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A return to ancient barbarism

22 August 2014

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IT IS one of those weeks when the disparity between foreign and domestic news is more grotesque than usual. In Iraq, all kinds of horrors continue unabated. In England, Professor Richard Dawkins gets teased, and Vicky Beeching comes out. I think this proves that we are very fortunate.

Bishop Nick Baines attempted to link the two with his letter to David Cameron about Iraqi policy, leaked to The Observer, then posted to his blog, and finally followed by an explanatory post there which explained that he had gone on holiday somewhere that the internet could not reach. It's an effective way of handling press relations. It also leads to some interesting results.

The Observer story started: "The Church of England has delivered a withering critique of David Cameron's Middle East policy, describing the government's approach as incoherent, ill-thought-out and determined by 'the loudest media voice at any particular time'.

"The criticisms are made in an extraordinary letter to the prime minister signed by the bishop of Leeds, Nicholas Baines, and written with the support of the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Seen by The Observer, it describes the UK's foreign policy as so muddled and reactive that it is 'difficult to discern the strategic intentions of the government's approach to the region'."

To which Bishop Baines commented, on his blog, that "My letter is neither 'bitter' nor an 'attack' on the Prime Minister. That was journalese. My letter simply tries to ask questions many people are asking, but to which we are not getting answers. I wrote reasonably and respectfully. Asking questions of 'coherence' should not imply that there is none (even if there isn't); it does ask for any coherence to be articulated."

This would be a little more convincing if the Bishop were a media ingénue, who never had anything to do with journalists, or vulgarians on Radio 2, and had no idea that calling the policy incoherent and ill-thought-out would appear to us reptiles as an attack on it. If I ask "Have you stopped beating your wife?", and then explain that this doesn't imply that you beat your wife nowadays, it doesn't lessen the sting at all.

Had Mr Cameron written to the Bishop in those terms, it would have been reasonable to see it as an attack on the Church's policies (whatever they may be). But, all that said, it was a cracking letter: firm and clear, but without giving needless offence. Sometimes, after all, a government does need attacking.


TOM HOLLAND had a piece in The Sunday Times looking at the extraordinary popularity of beheading as a means of propaganda in Mesopotamia through the ages: "Posing with severed heads on Twitter has been quite the social media fashion this past week.

"Last Sunday a seven-year-old Australian boy was photographed in the Syrian city of Raqqa awkwardly holding one up with both hands. 'That's my boy!' Dad tweeted proudly. Then, a few days later, it was the turn of a rapper from Maida Vale, west London. Standing in the same square as the Australian boy had done, Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary (or Abu Kalashnikov, as he now prefers to be known) was pictured in combat fatigues, pointing to the sky with one hand and clutching a head in the other. 'Chillin' with my homie,' he boasted, 'or what's left of him.'

"In the Middle East beheadings have been used by ambitious empire-builders to terrorise their opponents into submission, for millennia. Across the border from Syria, in the Iraqi city of Mosul, fighters such as Bary have been sticking heads on spikes in a manner chillingly reminiscent of kings who ruled there thousands of years ago. Assyria, between the ninth and seventh centuries BC, was the greatest power in the Middle East, and the advance of its armies invariably left behind a trail of headless corpses. 'I hung heads on trees around the whole city,' boasted one king. When the followers of two rebel leaders were paraded through the capital wearing the heads of their masters around their necks, the news of it was assiduously publicised across the whole empire. The kings of Assyria would have been mad for Twitter."


THERE was a rather amusing piece in The Spectator by some superannuated old hack drawing attention to the profits of prophecy. The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason turns out to have a programme for supporters in which a donation of $85 a month will get you preferential access to events with him; and for successively larger sums successively greater indulgences are offered. The innermost ring offers lunch - or even breakfast - with the professor once a year for as little as $100,000, though donations of up to $500,000 a year are solicited. No wonder he calls this "The Magic of Reality".

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