Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

If you've stumbled upon here randomly, then I suggest you check out my biography and other pages.

Please Note: This site, and the social networking profile pages connected with it, reflect my personal interests & views which do not necessarily represent those of organisations I am affiliated / associated with.

28/07/2011

Plain dressing = plain living?

Stumbling upon George Fox's biography (which I am currently only reading on and off, as it competes with other things) has once again sparked my interest in the Quaker movement. One thing I have found particularly intriguing is the commitment of some Friends to the practice of 'plain dressing'. It's a discovery that's called me to reflect on my own assumptions about the clothes people wear and the choices behind them.

I guess, coming from England where religious expression amongst the indigenous population is typically understated, I've always associated overtly-religious dress codes primarily with our Muslim and Orthodox Jewish neighbours.

The practice of modern Christian plain dressing, from the bits and pieces I've researched on the internet, can be traced back primarily to German, Dutch and English Christian groups which emerged during the Radical Reformation - namely the Quakers, Puritans and Mennonites / Anabaptists. Following persecution, these 'peculiar people' then migrated in large numbers to the 'New World' of North American where the tradition of plain dressing, in varying degrees, continues amongst their descendants - the Amish being the most well-known example.

It seems there are direct instructions in the Old and New Testament scriptures about clothing - particularly for women - which have been applied in various forms and to various degrees since the Early Christian communities. In this age, application of strict, gender-specific dress codes by Christians would likely be viewed as an over-zealous, antiquated 'quirk' in our oh-so modern and free age.

But it would seem, at least for modern plain dressing Quakers, that it is not Biblical literalism driving such habits but the Testimony of Simplicity and Testimony of Equality and Community (summed up jokingly by Quakers as, "proud to be a humble Quaker") which commits Friends to live simply, to be a public witness to their faith and to live in solidarity with one another. So in many ways this could be viewed as a progressive, positive step rather than a step backwards.

And in our increasingly secularised, consumerist, sexualised, image-dominated culture, a further motivation is to adopt plain dressing as a public statement of intent and cultural dissent. This trend (not without controversy) is also evident (mixed in with cultural conservatism) in other faith communities in the West, particularly Muslim communities.

Running paralell to this you also find the Fairtrade movement, arguably one of the great works of religious groups in recent times, which Christian churches often take the lead in promoting and supporting. There is a growing awareness in our society (fuelled in part by increased media coverage, including one of the BBC's better pieces of programming) of where our clothing comes from, particularly so amongst socially-minded, left-leaning Christians, which is why (rightly or wrongly) we now see the fashion of wearing TOMS shoes amongst Christian youth.



Speaking personally, all this is quite new and I am left undecided on its ultimate value and credibility. I am certainly attracted to the idea - it appeals to the romantic radical in me - but also cautious of what is often said about Goth subculture and their apparent non-conformity to popular fashions - "...but all you're doing is following another fashion."

I guess you also have to keep in mind that by adopting a specific dress code, you could run the risk of becoming too focused on outer appearances rather than inner values. The practice of plain dress may represent enlightened values of modesty and simplicity, but what if that unbranded (or ethically branded) pious-looking plain shirt I buy is 1) as costly as other clothing 2) made by an enslaved child?

27/07/2011

Christianityists

This blog post at Harry's Place makes a valid point that for Breivik, Christianity was little more than an 'identity marker' in his hate-filled political outlook rather than a faith he followed dutifully. The argument follows that he should therefore be described as a 'Christianityist' rather than a 'Christian.'

I guess analogies could also be drawn with the 7/7 bombers - maybe they should be routinely described as Islamists rather than devout Muslims?

Pacman vs. Pastman

I watched this encounter between Jeremy Paxman, of BBC Newsnight fame, and Stephen Lennon, a leader of the English Defence League with dismay as it points to some of the bigger issues with politics, and wider society, that we now face in 21st Century Britain.

Starting with Jeremy Paxman. I don't think he has ever moved out of the shadow of his infamous encounter with Michael Howard. He has become so defined by his aggressive interviewing style that he has in fact become a caricature. A good interview is one that sheds light on the interviewee's opinions, experiences and underlying beliefs - recent viewing of Paxman suggests he repeatedly fails to achieve this. In his focus on the process of interview - namely, playing the condescending, bellicose anchor man role - he loses sight of the product.

Paxman is in many ways a symptom of the way political debate in this country is pursued generally. The most common mode of debate seems to now involve quoting selective soundbites at your opponent, exaggerating opposing ideas as 'threats' (by implication, to be eliminated) and generally attempting to discredit your opponent personally.

