Thursday, September 23, 2010

Another Rant

For those lucky enough to be unaware of him, Kevin Myers is a columnist for The Irish Independent newspaper whose idea of 'opinion' is ugly, reactionary bilge, filled with coarse, hysterical hyperbole and belligerent, sarcastic denunciations of anyone who disagrees with him even slightly. Usually, his bullying drivel is hardly worth commenting on - he's one of those writers who seems to feed on tiresomely pointless provocation - but this week's column contains a particularly poisonous misrepresentation of the facts, even for him, so I feel I cannot let it go unchallenged.
Like so many right-wing loudmouths, Myers has a venomous hatred of 'liberals' and 'political correctness', which he uses to refer to anyone he happens to object to at any particular time. In this article (see here) he asks: Just whose moral guidance would you prefer? That of the Pope, or Stephen Fry? His central point seems to be that Fry is a hypocrite for protesting about the Pope's visit to Britain, because he hasn't protested about visits from other heads of state who espouse equally intolerant doctrines, including Jacob Zuma from South Africa (until we get to the end of his article, where he goes into an all-purpose rant about secularism and about how we need a "moral compass", which should be provided by the Pope and other religious types).
Can you spot the central flaw in his argument? It is that the heads of state from South Africa, Russia, Saudi Arabia, or wherever, cannot be said to have any global influence, however odious their domestic policies, and certainly cannot have any influence on policy in the UK. By contrast, the Pope is the head of an worldwide organisation which encourages its followers to put loyalty to itself before loyalty to the state, and which, if allowed, would enthusiastically force everyone in the world to bend the knee to its doctrines, just like it did in Ireland for all those miserable decades. It is also an organisation which views homosexuality as evil, and encourages its followers around the globe to do likewise. Stephen Fry is gay, so is it not fair that when an organisation of global reach labels him, because of his sexuality, as evil, that he protest against it? (This is, of course, not the only reason he objects to the Church; see the video below for his very eloquent defense of his position.)
But that's not what inspired this article. It is Myers' breathtakingly inaccurate and hateful assertion, while talking about the church's opposition to contraception in AIDS-ridden Africa, that:
I could equally declare that the legislators who removed the legal ban on sexual relations between men in the USA brought about 400,000 deaths by AIDS. You might not like it, but that is the indisputable truth: after liberalisation, homosexual men began to behave largely as conservative opponents of that liberalisation had warned they would, to much liberal derision (mine included). As it turned out, the consequences were far worse than predicted. Of course, no letter-writer to 'The Guardian' would ever dream of declaring what was actually true -- that sexual liberalisation helped bring about a human catastrophe. Why? Because liberal laws on sexuality are deemed to be 'good' laws, no matter their consequences, whereas Catholic laws on human sexuality are necessarily 'bad' laws, even if their consequences are largely identical.
Where does one begin with such a vile and misleading comment, assuming that Myers is talking about the devastation caused by AIDS in gay communities in places like San Francisco in the early eighties? To claim "that sexual liberalisation helped bring about a human catastrophe" is preposterous, for he wilfully ignores that, in the late seventies, almost nobody knew that AIDS existed! AIDS was a catastrophe for many, but it was not a "consequence" of lifting the ban on homosexuality, any more than being killed by a out-of-control car is a "consequence" of walking on a footpath! There was no reason to believe, in the 1970s, that removing the ban on homosexuality was anything other than admirable and enlightened; as I said before, nobody could have predicted AIDS was around the corner. Conservatives objected to such sexual liberalisation not out of concern for gay men's health; it was because (for whatever reason) they opposed the very idea of homosexuality being accepted by society. Besides, being criminalised has never stopped gay men from having sex, has it? Although it has certainly made their lives more painful and difficult. But, and correct me if I'm wrong, it wasn't until 1982 that the connection was made between the abnormally high illness rate in seemingly healthy gay men and their lifestyle.
