Notes From a Small Planet

4 Conversations

Two little words

Rarely can the machinery of the US Government have moved more quickly and decisively to counter a perceived threat. Congress delayed a debate on vital health care issues in order to rush through a motion condemning the outrage, passed by a majority of 416 votes to three with 11 abstentions. The Senate did likewise, with an even more emphatic majority of 99-0.

But even that wasn't enough. Over 100 senior politicians gathered outside the Capitol building to make a public protest, and President Bush interrupted important economic talks in Canada to voice his own disgusted reaction to what had taken place.

So what had prompted all this frantic activity? Some new terrorist outrage? A provocative new message from Osama bin Laden? The threat of nuclear war in the Indian sub-continent?

No, it was much worse than that. The Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco had taken exception to two words in the Pledge of Allegiance, the patriotic vow that American schoolchildren are expected to recite each morning. The court ruled that the Pledge was an unconstitutional 'endorsement of religion'. The case was prompted by a lawsuit brought by Michael A. Newdow, an atheist from Sacramento, who had taken exception to his daughter being required to recite a pledge that describes the United States as 'one nation under God'.

Judge Alfred T. Goodwin explained in the court ruling: 'A profession that we are a nation 'under God' is identical, for Establishment Clause purposes, to a profession that we are a nation 'under Jesus', a nation 'under Vishnu', a nation 'under Zeus', or a nation 'under no god', because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion'.

'Although students cannot be forced to participate in recitation of the pledge, the school district is nonetheless conveying a message of state endorsement of a religious belief when it requires public school teachers to recite, and lead the recitation of, the current form of the pledge.'

I can only agree and sympathise. I've long resented the fact that I was taught Christian doctrine as though it was indisputable fact when I was at school. It's left me with a deep distrust of organised religion, and a deep distaste for attempts to impose it on
children. At the secondary school I attended, parents could withdraw their children from religious lessons, but to do so was to stigmatise those children - to mark them out as different from their peers.

I'm sure the same problems would be experienced by any American student who flatly refused to recite the Pledge. Indeed, the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta is currently hearing a case involving an Alabama student named Michael Holloman, who was punished two years ago for standing with his fist raised rather than reciting the Pledge. (His punishment was to be spanked three times with a wooden paddle and given a written reprimand. Clearly, progressive teaching methods have yet to reach Alabama.)

Attorney General John Ashcroft has announced that the US Justice Department will appeal against the San Francisco court ruling, and seek to defend the Pledge. Given the vehemence of the reaction to the ruling, it's hard to believe that it won't be reversed. I think that'll be a pity. The words 'under God' add an ideological dimension to a pledge that is otherwise a statement of belief in American national unity - in a nation '...indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.'

What's more, President Bush was just plain wrong when he said that the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruling was '... out of step with the traditions and history of our country.' I may be an ignorant Brit, but I always thought that the separation of church and state was an important principle in American government. Arguably, what's really out of step with American tradition is that phrase 'under God'. It was inserted in the Pledge in 1954, at the height of Cold War paranoia and McCarthyism, by a Congress anxious to distance the USA from 'Godless' communism.

Some commentators have argued that, even if the court ruling was right in principle, now isn't the time to tamper with things that people see, rightly or wrongly, as part of the American national identity. It's an understandable position, but I'd argue that it is precisely because of the September 11 outrages that America should be particularly keen to rid itself of anything that might tend to exacerbate religious divisions.

In any case, the spectacle of the government of the mightiest nation on earth getting into such a flap over two words hardly makes me feel safer as a global citizen. I can only applaud Rep. Bobby Scott from Virginia, one of the three Congressmen who opposed the
resolution condemning the court ruling. After the vote, he explained that although he believes the pledge in schools should be found constitutional, he also believes that the issue should be left to the courts.

He added: 'The only thing worse than the decision is the spectacle of members of the United States House of Representatives putting aside discussion of prescription drugs for Medicare to take up this resolution'.

It's good to know that someone kept his head when all around him were losing theirs.

Marked cards

It seems as though I may have the honour of being one of the guinea pigs for the UK government's latest Big Idea. Home Secreatary David Blunkett has, not for the first time, put forward the idea of compulsory ID cards for all citizens. It's hardly a new idea; it
seems to be revived about once every six months, then quietly forgotten again. But what is new is that the proposed cards are not now being presented as a deterrent for all crime.

Instead, in a masterly spot of rebranding, they are being billed as 'entitlement cards', and their primary purpose is apparently going to be to crack down on benefit fraud. So, if I'm still claiming state benefits when they're introduced, I'll be required to produce a
'smart card' encoded with my benefit records, and possibly with my fingerprints and some medical details too.

