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Archive for June, 2011

Charles Moore writes about the purpose of think-tanks. This is the passage that really struck me:

Very few people are any good at policies. There are people who are good at ideas, and there are people who are good at administration, but you need to translate the ideas into forms that can be implemented.

This is certainly my experience. It’s easy to sit round a table at a meeting, swapping great new ideas about how things should be, but it’s much harder to work out how those ideas can make a real impact on the practical planning that needs to be done. Or the admin crowds out the possibility of new ideas emerging, and as a new project starts, or a new year approaches, we simply copy and paste the various templates we have on file from our previous work because ‘everything seemed to go OK last time…’

I coulnd't find a picture of a think-tank, so here are some classic Manhattan rooftop water tanks instead

Here is the main passage about think-tanks:

Do think-tanks make any difference to anything? I ask because I stepped down this week after six years as chairman of the centre-right think-tank Policy Exchange. In a moving ceremony in the garden of Nick Clegg’s old school (Westminster), David Cameron marked the handing over of the reins from myself to the brilliant and witty Daniel Finkelstein of the Times. He spoke about the importance of the battle of ideas.

He is right. Many of the nicest English people deplore ideology in politics, but the problem is that, if nice people have no ideology, others do not follow their example. Nasty ideology has the field to itself. This is very marked in the sphere of Islamism, in which Policy Exchange does excellent work. One reason that extremists can, almost literally, get away with murder, is that moderates do not have the facts and the contacts with officialdom to counter.

Another value of think-tanks is that very few people are any good at policies. There are people who are good at ideas, and there are people who are good at administration, but you need to translate the ideas into forms that can be implemented. For instance, you encourage the idea of ‘free schools’, but, in order for them not to have perverse effects, you need to give them an incentive to include pupils from poor or bad backgrounds in their number. In this spirit, Policy Exchange invented the ‘pupil premium’.

The knack is to be practical while at the same time being faithful to the original idea. Only think-tanks seem to manage this. They are tiny, but they matter. The few, not the many!

I think I’ll start a think-tank. Great idea! But then I think of the administrative energy required to get one going, and my mind drifts off to another earth-shattering idea…

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A young couple fall in love and panic about the consequences of commitment. A woman hides away in the bathroom at her own fortieth birthday party because she can’t face being reminded of so many years lost in an unhappy marriage. A young man confronts his widowed mother because she doesn’t seem to trust the woman he wants to marry.

There were constant glimpses of the beauty and the fragility of human love, and the way it inevitably uncovers a longing for something even deeper, something more mysterious. An indescribable longing, as one of the characters says.

You might expect a Polish bishop to preach about some of these themes, but not to dramatise them and bring them to the underground theatre of his day.

It was a marvellous play. I wish I could urge you all to go and see it, but there were only two performances. Martin O’Brien is the artistic director of Ten Ten Theatre. He’s adapted a play called The Jeweller’s Shop by Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II.

It’s hard to present profound spiritual themes in the context of our contemporary culture without trivialising them, or sounding preachy. The most fruitful way is often through the medium of human experience. We live in the age of Big Brother and YouTube. Lives are exposed. We are constantly confronted with an unmediated human experience. So when grace is working through that ordinary human experience, it gives an opportunity to touch the fringe of God’s cloak and be lifted up for a moment into the transcendent, without stepping into church or lighting a candle.

Formal religion and popular devotions have lost none of their significance, but the fact is they are outside the bounds of most people’s reality. That’s why a bishop in the late 1950s, and a cutting-edge playwright in our own time, have tried to put the focus on everyday human relationships. Through those relationships, with the ambiguous longings of the human heart exposed so clearly, we catch a glimpse of the divine; just a whisper – quiet enough to be missed, clear enough to unsettle and enchant.

The Jeweller’s Shop by Karol Wojtyla is published by Ignatius Press. The Jeweller, by Martin O’Brien, was performed at Leicester Square Theatre on 22 June, directed by Paul Jepson, as part of the Spirit in the City festival. If you can help Ten Ten Theatre put on a longer run of this wonderful play, see their fundraising page here.

