Thursday, 14 June 2007

Vodka Sarkoff

Had (teatotaller) Sarkozy indulged in a little vodka during the talks with Putin which preceded this press conference? Either way, the result is positive: he seems quite a lot more likeable than usual, and not even those few and brave Galliards who are holding out against the Sarko wave will be too scared to share a Vodka Sarkoff.

(On the negative side, though, see the last blog entry on Sarkozy's moving uncompromisingly towards tightening immigration laws in France, and planning to deport 25.000 illegal immigrants this year)

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

A Scandinavian Welcome to Iraqi Refugees

All over the world, Scandinavia remains the lefty's short-hand for paradise. Personally, I never envied Adam and Eve – they seem to me to have been leading lives best described by another lefty favourite, Karl Marx, when he sweepingly condemned the "idiocy of rural life". So, if Scandinavia really is like the Garden of Eden, then I don't envy Lars Larsson and Søren Sørensson much. Innumerable numbingly boring childhood summers spent in Sweden have, in any case, long since confirmed my intuition…

But Sweden does have its positive sides (as, I suppose, must paradise). When my family was thrown out of Poland on the height of a hysterical witchhunt in 1968, only few countries offered to welcome my parents and grandparents. Foremost amongst them, for no particular reason other than their niceness, was Sweden – where part of my family has lived ever since, in unexcited Scandinavian bliss.

Since then, some things have changed in Sweden. In particular, the Swedes themselves seem rather less enamoured with their own system than my friends in the US and other places. After all, a year ago, they voted in a non-Social Democratic government for – virtually – the first time since 1932.

Yet, as a story by Ivar Ekman in today's International Herald Tribune seems to confirm, their change of government has not, so far, brought about an end to Swedish niceness. In 2005, 9.000 Iraqis fled their ravaged home for Sweden – that is over 40 % of the number welcomed in the entire industrialised world. In the current year, around 20.000 are expected to find their cold home in Sweden. Just for comparison, the United States, which, arguably at least…, has more to do with the reason why Iraquis are fleeing in the first place than pacifist Sweden, is planning to accept a mere 7.000.

As the United States and France (under Sarkozy's enthusiastic leadership) are gearing up to tighten rules for immigration, it is important to remember that the right to a safe haven must remain absolute. This is true for every country, though it is particularly shaming for a state to slam its doors in the face of the needy if its own policies – however well-intended – have contributed to the crisis.

Western democracies must be based on respect for all humans, no matter what their race, religion – or nationality. We all must thank Sweden for reminding us of this. What is more, as the US and France debate how humane to be towards those most desperately in need of their help in the future, we needn't worry about the negative aspects of paradise: both of them are too far off from Sweden's idyll to become boring anytime soon.

St. Paris of Hilton?

Despite having previously suspected that hotel heiress Paris Hilton was indirectly responsible for the Virginia Tech massacre, recent developments have led me to believe that she might actually be on course to becoming a saint and that - in anticipation of her no doubt imminent martyrdom - thought should be given to petitioning the Holy See for her canonisation.

Of course, there are some abominable cynics whose minds are clouded by sin who would protest that she is nothing more than an excessively wealthy, spoiled little woman with eating problems and an unpleasant propensity for making amateur pornography. For the enlightened, however, it is perfectly plain that her early life of privilege and pleasure is merely the prelude to the life of sanctity and Godliness which is clearly her destiny. Consider the evidence. The biographies of some of the earliest saints display certain irrefutable similarities which only the blind could doubt. Is her remarkable wealth and apparently extraordinary lack of morals really an indicator of her permanent distance from God? Far from it! Her background is typical of ancient saintly women: if we look at the no-doubt well-known St. Pelagia, this is perfectly clear. According to the writings of the Desert Fathers, Pelagia was a"beautiful but dissolute actress... at the height of her renown, with many lovers, jewels and servants." Ring any bells?

