We’re better than you are!

I don’t buy into this ‘My country is better than yours’ crap.

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Are we talking about the political systems? I suppose we are, because that’s what seems to be grabbing all the headlines.

Yet the countries that seem to be the subjects of this particular debate are all, on the surface, at least, democracies. So, no difference then?

Hmm…

It might be ‘Our country’s values’, of course, because that’s another hot one at the mo.

Hang on, though, what does that mean? People were banging on about that yesterday, but I’m more than a little uncertain whether such a basket of goodies actually exists. ‘We are against racism and misogyny!’ Sounds good to me, only that’s not true. Some of us are, certainly, but you only need to spend a reasonable amount of time in any pub on a Saturday night, to hear plenty of racist and misogynist talk. And not just pubs. In every walk of life, you can hear this talk: doctors’ waiting rooms, shops, offices, bus stops…

We’re hardly perfect.

If a country is the sum total of its citizens, then you will struggle to identify that country’s ‘values’.

Culture? Culture cuts across borders, it is not constrained by them. We read books and see films and plays that have been written and produced by artists worldwide. Frequently, we have no idea where they actually hail from in the first place.

‘But,’ I hear an angry shout, ‘it is our indigenous culture that makes us great!

Uh-huh? I am often bemused when a famous painting in a British collection is under threat of sale to a foreign buyer and there is a collective wail of ‘Our cultural inheritance is in danger!’ Bemused, because nine times out of ten the painting in question is by an Italian or French or German or artist of some other nationality.

If we only had British paintings in our gallery things would look rather different.

And the Elgin marbles? Ours, dammit! Our inheritance!

The treasures filling our museums from all the countries we colonised and asset-stripped…

Maybe it’s our religious inheritance. Christian, according to a lot of the stuff I hear.

In 2015, 42% of the British population identified themselves as Christian. (British Social Attitudes survey) Those who actually attend church regularly, however, number only 5-6% of the population.

The vast majority of the British population do not go to church, so how can we be a Christian country?

What about our history, then?

Well, good and bad, like most countries. We abolished slavery in the 1800’s – all well and good, but we had profited hugely from it in the years before. The lot of a slave in the British West Indies, for example was horrendously barbaric.

Empire? Pfft.

Votes for women? Eventually, and only after a concerted attempt to trample the movement underfoot, using a fair degree of violence in the process.

Everyone will have their own ideas of what we do well, of course. I am proud of the fact that we give our share of aid to projects designed to eradicate poverty and disease around the world, and disaster relief. I am grateful that despite the failings of the system (and they are many) we live in a country where our representatives can be thrown out and re-elected on a regular basis. We cannot, in theory, be held without trial, and we are not in constant danger of being mown down by gunfire in our streets and schools.

But, before we get too cocky about that, remember how things can change over time.

Vigilance, my friends, vigilance…

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It’s all become quite vitriolic.

Which was predictable, of course, and, really, it always has been.

This high profile UK Member of Parliament or overpaid football star has avoided paying taxes on a huge income by squirrelling it away overseas somewhere.

That one has done it by calling his money something else – Ethel, perhaps, or William Wildebeest. I don’t know.

Others do it other ways, but the law supposedly only gets interested if the perpetrator pretends that the money isn’t theirs, or so I thought. Because apparently you can invent a non-existent company and stuff the money into that, register it on an island somewhere in the Caribbean or on a small planet not far from Jupiter, and then legally avoid paying any tax on it.

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Society demands, quite rightly, that if we are to live in that society, there are certain rules that we abide by. One of these rules, generally, is that we pay our taxes.

Taxes go to pay for, amongst other things, our hospitals and our emergency services. Those that seek to ‘avoid’, i.e. evade, paying their taxes, presumably still wish to live under the rule of law, and would want to be treated in a hospital should it prove necessary, and if their house caught fire, would presumably like to have the fire put out as soon as possible.

The root of the anger and hostility is, quite simply, fairness. When the average member of society sees that a number of extremely rich individuals can legally flout the law by manipulating where their money is and what they call it, whilst those who are blessed with only a tiny proportion of their wealth have no choice but to pay their share, then there will naturally be resentment.

The fact that the law allows it will do absolutely nothing to curb this anger.

Of course, different countries have different tax laws, some of which are set up to encourage foreign investment.

Which then seems to be a small step from foreign-capital-sitting-quietly-in-an-account-‘earning’-interest–not-paying-taxes-and-not-attracting-attention-from-its-country-of-origin.

That something is legal obviously does not necessarily prevent it from being morally repugnant.

And I am sick of hearing the argument that if we do not bend over backwards to favour and reward the rich then somehow our country will lose out.

Presumably they will take their money elsewhere if we don’t – oh, they have done already, did you say? Never mind. Give them some more.

The laws on income tax, specifically, have been formulated and changed and added to and changed again over a couple of hundred years, so it should be no surprise that what we have today is a hotchpotch of laws and loopholes. Perhaps if they could be scrapped and then a new, simplified, set drafted, we might be able to get to grips with this in a proper way.