Is Myers saying that it was wrong to decriminalise homosexuality on the grounds that legislators should have taken into account a disease which they had no reason to suspect existed? Or that gay men should thank conservatives of the time for objecting to this law, on the same grounds? What kind of nonsense is this? The media at the time liked to portray AIDS as a "gay plague", but in 1982, "[h]ealth authorities soon realised that nearly half of the people identified with the syndrome were not homosexual men. The same opportunistic infections were also reported among haemophiliacs, heterosexual intravenous drug users, and Haitian immigrants" (see here). And what happened in gay communities once the nature of AIDS was understood? They put rubber sheaths over their members and went back to enjoying their sexuality, in the knowledge that they could not be thrown in jail for doing so. And more power to them, I say! I'm open to correction here, but the same laws still exist in the US today, don't they? But the AIDS epidemic among gay men, as it existed in the early 1980s, is now merely a cautionary and tragic history lesson.
To claim that the Catholic Church's objection to the use of condoms in Africa, in an era in which the method of transmission of AIDS is understood fully, is anything other than reprehensible, is misguided to say the least. Condoms are not infallible - nothing is - but in the battle against AIDS they are a vital tool to prevent its spread, and should be encouraged, along with abstinence and faithfulness to one partner only. To fail to do so is not just irresponsible; it is despicable. And I do not object to the Catholic prohibition on condoms in Africa simply because it is the official position of the Catholic Church, based as it is on their twisted and puritanical view of sexuality, and because as a secular atheist and occasional Guardian reader I automatically and instantly object to anything the Catholic Church ever says on any subject. Being able to think for myself and weigh up evidence, I disagree with it because I believe it is a dangerous and ill-advised strategy (and, by the way, it's not a 'law') that will result in people dying needlessly.
Let us also point out the most laughable aspect of Myers' article: that we should turn to the Pope for moral guidance! I'm sorry, but the words "fifty" and "year" and "cover-up" and "child rape" just do keep coming to mind, don't they? And these words are indelibly linked with "Catholic" and "dominance" and "Ireland" in my mind, seeing as we were under the thumb of the Vatican for such a long time. No matter how often the Pope wants to lecture a secular atheist like myself on morality, the beam in his own eye will always be greater than the mote in mine! And Myers seems to be taking the approach of a lot of Catholic apologists here, in that he chooses to completely ignore this major aspect of the Church's recent history. No matter how thoughtful or laudatory the Pope's teachings on other matters may be, and by all accounts he is a fine theologian, this festering, poisonous moral lapse at the very heart of the church will invalidate everything he says until such time as he and his fellow clergymen make full restitution for their crimes. 
A while back I wrote a post (here) about the tactics the Catholic Church uses to justify its appalling record on child abuse, but there was one I missed which is becoming more and more prevalent. This is, as Kevin Myers demonstrates, to attack anyone who objects to the Church or the Pope as an intolerant secularist, and to claim that secularism is somehow responsible for the supposed decline in moral values in society (because Ireland in the 1950s was such a fucking moral place, wasn't it?). Ignoring the fact that, by and large, the Catholic Church has shown nothing but intolerance throughout its 2000-year history for anyone who questioned its dogmas or, more crucially, its power, most atheists and secularists that I know are entirely tolerant of other people's faith. I should know; my partner is a Catholic! Some are not, I admit, but any intolerance on the secular side can be matched above and beyond the call of duty on the religious side. It's a smear campaign, of course; Catholic apologists will dig up the most fervent, fanatically anti-religious types and insist that they are entirely representative of anyone who has any kind of issue with the church, thus enabling them to dismiss any valid argument brought against themselves as "secular intolerance". Well, I have no problem with religion of any kind as long as it respects my choice not to worship at its altars and doesn't insist that its beliefs are enshrined in law, but this view has never been shared by the Catholic Church, which has always sought to force everyone within its orbit to behave according to its strictures. But here's the man himself, Stephen Fry, discussing why he believes the Catholic Church is not a force for good in the world (and my apologies for borrowing one or two of his ideas in the above). Tell me if you spot any secular intolerance. 
An update: a letter to the Irish Independent here