As Ruth Mazo Karras has pointed out in her study of prostitute saints, the dissolute youth of female saints merely "provided the background against whichpenitence stood in stark contrast." The wanton abandonment of Pelagia, Thais and Mary Magdalene, for example, served as the logical prelude to their later transformation into saintly figures. Translating this to our modern case-study, it is plain that Paris Hilton's night-time rompings in hotel rooms not merely fails to impugn her claim to saintliness, but actually recommends it. This is apparent when we turn to recent developments. In July 2006, Paris announced that she was voluntarily embracing chastity. This, it is plain, is the first step on the slow path to sainthood and is, again, typical of the type. It reflects a willingess to reject her past and a desire to embrace virtue, albeit unconsciously.

That this was indeed the first step ina path to saintliness is confirmed by the most recent miracle story in Paris' life. In an interview given over the telephone from prison, Paris declared that her incarceration was a "message from God." For the sceptic, this might again seem to be implausible, but it is perfectly in keeping with the imagery and history of Christian spirituality. Remember Ps. 103: "De profundis..." etc. Recall also the life and writings of Boethius: it was in prison that this former official of Theodoric the Great composed his most famous meditation, and he uses theimage of incarceration to reflect the tomb that is the worldly body, and to emphasise the raising of the soultowards God. That Paris Hilton has indeed been given a message by God in prison is not merely far from unlikely, but is indeed even plausible!

If some still need persuading, further evidence can be adduced from her music videos. In 'Nothing in this World' (a title itself redolent of early Christian spirituality), she appears as a saviour-figure, rescuing the downtrodden schoolboy from the oppression of his contemporaries and giving him hope. He reaches bliss through her co-operation in his prayers, as the video clearly demonstrates. In 'Jealousy', she appears to tap into some of the motifs which appear in records of the persecution of early saints. Dealing with the jealousy of a friend in the song, she ambitiously engages with the thorny issue of one of the deadly sins, and relates how the envy of her chum opened her up to all sorts of troubles. The victim of enmity, Paris is made to appear "like the Devil" ands he tells that though she was "always happy", her friend was only happy "when the world was opening up my scars". "Jealousy," she concludes, "is such an evil thing". Even the briefest of analyses clearly demonstrates that this is both a cleverly constructed attack on a deadly vice, but is also reflective of the suffering of early saints. We may recall, for example,that Sulpicius Severus records how St. Martin of Tours was persecuted by envious bishops, but prevailed.

Of course, as St. Augustine points out, it will beimpossible for us mere mortals to be 100% certain that Paris Hilton is indeed a member of the Heavenly Cityof God in this life, but it is nevertheless true that all of the available evidence points towards her indeed being a modern saint in the making. Given the cynicism of our age, however, I suppose that many people will only be persuaded when she enduresher inevitable martyrdom. She has, however, already prophetically pointed to the fact that she shares some similarities with Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana,so I think there is room for hope.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty has died, Friday, at the age of 75.

His importance stemmed partly from the fact that he was read by scholars in so many disciplines. From the perspective of political theory, it is deeply sad to note that one of the last defining philosophers of the post-war period has now left us to our own, inferior, musings. And though many or even most disagreed with him, few would doubt that his work was among the most pleasurable and thought-provoking in the field.

My web search for an adequate obituary has yielded this, this and this meagre result. If you've found better, please let us know.

Taking a Risk with Children

This interesting article by Helene Guldberg over on Spiked convincingly argues that children are as much in danger from parents and government officials who want to keep them too safe, than they are from the actual risks out there. I tend to agree.

It also seems to me that there is a significant cultural difference here between the more risk-taking continent on the one hand and the more risk-averse UK and (more extreme still) US on the other hand. If so, this would be an interesting reverse-image of attitudes towards financial risk in these countries.

Also, if we put the same point differently: throughout the West people in the last decades have become increasingly willing to take financial risk. At the same time, they seem to become less willing to stomach other kinds of risks - as demonstrated not only in child-related safety issues and health scares, but also the increasingly large damages awarded in law suits about accidents. Is an extreme form of financial individualism and risk-aversion about personal safety logically connected?

Please send your thoughts!