Monday, 30 April 2007

Two Britains

A recent report has shown that we live in two Britain’s, one affluent and one poor. Now there is nothing new about that observation, indeed show me any society and I will show you its poor underbelly, from the US through India, to Japan, there have always been those at the bottom of society and those at the top.

A white underclass of some numbers has been around in the UK since at least the start of the Industrial revolution, when people started leaving the land for the cities. Even now, after 60 yrs of a welfare state, about 15% of the white population are state benefit supported, public housing estate living, badly educated and badly behaved. They form the pool for most of the criminal class, and can often be seen wandering shopping areas, pushing a pram or looking for something to steal. This is depressing, but probably no different from earlier times.

However this report is the first to show that certain immigrant groups are remaining at the bottom of the economic ladder, despite being the second, or third generation after the original arrivals. In the recent past it has been normal for the second or third generations of immigrants to move quickly up the social scales. In the UK for instance, the Jews, then Italians and Greeks, came in waves, and rose quickly through hard work to become integrated and successful.

The same experience can be seen to have occurred in the US or Australia etc and this emboldened our politicians to experiment with a new form of immigration, one that introduced racial and religious elements to the immigration equation. Thus in the 1960’s and 1970’s they started upon Caribbean, and then Asian immigration to the UK, and other Western countries.

It is these groups that have singularly failed to rise smoothly through the social and economic strata, and “make it”. One has to be careful when making sweeping statements about these groups, there are both individual success stories, and some groups who have been singularly successful. For instance the Hindus and Sikhs from the Asian immigrants have performed better than Muslim Asians, with a particular emphasis upon the professions and IT.

The Chinese have apparently fared far better than the Vietnamese, and so on and so forth. The apparent two failures are those of African descent, and Muslims from Asia or the Middle East. The reasons for this failure are not immediately apparent, because in both cases, the first wave of immigrants had jobs supplied. The Afro Caribbean’s went into the National Health Service and public transport, and the Muslims into textile factories in the north, and similar occupations in the south.

The 'normal' second generation rise just didn’t happen in these groups, and they are now mired at the bottom, with recent groups such as the East Europeans passing them by in the space of a few years. So what has happened? Well in order to examine this question we have to split them into the two groups.

Firstly the Afro Caribbean’s and Africans:
Here the problems are not obviously religious or language based, as they largely come from an English speaking Christian back ground, and culturally they were not markedly different, indeed the first Afro Caribbean’s in the UK had both strong religious beliefs, and a somewhat Victorian attitude to the need for education for their kids.

I have discussed some of the issues that affect the black community in a previous blog so I won’t repeat the arguments again, but I consider that there has been an educational failure, that combined with the high incidence of single parents in the black community, has resulted in the collapse of that community. This evinces itself in the apparently endless round of gun and knife killings, and involvement in crime amongst the boys, and high incidence of single parenthood amongst the girls, with a universally low level of educational achievements amongst both sexes.

There is little evidence of entrepreneurial skills developing within the black community as a whole (by this I mean, black businesses, shops, restaurants, wholesalers etc), and a wholesale dependence upon state sector jobs. There is even anecdotal evidence that, where a black person tries to set up a business such as a shop or restaurant, black customers avoid these shops. This appears to actually discourage any spirit of advancement.

In fact, their wholesale disregard for education as a means of advancement is highlighted by Black American comedians, and social commentators such as Bill Cosby. It’s quite often stated on the Internet that the black community don’t read (along with about 20% of the white community as far as I can see), and that they are move concerned with image enhancers such as ‘pimping’ their cars or ‘bling’ to try and get on.

Tackling this issue is probably the key to black enhancement … It will need a radical approach though, because at the moment nothing seems to work. I would personally go for extreme measures such as
  • All male black schools with (black) male teachers from age 11 to age 18. Certainly all male schools.
  • Not allowing kids (black or white) to leave school until 18.
  • Concentrating upon the 3 R’s as a minimum level of education for school leavers.
  • Reintroducing corporal punishment in schools.
  • Stronger policing (and fast track justice) in black estates to stop gangs developing.
Just these four measures would so alter the school and non school background for many black kids that there would be a marked improvement in their expectations, and their chances of meeting those expectations through work.

On the second group, Muslims:
The reasons why they have low performance problems are more complex. Originally they started coming over to the UK as invited workers for the textile trade in the north of England in the late 1960’s and 1970’s and could speak some English. They were given British passports but with the expectation that they would just “go home” when the work dried up, but they didn’t, they brought their families over, and via “arranged marriages” have continued to do so ever since.
When the work closed down they were apparently happy to live off state benefits for the rest of eternity, quite sensibly, because this was better than what they would get when back home. This was so unexpected, that within a few years the UK government had stopped the automatic right to British passports for all ex colonies, but the damage had been done.

Now as I have said, there were other Asian groups who came over to the UK at about the same time, notably the Hindus, Sikhs and Tamils, but they have not exhibited any of the same social problems that the Muslims from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh have.

