Sunday, 12 October 2014

In which British military intelligence promotes skepticism in Ireland by lying about black magic

Richard Jenkins has just published a book, Black Magic and Bogeymen, showing how a British military intelligence division deliberately fabricated evidence of black magic and satanism for the purpose of social control and to vilify Irish paramilitary organisations.

The tactics seem to have involved:
  1. Tapping into pre-existing beliefs in the local population. Without this vulnerability to exploit, the attempt would have come across as merely comical.
  2. Planting false evidence of witchcraft or satanist events and rituals. In itself, this is little better than schoolkid pranking, but they were able to back it with authority (see below).
  3. Leaking false stories of black magic or satanic rituals or beliefs to the press. I suppose they were able to get away with this because the press treated them as a trustworthy source, and the public were willing to trust the press!

    There's a moral here: certainly, these are slanderous, exploitative means and I doubt they justify the end, but until such time as they can be curtailed, skepticism seems like the only defense.

PS: It's sad that having had its five minutes of fame, Black Magic and Bogeymen has quite a few accessibility faults: it's expensive, there are no previews and no electronic versions. I think I'd rather enjoy reading it if some of that could be fixed.

Other stories about malicious fabrication of supernatural incidents:

In which Pastor Ezeugwu uses an angel to promote witchcraft belief in Nigeria.

How not to debunk an idea

Warning: this is a rant and consequently, it has a nasty tendency not to follow its own advice.

A certain number of articles I've read over the past year or so have annoyed the hell out of me. They have ideas to debunk, and their modus operandi is as follows:
  1. Spend 80% of the article telling the readers what the author imagines they think.
    a) often get it wrong as far as many people are concerned,
    b) often focus on out-of-date or eccentric ideas, espoused only by those who are ignorant of the subject.
  2. Then spend 20% of the article telling the readers why they're wrong.
This is a bad idea, worse than that, it's probably a cover for writers who need to make copy. Or even worse, it's just a form of super-trolling. At best, it's egocentric and lazy: anyone who can't quote an individual, publication or statistic in support of what they imagine 'everyone' thinks may well be the only one thinking it*. Let's face it, if an idea is truly universal, writers don't need to dwell on it. If most people believe the Earth is roughly spherical and someone wants to present exciting new evidence that it's actually cylindrical, why waste words on telling 'everyone' how wrong they are for having thought it was flat? Debunking for fun and profit is an excellent venture, but it doesn't sit easily alongside the promotion of new ideas. 

There are actually some very good reasons for this. Linking a belief, perhaps a loosely or unconsciously held one, with a reader's sense of self makes it harder for them to change their mind - although linking a belief which is probably false with any social group the reader may identify with (by religion, race, nationality, etc.) is worse. In fact it's such a stupidly ineffective thing to do that words fail me!** It strongly encourages readers to associate themselves with, and defend, the belief the writer has just proposed to them, rather than consider the evidence for the new one. At best, they are likely to find the writer manipulative and obsessive. The most effective way to introduce people to a new belief is to draw as little attention as possible to any contradictory ones they may hold. If this results in them experiencing a little cognitive dissonance, writers had best come over all discreet and let them deal with that by themselves. It's an inevitable part of the change process.

So much for readers who do hold a belief to some extent. Readers who don't may justifiably feel their intelligence and/or education has been insulted. Alternatively, they may take the writer to be ignorant and lose their respect for him or her. Or, if they're the nasty type, they may feel encouraged in their sense of superiority towards all those other pitiful readers who have allegedly bought into the debunked idea***. In all of these cases, the debunker's writing is the epitome of what the word 'divisive' means and being divisive for the lulz makes the perpetrator a troll and a waste of space.

Footnotes:

* Laziness and vague quoting of sources: at least the phrase 'a certain number of articles' doesn't imply they all do this. Nor does it posit writing such articles as the systematic behavior of any individual or class of persons. I may start naming and shaming individual cases at some point if I feel like it, but in the meantime, if you haven't noticed any, feel free to assume I have a bee in my bonnet.

** More laziness and lack of proper evidential support: as even Wikipedia would say, 'citation needed'. I'm pretty certain citations are available but I couldn't be bothered to find any right now.

*** If you don't fall into one of the four or five categories of reader enumerated here, this just isn't about you okay? Perhaps it just means you're not a real reader anyway, have you thought of that? Maybe you should just consider yourself lucky I didn't write this post as though you were practically bound to be the wrong sort of writer. In fact, I avoided writing most of it in the second person altogether, but I ran out of self-control by the time I reached this footnote.

