Bertrand Russell : The Ethics of War

This essay, which was written exactly a century ago in 1915, with the First World War in full swing, asks the question whether war is ever justified, and if so under what circumstances. Knowing that Bertrand Russell’s pacifism had cost him six months in Brixton Prison in 1918, I didn’t expect any surprises here – but in that I was much mistaken. He makes it plain from the start that he does not consider the current war justified, but neither does he take “the extreme Tolstoyan view that war is under all circumstances a crime”. He is a utilitarian, and considers that war is justified if it is for the good of mankind as a whole, a viewpoint which can lead to some (for me) unexpected consequences… (more…)


Etienne Vermeersch : Provençaalse gesprekken

Etienne Vermeersch’s ‘Provençaalse gesprekken’ was een van de meest inspirerende boeken dat ik sinds een tijd had gelezen. Niet dat ik het altijd eens was met meneer Vermeersch, maar de delen waar ik zijn mening niet deelde waren minstens net zo inspirerend als die waarover ik het volledig met hem eens was. Hij heeft mij dus vaak aan het denken gezet… (more…)


Ever since I saw Benny’s Video back in 1993 I’ve been a big fan of Michael Haneke. No matter what subject he deals with, he always manages to portray it with a quite amazing degree of realism. This is partly due to his style of filmmaking – long shots with little camera movement, few close-ups and very little music – and partly due to the realistic scripts and the excellent performances he manages to get from his actors, which always emphasise everyday realism at the expense of dramatic effect. His style is often referred to as ‘clinical’, but the result is something approaching a picture of life as it really is. With his films, more than with those of any other director, it’s easy to forget you’re just watching actors performing a script, and you can’t help getting the very uncomfortable feeling that whatever is happening to the people on the screen (generally nothing very pleasant) could just as easily happen to you. This was as true of Amour as it was of Benny’s Video, Le temps du Loup or Funny Games, and in this case the realism benefited further from the truly amazing performances of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, who are totally convincing as a couple who’ve been together for most of their lives. Every other aspect of the story was handled with equal realism, and Isabelle Huppert was also brilliant as their daughter. (more…)

On Insult

Last week I read reports (e.g. here) of a big demonstration in London (on Saturday or Sunday, the 7th or 8th of February, that wasn’t clear from the reports) by thousands of Muslims protesting against Charlie Hebdo and its ‘insults’ to Islam and the Prophet. I was quite pleased to see photos of people holding up placards saying “Insult my Mum and I will punch you (Pope Francis)” as I’d expected that his words would be used in this way. I would be very interested indeed to know whether that was his intention, or whether he now regrets having spoken too rashly. When he said those words in an interview a few weeks ago it did seem totally spontaneous, but I wasn’t 100% convinced that that was genuine.

All this confirmed for me that my objection to the way most people seem to think about the concept “insult” is more than just a personal annoyance or a theoretical philosophical discussion, but an extremely important issue at the moment – frequently a matter of life and death, in fact – and that it was perhaps time for a general rant on the subject on this blog… (more…)

The punching pope

Last Sunday I spent ages unsuccessfully searching Google for that incident involving Bill Clinton, but today a very similar incident occurred involving Pope Francis. While talking to journalists about the recent Charlie Hebdo killings he said freedom of speech was a fundamental human right and strongly condemned what had happened in Paris, but added that there are limits to freedom of expression and that ‘one cannot make fun of faith’. Having said that ‘such horrific violence in God’s name could not be justified’, he basically went on to contradict himself by adding ‘One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith. There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity … in freedom of expression there are limits. If my good friend Dr Gasparri [the guy who organises papal trips and was standing by his side] says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.’ What he was actually saying was that a perceived insult can be sufficient justification for physical violence, and that such violence was ‘normal’. His only problem with the Charlie Hebdo killers, then, was that they’d gone too far: punching someone is allowed, but shooting them isn’t. (more…)


This evening we saw Abderrahmane Sissako’s ‘Timbuktu’, and a truly miserable film it was too – but quite a good one. It was well made, and often well acted, but it had been a long time since a film had made me so angry. I left the cinema hating the human race, and as we walked back to the car I said to P. that the best thing that could happen would be for the entire human race – this cancer growing on the earth – to be completely wiped out. (more…)

Being Charlie – some thoughts on symbols, insults and emotions

Thursday 8 January 2015

As I passed the pharmacy on the way into the shopping centre this morning I saw a girl who had just come out and was sticking up a photocopied “Je suis Charlie” sign on the wall; every website and newspaper has been carrying that message since yesterday and it’s been tweeted millions of times all over the world. I very much suspect that most of the people saying that ‘they are Charlie’ have never even read Charlie Hebdo (just as I haven’t). I found myself getting annoyed today, mainly because of what had actually happened in Paris yesterday – that anyone could be so crazy as to actually kill someone because he felt ‘insulted’, either personally or on behalf of ‘the prophet’ – but also because of all this “Je suis Charlie” stuff. Those murders had been committed by people suffering from the illusion that symbols are important, and the reaction was yet more symbols. If people didn’t take symbols so seriously then they wouldn’t be so easily insulted, people wouldn’t get murdered and other people wouldn’t have to waste their time and energy making yet more symbolic gestures. These are not the sort of thoughts I feel I could really share with the people in my local shopping centre – I doubt if many would understand. (more…)