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We often think that the big lies are the important/damaging ones – and they usually are. But the small lies, and even the ‘innocent’ white lies, can be equally destructive. It’s not just because they can set a pattern of deception that might have greater consequences; it’s also because the core moral decision to deceive or to conceal something apparently trivial often reflects a much bigger background compromise that we are wanting to make.

We justify small lies by saying they are of no real consequence. But if that’s really the case, why do we think that simply telling the truth in this minor matter would be such a difficult option?

Last Night is 6/10 film about a young married couple in New York tempted by infidelity. The husband goes away for a business meeting with a gorgeous and seductive colleague; and that same night his wife bumps into her former French boyfriend who was never really reconciled to their separation. What will they do? What choices will they make?

The ‘will they/won’t they?’ tease is what keeps the slightly dull plot moving forward. But the moral interest, for me, lies in those moments when they have to decide how much truth to tell, or when we realise that something not insignificant from the past has been concealed. Infidelity (don’t worry – I’m not giving the plot away) very often depends on whether or not someone is willing to tell the truth about the ordinary, boring things.

When you are about to tell a small or habitual lie, it’s worth stopping to ask: Why?

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I’m not trying to argue someone into accepting the importance of celibacy for Catholic priests (I’ve already given my own personal perspective in a previous post); but if you want you want to have a summary of the meaning of celibacy in the life of the Catholic priest and deacon, as the Church understands it, there is no better place to look than the ordination rite for a ‘transitional’ deacon who is on the road to priesthood.

This image is from last year's ordinations, but Lorenzo (holding the book) was one of the three ordained this year!

Three of the seminarians from Allen Hall were ordained deacons at Westminster Cathedral on Saturday. The beautifully phrased words of their commitment to celibacy really struck me, and reminded me of what my own commitment (made fourteen years ago) is meant to mean in all its richness.

Here are the words the bishop uses:

By your own free choice you seek to enter the order of deacons. You shall exercise this ministry in the celibate state for celibacy is both a sign and a motive of pastoral charity, and a special source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world.

By living in this state with total dedication, moved by a sincere love for Christ the Lord, you are consecrated to him in a new and special way.

By this consecration you will adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart; you will be more freely at the service of God and mankind, and you will be more untrammeled in the ministry of Christian conversion and rebirth.

By your life and character you will give witness to your brothers and sisters in faith that God must be loved above all else, and that it is he whom you serve in others.

Therefore, I ask you:

In the presence of God and the Church, are you resolved, as a sign of your interior dedication to Christ, to remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom and in lifelong service to God and mankind?

The candidate replies: ‘I am.’ There is quite a lot contained in those two short words.

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I’d always taken it for granted that palliative care is a good thing when it is available, but I hadn’t gone the extra step to think about whether someone has a right to receive it, or whether it would be a duty for an individual or hospital or state to provide it.

Prof John Keown addressed these issues last month in a meeting at the House of Lords put on by the Anscombe Bioethics Centre. His argument was fairly simple. There are many different ethical systems, and they would lead you to conflicting conclusions about many moral issues. But despite this, there would be a consensus about the importance of the relief of unnecessary human suffering and the provision of holistic support for those with serious health issues. And Keown concluded that it would be unethical to fail to meet the need of palliative care when it can reasonably be met, e.g. in countries like the UK with good healthcare resources.

Here is a definition, from NICE, quoted on the National Council for Palliative Care website:

Palliative care is the active holistic care of patients with advanced progressive illness. Management of pain and other symptoms and provision of psychological, social and spiritual support is paramount. The goal of palliative care is achievement of the best quality of life for patients and their families. Many aspects of palliative care are also applicable earlier in the course of the illness in conjunction with other treatments.

