Thursday, January 29, 2015

Lest we forget

Earlier this week saw Holocaust Memorial Day on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and I’m afraid it passed me by. I actually wasn’t aware there was a Holocaust Memorial Day, but it makes sense of the recently-published study that suggested that 81% of Germans wanted to forget Auschwitz.

At least, that’s how it’s been reported. I haven’t yet been able to find the study — news websites I’ve looked at just vaguely refer to “a study” and, because this is the internet, neglect to link to the source — so it’s hard to know what to make of it. Politicians, of course, know what to make of it (they always do): this is very disturbing, and we must never be allowed to forget.

The devil is always in the detail you never see, though. Did 81% of those polled say they never wanted to hear anything about the concentration camps ever again? Or did they merely say that right now, Germany has more serious issues to deal with?

UPDATE: Thanks to @HollyGoMadly for providing a link to the actual study. According to this, 81% of Germans agreed with the statement “We should concentrate on current problems rather than on crimes committed against the Jews which happened over 60 years ago.” Interestingly, so did 64% of Israelis polled. Also, 55% of Germans agreed with the statement that we should not keep talking about the persecution of the Jews and instead draw a line under the affair, but the report points out that since 1991 the number of people saying they disagree with the statement has steadily risen. It seems the press have conflated these two results to come up with “81% of Germans want to forget Auschwitz”. See pp 24 and 25 of the report.

I have a certain sympathy with the idea that perhaps Germany has been overdoing it with the self-flagellation on this subject; and as I write this, I realise the sound of thin ice cracking under my feet has reached my ears. But it has been two generations now, and there’s a sense that Germany hasn’t yet quite managed to move on. And by “move on”, I don’t mean “forget”.

The years of Nazi dictatorship were bad — horribly bad. The systematic torture and murder of millions of people based on things like ethnicity, sexual orientation, political views and religious affiliation, together with a warmongering mindset that eventually laid waste to most of central Europe, can’t ever be swept under the carpet. But neither was the Nazi regime the only one of its kind: human history, including recent human history, has endured (and continues to endure) countless others: Stalin, Pol Pot and (if the sketchy and often unverified accounts are to be believed) the Kim dynasty of North Korea all belong on that list.

Is it possible that in trying too hard — almost eagerly — to display hitherto unprecedented levels of contrition, Germans might simply be giving themselves a complex?

It seems appropriate in a country that has given us philosophy and psychanalysis and with them words like angst and weltschmerz that it should give itself something to agonize over. The same study revealed that an awful lot of Germans strongly disapprove of Israel’s policies in the Middle East; the implication for some hand-wringing politicians appears to be that an awful lot of Germans are antisemitic. Does this mean that those Germans who welcome Muslim refugees from that part of the world are antisemitic (because if Israel is right, they have no business claiming to be victims of persecution)? Must Germans choose between antisemitism and islamophobia?

The obvious answer, of course, is that opposing a government’s official policy is not the same as hating that government’s subjects. I can, say, speak out against the death penalty in the US; this does not imply that if you happen to be American, I will refuse to be your friend. But we humans have a tendency — a need, really — to categorize things as neatly and as simply as possible, into things that can hurt us and things that can’t, which is how the whole sorry mess got going in the first place. A system that puts antelopes into a category of safe things and tigers into a category of harmful things works well for hunter-gatherers, but doesn’t work for human society. We end up categorizing people who think like us as safe and people who think differently as harmful.

And that does an awful lot of damage all round. The Nazis persuaded people that certain easily identifiable groups of people were harmful. Pegida wants us to put all Muslims (except those willing to “integrate”) into the “harmful” category. Quite a lot of people want us to label as harmful all Germans (“because they’re Nazis and always will be Nazis”). Some would like us to believe that all those who criticize Israel are antisemitic. Some, that all those who do not criticize Israel are militant zionists. We still haven’t really stopped.

The truth is that each individual is a mess of different opinions about everything, and most people are not really extreme at all. Imposing labels on them — “antisemitic”, “islamophobic”, “fascist”, “bleeding-heart liberal”, “feminist”, “misogynist”, whatever label you want to impose — is nearly irresistable for us humans, but it’s unhelpful and forces people into corners they don’t want to go. It’s one of the reasons you’ll never get me to tell you which political party I support: you’ll just assume that I agree wholeheartedly with everything you think that party printed in its most recent manifesto, and I can pretty much guarantee you’d be wrong.

I think, with the Holocaust, as far as Germans are concerned, the focus is slightly wrong. The focus shouldn’t be: “We Germans were horrible to the Jews.” It should be: “This is what happens when human beings stop seeing individual human beings as individuals.”

