Bad Grief

Certainly there is some rage against the idea of God, but the idea that theists are stupid because they’re theists is a stupid idea. Anyone who cares to could find out in about five seconds that there have been many theists who were frighteningly intelligent. There are many now. I don’t think belief in God is a question of intelligence to begin with, but I do think it’s a question of values. This isn’t a criticism. In the amusing documentary, Religulous, Bill Maher said to a few trucker-Christians that he considered atheism a luxury. He was right. Atheism is a luxury.

This is why atheism is a luxury: Continue reading

Graceful Monstors

In the genre of horror fiction, many authors have touched upon the same subject matter and populated their works with similar characters. Serial-killers, Cop-killers, Child-killers: they have featured in hundreds of novels and films over the years. The same is true of Lovecraftian demons and spirits. Stories of haunting and possession are as old as history, and the deformed, shape-shifting and deceitful entities that are responsible for those haunting tales, have themselves featured many times across the work of authors whose lives have been separated by centuries. There appears to be nothing original under the sun.

Some writers do have an original take on an old story or character type, though. For example, in his novel, Cell, Stephen King has battalions of flesh eating zombies doing some nasty things to the population of Boston.  Zombie tales and movies tend to keep to a standard pattern: zombie eats you alive, you then become a zombie yourself, and you eat your mum or another dispensable support character. No explanation tends to be offered why the dead have decided to rise – or why they are so hungry – and the main plot of these stories revolves around the survival attempts of a few desperate groups of humans. Some of these elements are true of Cell, but there is one remarkable and original difference to King’s Zombies: they are alive.

The un-dead – or phoners, as King calls them – have received a mysterious signal through their mobiles which sends them violently insane. Their behaviour is similar to run-of-the-mill un-dead flesh-eaters from books and movies of the past, but only up to a point. King soon takes his readers away from the conventional as his story unfolds.

The movie Wolf Creek is another example of giving a tired format a decent revival. A serial killer, roaming at his leisure across Western Australia, kills tourists visiting the Wolf Creek meteorite crater. The psycho-is-chasing-you format has been done in dozens of movies – hundreds, more likely – though in this film we have a refreshing change. The psycho is a decent bloke. There are no funny facial ticks, no talking to voices in his head; the killer is played straight by John Jarrett, and is much scarier for it. Even at his most violent, Mick Taylor, Jarrett’s character, never falls into parody: Jarrett plays the part as if he was influenced by no other performance on stage or screen – a remarkable achievement, actually.

Wolf Creek has another piece of originality going for it: there is no double-take used by the director. This shock technique features in so many horror films that its effectiveness has been diluted. We all have seen this at work. The camera stands behind a scared character; they look left, and the camera looks with them. There is never a baddie to be seen. Then, they look right – again the camera follows to show the madman is nowhere around. And then – guess what – they look left again and the psycho’s face is inches from theirs. You never saw that coming.

Actually, there was a time when cinema audiences were scared to death by that now much over-used technique. The double-take was first used by director David Lean in his version of Great Expectations (1946). It was used to introduce Pip to Magwitch, and, famously, to introduce Magwitch to the audience. It worked brilliantly. So much so, less original directors still use it

Murderous psychopaths belong to no-one – they can’t be copyrighted, so there is no quality control in place. The same is true of all types of horror villain and monster. If you get lucky, you watch or read something that catches the attention because it breaks the normal way of telling that story or presenting those characters.

Richard Matheson’s Vampire novel, I am legend (1954) has a protagonist who is considered a terrorist – an outcast, because he is in a minority (a minority of one, as it happens) and the rest of the population of Los Angeles is a blood-sucker. The novel offers the theory that vampires are the next evolutionary step for mankind. This is better than presenting them as Satan’s disciples on earth, who avoid garlic and drink virgins’ blood. That version of vampires has been overdone.

But then vampires are the one of the most popular horror novel or movie creatures; it is not surprising there is so much pap printed on paper and celluloid about the fictional blood-suckers; but, there are writers who offer an intriguing and original take on this type of story.

Anne Rice is one of them. Her novel, Interview with the vampire, (1976) was a best-seller, and the first of eleven novels collectively known as The Vampire Chronicles. The series tells of the adventures of Lestat De Lioncourt, a French aristocrat and actor, who was kidnapped and turned into a vampire in 17th Century Paris.

Lestat is posh but penniless. He ventures into the big city with Nicholas, his companion to expand their horizons and make their fortune. Nicholas, a talented violinist, takes work in the orchestra pit of a theatre while Lestat, ever the show off, treads the boards. Life is perfect. They take-in the sumptuous city: the people; the wine; the food – they indulge their passions, but Lestat becomes un-easy at the sight of a curious white face in the audience each night. Someone is stalking him.

Rice offers a mix of Dickens blended with Dorian Gray. There is the overpopulated metropolis with the detritus-ridden underbelly, and slopping about upon its surface are the beautiful people; drowning in decadence and drunk on wine and passion.

Lestat, for all his foppish, Wildean extravagance, has a killer’s blood pumping through his veins. Before eloping to Paris, he killed a pack of wolves that had been slaughtering people from his home village. On horseback, with his beloved Mastiffs by his side, he hunted and killed them. Doing so cost him his horse and his dogs, but the starving villagers and their cattle had a chance to make it through a cruel winter. He was a hero, but the folly of setting off alone demonstrated his maverick side. It is that – along with his physical beauty – that captures the attention of Magnus, the vampire with the ghostly white face who has been stalking him.

It is here that Rice begins to deviate from the norm as far as tradition and popularity in vampire stories go. Vampires in her world are capable of love and passion, they are capable of guilt and sadness – they are monsters, they are un-dead – but why should that mean they must be mindless demons, automatically slaying any human they spot? Rice’s vampires choose how they behave. Too many times in horror fiction vampires are portrayed as being enslaved by the insatiable thirst for blood; they kill because of it. It’s their addiction and their food. Not so with Anne Rice.

The thirst is nothing more than a demonic craving, leading to madness if not slacked, but not required for continued existence. Her monsters are a human / spirit hybrid; the spirit element craves the blood, but the human side – the physical body – no longer requires nourishment. As her vampires age, slowly the thirst subsides until the ancient ones, those at least a thousand years old, no longer need it at all. And with age comes ever increasing powers.

Magnus is one of the ancient ones. He chooses Lestat as his heir after murdering hundreds of similar looking victims. Lestat has the perfect balance of beauty and aggression and Magnus, after taunting him in his dreams – calling him wolf-killer – takes him to his lair and turns him, and does so, much against Lestat’s will.

Rice’s hero continues his life, but as a vampire. He still visits his favourite places and enjoys the culture of the time. He is frequently found in the theatres, cafes and strolling along the banks of the Seine. The circumstances of his existence have changed, but his tastes, and his entire thinking mind, have not. It makes her characters far more engaging than the one-track-mind demons that meander from one virgin neck to another. It also demonstrates Rice’s skill as an author. A lead character needs to elicit sympathy from the readers of a novel or the audience of a movie. Rice’s Lestat is a mass murderer, and she still makes him engaging and sympathetic.

Play it straight and tell the truth, that is the safest way. It is too easy to make a murderer lose credibility by getting carried away with the killer’s dark side. Even a murderer has a sense of humour. John Jarret played it this way in Wolf Creek, but he’s not the only one to get the portrayal of a killer spot-on.

Harrison Ford did a similarly grand job in What lies Beneath (2000). He gives, possibly, his best performance as Dr. Norman Spencer, an academic who puts his research first. In one scene, Ford’s character is explaining to his wife how her death will bring him and her daughter closer together. It is clear he means it; he will look after his step-daughter, and provide the very best for her. As he explains this to his wife, he is filling the bath to drown her. It is the incongruity written into the scene, topped off with Ford’s delivery that gives the scene its power. Even allowing for Dr. Spencer’s insanity, he never once comes across as dangerous. He is a graceful monster. And where is it written that madness has to be dangerous? Who decided insanity must lead to murder?

One film comes to mind with a lead character so psychologically damaged that it is remarkable not a single member of the cast gets slaughtered; a movie with the most deranged protagonist: The King of Comedy (1983) is that film.

Robert de Niro plays the psychopath, Rupert Pupkin, a stand-up comedian with delusions (literally) of grandeur. It is one of the most disturbing movies I have seen. Not a single murder, hardly any violence, yet the impression left by this film lasts long in the mind. It is very uncomfortable viewing. It proves dead bodies and gore will always come second to a quality script and decent actors in the race to disturb an audience. To creep under the radar requires no trickery. It requires you pick the lock of their critical shields and slip inside using truth. This is why gore-sodden celluloid like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) will make an audience squirm, will make them jump, but will never get access to the place where humans are truly vulnerable.  Movies such as Saw and Hostel – and many others, of course – will try and batter their way in using boring tricks and double-takes.

