Saturday, August 12, 2017

Dunkirk

Saw this last Saturday. The film shows the Dunkirk evacuation from the perspectives of land 'The Mole', Sea and Air. Out of the hundreds of thousands involved, Nolan focuses attention on a handful of Tommies, a couple of RAF pilots and the escapades aboard a small civilian boat piloted by Mr Dawson, played by Mark Rylance. While the epic scale of the rescue is brought home we are not allowed to forget the personal heroism of the individuals involved. 

The film is visually stunning, loud, and immersive. The aerial balletics of  the dogfights between RAF Spitfires and their Luftwaffe opponents are especially gripping. The main roles are well acted, including the chap from One Direction, who plays a bit of a baddie. Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance give standout performances, adding emotional weight to the film. 

Talk about tension. So many rescue boats are bombed from the air or torpedoed that you begin to wonder whether anyone got home. Thankfully over 300,000 did. Those who returned to Blighty worried they would be labelled cowards, but Churchill's well judged, 'We will fight them on the beaches' speech set the tone. 

The providential rescue of the British Expeditionary Force was an important factor in the allies' eventual victory over Nazi Germany. No Dunkirk, no D-Day.

Dunkirk is a powerful reminder that rescue involves sacrifice. That was also true of 'The' event that shaped our world. 

Friday, August 11, 2017

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Faber and Faber, 2006 edition, 282pp 

This is the second of two books I read while on holiday in France. The first was The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson. More of that in another review post. Suffice to say that one of the main themes of Robinson's collection of essays is what it means to be human. In the first essay on Humanism, the author disagrees with the view of some Neuroscientists who conclude that the human "self" does not exist. What we think of as "self" is merely the product of electronic impulses generated by that computerised piece of meat, the human brain. 

Robinson prefers the account given by "the brilliant young humanist scholar, John Calvin...in his praise of 'the manifold agility of the soul, which enables it to take a survey of heaven and earth; to join the past and present; to retain the memory of things heard long ago; to conceive whatever it chooses by the help of imagination; its ingenuity also in the invention of such admirable arts'". (p. 26). 

The question of what it is to be human also haunts Ishiguro's novel. The story is narrated by Kathy H, a thirty one year old carer. The novel unfolds as Kathy reflects on 'the memory of things long ago' in an attempt to make sense of her current situation. Her life story begins in Hailsham, a special boarding school. While there Kathy made friends with fellow boarders, Tommy and Ruth. The story is limited by her perspective on things as Kathy reminisces about the past until her story merges with the present. Other than that, no explanation is given of how the dystopia Ishiguro has created came about. 

Slowly the reader begins to grasp that all is not right with Kathy's world. It becomes apparent that Hailsham children were 'donors', a class of people created by cloning as living spare parts. Their destiny was to grow into adulthood and then have their vital organs removed one by one until they died, or 'completed'. Before donating they could serve as carers, hence Kathy's position. 

Hailsham students could never understand why the art they made was removed from the school and placed in a gallery. A rumor spread that exhibits in the gallery were there to prove that two Hailsham students had fallen in love once they reached adulthood. Genuine couples could be granted some extra time together before donating. Ruth, Tommy and Kathy certainly believed this to be true. 

Later in life Kathy hears that Hailsham had closed down. However, Together with Tommy she manages to track down Miss Emily and Madame from the school. They are desperate to find out whether the rumuor about the gallery was true. It turns out that what made Hailsham special was that the school pioneered a more humane way of treating 'donor' children, believing them to be fully paid up members of the human race, rather than living spare parts. The art in the gallery was not there to give in an insight into lovers' souls, but to 'prove you had souls at all' (p. 255). Calvin would have approved of that as an indication of genuine humanity, but not of the need for it in the case of Kathy et al.

Kathy and her friends are depicted as truly and fully human, not soulless automatons. They form close friendships, they fall in and out of love, they are kind and they are cruel, they create art and literature, they long for a sense of meaning and purpose in life, they want to know where they came from and where they are going. Ishiguro's tenderly drawn characters are flawed, sometimes frustrating, yet lovable human beings. Like us. But destined to die a cold, unnatural death. 

The writer deploys a 'show not tell' approach to the moral issues raised in his novel. It does, however, provoke some serious bioethicical questions. Currently, embryonic stem cell research involves the harvesting of stem cells from human embryos prior to their destruction. In most cases these embryos are 'surplus to requirements' in IVF treatments. Although some have been created by cloning simply for stem cell research purposes. Human life in its early stage has become a thing to be used. And that while stem cells may be taken from adult tissue and deployed to good therapeutic effect. There is mounting pressure to press ahead still further with embryo experimentation for therapeutic and even reproductive purposes. Let's hope the alternative past portrayed in these pages doesn't become a chilling prophecy of the future. 

I'm not aware of Ishiguro's faith position. Reading his novel through Christian eyes, it is a powerful testament to the worth, dignity and value of human beings, made in the image of God. As such it is a protest against seeing people as products to be utilised rather than souls to be loved. 

The title of the novel is taken from Kathy's favourite song, which is emblematic of the deep seated human need for security in love. There is One who will never let us go, John 10:27-29. 