Is it also a human right? Keown argued that there is a duty to provide palliative care because of the internationally recognised right to healthcare. So the lack of access to palliative care should be seen as a global human rights issue. This might seem a bit extreme, but he pointed out that there is already a right to avoid ‘degrading treatment’ inscribed in the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 3. And he went on to explore the different ways in which civil and criminal law in the UK already implicitly recognise the duty of providing palliative care.

At the end of his talk Keown speculated about how much palliative care could be improved if the provisions that presently applied to animals in this country (through the 2006 Animal Welfare Act) could be extended to human beings. This summary is from the Freshfields Animal Rescue site:

Owners have aDuty of care” to the animals they keep which is a legal phrase meaning that owners have an obligation to do something.  Prior to the Animal Welfare Act 2006, people only had a duty to ensure that an animal didn’t suffer unnecessarily. The new Act keeps this duty but also imposes a broader duty of care on anyone responsible for an animal to take reasonable steps to ensure that the animal’s needs are met. This means that a person has to look after the animal’s welfare as well as ensure that it does not suffer.

The Act defines “animal” as referring to any living vertebrate animal, although there is provision to extend this if future scientific evidence shows that other kinds of animals are also capable of experiencing pain and suffering.

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I’m reading Susan Maushart’s The Winter of Our Disconnect, about ‘How three totally wired teenagers (and a mother who slept with her iPhone) pulled the plug on their technology and lived to tell the tale’.

First, Maushart describes the extent to which electronic media were an inescapable part of their family life:

At ages fourteen, fifteen, and eighteen, my daughters and my son don’t use media. They inhabit media. And they do so exactly as fish inhabit a pond. Gracefully. Unblinkingly. And utterly without consciousness or curiosity as to how they got there [...]

For Generation M, as the Kaiser report dubbed these eight- to eighteen-year-olds, media use is not an activity – like exercise, or playing Monopoly, or bickering with your brother in the back seat. It’s an environment: pervasive, invisible, shrink-wrapped around pretty much everything kids do and say and think.

Then why did she have so many doubts and uncertainties?

“Only connect”, implored E.M. Forster in his acclaimed novel Howards End

So… How connected, I found myself wondering, is connected enough? As a social scientist, journalist, and mother, I’ve always been an enthusiastic user of information technology (and I’m awfully fond of my dryer too). But I was also growing sceptical of the redemptive power of media to improve our lives – let alone to make them ‘easier’ or simplify them. Like many other parents, I’d noticed that the more we seemed to communicate as individuals, the less we seemed to cohere as a family. (Talk about a disconnect!)

There were contradictions on a broader scale too – and they have been widely noted. That the more facts we have at our fingertips, the less we seem to know. That the ‘convenience’ of messaging media (e-mail, SMS, IM) consumes ever larger and more indigestable chunks of our time and headspace. That as a culture we are practically swimming in entertainment, yet remain more depressed than any people who have ever lived. Basically, I started considering a scenario E.M. Forster never anticipated: the possibility that the more we connect, the further we may drift, the more fragmented we may become.

What’s your experience? Has all this connectivity made us more connected? Happy? Freer? Less alone? More alive? More at peace with ourselves and one with each other?

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I’ve just come across the DIEM project which tracks your eye movements as you watch something and sees exactly where your attention is fixed at each moment. You could spend hours on this, but here are three of my favourite video clips.

“This is an excerpt from There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007). 11 adult viewers were shown the video and their eye movements recorded using an Eyelink 1000 (SR Research) infra-red camera-based eyetracker. Each dot represents the center of one viewer’s gaze. The size of each dot represents the length of time they have held fixation.”

There are different ways of displaying the eye movements, as explained on the DIEM project website:

The DIEM project is an investigation of how people look and see. DIEM has so far collected data from over 250 participants watching 85 different videos. The data together with CARPE will let you visualize where people look during dynamic scene viewing such as during film trailers, music videos, or advertisements. CARPE, or Computational and Algorithmic Representation and Processing of Eye-movements, allows one to begin visualizing eye-movement data in a number of ways.

