Liberals may not want to defend Tim Farron. We still should.

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Religion is not an excuse for discrimination. But that should not blind us to the fact that evangelical Christians are now a minority in the UK, whose rights liberals may need to fight for.

Part 1: What liberalism is NOT

To the surprise of essentially no one, Tim Farron has confirmed that he does in fact believe that gay sex is sinful. Equally unsurprisingly, this has led some to question his liberalism and whether he belongs in a party that espouses liberalism.

Writing in Prospect, the philosopher Julian Baggini explains the misapprehension this view embodies:

Suspicion of Farron’s equal rights credentials reflects a wider misunderstanding of the very nature of politics and its relationship to morality. Secular, pluralist democracy rests on the assumption that members of society have different, often very divergent conceptions of morality and the good life. It negotiates these differences by distinguishing between public and private space, allowing individuals to live according to their own consciences as far as that is compatible with allowing others to live according to theirs.

To be a liberal in such a polis is to be firmly committed to this principle of individual liberty of conscience. It doesn’t require actually having a liberal personal morality. A political liberal can be a moral conservative. What matters is not whether Farron believes that gays will burn in hell for their sins but whether he believes they have the legal right to secure their own damnation before rule passes from the human to the divine.

Part 2: the wages of Tim

Now, one can give Farron too much credit when it comes to separating politics and personal morality. As I blogged about back in 2015:

there does seem to be a pattern whereby Tim is lobbied to do something by Christian groups, does it and then on reflection realises he shouldn’t have.

And one of those instances does seem to be what initially provoked journalists to begin asking questions about what Farron thought about homosexuality. However, these infractions are generally minor. For example, instead of voting for equal marriage three times, he did so twice and abstained once. For that reason, I still feel comfortable endorsing the position taken by Jennie Rigg, acting chair of LGBT+ Lib Dems, that the two things that matter in this regard are:

1. How Tim Farron votes in parliament

2. How he treats people – LGBT+ people in particular – in everyday life

And that on both these matters he has a defensible record.

Indeed, it is striking how removed the discussion about Farron and his views have become from these concrete concerns. It may have begun with a discussion about how he voted on equal marriage, but it has ended with us parsing a purely psychological phenomenon, and seldom bothering to consider why Tim Farron’s views matter beyond the confines of his skull.

It would be different if he had used his public position to preach to his fellow citizens about what they should do in their private lives. But that was emphatically not he was doing. Indeed, he spent his entire tenure trying to avoid telling us his views on the matter – and on occasion claiming even to hold a wholy different view. Even now, his coming out and saying he thinks gay sex is sinful, seems to be less an attempt to convince others of his viewpoint, than to set right a moment of dishonesty on his part. Throughout, he seems content that his private views to remained private. It is his critics, who made them a matter of political salience.

Part 3: the wider issue

Now I am wary of taking this argument, where I am about to. I appreciate that many in the LGBT+ community would take umbrage at a straight Christian – even an LGBT affirming one – making a case that conservative Christians deserve to be seen as oppressed rather than oppressors anywhere close to the issue of gay rights. I completely acknowledge there are valid reasons for that, including but not limited to the fact:

  • In many parts of the world churches continue to perpetuate extreme legal and societal repression of people on account of their sexuality
  • That has historically been the case in the UK too
  • Nor has such behaviour in the UK entirely disappeared. Evangelical churches continue to be a major barrier to equal marriage in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, too many churches – even in the UK – continue to make life miserable for any young person unfortunate enough to grow up gay in their orbit.
  • When Christians make claims about their rights not being respected, they often do so in an overwrought, intellectually lazy manner that fails to show empathy for others. It often involves exageration, hyperbole, equating the inability to discriminate against others with being discriminated against oneself, making unwarranted connections between the challenges faced by Christians in the UK and indisputable instances of oppression in places like Saudi and North Korea, or making resentful comparisons with the supposed preferential treatment given to Muslims that manage to imply either that the predicament some Christians face is the fault of Muslims or that Muslims do not deserve to have their human rights protected.
  • Being fined for not baking a cake or being asked unpleasant questions by politics reporters are problems of a wholly different magnitude to being imprisoned or prevented from being married.

That said, a real problem remains. We cannot ignore the extent to which secularisation has changed Christianity’s position within the UK. Those professing a Christian faith in an active manner are clearly no longer just a minority but a small minority. For some Christians – myself included – this does not pose an especially acute challenge. We are what Tim Farron would describe as – perhaps ‘dismiss as’ – ‘cultural Christians’. We see secular humanism not as a threat to our faith but an outgrowth of it. For us, its concern with equality and human flourishing, accord with the all human beings being made by God and loved by him. However, for others, no such harmony exists. As they see it, God has decreed there to be a certain order to things, and now humans are messing with it. That sets them against the values of the majority, and history suggests that in such a situation the temptation for the majority to act intolerantly will be strong.

