In sum: Distasteful as the Saudis are, the Iranian regime is far worse. The Saudis are not carrying out crimes against humanity the way that Iran is. And Saudi Arabia is not seeking to subvert its neighbors or to make war on America or our allies. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has reached a quiet rapprochement with Israel because the two states are united in their mutual opposition to growing Iranian power.
The series created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss [Sherlock] works so well because its adaptation of the exploits of Sherlock Holmes is, excepting the names, flagrantly faithless…
No conundrum solved by Holmes is as mysterious as the enduring popularity of these squibs. Remember A Case of Identity from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes? Thought not: a plot that hinges on the inability of a spinster to work out that her suitor is in reality her wicked stepfather in disguise invites not sympathy for the victim but derision for the author.
Each to their own, and I don’t object to others’ harmless reading pleasure, but the notion that Holmes epitomises rationality is ripe for debunking. Holmes’s method is not reason but wild speculation and remorseless serendipity. He advises Watson to approach cases with “an absolutely blank mind, which is always an advantage”. What? That isn’t even a parody of critical inquiry. Where would scientists be without laws and theories? Plot contrivances such as a venomous snake trained to slither down a bedpull and then up again (in The Adventure of the Speckled Band, as if you cared) are an insult to the reader’s intelligence.
In person, Doyle would believe almost anything. It’s not a literary failing that he was an enthusiast for the occult (so too was Yeats) but there’s neatness in the fact that spiritualists tried to summon his spirit at the Royal Albert Hall five days after his death in 1930. He failed to turn up, having perhaps realised in the meantime that his life’s work merited public oblivion.
It’s rare for something to be so thoroughly misunderstood. Certainly, the mysteries that confront Holmes can be rather silly. In one of my favourites, for example, a blue carbuncle is fed to a goose, which is instantly mistaken for another by the thief, while the goose with the gem in its crop immediately makes its way to an acquaintance of Sherlock Holmes. Worse than silliness, in some stories Holmes holds information the reader doesn’t have, a serious breach of detective story ethics. Yet nobody seems to mind.
Because, and this should be fairly obvious, the mysteries are beside the point. Indeed, we never learn anything at all about one of the most significant:
Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson, … It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.
“For which the world is not yet prepared” – we read these stories for the silliness of the hyperbole. It delighted P G Wodehouse, who made Bertie Wooster refer to Holmes repeatedly. It’s very funny to read Wooster saying something like “You know my methods” to Jeeves, but there’s far more going on than a simple joke at Bertie’s expense. The similarities between the two sets of stories are extraordinary.
Both focus on a couple, two men, one clever, one less so. Both are narrated in the first person by the less clever one – with, I think I’m right in saying, exactly one exception in both cases, there is one H&W story narrated by Holmes, and one J&W story narrated by Jeeves. Neither is more than a curiosity.
This structure allows a very effective comedic and dramatic trick, that of having the narrator unaware of things the reader and the cleverer partner are aware of. The narrator can even be used a pawn by the other character, not realise it, yet make sure the reader does.
It was invented by Conan Doyle, and copied and complimented by Wodehouse, perhaps the greatest writer in English of the twentieth century – don’t be misled by the fact he ‘only’ wrote comedy.
Don’t be misled by Conan Doyle’s apparent oafish stupidity, either. If he had wanted to write about scientific detective work, he could have done so. The period in which he set the stories, the decades before 1914, was one of enormous progress. Fingerprinting became a standard police procedure, forensic ballistics emerged; Holmes apparently knew nothing of either. When a fingerprint does appear, nobody takes any notice of the whorls, its importance is as a planted piece of evidence.
Telephones appear in a handful of stories, Watson drives a car in the latest in setting, in 1914, but technology remains rooted in the mid-nineteenth century, for the most part. That is, the stories’ own use of technology is anachronistic, and deliberately so. The setting is a fantasy version of Victorian London, one forever lit by gas lamps, whose taxis are for all time horse-drawn and whose streets are eternally cobbled.
It’s a fantasy. It isn’t real. It isn’t meant to be the real London. 221B Baker Street is an address chosen deliberately because it didn’t exist. It’s the prototype for Harry Potter’s railway station platform.