Those blades are blunt.

A Ragged Review and an American Beauty

In the late 1980s Thames television made a documentary about a young chef whose restaurant – ‘Harvey’s’ –  in Wandsworth, London – was considered one of the best in the country. The head chef, Marco Pierre White, was only in his twenties but considered a genius. The man’s philosophy was simple: less really is more; let your ingredients speak for themselves and don’t clutter up your plate trying to be clever. One dish demonstrated this philosophy perfectly. His ‘panache of foie gras with pan fried sea scallops and carrots’ was exactly what it claimed to be – just three ingredients.

Restraint requires confidence.

If The Rag were served to me on a plate then I could believe that the chef really knew what he was doing, for The Rag has but three ingredients: prose, poetry and art.

Issue 5 – Winter/Spring 2013 comes with a cover featuring a bloodied rendition of Carlos the Jackal: the blood around the mouth suggestive of his taste for it – though there’s more going on inside his head if you look closely. In another picture there is a human figure, cuddling a rabbit, though the figure is sporting a wolf’s head; another human figure, this time with a cheetah’s head, is doing the same.

The notion that a human has, perhaps, his savagery restrained by societal expectations, while just under the respectable surface there is lust, blood-lust and a truly carnivorous sexual desire, is one which could well be suggested here; though perhaps such an interpretation is too close to the surface meaning of those mentioned images to have much worth.

There is no fuss to this magazine – no unnecessary garnish. After Carlos’s cover, there’s a contents and credits page, then we are into the work – the main ingredients.

The first bite offered is a story, Momemto Mori, written by Stefanie Demas, and if the first bite seduces the taste buds, then one knows the dish is right. So what can one say about Memento Mori?

It is a remarkable piece of work. The narrator is a complicated creation. Innocent, charming – and therefore probably friendly; intelligent, intuitive and utterly, hopelessly – yet beautifully – deranged.

Our narrator is driving to a funeral home to steal a body and spirit it away to secluded spot for sex. However, grim and ghoulish this is not. And it is that which makes the story so wonderful. It must be no easy task to have a narrator describe sexual feelings towards corpses and have that narrator sound quite so reasonable.

‘I was five years old when I remember seeing death for the first time,’ we’re told. ‘I knew even then I was interested.’

We’re given a scene in which the young narrator watches a bird hop about before being set upon and quickly killed by a cat, and this sight captivates her and there begins a healthy interest in death.

The narrator seems to have rare access to those considerations of beauty reserved for the high-brow and the aesthete, but with reservations:

‘I will not say that it was beautiful. Beautiful wouldn’t be the wrong word, necessarily, but it would give you the wrong idea about me.’

Could that wrong idea be the notion that our narrator’s interest is purely aesthetic? That could be the case because her interest is definitely physical. Here we have a synthesis, a merger between the low and the high, the closed-eye humming to classical music while the fingers get sticky.

Death, to this narrator, however, is more than an aphrodisiac.

When considering a corpse one might see the sinking of the cheeks or the new prominence of the bones as the signs of a person transforming into a cadaver – the new physical status: the first stage on a journey which sees a person’s atoms return to the universe.

‘I could see that his shoulder blades had begun to form themselves into wings.’

In that we have the aesthetic, the optimistic and the deranged – all brought together in a simple, beautiful line.

I don’t much care if this is an example of Demas showing her own art through her character, or – as a student of Stanislavsky could appreciate – a form of method-writing, either way it is beautiful. Death: the invisible chrysalis.

Of course, ultimately, there is no hope for this narrator. No reader could sympathise with one who harbours such exotic tastes, so removed as they are from regular experience. Such people are disturbed. Or are they?

Consider the following:

‘What about the widow who kisses her husband’s waxy face, clenches his frigid hands, as he lies in his cushioned box? How do we define that kiss, those touches? As love. As nothing unusual. And never, never would we call it by that name. How can we name-call and persecute when the distinctions are so shaky?’

This is clever because it sounds exactly like a person who has thought about their tastes and wondered what they might say under questioning. What we have here is the tip of a philosophical iceberg, a logical argument. And who can argue with the logic? Step by logical step we can unravel the argument for ourselves. Doing this leaves us unsettled because we are forced to answer a new formulation of ‘the paradox of the heap’ – and who can answer that?

It is some feat of creativity to have a narrator who is a rarefied aesthete; gentle; logical; and also one we can sympathise with. Yes, this is a caring narrator. The evidence is in the prose.

While driving to her final destination, her cargo stowed in the back of a stolen hearse, our narrator is passed by trucks on the highway:

‘The trucks sounded like whales as we passed them in the night. With the radio off, we could hear that their deep rumbles were accompanied by low, mournful cries – a searching call through the dark ocean expanse. My heart wanted to break for those trucks, my eyes wanted to cry for them. Whom had they lost? Whom did they need to find?’

What skill, yet again, it takes to synthesise the sympathetic with the gently deranged. One wants to kiss the narrator on the cheek, to stroke her hair. How could anyone have anything but affection for such a kindly soul?

Before reading this story I was reading Mailer’s Fire on The Moon; today I have just started Philip Knightley’s biography of Kim Philby, and after that I have the collected works of Nathanael West. But now my reading is disturbed. Now I want more from Stafanie Demas. I want more from this American Beauty.

And what skill it takes the editors of this magazine to select ingredients such as these and to let those ingredients speak for themselves.

I’ve given The Rag five stars.

Michelin would have given them three.

Stop Bloody Whining

There I was standing in front of a vine
I took some grapes and I crushed them to wine
I gave some to Pharaoh who drank from my cup
I tried to interpret but I had to give up

 – Joseph and the Amazing Techicolour Dreamcoat

 

I am an admirer of Sam Harris. I am now and admirer of Maajid Nawaz. One of Harris’s regular complaints is that his critics misrepresent his views on many topics, and misrepresent him on the Islam question very often. It was actually pleasant to have Naawaz – someone who can be called an ‘expert’ on the topic of Islam and Islamism – actually explaining certain Koranic doctrines.

Harris for instance argues that the Koran actually tells people to do certain things, and some of those things are not ambiguous. He gives an excellent example to Hasan when he says that, nobody reading the Koran is going to close the book and believe they can now eat bacon and drink alcohol. Some things are directives.

Nawaz responds on alcohol:

[..] everyone assumes that all alcohol is absolutely prohibited for all Muslims. In Arabic the word assumed to mean alcohol is khamr. There’s a long-standing historical discussion about what khamr means and whether or not it’s prohibited. An extremely early tafsir (exegesis) of the Qur’an was by Imam Abu Bakr al-Jasas, who hailed from the Hanafi school of jurisprudence within the Sunni denomination of Islam. The Hanafi school is known to be the first school of interpretation and therefore the closest in proximity to the time of the Prophet. In his interpretation of the Qur’an, al-Jasas discusses the linguistic meaning of khamr at length and elaborates on why for Hanafis a literal interpretation of the word covers only a prohibition on wine from grapes. This means that for the jurists of this first school, it was permitted—and still is for those who follow the early Hanafis—to consume any form of alcohol other than wine.

Suddenly, a reading of the Koran can allow alcohol so long as it’s not wine from grapes. This was an eyebrow-raiser for me.

Nawaz’s basic position is that Islam is not a religious of peace, nor is it a religion of war. It’s just a religion which can be ‘interpreted’ to mean this or that.

‘Interpretation’ is an interesting word in respect to textual analysis.

Persons misuse language all the time. Persons will use one word to disguise another because the one they use suggests they are smarter, or kinder, or something else. For example many parents and teachers will demand ‘respect’ from the younger person, and might shout this. They don’t realise that ‘respect’ cannot be demanded because it’s is a matter of how the other person feels about you. When the parent or teacher demands respect they are probably demanding obedience. This is a different thing, and it makes sense why the parent or teacher would perform a sort of doublethink on themselves by masking the word. Such a person might genuinely believe they are asking for respect.

It’s a similar thing with ‘interpretation.’ When a person declares that they ‘interpreted it to mean..’ they probably mean that they ‘imagined it to mean..’

(Imagination in this context is connected to desire.)

Using ‘interpret’ sounds more technical, it sounds like you’ve being doing some hard mental work; ‘interpret’ is only a step away from ‘decoded’ which really would require some hard work. So it’s obviously better to claim this than to claim you’ve ‘imagined’ the meaning of the words, because ‘imagined’ just means you’ve ‘made it up’ – so who would need to take you seriously?

