Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Fascists and free speech

Those of us who cleave to the classical liberal defence of free speech probably should show greater awareness that historically this right has always been more qualified than is often supposed. No civil society has ever understood the concept to mean the absolute freedom to say anything, anywhere, to anyone at anytime. Generally the context has been considered decisive - or to put it another way, liberal democracies have generally not recognised the right to cry 'fire' in a crowded theatre.

Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of restrictions to speech in order to prevent direct harm to individuals and groups is found in the way that all civil societies have some kind of prohibition against slander, defamation, misrepresentation, or as the English legal system has it, libel - a point to which I'll return.

Beyond ideas of direct harm, which also of course includes incitement to criminal activity of various kinds, another category of free speech restrictions has often been applied to activities that profane those values that societies consider to beyond negotiation. This can be understood as involving a more abstract form of avoiding harm to the social order but I also think it should be recognised that it has traditionally involved a non-utilitarian prohibition of censoring what is considered obscene, whether any such expression can be shown to cause direct harm or not. While the range of activities that fall foul of this category tend to be much smaller in liberal democracies, traces of the traditional desire to preserve the sacred from being profaned can still be seen.

I was thinking that both of these elements are behind the various laws proscribing Holocaust denial such as they are practiced in various European countries. Drawing from their respective histories, the idea of preventing harm to the individuals and groups most likely to suffer from the dissemination of racially-motivated fabrications of history is bound to be a very important consideration.

It is in this sort of situation that those of us who would describe ourselves as liberals should probably acknowledge that the Platonic argument is stronger than is usually admitted: what if what is known to be true loses out in a social contest with falsehood when it is possible for the latter to triumph, not on the strength of the available evidence or moral argument but by appealing to the lowest common denominator and with the degree of cunning employed in the propagation of lies and fabrications? Or more specifically, what if Europe with respect to the Holocaust was to find itself in the position of the United States where a significant and growing proportion of the population has been misled into believing the contest between a creationist interpretation of Genesis and the theory of evolution is in someway an unresolved issue amongst scientists?

Beyond this there is, surely, something of the prohibition of the obscene behind these laws? I've argued that no human society has ever completely forgone this perogative and no one should be in any doubt that Holocaust denial is indeed an obscenity.

Therefore to maintain the liberal position with respect to David Irving the British Holocaust denier who is currently facing the prospect of imprisonment in Austria, isn't as obvious or as straightforward to me is it seems to be for many liberals. But I do, nevertheless, maintain it.

But in doing so, one should be careful never to yield to the fallacy that because these types of cases are about free-speech and its limits, the people involved carry even the faintest hint of embodying that principle themselves. We must never forget that fascists by their very nature claim a freedom for themselves that they never extend to others, and David Irving is no exception to this rule. This piece of Nazi detritus has attempted to use libel legislation to silence those who have simply asserted what he is - a Holocaust denier whose disgrace as a historian extends way beyond the point where it can be considered purely a question of professional integrity.

Yet this forms part of the argument in favour of the traditional liberal view. Apart from a point one could make about libel laws, which can be used by more powerful and wealthy figures to close down criticism of their activities, is not the kind of mistake outlined above not more likely to occur wherever the widespread contempt and revulsion felt for people if Irving's ilk is codified in law and carries a custodial sentence? Or to put it another way, I share the commonplace liberal view that it is unwise to give these enemies of the open society the opportunity to present themselves as martyrs for free speech by dignifying their putrid lies with the status of a trial.

This is related to the Platonic point mentioned above. In this case, one cannot object to it on the basis of epistemological scepticism since the basic facts of the Holocaust have been established with historical data that is conclusive as it is copious. Instead, it is what I understand to be crucial to JS Mill's defence of free speech that I find persuasive: even when the truth of something can be known, there is more danger inherent in circumscribing the propagation of falsehood because thereby you risk established facts degenerating to the status of dogma. And truth presented as dogma, aligned as it must be to necessarily flawed human institutions, can then become more vunerable for the want of people of good will who haven't become unaccustomed to defending what can be known in a rational manner. Arguably this is a potentially dangerous position made all the more insecure when you've awarded your irrational opponent the status of victim.