Holmes is a fantasy character and his scientific detection, of which we learn just what we have to for the narrative, and no more, is a fantasy too. It isn’t meant to be taken seriously. It’s a device that allows Watson to be both uncomprehending and admiring.
It’s a measure of Conan Doyle’s success in rendering this fantastical version of the world convincing, complete with its archetypal characters and a version of science closer to phrenology than forensics, that some people do believe it and criticise it as though it’s serious.
But it’s no more serious than the Jeeves and Wooster stories. Like them, the joy for the reader is the narrative itself. It’s Bertie Wooster’s vocabulary, and Watson’s hyperbole. It’s the magnification of trivial things into issues of huge significance, for few of Holmes’s cases are actually of any import at all. Holmes’s methods aren’t realistic, but nor are Jeeves’s. The joke comes from having a character who is, in Wodehouse’s word, omniscient, and in seeing them through the eyes of a narrator who is – let’s be gentle – not omniscient.
The stories are recitations, performances of which the plots are there simply to support the characters and the narrative. Wodehouse used the same plots over and over again, and it didn’t matter at all, what mattered was each particular performance. The Holmes and Watson stories are the same.
Which is why I haven’t got the slightest interest in watching Sherlock. The series makes the same mistake Kamm does, of thinking the ‘mysteries’ are the point. They’re not going to get anything else right, from that starting point. And I think it’s a shame that millenial viewers might come to associate this series with the characters, and in doing so lose one of the genuinely great achievements of imagination and literature.
Huner Surchi asked me to help put his words into better English. This is what he said:
All my family are Peshmarga.
They are fighting and risking their lives for other people’s lives and honour. I want you to understand, honour means a lot to us. Two Yazidi sisters who had been raped and escaped went from refugee to refugee asking them to kill them. When nobody did, they threw themselves from the mountain they had fled to.
And I want you to understand that Peshmarga are not enough.
Oh, they are enough for fighting. They are fighting IS and they are fighting the Arabs who have betrayed us.
Yes, betrayed us, and that’s something I want you to understand. As the Islamic State advanced, and our fighters had to fall back because they were fighting tanks with rifles, some of the Arabs who had lived among us, had been our neighbours, drank coffee with us and smiled at our children – some of our Arab neighbours joined the barbarians. They joined in the killing. They joined in the raping. Because they were neighbours, they knew where the prettiest young women lived. Women who could be raped, and taken as slaves and sold for the price of a hamburger in a western country. Sold for the price of a quarter pound of chopped meat.
Now hatred of Arabs is felt by many Kurds. And you will say that is bad, that is racist. We will say we don’t know who we can trust and so we can’t trust any Arabs. You have felt this too. You interned Germans and Japanese during the Second World War. Many of them were blameless. But war breeds hate. War is not something you can play with, it’s not something you can take chances with. And for us, in our history, our recent history and our far history, we have been massacred by Arabs countless times. And now Arab neighbours have turned against us. There were no Arabs among the refugees on Sinjar mountain.
There’s something else I want you to understand. You have given us many things. You are giving us weapons now, and air cover, and we are very grateful. But you gave us the arms embargo that meant we faced tanks with rifles. We have built the most tolerant society in Iraq. Women have been free. We have trades unions. We had Arab neighbours, living equally with us until this happened. We have been an example of what is possible. And you have favoured Iraqi governments, and Turkish governments, who have slaughtered us and denied us our rights. You have refused to recognise Kurdistan. And now we have been fighting your war for you. It is our war, but it is your war too.
Because you have given us something else. IS fighters here include Arabs, but they include men with British accents who discuss on Twitter how many Kurdish women they are each allowed as sex slaves. They include Australians who post pictures on social media of their sons holding up severed heads. They include men with American and Canadian accents, men speaking French and German, men from Belgium and Holland and Sweden and Norway. You have given us some of our enemies. How has this happened?
How have you let your universities and mosques become incubators for these people? There are things I want you to understand about us, but I want to understand this about you.
And I want to understand how you can support our fight, how you can talk about brave Peshmarga, and not fight too. Because this is also your fight. You gave us these people. Now fight them with us.
Here’s a lovely post on the death of his old dog, from James Lileks.
We lost three dogs last year and gained two.