The reason therefore for the failure of these last groups is that of religion and background. Pakistan and Bangladesh are chronically poor, and the workers employed by UK firms were from rural uneducated regions of this poor country. They had no incentive to "go home", no incentive to find new work after the textile trade closed because of state benefits, and no educational back ground to pass on to their children. The only 'education' they had had any contact with was the teaching of Islam in Madrassas.
Islam stopped being a religion of scholars and learning some time ago, and now relies on rote learning of the Quran in place of enquiring education. “Everything that can be learnt is available in the Quran and the Hadiths”, and therefore there is no need to learn anything new or question interpretations of the Quran carried out centuries ago.

The religion is propagated by Iman’s who can quote from the Quran that they learnt by heart, but who have no scholarly understanding of context or interpretation, but who call themselves 'scholars'. In order to illustrate this I quote from the article linked above by Professor Ziauddin Sardar;
After the September 11 event, for example, a number of Taliban supporters, including a few in Britain, justified their actions by quoting the following verse: ‘We will put terror into the hearts of the unbelievers. They serve other gods for whom no sanction has been revealed. Hell shall be their home’ (3: 149). Yet, the apparent meaning attributed to this verse could not be further from the true spirit of the Quran.

In this particular verse, the Quran is addressing Prophet Muhammad himself. It was revealed during the battle of Uhud, when the small and ill equipped army of the Prophet, faced a much larger and well-equipped enemy. He was concerned about the outcome of the battle. The Quran reassures him and promises the enemy will be terrified with the Prophet’s unprofessional army. Seen in its context, it is not a general instruction to all Muslims; but a commentary on what was happening at that time.

Anyone who has this mindset, or is led by people with this mindset, is not going to integrate, nor indeed make any effort to question why they came to the UK. Many Indians consider Muslims to be “uneducated” because of this attitude, and tellingly the Pakistanis often refer to the Bangladeshi’s in a similar light. So maybe it’s not surprising that Muslims generally, and Bangladeshi’s particularly, have made no progress.

Indeed so large has the failure of this immigrant group to integrate been, that we are now in a de-facto war with many of the second and third generations of this group. So what would I do about this group?
  • I would stop arranged marriages between the UK and Pakistan, India and Bangladesh as this constant influx from the homeland means there is no “British Islam” developing. There are enough Muslims (and Hindus & Sikhs etc) here, and in Canada, the US and other countries, for partners to be found, and who would have western outlooks
  • I would expel all Imans who can’t speak English
  • I would insist that all future Imans are educated in the UK
Hopefully this would result in the development of a western brand of Islam which would be forward looking, and reform minded with an emphasis on integration and education as the way to advance in society.
Finally, we could probably adopt some of these actions to try and tackle the white underclass who the "Welfare State" seems to have made into a permanent sub culture in the UK. I am fairly sure that Bevan and the other authors of this system were not expecting that free education, medicine, and cradle to grave financial support, would end up with what we have got now.
Our politicians on the other hand will probably just sit on their hands, or throw tax payers money to try and bribe the under achievers into "doing better" ...... such is democracy 21st century PC style. 

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Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Life on another planet

With the news that scientists have found an "Earth like" planet 20 light yrs away, we come ever closer to "first contact". Super Earth found.

I have only one hope for these discoveries, and that is that the first intelligent extra terrestrials we contact say "Religion, what's that? Oh, you mean superstition!" - WOW what a moment that will be, all those beards around the world having to explain to their flocks that "God only exists on Earth", or even, "Well, that's 2,000 yrs wasted!".

In fact lets try and run through a scenario (and this is purely hypothetical for fun):

Time Line:
  1. The year is 2045. The "War against terror" has turned 'hot' and been raging in the West for 15 yrs, with Islamist regimes from Indonesia to North Africa, (the "Caliphate of the Green Crescent") is attacking "Fortress Europa/Siberia", and counter strikes by the US led "Cross Alliance", under pastor Jed Miguel Bush III, are hitting the Muslim world.

  2. US Troops are stationed permanently in Israel and Lebanon, and the "West" is spending most of its money on it's armed forces.

  3. The only developed area that is conflict free, is the Pacific rim, under the hegemony of the Nippon/Chinese conglomerate. South America is now in the American Trade & Customs Union, formed in 2020 to counter the Europa/Siberia and Nippon/Chinese conglomerate trade blocks. Africa is a resource client continent to the Nippon/Chinese conglomerate.

  4. In 2040, and the NC conglomerate super probe, utilising the new "Quantum Macroscope" technology, is launched to the edge of our solar system and uses "Quantum" beams to broadcast from the edge of the Solar System through out our local galaxy.

  5. In 2045, a reply is beamed back from 20 light years away. A faint star Gliese 581, which is 20.5 light-years away in the constellation Libra, has responded with a signal.