Friday, 10 October 2014

The CEO of Microsoft brings us magical thinking on how to get a raise

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, has just made himself famous by responding to a question about how women should ask for raises thusly:
It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along. 
Sadly, Nadella reveals the all too common belief that he lives in a social system which is inherently and basically fair, barring exceptional abuses. Despite the fact this is probably a fundamentally human psychological response, shared by those it serves and those it penalises, no idea could be easier to call into question. A look through any history book will show that fair social systems are far from being the norm. It's rather incumbent on a system which considers itself the exception to prove its case. Here, it seems doubtful, and Nadella's remarks add to my suspicions for reasons I'll explain below. We're not finished with his superstitions yet:

To make matters worse, Nadella enjoins others, especially the likeliest victims of unfairness to inaction by referring to a spiritual belief about the self-correcting properties of social systems:
Not asking for raise, he added, was “good karma” that would help a boss realise the employee could be trusted and should have more responsibility.

It doesn't really matter whether he means 'karma' in the Hindu sense of the word or the Californian New Age sense because either way, no such thing exists - our social systems are not self-correcting, people don't automatically get what they deserve, and in this case, it isn't 'the system' which hands out rewards, it's people*. People like Nadella who make discretionary choices.

Taking Nadella at face value, one leaps to the conclusion that as a boss, he has a distaste for obvious ambition in his staff. He prefers employees of all genders to patiently do their assigned jobs to the best of their abilities, while he observes them and singles out the cream of the crop for promotion. If they seem too 'grabby', he has said, he will be disinclined to trust them and it's easy to imagine he might pass them over for promotion on those grounds.

So what are ambitious female employees left with? Pure faith that Nadella will not overlook them because not one fibre of his being fails to envisage women as normal and natural managers of divisions or future CEOs!!

Well... I would hate to hold him to a standard few have attained, but in any case, it's just so unusual to hear the CEO of an IT company decrying ambition. I would love to get into an alternate universe, find Nadella and ask him unawares how men should ask for a pay rise... or employees in general. I'm finding it rather difficult to have faith that I would have got the same answer. I suspect pushy women make Nadella uncomfortable whereas un-pushy women will indeed go unnoticed.

* On the other hand, I sincerely believe that where the Windows operating system is concerned, our society has got exactly what it deserves. I admit that whenever it crashes, my personal karma must be the cause, since there has never seemed to be any other good reason.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Opt-in or opt-out on organ donation: the right thing to do should be the default thing to do

For a while now, I've been wanting to begin a series of posts I'm calling Magic Society, on the subject of magical thinking with regard to social issues (the politically correct term is non-evidence-based thinking). The name Magic Society is derived from the UK Conservative government's Big Society, a scheme to bring about adequate government of a large and complex system by 'integrating the free market with a theory of social solidarity based on hierarchy and voluntarism.'

My kick-off post is just what it says, a little reflection on how to optimize a tiny part of our society, saving lives in the process. 

Since organ donation has become so successful, we are all aware of the difficulties of long waiting lists for transplants. I just signed a Change.org petition to ask the UK to switch to an opt-out system, which means people would be considered willing donors unless they've specifically indicated they don't want to be. There are ongoing campaigns to bring about opt-out systems in the US and Australia as well.

Since it seems kind of obvious that organ donation is the right thing to do, I thought I would like it to be the default. The problem is that nobody wants to mistakenly take the organs of someone who would have opted out, but somehow failed to make their choice known (just as so many of us fail to make our preference for being donors known). It might seem we could address this with an extensive public information campaign, special liaisons with religious groups likely to opt out, and so on, but I think there would inevitably be accidents and oversights.

It seems to me that the real 'right thing to do' is to make sure everybody has a declared preference and that their choice is accessible to medical professionals at points where it will be needed. That would mean a single organization (probably the NHS) actively soliciting that choice from everyone in the country, double-checking it from time to time, and making sure it appears on identity documents most people are likely to have (or make it accessible by other means).

It's a system that would be easier to arrange in some countries than others. Unlike some state health systems, the NHS has rather given up on prevention and prefers to see most of us as little as possible, making it hard for them to collect information from us. Since the British are very resistant to carrying identification cards, we can't push for the relatively easy and inexpensive solution of getting this information displayed on them. We certainly don't want to rely on multiple organizations to hold this information: a driving license authority here, a medical insurance there, because of the risk of people giving different choices. The right default involves a single authority soliciting everyone's decision and allowing them to change it at will. This could be one of those situations where a lack of existing social infrastructure forces Britain to hover between two non-optimal solutions - meanwhile, people die who didn't need to ...