There are a number of different visualization options:

  • low level visual features that process the input video to show flicker or edges;
  • heat-maps that show where people are looking;
  • clustered heat-maps that use pattern recognition to define the best model of fixations for each frame;
  • peek-through which uses the heat-map information to only show parts of the video where people are looking.

The next two clips use the heat maps, which show where the communal gaze is fixed by aggregating the focal points of individual viewers. The first frenetic piece is from the Simpsons, and shows how we tend to follow the action. But notice how we try to read any written words that pop up in the picture even if they are not at the centre of the activity (e.g. the blackboard in the classroom).

The next is from the third US Presidential debate between Obama and McCain. Keep watching to see how the attention changes as the camera pulls back, and the wives come onto the stage.

I don’t know what we learn from all this! Film directors, psychologists, and advertisers must all be fascinated to analyse the results.

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One of the many topics explored at the Theology of the Body conference over the weekend was shame. Not the moral shame we feel when we’ve done something wrong and wish we could undo or hide it; but another kind of ‘anthropological’ shame we feel as an instinctive response to those who treat us as if we were just objects.

Christ raising Adam and Eve

John Crosby explained how in Pope John Paul’s anthropology, we long to be recognised as persons, with an innate dignity and an inner life of our own. This is one part of his ‘personalilst’ philosophy. If someone simply looks at us (we might say stares at us), they don’t get beyond the surface sheen of our body – so we become objectified or ‘instrumentalised’ (as the jargon goes), turned into ‘instruments’ for the use of another – even if they mean no harm – and denied our own personhood and subjectivity.

This happens all the time, and usually it doesn’t matter too much. It does no harm that we are only able to glance at the hundreds of people in the high street, and that we can’t engage with them enough to appreciate their inner beauty. But if someone quite consciously stares at another, looks at them without seeing them as a person, it becomes an intrusion; and this is even more the case if they are being turned through this look into a purely sexual object.

Shame is our natural defence against this intrusion. This is quite distinct from the shame that comes if we are guilty of doing something wrong and desperate to hide our wrongdoing. The ‘good shame’ takes place almost at an existential level, rather than a moral one. It involves an inner withdrawal. To stop myself being turned into an object, I hide myself – physically, emotionally, psychologically and even spiritually. I don’t want to allow the ‘shameless’ look of the other to trap me and reduce me to the sheer materiality of my bodily existence. The shame I experience is much more than a feeling – it is a strategic response, a form of legitimate self-protection.

The goal, ultimately, is to recover that original innocence of the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve could stand without shame before each other in their nakedness – truly ‘seeing’ each other in all their personal depths, delighting in their humanity. I don’t mean this literally – there are other important reasons why we are not naturists. But the idea of standing before each other without shame, and of allowing others to come before us without the need to feel this anthropological shame, is part of our redemption and a return to innocence.

There are simpler words to express all this: the need for respect, acceptance, reverence, humility, gentleness, openness, sincerity, etc. Pope John Paul just wants to get behind the language to see why it really matters at the level of his personalist philosophy.

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I admit it – this is just a gratuitous post because I happen to have listened to some old CDs in the car over the last couple of weeks. Anyway, there is no doubt that Radiohead’s OK Computer has stood the test of time and must rank very high in any list of the greatest albums of the nineties.

It’s a triumph of music and mood over meaning. I haven’t got a clue what he is singing about most of the time. But what a mood they create, somehow in that strange space between exhilaration and despair.

Take “Let Down” as an example. Utterly depressing if you just listen to the lyrics, but somehow the music takes you beyond, as if the line about growing wings is not just a sign of desperation and frustration but some half-acknowledged sign of hope – quickly denied.

I need to go back to the album that came before - The Bends. At the time I preferred it over OK Computer because it was still on the edge of a classic rock album. I’m not sure what I’ll think now.

Jason Hirschhorn at Listverse agrees with me!

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What an amazing day. I was at St Mary’s University College yesterday for the Third International Symposium on Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and I saw the fastest man in the world! The fastest man in the world ever! 100m in 9.58 seconds. (I didn’t see him do the 9.58 seconds.)

