Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Our Thoughts are with Brussels, but not our Prayers

Not that I know anything, but the Brussels airport attack sounded like your standard terrorist one-two: a first blast to get people running, herding them where you want them to go – which is usually right into the killing zone for the second blast, which packs all the shrapnel. Same technique used by the Bali Bombers, who set off a small bomb inside the nightclub to make everyone run for the exit, where the second bomb was waiting.

This is the photo we have to lead with, right?

This one touched me more than the Paris attacks, because unlike Paris I've actually been to Brussels – been through that airport, in fact, because that's where I got off the plane to begin my Euro Roadtrip of 2014. I don't remember the airport itself much, except that it seemed fairly small after Kingsford Smith and Heathrow. I do have vivid memories of one of the girls at the car hire desk, though, where I was in line with my bags for about a week and a half. She made it worth it; she was amazing. Quite apart from the fact that she was gorgeous, the absolute image of the pretty, chic French girl (yes I know she was Belgian, but she was clearly Walloon and I had to fight the urge to check if her ears were pointed), she seemed to deal with every customer in their own language; I heard her use French, English, Italian and Spanish while I was in line, and being Belgian she's probably perfectly at home in Dutch as well. And she was clearly exasperated beyond words at dealing with an ignorant rosbif like me. I had to bite my tongue while she sorted out my paperwork and handed over the keys to my Peugeot.

I really hope she's okay.

There could be any number of reasons for these attacks. Most connected it immediately with the recent arrest of one of the guys behind the Paris attacks. Others pointed out that Brussels is the capital of the EU and their jets are still bombing I.S.I.S. positions in Syria. Me? My first thought was that, since Belgium is the world champion of I.S.I.S. recruiting, someone just couldn't get a ticket to Turkey.
Everything about Belgium says it shouldn’t be making any significant contribution to the jihad in Iraq/Syria. First, the total population is tiny, less than 11 million people, and unlike the Indonesian population it skews very old. The total number of males of military age in Belgium is less than one million, or about two percent of the equivalent in Indonesia. And unlike Indonesia, Belgium is not a Muslim-majority nation. In fact, only six percent of Belgium is Muslim – call it 600,000 people. Let’s say that the Muslim minority in Belgium skews younger than the general population, as recent immigrant minorities usually do. That still means a total pool of something like 70,000. But from that tiny pool, Belgium has sent at least 350 volunteers to Islamic State.

Of course, that’s still a tiny number. It’s worth repeating that all these numbers are ridiculously small, considering the pool of Muslim young men who could be taking up jihad. But Belgium is still an anomaly, producing way too many IS volunteers. Never mind what’s wrong with Kansas, what’s up with Belgium? – Gary Brecher, Islamic State and American Narcissism
What should our response be? Bah, I don't really care, as long as we a) don't start a ground war in Syria, and b) take in some Syrian refugees and treat them well. Because the former is exactly what I.S.I.S. wants, and the latter is just about the only thing that drives them nuts. Read 7 Things I Learned Reading Every Issue of ISIS's Magazine again. No excuses, it's a Cracked article FFS, not Proust. For starters, said magazine is named Dabiq, and when you know why you'll be equipped to be a proper voter again. Forget the rage, go and learn something.

Which is a nice segue to Richard Dawkins, who's once again shown there are no cheap shots when it comes to Richard Dawkins.

That was posted on the FB page for "The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science." I know treehouse clubs with less pompous names than that, but let's ignore that and get straight to the point: that Dawkins is the Ken Ham of atheism. Quite a few are starting to wake up to the fact that, as per the Horseshoe Principle, religious fundamentalists and militant atheists actually believe in the same god; it's just that one rejects this god, and the other accepts it. For all his achievements in academia – which I do respect, though I don't get to show it much – Richard Dawkins is about as sophisticated as Ken Ham on the matter of theology and Biblical hermeneutics – which is to say, about the level of a 5-year-old at Sunday School. Is it written somewhere in the Bible? Then you can be sure Ken believes it, Richard rages at it, and neither has actually looked into it on an adult level.