  6. Communications are established via translation algorithms, and with the almost instantaneous properties of the "Quantum beams" a regular two way flow of information with only a two month lag develops.
At first the questions are purely scientific, and dominated by the needs and concerns of the NC conglomerate e.g. No, the 'Glieseans' (Or more properly the '*%&*%66"!' - 'Blue skinnys') have not developed interstellar space travel, they too have hit the 'Light speed limits' and in fact have only Fusion powered vehicles, similar to the NC conglomerate vessel that had travelled to the edge of the Sol system.

However, after much communication of a technical nature, the questions move to more historical and philosophical sphere. The history of the Earth, from a NC conglomerate viewpoint are broadcast, and the history of Gliesia (presumably from a 'Blue Skinny' perspective) received. Then comes the bombshell, they have no religion or God, or rather they had had them (but not a monotheistic "Creator" system) in the distant past but had moved to a scientific/philosophical system of Ethics some hundreds of years ago.

This didn't bother the NC conglomerate because they had no such tradition either, and this vindicated their own systems. At first the rest of the World, engaged as it was in a "Clash of Civilisations" between a Judeo/Christian based morality, and the Ummah Islamic systems, didn't take notice, but then ....

Now they demanded access to the probe, and after some reluctance, the NC conglomerate (who were selling weapons to both sides) allowed it. Teams of Theologians representing all the major one god creator religions, had turns sending questions (To a bemused 'Blue Skinny' world), but always the questions were answered the same way "What GOD, who's that? Oh, you mean superstition" .... "We believe in a scientific rational universe".

At last they refused to answer the increasingly more desperate questions and threatened to break of contacts. The NC conglomerate withdrew access to the probe. But the answer was out, there was no universal god, no divine creator, no messenger, no prophet, just a lot of men who had been out in the desert sun too long with not enough water. So what were they fighting about?

In the 'Cross Alliance' and its clients, millions turned away from organised religions, and apart from those "die hards" who clung to the old ways, many took up the Confucian/Buddhist/Shinto fusion that was the norm in the JC conglomerate block. In the Caliphate, the news spread less quickly, but in the cities attendance at the Mosques fell away, and violence broke out when Mullahs tried to enforce religious observances that had no longer got 'divine' backing.

By 2050, the war was over, there just wasn't the will to spill blood over systems that no longer had support.....

Well that's how it could go, or maybe not? Alternative scenarios welcome!

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Sunday, 22 April 2007

The Average Iranians

Like many in the West, when I think of Iran, I think of Bearded Mullahs, “Death to America, Death to England” (‘Marg Bar Amerika, Marg Bar Angeleez’), Revolutionary Guards, and women in chadors and veils. But mostly I guess I think of ‘Hizbollah’ militias with suicide bombers. I rarely, if ever think about what the people of Iran are really like.

In earlier blogs I have alluded to the fact that Iran might well become the first truly democratic, secular Muslim state in the Middle East, but only as a passing thought. See End of History or New World Order?

However, today I have just read a very interesting article by Sunday Mail columnist Peter Hitchen, he has just been on a trip around Iran and found that things are not as they appear to us in the West. Mr Hitchen is a right leaning, anti PC writer, so not easily seduced towards Islamic propaganda, but he was sufficiently impressed to alter some of his views.

Persian, or Iranian history is a long one, stretching back at least 6,000 years (the first link on this blog covers it in brief), of which Islam forms only the last 1300 yrs, but for modern purposes it starts with the US inspired coup against a 'democratically' elected president, Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, over the control of oil.

There is, as you might guess some dispute about the form of democracy that was being operated in Iran and some on the right think that it was a good thing. In particular they point to the fact that Mr Mossadegh had Communist and Islamist allies, and had disagreements both with the Shah and with the parliament over his handling of talks regarding compensation of the British for the oil he had nationalised. But it was the fact that he dissolved the parliament unconstitutionally, using a proposed referendum to avoid impeachment that causes many to say it was he who was preparing for a coup.

This led to the imposition of a dictatorship by the Shah of Iran on the peoples of Persia. The iniquities and oppression of this incompetent regime led to the 1979 “revolution”, and thus the current Mullah led theocratic regime. So you could say that once again we interfered in the Middle East, and made things worse for all concerned.

Now, anyone who reads my blogs will be aware that I am very unsympathetic towards Islam as a whole, and radical Islam in particular, but I like to think that I am willing to be open to revising my opinions when new facts come to my attention. In this regard Iran is its own worst enemy as its public image is one that it creates itself.

The Mullahs came into power promising that people would be better off under a truly Shia Islamic governance, and initially this appeared to be the case. Jobs were created for the poor (state jobs), and education in state schools was provided in areas where previously it had not existed. This is why the Shahs regime was incompetent; they had oil money, but spent it on the army and aggrandisement, and not on free health and secular education for all.

However, along with some benefits, came Islamic law: No Alcohol; Persian Islam had traditionally allowed alcohol – see poems of Hafez, Persia’s most famous poet.