As I have already mentioned, it is quite possible to overstate this danger. If you had to be out of step with the values of any society, you’d choose a liberal and humanist one because part of its essence is that it affords strong protections to minorities. Hence the authorities will not shutter churches, believers will hardly ever face prison, and the mobs they confront will be allegorical. That said it is also to understate the problem. Besides, what happened to Farron, there is also the case of the evangelical bakers fined by Norther Ireland’s equality commission for refusing to produce a cake with a pro-LGBT slogan on it and at least one case of the courts having to step in after someone was unlawfully dismissed from their job for posting to their private Facebook page that equal marriage was ‘an equality too far‘. I have on multiple occasions heard generally liberal-minded people using anti-Christian language like ‘God botherer’ or ‘Bible basher’. It is also worth considering the possibility that the changing demographics of the church-going population are liable to increase the possibility of anti-Christian discrimination. Black majority churches are growing whilst white ones contract. That creates the ugly possibility for racial and religious prejudice to align and feed off each other. In this context, the mixture of bemusement, derision and revulsion that characterise the reaction to Farron’s views on homosexuality, should seem like a warning sign of a minority in a vulnerable position, which should also be a call to action for liberals. That might feel uncomfortable because his opinion might seem abhorent, but that’s kind of the point. It is not the people who hold pleasing, widely shared views, whose right to hold them requires defending.

Conclusion

It is perhaps instructive to consider what would happen if the law allowed politicians to bring cases for unlawful discrimination against the electorate and the wider polity. [For clarity: I am not advocating that – this is just a thought experiment!] It seems pretty clear to me that if Farron were to pursue such an action, he’d likely win. The courts have previously recognised that for some Christians, opposition to homosexuality may be a manifestation of their religious beliefs. Given that, placing someone in a situation where they must affirm support for same-sex relationships or lose out on the chance for advancement at work (in this case leading a larger parliamentary party) would potentially amount to indirect discrimination, which is prohibited by the equalities act. It is possible to ‘justify’ indirect discrimination, if one can show a good enough reason why it’s needed. But could we as a body of voters? If it were necessary to defend the rights of LGBT+ people, then absolutely it would be. However, given Farron’s voting record it seems that argument would falter for lack of evidence.

Which brings me to what is the nub of the issue for me. Is stigmatising a man who voted for equal marriage, campaigned against section 28, tabled a bill to end the ban on gay men donating blood and pushed for the UK to take stronger stances on LGBT+ issues globally for thoughts he is reluctant to express, an effective way of promoting LGBT+ rights? Or is it punishing him for belonging to an outgroup that thinks differently from the majority of us?

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When going home means leaving a home behind (Cable from Korea #15)

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And so, the end is here. This will be the last ‘Cable from Korea’. Tomorrow I leave this country for the UK. Friday was my last day at work. I intend to live elsewhere for the foreseeable future.

I am sure that this is the right decision but that doesn’t make it an easy one. The very thing I feel the need to move beyond – the rather cloistered existence of an Anglophone expat in Korea – could easily be seen as a blessing I am mad to forsake. What’s so bad about a well-paid job, that takes care of my housing, gives me lots of holidays, plenty of free time, (usually) low stress days at work, an inbuilt community of fellow expats, and many of the world’s best sites a short-haul flight away?

More than that, however, Korea now has a special place in my heart. That’s partly due to the people I’ve met here – both locals and expats – of which more later. But beyond that, this country is a remarkable one. I obviously admire it at a macro level. It shook off colonialism, civil war, invasion and military rule to become a prosperous, culturally-dynamic democracy. But that’s not what has really kindled my affection for it. No, that’s things like being able to hike to temples in the mountains. Or visit its myriad cafes. And leave my laptop and wallet on the table in one of them for hours, knowing that Koreans are so law abiding, I can rely on it being there when I return. Oh and the plentiful public transport that’s basically never late. Or how about the numerous idiosyncratic festivals? And of course, the food. I’ve been spoilt by it. I’m no so accustomed to being able to have delicious barbeque, bulgogi, bibimbap, bingsu, mandu, ramen, jap chae bap, tempura or soup pretty much whenever I want, that I’m not sure how I’ll cope without them. In short, while Britain may be my home, Korea (and for that matter Vietnam) also feel like home. And being away from them feels like a wrench.