I wonder if those in the head-removal community find Koranic warrant for their bloody fun by choosing to ‘interpret’ the text to mean what they want it to mean.

Oh, poor you!

That’s an expression which makes me shiver when I hear it. On the surface it sounds like mild sarcasm, a bit of fake sympathy offered to somebody who might be thought of as complaining too much. It’s actually more than that.

A person needs to have a little interest in language and psychology and literature to see (or hear) what else could be going on with that expression, but if ‘art imitates life’ as the cliché goes, then it seems there is more to that expression than mild sarcasm aimed at a moaner.

One possible interpretation is the usage from HBO’s The Sopranos. It’s not an expression used often, but it’s the characters which use it and the context which makes it interesting and gives it the power.

The Sopranos, if it is the best show made – and many argue it is – must be the best show for the writing because so many other shows are superbly filmed and acted and so on. It’s the writing, specifically the way a character’s character is exposed using language, that gives the show its standing, and some of the exposes are subtle.

Here’s a for instance. Consider Tony Soprano telling his mother and anyone else who brought it up, that Green Grove – the expensive facility he sends her to in the first series – is not a nursing home, ‘It’s a retirement community!’. There are several instances like this throughout the six seasons.

The character had to correct his mother and everyone else about the kind of facility he sent her to because he was trying to convince himself his decision to move her was a kinder decision than his conscience felt it was. That might sound simple, but it’s more complicated.

Tony Soprano’s entire character – everything he does and the way he does it, his success in the ‘business’ – is predicated on the denial of the fact his mother didn’t love him. He knows she didn’t, but won’t accept it, and the conflicts, the panic attacks, the ‘displaced rage’ all stem from this refusal accept what he knows is true.

It takes the character almost the entire six series to accept this: his constant correction of people who talk about about what kind of place he sends his mother to is a linguistic clue to a deeper psychological problem which hasn’t been solved or resolved. He can’t make his mother love him, but he can accept she didn’t, and this acceptance does eventually happen. The linguistic clues then change to show that, under the psychological surface, there’s a been a huge change.

What happens is simple. When a colleague mentions the wonderful retirement community Tony had his mother in, he shouts back ‘It’s a nursing home!’

So what of the expression, ‘oh, poor you’?

The writers use the expression in a similar way as mentioned in that it’s used as the linguistic clue to a deeper problem. ‘Oh, poor you’ isn’t mild sarcasm thrown at a person who’s moaning too much, it’s the mask dropping and the monster revealing its real face and real nature, but only for a moment.

And that real nature could be described as unpleasant.

It’s an expression which means ‘I don’t care how you feel!’ And this isn’t because the person cares only for themselves, but because the person can’t care about others and their feelings. It’s the three words which reveal the speaker is really bereft of positivity and all their smiling and laughing is faked.

It reveals something to us, the audience, while the speaker and the person to whom it is addressed do not recognise it for what it is, thus making it a narrow, yet extraordinarily deep example of dramatic irony.

These Barbarous Wretches

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2362695/PETER-HITCHENS-Would-surprised-learn-I-fund-Labour-Well-I–you.html

Peter Hitchens and the Death Penalty

 

…satisfy your blood lust, and tell yourself you were good to the victim because blood atonement remitted the sin. You gave the fellow a chance to get to the hereafter, after all. This business of living for eternity certainly contributed to capital punishment, brutality and war.

 

  • Norman Mailer

 

 

I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbued their hands in so much innocent blood and that it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future, which are satisfactory grounds for such actions, which otherwise cannot but work remorse and regret.

 

  • Oliver Cromwell

 

 

1

Get the Gush Gone

A good title should have a sense of humour. I got into (yet another) discussion on the death penalty with a couple of persons on Peter Hitchens’s blogsite recently. It can be frustrating trying to have a discussion there. Mr Hitchens has said the arguments against the death penalty are an insult to the intelligence. I’m not sure if even he believes this, but who knows. I am opposed to the religious human sacrifice which some refer to as ‘the death penalty,’ though I think it is a fascinating topic to discuss, and significantly more complicated than many persons think it is.

One reason I’m so interested in the discussion is that the ‘death penalty’ is the first topic on which I wrote myself to a change of mind. I used to be all for it. I’m not a professional or trained writer, and had no idea that the process of writing – the actual physical process – could act like a sort of ‘hypnosis,’ and if done enough, a person might find his subconscious telling him things he didn’t know he knew and giving him thoughts he didn’t know were there. It’s a wonderful experience to be writing away, tapping the keys and transcribing the thoughts flowing up from below, and to realise that you are actually changing your own mind on something. (It’s odd to think of myself as a card-carrying member of the ‘hang ‘em high’ club, when all the time I actually thought the opposite to what I thought I thought.)

When such moments happen, a person has a choice: he can reject what his own psyche is telling him – perhaps because he ‘identifies’ with his position on whatever the topic is, or he can take a deep breath and keep going into unknown psychological territory. I say ‘take a deep breath’ because we do tend to like our beliefs and dislike it when somebody challenges them, so when it is us doing the challenging, it actually takes a small amount of bravery to continue tapping the keys.

Peter Hitchens supports this ‘penalty of death,’ and hardly is he on his own. The death penalty is something wanted by the public, and something which would be restored if put to the public in a vote. On the death penalty question I’d wager we have a situation where the State is refusing to give the public what it wants. (The relationship between public opinion and demand, and the State and what it does in response to that demand, is a fascinating question, yet could be reduced to a ‘who blinks first’ dynamic because the State is, at bottom, a collection of humans with their own interests, just like the public.) Why the State won’t allow religious human sacrifice, when such a move would (almost certainly)be a popular one, is another interesting question, especially considering the state likes power over the citizen.

I’m going to mention some arguments in favour of the death penalty used by Peter Hitchens, and why the practice, regardless of what those in favour say of it, is an obscenity. Peter Hitchens is a prominent journalist and has the ability to influence opinion, so he’s a fair target. Also he has put some interesting arguments in favour of religious human sacrifice. I doubt he is enthusiastic for the practice, though I accept he could be. He once stated ‘I would prefer not to have to defend the dark rituals of execution, especially since I have witnessed them at first hand. However, those who wish to say anything serious about government and law must be ready to argue for difficult things.’1

This is interesting in itself as arguing for the death penalty is absurdly easy. The topic is a demagogue’s dream, so simple is it to think up emotive examples of crimes (usually murders of children) to get the crowd or the reader quickly on your side. It’s the ease with which a person can support this practice that is an interesting thing to consider when thinking about Peter Hitchens’s arguments in favour of it. He is on the record as being suspicious of public opinion and conventional wisdom, yet seems not bothered by popularity of the thing he’s arguing for, here. I would expect him to be suspicious of something public opinion supported, and look harder for the argument against – and whoever reads his stuff can say he usually does this – so I wonder if Peter Hitchens agrees with the public sentiment on this, or thinks the public are right by accident, so supports this practice for reasons which are different to those reasons the public animal wants Capital Punishment returned?

I suspect Peter Hitchens’s support for Capital Punishment rests on his religion, and the public’s desire for it rests on their blood-thirsty, emotion-riddled knee-jerkism. If this is true, it’s perhaps understandable why Peter Hitchens finds the death penalty difficult to argue for, or a difficult thing to argue for, and the public finds it easy to support. Peter Hitchens is no demagogue, and public opinion is of no worth whatsoever.

I know I’m talking as if it’s a given that the public would restore capital punishment overnight, and I think it’s a safe position to take given the polls which have been taken. In 2015, a Gallup poll showed that 61% of the public were in favour of the death penalty for murder,2 so that’s a clear, unambiguous majority, and that Peter Hitchens finds himself in the majority is unusual in itself.

One point to note is this: never trust anyone who says killing people saves lives. Killing people costs lives – the lives of those killed. We’ve all heard this curious form of words used before. The argument that killing saves lives, the ‘argument’ used to justify the atomic bombs dropped by the US over Japan, which is similar to the argument which says ‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,’ is an ‘argument’ which is loved by the hand-waiver who states: ‘It’s as simple as that.’ In other words, it’s a line taken by a mind which has a poor conscience, hasn’t thought about it, or has thought about it, but doesn’t care about it. Whichever it is, the person delivering this sort of ‘black is white’ or ‘war is peace’ line should be questioned further. Never accept this sort of thing without investigation.

