Isidore, money and birds

Isidore of Seville lived at an interesting but often forgotten time. His life straddled the sixth and seventh centuries AD, falling in a period some might call Late Antiquity, others the Early Middle Ages, and still others the Dark Ages. Although most people would probably say, it’s a bloody long time ago, I came here for the talk about money and birds, get on with it.

OK, I’m coming to that. He lived at an interesting time because he lived after the Western Roman Empire had fallen, but where he lived still formed part of a wider Mediterranean community, stretching from Spain to Italy and North Africa, and whose members continued to communicate in Latin. Amongst all the praying, blessing and anointing he would have done (he was a bishop), he managed to find time to write. One of the things he wrote was a kind of encyclopedia, called the Etymologies. This gave wild and wonderful explanations for all kinds of things, such as the fact that the word used at that time for “looking”, cattare, derived from they way in which cats (cat = cattus) looked around in the dark with their gleaming eyes. This is utterly wrong, but hey, it’s this kind of entertainingly ludicrous explanation that makes this ancient work fun to read.

I digress. Isidore tackles many things in the Etymologies and occasionally does say more sensible things. For example, Isidore talks about war, specifically what a just war would consist of:

A war is just when… it is undertaken to regain what has been stolen or to repel enemies.

Most people would agree with this sentiment. Had he lived a century later, he would doubtless have thought it right for the inhabitants of Spain to take up arms against the Arab invasion of the peninsula which occurred less than a century after his death, in 711.

The issue of a just war against Islamic combatants is, of course, highly topical. Is it just, on this basis, for France to bomb Raqqa after the events at the weekend?

I’m not sure of the answer, but I’m not, in principle, against the idea of military action against ISIS. I find it hard to empathise with the people who encourage and approve of the acts of barbarity seen in Paris. It would seem to be just to take action against these people, to prevent more innocent people being killed.

That’s the rub, of course. How can we be sure that when a town is bombed only “the enemy” are killed? There’s a lot of talk about “precision strikes” but the military didn’t invent terms such as “collateral damage” for nothing. People die like you and me die when bombs get dropped – it’s not always the bad guys. You might say the end justifies the means. Some people die, but a lot more are made safe. Maybe.

There’s something else which bothers me about this. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has today announced a significant increase in security spending and we should apparently also see this in the context of setting defence spending to 2% of GDP. 2% of GDP is an incredibly huge amount of money. Remember that this isn’t 2% of the money the government receives in tax, but essentially 2% of all the money produced by the work of all the British people will be spent on soldiers, vehicles, weapons and facilities. Remember also, that money, like energy, isn’t destroyed by spending it – when you spend it, someone receives it. Who? In this case, soldiers, vehicle and weapon manufacturers, and construction companies. So an increase in spending means some companies do very well. If a terrorist atrocity leads to an increase in spending, then, it is true that terrorism is actually good for business for some companies.

The ethics of being an arms manufacturer is a thorny issue, but I’m sure that the stocks and shares of such companies will have undergone a significant bounce in the last few days – I haven’t checked, but the contrary would surprise me. So, before thinking about war, we should consider carefully who benefits and who’s arguing for it, before we spend a huge amount of money on killing people.

OK, so, Isidore, money… wasn’t I going to talk about birds? Here we go. It’s about to get hot in here.

Do you remember all the kerfuffle about bird flu and swine flu? Remember how we were all going to die in a sweaty fever? The newspapers were fascinated by the health of birds and pigs for a while and the UK government alone spent 560 million pounds on Tamiflu, the drug that was going to save us all. The US government spent billions stockpiling it for the inevitable pandemic. In the end, of course, the square root of sod all happened and the whole thing was a massive waste of money. You might say that we couldn’t have known for sure how it would turn out, and maybe this is true, but it’s also true that a lot of people did very well out of the panic.

Who benefited? Principally the drug companies, Roche and Gilead. Gilead’s share price rose by 50% in 2005 when the US government announced the plan to stockpile Tamiflu. So, if you had 20 million dollars worth of shares in the company at the start of 2005, you made a cool 10 million dollars over the course of the year.

So, a quiz question for you. Who was the chairman of Gilead Sciences between 1997 and 2001 and still had millions invested in the company in 2005? You don’t know? Look it up and prepare to be amazed – or not.