Monday, January 19, 2015

Are you sure you don’t run a travel agency? Have you checked?

There are various ways of contacting me, including the option of sending me something by snail mail to a PO box. It normally works very well: whenever I am in Aschaffenburg, I drop by the post office conveniently located by the railway station and collect my mail.

At least, it normally works very well, and this is the problem with German efficiency. It’s very efficient as long as everyone plays by the rules. The moment something unexpected happens, the system just collapses.

I found a large, white A4 envelope in my PO box, but addressed to some other company — a travel agency of some kind. The PO box number, number was mine, so presumably there are three possibilities:
  1. The sender typed the wrong number.
  2. The company had mistyped its own address.
  3. The PO box I am now using once belonged to this company, and the sender doesn’t know that the old address is no longer current.
No problem: I wrote on the envelope something to the effect that box number 100629 does not belong to the company addressed and pushed it through the hole in the wall labelled “Incorrectly posted items” and thought nothing of it.

It is, I know, hard to believe, but there are countries in the world where post office workers would read that, and either post it in the correct box or send it back. At least, that’s what happens in less efficient countries where things are expected to go wrong from time to time, and people just deal with it.

Not so Germany. In Germany, Things Cannot Go Wrong, so the drone behind the scenes saw the white A4 envelope, looked at the PO box number in the address, and posted it in the box with that number. Because That Is The Number, and therefore That Is Where It Goes.

The next time I went to pick up my post, there was the white A4 envelope waiting for me. So I took my trusty pen, and wrote in big letters, “DO NOT POST THIS IN BOX 100629! THE BOX NUMBER IS INCORRECT!” And to make extra certain, I struck through the PO box number on the address and wrote, “This PO box number is wrong.”

I don’t know if I’m missing something here, but it seems quite clear to me. Imagine, then, my dismay when I went in today and found the white A4 envelope waiting for me. The postal drone had not only returned it whence it came, but next to my frantic attempts to alert him to the wrongness of his actions had drawn a big question mark. Not only that, I also had a new A4 envelope, but brown, addressed in the same manner: to a travel agency I had never even heard of, but with my PO box number.

So I went round to the front, where the counters are, queued up and, when it was my turn, stepped up and presented exhibits A and B and explained the problem in words of one syllable (which, in German, is quite a feat).

“I see,” said the clerk, plainly not seeing at all. “And who are you?”

I didn’t honestly know how to answer that question. This is the problem in Germany: people’s brains aren’t wired up to cope with things not going to plan, so they have a little nervous breakdown. I showed him some of the post that was for me, and I showed him the key to my box, and what else was I to do?

Fortunately, the clerk had managed to reassemble enough of his scrambled brain cells to start functioning rationally, and led me back to the PO boxes; there he disappeared behind the scenes to see what he could find out. Which turned out to be nothing, judging by the question he asked when he finally resurfaced: “And you have nothing to do with this company?”

I suppose he was just double-checking, but why else would I have been complaining? No, I assured him, I had nothing to do with this company.

“Is it possible that you registered this company recently?”

No, I assured him I had done no such thing, and probably would have noticed if I did. My problem was that I was getting post that wasn’t actually for me, because it had the wrong box number on it, and no matter how many times I returned it, it just landed straight back in my box and I wanted it to stop.

“Maybe it’s not the same item; maybe it’s new post coming in.”

I pointed to the two large A4 envelopes he was still clutching. The brown one was new, I explained, but the white one has now been put in my box three times.

He capitulated. “All right, leave this with me. I’ll write them a note.”

I expressed the hope that this would be the end of it.

“Oh yes. After all, you did write on the envelope, so there’s no way it will be posted back to you.”

We shall see. This is beginning to feel like Groundhog Day.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What do they mean by “integration”?

In a recent debate I had about what we might call the difference between acceptable and unacceptable immigration, I was told that all immigrants to Germany must adopt German culture and values, which is difficult for me because my wife is downstairs watching German comedy. That’s partly why I’m not downstairs with her.

And for my second paragraph, I shall try (no doubt unsuccessfully) to head off the usual howls of protest I get from Germans whenever I discuss the German sense of humour. For the record, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with German comedy, and I know for a fact that Germans have a sense of humour. Please, if you’re German, don’t write and tell me off for saying Germans don’t have a sense of humour. (You will, of course, because no matter how many times I explicitly say you do have a sense of humour, you always tell me I said you didn’t.)

I can’t, however, bring myself to enjoy German humour; certainly not the kind you see on TV. That doesn’t mean German humour is objectively bad, just that subjectively it doesn’t make me laugh. (Right now, two men dressed up as an amateur dramatics idea of a retired couple are throwing sausages into an audience of Germans splitting their sides with hysterical laughter.) So... does this mean I am not integrated? Am I failing to share German culture and values?