Moving to Stephen Lennon and the English Defence League, I am hesitant to join in the chorus of voices seeking to simply ostracise him, his group and the views they claim to represent. Firstly, because I follow the George Orwell's line of thinking, "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." Our democracy needs to remain open to as many voices as possible, no matter how unpalatable or uncouth. I firmly believe the most effective way to challenge extremist, divisive opinions is by exposing their flaws to a healthy dose of facts and reason. Secondly, speaking as a libertarian, because I think this demonisation of the EDL is indicative of how our Establishment systematically silences grassroots movements (of whatever ideology) who challenge their stranglehold on power - and in doing so, exacerbate the sense of alienation and disempowerment amongst the public (particularly the growing underclass), in turn giving rise to even more extreme, anti-democratic forces.

Having said that, I do take issue with the English Defence League's manifesto and methods. I was once advised that in organisations going through change there are three types of resistance; 
  1. Rational - consisting of arguments as to why a proposed change is idealistically wrong and/or pragmatically unworkable.
  2. Political - opposition to a proposed change by those who risk losing power and privilege if it goes ahead.
  3. Emotional - an instinctive reaction to change based on an (often nostalgic) attachment to the perceived status quo mixed in with a fear of the unknown. 
Arguably this model can be applied to our public discourse about the rise of multi-ethnic, multi-cultural societies and the onset of globalisation. It seems to me that the position of EDL is by and large a sectarian and nihilistic one, that for all its protestations of being rational, finds roots primarily in a distorted, fear-ridden view of societal change and a sentimental craving for a mythical England of yesteryear.

Furthermore, Stephen Lennon and other EDL leaders - for all their talk of peaceful protest - have a clear association with football hooliganism. It's hard not to get the feeling, when you see video footage such as this, this and this, that Lennon et al are organising  EDL marches for a similar 'Saturday buzz' to the one that has driven matchday violence  - rather than any real commitment to ideals. After all, actions speak louder than words.

Which takes me back to one of the first Quaker meetings I attended where there was discussion (in the peculiar Quaker way) of the spontaneous youth protests for democracy across the Middle East and NUS marches against the socio-economic policies of the Conservative-Liberal coalition government (some of which had involved rioting) - and how inspiring it had been to see young people so passionate about change, "flooding out of their temples to put their beliefs into action." An elderly Quaker gentleman rose from his seat to remind the congregation that the fight for noble ideals and the challenging of the old order ("speaking truth to power"), no matter how passionately pursued, should contain a measure of civility. I think this is a Quaker principle that Britain would benefit from.

26/07/2011

Sacrificial Lambs vs. Sacrilegious Wolves

Anders Behring Breivik sits in a cell this morning believing he has a committed a sacrificial act in Norway - seemingly convinced he has given himself over to a higher, more noble cause. I do think the stark truth will hit him at some point. He is simply a mass murderer, despite his pretensions.

Yet across the globe we hear of a young Japanese man, going under the pseudonym Atsushi Watanabe, who has signed himself to working on containing the aftermath of the earthquake-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

In talking of his job, which is likely to lead to complex health problems which will in turn devastate all aspects of his life from being able to work until his older years, having a wife, having children etc., he simply says:

"There are only some of us who can do this job... I'm single and young and I feel it's my duty to help settle this problem." 

25/07/2011

Planet Alibhai > No Humans Allowed

Following the horrific attacks in Norway, something really struck me today on reading Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's column in The Independent.

Before I go on to explain this though, I will start by saying I have long followed Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's writing. I have found her to be challenging, engaging and progressive. I respect her convictions, and her ability to critically question herself as well as others. She is someone, I feel, who speaks from the heart as well as the head. I once saw a moving documentary about how she has been repeatedly targeted with abuse and threats by extremists, of both Islamist and white nationalist movements, and wrote an email to her in support of her work - and she promptly responded, in person. Again, for someone who writes for a national newspaper and appears on TV etc., I think this is a measure of the character beyond the words.

Today though, I sat on the train reading her article, Who will stand up for the refugees?, and was left with the feeling that she is (unknowingly) part of the problem in Europe, not someone working towards a solution.

Looking at the footage and reading through the reporting from the Oslo bombing - and thinking about the 7/7 attacks in London - what shines through is both the human tragedy and human hope amongst the charred pieces of concrete and metal. The human tragedy in that every life taken was a life unfulfilled, a great spark of God-given potential extinguished - and from there, the tragedy that indelibly marks each of that person's loved ones. At the same time, you see the human hope - survivors helped along by strangers, bloodied and bruised, often maimed and always psychologically scarred - yet resolute in their determination to live on. It this common human spirit and experience we all share in. It is what we of this little island often call 'Blitz Spirit' - to sum up the complexity of bravery, fear, heartache, solidarity, loss and relentless optimism in the face of tragedy (and I would guess the peoples of 1940s Dresden and other continental European cities like Sarajevo have coined their own terminology to describe this experience).