However, the likes of me wouldn't be alone in needing the cards, even if they were mainly meant to keep an eye on we jobless wastrels. They'd be compulsory for all UK citizens, although we'd only be required to own them, not to carry them. Beyond that, details are currently sketchy, because the government is planning a consultation period and public debate before introducing the cards.

The cost of the scheme would be enormous, far exceeding the cost of the benefit fraud it's supposedly meant to tackle. It's been estimated that setting up the card scheme would cost anything between £1.3 billion and £3.1 billion, depending on how hi-tech the cards
were. Blunkett has admitted that it would be financed through a hefty hike in the charges for driving licences and passports. And what would we get in return?

It's hardly as though identity checks on claimants are lax. When I last applied for housing benefit, I was obliged to go to my local registry office to obtain a copy of my birth certificate before I could satisfy the authorities that I was who I said I was. I
renewed my passport at a time when I wasn't planning any international travel, simply because so many things seemed to be impossible without one of two magic forms of identification: a passport or a full driving licence. Opening a bank account, for instance, cannot be done without one of those two documents.

Simon Thomas, the Plaid Cymru MP for Ceredigion, has been among the most robust critics of Blunkett's ID ideas. He has commented: 'There is no evidence that ID cards
or 'entitlement cards' would reduce fraud or the risk of terrorism. The September 11 bombers worked within a framework of ID cards and simply overcame it through stealing people's identities and forgery. There is no evidence either that ID cards on the continent have reduced fraud there.

Quite. Post-September 11, there's an understandable inclination among politicians to rush for anything that offers an illusion of greater control and security. But in this case, it would be a very expensive illusion. It seems singularly perverse that a government so
reluctant to increase taxes in order to improve vital public services should be so willing to contemplate a sudden increase in indirect taxation on drivers and travellers - and all to support a scheme that seems unlikely to do anyone very much good.

Recorder breaking

Another story this week brought back unpleasant memories of schooldays for me. It concerned some research that has revealed why school music lessons put so many children off the idea of making music.

The answer can be summed up in one word: recorders.

Dr Susan O'Neill of Keele University, who carried out the research for the Economic and Social Research Council, found that young people see it as a 'child's instrument'. She has said that people who are forced to play the recorder into their teenage years often give up playing an instrument before secondary school because they don't like playing the recorder; but cash-strapped schools nevertheless stick with them because they're durable and cheap. The study involved interviewing more than 1,200 children during their final
year of primary schooling. 882 of those children continued contributing to the research until the end of their first year at secondary school.

Dr O'Neill said: 'Children do not associate playing the recorder with their musical role models in the adult world.'

I'd certainly agree with that. However, I wouldn't describe the recorder as 'a child's instrument'. I would describe it as an instrument of torture that sounds like an asthmatic owl. In the hands of someone who can't really play it, which obviously includes most
schoolchildren, it's well-nigh unbearable.

With all the legislation we have these days concerning cruelty to children, why is its continued use in schools tolerated?

We're not the champions

Finally this week, I'd like to congratulate the World Cup winners. But I don't mean Brazil, exhilarating though they were to watch. I refer to Bhutan, the winners of The Other Final - the game to decide the worst national team in the world. It featured Bhutan
and Montserrat: the two teams at the very bottom of the FIFA world rankings.

The game took place on the same day as that other little kickabout between Brazil and Germany. A crowd estimated at 25,000 packed into in the Changlimithang Stadium, Bhutan, and saw Bhutan win 4-0 with the help of a hat-trick from captain Wangyal Dorji. Team manager Arie Schans gave the credit to Bhutan's cunning tactic of saying good luck
prayers at a monastery before the game. The match was televised live in Bhutan, and fans around the world will get the chance to see it later this year when a documentary entitled 'The Other Final' is released.

To put the teams' status in perspective, Bhutan and Montserrat were rated 202nd and 203rd in the world respectively. That meant that they were officially worse than the American Samoa team that lost 31-0 to Australia in a World Cup qualifying match last year. Bhutan themselves lost 20-0 to Kuwait in an Asia Cup match in 2000. However, since The Other Final was played, they've gone up in the world. In the updated, post-World Cup FIFA rankings, they've leapt up three places to 199th. Montserrat, sadly, remain in last place.

But here's the really wild thing about The Other Final. Its organiser, Matthijs de Jongh from communications agency KesselsKramer, has said that the match was 'not about who
wins or loses, but about a love for the game.
' Normally that'd sound dreadfully corny, but in this case it seems to have been true. The Other Final had no sponsors, no commercial interest, and the spectators got in free.

Getting involved in football for the love of it, and not to make money? What a crazy idea. It'll never catch on.

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