So, may I take this opportunity to ask you to pray or keep in your thoughts – whichever seems more right to you – a place that has become very dear to me. As you will be aware if you have seen any news lately, the peace and stability that South Koreans have worked so hard to build, is threatened by reckless manoeuvring in both Washington and Pyeongyang. More mundanely, now it has achieved its aspiration to be a wealthy exemplar of modernity and civility, it must decide what it aspires to be next. Oh and in the near future they have a show to put on: the Winter Olympics are coming to town. Please wish the Koreans well in all these endeavours.

As I already mentioned, the larger part of what makes any place special are individuals. And I would like to take the opportunity to publicly thank some people I met during my time in Korea. Under no circumstance, could I possibly thank everyone, I owe debts to. And I am writing this quickly, whilst in quite an emotional state, so am liable to have missed some people who really deserve a mention. Nonetheless, I thought it better to mention some people and risk missing others, than to not thank anyone. If your name should be here and is not, please rest assured I know what you did for me and that it is but a momentary lapse. With that said may I thank the following people:

  • My colleagues at Jeungsan elementary school, and Beomeo and Bogwang Middle Schools, as well as my co-teachers for the Interview English program. Thank you for the patience and tolerance you showed someone who doesn’t understand your language or how things are done in your country.
  • The students who took risks to improve their English. Especially those in my Interview English classes. Every time you did, you made teaching English seem worthwhile again.
  • The congregation at AIM, especially the Basic U fellowship group, and even more especially Kimberlie, Storm, Leanri, Chris and Dianna. I often had a rather semi-detached relationship with the church. But even as I put myself half-in and half-out, you made me feel 100% welcome.
  • Everyone at Socrates Café. Not only was debating and discussing philosophy with you, fun and informative, it was also just the mental workout I often needed after a week of (frequently) dry drilling simple phrases into students for hours on end. Stay reflective guys!
  • Wendy for providing a comfortable and welcoming space for foreigners like me. The paninis, shakes and dandelion tea were definitely a bonus too!
  • Aakansha, we didn’t get to spend anything like as much time together as I’d hoped, but I will forever be grateful for the time we did have. Stay yourself always.
  • Jenna Kang at KLIFF. Thank you for not only helping me with my Korean – which was definitely useful – but also convincing me that I could make progress with a language – even one as difficult as Korean – and that my putting effort into learning languages is not in vain.
  • Every non-Korean speaker in Korea must on a semi-regular basis turn to someone who does know the language for help. In my case that usually meant Hannah or Justyna. Thank you both for responding to my requests with such patience and being so generous with your time.
  • Everyone who went to Thursday Evening Bible Study. Your fellowship was invaluable, your very different perspectives were educational, and your friendship remains priceless.
  • Most of all, to my family during a time I was thousands of miles from my actual family: all my friends in and around Yangsan. Lauren, Ksenia, Tricia, Chris, Justyna, Bella, Jennifer, and, above everyone else on this list, the big sister I never had, Aaren. I miss you all already and can’t wait for the day I will see you again. I long for it be soon.

It was without a shadow of a doubt, worth moving half way round the world to meet you guys!

Best things I’ve read recently (the Last Jedi edition)

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Spoilers for pretty much everything in the Last Jedi and the films that preceded it

How the last Jedi lands so many big twists by Spencer Kornhaber (the Atlantic)

“What about Finn and Rose’s big moment? As the former stormtrooper goes to make like Russell in Independence Day and destroy the First Order’s big blaster in an act of self-sacrifice, he’s knocked to safety by Rose. It’s a classic, shmaltzy deus ex machina, and it allows Rose to deliver a lovely thesis statement for the Rebellion and plant this trilogy’s first romantic kiss. But I can’t think of any precedent in the Star Wars movies for this particular kind of sacrifice to prevent sacrifice, with individual love nobly winning out over the collective mission.

Which speaks to the yet-grander innovation of The Last Jedi: finding ways to complicate and deepen the good vs. evil dichotomy. We see well-intentioned missions end in failure and catastrophe (Finn’s arc). We see sharp and consequential disagreements between people on the same side (Poe vs. Holdo). We see intense explorations of what it means for light and dark to flirt (Rey and Ren). And the long-troubling notion that a person’s significance is simply a product of heredity is vaporized with the reveal about Ray’s junktrading parents, cemented by a coda that sees a force-wielding slave kid dreaming of rebellion.”