Because it is no longer acceptable for the law to continue to function in this manner.

It needs to be fair; it needs to be morally right, as well as legally right.

And…keep it polite, please, folks!

Poverty and Those Ghastly Scroungers

I have sat on this one for a month or so, so that my emotions do not get the better of me.

But I am still furious.

I am lucky. I have always had a roof over my head.

I read an article in a broadsheet newspaper weekend supplement that self-righteously banged on about having to convert an entire house on a small budget of twenty thousand pounds, and how they had to live oh, such a frugal life, whilst they were doing this.

Not that there was anything wrong with the house before they converted it, but it wasn’t a style that they liked.

And the colour of that wall, isn’t it dreadful? How could anyone be expected to live in a house like that?

Have they ever had to wonder how they were going to buy food for their family because the bank refused to honour their cheques, because they were overdrawn without permission? No, but I bloody well have, and it really makes me furious.

And I am very aware that compared to the problems and dangers facing millions of people in the world today, mine was a comparatively minor problem. No one was shooting at me. I wasn’t forced to live on the streets. My children didn’t drown attempting to reach a country where they wouldn’t starve to death or be shot or bombed.

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I am certain that many people here in the west today simply do not understand what ‘poverty’ means.

It does not mean that you cannot afford an exotic holiday this year.

It does not mean that you cannot afford to upgrade your car this year.

It does not mean that you have to buy the second best large flat-screen TV.

So many people condemn ‘economic migrants’ as if the very term means that they are simply greedy freeloaders.

As if hundreds of thousands of people are willing to risk their lives, and those of their families, just to get a little bit more. A few extra treats, or somesuch.

That they must be greedy, scrounging and good for nothing.

Foreign, of course.

It seems to matter little that they are fleeing war, terror, the destruction of their entire lives and livelihoods.

They are forced into overcrowded camps with hardly any facilities, which are then condemned for being squalid.

And newspapers and politicians encourage and disseminate this attitude for their own ends, telling us all that our own standards of living will decline if we let them in. Like the shameful lie that went around the UK a couple of years back that immigrants were being given cars by councils.

I am genuinely ashamed of belonging to this society.

It is not that there have been any new revelations on the migrant crisis, rather there is a paucity of news. Dozens of human beings drowning in a desperate attempt to reach safety no longer merits more than a passing mention.

Do we no longer care, or are we merely saturated with the horror of it?

Or do we just not, really, care what happens to people who live, or should live, far away?

No, it was just this one little article in one broadsheet supplement that made me furious this time. Next time, it will be something else.

Don’t tell me that if all the powerful and influential people of the world got together with genuine goodwill that they could not solve this crisis.

Where are the powerful of industry? There are one or two immensely rich industrial tycoons, such as Bill Gates, who have demonstrated that people like themselves can make a genuine difference to the world, and in a good way. Where are the others? I have always felt that the very rich have become very rich because they are callous, selfish, and do not care about anybody else.

I would be delighted if a few of them could now prove me wrong.

A Tax on Sugar

In a surprise move yesterday, the British Chancellor announced in the Budget that there would be a sugar tax introduced on soft drinks that carry a large amount of that substance.

The shock that the public, and indeed many of his own political party, received from this announcement was as nothing compared to the shock received by those in the industry.

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A nice cup of tea with no sugar in it and an apple that doesn’t have a great deal either.

In an interview earlier this morning, I was privileged to speak to the anonymous CEO of a major soft drinks company, Mr Satan Moneyglutton. Weeping copiously, he explained to me:

‘For long years we have been told that what people want are chemical compounds devoid of any nutritional merit, packed full of sugar, and now I feel that we have been stabbed in the back.

‘On the best advice from the governments of the day, we undertook our duty, I would almost say our mission, which we take very seriously indeed, to create a nation of fat people with poor health and rotten teeth.

‘And now the accumulated wisdom of years is being ignored. If these drinks are now said to be so bad, then why are they so effective at causing children to lose concentration and run up the walls of classrooms and become disruptive?

‘If they are so bad, then how come we manage to get such a large proportion of the public addicted to them? Our products are industrial success writ large.

‘This is nothing more than an attack on enterprise and the free market. Why no tax on water? Or tea or juices? I suppose the Chancellor prefers fine teas to a nice bottle of ChemoSludge *TM.

‘And it is socially divisive! This will hit the poor the hardest, since this is where we make most of our profits. We know that the poorer the family, the less likely they are to be well educated, and then the more likely they are to purchase our elixirs. This is where this horribly unfair tax will hit.

‘We were given no warning, no sign of this change of mood. Where will it all end? First they try to destroy the reputation of our lovely healthy tobacco industry, and now this. Honestly, I fear that the government’s next target might even be our ObeseBurgers *TM.’

At this point, the line to the Cayman Islands went dead.