I’m not sure whether waging war on ISIS is the right thing to do, partly because I get the feeling that that’s exactly what the terrorists want western countries to do. But there does seem to be a case for a more just war than the disastrous war in Iraq in 2003. But I think that when making choices like this, we need to look around us, just like those cats with the gleaming eyes, and be absolutely sure we’re doing things for the right reasons – and not get rushed into panicked decisions which are sure to benefit the interested few.


Persuasion and the limits of debate

There’s a Labour leadership election coming up in the UK – you might have noticed. Whoever wins, and the candidates are actually quite diverse, one thing won’t change: at Prime Minister’s Questions, the Labour leader will not agree with the Conservative leader or vice versa. At no point will you see David Cameron say to Jeremy Corbyn: “That’s an excellent point. You’re right about that. I’m going to sit down now.”

But why not? If two people are debating an issue, surely there is a fact of the matter and that it is possible for one side or the other to be close to the truth? But at PMQs or any other kind of debate, you rarely if at all see one person convince the other – although they might perhaps convince someone who’s listening.
There’s a dialogue by Plato (stay with me now) called Gorgias, in which Socrates puts forward his beliefs about the why one should try to live the good life, but he comes up against a formidable opponent in Callicles, who holds that might is right: that getting whatever is you want by whatever means is the right thing to do – so long as you can get away with it. Socrates is shocked, as it’s his belief that suffering injustice is better than doing it: better to be tortured than to be the torturer.

Sanzio 01 Socrates.jpg
Sanzio 01 Socrates” by Raphael[1]. Licenced under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
No matter how many arguments Socrates puts forward, Callicles is not convinced. In fact he becomes so frustrated by the whole process, he slips into a teenager’s “whatever you say” mode in answer to Socrates points, until he finally asks Socrates to play his own role in the debate. Bizarrely, Socrates proceeds to argue with himself – and still cannot reach an agreement.
This has happened to me over the last few days. You see I’ve started talking to myself in the mirror… no, that’s a post for a different day. I mean that I’ve debated with other people the issue of whether it is right to publish, on social media or in the newspapers, the shocking picture of the drowned Syrian boy. (You can see some of my views on this here.) I felt I made some really excellent points in response to theirs, but in the end neither convinced the other.
I can convince people sometimes: the other week I persuaded someone to take a different route by car to a place they were travelling to on the Costa Brava. In this case though, I suppose the fact of the matter was clearer: I explained that even though the other route was shorter, it would take longer. This was the key to convincing them.
What about posting photos of dead children? It’s an ethical and moral issue and so the fact of the matter may not exist – but I think it does.
Perhaps my arguments just weren’t good enough. Evidently they were not. Maybe the format isn’t the right one (a few of these debates were on Twitter). Maybe. But just maybe we’re so emotionally invested in our positions (and I stress that I include myself here) that this prevents us from backing down. I felt that the other people skipped important points I made and focused on side issues, or misunderstood (sometimes wilfully) what I was trying to say. Doubtless they feel the same way.

But this is important: it really is about life and death. Isn’t this exactly what we need to find common ground on? Why can’t we? I honestly don’t know.

Aporia: an impasse, puzzlement. Where a debate with Socrates usually ends up.

Refugees and school assemblies

Picture the scene: it’s Monday morning, you’re twelve years old and you’re in the school assembly. You’re half awake and the youngish RE teacher is banging on about the Sudan, a famine, kids are starving apparently – I feel a bit bad for them, but what can do I about it? There are charities aren’t there? I remember Band Aid. Radio Ga Ga, good song. I’m sure the kid in front of me has farted. God, we’ve got double maths later. These seats don’t half make your bum sweaty. “So, in the Sudan, there’s a terrible famine, people are dying and the fact is…


That’s what he said. 1989, the RE teacher, in front of four or five hundred secondary school children and all the other teachers. Everyone was flabbergasted, including the headmaster and the few Christian Brothers who still worked at the school. After the murmuring had died down, he asked us a question: why did we gasp when he swore, but hardly react at all when he talked about thousands of people dead and dying?

Why is “shit” more shocking than thousands of deaths?