I haven’t chosen Peter Hitchens’s position or arguments on the death penalty because I have some sort of ‘problem’ with him. I’m not one of those who attack him on Twitter, or post comments to his newspaper blogsite using fake names and with unbalanced criticisms – or attack him anywhere else. I happen to have admiration for Peter Hitchens and wish there were more journalists like him. I could make the case, quite easily, that even his enemies owe him a certain debt of gratitude. Anybody who can’t see, straight away, that writers like Peter Hitchens keep the rest of us a little bit safer will probably never be able to see it.

I ask you this: in a world of politically correct witch-hunts, where man denounces man for imagined ‘heresies’ against the orthodoxy – and does so for no other reason than to claim his own purity and ensure the witch-hunters move to the next cottage – what value shall we put on a fellow who can make politicians nervous?

Quite a high value, I’d say.

 

2

A Sword in the Hand

That’s the gush out the way. It is easy to make arguments from emotion, that should be remembered; but to begin, a person should decide which side they are on, and this is the question they should answer to decide their side. Do you think it is better to have societal norms, rules and laws based on reason, logic and utility, with all three anchored to the assumption that excessive power over the citizen by the state is axiomatically bad, or do you think what a just society needs to function, and function at its best, are laws and practices which are based on the human animal’s base nature, and which in turn, therefore, allow the state to have the ultimate power over the citizen?

Or, to put the same point another way: do you prefer liberty or security?

To condense the two positions on capital punishment down to a choice between two words is not to attempt a simplification of the topic; it’s just to state that such a reduction can be done. When an argument is followed right to its bedrock, there’s usually not much more than a word or short phrase at the bottom. The entire Christian position can be reduced to Idealist, for instance, and that is what is waiting for the supporter of Capital Punishment; or, to describe it correctly: religious human sacrifice.

Liberty and Security are like the two ends of the playground see-saw, when one is up, the other is always down. The more you have of one, the less you have of the other. To say your preference is for equal weights of both is to reveal you don’t care much, or know much, about human nature – or the nature of the human.

There are examples from history and literature which suggest that humans, when in possession of power, position and authority over other humans, sometimes use it in a way which doesn’t always benefit the majority. There are many examples from history and literature of the State making and passing laws which benefit and protect it, not the citizen. (That the State is made up of humans makes this a fascinating thing to consider. Why would a single person, or a small group of persons, make decisions which benefit the whole state, even while they know that under certain circumstances, they could suffer under the very rules or legislation they are proposing? Perhaps these drops of lubricant in the machine are truly selfless, or perhaps bureaucracy has a way of bringing out the inner sadist from a person?)

So my first contention is this:

 

The supporter of capital punishment is the enemy of liberty.

 

Peter Hitchens claims to be a lover of liberty, but is he really a lover of liberty? There is a preening, chin-stroking attitude which many people who support the death penalty have. Many have convinced themselves their position is a refined position because they support the practice for murder only. Consider this for a moment. Such a position presupposes they’ve ruled out other crimes and therefore have ‘thought deeply’ about their view. This might not be the case. It is possible such a person has camouflaged their desire for religious revenge under an intellectual veneer. Indeed, some supporters of the death penalty have their opinions so deeply ‘dug-in’ that they manage to support the practice while carrying the politician’s ‘heavy-heart’. To support a practice, but ‘with regret’, is a smart move: it presupposes not only how deeply the question has been thought about, but also that the supporter has taken a selfless, sacrificial position, in that they are prepared to suffer for their belief because what they believe is ultimately good for society. It’s a curious type of ego-mania and understated narcissism. Can a supporter of capital punishment ever be a lover of liberty?

Peter Hitchens knows as well as anyone what the State can do to a person. The State is the enemy of the individual, and the enemy of the family unit, and very well Peter Hitchens knows it. He wrote in The Abolition of Britain that the State dislikes the family because it fashions bonds which are stronger than patriotism. The State can lock you up, take your children, take your house from you via compulsory purchase – it can impose many things upon the individual. How can a person be a lover of liberty if they want the State to have the power to do what it can already do, yet also the power to reach into a citizen’s body and stop their heart from beating? To support the death penalty, even if you support it for murder only, is to want the State to have absolute power

This is liberty with qualifications, which means it’s not liberty.

For instance he supports ‘freedom of speech’ so long as something called ‘incitement to violence’ is not part of it. (He’s not the only person who postures in this way.) This is the ‘yes but no’ attitude which happens when somebody wants to claim to be a certain type of person, but doesn’t genuinely want the thing they claim to want that would make them that type of person. Most of us will have had the following experience. We did something naughty when we were small and were caught, perhaps by a teacher. The teacher demanded to know why we did such and such, and we say – because we were little and didn’t ‘get it’ at such a young age – that so and so ‘told me to do it.’ The teacher will then have then offered us a particular ‘look’ and said something like ‘Well, if so and so told you to jump of a bridge would you do it?’ We know we wouldn’t have done that, so we then realise we are to blame for what we actually do, and can’t blame others for ‘making’ us do it. The illogical nonsense about ‘incitement’ is the teacher saying ‘Right! Let’s go and round-up so and so, too! And we’ll see who gave him the idea, and then we’ll get them in room 101 as well!’ Before you could say ‘witch-hunt’ you’d have all the toddlers in the playschool on trial ‘by-teacher’ for their part in a non-existent conspiracy of influence. A Stalinist madness.

The position Peter Hitchens takes on ‘freedom of speech’ is contradictory because he doesn’t want speech to be ‘free’ in any way at all, he wants it to be limited. When you advertise your ‘free beer’ but actually charge 1p for it, it isn’t free. One you’ve added your qualification, you have dissolved your principle.

This qualification serves the same purpose as the ‘for murder only’ qualification serves: it presupposes deep thought and implies the person is a ‘serious’ person who is exquisitely discriminatory. But how can a person be serious when they argue for ‘free speech’ in this way? I think it’s unlikely that Peter Hitchens cannot see the ‘freedom of speech’ contradiction, because he’s obviously an intelligent person, and words are his business. This leaves me thinking that he can see it, and is happy with it, because it accurately expresses the truth of the matter, and is happy for others not to notice. What other option is there?

There’s a scene I want you to create in your mind and it will be mentioned later. I want you to imagine you are walking back to your car, and you take a shortcut through an alley. In that alley you find the body of a child. The child has met a violent end: the head is bashed and smashed; there are bits of blood, skull and brain splattered on the walls. Lying next to the body is a hammer with bloody fingerprints on the handle, and you see bloody footprints leading away from the scene.

Let’s say the child is a ten year old girl.

Do you think any wrong has been done to the little girl? You think yes? I’d guess most people would. Now here’s the thing: anyone who thinks that the little girl has had wrong done to her should not support capital punishment.

Now I know that might sound odd. It seems obvious that the person who bashed her head in deserves to swing, but I’m afraid things are not as simple as they seem, and the arguments for and against capital punishment are not as simple as the simple feel they are.

Leave that scenario in the back of your mind while we flash-forward in hypothetical time and create another scenario.

You’re watching the evening news and the story comes on about the person convicted of killing the child from the alley. The cameras have captured the following: the convicted is making his way to court for sentencing, and a crowd has gathered, waiting just for this moment. They cannot put hands the guilty, and lucky for him, because he is locked safely in the armoured police-van which drives slowly through that crowd. The persons gathered shout and scream at the van, some throw things, some spit at it and some rock it sideways in an attempt to tip it over, before the officers pull the mob from the vehicle and it drives through.

Then we cut to a shot from on high, where the handcuffed child-killer is lead from the rear of the van into the building. Next we’ll be shown an artist’s colour-pencil sketch of the beast in the dock, and we’ll be told he spoke only to confirm his name, and some other details, and we’ll be told what the judge had to say as he passed sentence. Usually at this point we cut to the reporter whose voice has been heard over the pictures: she will be standing outside the court, microphone in hand, having a chat with the news presenter in the studio.

Whatever is said the by reporter or the presenter, the behaviour of the crowd won’t be condemned. If it’s mentioned at all it will be to offer the banal observation that feelings were ‘running high.’ I wonder what number of us, watching such a thing in our homes, secretly wishes the mob could gain access to the vehicle, and get at the killer? And I wonder what might happen if such a thing occurred?

Perhaps one of the mob would drive the vehicle to waste ground, where the guilty could be taken to task, and some collective need in the mob could be satisfied while helicopter cameras captured the celebration in high definition?

What is that need or urge which drives the mob to picket the court, waiting for the guilty? What motivates the van rocking mob? What do they want?

Their behaviour could be described as odd, possibly stupid, because they know their missiles – their eggs, rocks and coke-cans – won’t penetrate the armoured vehicle, they will never get at the man inside. One can’t help but wonder why they bother.

