nazi’s wanted to have it complete before the 1936 Olympics to demonstrate the magnificent state-of-the-art technology and efficiency of the Third Reich. Technical issues – largely related to the difficult geology eluded to at the beginning of this piece – meant it was not actually completed in time, much to Hitler’s intense annoyance, no doubt. In the Cold War era, it was seen as a possible weak link in the barrier that the wall represented and as such was heavily patrolled underground by GDR soldiers throughout the time of the Wall. Its ultra modern technology and efficiency today would have had Hitler purring.

There are just a few small fragments of the wall left in Potsdamer Platz today, with them utilised to give information about the sites history. Smack bang on the line of the wall in the foreground of my picture is another of those incongruities that mess with my mind. For lo and behold, it is the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It is really difficult to assimilate all the stories and messages to be gathered around this historic city. Very little of it is uplifting. Even the big shiny modern tower blocks remind me of instability as soon as I realise they belong to banks (e.g. Deutsche Bank)!

The two most uplifting things I saw may not inspire many. During my visit to the Espionage Museum, amongst all the 007 nonsense and displays of gadgets, was a story that ought to be more familiar to us all. At the height of the Cold War the Americans undertook some provocative military exercises that had Russian militarists convinced that the Americans were about to launch a nuclear first strike conquest. Pressure quickly mounted for a pre-emptive strike to be launched from Russia. It was only the intelligence received from spies within the American military that convinced Russia that the manoeuvres were indeed no more than exercises. In other words, the spies averted a nuclear apocalypse.

In what sense is this uplifting? It tells us that it is secrecy that is dangerous. It is the preserve of tyrants and crooks. All the time we know what is going on we can have rational responses. So hooray for all the spies, all the whistle blowers, for Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, Chelsea manning et al. There is no place for secrets of any sort in democratic government. National security can never be enhanced by allowing governments to keep secrets from the people. This much we have to learn from the Nazi era. In the digital era, relationships between people and the powers that be are evolving fast. This is why we should  all be broadly supportive of the Anonymous network of activist and hacktivist entities, and why I was pleased to see the Espionage Museum promoting this too. I convinced my 17 yr old Government and Politics student companion to this viewpoint I think – such that we bought some souvenirs that will hopefully see much future use.

The other uplifting sight was to see thousands of people taking to the streets and marching on the Brandenburg Gate – this time in protest at rising violence against women. (See below)screen-shot-2017-02-19-at-19-59-18

If Berlin has anything to teach us, it is that putting our faith in governments to act in our best interests is foolhardy at best. Glasnost/openness, transparency and accountability has to be the bedrock of any true democracy. Any thing less is a sham. We live in a sham. And shams can quickly become shameful. Freedom is only possible when the masses grasp it.

The Norman Foster designed dome (the top of a gherkin anybody?) on top of the Reichstag building was added in the 1990s to symbolise the reunification of Germany and a new era of open, transparent democracy. Well, that was the theory at least.