It’s a good question. We get so used to hearing about famines, bombs and beheadings that when read it online or hear about it on the radio or TV, we’re not shocked. We think, or occasionally say, “isn’t it terrible?” and then look at the football news on your phone. Arsenal, haven’t signed anyone? Ridiculous, they’ll be in crisis by Christmas. But if the newsreader finished the piece by saying “… Syria’s a complete clusterfuck” I’m sure we’d sit up and take notice.

If you remember the eighties, and you’re British, you might remember that famous piece on the news by Michael Buerk about the famine in Ethiopia. It made an impact largely because of those awful images of the kids with their distended bellies or those ones who were so weak they couldn’t brush the flies away from their eyes.

But a few years later, we’d all become blasé about, used to it. We had our own problems. I was more concerned about the fact I got 39% on my English exam and my mum was banging on about handwriting to the English teacher at the parents’ evening.


Right now there’s a war in Syria: ISIS are fighting, erm, Assad and the Kurds. And the Iraqis? Possibly Iran, as well. On which side? Beats me. Yeah, terrible… We should try that new craft beer place at the weekend.

Then, you see this:

Twitter has now hidden the photograph unless you click on it. (If you really don’t want to see it, it’s a picture of a young Syrian boy, washed up drowned on a Turkish beach.) It is a photograph which cannot fail (I hope) to appal you. If you’re shocked, I am sorry (to an extent). It hit me hard when I saw it – I’ve got a son who’s not much older. Maybe you aren’t so shocked now though – maybe you’ve seen it dozens of times on Twitter, because everyone keeps retweeting it. Some people, many people even, find it offensive. “I know there’s a terrible war in Syria, I’ve known there is one since it began years ago and I feel for all those people who are suffering because of it – but don’t show me pictures of dead children. PLEASE!” Unfortunately though, I suspect there are other people who don’t know or don’t care.

Is it right to show an image like this? Is it right to retweet it, to make all the people who follow you see it? If several of the people who you follow retweet the same or similar photos, your timeline will fill up with such images for a time. Is it fair to clog people’s computer mobile phone screens with pictures of a dead child? Many people would make the case that showing of a dead body, particularly a child, is too upsetting and, moreover, is an insult to that person’s dignity.

There have also been other seemingly similar cases recently.

Last week, there was the story of the reporter and cameraman in the US who were shot dead live on TV. You may know that the shooter filmed the attack himself and the Sun newspaper chose to run with this particular still from it as their front page.

Is this the same? I certainly found it offensive at the time, but personally I think there is an important difference between the two cases.

First of all, I was appalled and shocked by both photographs. In the case of the shooting, I cannot see the justification for printing it. It effectively shows the last moment of someone’s life and if I was a family member I’m sure that seeing it would have deepened the pain I would have felt. I’ve no wish to investigate in which way, if any, the Sun justified printing the picture, but I can imagine what they would say: essentially it’s newsworthy (i.e. it makes for an arresting front page which will sell newspapers) and it’s out there anyway. Plus you don’t see any blood. But “it sells newspapers” or “the public interest” doesn’t cut it. The people who were murdered are shown in the most undignified way possible (would you like people to gawk at while you die?) and there are things I don’t want to see, thank you very much. It shows a morbid, unhealthy interest in death and I cannot see what benefit it brings to anyone, other than the owner of the newspaper.

But, of course, I don’t want to see pictures of a dead child either. I really don’t. But why’s this case different then? The simple fact is that, by showing it, it may be that other kids won’t have to die like that.

“Rubbish!” I hear you say. “You think sharing a picture of this kid is going to change anything? It changes nothing. You’re a Twitter warrior.”

It has changed something. I wrote this. You’re reading it. If I hadn’t seen that poor kid’s picture today, I’d have spent the afternoon reading Plato (honest) and checking on the football news. Oh, and I wouldn’t have forgotten to go to that class I was supposed to be teaching. There’s no way I’d have been thinking about refugees from Syria.

So what, you might say.

How about this: the original tweet in which I saw the photograph has been retweeted 1400 times and there were many other similar tweets. The picture and other similar ones already seem to have had a political impact. The picture formed part of the top story at the Guardian website this afternoon. I’m pretty sure that this morning, before the photograph had become publicised, the migrant crisis was the second or third story.