OH Cup-bearer, set my glass afire
With the light of wine! Oh minstrel, sing:
The world fulfilleth my heart's desire!
Reflected within the goblet's ring
I see the glow of my Love's red cheek,
And scant of wit, ye who fail to seek
The pleasures that wine alone can bring!

Wine was being produced in the Shiraz region right up until 1979, so the imposition of an alcohol ban was actually a very non Iranian act, and was more influenced by Shia influences from the largely Sunni Arab world, where alcohol had never been as freely available. Dress codes for women, and general bans on public behaviour cut deeply on a population which was upto 40% under the age of 25.

Now, twenty seven years later, the economy has failed to develop, with mass unemployment for the young a real problem, and corruption rife (many mullahs have carved out economic empires on state awarded contracts), the pressures for change have started to build. Mr Hitchens article shows that in many quarters, from the non radical elite (whose kids are trying to emigrate), to the poor, whose jobs are disappearing as the economy stagnates, attachment to the regime and this style of government is weakening.

The only glue that binds all this together, is the fear of invasion or attack by the “Great Satan, and its acolyte, Little Satan” – The US and UK to you and me. After watching the debacle that is Iraq on its borders, the general public in Iran are willing to fight on behalf of a state that, on the whole commands less support than it has done in former years.

The Mullahs may be a lot of things, but politically stupid is not necessarily one of them, and they are as well aware of the problems that face their rule as anyone else. They are also aware that perceived threats from outside hold their population together, in much the same way as it does for other regimes e.g. North Korea, which follows a similar tactic.

Which brings me back to Iran’s projected image abroad. Externally the Iranians show Mobs burning effigies, and chanting 'death to' every time a mullah says so. They have public broadcasts of very hard line mullahs, claiming that all Islam’s woes are because of the “crusaders” i.e. Christian West, who should be driven from Muslim lands i.e. Any lands that were formerly Muslim (Israel, Spain, the Balkans etc etc), and women are portrayed only in black chadors and veils.

Internally, they highlight every international incident as an attack on Iran, from the UN resolutions on nuclear power, to allied activities on their borders with Iraq. Resistance is in the form of the Hizbollah groups in the Lebanon and Iraq, and aggressive attacks in the waters off the Iraq / Iran borders e.g. the seizure of British sailors. The US plays into this mindset by being openly belligerent towards the regime, and thus by extension, support them in power.

Mr Hitchens article covers this and more, and although I suspect he was hearing from more of the dissident population than he realised, rather than the working class backbone of the regimes support, there were never the less signs that changes are occurring.

He details the resistance and gradual breakdown of the strict dress codes on women; the tacit ignoring of places where young people could go to meet members of the opposite sex; the lack of interest in, and disrespect for the Mullahs behind their backs; the forced nature of the ritual Friday chants, with people having to be bussed in to make up the numbers; the general openness of the civic society, with a keenness to talk to westerners.

You can't help feeling that Islamic regimes follow the soviet models i.e.
  1. Initial idealism, enthusiasm and 'revolution', followed by
  2. Crackdowns and purges of "Class enemies" (i.e. easy targets such as minorities, or 'intellectuals'), start of a corrupt ruling elite, then,
  3. Foreign military adventurism, economic stagnation, birth of an underground resistance and apathy, with spasmodic repressions of the mainstream general population, then
  4. Breakdown and failure followed by one of two options.
  5. Either a counter revolution (Soviet models) or A retreat into hopeless 7 th century poverty (Islamic models?).
Afghanistan was an example of this latter option. If not for its support for Osama Bin Ladin, and subsequent US interest, it would still be a Taleban hell hole, and never likely to come out of it. I can't see Iran going that way as its too developed as a culture, unlike the ever backward Afghans.
I would guess that in Iran, we are witnessing the start of stage 3 (see Student purges), this means that we can expect to see
  • Big efforts to divert the population from the major internal problems by military activity abroad (Nuclear bomb, Lebanon and Iraq).

  • More 'crackdowns' on anyone 'subverting the regime' (Students, young women, unions, newspapers, middle classes etc).
However this is usually the beginning of the end, because all these victims have parents and families, and each 'little' arrest affects those families as well. This magnifies the contempt of the regime amongst the conservative majority, so accelerating the erosion of support, and bringing on stage 4.

There is one major fly in the ointment for any hope for reform. The Revolutionary Guard - for obvious reasons the theocratic regime set up an alternative to the traditional armed forces (like the soviet model) in the form of several very powerful band of fanatics.

The premier of these is the Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) with 125,000 active troops, boasts its own ground forces, navy and air force, and oversees Iran's strategic weapons. It also controls Basij Resistance Force (an Islamic volunteer militia of about 90,000 men and woman and a mobilisation capacity of nearly 1m), and the powerful Bonyads ('charitable' foundations), which run a considerable part of the Iranian economy, and its elite 15,000-strong overseas operations arm, the Quds Force.