Friday, August 04, 2017

Inventing ourselves: some comments on gender self-identification proposals

The Minister for Women and Equalities, Justine Greening has announced a government proposal on altering the legal requirements involved in a person changing their gender identity. The current legislation includes a number of safeguards before a person is allowed to legally change their gender identity, including a clinical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and the requirement that a person has lived in line with their chosen gender identity for two years. Under these proposals those safeguards will be scrapped, allowing people to self-identify their gender. The intention is to ‘de-medicalise’ the process. But gender dysphoria is a psychological condition that requires expert diagnosis and treatment.  Should a person wish to go ahead with hormone treatment and gender reassignment surgery, that would be a medical procedure. The process cannot therefore be ‘de-medicalised’. The current safeguards should be retained as an absolute minimum.

A person cannot simply assert that they are a man or a woman, contrary to their birth gender, and expect society to recognise that as a fact. Birth certificates should not be retrospectively altered to change a person’s birth gender, or so they can identify themselves as ‘X’ opposed to male or female. In terms of genetics and reproductive functions, human beings are born either male or female. That is a scientific fact that cannot be altered. People who feel ‘trapped in the wrong body’ should be treated with kindness and respect, but the best way of dealing with their gender identity issues is to help them come to terms with the person they are by birth (see here). The tiny percentage of people born with an intersex condition is not strictly relevant to this discussion. The matter concerns those who were born male or female, who wish to identify with the opposite sex as a matter of choice.

As a Christian I believe that human beings are made in the image of God as male and female. It is part of God’s good creation that men and women are equal and yet different. The differences between men and women should be celebrated as part of the natural diversity of the human race. No attempt should be made to deny or overcome these differences. Giving a man female hormone treatment and subjecting their bodies to surgery in order to give them a feminised appearance does not alter their genetic maleness or bestow upon them female reproductive functions. Similarly with women who seek to identify as male. Biological facts are not malleable and cannot be changed at will, or even by medical procedures.

The ‘Trans Movement’, whose agenda the government seems to be championing seems to have a very restricted understanding of what constitutes male or female gender identity. Gender stereotyping needs to be challenged rather than reinforced. A boy who enjoys cooking and dancing is a boy who enjoys those pursuits, not a girl in the ‘wrong body’. A girl who prefers playing football to dressing up as a princess in bright pink is a sporty girl, not a child who is ‘gender fluid’. It is a great disservice to vulnerable children to suggest that they may be suffering from gender identity problems that may be resolved by boys seeking to become girls or visa versa.  

The number of children who have been referred to gender identity clinics has grown exponentially in recent years. This is due in part to a culture where children are encouraged to question whether they are in fact boys or girls. Hormone suppressing drugs are prescribed to children in preparation for gender transitioning. Commentators have rightly expressed alarm over these developments. Feminist writer Camille Pagila recently stated, "The cold biological truth is that sex changes are impossible," and "I condemn the escalating prescription of puberty blockers (whose long-term effects are unknown) for children. I regard this practice as a criminal violation of human rights.” (Life Site 20/06/17).” Dr. Joanna Williams was quoted in the Daily Telegraph (23/06/17),

Although the number of transgender children is small, it is growing rapidly. Children - encouraged by their experiences at school - are beginning to question their gender identity at ever younger ages.
In doing more than just supporting transgender children, and instead sowing confusion about gender identity, schools do neither boys nor girls any favours.

Writing in The Times (27/07/17), Clare Foges pondered the harmful implications of your policy for children,

Widespread mental health problems, from self-harming to eating disorders and anxiety, reveal that children are suffering increasing distress. The causes for this are complex but might we quietly suggest that encouraging them to question the very essence of their identity will not help?

The proposed gender self-identification policy only stands to make things worse for children. 

Ms. Greening is the Minister for Women and Equalities. It is therefore surprising that she seems unaware that the measures she proposes are likely to have a detrimental impact on women. Already there have been cases where men who identify as women have been incarcerated in female prisons, where they have gone on to sexually assault and even rape women prisoners. Women will be more vulnerable to sexual assault in changing rooms and toilets if men are able simply to self-identity as women and use these facilities themselves. To say nothing of the implications for women’s sport, should men who self-identify as women be recognised as such. The physical strength and speed of ‘trans women’ will put natural women at a disadvantage, which seems manifestly unfair to female athletes. The policy proposal Greening is now championing was drawn up by her predecessor in the role of equalities minister, Maria Miller. When Janice Turner pressed Miller on these matters in a probing interview in The Times (29/07/17), Miller failed to come up with adequate answers and threatened to walk out of the interview.

The facts of life cannot be altered by legislative fiat. The government’s proposals on gender self-identification will require society to accept a fundamental untruth, namely that it is possible for a person to become a member of the opposite sex simply by making a statement to that effect. People do not share my Christian beliefs may be tempted to dismiss my arguments out of hand. It is not only Christians, however, who share my concerns. Dr David Starkey is no friend of the Christian faith. Yet writing in The Spectator (29/07/17) to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality, Starkey, a self-confessed ‘Gay Tory’ heavily criticised these proposals,

So where does this leave Justine Greening’s recent announcement — deliberately timed to coincide with the anniversary of the ’67 act — that the government hopes to make gender reassignment a simple matter of statutory self-declaration with none of the ‘demeaning’ bother of medical assessment? Is it, as she claims, part of a properly conservative long march? Hardly. We fought, as conservatives should, for the recognition of facts. On the other hand, Greening and her sidekick Nick Gibb believe in defying them, since they appear to deny that gender is based in biology.

Legislation in defiance of established facts cannot be acceptable. These wrong-headed proposals on gender self-identification should therefore be abandoned.

* This blog is an edited version of a letter sent to Ms. Greening, with a copy to my own MP. Go and do likewise if you share my concerns.