Beyond this, attempts to regulate the expression of ideas - regardless of how repugnant - represents a step towards the marriage of cognitive infallibility and state power, historically a union that has never served the cause of human liberty very well. I would reiterate that this is not in my view because truths cannot be known - but rather that to enforce conformity to this carries the risk that the state could become a species of the very thing it sought to avoid by cirumscribing free speech in the first place.

On the idea of the obscene I have less to say except that I take the view that this sort of restriction should be kept to an absolute minimum. Particularly where it is concerned with the use and abuse of history, I think it unwise. Notions of the obscene carry with it shadows of the sacred and while I think it is naive to imagine our secular societies have completely dispensed with this or even that this would be entirely desirable, it is part of the vocation of the historian to do so in order that difficult pursuit of rational objectivity is not to become obscured with the mists of legend and myth-making.

So while it is by no means unproblematic, it is better, and safer, in my view to stick to the classic liberal position: because civil society is not an enterprise association, its subjects should not be legally required to believe anything and therefore should not be punished for the expression of ideas per se, regardless of how false and iniquitous they may be.

This should apply David Irving as it should also apply to those who would fall foul of a law prohibiting the 'glorification' of terrorism. I would prefer these types to be in the open where they are subject to the widespread revulsion felt for them and their odious ideas by the thinking and the good, where I would never forget through lack of practice how to dismantle their intellectually and morally delinquent use of history and theology.

And I'd prefer to avoid the prospect of stupid relativistic arguments about what constitutes Holocaust denial and acts of terrorism becoming determinants in the outcome of a criminal trial - as if their moral idiocy was worthy of this kind of attention.

To be able to recognise the rights of those who represent the very negation of freedom is the glory and wisdom of liberal democracy. That this is so should be a vigorously defended tenet of our beliefs. This requires more self-confidence than perhaps has been on display in recent years; we should understand that we can afford to do this because we have the strength to do it.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

On being conservative and old age

I was having a re-read of Norman Finkelstein's hatchet job on Hitchens, which I read a while ago but was reminded of again because it's in the footnotes of our lenin's latest piece for MRzine. I've been meaning to do something on this concept of apostasy for a while and will still have to leave it for now because it would take too long. But I wanted, in the meantime, to touch briefly on the reasons for that well-known phenomenon of people becoming more conservative as they get older. Mr Finkelstein's piece clearly impressed the comrades, which I find difficult to understand because personally I find it rather sad. Take the introductory paragraph, for example:

"I'm occasionally asked whether I still consider myself a Marxist. Even if my "faith" had lapsed, I wouldn't advertise it, not from shame at having been wrong (although admittedly this would be a factor) but rather from fear of arousing even a faint suspicion of opportunism. To borrow from the lingo of a former academic fad, if, in public life, the "signifier" is "I'm no longer a Marxist," then the "signified" usually is, "I'm selling out." No doubt one can, in light of further study and life experience, come to repudiate past convictions. One might also decide that youthful ideals, especially when the responsibilities of family kick in and the prospects for radical change dim while the certainty of one's finitude sharpens, are too heavy a burden to bear; although it might be hoped that this accommodation, however understandable (if disappointing), were accomplished with candor and an appropriate degree of humility rather than, what's usually the case, scorn for those who keep plugging away."
Candour I can do - I am no longer a Marxist, haven't been one for over twenty years because I decided the old historical data just didn't fit the theory, and this was sometime before I had children. (This in addition to the absolute confidence I have of being one of the first to be shipped off for re-education come the revolution, which I've mentioned before.) But the humility thing I can't do, I'm afraid - and especially not when confronted with people who think that taking the burden of family responsibilities seriously is "disappointing". Anyway, Finkelstein goes on:

"However elaborate the testimonials on how one came to "see the light," the impetus behind political apostasy is - pardon my cynicism - a fairly straightforward, uncomplicated affair: to cash in, or keep cashing in, on earthly pleasures."
Note the telling phrase "earthly pleasures". You'll rarely find a more pure expression of the politics of faith. This is as opposed to what - heavenly pleasures? Given the piece is about Hitchens, one could remark that prior to 9/11 he didn't exactly have a reputation for lacking the resources to indulge his 'earthly pleasures' did he? But this isn't supposed to be a defence of Hitchens; life's too short. Rather I'm interested in a more satisfactory explanation of why it is that people tend to become more conservative as they get older, assuming - as I hope you do - that you find Finkelstein's risible adolescent puritanism unsatisfying.