The explanation needs to be that the spitting and throwing things, and trying to tip the van over, are not considered actions but a spontaneous expression of rage. That would make some sense. But consider the behaviour of the crowd before the police van shows up. The crowd is still a crowd at this point, not yet a mob, and can we believe they turned feral at the site of a vehicle they could never gain access to? What next, try to tip the building over because the guilty is in there?

No, the mob’s behaviour upon the arrival of the police van is a considered action, certainly not ‘spontaneous’ and the reporter is right in a sense, feelings are running high. Years ago, there might be some point in forming a mob and going after a suspect, flaming torches in one hand, bible in the other, while others in the mob ran with dogs straining at the lead. That made some sense because there was a chance they could catch the suspect and lynch him. The mob around the police van can’t do that – they know they can’t, therefore their behaviour is posturing and an expression of vanity.

The mob believe that they are safe to show this side of human nature, not only to each other but to the cameras, because the crime, the murder of the child, is vile enough that the normal standards of conduct don’t apply, and they have numbers on their side if you disagree. The options with such a running mob are to join in or step aside; trying to reason with them is a waste of time, trying to stop them is dangerous.

That humans can be violent when emotional is not interesting, but it is interesting to consider the lynch-mob mentality, and to conclude that it takes not so much to bring that part of the character of the human animal to the surface.

The argument about Capital Punishment usually begins with the supporter arguing for deterrence and the opposer claiming execution of the innocent is the unanswerable position. Both are (very often) the first arguments either side deploys. When my side of the house – the side which believes in liberty over security – mentions the innocent it’s common for the supporter to play the ‘accident’ card.

‘Yes,’ they say, ‘an innocent person executed is a terrible thing, but terrible things happen all the time, should we reject or abolish everything which causes accidental deaths? We’d have to abolish cars and planes and all sorts of things.’

But of course such a person is being slippery. They are suggesting an accidental death is equivalent to a deliberate death, which it isn’t and they’re missing the point into the bargain.

No person sacrificed by the State via the death penalty is killed by accident. No prisoner ever walked along their landing, tripped, fell into a noose and got hanged.

Every execution is a deliberate act, so the ‘accident’ card relies on a false parallel. Not a good start for the supporter of human sacrifice.

The argument about an innocent person executed is airtight; it cannot be met by anything from the other side. In addition there is no answer to the charge that, by executing the innocent, you have by default freed the guilty – so it’s a double outrage.

But arguments from ‘body-count’ miss the point, too. The enlightened side of the house reject the idea of capital punishment; reject the idea that the state can have this power over the citizen; and contend that, when the death penalty option is retained, the state has too much power over the citizen by definition, and the relationship between the two is ultimately totalitarian in practice and religious in theory (which just means totalitarian in theory, too.)

A word on ‘deterrence’.

 Often the supporter will cling to the idea of deterrence and not be swayed by logic. In a debate, formal discussion or even just a conversation, there are some things a person should not do. They should not claim something is true when they don’t know it is, and they should not claim something is true if they can’t know. Consider the words of the author and scientist, Sam Harris:

Exactly how many birds are in flight over the surface of the earth at this instant? What is their combined weight in grams? We cannot possibly answer such questions, but they have simple, numerical answers. Does our inability to gather the relevant data oblige us to respect all opinions equally? For instance, how seriously should we take the claim that there are exactly 23,000 birds in flight at this moment, and, as they are all hummingbirds weighing exactly 2 grams, their total weight is 46,000 grams? It should be obvious that this is a ridiculous assertion. We can, therefore, decisively reject answers to questions that we cannot possibly answer in practice. This is a perfectly reasonable, scientific, and often necessary thing to do.3

This is a problem with the ‘deterrence’ argument. The only thing which can be known is that capital punishment is not 100% effective as a deterrent. There’s no way to calculate what number of persons have been deterred from doing something. You can’t count-up acts which haven’t happened. It is not known if capital punishment is a deterrent: its supporters just claim it is because they think it’s a safe claim. But how can a claim for something be safe when those supporters can’t know if it’s true? It’s impossible to know if the death penalty is a deterrent, and I think arguments from deterrence should be disqualified immediately.

Even the academic ‘studies’ can’t answer it, and the impossibility of ever getting an answer leads to some hilarious examples of chin-stroking ‘seriousness’.

Read these and try not to laugh:

The view that the death penalty deters is still the product of belief, not evidence. The reason for this is simple: over the past half century the U.S. has not experimented enough with capital punishment policy to permit strong conclusions. Even complex econometrics cannot sidestep this basic fact. The data are simply too noisy, and the conclusions from any study are too fragile. On balance, the evidence suggests that the death penalty may increase the murder rate although it remains possible that the death penalty may decrease it.4

On balance, that final sentence cracks me up every time I read it. And that’s from John J. Donohue, a professor at Yale Law School and a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and Justin Wolfers, a professor at the Wharton School of Business and a Research Affiliate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Or consider this from the brief of yet another report into ‘deterrence’:

The studies use incomplete or implausible models of potential murderers’ perceptions of and response to the use of capital punishment. Much of the research assumes that potential murderers respond to the objective risk of execution.

It’s actually shocking. This is a confession, made so straight-faced you’re not meant to notice. Read it again, slowly; then contrast with this:

..there is good reason to believe that potential murderers’ perceived risk deviates from the objective risk.5

And that means there’s good reason to believe that murderers think they won’t get caught. It says the opposite to the first example, and both quotes are from the same brief. Where would we be without this sort of clarity of thinking making everything simpler? Why don’t these ‘academics’ just say ‘we don’t know because we can’t count-up acts which haven’t happened’?

There are other example of academics making strange statements . Consider this from Peter Hitchens:

The Home Office pathologist Professor Bernard Knight said recently that the British homicide rate was artificially low. Advances in medical treatment, he explained, now save hundreds of people who would have died from their wounds 40 years ago. The actual amount of lethal violence has risen to heights our fathers would have thought impossible.6

How can the homicide rate be artificially low? This point is meretricious. The homicide rate is whatever it happens to be. Just count the bodies. Are we to believe the death-in-childbirth-rate is artificially low thanks to medical advances? I don’t think so. The point is claiming an increase in violence, and Hitchens’s position is that lethal violence has increased since there’s been no death penalty. Is that actually true? Consider the words of Leon Britain from July 1983:

Those who argue for restoring the death penalty rightly point to the sharp rise in homicides since 1960. Between the end of the war and 1960 the number of homicides had shown a generally downward trend. In 1960, the offences initially recorded as homicide in England and Wales totalled 282. In 1965, the year capital punishment was abolished, the total was 325, in 1970 it was 396, in 1980 it was 621, and in 1982 it was 619. There are those who argue that the upward trend starting in 1960 is of no significance as that trend started before abolition. Against that, it can be said that the number of executions actually carried out in the last few years of capital punishment was very small and the deterrent effect might, therefore, if it existed, have been somewhat reduced.7

Note the rise in violence beginning before the abolition, and the important acknowledgement the deterrent effect might not exist to begin with. And it’s on his final point that Leon Britain touches on an important question about public executions.

Albert Camus, in his essay ‘Reflections on the Guillotine,’ makes the strong case that if the death penalty does have any deterrent effect, keeping the executions private, behind the prison walls, won’t allow the practice to work its dark magic on the minds of the peasantry:

We must either kill publicly, or admit we do not feel authorized to kill. If society justifies the death penalty as a necessary example, then it must justify itself by providing the publicity necessary to make an example. Society must display the executioner’s hands on each occasion, and require the most squeamish citizens to look at them, as well as those who, directly or remotely, have supported the work of those hands from the first.8

It’s a pretty strong point. Why bother with an example which nobody gets to see? And that’s assuming – and assuming against the logic – that there’s a deterrent effect to begin with.

If capital punishment was a genuine deterrent there wouldn’t be murders within jurisdictions which had human sacrifice as the punishment for a qualifying crime. But there are plenty of murders within jurisdictions such as these and always have been. This suggests human sacrifice is not a deterrent, and it’s probably not because most murders are not done by ice-man assassins. The majority of murders are emotional acts driven by money and sex and jealousy and other base drivers.

A word on the other ‘arguments’ and an argument against.

There are many positions taken by those who support religious human sacrifice. They talk about justice for the victim without considering that the victim can’t receive justice because the victim is dead and can’t receive anything. They then change their minds and claim and they want justice for the family of the victim. Bereavement requires justice, but not when the killer’s family are bereaved. For some reason they don’t count.

