Monday 19 October 2009

and you know where they burn books, people are next....

"Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime....."

So begins "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell, written at some point in the middle of the Seventeenth Century. It famously features an amorous suitor attempting to convince his reluctant partner to surrender her virginity. If I had the time, he says, I would spend centuries adoring every part of your body... but....

"But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace."

In other words, give it up now love, before it's too late.

It's a fantastic poem, and I was reminded of it this afternoon, when Aravis tweeted how she'd been studying it in class and had been somewhat taken aback by some of her classmates' reactions to it:

"Asked if To His Coy Mistress was meant as existential angst or seduction, my classmates' consensus was: neither. He's just some gross creepy guy trying to get into her pants."

Hmm. That's arguable, I suppose, but they went further, with one student saying:

" communicates a man who would like to use a woman for his own pleasure to gratify his ego."

The same student then goes on to call him violent.

When I studied this poem, some twenty years ago, we talked at length about the poet's intentions here, and how, as a religious man, he might actually be mocking some of the "carpe diem" attitudes of his contemporaries. For myself, I like to think that the narrator of the poem is being slightly comical in his argument, as though when your dad refuses to lend you a fiver, you ask him to lend you a £100 instead. What we didn't discuss in any detail was how "gross" or otherwise the poet might be. It's always a dangerous game to view a 350 year old poem through the lens of today's morality. They didn't have flushing toilets, power showers or cable tv back then either, and I'm sure that's a pretty grotesque thought for lots of people too. Things become even more dangerous when you start to factor in your religious beliefs.

Apparently lots of Aravis' class are quite religious - Catholics - and although I don't know them, it's tempting to think that their views on a poem like this have been shaped by their conservative, religious viewpoints.

For some reason, I'm reminded of the recent new reports about the top ten books that people tried to get the American Library Association to ban. Surprise, surprise.... many of them feature themes that the conservative religious right finds offensive: "And Tango Makes Three", the story of two gay penguins in Central Park Zoo; the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, where God is senile and decrepit; "Uncle Bobby's Wedding", featuring some gay guinea pigs. This follows earlier stories about how Sarah Palin tried in the late 1990s as then mayor of Wasilla in Alaska to have "Daddy's Roommate", a tale about a gay father, removed from the town library. Just the other day, Matt Latimer, a former speechwriter for George Bush, alleged in his new memoir of life in the White House that Bush had refused to grant JK Rowling the Presidential Medal of Freedom because her writing "encouraged witchcraft".... .and don't even mention Charles Darwin: a recent film on the naturalist's life has failed to find a US distributor because of its controversial themes. i.e. it talks about Evolution.

I'm sure we all agree that censorship is bad... but all you have to do is to take a closer look at the one book these people will never ban, and you will see quite how ridiculous these people really are.

Let's start with Genesis. We'll pass over a drunken Noah sleeping with his daughters, and we'll stop at Genesis chapter 19, verses 4-8, where two angels come to visit Lot to warn him of the impending disaster about to strike Sodom. He invites them in as his guests:

"But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter. And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? Bring them out unto us, that we may know them. And Lot went out at the door unto them, and shut the door after him, and said, I pray you brethren, do not so wickedly. Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye unto them as is good unto your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they unto the shadow of my roof."

In other words, gang rape my virgin daughters, but leave my guests alone. Nice.

Or, how about Judges chapter 19, verses 22-25, where a Levite and his concubine come to visit Gibeah and stay with an old man who lives there:

"Now as they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, certain sons of Belial, beset the house round about, and beat at the door, and spake to the master of the house, the old man, saying, Bring forth the man that came into the house, that we may know him. And the man, the master of the house, said unto them, Nay, my brethren, nay, I pray you, do not so wickedly; seeing that this man is come into my house, do not this folly. Behold, here is my daughter a maiden, and his concubine; them I will bring out now, and humble ye them, and do with them what seemeth good unto you; but unto this man do not so vile a thing. But the men would not hearken to him: so the man took his concubine, and brought her forth unto them; and they knew her, and abused her, all the night until morning: and when the day began to spring, they let her go."

Nice, eh? She dies, incidentally, as a result of her terrible night, and her master cuts her body up and sends the parts to different parts of the coast. Much righteous slaughter ensues, in God's name, of course.*

The Old Testament is riddled with this kind of stuff, and -- if read through the lens of today's morality -- isn't it just the most awful, misogynist rubbish you've ever heard? But they'll never ban that, of course, it's The Bible, isn't it? It's only the word of God, innit? I'm sure you'll agree that Harry Potter is far more of a perfidious influence on our youth than stories of maidens offered up for gang rape by their fathers, or come to that, a seventeenth century charmer trying to woo his coy mistress.


*In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention at this point that I'm not as up on the Old Testament as I might be --- I'm still reading "The God Delusion", and Dawkins mentions both these passages in chapter 7 to illustrate how people pick and choose which bits of the Bible are to be taken literally and which bits should be read allegorically. Obviously the Bible isn't suggesting we should offer up our daughters for rape, but clearly that bit about a man lying with another man is to be taken literally and homosexuality is thus a grievous sin.... Out of interest, I checked a book of children's bible stories that I was given at my christening before writing this, and although the story of the angels visiting Lot is told, funnily enough, it skips Lot's offering of his virgin daughters to the mob. Strange that. It's still full of the blood and thunder of the Old Testament God, but it chooses to skip that bit....