'Tis all to do with scepticism - faith rarely grows as one gets older; rarely does one get more absolute in one's opinions with age and a key element here is epistemological scepticism. If you haven't read too much history at least as one gets older, you'll have lived long enough to have actually experienced political movements and ideas break on the rock of experience. Remember the Soviet Union? I could go on about the folly of thinking human beings know enough to plan a human society to that degree but instead can I remind you of another, less commented on facet of the USSR's demise? Hardly anyone saw it coming. Now people retrospectively have claimed they saw it coming - but by and large they didn't. I'd challenge you to have a trawl through the literature pre-1989 and find more than a dozen commentators who predicted the resurgence of nationalism and religion in a world where it was assumed we were becoming more secular and rational with each passing day. This kind of scepticism is often identified as being, pace Karl Popper, linked to liberalism in the classic sense, which it is - but it is also crucially important to conservatism, as some Scottish dude called David Hume would insist. In short, nobody knows anything so one learns to be suspicious of those who have a theory that can explain everything.

Whether this is more or less important than the second type of scepticism I'm not sure but what has also been always and everywhere important to conservatism is scepticism about the human condition. "We are afraid to put men to trade each on their own private stock of reason", wrote Edmund Burke, "because we suspect that this stock in each man is small". It is indeed difficult, as the economists would have it, to "assume people are rational" because human history would suggest that at the very least, they have a rather eccentric way of demonstrating this. It is this understanding that has always led conservatives to see order as the first virtue of any polity.

Michael Oakeshott once wrote that "it is a sign of maturity to be not too dismayed at the human condition". On that basis, I'm not sure I can claim to have reached maturity yet - but maybe more than those who imagine they can remain untouched by the human stain. For what is the impulse driving Mr Finkelstein and all the rest of them that imagine virtue can be gained by always and everywhere aligning yourself against power of any kind but a desire to keep one's white garment unblemished by this world?

Better this, for them, than getting involved in the stuff and filth of the world as it actually is. Finkelstein writes, "It is when the phenomenon of political apostasy is accompanied by fanfare and fireworks that it becomes truly repellent." Possibly - but when it isn't, as was the case with Eric Hobsbawm, nobody seems to notice. Which is a pity because his observations are a salutary lesson to these the political equivalents of the Jehovah's Witnesses: no improvement in the living conditions of the ordinary working man was ever brought about by those who preferred the purity of their ideology over engaging with the world as it actually is and not how they hope it will be come the eschaton, which no student of history expects any time soon, if ever.

Yet conservatism, like all political dispositions and ideologies, has a couple of questions it finds difficult to answer and in this case one of the most important is: what does one do when your enemies come to power? Arguably to answer this in any practical way is to cease to be conservative in any traditional sense and I'm interested in the way that left wing thought feeds into this, as alluded to in this post.

I intend to develop this at a later date. Until then, can I leave you with a Biblical observation? Everyone knows the story of the woman caught in adultery in the Gospel of John. When the assembled crowd ask Jesus what should be done, he replies that he who is without sin should cast the first stone. So far, so familiar - but a lesser noted feature of the story is that it was the older amongst the crowd that were the first to drop their stones and walk away...

I'm a 'champagne humanist'

apparently - according to this:


You are one of life’s enjoyers, determined to get the most you can out of your brief spell on Earth. Probably what first attracted you to atheism was the prospect of liberation from the Ten Commandments, few of which are compatible with a life of pleasure. You play hard and work quite hard, have a strong sense of loyalty and a relaxed but consistent approach to your philosophy.

You can’t see the point of abstract principles and probably wouldn’t lay down your life for a concept though you might for a friend. Something of a champagne humanist, you admire George Bernard Shaw for his cheerful agnosticism and pursuit of sensual rewards and your Hollywood hero is Marlon Brando, who was beautiful, irascible and aimed for goodness in his own tortured way.

