Thursday, 16 June 2011

Censorship is a terrible thing

Across the world people have begun to pay tribute to James Joyce’s magnum opus of modernist literature, Ulysses, by eating breakfasts of inner organs of beasts and fowls, thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes, and of course, grilled mutton kidneys which give to the palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine. As a classics student, I find that I love the narrative, the references and the story, but at the same time I can see how anyone who isn’t at least mildly schizophrenic could have difficulty following it, not like it and be branded as a cynical philistine.

The book was dismissed as indecent and blasphemous when it was first published for its language, vivd lavatory guide by Mr. Leopold Bloom, and light hearted attitude to religion. I find it amazing to think that the ballad of Joking Jesus could be considered offensive, but it just goes to show you how insecure people are about their beliefs (“If anyone thinks that I amn’t divine, he’ll get no free drinks when I’m making the wine”). Although Joyce is one of the giants of literature who shows that we Irish have other talents besides political backwardness and alcoholism, the book itself was rejected in Ireland, but did not quite suffer the fate of the many, many others that were outright banned in Ireland.

State censorship is a terrible thing, and if there were an award for it, Ireland would be up there with North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Airstrip One. It’s been said that the 1957 Register of Prohibited publications reads like an everyman’s guide to twentieth century literature. Being banned in Ireland was a mark that you’d made it as a writer, and everyone from Steinbeck, to Huxley to Hemingway, not to mention Irish writers, Joyce, Beckett, Kavanagh, Sean Ó Faolain and others was presented with this badge of honour. The State would have been kinder to the trees to publish a list of books that weren’t banned. The ban-happy Censorship board were not the sole culprits in these grave crimes; the Customs authorities and An Post used to search imports from “disreputable publishers” to make sure people couldn’t pollute their minds with "indecent" and "obscene" materials. What these words actually meant was left entirely to the discretion of the Censorship Board, a quintet of busybodies from the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland and the Knights of Columbanus, with a token Protestant from Trinity College thrown in for good measure. Eventually, the superfluous liberal from Trinners resigned because of the committee’s in-built 4-1 majority, and the board became exclusively Catholic, now unhindered to bring the dream of the Ayatollah-I mean, Archbishop McQuaid and Dev to life.

The Ayatollah’s- sorry, slip of the tongue, Archbishop’s vision was realised in the form of an Ireland where literature could not pollute the minds of Irish virgins and boys. Pity Kohmein-, McQuaid’s own institutions didn’t have similar aspirations for their bodies. An average of 589 books between 1949 and 1953, and an utterly disgraceful 1,034 bans in 1954, all copies of these books were met either with return-to-sender or burning, yes book burning.

Censorship is absurd, as are the individuals who take it upon themselves to go out in the world to find things to offend them. It reminds me of the story about the lexicographer Samuel Johnson. After the publication of A Dictionary of the English Language, he was approached by two ladies who commended him on the exclusion of all naughty words. "What! my dears! Then you have been looking for them?" he retorted, and they promptly dropped the subject.

Before I picked up Ulysses and followed the story of that famous Dublin day in 1904, I read Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, and what made the book all the more pleasurable, (although it's an amazing and excellently written story in its own right) was a sense of defiance surrounding it. All the way through, I remembered that there are people out there who do not want me to read this book, and there are people who would have (and indeed have) killed because of it, and that made the book a precious thing. That I could read it and enjoy it was a triumph of freedom of expression and ideas, and to take a lead from Alan Moore's V for Vendetta, no amount of censorship or violence will silence ideas, because ideas are bulletproof.


EDIT: Apparently I had my facts muddled up when I wrote this. Ulysses was not banned in Ireland, but it was rejected by publishers in the country.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Behind the times, late redesigns, donalfall with his head hanging low...

Hallo all the Galway Skeptics...

Sorry I've been neglecting the blog for a few weeks, I was distracted by Birthdays (mine) and Work (also mine). I'm still hoping to get my other big article together, and we're still holding out many, many spare days on the blog for anyone who wants to contribute?!? Still looking for more of the female voices, btw. *cough, cough*

Anyway, more than a day late, a quick update for all you all. Got this lovely email from the JREF to the Galway Skeptics email address - it's nice to know we're being counted!

Hi, everyone.

My name is Brian Thompson, and I'm the new Field Coordinator for the James Randi Educational Foundation. If you're receiving this message, your group has been listed in our database of grassroots skeptical organizations all around the world. We currently have nearly 200 such groups on file, spanning from North America to Europe, Africa, and Australia. Groups like yours represent a huge number of people who value science and reason over credulity and superstition. Many of you have even spearheaded local, national, and international campaigns to fight what the JREF's founder James Randi famously calls "woo-woo". In the process, you've educated the public about those who purposefully or unintentionally do them harm, and I like to believe you've even saved some lives.