If you're worried I'm about to pull out the old "Islam is a religion of peace!" line, relax, I'm not.

Neither is I.S.I.S.

These days I don't believe there's any such thing as a religion of peace. Or, technically, a religion of war. People can always find a tribal marker to turn it into Us and Them, and religion just happens to've been pretty handy at that. People just aren't especially peaceful creatures it seems (though neither are they usually very effective killers – the Brussels airport bombers made sure they wouldn't live to see their handiwork, after all). But blaming religion for sectarian violence only reveals a stunning ignorance of religion, sects and violence alike.
Some kind of ultimate justice is the stuff of religion. All religion. We want to see such unfairness corrected. The world seems wrong and we want to see it made or remade right.

Every religion worth anything addresses this dilemma in two ways. First by requiring that its adherents practice both charity and justice here in this life. And second by extending the hope that such unfairness will ultimately be rectified, if not in this world, then in the next.

When religion goes awry or becomes corrupt, it often results from or results in an emphasis on one of those two aspects to the neglect of the other. Corruption A: Emphasize the hope for eschatological justice to the neglect of justice in this world and you end up with the “pie in the sky when you die” opiate used to justify every oppressive caste system from Bombay to Alabama. Corruption B: Emphasize justice in this world to the neglect of the hope for eschatological justice and you begin thinking that you can impose perfect, infallible justice here in the temporal realm – an idea that quickly gallops off into oppressive theocracy of one form or another.

Our history books and newspapers are so full of examples of both of those errors that it can be tempting to think that maybe religion itself is the problem. If we could just stamp out religion, we could end oppression and establish perfect justice. See again Corruption B above. – Fred Clark, Still In Hell
I'm sure he'd be driven to spitting rage if you pointed this out, but Dawkins is himself a religious fundamentalist. He's arguing for another version of the same extremism I.S.I.S. themselves are fighting for, with the minor variation of having no god at all instead of Allah. That's the exact opposite of the only solution that has ever worked – freedom of worship, allied to enough wealth that people can afford birth control and get laid without consequences, and take up rich people hobbies like golf and pilates (yes, I'm a cynic. What of it?).

Semi-related: last night Titanic was on TV, and I watched it for the first time since, oh, about 1999. I was surprised at how good it was. I was expecting sentimental drivel, but it was very well done sentimental drivel. And as I do whenever I watch TV these days, I kept one eye on my phone, checking out IMDB trivia and such. One story that made me laugh was that of Neil deGrasse Tyson, who apparently pestered James Cameron for ten solid years about the night sky Rose gazed upon while floating on that infamous piece of wood. I'm impressed that anyone could pester James Cameron into anything: he sounds like the egomaniac of all time. But Tyson wouldn't let this go, so for the 3D re-release, Cameron changed it to the sky Rose would've seen that night, as you can see in the article I linked.

But if you can't remember, the sky in the 1997 version looked like this:

See the shape just left-of-centre? It's a heart. Le Coeur de la Mer. The Heart of the Ocean. Neil deGrasse Tyson, mate, listen: I know you're a famous scientist and all that, and I'm a big fan of your work, so you know you can trust me when I come to you, hand on shoulder, and say...

...you're an idiot.

That sky was unrealistic on purpose. Because it was a movie, not a documentary, so the sky was thematically relevant and emotionally resonant. It didn't have to be realistic. It was beyond that, in a separate category from realistic.

Like the Bible. Like the Koran.

Dawkins? Ken? The slime at I.S.I.S.? You all need to learn the same lesson. More and more it seems to me that the real issue is simple-mindedness. I.S.I.S. believe a truth has to line up with their religion to be worth anything; Tyson believes it has to line up with scientific observation. But science is not an excuse any more than religion is: get a bit of literacy, a bit of culture, a bit of a sense of humour about your thinking. In my opinion, if you're being simple-minded, then you're just another hick.

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