Sometimes you might be tempted to allow your own pleasures to take precedence over your ethics. But everyone is striving for that elusive balance between the good and the happy life. You’d probably open another bottle and say there’s no contest.

What kind of humanist are you? Click here to find out.

Whatever. I don't put a great deal of store in these things. One asked me to select from a number of pictures; I liked the one with the flowers and the result told me I was a demi-god who would one day take over the world. Flattery will get you nowhere, so you can forget about asking for my credit card number. And this one's a pile of shite: I'm not even an atheist and I think George Bernard Shaw was a complete arsehole who wrote shit plays, was puffed up with his own self-importance, and was so stupid he wasn't even able to see through someone like Joseph Stalin. Never trust a vegetarian is what I say. Give me Orwell any day. Although the bit about opening another bottle winning over ethics rings a bell...

Tributes to George Best

There's been a few but I like this one above them all.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Sick teachers 'quit to take new posts'

This was a piece in the Scotsman about teachers taking early retirement, getting a big fat pension and then taking up new jobs, many of them 'teaching related' - whatever that means:

"MORE than a third of teachers who are allowed to retire early because of ill health take up new jobs, many of them teaching-related, new research has shown.

Academics at Glasgow University warned that teachers could be abusing the system as a way of getting out of the profession through the 'inappropriate use of ill health retirement.' They called on councils to investigate how the early retirement system operates."
The idea that academics at Glasgow University are in a position to make comments about anyone abusing any system is really very funny. If you read the rest of the article, you'll see that for one year (2002-3) this would have been less than sixty people - and given that the average survival rate for teachers post retirement is one year, it isn't anything as like a drain on the public purse as all these people who are paid to talk complete bollocks on in-service days and the like. (Please note that's an average dear readers - if I put my head in the oven and my feet in the fridge, on average I'll be perfectly comfortable. In other words, the people taking early retirement is balanced by the people who drop dead on the job, which two of my colleagues at my last school did.)

Still, it's not good really, is it? But the basic problem, as this research from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious points out, is that there isn't enough support for teachers before it gets to the stage where the job drives you completely insane:

"The report reveals that the most common cause of early retirement is mental disorder. It also says that the support available to teachers experiencing ill health is "inadequate and insufficient"."
Yes indeed - I'm a teapot. Something must be done. Why?

"There is an issue about the amount of support teachers get and whether employers are doing enough to keep them in the workforce, given the current teacher shortages."
Recruiting problem? Now why would that be? It's such a fulfilling job - everyone remembers a good teacher...

I've often thought we need to get away from this idea that teaching is a job for life. I've only been doing it for eight years, I'm already half-insane, half-alcoholic as a result - as no doubt this blog clearly demonstrates - and frankly I'm absolutely sick to death of it already. "Support" for teachers should consist in part of being a little bit more realistic: perhaps the Job Centre could open a wee branch in each school so that those of us who have had enough of this ridiculous profession can look for something more sensible to do for a living in our lunch-hour (sic).

Ah, but what about the shortage, you ask? I suggest a recruitment drive aimed at all those people who seriously imagine that most problems in the education system are attributable to the fact that no one has asked them how to run it. Perhaps Melanie Phillips could be persuaded to take a few classes on a part time basis. Or Chris Woodhead to show us how it's done - provided he can be persuaded not to shag any more pupils, that is. Or Peter Hitchens, as long as he promises not to hurt anyone (he'll have to be kept away from the scissor drawer, I reckon). From the other end of the spectrum, I'd dearly love to see a few social workers have a go: "Hi guys - I'm Sue. I'm not like your other teachers; I feel your pain. Is there anything I can do to ameliorate your oppression under this patriarchal capitalist regime?" Cue muffled cries of, "Yeah, geis a blowjob Sue", farting noises, flying objects and general mayhem.

The really annoying thing about teaching is that because everyone's been to school and then go on to send their little darlings there (he's so advanced for his age), everyone's a bleedin' expert on how you should do your job. I want one of those jobs where when you tell people what you do, they just say, "Oh" because they're absolutely clueless as to what that actually entails - like when people tell me they're a "system analyst" or a "project manager" or something. I say, "Oh, really?" when inwardly I'm thinking, what the hell does that mean?