They argue that the cost of keeping murderers locked up is too high and executing them saves the tax-payer money. This argument is one of my favourites. It is simultaneously the stupidest and most dishonest argument: imagine two cells next to each other. In one is a murderer, serving twenty years, in the other is a non-murderer serving twenty years. Now consider the argument is supposed to be about the saving the tax payer money. Do I need to explain further?

Another silly argument is the argument from mercy. Peter Hitchens says:

The death penalty is far more humane than a long prison sentence. That is one of the best reasons for bringing it back. I’m sorry to say that the Court of Human Rights is correct in condemning our policy of locking up heinous murderers without hope of release and for so long they forget what they have done. It’s incredibly cruel.9

This argument claims that because decades in prison are a cruel, sadistic and barbaric punishment, the death penalty is justified because it is kinder to the murderer. This is an absurd argument just on the surface of it. It leaves the supporter of human sacrifice arguing for both punishment and mercy at the same time. But things get worse. There is a way to check if the person who makes this ‘argument’ actually means it. They should be asked if they would extend this ‘mercy’ to the terminally ill. Many Christians and Conservatives reject the idea of ‘mercy killing.’

Death is either a mercy or a punishment to be inflicted: if the former, then why don’t the terminally ill qualify? If the latter, then how can it be merciful to begin with? If the supporter claims that, yes, the terminally ill do qualify, are they not punishing the terminally ill if death is a punishment?

This nonsense argument is taken by supporters of human sacrifice because they are attempting to hide their real views under the veneer of intellectual compassion. They make themselves look extraordinarily stupid when they do this. This is what happens when paw-licking vanity and self-denial is valued more than intellectual honesty.

For most, the real motivation for their support of human sacrifice is no more than an emotional jerk of the knee. They imagine how they would feel if a person killed a member of their family. Then, feeling these unpleasant feelings, argue that human sacrifice is acceptable.

There are some, however, who support religious human sacrifice and who actually understand what they are talking about. I’ll mention these persons later.

For the moment I’ll just put my basic argument against the death penalty which seems to me to be quite hard to refute. (If this argument turns out to be rubbish, then the fault is mine.)

The argument goes like this:

Capital punishment is always wrong because we can never know if the victim lost anything of sufficient value to justify executing the killer.

It cannot be denied that value judgements underpin the crime / punishment question. If a person is convicted of stealing a packet of biscuits from a shop they would not be given the death penalty for this. That punishment wouldn’t ‘fit’ the crime. The value judgements we make about fitting punishments are mysterious in their origin, but we certainly make them. We tend only to hear arguments for religious human sacrifice for the crime of murder. I’ve never heard even the most reactionary, the most crusty and dusty conservative, argue for religious human sacrifice for anything other than murder. And, curiously, that creates a problem for their argument. When a person argues the death penalty should be imposed only for the crime of murder, they instantly grant that human life has a unique value or worth. Human life, on their account, has a special status and the only way justice ‘can be done’ is to take from the killer what they took from their victim. (The meme ‘a life for a life’ is popular, but the memes, ‘a rape for a rape,’ and ‘a punch in the face for a punch in the face’ haven’t caught on quite as well.)

Smarter supporters of human sacrifice will try to claim that value judgements have nothing to do with the calibration between crime and punishment or how we decide that x deserves y or doesn’t. I understand why the smarter supporters will try to avoid the concession that value judgements are what we use, because immediately they know that value judgements are subjective: there’s no over-arching objective standard we can all agree on. And it’s that fact which underpins my argument: how do we know the victim lost anything of sufficient worth to justify executing their killer?

Who says?

This is where the dead girl in the alley comes in.

If you think value judgements have nothing to do with deciding what punishment fits what crime, you are left with the conclusion that nothing ‘wrong’ has been done to the little girl in the alley. Until a trial has happened and evidence has been heard; until a jury has reached a verdict and ‘justice has been done,’ the girl in the alley, to you, is no more than rearranged organic material.

So value judgments can’t be denied (or avoided) and it’s that underpinning subjectivity which makes human sacrifice wrong because – and allow me to repeat it – who says the killer lost anything of sufficient worth to justify executing their killer? Who says?

There’s more to the opposition to religious human sacrifice than the inescapable impossibility of justifying it. Which supporter of human sacrifice doesn’t want to punish murderers? Those who argue in favour of capital punishment want murderers to be punished (except the ‘mercy merchants,’ that is.) It is odd, then, that they argue for the thing which makes punishment impossible: death.

A dead person cannot receive punishment for the same reason a dead person cannot receive justice. They are dead. They cannot receive anything.

The supporter is arguing for the incarcerated murderer’s punishment to come to an end. Why they do this I don’t know.

There is no escape for the supporter of human sacrifice by saying that, they know the dead person can’t receive punishment, that’s not the point, (and who ever said it was?) they want the murderer to feel the fear and stress as their execution date approaches, and then the fear and stress on the day itself and so on.

This makes some sense – but not much. If that’s the case then the murderer need only be subjected to mock-execution, but would the supporter of capital punishment want that?

I think not.

Once this point has been made then the supporter should see what they really are arguing for is a form of torture where the victim suffers not the ‘death penalty’ but the ‘punishment penalty’ and is punished to death.

You can make a person dead by punishing them, but you cannot punish them after making them dead.

As I said, there are persons who understand what they are arguing for: they understand that the arguments in favour of religious human sacrifice require a belief in the afterlife to make even the slightest sense – and they really require a belief in God. As someone once said, this business of living for eternity contributes to capital punishment. What’s odd is that, on atheism, a belief in God is required for the arguments in favour of religious human sacrifice to make sense, but that means, to make sense to an atheist.

Assuming a Christian worldview for the sake of argument: what happens to the soul of the murder victim? Where does it go?

Let’s say the victim is the little girl in the alley.

The little ten year old girl, on the Christian worldview, is going to spend eternity with God in heaven. Let’s put it another way: on that Christian worldview, by murdering her, the killer has delivered his victim to the greatest possible bliss imaginable.

And for this he should be punished?

There’s a dizzying, circular paradox at the heart of the human sacrifice question.

It’s too easy to support the death penalty. When something is so easy to support a person should become immediately suspicious and begin questioning their motives, and asking questions about the motivations of others. It’s only when we begin to question our beliefs, and the motivations we have for them, does the conversation become interesting.

 Capital Punishment: an actual obscenity.

 In his book, ‘The Abolition of Britain,’ Peter Hitchens begins chapter five with this simple claim.

Hell was abolished around the same time that abortion was legalized and the death penalty was done away with.10

It’s interesting to look at the idea of religious human sacrifice and the attitudes to it from the supporters of today as compared to the actual practice from history. Consider these words from Lord Gardiner, spoken in the House of Lords in December 1969:

In 1908 there was a big advance: we abolished capital punishment for children under 16. When my grandfather was 21 a boy of nine who had set fire to a house was hanged at Chelmsford. In a previous year a little way back, a boy of 7 and his sister of 11 were hanged at Lyme. In 1922 we abolished capital punishment for infanticide. In 1929 a Resolution in the House of Commons calling for the abolition of capital punishment resulted in the appointment of a Select Committee. In 1930 the Select Committee reported. In their Report they said: Our prolonged examination of the situation in foreign countries has increasingly confirmed us in the assurance that capital punishment may now be abolished in this country without endangering life or property, or impairing the security of society. And they recommended its abolition for five years. In 1931 capital punishment was abolished for expectant mothers. In 1932 the Children Act abolished capital punishment for those under 18.11

I like the one where we abolished the death penalty for expectant mothers. Since these internal abolitions have happened, have those freed from the prospect of being hanged become troublesome? Are children under sixteen, boys of nine and seven, girls of eleven and women with-child now an out-of-control menace to society? This sort of incremental abolition smacks of a State which wants to retain the practice, and isn’t willing to let go completely. Remember the State is simply a collection of humans with interests which conflict with those of the majority. Please think about this specific question: what sort of State would want to hang small children or women with-child?

