The subversive legacy of Christianity

Tom Holland’s Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind provides a fascinating and compelling account of the history of Christianity, how the Bible was created and its legacy in Western morality and thought. And he argues convincingly that Christ’s teachings, and the act of his crucifixion, are the basis for our belief in equality, our commitment to rights and our compassion for our fellow human beings. Yet does Holland overstate his main argument? Is it right to see Christianity as the overriding influence on the Western mind?

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Poverty Safari: why class matters

Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of the British Underclass, by Darren McGarvey, won this year’s Orwell prize for political books.

It has quite a backstory. McGarvey, aka Loki, a rapper and columnist, grew up in extreme poverty in Pollok on the outskirts of Glasgow. He battled addiction and homelessness in his teens and early adulthood. It was only because he crowdfunded Poverty Safari that he was able to write it at all. But such was the power of its argument that it quickly rose up bestseller lists and has been praised by many liberals. This is no mean feat for a book that is not only hard-hitting, but that also shows the negative consequences of the ‘well-meaning but privileged assumptions’ of a rather paternalistic left-leaning elite.

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Kershaw’s lesson from the 1930s

There is a common misconception today that fascist rule in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s was an outcome of the ‘will of the people’ and that ‘too much democracy’ led to the meteoric rise of Hitler. Ian Kershaw’s Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris, published in 1988, shows that, on the contrary, the Nazis only succeeded because the ruling class was all too ready to turn its back on a fragile democracy.

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Sex, politics and censorship

The political journey of Jerry Barnett, the author of Porn Panic! Sex and Censorship in the UK, has been a fascinating if rather unusual one. His grandfather, Albert, was among the thousands of Jews, locals and Communists who fought off Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts when they tried to march through the Jewish East End in 1936. The Battle of Cable Street, as it became known, was an inspiring example of people taking matters into their own hands. ‘Women threw heavy pots out of the windows on to the fascists’ heads. The police deployed their truncheons against the protesters, but were beaten back, along with the fascists’, writes Barnett. Albert’s daughter, Jerry Barnett’s mother, was also politically active – in the Women’s Lib movement in the 1960s, campaigning for equal rights and sexual liberation. He himself joined the socialist Militant Tendency in the 1970s. But after Margaret Thatcher’s historic defeat of the miners in 1985, Barnett, like many on the left, dropped out of politics.

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Saving normal in a world gone mad

In the early 1990s, American psychiatrist Allen Frances was chair of the taskforce that created the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV (DSM-IV) (published in 1994). The DSM is the book used by psychiatrists to track and describe mental disorders and conditions. He had previously been part of the team – led by a former teacher, Bob Spitzer – that created DSM-III (published in 1980) and DSM-IIIR (published in 1987). Now he is one of the most prominent critics of DSM-5 (published in 2013).

Frances describes his book Saving Normal: An Insider’s Revolt Against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma, and the Medicalization of Ordinary Life as ‘part mea culpa, part j’accuse, part cri de coeur’.

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The chasm between great apes and people

Today we are often told that us ‘arrogant’ human beings need to get off our anthropocentric pedestal. We are not as special as we think; we are ‘just another ape’. Peter Singer, the so-called father of the animal rights movement, claims that the great apes – that is, orang-utans, gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos – are not only our closest living relatives; they also possess many of the characteristics that were once considered to be unique to humans.

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