Monday, 6 October 2014

How to make magic water

I've been meaning to write another long how-to post for weeks. Here are just a few of the many, many ways to make magic water. All of them are quite unnecessary, but they're worth ploughing through because there's a party political broadcast at the end.

HOW TO MAKE HOLY WATER IN THE ROMAN CATHOLIC TRADITION

Lots of people have used lots of different ways for sanctifying water, but it was Catholic holy water I got asked about so I'm focusing on that one. Back in the old days, Catholic holy water was accounted a substance with real magical powers, so potent that it was kept locked up to stop it falling into mischievous hands. One of the interesting things about the Catholic Church is that a lot of what they did was straight-forward magic and they wanted to retain a monopoly on this magic. Their tactics included: writing everything down in Latin so people couldn't understand it, claiming that good magic could only be performed by their qualified practitioners, and that all other uses of magic were bad and should be pursued and punished.

That's why it doesn't matter how well you know the ritual for making holy water, it won't work for you unless you're a Catholic priest. And priests don't get their powers just by knowing stuff and going through a ceremony. That's also magic, and can only be transmitted to them through the rite of ordination, in a chain of transmission that connects them all the way back to St Peter and to Christ himself. There is not supposed to be any way of 'stealing' this power, although you could go ahead and become a bad priest and then misuse it. But, if you're not a priest, first you need to get one, and once you've got one, this is what he'll do/would have done:
  1.  Exorcise all the dark forces out of some salt.
  2. Appeal to God to bless the salt and make it holy.
  3. Exorcise all the dark forces out of the water.
  4. Appeal to God to bless the water and make it holy.
  5. Add the salt to the water and stir thoroughly. 
The exorcisms very much take the form of magic spells, since they address the substance directly and assume the priest holds within himself the power to bring about the desired effect. Here is one for salt (see a complete but slightly different version of the rite from 1964):
The consecration of water on the Theophany. Kustodiev
For contrast, this is one of the rites of the
Eastern Orthodox Church
, which I didn't
have time to write about.
The Consecration of Water on the Theophany
by Boris Kustodiev, via Wikimedia Commons.
O salt, creature of God, I exorcise you by the living God, by the true God, by the holy God, by the God who ordered you to be poured into the water by Eliseo the Prophet so that its life-giving powers might be restored. I exorcise you so that you may become a means of salvation for believers, that you may bring health of soul and body to all who make use of you, and that you may put to flight and drive away from the places where you are sprinkled every apparition, villainy, and turn of devilish deceit, and every unclean spirit, adjured by Him Who will come to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire.

The blessing of the salt or water to make it holy depends on God, but it's assumed that he'll honor the priest's requests as a matter of course. While reciting the prayer and the exorcism, the priest will also make the magically powerful sign of the cross over the substance. This is the prayer for water:
O God, Who for the salvation of mankind has built Thy greatest mysteries on this substance, water, in Thy kindness hear our prayers and pour down the power of Thy blessing into this element, made ready for many kinds of purifications. May this, Thy creature, become an agent of divine grace in the service of Thy mysteries, to drive away evil spirits and dispel sickness, so that everything in the homes and other buildings of the faithful that is sprinkled with this water may be rid of all uncleanness and freed from every harm. Let no breath of infection, no disease-bearing air, remain in these places. May the wiles of the lurking Enemy prove of no avail. Let whatever might menace the safety and peace of those who live here be put to flight by the sprinkling of this water, so that the healthfulness, obtained by calling upon Thy holy name, may be made secure against all attack. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who lives and reigns with Thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever.
After the Second Vatican Council, a lot of Catholic rites became less about actively changing the nature of substances and more about a symbolic getting in touch with the divine and letting God's power work through things and all that. The Council rather wanted to discourage those aspects of Catholicism which seemed to involve superstition, magic belief, and over-interest in supernatural entities such as ghosts, devils and even angels. Attention then shifted towards the question of whether holy water played a role in transmitting the more identifiable demons known as germs, rather than banishing the ineffable kind. Holy water is no longer locked up to keep it away from illicit practitioners of magic, but managed in such a way that it stays hygienic for users.