The Bonyads are the Islamic equivalent of a state business / welfare system, of course it's administered in a political manner, if you are not a supporter of the regime, or are considered suspect, or the local mullah wants to punish you, then no help comes from the charity. For the eternally poor of Iran, this money doled out by the mosques (usually as food parcels) is the only thing between them and starvation, this means the recipients will march on the streets at the drop of a hat, to condemn external or internal enemies of the system. This partly explains the regimes ability to get mass 'popular' support at any time.

A formidable barrier to any change, which even the traditional armed forces of about 350,000 would be unlikely to beat. When US Presidents call for 'regime' change and the people to 'rise up' in Iran, they display a simplistic understanding of how the regime keeps itself in power. If they thought Soviet 1970, they might appreciate the unlikelihood of a popular uprising.

The main principle of governance in Iran is to keep each arm of government (or possible resistance) at each others throats, vying for power being dispensed from the Mosque, and the trick is in keeping the whole edifice in a state of internal tension and balance. No one group can be allowed to have too much power so that they feel able to resist commands. In the medieval period it would be a triumvirate of King, Church, and Nobles. The successful king would balance the other two's influence to maintain his own power.

The Iranian balancing act is something like this

All power stems from the Mullahs. The system is not unlike the communist parties rule in China

The Guards are also thought to control around a third of Iran's economy, through a series of subsidiaries and trusts. The Guards' engineering wing, Khatam-ol-Anbia (also known by an acronym, GHORB), has been awarded several multi-billion-dollar construction and engineering contracts, including the operation of Tehran's new Imam Khomeini international airport.

The Guards are also said to own or control several university laboratories, arms companies and even a car manufacturer. The Financial Times estimates that about 30% of their operations are business-related, generating an estimated $2bn (£975m) in annual revenues

Therein lies their potential weakness, money breeds corruption and corruption leads to decay.

On a different tack, an interesting side observation in the article was the contrast with Turkey. “We treat Turkey like a brother, when it is a militant Islamic state only kept secular by a disguised military dictatorship. And we treat Iran like a pariah, when it is largely a secular nation, kept Islamic only by an aging and discredited, but open, despotism.” As a long term visitor to Turkey, I can assure any reader that this truth about Turkey is accurate, and we would all be better being aware of this when considering their admittance into the EU.

Post Script: Ironically the moment I posted this blog, the Iranians launched their annual "dress crackdown" but make it more severe than it has been in years. They really are their own worst enemies!

Clothes crackdown in Iran.

Link to the full Peter Hitchens story:

Iran Blog

Christians Killed in Turkey

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Monday, 16 April 2007

Student Massacre in Virginia Tech University

The news is just coming through of a student massacre in Virginia Tech University in Virginia, US. The full facts are not yet known, but it appears that there may well have been two separate shooting incidents on the faculty within hours of each other, and a death toll in excess of 31, plus wounded. It appears to have been the work of one man, who had 'emotional' issues.

Firstly; my commiserations to any family, or friends of the dead, or injured who may stumble across this blog. It’s both a national and personal tragedy on a scale that it’s hard for the unaffected to imagine. Coming as it did on the 8th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado (surely no coincidence), it’s a particularly vivid reminder of the darker side to the American dream.

There have been other such massacres in the past from the 1920’s through to 1966, when the day after killing his wife and mother, gunman Charles Whitman opened fire from a tower on the campus of the University of Texas killing 14 people and injuring 31 others.

It should also be remembered that even in less gun orientated cultures these sorts of massacres have occurred, similar shootings have happened - in Erfurt, Germany, in 2002, in Osaka, Japan, in 2001, and in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996 - but they are far more common in America. There is also some suggestion that some of these non US killings are ‘copy cats’ drawing from the US events to “become famous”.

Random Gun Killings Are Not New ....