I’m quite worried about this, actually. I’ve never liked beer, which puts me at a distinct disadvantage in ways you can’t possibly imagine. On the other hand, I do enjoy the occasional shot of that kind of digestif which smells like cough medicine, which my (German) wife can’t stand, so in that respect I’m more integrated than she is. I suppose that sort of balances out, then.

Another value I can’t bring myself to fully embrace is bus stop etiquette. In Britain, where I grew up, even a single person at a bus stop will, in the immortal words of the great George Mikes, “form an orderly queue of one”. Here, it’s battle-elbows at the ready, and no quarter is given. It takes about twice as long to board a German bus with all that pushing and shoving, yet straight-faced Germans have explained to me, with relentless Teutonic logic, that it’s actually quicker if everyone tries to be first at the same time.

While I am not known for sartorial elegance (just ask my wife and watch her roll her eyes), there are some things I simply will not stoop to. Combining khaki shorts with white socks and brown sandals, for example.

When I’m invited to a birthday party, I find it hard to inflict on the birthday boy/girl an epic yet humorous poem written entirely in iambic tetrameter, and an uncompomising AABB rhyming scheme my wife calls Reim dich oder ich hau dich — rhyme, or I’ll hit you. The strain of making every second line a punchline and the embarrassment of having to briefly pause in order to accentuate said punchline are too much for me to bear.

There’s actually quite a long list of things I am failing to adopt as my own. But I have been making some progress, so I am hoping that if certain parties get voted in they’ll grant me a stay of execution. Since I come from Somerset, liking Apfelwein was quite an easy thing. Slightly more challenging was Sauerkraut, but I think I’ve got the hang of that now. And I am proud to announce that I have mastered the art of looking at my watch and tutting with impatience if a train is more than thirty-five seconds late.

So, it’s hard. I may never attain the Borg-like level of assimilation some might be looking for; I just hope that my efforts so far will be recognised. Please don’t send me back: they have the English Defence League over there.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Battle lines

As a general rule, I don’t make New Year’s resolutions; but I did promise to myself that this year I would blog more regularly (or blog at all, actually). Little did I know that 2015 would begin with such a horrific story: Islamic terrorists shoot dead half a dozen cartoonists. And it’s not the sort of thing I really wanted to blog about, but sometimes you just have to. You have to, because there are times when you have to make a stand, lest history later judges you on your silence.

The generally accepted narrative is that these terrorists are brainwashed madmen who want to impose their narrow, bigoted ideas on the rest of the world and rob us of our freedom of speech; that they are religious fanatics who are prepared to kill in the name of a fairy tale.

That’s the narrative that has long been accepted by large numbers of people in the west; ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, suggestions that there might be a more rational explanation have largely gone unheeded. It’s clear what the tactics are: to cause a backlash, to provoke us westerners into persecuting Muslims in order to make ordinary Muslims want to — need to — fight back.

And it’s working. Our local paper contacted some local Muslim community leaders to get their response; most declined, citing their own fears in the light of attacks on Parisian businesses run by Muslims. For weeks now, various people have been quoting figures at me that literally make no sense in the light of my own personal experience: that 50% of Germans support the anti-Islamic PEGIDA organisation, or that 80% of British Muslims truly believe that cartoonists who depict Mohammed deserve to die. These are representative surveys conducted by reputable agencies, or so I am told; they don’t represent anyone I know.

And obediently following the terrorists’ agenda and stoking the fires of sectarian violence blunders Richard Dawkins, a man who is a world expert on evolutionary biology and a complete idiot on everything else. It’s almost as if he had never opened a history book in his life. He certainly has never opened a book on theology, and is even proud of the fact: that sort of makes him less an expert on how religious people really think than he is on subjects he’s actually studied.

There is a sense here of battle lines being drawn up, of positions being taken, of the identification of allies and enemies. It feels like what the writers of Doctor Who would call a “tipping point”: what we decide now will decide our futures. Are we going to declare war?

And in the middle of these thoughts, I stumbled over one cartoon by Joe Sacco that gave me something to hang my thoughts on. The pen is mightier than the sword — indeed, mightier than the Kalashnikov — and that makes it a weapon. Like all weapons, those who wield it must do so responsibly.

It’s not that I would want to see the freedom of speech curtailed, at least not by legal or religious fiat. But I have long said that those who wish to exercise their freedoms must take responsibility for the consequences. How many times can you poke a sleeping tiger with a sharp stick before it bites your arm off?

At this point, it is important to state very clearly that of course the attacks we saw in Paris — and attacks we have seen elsewhere, including 9/11 in New York, 7/7 in London and more recently in Sydney — are atrocious crimes and are to be condemned in the strongest possible terms.

