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Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Bibles for textbooks and baptismal fonts for water fountains: welcome to the Texas church aka school

Education in this country is considered a national trophy, one we've held onto since time immemorial. It is the cornerstone in our achievements as a wealthy, developed nation and provides a great source of export - ideas - as well as a perpetual supply of pride that the population may imbibe.

Britain is known globally for its successful tradition of higher education. At the peak of the educational pyramid that represents the stratification of the system are our universities, which are subject to further division through use of league tables. Our league tables have become increasingly popular over the last few years as the number of prospective university students has risen. Criteria pertaining to the suitability of any given university is the basis for league table rankings, which are conducted by newspaper companies among others.

Therefore, in a professional sense, the English education system appears to justify its reputation as being at the forefront of 'information inspiration'. Despite the relatively negative perception of the UK as a haven for jobless immigrants, many foreigners who come to live in the UK are mainly here to educate themselves - this is, of course, dependent on their origin, as we generally see immigrants from richer countries relocating to the UK for what some would call a 'privileged education'. One archetypal example is the case of Indian medical students migrating to the UK and eventually becoming established practitioners there; many members of the public would tell you how common it is now to be allocated a doctor of Asian descent.

In America, too, there is a standard of respectability for their education institutions to uphold. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone with a reasonable educational background who has not heard the name Harvard. Affiliated with the similarly famous Ivy League, which represents the supremacy of elitism in American private education, Harvard is a word synonymous with excellence. This is also the first concept of American education I ever grasped and still remains the most definitive answer to the Atlantic separation of our upper-most educational institutions in the UK and USA.

Recently, however, I have been magnetised towards a particular issue regarding American educational culture. Being a federation of very diverse regions, it shouldn't surprise outsiders that the image of one state is not necessarily a reflection of another. Hence the subject of my interest at present: the controversy of religious interference in the Texas education system.

Cynthia Dunbar, a lawyer and mother - a category of American mother reminiscent of the devoutly religious republican icon Sarah Palin - is linked to an organisation of Christian evangelists who are seeking to overhaul the way schools in Texas deliver their educational curriculum to students.

Over a period of ideological fortification and developments to sponsorship (a burgeoning republican consensus in certain parts of America is partly accountable) Cynthia Dunbar and her religious associates have gained ground and authority in their mission to bring 'salvation' to the Texas state education board.

In her own words, Dunbar denounces the schools that promote the current education curriculum as unconstitutional, tyrannical and tools of perversion. The main objective of this potential overhaul and motive for this group's reinforcement is to rekindle America's commitment to religion.

Unlike the UK, in which religion is largely excluded from any democratic process, especially in Parliament, America is prone to garnering the support of religious organisations for political purposes - or is it the other way round? It is no illusion to state that social conservatism in America is a thriving breeding ground for American exceptionalism and staunch right-wing religious views. Dunbar is adamant that incorporating religion back into education is essential for the ensuring of patriotism in American culture. The fact that her cause is flourishing in the largest of the traditionally right-wing southern states is obviously not a sign of growing cynicism towards the presence of a black democrat in the White House.

As far as policy is concerned, this sectarian subversion by the evangelists is a swing towards the loosening of government strings on what is allowable in connection to the curriculum. The on-going debate raging between the teaching of evolution and the teaching of creationism is undoubtedly a major incentive for this radical 'rebirth' on the board. While they might not wish to completely eradicate all awareness of evolution in schools, the conservative evangelists are intent on having the subject downgraded to the position of an abstract notion as opposed to concrete scientific truth - much like religion is treated in the UK.

Among other typical components of the programme in line for removal are the teachings of Sir Isaac Newton (in favour of the study of the scientific advances through military technology) and the influence of Thomas Jefferson, who was an advocate for the separation of the church and the state. Strongly present in their aims is the active prescribing of capitalism, although they fail to put it that bluntly, which they see as the cornerstone of civilisation and the ultimate mechanism for the prosperity of America, God's ideal society - a beacon to the world.

Perhaps what is most perplexing about this pseudo-political intervention is the advocacy for reintegration of the church and the state, something not seen in Western civilisations since the collapse of Vatican rule in Europe. The UK first demonstrated its authority against the Pope when Henry VIII broke away from Italy and formed the Church of England. It is understandable why the premise of religion is still prevalent in distinct spheres of American culture, as the Bill of Rights, its constitution, was heavily influenced by the religious atmosphere of the age. Nevertheless, it does nod towards an intent to indoctrinate when such a cause becomes an instrument of top-down reform, especially in education, which is arguably the most influential aspect of modern society.

As a product of a social democracy that provides basic welfare support through a national health service and income tax, as well as being directed by a government that prefers to remain in control (that is potentially about to change), it strikes me as alien when critics of government control like Dunbar suggest that free enterprise should take precedence over a social fail-safe that guarantees some form of recovery if the system fails in some way. In terms of philosophy, this inclination towards economic autonomy in opposition to state control runs in the same vein as Adam Smith's proposition that markets benefit and individuals profit the most from minimal state supervision. The 'invisible hand' of the market - the people - will assert the economic balance and be self-levelling. Coming from a Keynesian perspective this idea as espoused by the evangelists in their preferences is greatly diametric, but there's horses for courses I suppose.

