Teaching them young

Most of us don’t change our minds about anything important after the age of 20. We get set in our ways early. One of the earliest mindsets to form is about religion. Kids baptised in the Church of England and sent to a CofE church when they’re too young to understand religion usually end up as church-going Anglicans for life. No young child says to a parent, “I don’t want to be an Anglican. I think I’ll be a Buddhist.” There are always a rebellious few who stray, but the majority stay.

The training or indoctrination of young people can be good or bad but whatever it is, it usually sticks for life. In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler, playing on the resentment some Germans felt toward the financial success of Jews in their society, formed youth groups that taught hate. It was those German young people who became Nazis. They weren’t born Nazis.

If all the children in Neasden (a town I pick at random), had been brought up as Muslims instead of Catholics and Protestants, they would be Muslims now. There wouldn’t have been a lot of 10-year-olds stamping their feet saying, “I don’t want to be a Muslim. I want to be a Presbyterian.”

One of the greatest dangers to the survival of a civilisation is the rise of hatred within the culture. Yesterday’s horrific events in Woolwich have once again put focus on those who combine a philosophy of hate with education in murder. Radically indoctrinated young Muslims like the ones involved were never going to grow up trying to win the Noble Peace Prize, were they? They will have been convinced in their youth that Westerners are evil and that the right thing for them to do is kill as many of us as they can. There’s no hatred like the hatred based on religion. You can bet that there are more potential terrorists willing to die for Allah (peace be with him) today than there were a year ago.

The majority of peace-loving Muslims may be as opposed to these incipient terrorists as we are. However, it’s more likely they ignore them, the same way we ignore our fringe lunatics – like those of the English Defence League, for example, who are always eager to use tragic affairs like these to promote their own brand of hatred within the society. And so it goes on.

It’s not easy to understand why the races on earth are so different and so unable to get along. We don’t know whether there was always some basic, genetic difference between Eskimos and Africans, Asians and Europeans, or whether racial characteristics developed as a result of the differences in the environments in which humans with originally similar characteristics flourished over the centuries.

However it happened, there’s no doubt that now there are fundamental differences among races. Our philosophies of government, our personalities, goals, religions and even our beliefs in old wives tales differ. And those differences aren’t going away.

It’s hard to know what we should do about all this hatred. Spending more on weapons certainly doesn’t seem like the best way to eliminate it. Nuclear weapons are no deterrent to a few crazies with homemade bombs.

I remember a once reading a dialogue between two philosophers. One philosopher expressed dismay over the possible end of civilisation as a result of the invention of gun powder. The other said, “At your age, why are you so bothered by the possibility of the end of civilisation?”

I’m not too old to worry about it myself, but even if I were, I wouldn’t be so selfish that I’m ready to have this great world end with a biological or nuclear bang just because I’m not going to be around to see it.

Rafat is gone…

My friend Rafat is gone. Like, forever. He’s not dead, thank God, but for all intents and purposes, in my world, he might as well be.

I knew Rafat for several years. He’d moved into a flat near me in Surrey and we often paused to chat when we crossed paths, which was often. When you live across the hall from someone and see them every day, when they’re as much a part of the scenery as everything else, you don’t think of them nearly as often as you should. These people are just simply there, reliable, like the postman who shows up every morning, every day, friendly wave, off we go, best to you.

Rafat and I couldn’t have been more different. He grew up in Libya, which, I learned, is nothing at all like London. Eventually he moved out of the Surrey flat, but still kept in touch, and we’d occasionally meet up in London. A few months ago, when shit had just started to really go down back home, I ran into him at a coffee shop near his workplace; he didn’t say much — just sat there, looking pale as ever. There had been some sort of bombing, or an attack, or something, and his uncle was unaccounted for. He was instant-messaging with family over there, and everyone was in a panic. I said I hoped it all turned out well, then made some lame comment, intended to lighten the moment. I’m not sure if he got the joke. I’m not even sure there was one.

Rafat often struggled with the clash of his upbringing and his life in the UK. On one hand, his parents were devout Muslims who frowned on alcohol or sex or, you know, anything fun. On the other hand, he had a Match.com personal ad and a friend who was constantly trying to persuade him to down tequila shots. Rafat gradually became a part of my circle of friends. He even warmed to a nickname we gave him, “Rartfat,” just because we thought it sounded funny. Which it does.

He came to a party one of my mates hosted once. He just lived down the street, so, unlike everyone else, he had a brief, easy jaunt home. Using this information, I talked him into taking his first swig of hard liquor. To document the occasion, I commandeered my friend Elena’s camera. On three … one … two … let’s go Rafat … and pound! He looked like someone had just stuck a branding iron in his anus. The photo is classic. I don’t know where it is now. I’d love to have it.

He didn’t like beer, so I had him drinking gin and tonics. He was also in charge of the digital camera, and most of the shots of people drunkenly wailing during karaoke were taken by him. He’s not in any of those pictures. Most are, not surprisingly, out of focus anyway. He had a great time that night.