So until such times as I've found a way of escape from this lunatic job, hear this, those of you who seriously imagine you know what it's all about: no you fucking don't so shut the fuck up because you're raising my blood-pressure and I'll end up going for early retirement before I hit forty.

Sorry about the language but that's the way it is, I'm afraid. You don't agree? Ah, fuck off!

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Conspiracy theories and torture flights

David Shayler was on Newsnight Scotland tonight repeating the wackjob notion that 9/11 was orchestrated by the Pentagon. He said something like, "If you look at the balance of evidence, it's seems highly probable that they were involved." But the whole point about conspiracy theories is that regardless of what inconsistencies and circumstantial evidence people think they've found that refutes the official version, they are intrinsically improbable because the number of people involved is directly related to the size of the conspiracy, making it more likely that it will be discovered. Which is another way of saying that if this one had any truth in it, at least one of the people involved would have appeared on Oprah by now.

Conspiracy theories tend to flourish wherever there is secrecy. The earliest example I can think of was the story circulated (deliberately) in ancient Rome that Christians were practicing child-sacrifice during communion services. The primitive church separated the eucharist, which they then held in private, from the love-feast where all comers were welcome because when they were combined, some were getting drunk at the communion table (see II Corinthians). People were ready to believe this rumour because of the tendency to assume that if someone wants to do something in secret, they must be up to no good. The same pattern can be seen in history right up to the present day with, for example, the Free Masons and government intelligence services everywhere.

In the case of secret services, there's the added factor that the assumption they're up to no good is at base an entirely reasonable one, although conspiracy theorists fail to take the obvious point that this is because we know they've been up to no good in the past because it's been discovered.

Which brings me to the issue of rendition flights, a euphemism for the practice of airlifting terrorist suspects to countries like Egypt and Jordan by the CIA to be interrogated without the constraints of human rights legislation. It appears that both Glasgow and Prestwick airports have been used as refuelling points for these rendition flights. A conspiracy of sorts in that obviously the government didn't want people to know about this but it has been exposed anyway because of the amount of people this has to involve.

By turning a blind eye to this the British government is complicit in the slide into barbarism this represents. As well as being morally disgraceful, such clandestine activity is politically unwise also, for the reasons outlined above: secrecy in and of itself has a tendency to produce conspiracy theories at the best of times and they are all the more likely to be believed when it becomes known that governments are found to be involved in such grubby and shameful behaviour as this.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

McConnell attacked over asylum claim

From the Scotsman:
"JACK McConnell suffered a humiliating setback yesterday when claims that he had paved the way for a special Scottish "protocol" with Westminster over asylum seekers were rubbished by the Home Office.

The First Minister has told the Scottish Parliament on several occasions that he has been working on a "protocol" with the Home Office to prevent the harsh treatment of failed asylum seekers when they are forcibly evicted from Scotland."
The backgroung to this is the bad publicity that the Executive has received from the dawn raids that have been carried out in Scotland to remove failed asylum seekers. Our Jack claimed that he was negotiating a Scottish "protocol" with the Home Office but it seems that they have now said, in effect, that they don't know what he's talking about.
"One senior source said: "There is not a protocol. A protocol would be a two-way process. Why would we do that?"
Bit rude I thought and clearly embarrassing for Jack McConnell. Jack, in turn, accused the Home Office of having cack on their hands.

The asylum seeker issue really doesn't register up here, not least because we haven't lost our centuries-old habit of depopulation by inflicting a fair chunk of our people on an unsuspecting world. It's almost certainly an urban myth but this story I heard serves to illustrate our retention problem: someone told me that some Kosovan refugees were to be housed in the Red Road flats in Glasgow. They took one look at them, came to the understandable conclusion that the war-torn Balkans were a safer option, and took the next plane home.

Anyway, the point is I think practically everyone in Holyrood, including Jack, understands that we need settlers in and also that these dawn raids, along with the Dungavel detention centre for asylum seekers, are not playing well with the public at all.