A brief list of some of the more infamous school killings:
  • August 1966: Charles Whitman kills 15 people and wounds 31 others from the top of a tower at the University of Texas campus in Austin, Texas.
  • October 1997: A 16-year-old boy stabs his mother, and then shoots dead two students at a school in Mississippi, injuring several others.
  • December 1997: A 14-year-old boy kills three students in Kentucky.
  • March 1998: At an Arkansas school, two boys aged 13 and 11 set off the fire alarm and kill four students and a teacher as they flee the building.
  • April 1998: A 14-year-old shoots dead a teacher and wounds two students in Pennsylvania.
  • May 1998: A 15-year-old shoots dead two students in a school cafeteria in Oregon.
  • June1998: Two adults are hurt in a shooting by a teenage student at a Virginia high school.
  • April 1999: Student gunmen Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, kill 12 other students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, before killing them selves.
  • May 1999: A student injures six pupils in a shoot-out in Georgia.
  • November 1999: A 13-year-old girl is shot dead by a classmate in New Mexico.
  • February 2000: A six-year-old girl is shot dead by a classmate in Michigan.
  • March 2001: A pupil opens fire at a school in California, killing two students.
  • January 2002: A student who had been dismissed from a Virginia law school kills the dean, a professor and a student, and wounds three others.
  • April 2003: A teenager shoots dead the head-teacher at a Pennsylvania school, and then kills himself.
  • May 2004: Four people are injured in shooting at a school in Maryland.
  • March 2005: A 16-year-old Minnesota high school student guns down nine people before killing himself.
  • November 2005: A student in Tennessee shoots dead an assistant principal and wounds two other administrators.
  • September 2006: Drifter Duane Morrison takes six high school girls hostage in Bailey, Colorado, and molests them. As police close in, he kills one girl and himself.
  • September 2006: A 15-year-old student kills his school's principal in western Wisconsin after telling another student "you better run".
  • October 2006: Milk truck driver Charles Roberts shoots dead five Amish girls and himself at a school in Pennsylvania.
  • April 2007: 31+, plus the gunmen (believed to be a student) die in a shooting incident at Virginia Tech University
This recent tragedy will no doubt raise the same old questions about gun controls in the US, and will no doubt lead to nothing much happening. I don’t presume to lecture anyone, least of all the US, on their rules on gun ownership, so I will restrict myself to some simple observations:
  • People in the US are 33 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than people in England (where gun ownership is less than 5%)
  • But the Swiss have a 95% gun ownership in the male population (for national defence purposes) … they really do practice the ‘right to bear arms in defence of the state’, and they have virtually no murders by gun.
This implies that it’s not simply the amount of guns available, but the mindset of the society that determines the use of guns in murders. It’s probably impossible to wean the US from guns simply because the idea of taking guns from the law abiding, whilst leaving them in the hands of those who are not, is neither equitable, nor sensible.
Therefore maybe the answer is to somehow address the culture of usage of guns. I would suggest that maybe, and I am no expert, that the following might make some difference:
  • Make it a mandatory life sentence to hold an unregistered gun, whether on their person or in their house or property, regardless of whether it’s your gun or not.
  • Make it a mandatory life sentence to carry or use a gun in pursuit of a felony, regardless of whether the gun is shown or used.
  • Tighten registration of a gun by federal law so that known felons cannot successfully apply to hold a licence.
  • Make it illegal for a minor to own, handle or have access to a gun.
It seems to me that this would not infringe on legitimate gun ownership or use under the constitution, but would make the illegal ownership, storage or usage a very much more risky proposition.

Even the most stupid of people are unlikely to carry, store or assist the holder of an unregistered gun, if it means prison for the rest of your life if you are caught. These sorts of measures might just change the culture behind the violent use of guns.

It’s certainly about time that the US law makers took some positive actions that might stop these kind tragic events, which as the list indicates a far too common for any healthy society.

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Is modern mental health treatment working?

Is modern mental health care effective or just mumbo jumbo? A recent radio debate had a number of callers describing their dependence upon medications to control their mental conditions. In fact many of them appeared to exhibit a drug addict’s dependence upon these drugs. “If I don’t get them I act desperately” was a typical sort of opinion. Oddly it was almost as though it was the tablet, not its content that was the need.

The placebo effect is when a number of people are given a ‘sugar’ drug as a trial control when the real drug is tested. Often the “cure” results for the placebo are as good as, or better than, the actual drug being tested.

This series of callers with their seeming dependence upon the tablet and not the drug, made me wonder exactly how far we have come since Freud rediscovered that people’s anxieties lessened when they talked about them to a therapist. Of course being a doctor, the person they had to talk to had to be a ‘therapist’.

I am not in anyway disparaging Freud’s attempts to organise the study and treatment of mental illness, or his discovery that repressed traumas, such as childhood abuse, often manifest in physical ailments later in life. These were important discoveries and insights; however I do wonder how far treatments have come in the last 100 yrs? The main tools of treatment today are drugs (anti-depressants) and therapy (talking), and how different is that from amulets and a chat with the local shaman?

There is an old English adage that “A trouble shared is a trouble halved”, which surely is the same as Freud’s discovery that talking about troubles eased the mental stress that they caused. In the pre-industrial period people lived in extended families, and naturally talked to them about their problems, but these extended families started to break up when people moved to cities for work, and the incidence of mental health problems appear to have grown ever since.

Before Freud:

In prehistoric times, there was no division between medicine, magic and religion. In the Stone Age there is evidence of trepanning the skull, and also that parts of the cut skull were used as amulets. In other words a medicine man (Shaman) would treat you with religious belief (drug), and a placebo (an amulet), that warded off further incidences of the illness as long as you believed.

The Egyptians refined this treatment of mental illness, and added occupational therapies and trips down the Nile. Not so different from today!

The Mesopotamians (according to the Code of Hammurabi), were the first to apparently separate mental illness and physical injuries, with Priests handling the mental illnesses. These priest-physicians, the Asu, used psychotherapy, and studied dreams which were regarded as showing the will of the gods. Every physician had his own god and every disease its own demon. Diseases and drugs were codified, and the doctor was responsible for his patient, whose life story was studied in a holistic approach. In other words the earlier periods of a patient’s life were seen as having impact in later illnesses.