Humphrey was very old but he made it to the point where he’d had half his life with us. His last year was very much as described by Lileks, a process of decline, milestones passed like his last ever walk, reaching the stage where he couldn’t get up without help, losing bowel control. He was a sweet, gentle old dog who’d had a bad time yet, with that extraordinary ability of dogs, he carried no bitterness.
Sam was scheduled to be put down when we heard of him. He died of natural causes on his bed almost a decade later, after a short illness and a full, happy life. To the people who made him lost, then wanted to kill him I can only say: screw you, he won.
Ben was lost when Sam died, they’d had nine years together. Then we got Bernie and Ben entered a new phase with renewed interest in life. Then he got old, but not gradually, like he’d been hit by a truck. For giant dogs, like Ben, this can happen and it’s a blessing in the sense that that old age though harsh, is brief.
The cigarette burns on Bernie’s back have become less visible, the scars and bruising on his face have healed. We’d just asked for the most desperate case in the rescue and it was Bernie. He was seriously depressed but after three or four months he came over one evening, sat by me, leaned against me, sighed and closed his eyes. He stayed there for half an hour. It was like he suddenly believed, like he trusted this was permanent. He’s also a mastiff. Ever since that evening, he’s felt no need to go off by himself and lie quietly.
Then we took Percy from a euthanasia list, another loving, playful pup about to be destroyed because of human fecklessness. He’s a funny animal, like a cross between a boxer and a ridgeback.
Since Christmas, the rescue we got Bernie and Bertie from have saved dozens of dogs and they’ve been unable to save dozens more, all killed around Christmas with people getting rid of old ones to buy puppies, or dumping unwanted gifts. Most of them are Staffie or Mastiff crosses. Many are bitches who’ve been bred until they’re past their usefulness.
The worst case, who was saved this week, is a Staffie bitch who was used as a brood mare then, when she miscarried a litter, she was thrown to the dogs – used as bait for fighting dogs. Her face was ripped to pieces, her teeth were smashed.
Rescue dogs, don’t buy them from breeders.
ANTI-FRACKING protesters who glued and chained themselves to petrol pumps in Great Lever over the weekend were at the wrong garage, it has emerged.
(Thanks to Alec.)
… if Jews can listen to Wagner, conservatives can listen to the Smiths.
Edmund Standing is a conservative blogger and retired anti-fascist activist who also wrote from an atheist perspective. After a few months of quiet, he has revived his blog because he has re-found God. In one post, he linked to some of William Lane Craig’s arguments or, as Lane Craig would put it, proofs of the existence of God. One of these contains five proofs that God exists.
Lane Craig is a formidable Christian apologist who has debated with most of the new atheists, Hitchens, Dawkins and the others. In live debate he tends to throw out about five such arguments in a Gish Gallop, but here we have them on the page to think about at more leisure.
The first runs as follows:
- Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.
- If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
- The universe exists.
- Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence (from 1, 3).
- Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God (from 2, 4).
Obviously, the first thing an atheist can say, to the very first point, is “no it doesn’t”. An atheist could say “stuff pops in and out of existence in quantum foam – what causes that?”. An atheist could say “the idea of cause depends on the arrow of time, cause precedes effect, and the idea of the Big Bang is that time, as well as space, is curled up into a tiny point at the origin. There isn’t a ‘before’. It doesn’t even make sense”.
There’s quite a lot of following argument, but none addresses the simple: “no, it doesn’t”. The closest he comes is in response to a putative atheist argument that the universe is all there is so there couldn’t be anything to cause it. There’s nothing else. This is similar to something I said above about the Big Bang:
This line of reasoning is, however, obviously fallacious because it assumes that the universe is all there is, that if there were no universe there would be nothing. In other words, the objection assumes that atheism is true. The objector is thus begging the question in favor of atheism, arguing in a circle. The theist will agree that the explanation of the universe must be some (explanatorily) prior state of affairs in which the universe did not exist. But that state of affairs is God and his will, not nothingness.
What he misses is that both sides are begging the question, because of the way the question is phrased. Point 1 above might as well be re-worded to read “God exists”. Atheism plainly includes the idea that the universe might not have a cause.
And what of ‘the necessity of its own nature’? What does that mean?