It’s remarks like those from Lord Gardiner which put the death penalty into its correct context and allow it to be seen for what it is: one way in which the State could tyrannise the ordinary people. Contrast the ‘arguments’ from somebody who wants human sacrifice for murder only, against this brief summary from the National Archive:

In the years after 1660 the number of offences carrying the death penalty increased enormously, from about 50, to 160 by 1750 and to 288 by 1815. You could be hanged for stealing goods worth 5 shillings (25p), stealing from a shipwreck, pilfering from a Naval Dockyard, damaging Westminster Bridge, impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner or cutting down a young tree. This series of laws was called (later) “The Bloody Code.” Why was the Bloody Code passed? After the turmoil of the 17th century, the landowning class emerged as supreme rulers of Britain. They based their power on property-ownership, and saw the law’s main purpose as protecting property. They were ruling a country of 6.5 million, most of whom had no political rights whatsoever. The crime rate was not high, actually, but they feared that it was, as towns grew in size and the old village community crumbled. There was also no police force. The Bloody Code was therefore a threat: severe retribution would happen to those thinking of breaking the law by infringing property rights.12

When we think of capital punishment do we forget (did we even know?) that the State used to be able to kill us for minor offences such as cutting down a young tree? Perhaps not knowing the list of things we could be killed for by the State prevents us from seeing what the death penalty actually is: the missing list is the giver of context. Put it another way: imagine a person who opposed the enslavement of blacks, but also argued that blacks should be whipped for one particular crime only, and you might begin to see those who support the totalitarian, absolutist practice of human sacrifice for the Darth Vader Darksiders they are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/features/deathrows
2. http://www.gallup.com/poll/1606/death-penalty.aspx
3. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/moral-confusion-in-the-na_b_517710.html
4. http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/DonohueDeter.pdf
5. http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/NatResCouncil-Deterr.pdf
6. http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2012/04/reflections-on-how-to-punish-mass-murderers.html
7. http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1983/jul/13/death-penalty
8. http://redlemona.de/albert-camus/reflections-on-the-guillotine/reflections-on-the-guillotine
9. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2362695/PETER-HITCHENS-Would-surprised-learn-I-fund-Labour-Well-I–you.html
10. Hitchens, Peter (1999) The Abolition of Britain, Quartet, London, p107.
11. http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/lords/1969/dec/17/murder-abolition-of-death-penalty-act
12. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/candp/punishment/g06/g06cs1.htm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ulcerous Wolf

Shame (2009) could be all done in an hour. It’s artificially long – too long for its action, certainly.

Alright, so Michael Fassbender plays a porn addict who can’t create proper relationships because, for porn ‘addicts’ there’s not enough immediate stimulation in real relationships.

His psyche has an ulcer.

This is how it shakes down in real life:

The ‘addict’ realises he doesn’t find (let’s say ‘women’) attractive. He notices this about himself one day. He knows this is odd because he’s not gay – he likes women. So why is he not noticing them anymore? He’s not looking at them on the street like he used to, or noticing what they’re wearing. Once he realises this, he realises he has an actual psychological problem.

Too much porn conditions the brain to expect immediate pleasure – or pleasure quite quickly. A gentleman wants these periods of manual labour to be over quickly, and doesn’t realise he’s training his brain.

So when the gentleman has the company of a lady, he might find that he suffers from one of three possible ‘issues.’

First – and although business is conducted to the woman’s satisfaction in one way – he can’t satisfactorily conclude proceedings. He might not be bothered by this, but the women will not be happy, and will see this as a failure on her part..

Second, business is conducted okay for a while, then the chap softens his position and allows the woman to rest.

Third, the poor devil doesn’t need to soften his position in the first place.

That Fassbender wants to screw his sister (and not for the first time) is, probably, more the cause of his psychological trouble than his addiction to porn is. The porn doesn’t help, but his sister is the real cause of his trouble.

We first see her in the shower – and this scene is very interesting.

We know that, whoever’s in the apartment, they’re in the shower because we can hear the water running. They also put some music on.

So what follows?

Fassbender grabs a baseball bat, and rushes into the bathroom shouting ‘I’ll fucking kill you!’

This is quite clever.

Who did he think was in there, The Yakuza? The London Irish?

He storms the bathroom because that guarantees him a look at his naked sister, and he pushes his way in carrying the huge hard-on he’s got for her – the bat.

This happens while I Want Your Love by Chic blares on the soundtrack, by the way.

She asks him:

‘Don’t you fucking knock!’

And he replies, with some surface justification:

‘What the fuck, why would I knock? I live here.’

The question acts as plausible deniability. But he’s denying things to himself – not his sister.

This is the point: sure, why would he knock? But that he wouldn’t knock is hardly a reason to come storming in like the SAS. If he was concerned enough to arm himself, and be concerned enough to think he better take the intruder by surprise, he could easily have called the cops, or left the apartment and called them. His action is paradoxical.

He’s trying to convince himself he was in danger through his behaviour, but his unnecessary behaviour reveals he never really thought he was in any danger to begin with.

After a few moments he gives his sister a towel, and she throws it back after a moment, revealing herself to him again and smiling, says:

‘Good to see you.’

This is his sister’s fishing line. Now he’s supposed to say, while staring at her naked body:

‘Good to see you, too.’

But he walks out instead.

They’ve been screwing in the back-story and this has left them both damaged. He’s got a fixation with porn because normal sexual relations don’t give him the thrill he got by screwing his sister, and she’s got scars across her arms from self-harming, and is uber-needy with a car-crash relationship.That’s about it, really. They argue about her being in his apartment. He doesn’t like having her around because he wants to screw her.

And she’d let him.

The Duchess of Malfi

A Snail on the Moon

Time-loop paradox stories are the worst type of science-fiction, and that’s because the best type of science fiction is hard science fiction – and you can’t get softer than a time-loop paradox.

Actually, Triangle (2009) is not awful, but it is only redeemed at the end when we realise Melissa George’s character has died. This makes her predicament quite unpleasant to think about, and Stephen King said his own idea of Hell is repetition – and it’s easy to see his point.

Predestination (2014) is a film which deserves to be tied to a post and shot. (Or blown out the nearest airlock.)

What could be the motivation of the Spierig brothers to adapt such a stupid story?

The point of good science fiction is to open the minds of the readers and viewers to our insignificance in the universe: only when we have a grasp of our smallness can we begin to appreciate the cosmos. This means more than just being told we’re small and accepting it’s true, it means feeling small. The only thing of mine which opened when I watched Predestination was my mouth when I yawned.

The start-point for fiction is the what-if question. That’s a good place to start, but the what if should be something possible, if only theoretically.  Which is going to lead to a better story: a what if which might happen, or a what if which could never happen?

That’s Predestination’s problem.

Acknowledging the original short story from the 50s, it’s a sort of The Adjustment Bureau meets The Man Who Folded Himself meets Coherence type movie.

So, yes, if a person could travel back in time they could fuck about with themselves when they were younger, and end up becoming their own parents and children and lord knows who else. It’s all really interesting…but it’s impossible. And ‘impossible’ is the first thing decent science fiction needs to avoid.

Would anyone care about a story about Sammy the snail, who, after overcoming significant personal problems, realised his dream of becoming an astronaut and visiting the moon?

Thought not.

I think sometimes fiction is pointless. I never thought I’d say that: I always thought I would grant to the fiction writer any amount of licence, but impossible science fiction seems to me to be a crime against fiction. Calling it fantasy sci-fi won’t wash because you make the word science absurd.

Yes – I’m being harsh.

The Cat in Lovecraft’s Hat

The Babadook is a complicatedly simple movie. Behind the fourth wall (or inside the fictional action) is a kind of ‘third wall’ which stands between symbolism and realism within that fictional world, and it’s this third wall which the movie breaks – and that might be the movie’s problem.

Consider Goldberg and Mccann in (because this is a movie blog) Friedkin’s (1968) version of Pinter’s The Birthday Party. They are symbols: of religious authority and state power, but also symbolise two repressed people, in this case Jews and Irish, while still representing actual individual characters – real people – in the play. The Babadook is written in a comparable way in that the monster (initially) represents the mother’s grief over the death of her husband, but the grief is intense enough to actually break the internal wall between symbolism and in-context realism and manifest itself into the movie’s reality. Her grief becomes an actual character in the movie.

Had the behaviour of the mother been just symbolic of the grief she’s feeling and its negative power on and over her, then her son wouldn’t have been afraid of Mister Babadook because he wouldn’t have existed in his reality; in his reality he would have just had an ever more insane mother to worry about.

It’s a rather stark situation we’re given to watch: a worn out mother – who hasn’t slept properly for years – is shown reassuring her son there’s nothing in the wardrobe – a classic childhood fear. But there’s no cuddle for warmth or encouragement: she appears almost bored with the routine and pays not much attention to her son clinging to her, and it’s the shot of them lying in bed – where the mother moves as far away as she can from her son while remaining comfortable – which illustrates the emotional distance she wants to have between them. Some critics have suggested the monster represents her grief, and this is true, but what’s more dramatic is what she does with that grief. She uses it to blame her son for her husband’s death.

(Her tiredness is what finally tears her sanity. Tiredness can cause significant problems, and one thinks of Peter Mullan in Session 9 (2001) as an example of the problems caused by fatigue.)