This also leads me to A Confession by Leo Tolstoy, in which he explores his own search for meaning, sifting through the various theological positions of religious, philosophical and scientific schools of thought - driving himself into despairing confusions and depression over the various differences - but eventually finding capital 'T' Truth in simply watching the lives of 'ordinary' people. He concludes that for them, the finer details and debates of their particular belief systems were irrelevant; the realities of human life offered the answers - in this I imagine he was contemplating the experience of loving one another, of romance, of sex, of seeing new life emerge, of building something with our own minds and hands, of life passing away, of nature and its cycle of seasons.

Which brings me to today. I read through Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's latest piece, an article which it would appear was written with the intention of advocating for the rights of refugees, yet spirals into a directionless diatribe riddled with habitual references to the ethnic and religious identities of the people she is speaking of.  At one point she quite needlessly describes Brevnik as "a handsome Aryan with glassy, blue eyes" and talks of a seemingly minor altercation with a irritable French woman by referring to her as a 'Gallic bat'.

It struck me that Yasmin Alibhai-Brown inhabits that same racialised, sectarianised, over-intellectualised world as Anders Behring Brevik inhabits - a world we each inhabit to various degrees but which our media often seems to exaggerate.

Anders Behring Brevik has been described as a 'Christian fundamentalist' and emphasis given to his looks - in much the same way (if not more so by the BBC) that terrorists fighting in the name of Islam are reported as 'Muslims fundamentalists' usually with pictures of furious men in long beards to match.

First, if we break this term down (somewhat pedantically), we could argue that 'fundamentalist' - in the literal sense of adhering strictly to the fundamentals of a belief system - is not an accurate description for someone who kills in the name of a religious tradition that, when stripped down to basic fundamentals, holds peace and service to a life-giving 'Other' at its heart (this can be said of all the world's major religions). Nor does appearance really give clue to character. Ultimately, Brevnik is quite simply a mass murderer, just as Mohammed Siddique Khan, Hasib Hussein, Germaine Lindsay and Shehzad Tanweer are mass murderers - they are broken, deadened characters who have poured out their pain onto others by attaching themselves to 'The Cause'.

But second, and most importantly I feel, we should actively move away from this casual day-to-day dividing of people simply into skin-colours and methods of worship. We must pay some attention to this 'thin end of the wedge' and how our national discourse contributes to the raising up of these mass murderers. That is not to deny diversity or to stop celebrating difference, but to stop us making it one of the defining factors in our culture, and in doing so, dehumanising one another.

 What do we see first here? Differences in race? Differences in religion? 
or a shared grief?

21/07/2011

Ode to Bosnia

It is roughly a year since I travelled to Bosnia (Mostar & Sarajevo) and I continue to follow its story - stumbling on this moving piece by Haroon Moghul.

Bosnia is the story of a patchwork people once conquered, once united, once divided, now fragmented into warring tribes. A beautiful, forgotten window on times gone by. A window that has been smashed into shards of glass and scattered - a "failed state."

We shouldn't forget what has happened in this far flung corner of Europe. Because if you look closely, you will see our own society reflecting back - a dreamy vision of what could be cast against a warning of what might be.

19/07/2011

Fish shooting Fish

I have no time to blog in-depth tonight - too busy with other things.

However, I will give a quick mention to Cranmer (a Christian Centre-Right blogger) who provides a different view of today's events in London, our very own Gotham City.

18/07/2011

Renew Labour

Over a week ago on the Andrew Marr Show, the Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, went on record saying:

"I'm absolutely a leader placing my party firmly in the centre ground but there's a new centre ground in our politics.

The new centre ground, for example, that means you speak out on these issues of press responsibility, a new centre ground that says that responsibility in the banking system - which we didn't talk about enough when we were in government - is relevant, a new centre ground that says people are worried about concentrations of private power in this country when it leads to abuses.

And that's the new centre ground."

Today he went further and said:

"A few weeks ago I talked about a set of values which are the essence of Britain’s character.

Working hard.

Obeying the law.

Caring for others.

Knowing the difference between right and wrong.

Responsibility.

These are the values which bind our nation together

I want my children to grow up in a country where those values are respected.

The hacking scandal has shown some of the awful consequences of the powerful shirking their responsibility.

And this is not the first example.

Indeed, in the space of just a few years, we have now seen three major crises in British public life among people and institutions that wield massive power.

First the banks.

Then MPs’ expenses.

And now in our press.

Superficially, each might look quite different in its causes.

But there are common themes running through all three.

The banker who paid himself millions of pounds for taking the most risky investments which would land his company and the country in the mire.