Things that exist necessarily exist by a necessity of their own nature. It’s impossible for them not to exist. Many mathematicians think that numbers, sets, and other mathematical entities exist in this way. They’re not caused to exist by something else; they just exist necessarily.
God’s like that:
Now if God exists, the explanation of God’s existence lies in the necessity of his own nature, since, as even the atheist recognizes, it’s impossible for God to have a cause.
This is from someone who is supposed to be reading and understanding atheist arguments. Not only does the atheist not recognise that, the atheist actually asks how come, if everything has to have a cause, God doesn’t? Doesn’t the idea of God just displace the problem of origin?
But consider the argument. God is like numbers or sets. They all exist because their own natures make it necessary. That’s something that can just be declared, without any substantiation. Are numbers not just a by-product of our brains’ aptitude for categorisation? Perhaps we categorise things that are on their own as 1 and have built on that? Since complex numbers have no physical analogue, like three sheep for 3, yet work with practical things like engineering, maybe we’re just catching glimpses of a completely unimagined reality. We don’t know.
Lane Craig doesn’t grok “I don’t know”. The basic atheist view is “I don’t know, but it’s not something that’s been revealed to anyone. We have to tease it out by looking at nature herself.”
I wish Standing every happiness in his newly re-found faith but, really, this is drivel.
Andrew Mitchell is in trouble for calling a police officer a ‘pleb’. He apparently swore as well, but the ‘p’ word is his real problem. Just this morning, on Radio 4’s Today program, we were reminded by a classical scholar that plebs were the non-aristocratic class of Ancient Rome, ruled over by patricians and aristocrats, in a culture quite unlike today’s democracies in which the government are the servants of the governed.
Mitchell’s disdain for the lower orders has no place in modern society. Nobody should show the ordinary people of Britain such contempt. Nobody.
Nobody, that is, except the Institute for Government and the Cabinet Secretary, Head of Britain’s Civil Service Sir Gus O’Donnell, on behalf of the entire arrogant, patrician edifice of government. Sir Gus writes, in the Foreword to the Institute’s publication ‘Mindspace’:
Influencing people’s behaviour is nothing new to Government, which has often used tools such as legislation, regulation or taxation to achieve desired policy outcomes. But many of the biggest policy challenges we are now facing – such as the increase in people with chronic health conditions – will only be resolved if we are successful in persuading people to change their behaviour, their lifestyles or their existing habits. Fortunately, over the last decade, our understanding of influences on behaviour has increased significantly and this points the way to new approaches and new solutions.
They think they should seek to change people’s behaviour in areas like diet and exercise because the plebs are too stupid and rudderless to manage their own choices.
Mindspace was launched in March 2010:
MINDSPACE explores how behaviour change theory can help meet current policy challenges, such as how to:
- reduce crime
- tackle obesity
- ensure environmental sustainability.
Today’s policy makers are in the business of influencing behaviour – they need to understand the effects their policies may be having. The aim of MINDSPACE is to help them do this, and in doing so get better outcomes for the public and society.
Reducing crime is certainly part of the role of government. Tackling obesity isn’t. Environmental sustainability is a waffle term for imposing the preferences of a few, mainly aristocratic, cranks on the population at large*.
Quoting further from the main report:
David Hume argued that “all plans of government which suppose great reformation in the manners of mankind are plainly imaginary”.
Such sweeping scepticism is unfounded, since there have been many policy successes in changing behaviour: for example, reducing drink driving, preventing AIDS transmission and increasing seatbelt usage. Nevertheless, some behaviours – such as antisocial behaviour and lack of exercise – have remained resistant to policy interventions. We need to think in more integrated and innovative ways about how policymakers can intervene in ways that help people help themselves – and that also help society reduce inequalities in health and wellbeing that are avoidable and considered unfair.
The entire document reeks of patrician arrogance. It gets the relationship between citizens and government exactly wrong: it is we, the voters, who should get to influence the behaviour of governments by voting for the ones who promise to behave in ways we want.
Instead, professional politicians lie to gain power, then try to modify the beliefs, behaviour and allegiances of the plebs.
Mitchell was just too honest.
* You might enjoy Lobos Motl’s reply to the question “How to stop a star”. The question includes this gem:
One might say that, on time scales measured in trillions of years, the stars are an unsustainable use of the universe’s fuel.