Let’s deal with Usain Bolt first. He was at St Mary’s for an afternoon of interviews and publicity. I heard this on the grapevine and snuck down to the gym where he was doing a photo-shoot. I don’t have tickets to the 100m final at the Olympics, so I presume this is as close as I will ever get to the legend. It was a sweet moment just to see him in the flesh, and to imagine watching the Olympics on the TV next summer.

Here is the world record run:

And the conference. It’s just getting started, but there were two interesting talks from Michael Waldstein and William Newton. Newton asked a fascinating question: Why does Pope John Paul talk about the spousal meaning of the body instead of the fraternal meaning of the body? There are many different ways of loving and relating and bonding, many different kinds of friendship, so why put the emphasis on the love shared by a husband and wife?

He gave what I thought was a good answer. He didn’t say that spousal love is the deepest kind of love, as if all other loves and relationships were a hidden longing for this – which wouldn’t make sense of the Christian understanding of heaven, and which would seem like a slight or an impossible burden to those of us (over 50% in the UK!) who are not married. Instead he said that spousal love provides an icon of the deepest meaning of all love; it shows with a particular clarity how every relationship – at its best – is about giving oneself in order to deepen the bonds of communion and friendship, a friendship that leads to new life for those in the relationship and for others.

In other words (I’m going a bit further than Newton did in his talk), all relationships, despite their radical differences – think of friends, siblings, parents and children, colleagues, fellow citizens, etc – have at heart an element of giving oneself, and receiving the gift of who the other person is, for the sake of communion and the giving of new life; they are unitive and procreative. It’s not that everyone has a vocation to be a husband or wife; it’s that everyone longs to give themselves to others in a way that has a particular iconic clarity in the love between husband and wife. This is why, according to Pope John Paul, the spousal meaning of the body has significance for all of us – married and unmarried.

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I was at St Patrick’s in Soho Square yesterday evening, for the middle part of a three-day celebration to mark the re-opening of the church after extensive repairs and refurbishment, and a complete remodelling of the crypt area.

St Patrick's from the outside - I can't find a shareable image of the new interior!

The overwhelming impression is of light, order and grace – qualities that I think are much-needed in this part of London.

It’s interesting that the re-opening has been reported in the secular as well as the Catholic press, a recognition that the event, and the church itself, have a particular significance for the wider London community and not just for Catholics.

This is how Riazat Butt in the Guardian reported it:

A former bordello and music hall owned by one of Casanova’s mistresses is perhaps an unlikely site for one of Britain’s oldest Roman Catholic churches, St Patrick’s, which sits amid the bright lights and fleshpots of London’s Soho.

“It is not a conventional parish,” observes Father Alexander Sherbrooke, who has overseen a 14-month, £3.5m project to restore the church and rid it of the damage caused by damp, dry rot, urban pollution, incense and candlelight. It reopens this week with a specially composed Magnificat from James MacMillan and a mass from Cardinal George Pell, who is flying in from Rome for the occasion.

The traditional nature of the celebrations – vespers and canticles – highlights the contrast between the orthodoxy of St Patrick’s and what lies outside it.

Sherbrooke says: “You get a knock on the door and it can be someone who is successful in business, someone who wants a sandwich or someone caught up in the sex industry. We leave our SOS prayer line calling cards in telephone boxes – where you might see other services advertised.

“One man who called said he was a pimp and wanted to break out of his occupation but that it was too lucrative for him to leave. Do we just accept the way people are? People get into ruts they find it difficult to break out of. We can say, as Christians, that God can and does intervene.”

Butt is impressed by the openness and outreach of the Catholic community at St Patrick’s:

The restoration work includes the creation of a crypt, classrooms and a cafe. St Patrick’s and a team of volunteers feed 80 to 90 homeless people a week with the Groucho – a private members’ club – supplying the puddings.

The work to the church will allow the team to cook and serve food from one location instead of having to prepare the meals in their own kitchens and drive them into central London.

