Thursday, September 28, 2006

Love & Marriage (& money & benefits &...)

There are few people left (apart from Polly Toynbee and her state podding hatches) who do not believe that the ideal way for children to be brought up is in the context of a stable, two person relationship, and that the best of all possible worlds is marriage. So far so hunky dory. We know (or believe) what the best outcome is: that children are raised within a marriage. There are then two problems that arise: how do we maximise the incidence of this 'perfect state' and what do we do with those that are not within it?

Shannon Kyle has a post on Comment is Free that laments the fact that life is very tough for single mothers; that they get relatively little in benefits; and that the poverty trap is steep - full-time employment brings not much more money, and significantly higher costs while simultaneously reducing benefit entitlement. I'm not a cartoon right-winger on this, the 'keep your man or cross your legs' argument isn't terribly helpful. But it is a philosophical problem as much as a practical one.

The utilitarian side would say that, since we have a desired state, we should encourage its maximisation - both through incentive and disincentive. Married couples tax allowance, coupled with a reduction in child benefit should do it...

But wouldn't that be appallingly unjust to single parents? The liberal would reply. Not every single parent is in that state through selfishness or fecklessness. Some are widowed, some leave a violent partner - should we penalise them for a tragedy? Doesn't seem very compassionate...

It is the collision between these two conflicting voices that has driven the policies on single parents foe the last thirty years - since the incidence of divorce began to rocket and the number of illegitimate births rose in sympathy. So is it a question of striking a balance? Restricting the ease of divorce - perhaps by re-introducing a fault-based system? Making life harder - or easier - for single parents? Attacking the supply side or the demand side? Few topics are less suitable for emotive posturing; and yet few have attracted so much.

Oh God - not him...

Watching the tortuous shenanigans of the Labour Party as half of them try to evict the Prime Minister and the other half go to increasingly desperate lengths to try to avoid the prospect of Gordon Brown moving in, it's easy to see a continuity in British politics. Historically, in the Conservative Party at least, the leader has been chosen not because of any great personal support or admiration, but because of who he is not. A simpler way of putting this would be that hatred is a better driving force than respect in politics.

David Cameron may escape this analysis - his election was as much an agreement with a perceived change of emphasis and angle as it was a rejection of David Davis - but looking at previous elections to the Tory leadership this stands out clearly. Howard was crowned because he wasn't the hapless Iain Duncan Smith; who in turn was elected only because he wasn't the Europhile Ken Clarke. Hague also benefited from this negative attribute, while John Major gained the top job itself because Michael Heseltine had too many enemies, not because Major had lots of personal support. Even Thatcher was chosen as much as a rejection of Heath as an endorsement of a new style of politics. Further back? Sir Alec Douglas-Home was neither Butler nor Hogg; Baldwin wasn't Curzon; the list goes on.

I'm less au fait with the history of the Labour Party, and certainly Blair was a positive choice in 1994, but the tribulations of Tony Benn and the leaderships of Foot and Callaghan in his place suggests that a similar process has taken place in the past. It is certainly taking place now. In a way it is reassuring to see the Labour Party doing the same. For a Party that likes to trumpet its opposition to tradition and history at every turn, it's nice to see that they are as much slaves to it as anybody else.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Economic idiocy

Or simply political posturing? Probably both from Harriet Harman. Calling city bonuses 'obscene' during the Labour conference is right out of the 'tickle an activist's tummy' handbook. However, there is always the nagging fear that these politicians might actually believe what they are saying - or, worse, try and do something about it. It is equally easy to raise a cheer by the 'something must be done' method, provided no-one gets nosy about the specifics. Is this woman - a candidate for the DPM lest we forget - actually proposing legislation to prevent private companies and partnerships from paying bonuses? Or to restrict them to 'reasonable' amounts - as specified presumably by the Government?

The problem is that she seems to see financial reward as a giant economic pizza - if the city bods get such a large slice the rest of us are left eating the box. But there's a term for that sort of thinking (apart from mercantilism) and, politely, it's called stupidity.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Book meme

It's taken a while, but the craze for masturblogging memes has finally reached Reptile Towers. The P-G handed me a mission: the favourite book thing. Well, here goes...

1. One book that changed your life: the hardest question first

It is, of course, a bugger of a question, and several potential answers come to mind. At the risk of provoking snorts of derision from 'proper' historians, it's tempting to choose Citizens , by Simon Schama, as being the first book I had read at the time (lower sixth) that contained both good solid research and readable, well-written history. However, it didn't really change my life, only one aspect of it. So perhaps Mukiwa or Rhodesians Never Die by Peter Godwin which introduced me to the little corner of African history I went on to make my own. But really changed my life? Probably not...