Also, in the UK we are so stubbornly inclined to excoriate the Conservative political party for being 'medieval' and 'backwards' in terms of its ideological leanings; but, in comparison to the status quo for American republicans (the conservatives of the US), our elite lot are actually fairly liberal. I mean, at least we don't see David Cameron pledging his allegiance to God every time he pipes up about the slipping standards and lack of discipline in our educational system. Nevertheless, with the symptoms of the subjugation of the UK to the USA at a constant hum under our airwaves, I wouldn't be surprised if the future of the UK's educational institutions was one as ominously hallowed as that of Cynthia Dunbar's biblical fantasy.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Calling animal control: the monkeys have got it wrong, again

Currently in my homeland of rural Suffolk, birthplace of the potato (as far as I know) and historical headquarters of the original Anglo Saxon invaders (see Sutton Hoo, believe me, there's so much left there) there is a debate on about the 'reintroduction' of the White-tailed Eagle, a majestic aerial predator that once inhabited coastlines in the area.

Fourth largest in the world, with a wingspan measuring up to 8ft and the explicit silhouette to accompany it when it soars over dry land, the White-tailed Eagle is no doubt a magnificent specimen of avian raptor stealth and strength. This is the kind of bird, closely related to America's Bald Eagle icon and another primarily fish-eating eagle, Stellar's Sea Eagle, that dwarf most other raptor species, making it one of the crowning glories of the natural food chain.

What the current debate is keen to address is the reintroduction or settling of this particular eagle species in East Anglia, specifically Suffolk, which is perennially quite dry yet geologically it is quite wet, with marshland and swamp habitats common as you get closer to the coastline, which is rich in life itself.

Now there are two sides to this debate, as there always is, with the anti-eagle front comprised predominantly of protesting farmers, those who specialise in livestock, and the other representing the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

For the farmers who are up in arms about the proposed reintroduction there is the argument that their speciality in animal product, whether it be pigs, cows or chickens, will be significantly affected by the presence of the White-tailed Eagles in the Suffolk area. Claims range from 'spooking' of the animals leading to 'smothering' (when chickens flock towards their coops and suffocate themselves) and even motorway accidents, whereby a pig or two could potentially hurtle out through the electric fences and onto the M1, resulting in a smash-up.

Now I'm with Mark Avery (nice name for a twitcher), RSPB's conservation director, when he says all this speculation and rabble-rousing from the local rural businessmen is nonsense, because really we should be excited about bringing back a species such as this that has been nationally extinct for 300 years (according to the RSPB). But, however much I would love to serendipitously discover a White-tailed Eagle one day while walking along the sand dunes or through the marshes, I can't agree with this ongoing preaching about the reintroduction of extinct species.

Another article in the Guardian yesterday discusses the activity called 'bioblitzing', which implies amateur community wildlife observation. This is an act of human curiosity that I will always condone - sitting in bird hides at Minsmere bird sanctuary as a kid was for me more thrilling than being glued to a TV screen and experiencing social media through games consoles. I will always remember the rush I had when, on my 13th birthday, me and my father were beckoned to a particular hide where the elusive Bittern had been sighted. This was the sort of hobby I pursued, and I often ponder returning to it someday.

Nevertheless, I'm quite sure that all this fuss stirred up about 'borrowing' other nations' animals and returning their genetic line to the habitats they once occupied in the UK is not worth its mention in the press. Let's face it, these species were driven to extinction by us, in most cases. Whether it was through direct or indirect means, we killed these creatures and they were never going to return. And who could blame other relatives of these animals elsewhere for not seeking to reclaim their natural heritage in the UK - we're clearly wankers for having had them eradicated in the first place.

The fact is these wonderful animals - White-tailed Eagles, Osprey, Red Kite etc - were all threatened and no one really stood a chance of saving them. The mentality of most people is to only mourn once they're told it's a bad thing that they're gone. With anything other than our own species we share little sympathy until an activist comes along and declares it a crime that this even happened.

Sure, there are success stories. Take the White-tailed Eagles up in Scotland; they've happily grown into larger, healthier numbers since their reintroduction, which is wonderful. And those other examples, the Osprey and the Red Kite, they too represent that some good can come from human interference with nature. But for the majority of the time there is nothing good to be said about human involvement with native species in the UK or anywhere else in the world. This sounds a little pessimistic, but I say this because the majority of human involvement in nature equates to its destruction, not its preservation or conservation.

The greater offering we can make to nature is to establish borders between us and the zones where animals can freely exist without the potential to be harmed, at least within those recognised zones. We commonly refer to these zones as national parks, although you may also find areas of special scientific interest that play similar roles in protecting certain ecosystems.