Space will also be provided for alcohol and drug counselling. St Patrick’s will be the only Roman Catholic church offering this service in London [...]

Migrant communities continue to be the lifeblood of the parish. On a typical Sunday St Patrick’s – or rather its temporary location at the House of St Barnabas – will attract around 700 people to five services, two in English, one in Spanish, one in Portuguese and one in Cantonese.

Alexander says: “In this part of London you don’t have resident parishioners. There are tourists who know we are here and workers. It is a place where they can rest their weary feet. There is a little bit of bucking the trend going on. The loneliness of this city is more intense than you can imagine. Soho has a darkness as well as the bright lights.”

Parishioners believe the church is important to Soho and to London. Pauline Stuart, who has been part of St Patrick’s for nine years, says: “We’re not the establishment – we can do things that Westminster Cathedral can’t. I do get comments sometimes – you know, ‘what’s a nice girl like you believing in all that mumbo jumbo’. But for me it’s true. I don’t care whether they convert or not. That’s God’s problem.”

It’s open all day, every day, so do pop in if you are in central London over the next few weeks – or indeed any time. There is a map and travel details here.

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I was really disturbed by some of the reactions to the recent report into the 2009 Air France crash, which suggested that it would be far better for someone if they had no warning at all about their impending death.

You probably remember hearing about the tragedy: all 228 people aboard were killed when an Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed into the Atlantic in June 2009. A preliminary report has been written two years after on the basis of information from the aircraft’s black boxes, which were only recovered last month. There is no clear conclusion about what caused the crash – it was partly to do with faulty instrumental readings. The fall took three and a half minutes.

This is the bit that disturbed me, as reported by Elaine Ganley and Jill Lawless:

Some families of victims who said they were given information in a meeting with the agency said it was possible their loved ones went to their deaths unaware of what was happening because there was apparently no contact between the cockpit and cabin crew in the 3 1 / minutes.

“It seems they did not feel more movements and turbulence than you generally feel in storms,” said Jean-Baptiste Audousset, president of a victims’ solidarity association. “So, we think that until impact they did not realize the situation, which for the family is what they want to hear — they did not suffer.”

It’s true that they may not have had to live through the horror of knowing they were falling to their deaths; and I do understand how a relative can find some consolation in knowing this. But surely there are other considerations involved here as well? It must be frightening to know that you are about to die, and I have sat with many people as they face this knowledge and try to come to terms with it – but would you really prefer not to know?

I’m not just writing as a Christian believer now. Yes, as a person of faith, I would rather have a few minutes to pray, to thank God for my life, to say sorry for anything I have done wrong, to offer my life to the Lord, and generally to prepare for my death. But even if I had no faith in God or in a life after death, my impending death would still be a hugely significant horizon, and those last few minutes of life would surely take on an unimaginable significance. I wouldn’t wish for myself that I were left in ignorance. I’d want to know, in order to try to make sense of it, or simply to make the most of it, or at least not to waste it. And I wouldn’t wish for my loved ones to be denied the possibility of knowing that their end was near.

I’m not romanticising death. I’m certainly not pretending that the fear isn’t very real, especially if the knowledge comes quickly and unexpectedly. I’d just rather know. Fear, sometimes, is what helps us to appreciate the significance of some great truth that lies before us; and there aren’t many truths as significant as death.

A film that played with these themes very creatively was Last Night from 1998 (not the new film with Keira Knightley).

Everyone knows that the world is going to end this evening at midnight, and we see how various characters in Toronto react. Their decisions about how to spend the last few hours of their life generally reflect the concerns and priorities of the life they have already lived, the life they have made. Their fundamental intentions are clarified and crystalised in these last moments.

On the other hand, knowing that time is so short, it gives them a chance to make something different of their life. Not so much a moral conversion (although that is also possible), but a reorientation, a new level of authenticity, a sort of redemption – even if the choices some of them made were thoroughly depressing. It’s well worth seeing.

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