Star Wars: the Last Jedi – a spoiler-filled exploration by Ryan Lamble (Den of Geek)

“All of this serves to create a sense of shrinking rather than growing threat – a brave and slightly odd move for the middle chapter in a trilogy. The Last Jedi has unexpectedly sewn all kinds of plot threads up: Snoke’s gone, Luke nobly sacrificed himself, Rey has confronted her past. Yes, the Resistance’s numbers have been decimated, but the First Order has been dealt an even greater blow: its grand puppet master is dead, and in his place we have an aggressive hot-head and a military general so hapless that he could get his own sitcom (co-starring Adrian Edmondson, obviously). This raises the question: will the Resistance destroy the First Order, or will the First Order simply implode through mania and sheer incompetence?”

Toxic Masculinity Is the True Villain of Star Wars: The Last Jedi by Katyi Burt (Den of Geek)

“In the Original Trilogy, Han is presented as the ultimate dude. In heteronormative terms, he is the character every man should want to be and every woman should want to be with. In The Last Jedi, Poe is presented as a character who needs to stop with the mansplaining and learn from the more seasoned female leaders in his life.

That’s not to say that Poe isn’t likeable. Both the film itself and the characters within the cinematic world admire Poe’s character, but, and here’s the kicker, not as a leader. At least not yet.

Instead, the film supports General Leia and Admiral Holdo and their measured maturity over Poe’s machismo-driven exuberance. “She cared more about protecting the light than seeming like a hero,” Leia tells Poe about Holdo’s sacrifice, subverting the tired narrative trend of the alpha male hero as the only viable or best leadership choice. “Not every problem can be solved by jumping in an X-Wing and blowing stuff up,” Leia tells Poe before demoting him. Skilled X-Wing piloting is a solution to some problems, sure, but for Poe to think his is a skillset that solves allproblems is pure hubris.”

[MM: on a related note ‘Emo Kylo Ren‘ has redubbed himself as a Ren’s Right Activist]

Videos

Podcast

The Weekly Planet‘s discussion of the film is both funny and insightful. It also made me feel better about the ‘why didn’t Holdo just tell Poe problem’.

On Soundtracking, Edith Bowman interviews director Rian Johnson about what it’s like to work with John Williams. Short answer: very cool!

Tweets

https://twitter.com/rianjohnson/status/942651288570884096?s=17

If you look hard enough all history eventually becomes geography

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Black & blue: 2016 electoral results in Alabama. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Here’s a curious angle on today’s glorious electoral upset in Alabama, courtesy of Quartz:

Black voters typically support the Democratic party, which is popular in Alabama’s middle districts. That vote shows up in electoral maps as a stripe running straight through the GOP stronghold: The black belt.

Contrary to myth, the “black belt” does not refer to the large African American population living in the area—or at least it didn’t originally.

“Black belt” refers instead to the quality of the soil of the area. Tanks to ancient marine deposits, the soil of that area is rich in nutrients, extremely fertile and, indeed, black. And there is a direct link between the color of the soil and the political leaning, too: Cotton.

As biology professor Allen Gathman shows by overlapping Alabama’s cotton production by county in 1860 (when the production was heaviest in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana) with the 2016 presidential election results, the areas with historically strong cotton cultivation, and therefore a historically large population of black laborers in the second half of 1800s correspond to Democratic votes today.

So, you can explain where Democrat support in Alabama is located in the present by looking at the race of voters. In turn, you can explain the racial makeup of the state by looking at the economy (and specifically where cotton production was located) more than a century ago. And that in turn is explained by the nutrient content of the soil.

These kind of geographic/geological factors tend to wind up underlying everything else. Indeed, the very first lecture of my history degree began with this map and the rather startling conjecture that it explains most of global inequality.

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The lecturer used it to illustrate Jared Diamond’s argument that:

Continents that are spread out in an east-west direction, such as Eurasia, had a developmental advantage because of the ease with which crops, animals, ideas and technologies could spread between areas of similar latitude.

Continents that spread out in a north-south direction, such as the Americas, had an inherent climatic disadvantage. Any crops, animals, ideas and technologies had to travel through dramatically changing climatic conditions to spread from one extreme to the other.

Technologies such as gunpowder were able to migrate 6,500 thousand miles from China, where they originated, to Western Europe, where they reached their apogee, in a matter of centuries. The wheel, on the other hand, developed in southern Mexico, never even managed the 500-mile journey south to the Andes.

This generally isn’t what we like to focus on when we contemplate history. Individuals and movements are more relatable. However, it pays to be aware of the context in which individuals and movements operate and how powerfully that is shaped by geography.

Without Charles Dickens there probably wouldn’t be a galaxy far far away

Star Wars and the pleasure of serials

As I strategise how to see the Last Jedi on the day it’s released, as well as going to Bible Study and…ya know…work, now seems a good time to ponder the appeal of serials.