But, as Sacco pointed out, the staff of Charlie Hebdo were being highly provocative, and very irresponsible. Not — I repeat — that they deserved what happened to them; but that it did isn’t surprising.

Free speech is now being used as an excuse to provoke, which is not what those who espoused the idea in the first place had in mind. But here the “insane” terrorists are doing a better job, because they haven’t deluded themselves that the other side will back down: they’re counting on us to lash out. They’re counting on us to churn out, in a show of defiance, yet more cartoons and articles designed to vilify entire belief systems, and by extension demonise sincere adherents to those belief systems; they are deliberately planting in our minds the idea of Islam as inherently violent and murderous, and therefore dangerous, so that we will drive them out of town and into the welcoming arms of IS.

And they are succeeding. In this war, we are already losing the first battle. That first battle is not for our freedom of speech, it is for our hearts and minds.

It’s not too late, but it soon will be. We can win this battle, but we first have to acknowledge that this is the battle we are actually fighting.

I mentioned earlier that the surveys showing how divided we have supposedly become don’t square with my own experiences. Let me relate, by way of presenting a glimmer of hope at the end of this uncharateristically pessimistic piece, just one of those experiences.

I live in a small, secluded valley in the extreme north-west of Bavaria. It is staunchly Catholic, and staunchly conservative: the only mayors around here that are not members of the right-of-centre CSU are independents. Immigration around here is low, and low immigration is usually associated with low tolerance towards immigration. In short, if ever there was a place you would expect ordinary folk to reject Muslims, statistically speaking, this would be it.

And yet when shelters for asylum seekers started opening up in the villages around here, the locals rushed to help out. They visited the shelters, made the people feel welcome, talked to them, listened to their stories, swapped recipes even. These weren’t trendy young folk determined to cement their credentials as revolutionary rebels kicking against the reactionary nature of their parents’ generation: they were sixty-year-old ladies with time on their hands and a sense of duty.

One of these shelters is in my own community, and houses several refugees from Palestine. The local priest was delighted to discover that their native language was Aramaic, “the language spoken by Our Lord,” as the local paper quoted him, and this despite their being Muslim. A reminder, said the priest, that we must accept everyone, regardless of origin or religion.

This is where we must begin: by refusing to draw battle lines. The terrorists want us to demonise Muslims en masse. Let us instead meet Muslims individually, and swap recipes. Our salvation lies, I am quite certain, in the example of housewives who just want to help out.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Why I have such a hard time with social media

This is probably going to tread on a few toes, so let me say at the outside that this isn’t intended to be a covert sideswipe at any of my Facebook friends. My Facebook friends are people I actually know and wish to stay in touch with; and if you’re wondering why I didn’t accept your friend request, it’s because you’re not in that particular circle.

The problem is not really with my Facebook friends per se; the problem is with social media. It isn’t social any more. What it now is is a place where second-hand content is ceaselessly recycled. I rarely see anything original on Facebook any more; and what original content there is is usually of the “Had a beer with my friends, it was awesome!” type, which may be a true statement but is utterly devoid of meaning or import.

I know, I know, it’s hard to come up with witty or interesting content of your own, and I should know, given how rarely I manage to find anything worth blogging about here. But even so, you have to agree that if, in real life, you met one of your friends in the street, you wouldn’t greet them by shoving a photo in their face and saying, “Juicy steak, nom!”

I am no doubt going to be unpopular for saying this, but perhaps the most egregious Facebook user is George Takei. You might think that a veteran actor — and, to boot, one who famously doesn’t get along well with one of his former co-stars — might have a lot of stories to tell. Instead of that, he employs staff to scour the internet for other people’s content and then repost it — I don’t mean “share”, I actually mean “repost” in the sense that a copy is re-uploaded to his Facebook account — without either permission or attribution, which is not only dishonest, but actually illegal, together with a lame one-liner, usually in the form of a pretty weak pun. Somebody like George Takei really doesn’t need to use other people’s work for his own personal gain, but he does. Whenever I raise this point, a small army of people rush to his defence by saying that “that’s how the internet works”. Well, no it’s not, it’s how the internet is misused. If George Takei is too busy or too lazy to create his own content, he should use the mechanisms Facebook puts at his disposal to share third-party content legally, and in a way that automatically, without you having to do anything else, attributes it.

The following list illustrates the problem. This is a summary of the first fifty posts on my feed just before I started writing this blog. “Original” means the person who posted it actually formulated and wrote the post himself or herself; “Quote” means a photo or montage with a caption added to it; “Article” means a link to an article on an online blog or news site.