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Purple Mushroom

My partner was walking in the same glade where I took the previous mushroom photos (in the last post but one), and noticed this little beauty poking through the undergrowth. The image has not been treated in any way: it really is that colour! Imagine the appearance of a soup made from those (assuming, of course, that they are not bowel-shatteringly poisonous...) (I am aware that there is an extreme rude meaning to the phrase 'purple mushroom', but I'll not go into it here.)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Cycling in County Wexford

Being too poor to afford membership of a gym or a swimming pool, I recently got on my bike (as they say) and took up cycling the local roads as a form of exercise. This activity, although physically rewarding, is not without perils. The following guidelines for cycling safely on Ireland's inconstant country roads applies only to daylight perambulation; cycling by night on the same unlit roads is only for those who feel they have little left to live for; unlike in well-lit urban centres, the enveloping rural darkness will not be illuminated by the brightest clip-on torch on your handlebars, and even the most brilliantly lit cyclist runs the almost inevitable risk of ending up as a nasty stretched stain on the tarmac.
When venturing forth in daylight, you must firstly, of course, take into account the weather. The last few months have, by and large, been exceptionally pleasant and warm, but you know in your heart, as sure as rain follows the sunshine, that ... er ... the rain will follow the sunshine, and you stands a good chance of being soaked through on your excursion. Rain gear in a backpack is a must, for if you wear it and the sun is glowing like a 1000w bulb, you will rapidly become lathered in sweat and pass out with heatstroke. Of course, when the deluge starts with little warning and visibility is reduced to a few feet by the sheets of rain, by the time you've leapt off your bike, opened your backpack, wrestled your coiled-up rain gear out of it, picked up the map that fell out and began transforming into illegible clotted paper sludge, and got your over-trousers and plastic jacket on, you'll be sodden anyway. Besides, for me, wearing glasses means that my visibility will be minimal in any case, rendering progress difficult. I remember once in Dublin, the rain was sheeting at such an angle that it went over the tops of my spectacles and beat directly on my eyeballs like little lasers. What fun... Surface water will also render certain parts of the roads slippy and lethal, especially if hurtling downhill. "A bad wet death", as Sergeant Pluck would say, could be the outcome, so caution is advised. On rainy days it can be hard to tell whether the puddle you're heading towards is simply a skin of water on the tarmac or a submerged pothole; you'll find out as it severely dents your front tyre and hurls you over the handlebars into the ditch.
The heat which we've recently enjoyed has been wonderful; the only drawback while cycling, aside from the risk of dehydration (bring ample water) and occasional blindness (wear sunglasses if you can), is the propensity of insects to fly into your face or, more disconcertingly, into your open mouth. Trying to maintain control of your bike while going downhill with an angry wasp lodged in your throat is not recommended. And on sunny days, the luxuriant vegetation creates deep pools of shadows which may hide potholes, so constant vigilance is mandatory.
Next, there is the roads. One has two choices: the main roads (where one risks being killed by speeding motorists) and the side roads (where one risks being killed by speeding motorists). The main roads have the advantage of being wide (more room for cars to pull out when passing you) and having (relatively) good verges. They also tend to be straighter, thus giving the passing motorists more time to see you, and either take evasive action or throw rubbish and insults out the window as they fly past. One may at times have to pull out to avoid roadkill, which can range from the standard mashed rats and rabbits to the rarer badger, cat, and, occasionally, stray dog (I passed a handsome and very dead sheepdog lying stiff and cold on the main road to Wexford two days ago, a sight which depressed me inordinately). Side roads, on the other hand, are quite often appallingly surfaced, with open potholes, crudely filled potholes, crumbling verges, hidden entrances, and overgrown hedgerows, which lash the bare arms with briars and nettles as you cycle past. They are also fiendishly winding and home to hairpin bends, a fact which doesn't prevent the locals from driving at ridiculously high speeds. There is also the ever-present danger of half-blind elderly motorists pulling put of their hidden driveways right in front of you, then muttering vaguely "what was that?" after you've smashed into the side of their car, gone head over heels through the air, and been embedded in the road like a hairy pancake.
It must also be remembered that on rural roads local dogs will chase your bike and sometimes try to latch on to your leg; amusing if it's a terrier, not so amusing if it's an rottweiler. Make sure your water-bottle is clipped to your bike and has a nozzle; that way you can spray them in the face, something most dogs hate. Never oiling your brakes can also work; the unmerciful screech as you slow down will frighten off all but the most determined. In the case where neither works and the horrid little brute is trying to tear a chunk out of your exposed calf, a boot in the face will usually do the job, although it's not to be admired.
Remember at all times that you are an unexpected sight on most Irish roads, especially of the main ones. The average God-fearing Irish(wo)man cannot conceive of travelling anywhere except by car, and believes that bikes and buses are for people who are too young, too old, or too poor to afford one. Women on bikes in particular can occasionally be subject to crude exhortations or outright abuse from passing boneheads, which explains why they are a very rare sight indeed (except on Sundays, when various sporting groups take to the roads). And remember a story of what happened to a friend of mine several years ago: while she was out cycling with a companion on a bright summer afternoon in the hard shoulder, a motorcyclist decided to give them as scare by driving between them. Unfortunately, he misjudged the distance between the two, hit off the girl on the outside, lost control of his motorbike, and slammed into my friend, throwing her over the handlebars for some distance and knocking her unconscious. She was fine afterwards, but still bears a small scar on her forehead as a result of this irresponsible dimwit. Happy cycling, y'all!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Wexford Sights (XVIX): Mushrooms

There's a wood near me which is little visited and therefore fairly undisturbed, and the recent rain, combined with the still-warm weather, has lead to an eruption of mushrooms, some of which are shown above. I wonder which of them are edible; I imagine the red one isn't! Note the slug in the bottom two photos, heading towards the mushroom with breakfast in mind, no doubt. The top image is of an unusual (to me) tree fungus, a mushroom growing around a lump on the bark which looks disconcertingly like a gnome's urinal. The place was also alive with industrious spiders, one of whom I captured brooding at the centre of his web.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Wexford Sights (XVIII): After The Rain

Some photos taken after the recent rain. The top and bottom images are of spiderwebs adorned with little droplets of water. I'd have posted more, but the macro lens on my camera is acting up. An addition, as I sit here on this dark windy night wondering if the internet single will last long enough to post it: there's a guy called James Kirby who goes under the moniker of V/Vm, and specialises in deranged remixes of popular songs, transforming them into often nightmarish reflections. He's best known for his very creepy version of Chris de Burgh's awful 'Lady in Red' (found on YouTube here), but the following made me laugh out loud in the way that it so brilliantly undermines the original:

If you're interested, there's more on V/Vm here.