2. One book you've read more than once

I must have something close to 2,000 books in my flat - they were in fact a prime reason behind my recent move - of these I would be surprised if there were 50 that I hadn't read at least twice. Some I read very regularly, either as security blanket or simply because there is always something more there than you thought. So apart from all of these, the book I have recently made a habit of taking on every summer holiday I go on is The Lives of the Caesars by Suetonius. Not only is the first instance of scurrilous political biography in literature, it's also hilarious, lewd and even sometimes insightful (but he soon gets over it and goes back to the sex and politics).

3. One book you'd want on a desert island

Hard to know whether this is a On the construction and maintenance of rafts type question or a War and Peace type question. So to strike a compromise I'll take A Social and Economic History of the European population of Northern Rhodesia on the grounds that given an eternity on a desert island without any distractions I might even finish writing the bloody thing.

4. One book that made you laugh

Rain Men by Marcus Berkman hit a damn sight too close to the bone, but it did make me snort with laughter (never a pretty or planned event) on a commuter train at 7.30 in the morning, and that's pretty hard to do.

5. One book that made you cry

Simple really: A Social and Economic History of the European population of Northern Rhodesia. Frustration, rage, eye-strain, you name it...

6. One book you wish you had written

Tempting to say see above, but seriously, anything by PG Wodehouse, partly because I love his books, and I hadn't mentioned them yet, but partly because he does what all writers should try and do: work phenomenally hard at making your writing seem effortless froth.

7. One book you wish had never been written

Tricky, do you go for the Communist Manisfesto or the Da Vinci Code? On reflection I'll play safe and nominate anything by Jacques Derrida. Post-modernist bastard.

8. One book that you are reading at the moment

The Command of the Ocean by NAM Rodgers; the middle volume of his history of the Royal Navy. Early days so far, but good stuff.

9. One book that you've been meaning to read

Hitler's Willing Exceutioners by Jonah Goldhagen. Worthy topic, deep research. Bought it, read the first chapter, and got so bogged down by the turgidity of the prose I've never been able to persuade myself to pick it up since. But I know I ought to...

10. Five people to tag with this

Coming so late onto the scene, most of the bloggers who might feel inclined to pick up a tag from the likes o' me are already done with this. So if anyone who hasn't been tagged wants to do this consider this an open tagging...

One final thing (maybe)

As a coda to the perpetual idiot-cloud that has descended over the Papal lecture, word reaches me that the accurate but throwaway line used by Benedict was not actually as 'provocative' as various fools and knaves have presented it as being. Speaking in German, a language in which the Pope is, obviously, extremely exact, the words used were "schlecht" and "inhuman". These have been translated as "evil" and "inhuman" when, as any fule kno, even this fule with his microscopic knowledge of the equine language of Charles V, are better translated as "bad" and "inhumane".

In fact, one paper prefers the even less strong translation of "not good" for schlecht. One begins to wonder whether there is a bat-cave equivalent for Muslim offence: "Quick Abdul! To the OffenceMobile!", "But Offenceman, it was only a scholarly citation of a 14th century Byzantine Emperor, and anyway that's a mistranslation!" "Yes, but they won't know that..."

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Apropos of that...

With reference to my last post, does anyone else find it at all strange that Pope Benedict is almost universally referred by those who dislike him as "Ratzinger". It may simply be my age (I was of tender years indeed when John Paul II became Pope) but I really don't recall the last Pope being referred to as Wojtyla. Is it simply a none-too-subtle disparagement or a sign of slow re-adjustment?

I know what my money's on...

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Morons - Everywhere you look

Well, it's been an eventful little while hasn't it? To be honest the topic of this post could refer to almost anything: Clare Short, the entire Liberal Democrat Party, Labour get the picture. But there is one specific issue that has really got my goat over the last week. The lecture given by Pope Benedict has created a phenomenal amount of anger, outrage and invective, and all of it has been driven by a stupidity of the most astonishing depth.

Il Papa stands accused of insulting Islam, than which no sin can be worse in the eyes of the media these days, by referring, in his speech to theological students at Regensburg, to the words of a long-dead Byzantine Emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, in his correspondence with a Muslim scholar of the time. The words used are, of course, the only words that anyone has bothered to cite (extremely honourable exception here). They were:

"Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

This has two meanings, only one of which has adequately been explored by the commentariat. The first, and most obvious, is that Manuel II was critiquing the Islamic habit of conversion by the sword. This has been described as Islamophobic, but given that Manuel was writing possibly from Byzantium already under armed siege by the armies of Islam and that his successor was to die fighting on Byzantium's walls his feelings can probably be understood. To deny that Islam was spread by force of arms in the early stages is fatuous and ahistorical. Islamic armies conquered the Christian Middle East, North Africa and reached as far as Toulouse in the West and Vienna in the East (as late as the late 17th century).