The Jewish traditions in the Talmud, with Rabbi Asi in ancient Judea recommending that disturbed patients should talk freely about their worries, showed a similar approach (although the stoning of the ‘possessed’ may have limited this approach). In ancient Greece, either Solon or Thales (sources differ) gave the famous advice, 'Know thyself' which is surely a call to self analysis.

In fact the ancient Greeks showed remarkable understanding and tolerance of mental illness, with notable philosophers discussing aspects of this affliction.
  • Melampus mythically pioneered the use of white hellebore for treating delusions.
  • Hippocrates, described melancholia, postpartum psychosis, mania, phobias and paranoia, and was called as a psychiatric witness in trials. Hippocrates also believed that thoughts and feelings occur in the brain, rather than the heart as was often thought.
  • Plato proposed a view of the soul (psyche) as a charioteer driving two horses, one noble, the other driven by base desires. The charioteer struggles to balance their conflicting impulses. This is similar to Freud's theory of the superego, ego and id. Plato also discussed the origin of dreams, as well as the nature of sexual sublimation.
  • Asclepiades invented a swinging bed which had a relaxing effect on emotionally disturbed patients, found music helpful, and spoke out strongly against incarceration of mentally ill people. The sleep-therapy was in luxurious surroundings, taking great care with patients' diet and exercise.He disliked the term 'insanity', referring to 'passions of sensations', and differentiated between hallucinations and delusions. (Asclepiades also waged a strong campaign against bleeding, which in fact went on for another 1500 years).
In the 2nd century AD his follower, Soranus of Ephesus, said that patients should be kept in light, airy conditions, should not be beaten, kept in the dark or given poppy to make them drowsy, and he stressed the importance of convalescence and aftercare. He also took social background and culture into account and insisted on the importance of the doctor-patient relationship. 

Although he described mental distress in terms of an organic disturbance he treated it by psychological methods, minimising the use of drugs and other physical treatments. But he also suggested that mania should be treated with the alkaline waters of the town. These waters contained high levels of lithium salts. Lithium treatment was rediscovered for manic depression by John Cade, an Australian psychiatrist, in the 1940s.

The Muslim ruled world was more benign during this period as it had no fixed concept of the devil and demons at this time. Rhazes (Al-Razi) was chief physician at Baghdad hospital where there was a psychiatric ward, and, because the Arabs had no fear of demons, patients were kindly treated. They used the writings of Galen and Aristotle to guide them, and appear to have made use of forms of behaviour therapy.

The early Romans largely had held a similar outlook to the Greeks (although there were a few advocates of whipping, such as Cornelius Celsus) and also applied electric shock treatments (via eels). Many of the Roman methods of diagnosis as devised by Cicero were carried on in England by monks until the dissolution of the Monasteries (sadly this event was a backward step in the treatment of mental illness in England for the next 400 years). It was about this time that witch burnings started to come back to the fore, and mental illness was treated with violence across Europe for the next 300 yrs.

Bedlam and the other degradations that were inflicted upon the mentally ill were all by products of the “Renaissance” with its religious wars and Christian fear of demonic possessions. There were a few enlightened voices such as Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), who noted the aggression that often lies behind depression, and proposed a therapeutic programme of exercise, music, drugs and diet, with a stress on the importance of discussing problems with a close friend, or, if one is not available, with a doctor, but they were drowned out in the view that treating people with violence and like animals was the way forward.

Anyone who has seen “The Madness of King George” will have an idea of how poorly even the rich mentally ill were treated at this time. In fact it was on the back of this period of thought that modern psychiatry has developed. Had the understanding and treatment of mental illness remained as it had been in the kinder periods described above, we may never have gone down the road we are on now.

In Africa today, traditional doctors in Africa can only qualify for their profession by first having undergone convulsions and sickness themselves and a thorough exposure of their dreams. They are still used by over half the population even in South Africa the most developed of African nations.

This brings me back to treatment and its success. The evidence that we have any more success in treatment with our drugs and therapy than the ancients, is not really there. The traditional healer of South Africa, employing methods that would have not been out of place in Europe in the Roman times, and that would have been enlightened during the 16th to 19th century, appear to be at least as successful in curing mental stress as our ‘modern’ approach.

Maybe in the future, our permanent dispensation of drugs as a suppressant of the conditions, rather than as a cure, will be considered as the same sort of barbaric practises, as we now look up on the treatments of the 18th century? Certainly some of the early pre renaissance pioneers of the treatment of mental health illnesses would probably consider that little progress had been made.

Therapy via a stranger has all but replaced friends and family, and we are now creating a whole group of drug dependent, mentally ill people who are not cured; they are just controlled by the drugs, or rather their own expectations of what taking the drugs will do. 

Rosenhan Experiment - research into the effectiveness of Psychiatric evaluations.