He was here on a work visa, sponsored by his company. This posed a problem. If the business I worked for ever went under, I would just have to go find another job and make sure I could pay my rent. But Rafat, he’d have to go back to Libya. He had been in the UK too long; he was anti-Ghaddafi and wanted him gone, but still didn’t seem very hopeful for Libya’s future under any new regime, so he had little desire to go back there. He knew what it could be like.

Bad news came in. His company was having money troubles. Rafat started looking pale again. He had been dating this girl — not a nice girl, if you ask me. He brought up the notion of possibly getting married so he could stay in the country, in case anything went down. Rafat was a little too public with this notion, in my opinion; soon everyone at his workplace knew about it. I told him to shush a little; he asked me to be the best man, if it went down. He liked this girl anyway; he could make it mutually beneficial.

A turn for the worse where he worked. A few people left their jobs. Staff dwindled. People suddenly found themselves doing the jobs of two or three, and it was stressful and tiring and, occasionally, demeaning. Rafat had a falling-out with the girl, and soon it became evident that not only would they not be marrying, they wouldn’t be hanging out much at all. He had a run-in with his roommate that made his home a place he tried to avoid whenever possible. The walls started closing in.

Rafat stopped talking much. I would ask him how he was doing, how things were at work and back home, and he’d put his head down and shake it, slowly, and say, “Not good, man, not good.” He would go into no more detail. The spiral had begun.

Then his company’s business started to pick up. I took this as good news for Rafat. But the die was already cast with him. He was already lost. He would go to work later and later, and leave later and later. He grew haggard and, when he spoke at all, complained of an inability to sleep. I wish I could have been there more for him. But I had my own stuff going on. We always have our own stuff going on. There is only so much that we can do.

It happened one Friday – September 30 to be exact. According to one of his colleagues, a mutual friend, they were all sitting around, doing their work. Rafat hadn’t spoken all morning. Then he stood up, walked into the boss’ office, and about 10 minutes later, they left in the lift. Our friend received a call about an hour later from the boss, saying Rafat wouldn’t be back in today, could you pick up his work? He said fine, and asked if everything was OK. His boss, hardly one of his better out-of-work pals, sighed and said, “We’ll see. I hope so.”

I left three messages for Rafat over the weekend, none of which were returned until a week later. By then, his office had already made up its own rumours. He told me he was medicated, so bear with him. He then said he was leaving for Libya in a week. I did not press him for details; the battles he was fighting clearly were ongoing.

The night before he left, I dropped by his London flat. We talked for an hour. Then I had to go home and he had lots to do before he hopped on that plane.

“Thank you, David. You have been a good friend.” I shook his hand, and shit, why not, hugged him. “You take care of yourself, Rafat. You’ll be missed. You be safe.”

He said thanks. There was nothing more to be said, really. His flight left the next day. A week later came the news of Ghaddafi’s death and Libya’s “liberation”.  I watched the news clips of London Libyans celebrating and thought of Rafat. He’s gone, and chances are I’ll never see him again, but hey, what do you do? People come, people go, supporting characters, popping up in the side of the frame, maybe making an impact, maybe not. For his sake, I hope things turn out well in Libya. I do wish him the very best.

Man, I’ve got to find that picture!

What is happening to my city?

This is not the usual writing readers of this blog are used to, but I am truly distressed and saddened by what has been happening here in London in the past 72 hours. The violence, looting, destruction of property and people’s livelihoods is hateful, depressing, selfish, contemptuous, vicious and frightening. The weakness of our leaders — those in government and opposition — in the face of the crisis, is particularly galling. That the police seem completely overwhelmed and unable to act decisively doesn’t fill me with confidence. My paranoid sense that delinquent youths all across the city are being emboldened by the current mood has ratcheted up my anxiety an unwelcome notch or two.

I want a more robust response from the authorities. I want them to act quickly to stop the rioting and restore order to the streets of London. BUT… hold on… calls for the Army on the streets? This is always the danger with crises like this — that people surrender totally to fear and start to call for the most outrageous and unacceptable things. Not only is it wrong for the Army to be on the streets in a supposedly democratic country, but its presence has the potential to fan the flames of riot and unrest, not quell them.

I totally condemn what is happening. But condemnation on its own is just a dead-end. We condemn. Then what? When the dust settles, we still have to look for solutions. Condemnation on its own is far too easy — so easy, in some mouths, that it becomes a sort of narcissistic vigilantism.

Many commentators, for example, have been describing the rioting as “mindless.” I’ve used the term myself in the last couple days. The thing is, it’s not. I understand why we use the word: it expresses our incredulity at what is happening and points to the counter-productiveness of the thing. But people who riot do have minds, and in these lie the reasons for their rioting.

Sure they are bad reasons, even if they are miserably explicable. They are not justifications or excuses. Call them motives, if you prefer. These may be greed, hatred, a craving for status, for battle and excitement and for an antisocial sort of liberty. Some deep, possibly incoherent rage against authority and a safer, kinder, more prosperous society they somehow feel they can’t join might be part of this story too. None of this is evidence of mindlessness, and to declare it so is to hide from reality.