The other point Manuel was making is that, when Islam was first encountered by the Byzantines, it was assumed to be a new form of an ancient Christian heresy - the Arian heresy. This, which essentially denied the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, had been extremely popular in the 7th and 8th centuries. Theoderic had conquered Italy under its auspice, and Arian baptistries and churches can still be seen in Ravenna, Theoderic's capital. Islamic worship, with many of its accoutrements, seemed to be nothing more than a new version of this Christian heresy. What was different was its violence in the cause of conversion - and it was probably with an eye to this that Manuel made his "brusque" question.

It is a side-issue to the lecture, however, which, if read carefully, can be interpreted as a far greater challenge to Islam than the echoed cry of a besieged Emperor. Benedict, who whatever else he may be is one of the most formidably intellectual of the modern popes, works to identify Christianity within a framework of Hellenic philosophical rationalism. Benedict's criticism of Islam is that it explicitly removes the figure of God from the rational - and thus inhibits the growth of humanity within theology.

What is extraordinary is that the reaction to a lecture in theology and philosophy should have been transformed into a rationale for the burning of churches and the killing of nuns - and that so many in the Western media are prepared to blame Benedict's lecture on the importance of rationalism and the centrality of non-violence within true faith for the irrational violence displayed by morons and idiots.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Less than ideal timing

Well, I turn my back for five minutes and the entire country descends into frenetic politicking. The good news is that I should be fully ensconced in my new job by the middle of next week; the bad news is that it seems entirely possible that the workload will be such that I will feel like I have been knocked into the middle of the week after. So we shall see, nous verrons...

On the other hand, now that the working time directive decision has gone against us, maybe I'll be working 48 hour weeks and comuting home on the 5.30 pig from Heathrow.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


After the Milliband fiasco the initial reaction to a politician's blog is naturally scepticism. This does, however, appear to be the real thing. Quite interesting too, because Cameron's strongest asset at the moment is the ability to seem casual and unrehearsed whether he is or not.

Monday, September 04, 2006


On the list of stories you always expected to see but not just yet. Poor old Steve Irwin, I bet that stingray was really cranky...

Oh Brave New World!

Today marks a very significant moment in the life of the Reptile. After 8 years in higher education, it has been decided that enough is enough, and so I am just going off to work. The very principle has always been something of an anathema to me, so all parties are mightily interested in just how easily I can adapt to a new environment.

I'll let you all know with handy, anonymous details later, though there may be something of a brief hiatus as I get used to all this getting up and commuting lark.

Friday, September 01, 2006


How on earth does she do it? She writes two basic articles these days (inequality kills! Let the State take care of everything for you; and Tony's rubbish, I want Gordon) and the standard of argument is atrocious.

The confusion about cannabis means that class A drugs stay banned, despite the calamity that prohibition causes, from Afghanistan to Manchester.

What does this mean? The confusion about cannabis has nothing to do with the ilegality of Class A drugs. I'm prepared to accept that there is a very good libertarian argument for the legalisation of drgs, but is that what she's saying? Surely she means that the confusion over cannabis is because Class A drugs are prohibited? That's not very insightful, but at least it makes sense.

Just by the way

I admit to some bias here: I think Mark Thomas is a cockstain of the first water. I dislike his tactics, find his smug pomposity almost unbearable and have never laughed ever at anything he has said. Further, I will not laugh at anything he ever will say, unless it is to report that has permanently lost his voice and consequently will never speak again.

That aside, the title of this book confuses me. Thomas holds up an AK47, favourite small arm of the African nationalist movements from Algeria to Zimbabwe, and titles it "As used on the famous Nelson Mandela." Given that Mandela was a prime instigator of the ANC's espousal of military methods to combat apartheid shouldn't that be "As used by the famous Nelson Mandela"? And the Guardian puff "John Pilger with laughs" sums up precisely why I wish that the Guardian, Thomas and indeed Pilger would all fuck off and die in a tree.

Devil on a roll

Blimey! After a slight quiet time (by his standards) the DK is back with a vengeance. I may be a bit lazy, but I think 8 posts by 9 in the morning is going it some...