Quote (Religion)
Original (Joke)
Original (Game app high score)
Article (News)
Article (News)
Original (One week until trip)
Quote (Religion)
Quote (Politics)
Original (Request for movie recommendations)
Quote (Meme)
Quote (Other)
Article (News)
Quote (Politics)
Original (Food)
Quote (Politics)
Share (News)
Original (General observation about relationships)
Original (Single-line comment)
Share (Disguised plug)
Article (News, satire)
Article (News)
Original (TV)
Article (News)
Article (News)
Photo (Selfie)
Original (Thanks for birthday greetings)
Article (News)
Original (Watched a movie)
Photo (Family, vintage)
Article (News)
Photo (Selfie)
Quote (Politics)
Photo (Weather)
Quote (Religion)
Original (Food)
Photo (Selfie)
Share (News)
Original (Went to party)
Photo (Selfie)
Photo (Weather)
Original (Hung out with friends)
Photo (Friend was tagged)
Share (Tumblr image)
Original (Birthday greetings)
Original (Going to get a tattoo)
Photo (Selfie)
Photo (Weather)
Photo (Friend was tagged)
Photo (Food)
Photo (Bitstrip)

The “disguised plug” was a reshare of a Facebook post that looked innocuous enough, but was actually an advert for a business.

All of the posts not described as “Original” were accompanied by little or no input from the poster — perhaps a comment like, “I agree!” or “LOL”. Some of the articles are interesting enough, but I can think of only one of my Facebook friends — who happens not to feature on this list — who bothers, when sharing an article, to add his personal analysis to it. It only needs to be a sentence or two, but it shows that he has an original thought of his own about it. I may disagree with his original thought, but I respect the fact that he has an original thought. I prefer to lose a discussion with him, than to pick on a glaring hole in some article only to have my friend say, “Oh yeah, I never noticed that.” Well, if all it took for you to change your mind about an article was for me to query the integrity of the second paragraph, you obviously didn’t read it.

Shared articles are bad enough. Quotes and photos are worse.

Photos... don’t get me started on photos. I occasionally post photos of my own, but I keep them to a minimum. Yes, it’s nice to see the people I’m talking to, and their families, and the places they live. But when I was growing up, the concept of boredom was epitomised by the middle-aged couple inviting their friends round for a slide-show (“This is me on the beach... this is Mary on the beach... this is me and Mary on the beach... this is the beach without me or Mary... this is a picture of my feet, because I pressed the button by mistake...”). We don’t need slide-shows now: we’ve got Instagram instead.

At least we now have the option of just not clicking through all the pictures, but that doesn’t stop a lot of them appearing in my feed: baby’s first T-shirt, a hotel room (seriously?), a glass of beer, a cake, an underexposed photo of mostly bluish-white which, on closer inspection, represents a back yard with four inches of snow on it. Life is way too short. Unfortunately, my Facebook feed is much longer. “Don’t look at them if they irritate you so much,” I hear you cry, but of course I still have to scroll through my feed to find something I’m actually interested in.

So don’t get me started on photos. But quotes are worse. Much, much worse.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I am simply a magnet for people who think that engaging in political debate means parroting other people’s soundbites. I suspect, though, that the problem is considerably more widespread.

It doesn’t matter what the issue is, everyone does it. Everyone. Theists, atheists, socialists, conservatives, pro-lifers, pro-choicers, gun control activists, gun rights activists, it makes not a jot of difference. I get a photo (which is either absurdly flattering or spitefully unflattering, depending on the point being made) with a quote and perhaps an explanatory gloss. The quote is nearly always taken out of context or misrepresented in some way, but since it’s a short soundbite, this is pretty much unavoidable. It is why soundbites do not make any kind of basis for proper debate.

Sometimes the quote is actually made up. More often, though, the explanatory gloss contains factual errors. For the record, then, and to pick two random examples off the top of my head, it is not true that Swiss law requires all citizens to be armed, and Sarah Palin never claimed she could see Russia from her house.*

You see, it may well be that some eminent scientist said something about some philosophical concept, and it may even be pithy. But a pithy quote that relies on a cute piece of irony to make its point adds nothing to whatever debate it is you think you’re having by posting it. It’s a pithy soundbite, but without knowing the context I still don’t know what he actually believes. More to the point, I still don’t know where you stand on the issue, because you didn’t say. In some cases, the quote, once you get past the cute piece of irony, actually contains a logical fallacy of some kind or makes no point at all, leaving me with a nagging sense of doubt: did this eminent scientist actually say this? And if he did, did he mean what you seem to think he means? The point was made by one satirical image that resurfaces from time to time: a picture of Patrick Stewart captioned, “Use the Force, Harry — Gandalf”.