Meanwhile, traditional Catholics, priests and lay-people alike, have complained that the new rites are too Protestant, too symbolic and basically, have had the actual magic ripped out of them (see complaints here and here). It turns out that if you want traditional Catholic holy water these days, that first step of finding a priest to make it for you may be quite a challenge.


MAKING WATER INTO A MEDICALLY ACTIVE SUBSTANCE BY SHAKING IT

Homeopathy is a system of medicine based on magic water, developed in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann. Hahnemann believed that diseases were magic as were the curative properties of his remedies and so was water. More or less. The one thing that can be said for Hahnemann is that in an age where medicines were generally unproven, sometimes poisonous and usually bad for the patient, he saved lives by using plain old placebo water. Let's just hope he boiled it first.

Important disclaimer: homeopathy has no impact whatsoever on illnesses or discomforts beyond what can be achieved through psychological effects. For anything more serious than a common cold or feeling a bit down, see a medical doctor. This post is of satirical intent and should not be taken as medical advice. (Sheesh, the things you have to spell out for people...)

Homeopathy is very, very complicated and requires long years of study, which is why its practitioners get to call themselves experts and charge lots of money for their fancy water. They have memorized a lot of stuff, which a lot of people before them have agreed to count as knowledge. For the benefit of the public, Magic for Skeptics offers an easy guide to DIY homeopathy, with an even easier quick-starter guide to follow.

1. Psychological support: get a friend over and bribe them with beer to listen to you sympathetically while you talk about your symptoms. This is important: if you don't do this part right, you will lose out on the important psychological aspects of homeopathy. If you don't have a suitable friend, venting on the Internet may be better than nothing.

2. Selecting a remedy: choose a substance which seems likely to cause the symptoms you're experiencing. In DIY homeopathy, please make absolutely sure to avoid the really poisonous substances, just in case (due to inexperience) you fail at the dilution stage of the process. Magic for skeptics recommends brandy as a good, traditional remedy for most purposes. There are few symptoms it can't produce under the right circumstances and if you don't like brandy, so much the better, because you won't be drinking any.

3. Dilution: Hahnemann's big insight was that if you dilute a poison enough, you'll end up with a harmless liquid. This is the key to safe homeopathy. To begin your dilution, place 1(one) centilitre of brandy in a litre of water.

4. Succussion: ignore what all the homeopathic textbooks have to say on succussion. It really doesn't matter one bit how you do it, trust me on this, just give the stuff a good shake.

5. Repeat repeatedly: take one centilitre from your water and brandy mixture and add it to another litre of water, then shake again.  Repeat this whole process 12 times altogether. You will now have a solution of brandy which is quite unlikely to contain any brandy at all.

6. Dosage: drink one teaspoonful of your dissolved brandy and believe. The believing part is very important, failure to do this interferes with the placebo effect of the remedy.

Here is the shorter (and recommended) version:

1. Psychological support: get a friend over and bribe them with beer to listen to you sympathetically while you talk about your symptoms.

2. Dosage: drink either one large glass of water or one small glass of brandy according to choice and believe.

This shorter version of the brandy method was practiced with great success by my grandfather throughout his life, so it must be true, right? So much for regaining our health, now we'd like to keep it indefinitely... wouldn't we? Well, see below.


DISCOVERING THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH

There are many natural sources of magical water around the world: Lourdes, the Ganges, and so on. One which has appeared in European culture for millenia is the Fountain of Youth, which has water which is sort of like botox that actually works. At least, it would if it could be located. The Fountain of Youth, as you might imagine, is always somewhere else, or Europeans would have stumbled into it already. In the 5th century BC, Herodotus reported that Cambyses of Persia, having decided to extend his empire, sent the Ichthyophagi ('fish-eaters' from the island of Elephantine, now in Southern Egypt?) to spy out the land of the 'Ethiopians' (possibly inhabitants of what is now Sudan?) The Ethiopian king indicated to them that he didn't plan to get conquered any time soon, although, in the interesting cultural exchange that followed, he revealed the source of his people's long life:
The Icthyophagi then in their turn questioned the king concerning the term of life, and diet of his people, and were told that most of them lived to be a hundred and twenty years old, while some even went beyond that age- they ate boiled flesh, and had for their drink nothing but milk. When the Icthyophagi showed wonder at the number of the years, he led them to a fountain, wherein when they had washed, they found their flesh all glossy and sleek, as if they had bathed in oil- and a scent came from the spring like that of violets. The water was so weak, they said, that nothing would float in it, neither wood, nor any lighter substance, but all went to the bottom. If the account of this fountain be true, it would be their constant use of the water from it which makes them so long-lived.
You can never tell with this kind of 'traveler's tale' whether it was based on a report of local beliefs or was merely a promotion of someone's conquest plans, the sort of thing that might encourage foot-soldiers to cross deserts to fight random people.