They are so ubiqitous that it is easy to forget that they not only constitute a genre in their own right, but a genre that had to be created. Amongst the people who did that, this video from Nerdwriter argues that Charles Dickens was pre-eminent:

I must confess a love for serials. Far from being the cheap art form snobs sometimes suppose, they are precisely a case in which investment and deep engagement with material is rewarded. Serials give the audience an expansive world and lots of space for characters and plots to develop. One positively has to spend time with and pay attention to a serial to appreciate it properly.

That’s to say nothing of the fact that  there is the added bonus of the pleasurable anticipation of awaiting the next instalment!

 

Also worth reading:

Vulture’s account of the choreographing of the Phantom Menace‘s climatic lightsaber fight AKA the only good part of the movie. Unsurprisingly, it appears that a prerequisite for its success was George Lucas’ benign neglect.

Vietnam: optimism nation

HT: Forbes

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This tallies with my own experience. While I would prefer to live an already rich but slow growing country like the UK rather than a poor but rapidly growing one like Vietnam, there are definitely advantages to being among people who are generally confident that their lives are improving. An air of positivity is pleasant.

Related posts

Besides being unusually optimistic, the Vietnamese also stand out for being – ironically given its history and system of government – especially pro-capitalist and pro-American.

Nerds are thinking about a Disney/Fox deal the wrong way

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The possibility that Disney may buy part of Fox – including crucially in this context its movie studio 20th Century Fox – has excited the attention of the geekier parts of the internet for one specific reason:

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For those of you who are not familiar with the landscape of superhero movies, let me recap quickly. Both the X-Men and the Avengers were characters that originated in Marvel comics. However, you do not see them on the big screen together because in the 1990s, Marvel was losing money and to stay afloat it sold the movie rights to its most popular characters. Fox bought the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, and has been making movies featuring those characters ever since. Then in the 2000s, Marvel began producing its own movies based on the characters it hadn’t sold the rights to. Against the odds these second-tier hereos like Iron Man, Captain America and Black Widow proved to be the basis for the most profitable franchise in movie history. Then Disney bought Marvel. The result was that the movie versions Avengers and the Fantastic Four wound up owned by two different companies, each making its own movies, set in its own fictional universe. If one company attempted to use the other’s characters in its movies it would be sued for breach of copyright.

However, this would all change if 20th Century Fox became part of Disney. The problem is – as Scott Mendelssohn of Forbes – notes is that it would also change a lot of other things and not necessarily for the better:

Last year, Walt Disney had a jaw-dropping 26% of the domestic box office while Fox had 13%. With Fox and Disney combined into one entity, it’s plausible to see Walt Disney’s theatrical output controlling close to 40% of the theatrical business. With that kind of hold, the Mouse House could essentially rewrite the rules for how its movies are seen in theaters (higher ticket prices, higher percentages back to the studios, exclusive auditorium control, etc.) in a way that wouldn’t remotely help the likes of Universal or Warner Bros.

Disney has already gotten heat this year for somewhat more draconian terms for domestic theaters planning to show Star Wars: The Last Jedi (because it knows that much of the money isn’t going to come from the overseas business). It justifiably got torn to shreds for blacklisting Los Angeles Times journalists from Thor: Ragnarok press screenings after the paper reported unfavorably on Disneyland’s tax-related relationship with Anaheim. While Disney relented quickly, arguably because Coco needed the critical buzz more than Thor, such a move could well be solidified with that much control of the market.

And while Walt Disney is a publicly traded company and not a charity, this wouldn’t necessarily be good for the overall industry. Fewer major studios mean fewer places for artists to pitch their work, and thus potentially a less diverse slate of movies and television shows. Less competition could also drive down compensation for said artists, and Disney would be powerful enough to (if it chose to) essentially set the status quo for compensation for the next round of union negotiations. But at least we’d get a decent Fantastic Four movie, right, guys?

To this list of worries, I would add a concern that a larger Disney would have more political power. Given the company’s role in, first, turning American copyright law from a useful system for incentivising creators into a means for large companies like Disney to monopolise the use of valuable characters for generations, and then, lobbying for trade treaties that globalise this perversion of the system, that’d probably be a malign development.

Besides all this, I’m not even sure the massive superhero team-up fans want is really desirable. The MCU seems to be going along fine. Fitting the X-men and mutants in would require a lot of – probably detrimental – crowbarring. Better to let Fox try and make its properties work in isolation. Logan showed that can lead to interesting results.