This isn’t debate. This is people hurling quotes at each other. “He who hesitates is lost!” — “Oh yeah? Well, a rolling stone gathers no moss!”

To drive the point home more fully, here’s a quote: “I have no objection to faith and belief. I have faith and belief myself. — Isaac Asimov.”

So what do we get from that? That Isaac Asimov had religious faith? That would come as a surprise to anyone who knows anything about Isaac Asimov, an atheist. That quote comes from his introduction to a book called Counting the Eons, a collection of essays he wrote for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the early eighties, although the essays were actually about science fact. In this introduction, he explains that while he will concede that he himself has faith in things he cannot prove (those things being “that the universe is comprehensible within the bounds of natural law and that the human brain can discover those natural laws and comprehend the universe”) and must therefore allow other people to do the same, he is nevertheless enraged at what he calls the “Moral Majority” trying to force unscientific beliefs onto the school curriculum in the guise of science. Specifically, he is talking about “scientific creationism”, which these days is usually called “intelligent design”. Towards the end of his introduction, he says this:

If the creationists had their way, this book and many others would be burned, and we would all be compressed into the narrow, narrow bounds of their tiny and unthinking view of the universe. Well, I, for one, refuse to cower before them, refuse to truckle to them, refuse to compromise with them, and intend only to fight them — in order to preserve my simple right to think.

But don’t take my word for it. Find a copy and read it for yourself. For all you know, I could be making all this up just to make a point.

So basically, while Facebook has done me a great favour by putting me back in touch with old friends and gives me a relatively easy way to stay in contact with them, my feed is a dispiriting cocktail of dull non-information, recycled junk and generic photos. It’s not really your fault, friends, but these days it is all just a blur as I dutifully scroll through.

* If you want the facts, which you’ll have to check up on in your own time, here they are: In Switzerland, most men between the ages of 20 and 30 are conscripted into the militia, and keep their service weapon at home; however, the ammunition is kept at the armory and the weapons are to be used only when the militia is called upon to defend Switzerland against invasion. And although Sarah Palin did say, not completely inaccurately, that it is possible to see Russia from Alaska, the quote about seeing it from her home originated in Tina Fey’s parody.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Pointless debates leave me cold

Did you watch it? That debate between Ken Ham, a man who believes that humans and dinosaurs once lived together in harmony while lions munched on grass, and Bill Nye, a man who believes that humans descended from a primaeval slime (and who, on available evidence, made bow ties cool before Matt Smith was even born).

So, did you watch it? I didn’t, but it probably doesn’t matter: for the next few months, or years probably, my Facebook timeline and Twitter feed will fill up with pictures of the two men combined with soundbite quotes from The Debate, probably with an extra explanatory gloss as a caption.

So far, I have gleaned that Nye would change his mind if found evidence that science is wrong, while Ham would never change his mind even if, if his words are to be taken literally, God himself came down and said, “I had nothing to do with it, it was evolution all the way.” Not that Nye’s apparently reasonable position is much better: if taken literally, his words mean that if you simply proved, for example, that the stars are closer than they look, he would reject science and embrace creationism. The way I always understood it, if scientists were presented with this evidence, they would say, “Gosh, I am amazed — I wonder if we can find out what’s causing that?” and come up with an explanation.

So, at the end of the day, you have two completely opposing views being aired once again (having been aired countless times in countless debates, big and small, that have raged for years), and at the end of it nobody will have altered their position one iota or learned anything new; you can bet, though, that both sides are claiming victory. All it’s done is to give the internet more ammunition to hurl at itself.

My own position on this is that Genesis and evolution don’t even belong in the same debate. For the longest time, Christians in general were quite happy with the idea that we probably evolved and didn’t think that had any bearing on the philosophical arguments, allegories and parables in the Old Testament. That’s all changed, and it’s a spectacularly unedifying spectacle. You’d think people had better things to worry about, like how best to feed the starving millions. There’s something religion and science could join forces for.

But no. What’s far more important, apparently, is for people to start arguments that have little point and don’t even make sense. Those who side with science have their innate intellectual superiority to counter the imbecilic ramblings of the creationists, while those who side with religion have the certainty of the Word of God to smite the delusional blasphemies of the heathen.

There is no point to this “debate”; no point at all. It just makes life more unpleasant for those of us who just want to get on in life and try to be nice people.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Doctor W... Woah!