Yvette Cooper, candidate for the Labour leadership, has also made a statement today because of these disturbing pictures.

It may now become a more prominent issue within the leadership and the wider political scene.

That’s the political argument, which is perhaps the most important one, as the it’s generally the governments of countries that can get the most done. But let’s take a different view: say this or a similar photograph was seen 100,000 times, for the sake of argument. If 1% of the people who saw it decide to make a donation of 10 euros because of it, that’s 10,000 euros.

I’m guessing that 10,000 euros might help some people to be saved, to not get into that crappy boat, or to get rescued from the water if they do. Just maybe another 5 year-old kid who’s alive now might not die next week or next month. Now that would be well worth a few people, even 100,000 people, being offended.


Last year, I was badgered into making a regular donation to UNHCR as I was trying to go shopping. Bloody timewasters with their clipboards.

Well, I’m now going to increase the amount I’m paying. And I’m going to talk to other people about the whole issue. If I hadn’t seen that photograph, I don’t think I would have done. Because I had plenty of my own worries, like my own kids.

Because, in the end, the truth is I just didn’t give a shit.

“Boycott the Red Echo”

On the “Boycott the Red Echo issue”, I think the Echo has an image problem and the layout of the Echo website doesn’t help in this regard.

For example, I go to today’s article on Everton’s fixtures. Perhaps I might be tempted to visit another article if I was provided with some interesting links. Down the right side, I can see the “Recommended in Sport” section and recommended for me, a person reading an article on Everton, are five articles on LFC, none on Everton. Below that I can see “Most Read in Sport” and I see a further five articles on LFC, none on Everton. Then in “Recommended in the Echo” there are a further five stories, three of which concern LFC, none on Everton.

The pattern here is not hard to see. Now, I’m sure that reading statistics play a big role here: the articles are “recommended” because they get a lot of hits. Perhaps the LFC articles would be more popular locally anyway – a debate for another time – but I imagine that the figures are massively skewed in favour of LFC by visitors from outside of Merseyside. But it’s important to take into account the effect this has on a big proportion of the local readership. It’s easy to see how some people might conclude: the Echo only cares about LFC.

There’s also a feedback effect at play here. Sometimes, I end up clicking on one of these LFC articles simply because it’s there, even though I’m an Everton fan. Usually I come to the Echo website via a link on Facebook or Twitter. But on the occasions when I navigate through to Everton section on the website (i.e. not following a link), I sometimes find that there are articles from a few days before that I am interested in that I hadn’t seen. If there had been obvious links to them when reading previous articles, perhaps I would have clicked on them. So, the layout of the website may be further inflating the LFC figures and depressing the EFC article stats.

I’m not sure whether to hope that this is news to the people at the Echo. If it is, then they need to have a long hard look at what they want the website to do – it’s been like this for a while and this is important, too important to be left like this for so long. It suggests a certain amount of carelessness, as a solution is surely not too difficult. If it isn’t news, and this has been wilfully ignored, then this whole problem of “boycott the Red Echo” is partly of their own making. They’ve allowed the perception of an LFC bias to fester.

On the broader issue of whether the Echo has neglected EFC by not being more critical of Kenwright’s tenure, perhaps there’s some truth in this, although much of the anger is simply born of the frustration of seeing Everton not just stagnate, but go backwards. The Echo can’t be held responsible for this deterioration in itself. To an extent, Kenwright can’t either: a lot of the problem is down to demographics, location, social changes over the last 30 years – and a bit of luck.

However, I do think that, say, 20 or so years ago, the Echo would have been more forthright and vocal in trying to push the Everton board in the right direction. I remember an article, maybe by Ian Hargreaves, from the early 90s with the headline “Where Everton Got It Wrong” and there were pictures of about twenty or so players who EFC had sold over the previous five or so years – people like Lineker, Steven, Stevens, etc. It was quite hard-hitting and the point was basically that Everton’s transfer strategy was at the root of the decline. Now whether that analysis was fair or not is beside the point: at the time the Echo would try (and often succeed) in setting the agenda amongst Everton fans. It no longer does that, for whatever reason.

You can talk about the proliferation of websites as being one cause, but I think the analysis the Echo puts forward could and should be bolder. The Echo has good writers for EFC – I just think that they’re a little bit too much in the comfort zone.