As far as affecting our native species goes, we're fairly adept at crippling the food chains that operate beneath our economic umbrella. You could say that extinction is endemic wherever humans can be found - it's just that we're immune from it and it's the others that suffer. But taking an interest in nature is good, and so is trying to put a stop to the rampant dissolution of biodiversity, even if in the end it's either integrate, separate or destroy.

What I hope for the future is that we can both integrate and separate with nature; in the places we live we should gratefully welcome vegetation and wildlife and in the places we don't we should leave Mother Nature to tend to her gardens peacefully. As for the White-tailed Eagle spreading its wings and soaring aloft above the Suffolk countryside, I can't say it's not going to happen, but if it did I certainly wouldn't be so confident about letting my terrier run free in the fields on our regular walks.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Guns don't kill people, suicide bombers do

Not a week goes by when we fail to hear or read news of yet another botched/successful suicide bombing at the hands of the Taliban or another one of the infamous terrorist organisations that are based in regions in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

But honestly, where do these suicide bombers get their motivation? How can something so volatile and violent really contribute to any conceivable measure of happiness? And also, do terrorists even use guns anymore?

As common knowledge dictates, the behaviour of the average suicide bomber is slightly different to that of the average terrorist. For instance, whereas a responsible suicide bomber would or at least should not flinch at the command to obliterate a marked target - anything seems up for detonation these days - your archetypal terrorist would have second thoughts.

These second thoughts can be defined as self-serving conscious decisions made in order to protect the subject from harm - self-defence I guess. The main concept acknowledged by the non-bomb terrorist is that of the subjective self.

And this is where the significance of the difference lies: terrorists think, suicide bombers don't. Or rather, they can't. The precise objective of a suicide bomber runs in line with the premeditated purpose of a terrorist organisation - to destroy a popular/instrumental figure or facility of the enemy (commonly the West), therefore achieving a crucial disruption of normal order and the outbreak of panic, leading to more destabilisation.

In effect, what an organisation says goes; the life of the suicide bomber is effectively null, while the role they play in functioning as the organisation's explosive means to the destructive end is valued above an individual's right to live. This is a barbaric concept alien to most democratic western cultures and one of the reasons why suicide bombers are so feared.

The indoctrination and desensitisation process that moulds the shape of a suicide bomber is the method applied by terrorist organisations to groups or protégés expecting a pivotal purpose in life.

However, saying that these organisational 'devices' are
protégés is inaccurate, as a protégé is usually trained by someone with experience in or of a specific field or subject and, as is the case, senior figures in organisations like the Taliban are not too keen on exploding themselves. Plus, experience of blowing yourself up is a little hard to come by for reasons most obvious.

In relation to the goals set for a prospective suicide bomber, it is important to note that you can only become a suicide bomber once you've carried out the task and are no longer alive - result? Not really.

Contributing to further understanding on suicide bombers are studies that have proven the sketchy theory surrounding the coveted 72 virgins of Islam more reliable. Due to the cultural difficulties
of acquiring a partner in countries espousing the Muslim religion , a social condition attributable to the polygamous habits of men, the desire in often desperate young men to receive 'bounties of women' in the afterlife is increasingly more appealing than securing one in reality.

No doubt the constraints in these Middle Eastern countries on the behaviour of women are also fault lines in the bedrock of cross-gender communication; men are perceived as superior to women, thus inequality causes a crude divide that frustrates young men who are naturally intent on coupling.

To spar with superficial views on Muslim theology and practice certain hypotheses and studies have assiduously revealed that the doctrines of Islam, as outlined by the prophet Muhammed, and featured in the Koran, do not condone suicide bombing as a key to the entrance to heaven. To make it even clearer, the Koran forbids any acts of violence against another entity that are not carried out for the purposes of fair justice, i.e. capital punishment for a serious crime.

And as if these angst-ridden young men (considered the easiest targets in these societies; also in ours - see Farouk link below) didn't have enough to worry about, the consequences of sometimes rigid abidance to sharia law in certain Muslim countries exacerbates their paranoia in places where chauvinistic hierarchies are rife.

For all intents and purposes, the system that sees vulnerable individuals turned into victims of conspiratorial vendettas does its job; the terrorists augment damaged psyches with overriding compulsions to defeat an enemy that is not that individual's enemy but the target of that particular organisation's national/international frustrations.

In the cases of many men like
Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab there is little to explain their transformations into suicide bombers except the sheer domination by influential terrorists of their minds.

One theory I've got going at the moment appears to be supported more and more by ever-increasing examples of suicide bombing: terrorists are phasing-out guns, making vulnerable people their primary weapons in their struggle against democracy. These unfortunate humans-cum-weapons are no longer capable of thinking for themselves, which is as disconcerting as it is reassuring.

What we need to do is teach them how to avoid the dangerous grasp of the terrorists' rhetoric and turn their backs on a fate which IS exactly death.