Whilst we're on the subject of the ignorance of crowds... lest we liberals get too excited by our recent triumphs in the battles against Carter-Ruck over Trafigura and over Jan Moir's stunningly insensitive article about Stephen Gately, let's remember two things:

1) We're not the only people who can organise campaigns like this: ask Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand about how easily roused the good people of middle England can be, and get ready for a campaign from the BNP over this week's Question Time appearance.

2) We might be a more tolerant and inclusive pitchfork wielding mob, but we're still a pitchfork wielding mob.


  1. How should people like Jan Moir be dealt with? Her article was poisonously homophobic and the more complaints there are about it indicates to me that we might actually be living in a more rational and compassionate society than I thought. I'm not bothered about the kicking that Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross got, I think they're both pretty good at what they do but the sketch in question was toe-curlingly puerile.

    As for the BNP - if their membership is in fact limited to indigenous caucasians I can't understand how this is legal and how they can stand for election - but it seems to be the case and so I think they ought to be on Question Time and the other parties ought to earn their democratic spurs by ripping them apart.

  2. Hmmm. I'm largely with you on the Jan Moir thing, and lots of what I read was heartwarming and inclusive... But a lot of it was full of personal name-calling about Moir that had little or nothing to add to the debate but more abuse. I'm also pretty sure that lots of people didn't bother to read the article (more, I suspect, than heard Ross and Brand before complaining....). The abusers allowed Moir to write it off, at least publically, as an orchestrated campaign when it was clearly no such thing. It's great that we made our voices heard, but I'm anxious on two fronts:

    1) I don't like the haters and their stupid abuse. I didn't like what Moir wrote, but is calling her an ugly c*nt really helping? How does that make us different?

    2) I'm acutely aware that we, the reasonable liberal people of Twitter and elsewhere, decided this was worth making a stand over. Other people, with different values, will espouse causes we don't believe in.... The extreme right or religious conservatives, for example... They will have an impact too, and frankly who are we to say we're any better? I believe we are, but they believe at least as strongly that they are too, and they may shout louder than we can.

    That's all.

  3. Homophobia is irrational. I take it to be self evident that it is better not to inflict harm (physical or verbal) on somebody for no good reason. Given the likelihood that homophobia's survival is in large part due to the influence of arbitrary religious doctrine I'm surprised that you cede that homophobes are entitled to their views, out of what? Humility? Politeness?

    As for the personal abuse - poor old Jan Moir eh? What bad luck to have spouted all that crap in the same week a gay man is murdered for nothing more than his sexuality! I'm sorry but she has indeed been left looking like a right c*nt.

  4. have I ceded that homophobes are entitled to their views? I don't see how you're going to stop them having or expressing those views, but I don't think I've conceded that they should be allowed to speak out of politeness have I? What interests me is the territory this gets us into. Are we setting ourselves up as saying what we think is and is not acceptable? What qualifies us? Homophobia is an obvious one, but what about something a little less clearcut that we disagree with? It's not a clear line between right and wrong, is it? Who patrols the gray area? Me? You?

  5. Saying "who are we to say we're any better" does seem like a shrug of the shoulders to me. And people's view are very unlikely to change if not challenged.

    "We" have been setting out what is and isn't acceptable through our parliament for hundreds of years, why so cautious now? You can talk about how alienated we've all become from politics but I imagine, by and large, you probably agree with most of the law of the land?

    Grey areas? I've got a good one: burkas. Personally I think they probably are an instrument of patriarchal oppression but at the same time I think it'd be ridiculous to legislate on what people can and can't wear. Also, you've got obviously intelligent women saying they're perfectly happy to wear them. What to do? As to who is patrolling this (and all the other) grey areas: why those moral paragons of the press of course.

  6. Hm. I'm not so much shrugging my shoulders here -- I'm actively appalled by lots of this sort of stuff and I thought Jan Moir's article was hateful -- as trying to raise a relativist point that I often raise about how moral standards are, by their very nature, subjective and that they slip and slide over time. What is acceptable to some people is beyond the pale to others (civil partnerships for same sex couples appears to be one such issue at the moment). It's also true that society's mores shift over time too - it was once considered unacceptable for a man to leave the house with a bare head, for instance. Not so any more (more's the pity!). I have been heartily encouraged by some of the responses I've seen on Twitter (and elsewhere) recently, but at the same time I'm conscious that "we" (i.e. my kind of person who shares similar morals and politics and things) are not the only people who can do this, and we're going to see "other" people doing the same thing for things we don't agree with.

    I'm definitely not shrugging my shoulders and saying that we should be happy about this or that we can't or shouldn't do anything about it, I'm just trying to make the general point that, in our own liberal, caring-sharing way, we're as guilty of creating a mob as "they" are and of, I guess, assuming that our point of view is the "right" one.

    A burka is indeed a good example of this, for all the reasons you say, but we could probably as easily settle into a cracking argument about the merits of, say, Crazy Frog too. Loads of people think he was great.....

    I can't help myself. I studied history at university, and the thing I took away from that is that there is no such thing as a fact and that absolutely everything we think we know is subjective to some degree or another. I can't help but apply that to pretty much everything. Parliament has been making laws for centuries, but I can't see it legislating now to execute the monarch, more's the pity.... even though they have the power and have done it before. What's more, the makeup of parliament and thus the people it represents have changed enormously over the same time. It's theoretically the same body and it's still passing laws, but it's a mistake to think that it hasn't changed. I"m not sure, either, that they are, or have ever been, the arbiters of what is and isn't acceptable. One of, perhaps, but far from the only ones.

    I love blogging. You put a post out there, and it's amazing how often you end up talking at a tangent in the comments to what you were expecting.