On one level, I think Jack deserves credit for understanding Scotland's population needs and never using the anti-asylum, anti-immigration rhetoric you hear from Westminster politicians. On the other hand, if it is confirmed that he's been telling porkies, that was both very silly and rather shabby, given that these families were looking for assurance that the Executive was pushing their case with the Home Office.

D'ya think he used the word 'protocol' in the hope that people wouldn't know what it means?

Monday, November 21, 2005

Faith and skepticism: on old cons and neocons

David Clark has a piece in today's Guardian, which argues essentially that Britain's 'liberal hawks' or 'prowar left' either are, or run the risk of becoming, like the 'Socialists for Nixon' in the 1970s - the original neocons. While I didn't agree with his analysis for reasons I'll explain, this was an intelligent article that attempts to address the split on the left caused by Iraq and was, I think, ill-served by its title and sub-title. Unfortunate because there are a couple of points that he is right about, which deserve attention.

One is he correctly identifies a tendency for political movements that tear themselves apart over foreign policy issues that are of little concern to ordinary voters who are more concerned with how the shoes pinches:

"Bill Clinton famously won the presidency by exploiting the popular perception that George Bush Sr devoted too much time to international affairs. The Conservatives, of course, tore themselves apart over Europe, but that merely served to illustrate how out of touch they had become. The war on terror has changed all that. Today it seems that foreign policy once again has the power to transform the political landscape."
His concern is that today's split will become a schism that could become permanent resulting in a lost opportunity that could result from the end of the already waning Bush/Blair era. His argument is that it was precisely this sort of leftist disarray that benefited Reagan and solidified the rise of the New Right in the 1980s.

Where the balance of blame should lie, I would take issue with Mr Clark but he articulates a point that I've often thought of since this whole thing began: there are not enough people on either the prowar or antiwar left that have given enough thought as to what they're all going to do exactly when all this is done with. Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking that there are rather a lot of people whose idea of the Good Society is one where no-one ever takes a contrary view to them, which always reminds me of Milan Kundera's remark to Philip Roth that there's "always a gulag built on to the side of paradise". (This is the gulag that I have absolutely no doubt I would end up in 'come the revolution', which is really the key self-interested reason why I gave up any notion of revolutionary socialism before my twentieth birthday.)

The other merit of David Clark's piece is that knows enough history to understand that neoconservatism originated from the left and retains a number of elements that belong to the revolutionary tradition. This can be seen in the area of foreign policy - for what is 'regime-change' if not originally a leftist idea? It certainly does not belong to traditional conservatism, which has always been inclined to see order as the first political virtue of a polity and to prefer not to exchange a present with known benefits for a future where these might be uncertain.

And it can also be seen in the New Right's attitude to economics. These are the pure politics of faith, not of skepticism. How else can you explain the fact that Third World countries have been subjected to a doctrinaire free-market fundamentalism that mirrors no discernible historical pattern followed by any of the industrialised countries of North America and Europe? I think it was Skidelsky who I recall saying that the unbridled free-market was the "great last-tried utopia". An apt phrase, which I've always thought appropriate in the case of Russia - a country unfortunate to have been the victim of two enormous economic experiments in the space of one century. (If you're thinking of putting in the comments box that I don't understand, the Russian experience showed they weren't free-market enough, please be aware you'll only be making my point for me.)

Also David Clark is even prepared to concede that we British 'putative neocons' have something resembling a case occasionally, a rare thing from a left-wing opponent of the war:
"The left can be reluctant to assert the superiority of liberal democracy, thereby laying itself open to the charge of moral relativism. Those who preach critical engagement with the more moderate currents of Islamism often fail to remain sufficiently critical in the face of reactionary and illiberal opinions. Some with a simplistic, Manichean worldview tend to look like the mirror image of George Bush, disagreeing only about who is good and who is evil."
A good point rather neatly put - and one I agree with of course. But here is more or less where I part because there is much else to disagree with in the article. For instance, while his historical observation on the origins of neoconservatism as a movement originating from the left is correct, his historical comparison doesn't really fit on the details. His argument is that anti-communist Democrats, disgusted by the nomination of the anti-Vietnam McGovern ended up drifting to the right, "contributing to a broader political realignment that swept Ronald Reagan to power" - the obvious parallel being with those on the liberal-left that have supported regime-change in Afghanistan and Iraq.