This isn’t going to make any sense to anyone who doesn’t follow my favourite TV show, Doctor Who, so if that’s you, you should probably stop reading now. It is, as I said, my favourite show, but I try not to obsess about it. I don’t have a TV (and in any case I’m in Germany, and by the way, the actor they got to dub Matt Smith’s voice sounds nothing like Matt Smith), but rather than move heaven and earth to see episodes as they go out or search for illegally-uploaded full episodes (which are usually not full episodes, but a screen grab and a description with a link that promises to let me watch it if I let a stranger have my credit card number), I wait until they come out on DVD. That does mean I spend half my time online trying (often unsuccessfully) to avoid spoilers, but this is one of those rare times when I’m fully caught up, so I’m in a self-indulgent mood.

There’s a lot of buzz and speculation about the upcoming 50th anniversary special, which we now know will feature Matt Smith, David Tenant... and a previously unknown incarnation played by — oh my gosh! — John Hurt.

Now it seems that, a week before the big day (and the episode cleverly called The Day of the Doctor — see what they did there?), Steven Moffat has either just let the cat out of the bag in a big way, or has given us one almighty red herring. But let’s just back up a bit, back to the RTD era and the 2005 revival.

One of the important things about the 2005 revival was that it was a revival and not a reboot; it was a continuation of the series, but didn’t pick up where it left off. The last time we saw the Doctor on screen (aside from the occasional parody and the little-known but quite wonderful animated adventure Scream of the Shalka, featuring an alternate 9th Doctor) was in the 1996 made-for-TV movie that failed to start a new series, in which he was played by Paul McGann. In 2005 we met an apparently newly-regenerated 9th Doctor played by Christopher Eccleston (in Rose, he sees himself in a mirror and complains about his ears). We never saw the regeneration, though.

But the Doctor was very different from the last time we saw him. The 8th Doctor was a romantic hero: the 9th was battle-weary, and suffering from survival guilt. We learned that he had been in a war, the Time War, which had destroyed both the Daleks and the Time Lords, and that he was one of the very few survivors. And we learned that somehow he was responsible for the double genocide.

Davies probably didn’t have a long-term plan in mind. The reason we never saw the regeneration was because it was one of the mistakes of the 1996 movie: new audiences we left cold when the character they had just got to know inexplicably changed partway through. The reason for the destruction of Gallifrey was to bring back some of the loneliness to the Doctor’s character, which had been lost as the classic series had gone all soap-opera-y. The reason for his mental battle scars was to re-introduce some danger to the character, make him more ambiguous and unpredictable, as he was way back in 1963 when he kidnapped Ian and Barbara and spent much of the next few months trying to engineer their deaths.

My theory is that Davies unwittingly gave Moffat a nice, big hole to explore in what we know of the Doctor: a regeneration and a war we didn’t see. But more than that: a lot of other unexplained things as well. In Doomsday, for example, the Doctor tells the Cult of Skaro that he survived the Time War by fighting on the front line, before taunting the Cult for having run away; later, in Journey’s End, the Doctor talks about being unable to save Davros.

These stories were penned, remember, by Davies. Moffat didn’t come up with the idea of the Doctor as a mighty warrior: he expanded on it. In A Good Man Goes to War, the Doctor’s warrior instincts resurface, but it takes a severe dressing-down by River Song for him to see it. If, like me, you were slightly uncomfortable with the way the Doctor casually blows up a load of ships just to get the Cybermen’s attention, the explanation for his actions is clearly in his as-yet-untold past.

The thing is, this grates a little. The image of the Doctor, any incarnation of the Doctor, fighting in a war and single-handedly wiping out two civilizations, is preposterous. This, remember, is the same man who, in Genesis of the Daleks, refuses, when he has the chance, to prevent the creation of the Daleks from ever happening, agonising over whether he has the right. What brought about this change?

So there was a vast, untold story, and a space within which to tell that story, and the 50th anniversary special coming up. How could Moffat have resisted?

So in The Name of the Doctor, now clearly the first installment of a trilogy (more on that later), we get a shocking reveal. There is an aspect of the Doctor we have never seen before. To refresh your memory: Clara has thrown herself into the Doctor’s timestream to undo the damage done by the Great Intelligence. Here’s the scene:

More recently, Moffat has said — in one of his infuriatingly cryptic statements — that we have been “lied to” all this time. As River Song says, rule number one is that the Doctor lies. There’s something lurking in the Doctor’s past that we haven’t been told about.

Speculation, obviously, went wild, and theories as to what part John Hurt is actually playing were rife. The 11th Doctor explains that this strange, shadowy figure looking out over the graves at Trenzalore is him, but not “the Doctor”. Yet on screen, Hurt is credited as the Doctor. Intriguing; but since the actual name of the Doctor is still shrouded in secrecy, perhaps there was no other way to describe the character to us. It turns out that the episode was called The Name of the Doctor not because we find out what his name is (although we were led to believe that’s what would happen, leaving us worried that it would turn out to be Keith), but because we find out the significance, to a Time Lord, of choosing his own moniker.