The thing is, when events like this occur, the response is often a highly emotional one. People reach for simplified points of view. You’re either for or against. However, this is exactly the kind of response that feeds the climate of unrest in the first place.

As with the student protests last year, our condemnation of the criminality and support for the police in their attempts to restore order in the short term must be therefore balanced, in the long term, with analysis of the events with reference to their wider social and economic context: unemployment, poverty, disaffected youth, crime or even historic tensions with the Metropolitan Police.

My heart goes out to those who have been hurt, or lost homes, businesses and livelihoods. I hope and pray that calm returns to the streets of London tonight and that this city that I love will return to normal. And somehow, I hope, something good and positive will come of this!

Sound the alarm! There are no single men left in London!

Did you know there are no single guys in London? I didn’t know this. It was quite a shock!

In the past, I’ve scoffed at women who say they can’t find a nice single guy. It doesn’t make any sense. There’s a reason the “Men Seeking Women” section of personal ads is five times larger than the “Women Seeking Men” section. To me, it always seemed that if a woman wanted to meet a guy, the process would be a simple one:

1. Walk into bar.

2. Announce, “I am looking for a man.”

3. Wait 5-10 seconds.

4. Repeat if necessary.

Apparently this isn’t the case. I was having a party some time ago, and I was talking to a female friend of mine about who was going to be there. She didn’t hesitate: “Are there going to be any cute single guys there?” This is an attractive, funny, successful woman. It would seem that if she had a desire to be with a guy — a desire I’ll never understand; I guess womankind still hasn’t figured out that we are, generally speaking, a worthless, dead-end gender — actually landing one would be the least of her worries.

But no. She is always claiming that there’s a shortage of single guys. She posed the question to me: “David, seriously, how many of your friends are both single and good-looking?” (I ignored the fact that she was talking to me, a single, good-looking guy; she was “just a friend” after all, although… well, let’s not go there…) I thought about it for a minute:

Hmmmm… Let’s see… he’s stupid-looking… he has Oedipal problems… he’s been seeing the same girl since uni… he wears dirty tracksuit bottoms to work… he doesn’t even work… he has a wart on his left eyeball… he’s gay… he’s gay too… Shit! Where IS everybody?

I think my misconceptions about all of this started at St Mary’s College — the boys-only institution I attended. Neither I nor many of my male friends were ever dating anyway, mainly because none of us were in the football team. The lovelies in the girls-only St Joseph’s Convent just across the street seemed only interested in dating the athletes, and the footballers in particular (yes, this is nothing new), and every one that wasn’t, was either ugly, aiming for sainthood, experimenting with lesbianism or shagging some older guy. On to university, which fosters the mindset that you have to go to the students bar to pick up a girl with some line or gimmick. But all the guys with gimmicks were the athletic guys. Many of my friends today talk about how “wild” they were in uni, how they had loads of sex and drank all the time, recklessly, out of control. Yeah, right… I should have gone to their university.

Since then, to me, the relationship power struggle has seemed to be impossibly balanced toward women. Guys were the ones staring at women’s chests; women were the ones deciding which guy staring at their chest they were going to select. This balance of power seemed so clearly logical that I couldn’t imagine the world being any other way. Guys: Doltish, expendable, interchangeable, dime-a-dozen. Women: Running the world.

But as we’ve got older, the dynamics have shifted, though I don’t think anyone would argue that women aren’t still running the world. I’m not sure if it’s some biological clock thing, or more guys realising that once they trick a woman into liking them, they should just hang onto them while they can, or whatever. But it’s true, in London at least: I know a lot more single women than I know single men.

After thinking about it, I told my friend that I only knew a couple single men who would be at the party and neither of them were really her type. Thinking aloud, I came up with a guy I know who could fit, but I wasn’t sure if he was seeing anyone or not. She was already off and running, peppering me with questions about him, what was he like, how tall was he, where was he from, what’s his family like, so on, so forth. After 20 minutes, she was telling another girl how excited she was to meet “this great guy” at the party. And all I’d really said about him was, “Um, he’s tall. And he might be seeing someone.” She was so excited; a real single male!

I always thought it would take a nuclear war with just one guy and 10 women living in a bomb shelter, but no, believe it or not, in this great city of ours, we have reached that threshold: There are more women looking for men than men looking for women. It’s astounding.

I could analyse this and try to figure out why. I could really attempt to figure it out, decipher what socioeconomic factors are at work. But I have a higher purpose.

(The next two paragraphs are to be read by men only. Thank you.)

Men of England: Guys! Check it out! If you come to London, women will be all over you! Our day has come! I never thought I’d see it either! I mean, they’re actually looking for us now! And they totally want it! I know! Amazing!

Get your arses out here! Everything must go! This can’t last forever! Hurry, before they figure out what’s going on!

I told her that I’m sure there’s a nice guy out there for her. Somewhere. She said she’d try to hold out hope.

My God… could it be true? Have we finally WON?