The MP who fiddled the expenses system, landing himself, his party and our politics in disgrace.

The editor of a newspaper which had a culture of illegality not for the public interest but simp ly in the search for sales, landing their paper and the whole industry in the dock.

All are about the irresponsibility of the powerful.

People who believed they were untouchable.

This issue of responsibility is one which must be tackled throughout British society.

From top to bottom.

The failure of our country to recognize and encourage responsibility isn't just bad for fairness or people's sense of right and wrong.

It's also holding Britain back in profound ways."

I don't think Ed Miliband has the charisma to win an election under the current media climate. I think it is likely he will follow in the footsteps of other 'thinkers' like John Smith and Iain Duncan Smith who helped renew their respective party's intellectual foundations following electoral defeats, to then make way for a 'communicator' who packages it for the public.

However, I do think he has reinvigorated the 'Libertarian Left' - a position that aims to keep a check on power rather than being seduced by it, a position that seeks a sustainable compassionate society. A similar position to the one that Tony Blair's New Labour movement initially inhabited before their ill-fated 'war on terror' and pursuit of record election wins at all costs, and one which the Liberal Democrats inhabited before becoming the subservient partner in the current coalition government.

I hope Ed Miliband can continue his good work.

16/07/2011

Happy Birthday UCA

It would appear that today marks (more or less) the 20th Anniversary of the founding of the Unitarian Christian Association, an affiliate of the Unitarian and Free Christian denomination in the UK.

The fact that such a group had to be formed to preserve the Christian roots of this denomination is quite sad, because this denomination was once a groundbreaking pioneer of Christianity - it once embodied the Christianities of Priestley, Channing, Emerson, Martineau et al, but now pushes them to one side in favour of seemingly more shinier things (under the mantle of 'post-Christianity').

However, as the first 'church' I joined since I ejected myself from more mainstream denominations and as one of the few faith groups I have stook with (and they with me) through the ebbs and flows of my spiritual growth, I owe the UCA a lot - for their welcome to the disenchanted and disorientated wannabe-disciple, their theological and liturgical openness and for the body of thought-provoking work they provide periodically via The Herald (one of the first and few places to publish my articles, in turn giving me the confidence to write further).

So happy birthday UCA, and God Bless.

10/07/2011

Rest in Pieces NOTW

I'm blogging at speed tonight, having got other priorities to attend to, but wanted to note a few points:
*Added Monday 11/07/11

    07/07/2011

    Preventative Cull

    So James Murdoch, heir apparent of News International, has decided to close the News of the World leaving ordinary employees - a great many of whom, so we are told, were not in post during the days of hacking phones of murder victims' families.

    Yet the executives who oversaw such deceit and corruption remain.

    This is ultimately yet another cynical move by the Murdoch Empire, spoofed brilliantly by the News Thump blog.

    06/07/2011

    "Victoria Becktum"

    That was The Sun's headline this morning.

    Meanwhile, it is now thought that News of the World reporters (close colleagues of Sun reporters, and all servants of the Murdoch Empire) hacked the phones of the families of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman following their murder in Soham and the phones of victims' families who were murdered in the 7/7 London terrorist attacks.

    It is also interesting to note other tabloid headlines:
    • Daily Mail - "PUBLIC SECTOR SALARY MYTH"
    • Daily Star - "KATE FURY OVER FAKE ANOREXIA PIC"
    • Daily Express - "NOW SALT IS SAFE TO EAT"
    Only the Daily Mirror, a long-standing rival to The Sun, runs with the hacking scandal as its lead story. And I suspect that is more down to political and commercial expediency than a quest for more ethical journalism.

    We have had a financial crisis caused by cavalier business elites, we have had a political crisis caused by greedy political elites and now the media elites prove themselves to be, by and large, mired in deceit and corruption.

    And all we tend to do is sit waiting for someone brave enough and powerful enough to come along and really turn things upside down -.I guess we're looking a bit like the ancient peoples of Israel crying out in the wildnerness for a prophet...

    05/07/2011

    Binge Britain

    A timely reminder for us as individuals and as a society: 

    “In our appetite for gossip, we tend to gobble down everything before us, only to find, too late, that it is our ideals we have consumed, and we have not been enlarged by the feasts but only diminished” 

    --Pico Iyer, British Indian novelist

    Backpage Puzzle

    Here's a challenge for you - guess which news item was ignored as a leading story by all of today's tabloids?

    03/07/2011

    I, Robot MP


    This is what happens when the main political parties in this country elect identikit career politicians as their leaders - where they become so concerned with media-personality, at the expense of substance.

    The Labour movement deserves better than this, the British public deserves better than this.

    There will be no Obama moment in this country until the parties free themselves of the oligarch press and the Westminster electoral system is reformed.