For one thing, I think Clark is conflating Vietnam and anti-communism somewhat but that isn't really the most important point. Rather I'm wondering to what extent former leftists supporting Nixon relates to support for some aspects of Bush's foreign policy, leaving aside the simplistic charge that in both cases, elements of the left have sold out to imperialism? The former, along with Henry Kissinger, epitomized the realpolitik containment policy of the age; the latter as a foreign policy direction born out of an understanding that it was precisely this policy that wasn't working . Surely this, regardless of whether you agree with it or not, whether you think it is ill-conceived or not, has to be accepted? This is to say nothing of the inconvenient fact that it was a Democrat that led America into Vietman and it was the Republican Nixon that disengaged.

It was of course September the 11th that prompted the shift that figures like Wolfowitz had been advocating for years and this brings us to the crux of the problem with Clark's piece: the failure to understand the role real events internationally and in the domestic economy have played, rather than personalities and their shifting opinions, betrays his fundamental lack of historical sense. The piece would have been better if he had addressed the question of why, when confronted with difficult and challenging world events, the left is either caught unawares and/or so often doesn't appear to have any constructive answers to them beyond a nebulous 'anti-imperialism' and anti-capitalism.

For example, Clark mentions the "Nixon Socialists" and the Soviet Union in a sort of "be careful you don't end up like this" sort of way while failing to address the obvious difficulty for the left that they were, in this at least, proved right. And as ostensibly even-handed as his piece is, it never considers the possibility that large swathes of the left, having learned precious little from the mistake of backing the Soviet model, are now in danger of making a similar one to the extent that they relativise, rationalise, and in some cases objectively support another absolutist movement because that movement has the virtue of being anti-American.

And it's here that he fails to consider the possibility that the identification of sections of the left with aspects of conservatism may cut both ways. He gives the following as examples of the rightward shift amongst a segment of the liberal-left:
"It is now quite common to find former stalwarts of the liberal commentariat celebrating the primacy of global markets, urging a return to selection in education, denouncing multiculturalism and calling for the election of rightwing governments in foreign countries."
I'm not sure who from the 'liberal commitariat' he's referring to so I can't comment on their position regarding global markets and the election of rightwing governments but what are we, in turn, supposed to make of a movement that historically has opposed theocratic power and has supported the rights of women and homosexuals now making excuses for the most reactionary religious movement in living memory? For my own part I can't quite see how Nick Cohen's recent advocacy of grammar schools can quite compete with this in any 'rightward shift' competition.

Clearly David Aaronovitch, Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen et al are stung when they are accused of 'apostasy' and becoming conservative in their old age This is not a feeling I share because I do not belong, and have not done so for many years, to some ideological church subject to the rulings of the bishops of leftism. I freely confess to having become more conservative as I've got older and often over the last couple of years I would have found it more convenient simply to yield and let others define me because I really don't care where the SWP and their kind put me on the political spectrum. I could respond to the conservative charge by saying there is no left anymore, only old cons and neocons that are left representing the politics of faith and the politics of skepticism - and that if you took to the streets to march for the Kissinger doctrine, you're kidding yourself that it is otherwise. The only problem with this is that I happen to think that it is inaccurate - for now at least. But to return to the spirit of the piece, it may not be for much longer if we continue like this.

'I'll pay children to tell me how to do my job'

From the Scotsman:
"YOUNG people are to be paid to tell Scotland's new children's "tsar" how to do her job. Professor Kathleen Marshall, the commissioner for children and young people, has set aside more than £10,000 to pay "participation fees" to young people in focus groups."
No, it's not a spoof, honestly - check the link. Words fail me - but I hope they won't fail the children they enlist for their focus groups because they often have a much better sense of the ridiculous than a lot of adults. One particularly ludicrous exercise I witnessed in a school was the distribution of a questionnaire to all pupils where they were supposed to list what they thought were the top ten most serious infractions of discipline and what punishment they thought should follow. One pupil put "imitating Patrick Swazye" at number one. Most of my 'tutor group' didn't want to do it on the grounds that it was "pure stupid". I was at a complete loss for any counter-argument.