Lucas Cranach d. Ä. 007
Typical European Fountain of Youth iconography, in this case by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1546,
via Wikimedia Commons

By the 14th century, the search had shifted to India, sort of. Actually what happened is that physician and fan of real-life travel literature, John the Bearded of Liege, Belgium, wrote a travel fantasy, passing himself off as traveler extraordinaire Sir John Mandeville of St Albans, England. He went out of his way to include every piece of late medieval clickbait imaginable, with the result that he became incredibly popular and nobody bothered much about what was true and what wasn't. He sets his experiences with the Fountain of Youth near Polombe (modern day Kollam, Southern India):
Also toward the head of that forest is the city of Polombe. And above the city is a great mountain that also is clept Polombe. And of that mount the city hath his name. And at the foot of that mount is a fair well and a great, that hath odour and savour of all spices. And at every hour of the day he changeth his odour and his savour diversely. And whoso drinketh three times fasting of that water of that well he is whole of all manner sickness that he hath. And they that dwell there and drink often of that well they never have sickness; and they seem always young. I have drunken thereof three or four sithes, and yet, methinketh, I fare the better. Some men clepe it the well of youth. For they that often drink thereof seem always young-like, and live without sickness. And men say, that that well cometh out of Paradise, and therefore it is so virtuous.
By the early 16th century, it had been definitively established that the Fountain of Youth was in the Americas. Europeans knew this for sure, because the indigenous people of the Caribbean knew all about it, locating it to the north in an island called Bimini. Unfortunately, they too had been unable to find it. It's not at all certain that anyone was trying all that hard, so yet again the task of making up a half-decent story was left to those who stayed at home. Peter Martyr d'Anghiera, an early historian of Spanish conquests wrote:
Among the islands on the north side of Hispaniola there is one about 325 leagues distant, as they say which have searched the same, in the which is a continual spring of running water, of such marvellous virtue that the water thereof being drunk (perhaps with some diet) maketh olde men young again. And here I must make protestation to your holiness not to think this to be said lightly or rashly, for they have so spread this rumor for a truth throughout all the court, that not only all the people, but many of them whom wisdom or fortune hath divided from the common sort, think it to be true. 
That would explain why everyone was rushing over to the Americas to seek their fortune. Later on, 'historians' attributed the most intensive search to Juan Ponce de Leon, actual European discoverer of Florida, beginning considerably after his death to be on the safe side:
Having overhauled the vessels, it appearing to Juan Ponce that he had labored much, he resolved, although against his will, to send some one to examine the island of Bimini; for he wished to do it himself, because of the account he had of the wealth of this island, and especially of that particular spring so the Indians said that restores men from aged men to youths, the which he had not been able to find, by reason of shoals and currents and contrary weather. He sent then, as captain of the ship, Juan Perez de Ortubia, and as pilot Anton de Alaminos. They carried two Indians for pilots through the shoals, because they are so many that one proceeds with much danger because of them. This ship departed on the 17th [27th?] of September, and Juan Ponce the next day for his voyage. And in twenty-one days he arrived within sight of San Juan and went to make harbor in the bay of Puerto Rico; where, after having found Bimini, although not the spring, the other ship arrived with the account that it was a large island, cool, and with many springs and woodlands. The discovery by Juan Ponce of La Florida so ended, without knowledge that it was the mainland; nor for some years thereafter was that assurance obtained.
By the 21st century it had become almost certain that the Fountain of Youth was located on a distant exo-planet, yet to be discovered.

WATER WE SHOULD REALLY INVEST OUR RESOURCES IN

In reality, it seems to me we have more than enough problems with water, without investing ourselves in the production or discovery of kinds that don't exist. Getting clean drinking water, getting enough water, saving and storing it, getting it where it needs to be, and away from where it doesn't need to be, these are still massive problems for a lot of the world's population, perhaps all of us at times. If the time, money and effort that gets poured into gaining expertise in various forms of 'magic' water was spent on real water infrastructure and management issues, would it be enough? It would certainly leave us a lot better off, but there's a problem with this plan. Stuff that actually works just isn't magic enough, apparently.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Remedial Christian Studies

According to my daughter, her Religious Studies teacher told her there are two approaches to animal rights in Christianity. One group believes we should be kind to animals because God went to the trouble of getting them onto Noah's Ark, thus saving them from his own flood. The other group believes we can do what we like with animals because God created us first!!!!!