Artificial Intelligence

This is not something that I really know anything about, but the possible dangers of building a machine with Artificial Intelligence were in the news again this morning.

Although he is not the first to do so, the fact that Professor Stephen Hawking has warned that this will inevitably lead to machines coming to dominate humans, and perhaps deciding to enslave or eliminate them, has made plenty of headlines around the world.

I have the impression that this (the danger) is not something that is taken seriously by many people, perhaps because we have all grown up with cartoons in comics and comedies on the television of lovable, but bumbling, robots, usually unfailingly loyal to their human masters. A quick trawl through the internet produces countless images of robots, predominantly benign and friendly looking ones busy helping humans. Naturally, these pictures are largely produced by companies that would like us to invest in this image. Certainly, more R2D2 than Terminator.

But science is proceeding at quite a rate, and it will not be long before this becomes an urgent issue.

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What could possibly go wrong?

Language is inevitably a compromise; no word can completely describe something. Often, we do not even agree on what a word means – as Lewis Carroll writes in ‘Alice in Wonderland’: ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less’. A popular paradox ‘what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?’ is often talked about, to which the simple answer is that the force is only irresistible because it has not yet been resisted, and the object is only immovable because it has not yet been moved. The glib answer that Artificial Intelligence would have ‘ethics’ built into it so that it could not challenge humans, is meaningless.

As human beings have evolved and developed, the unquestioning belief in gods and their ethical dictats has inevitably come to be challenged. In the same way, a machine capable of learning and thought would be able to question an ethical restraint programmed into it.

And once the genie is out of the bottle, there is no putting it back. Any more than we could uninvent the aeroplane or the hydrogen bomb, once the information how to do it is out there, it will be stored and shared and eventually used.

I also find it difficult to avoid the feeling that there is a sizeable part of the scientific establishment that believe they have a right to do absolutely anything, and take any risk, and that it is justified in the name of ‘science’ or ‘progress’, be it nanotechnology or germ warfare research or some other such delight.

It does seem sometimes that as a species, we are hell-bent on wiping ourselves out.

There, that’s a nice big helping of doom and gloom for a Monday morning. But perhaps not; in my ignorant non-scientific naivety, I wonder if as long as this amazing thinking and learning machine is just that, and that only, and not a robot that can move around and do things, all might yet be well.

Of course, the writer in me then imagines this huge brain surviving the end of the World and pondering deeply for eons before declaring ‘Let there be light!’

Maybe this has all happened several times before…

Religion or Philosophy?

Now, here’s a thing.

It is rather a fashion nowadays to declare that religions are all wrong and should be banned, because science and reason have somehow proved that there is no god (they haven’t).

But I would like to consider every religion in the world as a school of philosophy, and consider what I might take from each that would be useful to my life and my development.

Whether there might actually be a god or not then becomes unimportant.

Most Buddhists, for example, would seem a little unsure of whether there is a god or not, but if asked, the majority of them would reply that it does not matter. The argument being that it is impossible to prove either way, and therefore it is impossible to know either way. So why not just live your life as well as you can?

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Traditionally, religions have provided society with a set of moral rules. It may be that these rules were the first imperatives that human beings treat other with decency. Since none of us were around in the long years when our race was evolving speech and higher thought, and learning how to co-operate with fellow members of the tribe and – who knows – perhaps their neighbours, this must of necessity be pure speculation. Yet I find it highly likely these moral codes were the first suggestions that human beings might treat an enemy, for example, with mercy, rather than simply killing them, which might otherwise be the obvious course of action. Morality over expediency, if you like.

Some examples:

Islam forbids charging interest on loans. How many who have fallen victim to the money-grubbing lowlife that run these ‘payday’ loan companies charging astronomical rates of interest might have sympathy with this view? It teaches also that it is a moral duty to give alms; to help those in need.

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Christianity is big on love and mercy; at least in the New Testament. It teaches tolerance and forgiveness.

Buddhism teaches that to want things is to become enslaved to those desires that can never be satisfied. How much better to live simply and to be content with what we have? It teaches also compassion for all living beings.

Hinduism teaches that all life is sacred, and that we should all refrain from injuring others.

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These are only the main four faiths in the world today, but every other religion that I have read about also teaches a code of moral imperatives.

And in a world run by huge multi-national companies with no moral compass whatsoever and politicians who only look after their own, where we are continually and aggressively informed that we must worship money and consume more and more pointless trash, and that it does not matter if we destroy the environment just as long as companies make bigger profits, anything that can make us pause to consider what is actually important in life should be encouraged rather than denigrated.

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It would therefore be ridiculous to simply dismiss out of hand entire canons of work, solely on the grounds that the writers of these philosophies believed in a god whom the reader might not (or does not want to) believe in. Everybody has a spiritual side, whether or not they believe in some sort of god. The spiritual side of a person champions beauty over money, generosity over selfishness, kindness over cruelty. These are values that most of us still claim to value today.