Many of you have been in touch with the JREF before, but this may also be the first several of you have heard from us. As one of the premiere skeptical organizations in the world, we have the resources and the ability to serve as a helping hand for groups like yours, and I'm writing to let you know that hand is always extended. In the weeks ahead, I'll be providing you with more specific details about what we have to offer, but some of our services include free educational materials and classroom modules on topics such as ESP, dowsing, and even the Cottingley fairies. JREF staff and colleagues are also available to visit your local groups and lead workshops on skeptical activism, and we continue to offer educational grants. Plus, in the near future, we'll be opening our own speakers bureau to bring the most entertaining and insightful voices for science and reason right to you.

We also want your ideas for services we can provide to you in the future. If there's a project you've always wanted to start but didn't have the knowledge or resources to get off the ground, we would love to hear about it. I'm your personal contact with the JREF, so please feel free to get in touch either by email or phone at any time. The JREF sees groups like yours as our foundation. You are of the utmost importance to us.

Thank you for all the work you do, and get excited about the future.

The best is yet to come.


Brian Thompson

So, if anyone has any ideas for projects that could do with funding, or any ideas for them, email the galwayskeptics (at) gmail address & I'll pass you on Brian's address. Also, if anyone wants to join the blog schedule, send in an email also.

I'll be more active now, with a promotion sun & a blog redesign. Hoping to hear from you all. Don't forget the next meeting is next monday in McSwiggans around 20:30 PM.

donalfall out.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from Media Hysteria. Amen.

Yea, and behold our glorious and infallible Media hath come down from the mountain of W.H.O. bearing the grimmest of news! Oh wretched peasants, run in the streets with fear, for truly the Devil himself walks among our number, to bring more untold suffering! Having wrestled with the Archangels of Science, the Prophets hath decreed that our mobile phones shall smite us with cancer of the brain! For the Media, whose newspapers’ word is true hath spoken. Run in the streets and denounce the nefarious infernal devices, lest ye be struck down! Preserve thine children from the vices of text messaging and Angry Birds! Mark in this warning from on high, my flock!

At this rate, it would be easier to make a list of the things that don’t “cause” cancer. Certainly, it would be shorter. The lists of carcinogens and superfoods seem to increase with each new issue of the Times' Health Supplement. The latest in these prohibitory commandments from Mt. Scienai comes from the Gospel according to W.H.O. “And thus it came to pass that the Lord spake unto the two-dozen and eight scientists from fourteen nations, saying ‘Thou shalt not partake of either the mobile phone, or the Android, or the Blackberry or the iPhone, for I hath decreed these to be contraptions of great turpitude, and he who doth not obey, I shall smite with cancer most foul.”.

The press, that old nest of vipers, often misrepresents scientific findings, the most catastrophic incident of this in living memory is the popular hysteria induced following the publication of Andrew Wakefield’s paper in the Lancet which alleged a correlation between MMR vaccination and autism. Following investigations by reporter Brian Deer, it came to light that Wakefield had engaged in all manner of unethical behaviour, a veritable multitude of sins, and had and interest in manipulating a certain outcome of the “study”. Wakefield was subsequently discredited, banned from practicing medicine and the paper was retracted. But, because of the media’s unwavering faith in Wakefield, the damage had been done. Now the little seeds of doubt had been planted in parents' minds, and we’re reaping what they have sown. Vaccination rates have fallen beneath acceptable levels, and as a result incidents of these preventable diseases are on the rise. Forgive them, for they knew not what they did? Misled by a false prophet? I say, spare the rod, spoil the paparazzi.

Sure, it’s easy for me to judge with my holier than thou skepticism, but when it comes to Antivaxers, my cup runneth over with condemnation. What the public should have taken from that disastrous nontroversy, is that you cannot believe everything in the press, on television or on the internet. And now, all three have teamed up to tell us that mobile phones will give us inoperable cancer. I, for one, can’t remember a time where I wasn’t told my phone might give me cancer. A detail that might, just might be significant that the press seems to be downplaying is the conclusion of this WHO paper that it’s "not clearly established that it [mobile phone usage] does cause cancer in humans". I genuinely found it difficult to stay awake while reading the various papers’ bits of filler on the issue. In the end I was left with the impression that my mobile is definitely maybe but probably just possibly carcinogenic, and so the best action would be inaction but I should still be concerned about it.

Cells in our bodies turn cancerous every day, it just means that they start reproducing ceaselessly, it’s one of those unfortunate flaws of the imperfect processes of natural selection. A tumour is a mass of cells descended from a rogue cell that slipped past the immune system, and when the cells metastasise to other parts of the body, that’s when things get complicated. There’s myriad of factors which determine the probability of developing cancers, everything from genetics to diet and lifestyle. You can abstain from wine, women and song for your entire life (which will only have the effect of making your life seem longer) and there’s still no guarantee that one of the little buggers won’t slip past your white cells. When it comes to radiation, it helps to have some perspective on the matter . Here endeth the lesson, but if you want to see an absolutely surgical dismemberment of the W.H.O. Study, check out Brian Hughes’ post on