Really, when my daughter's time is being consumed by this subject within the context of a public school, I think I'm in my rights to expect the teaching to be accurate. Everyone should know, especially a Religious Studies teacher, that the order of creation in the Bible is 1) light, 2) the heavens, 3) earth, which God commanded to produce plants by itself, 4) the sun and moon, 5) animals who live in water and fly, 6) land animals, followed by man and woman who come last.

The piece of Christian belief the teacher is probably trying to refer to is based on what God said to the humans after he made them, apparently assigning them dominion (authority) over living things.
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
Some Christians interpret this as an absolute gift which humans can dispose of as they please, up to and including destroying living species, let alone treating animals in whatever way suits them. Other Christians interpret it more as a stewardship, granting humans the management of living things but with the assumption that mis-management, destruction and cruelty are not likely to be what God had in mind.

It actually ties in quite nicely with the spells for stopping bees from swarming which I posted about earlier this week. The second spell/prayer, from the more Christianized Middle Ages, basically reminds the rebellious bees 'God said you should do what I told you!'

Friday, 3 October 2014

Banksy's Birds

Subtitled, another fine failure at anti-racist art!

It seems to be open season on 'racist' art in Britain these days. Brett Bailey's Exhibit B didn't make it to opening night at the Barbican but triggered an outpouring of debate on whether it would or would not have been racist if it had. My views on that one are here.

Now we have Banksy, who goes around painting very expensive graffiti on walls, hitting Clacton-on-Sea with the mega-million buck masterpiece shown below. Clacton could have sold it to buy themselves a new sea wall, but instead it seems they have destroyed it because a member of the public complained it was 'racist and offensive'.





Jonathan Jones at the Guardian isn't buying this story. He thinks Banksy's piece is 'quite plainly an eloquent attack on racism'. Since he suspects the good people of Clacton-on-Sea of significant ingrained racism due to the fact that a UKipper is about to stand for election there, he believes the only reason they would tear the mural down is because 'it hits too close to home' and makes them feel squirmy.

By the way, I think we might be talking about xenophobia here rather than racism, but since the former seems to be considered acceptable by so many, I'm choosing to cynically believe we're using the word 'racism' to try to trigger appropriate responses in people. Just like Banksy really, but was his painting likely to work?

Let's imgaine a member of the public completely unfamiliar with Banksy and his work, yet familiar enough with the anti-immigration political discourses going on in his or her town, and disapproving on them. Will it really be so obvious to them that the art work is on their side?

I'm not so sure about that. What Jones is overlooking is that the only eloquent things in the painting are the racist pigeons and what they're saying is exactly what the racist politicians and their supporters in the same environment are saying. How can the piece be effectively anti-racist when it offers no counter-arguments, no condemnations, but just sits there reinforcing the same old local racist messages? How can it be effectively anti-racist if it's only method (apparently) is to hope its viewers find the swallow small and sweet enough to start feeling sorry for it?

Now imagine a resident of Clacton-on-Sea who knows nothing about Banksy but is vehemently anti-immigration. They regularly hand out messages like those on the placards with no sense of shame whatsoever. They see no benefits or attractions in the smallness or sweetness of swallows in Britain. Does a 'confrontation' with this painting on a wall actually give them a communication about how others perceive them and why they should stop? Or does it confirm them in their actions? It seems to me the only really convincingly negative thing about the pigeons is the message on their placards but to see that you have to be the type to perceive those messages negatively!

Now imagine you're an immigrant in sunny Clacton-on-Sea. I think the message the painting conveys is, at best, that you'd better just sit tight while other people decide whether you're small and sweet enough to be allowed to stick around. At worse, it's just a reminder of a message you may already have heard: 'There's some big fat pigeons around here who don't want you!'

Sorry Jonathan Jones, I think you and I only know this piece is 'plainly anti-racist' because we know who Banksy is and we move in circles where the messages on the placards meet with open disapproval.

I'm sure anti-racist art can do better than this, so I'm now officially on the lookout for excellent pieces. Anyone want to send me one for review?

You may also be interested in:
Why I think Brett Bailey's Exhibit B is not a good idea
The misuse of a work of art in promoting murderous witch-hunts in Nigeria