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Friday, 6 April 2007

Dreamberry Wine

Many moons ago, I used to do the front covers (indeed one of my old covers appears on the bottom of this blog page), for a Sci-Fi paperback mailing list called "Dreamberry Wine".

It was run by a mate called Mike Don, who was once described as the "Anarchist Bookseller" of Manchester.

His dealings on the Manchester scene were many and varied, including a journalistic scoop that was picked up nationally by The Guardian, in which he exposed James Anderton's (The then Chief Constable of Greater Manchester), purchase of some somewhat dubious police equipment, to whit, sten guns.

This was during the Thatcher years, when left wing splinter groups were rampant in the North of England and 'paranoia' was the vogue. This was the period when many Lefties supported a 'fascist' military dictator, General Galtieri in Argentina (even with the 30,000 'Disappeared' left wingers that the regime had perpetrated), rather than UK forces in the Falkland Islands. Somehow, apparently it was the UK who lived in a "fascist dictatorship", because the stupid public kept "voting the wrong way" ... (isn't that always the way with the proletariat, they have to be told what's good for them and who to vote for. Where's 'Uncle Joe' when you need him?).

I can't say that Mike and I's politics ever agreed very much, but he was not one of those who subscribed to the nonsense about the Falklands, and in any event it didn't stop us having a pint or two, and discussing politics, Blakes Seven and our shared interest in Sci-Fi.

After an anonymous comment on the original blog, from someone about "The Albert", the pub of choice for the 'intelligensia of Rusholme' (Well, it had a Chess team and two quiz teams, that counted as intelligensia in that area!).

I am adding this next couple of paragraphs and a couple of photo's (the only two I could find) about the pub.

The place where Mike and I drank, was 'The Albert' on the corner of Walmer St/Albert St. This pub is described by the University of Manchester Students Union (UMSU) with the only comment "Real ale and Irishmen", they also describe some of the other pubs in the area in similar terms.

  • The Huntsman - "Try it once, apparently"
  • The Welcome - "The most un-welcoming pub (more so than The Huntsman) - expect piano to stop playing and everyone stare at you as you walk in" and "Unwritten rule: Locals only"
The other pubs are treated more gently, LOL, but they are only student reviews, so 'sod em'.

Anyway at that time, in the 1980's, The Albert was popular with a lot of ex students who had never gone home to rural Somerset, or where ever it was they had come from, and had continued drinking in the pub of their youth. It also had 'a lot of Irishmen', who used it as an informal building site recruitment office.

This eclectic mix got on reasonably well, with a few cross borderers like myself mixing happily enough with both camps (They tended to sit in distinct areas of the pub). The whole establishment was run over by a rather urbane Irish landlord called Gerry who used a cigarette holder, and rather reminded one, of the camp comedian 'Larry Grayson' (for those old enough to remember him).

On the non Irish side, the pub was populated by and large with Social workers, University Professors, and other welfare employees i.e. They all worked for non profit organisations at the tax payers expense (including me at that time), and who, by and large, followed 'right on' (The pre PC term) politics of the left. I needless to say was not of that persuasion, hence the often heated political discussions. It was this motley crew that filled the chess team and the two quiz teams.

One of the Irish regulars "Mick Reynolds" was an "All Irish" finalist and had a certain fame and glory on that account in the bar. I am informed that the pub has changed landlords a number of times since then, and that Mike Don is no longer a regular but pops in occasionally.

Anyway while I was trawling the net I came across Mikes name, and I tracked him down (isn't the Internet great!) and got back in contact. He's still selling books, and produces a book list about once a quarter. I wasn't surprised to find that he hadn't exactly embraced the Internet, and was still hankering for a one finger type writer and photocopiers, but he now apparently had a steam driven PC of ancient vintage, and variable performance.

Taking my life in my hands I undertook to drag Mike as close to the 21st century as he was prepared to go, "leading a horse to water, and drinking" comes to mind, by setting him up with a web page (it's really easy with a googlemail account). This turned into an epic of a kind I wasn't expecting, because Mike only wanted something that was easily editable and based upon his listing formats. I had originally set up the web pages in table format because it was so neat, however editing the pages in this format was a bit cumbersome, and required an understanding of Tables in Excel or Word, that I gathered Mike was not keen to acquire.

So I had to do it again, and of course I kept thinking of improvements (Top Tip: Keep it simple and clean, don't do a 'Homer' and load your web page with every moving icon you can find!), but eventually I settled on a few external links, and a number of interlinked web pages. It's basic, and the formatting is not unlike the magazines (which should cheer Mike up immensely), but it does the job, and who knows Mike may go on to develop skills in this area and make it tidier.

Anyway, if you are into Sci-Fi, and want a regular supplier of well priced used paperbacks or hardbacks etc, then press on the link below and 'Make Mikes Day'.

Mike Don's Contact Details


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A middle aged orange male ... So 'un' PC it's not true....