The mother is in a constant state of mourning for her husband, but also for the emotional attention a man would give her. This is understandable, and realistic. Though it might seem strange that she rejects the kindly romantic advances from a co-worker, given what’s missing in her life, this demonstrates the extent to which her mind is locked in the past, and that is demonstrated by her checking the door to the basement is safely locked tight. The basement is her memory.

So the basics are that she feels intense grief over the husband’s death, blames the son for his death because the crash happened while the husband drove her (in labour) to the hospital, and the emotional distance she subsequently feels is the cause of the son’s ‘behavioural problems.’ In other words he doesn’t feel loved so is fighting for attention.

This is standard drama; that’s not to say it’s bad drama – it isn’t – but it’s standard drama in the sense there’s some element of circular tragedy to the relationships shown: there’s a reason for almost everything.

What works – and is mighty impressive given the movie is the director’s first feature film – is the lack of cheap and easy ‘sudden bang’ shocks which are popular because they’re easy. The Babadook slowly builds its tension, drawing the viewer in to the action by creating trust because the viewer is not waiting for the next ‘jump’ so relaxes into the action. This is done so well that when the mother has really lost it and is trying to kick the door in, we’re in the room with the kid, hiding…

No Loss of Mass

Luke Godfrey changed his mind about his bacon sandwich. He put the red plastic ketchup bottle back down on the table and picked up the blue one, took the top slice of bread off his sandwich and gave it a squirt of mayo. The man sitting opposite Luke Godfrey – Shane Allahan – watched him.

‘Since when do you put mayo on bacon?’ Shane asked. ‘I’ve never seen you do that.’

‘I don’t, normally – I’m just sick of ketchup,’ said Luke.

‘Brown sauce, okay; ketchup, definitely – but mayo on a bacon sarnie? Mayo is for the chicken salad sandwich, mate, not the bacon.’

‘Those times, they are a-changin,’ said Luke. ‘Maybe in more ways than one.’

Luke and Shane were good friends and worked in the same office. They were cut from the same cloth. They would meet up a couple of times a week at their local greasy-spoon for breakfast before wandering into town to their office. Occasionally one of their flock would be in the café as well, pouring only ketchup on his breakfast.

‘Meaning what exactly?’ said Shane, as he popped a perfectly round onion ring onto his tongue.

‘Meaning I’m done with United, mate,’ he said.

‘Which means what? How do you mean, “done” with United?’ asked Shane. ‘You mean you’re not renewing your season-ticket? I know you were moaning a while back about that, but – ‘

‘No, I’m mean I’m done. They are not my team anymore.’

Shane was confused and stopped eating a sausage to consider what Luke was saying. ‘Let me get this straight. You’re saying you’re no longer a United supporter? No more games, no more pub with the boys?’

Luke looked cagey. ‘Well, not quite.’ He took a breath and then said it. ‘I’m going over to City.’

A lump of semi-chewed sausage fell from Shane’s mouth. ‘Say that again, I didn’t hear you right. For a second I thought you said you were going over to City.’

‘That’s what I said. I’ve emailed the chairman of their supporters’ club. I’m seeing him in a couple of days. They’re gonna take me through it; you know, the process and what they expect and all that and then they’ll see if I’m okay for them and then I’ll be…well, I’ll be one of them.’

Shane just looked at Luke, opened mouthed, for several seconds. Their breakfast was forgotten.

‘Okay,’ said Shane, ‘I’ve got a few questions.’

‘Thought you might, but before you ask them let me just say I’ve really struggled with my conscience on this – it’s not a decision I’ve taken lightly.’

‘Why were you United in the first place?’

‘Because my dad was, that’s how I was brought up,’ said Luke.

‘Exactly,’ said Shane. ‘You can’t just switch your loyalty. You have to think about this a minute – no, just wait a second – your loyalty grows out of time, out of going to the games and worshiping the team; it grows out of all the great nights and the crack down the pub. You didn’t do any of that with City.’

‘Shane, this is why I said I struggled with my conscience, this is not a simple thing, like flicking a switch. It’s a conversion.’

‘What? Mate, nobody – and I mean nobody – has ever converted from one team to another; it’s unheard of and it’s also ridiculous. It can’t be done. You must be delusional. There’s no such thing as a genuine conversion. It just means you didn’t believe what you said you believed to begin with.’

Luke suppressed a snarl, he felt anger tightening his gut. ‘I’m offended! How dare you upset me! I’m telling you about my deepest feelings and beliefs, and how I’ve struggled with my conscience, and you think I’m just mad! I haven’t just got some “new” loyalty, I’ve converted my feelings for United into feelings for City.’

‘You haven’t listened to me. Loyalty stands on the past and you have no past with City.’

‘And you haven’t listened to me. It’s the same loyalty that you’re talking about – just converted.’

‘Jesus! And what does that actually mean? I mean, really. It’s changed colour? Changed shape?’

‘Shane, come on, mate. Take it seriously,’ said Luke

Shane stood up and the table legs scraped as he shoved his way past. He slammed the door behind him.

Greasy Graham, the café’s owner, looked over at Luke. ‘What’s ‘is problem?’

Luke didn’t look up.

2

Luke strode into the shop and asked the sales assistant for the new City shirt, and yes, he wanted the home shirt, not the away strip.

It took the assistant a couple of minutes to fetch one from the back room and Luke held it up in front of him, admiring the badge before kissing it: the symbol of who and what he was to become. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up and tears of joy tried to escape from his overactive tear ducts. He nodded at the assistant and went to a changing room to try it on.

He rubbed the shirt smooth across his cider-belly and gazed at himself in the mirror. He felt complete, like he’d come home to where he belonged, and that was part of it for Luke – belonging, feeling like you were not alone. He still had his friends. They’d come round.

Shane Allahan was furious, however. He’d spent an hour texting everyone he and Luke new to tell them about Luke’s Judas-move. All the history, all the beer they’d drunk, all the toilets they’d vomited in together, all this was for nothing? It could just be thrown away? It made no sense. Shane checked back through the texts he’d received from his two best mates, Mark and John both suggested they all never speak to Luke again. Another friend of Shane’s, Luke’s cousin, Paul, went even further and suggested something which Shane thought was crazy, but the idea was growing on him. They wanted to petition their landlord, Big Steve The Stoner, and get Luke officially barred from the premises. Luke had to go, they suggested, it was a matter of honour. Friendship and family was one thing, but football was something else.

Luke was due back in the office later than usual, by arrangement, and so Shane was at his desk, clicking away at his computer when Luke sat down opposite. Shane didn’t look up; he shifted in his seat and coughed.

‘Come on, mate, we don’t need all this,’ said Luke. He tapped into his computer and gave the mouse a few clicks, setting things ready for the rest of the afternoon.

‘They taken you in?’ said Shane without looking up. He was staring intently at the screen; whatever was on it was too important to risk looking away.

‘Yeah, they have,’ said Luke. ‘I’ve got the shirt. Look, it’s just the lack of buying and the excuses all the time. And the manager, well, Christ, don’t get me started on him.’

‘So you’ve got your new robes,’ said Shane. ‘Very nice, I’m sure. I’m sure you’ll look quite the picture of devotion.’

That was the last they spoke all afternoon.

3

The Baptist Bar, the local watering hole for United devotees – and Shane and Luke’s local – was so named because it used to be a Baptist Church years ago and was converted into a drinking den when demand for the supernatural started to wane. On any given night, most of the customers would be in red – the scum in Blue had their own place of worship across town.

Nobody expected Luke to show up that night no matter what he was wearing, but to walk through the door dressed in blue – every head turned but not one spoke for seconds as they comprehended the sight before them.

‘Alright, boys,’ said Luke, back to the door. ‘I’m still the same guy – what’s the big deal?’

‘You’re in the wrong pub,’ said Big Baz. The over-hang of his gut wobbled with rage. Luke could see his skin was almost as red as his shirt.

‘Look,’ said Luke, trying not to show his fear, ‘I’m just looking for a pint and we can sort this all out. Okay? Who wants a pint? On me.’

Shane couldn’t look at Luke; he turned away and tears dripped onto the pool-table as he shook his head.

Nobody made a move, but then the landlord, Big Steve The Stoner, produced from under the bar a hastily fashioned effigy, wearing a City shirt, held up by a broom handle stuck in its backside.

‘This is you, Judas. You’re just paper, straw and cardboard in this place now.’ Men in red shirts all nodded, grunting their agreement.

A passerby would later tell the fire-brigade that the door flew open and a guy in a blue football shirt shot out at top speed. The burning effigy hit the door as it slammed shut behind him, burning down the pub.