Then we got the first proper trailers for The Day of the Doctor:

This, the second trailer, begins with the 11th Doctor explaining that there is one life he has tried to forget. But what really set bloggers’ keyboards rattling was Hurt’s costume: he is clearly wearing the 9th Doctor’s leather jacket. And underneath it, something that looks like something the 8th Doctor would wear.

A favourite theory at this point was that Hurt was playing a sort of transitional Doctor, perhaps something like the Watcher (between his fourth and fifth incarnations) or the Valeyard (between his 12th and 13th incarnations). It was logical to assume, then, that if Hurt’s character was some sort of mixture of two Doctors, his clothes would reflect that. Moffat has since said he didn’t think the costume was supposed to be that, but while rule number one may not exactly be that Moffat always lies, it is certainly true that Moffat is very devious with the truth. He’s the writer, so may not have had any say in Hurt’s costume. That doesn’t mean the wardrobe didn’t read the script and come up with an appropriate costume for it.

Intriguingly, the BBC also released this short clip, which has a surprising detail:

Just behind the Doctor’s left shoulder, as we see his reaction to the unveiling of the painting, there is a woman wearing the fourth Doctor’s scarf — or something remarkably like it. Significant detail, red herring or just a nod to the series’ past? (I suspect the episode might just have little references to past Doctors and that there’s no more significance to it than simply that.)

But then the BBC released a 6-minute mini-episode on YouTube, entitled The Night of the Doctor, obviously the second part of a trilogy beginning with The Name... and concluding (I would imagine) with The Day... If you haven’t seen it yet, you may want to watch it before reading the rest of this article:

Woah! Not the Doctor we were expecting.

There’s a lot here to please fans. First of all, it features the 8th Doctor. This, after constant denials by writer and actor that McGann would be taking part in the anniversary special. Those denials were the truth and nothing but the truth, they just weren’t the whole truth: not the special itself, but its prequel. And then there’s the way the Doctor recites a list of names as he is about to drink the elixir: although he was only on screen for one story, he had a pretty good run in the semi-official Big Finish audio adventures, and those are the names of the companions he had in those adventures. Die-hard Who fans everywhere could be heard cheering as Moffat, in two seconds flat, brings the highly-regarded audio plays into the official canon.

But unless this is Moffat’s most devious piece of misdirection ever (a possibility that cannot be completely ruled out), we can probably forget any theories involving “the War Doctor” (as he is here credited) as some sort of not-quite-real version of the Doctor. It’s very clear: the 8th Doctor regenerates, not into the 9th Doctor as we had all assumed, but into a man who was the same Time Lord but, as his first words in the voice of John Hurt make clear, “Doctor no more”.

Unless I have got this very wrong, the man who normally calls himself “the Doctor” regenerates, and temporarily gives up that title and with it its attendant promise (to... never kill in cold blood?) in order to play his part in the Time War, fighting as a warrior to save the universe, but at a terrible cost. Later, when he regenerates again, he resumes the title and becomes the 9th Doctor, even though he is the 10th incarnation of that particular Time Lord. He retains the battered old leather jacket until his next regeneration, and the battered old jury-rigged TARDIS until the regeneration after that, which perhaps Moffat is interpreting as a metaphor for his slowly leaving this shameful incarnation behind, even though — as with A Good Man Goes to War — it inevitably never quite goes away again. And now he has to directly confront, and admit to, this past.

But we’re left with a new problem. Traditionally, a Time Lord can regenerate twelve times. And now we discover that the 11th Doctor is in fact the 12th incarnation of [insert unknown name here], which means that the 12th Doctor (who we now know is to be played by Peter Capaldi) ought to be the last, worrying fans everywhere. And yet Moffat, in another typically infuriating interview, has said that yes, the 12-regeneration limit stays, but that yes, Doctor Who will continue... and that we should all re-watch our DVD collections because there’s something we’ve missed.

Well, River Song did give the Doctor all her remaining regenerations, but that’s too obvious. The Master did manage to cheat, but only by stealing a body, in one of the more grisly ideas to come from the Tom Baker days. Fans were left wildly counting on their fingers: there isn’t a war on, but is it possible that we miscounted? It didn’t help that Peter Davison, on the same subject, cryptically said that Moffat had laid the groundwork, and then shut up.

Well, I’m looking forward to seeing how that’s going to work out, but it’s a few years down the line. One thing that intrigues me, though, is that in The Night of the Doctor, the Doctor actually dies, but is then brought back to life by the Sisterhood of Karn in what is not (initially) a regeneration, but a resurrection. Does this perhaps reset his regeneration count?