Christian schoolgirls beheaded in Indonesia

From the Observer:
"Three weeks ago, four cousins from the tightly-knit Christian community, Theresia Morangke, 15, Alfita Poliwo, 17, Yarni Sambue, 17, and Noviana Malewa, 15, were brutally attacked as they walked to the Central Sulawesi Christian Church High School by men wearing black ski masks. Three of the girls were beheaded. Noviana, the youngest, survived, despite appalling machete wounds to her neck.

The headless bodies of her cousins were dumped beside a busy nearby road. Two of the heads were found several kilometres away in the suburb of Lege. The third, Theresia's, was left outside a recently built Christian church in the village of Kasiguncu.

A week after the attack, a day after Alfita's funeral, two other Christian girls, Ivon Maganti and Siti Nuraini, both 17, were shot by masked men as they walked to a Girl Scouts' meeting. They and Noviana are still critically ill in hospital. All six were Christians in a predominantly Muslim community.
For peaceful Christians many of them refugees from Poso, the existence of Ninja-clad attackers brings back memories of 2001 when hundreds of masked Muslim men stormed one Christian village after another, firing automatic weapons, tossing petrol bombs and home-made grenades into houses and ordering terrified residents to get out for good. They killed anyone who dared to resist.

'The people of the world called the beheadings of these girls barbaric,' says David, a lay preacher in the town. 'Pope Benedict led prayers in Rome for the safety of Christians here, but few governments have expressed real concern. We are on the verge of another jihad.

'Almost all the religiously motivated aggression this year has been directed against Christians: schoolgirls murdered as the army turns a blind eye. But the government would rather talk of gangsters, not jihadists, carrying out the attacks. I want to know why most of the weapons carried by these militants are army issue.'"
I've not much to add, except I should have included Indonesia in the list found in the last paragraph of this. There's a perpetual refrain one comes across in the blogosphere and it is if you don't have much to say about something, be it the pulverisation of Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, the general incompetence and corruption of the Bush Administration or whatever, you must in some way approve - or at least be indifferent.

I don't buy into this essentially McCarthyist reasoning myself but clearly a lot of bloggers do. So I have to ask this question to all those who claim to care about oppressed religious minorities: while I draw no conclusion from your silence over this, I'm wondering how would you interpret it?

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Skool discipline: everything's ok, apparently

There's no need to believe the alarmist stuff about violence in schools that you might have read, according to Fran Abrams:
"It is 9.40am at Seven Kings high school in Ilford, and a teacher is struggling to get a class of 16-year-olds to pay attention. 'Jamil,' she says, 'I asked you to stop talking.'

Jamil doesn't respond. He's slouching in his chair, not meeting her eyes. 'Move it,' she says, pointing to a seat on the far side of the room away from his friends. Jamil looks up, defiant. 'I wasn't talking, man!' 'Move, Jamil!' she says, keeping her voice low. Slowly he stands up. Pushes back his chair, which falls over with a clatter. He doesn't stoop to pick it up and ambles to the seat she's indicated. A few minutes later he's writing, head down.

In almost a year of following the life of an urban comprehensive school, this is the worst piece of behaviour I witnessed - the only incident in which a pupil showed open, angry resistance to a teacher's command."
Sound like any comprehensive school you've attended either as a pupil or a teacher? Didn't think so. Helpfully, Ms. Abrams reveals the secret of the school's success. Amongst the techniques employed in the school's 'range of strategies' are, wait for it, seating plans!
"All classes are seated according to a plan devised by their teacher, so that the most unruly pupils do not sit together."
It's hit me with the force of a revelation! Separate unruly pupils? Never occurred to me before; so that's where we've all been going wrong.

If we apply this and other ingenious techniques, such as getting classes to queue outside the classroom (yes, new to me too dear reader), an atmosphere of industrious serenity is within our grasp. And Ms. Abrams exhorts us to not get nostalgic for the bad old days:
"The school I attended in the 1970s...still had corporal punishment, which was meted out for quite minor offences from unruly behaviour to smoking. There was a workaday level of violence in my school that would not be acceptable today. Disputes were often settled with pre-arranged fisticuffs. The teachers were only marginally more humane. I can recall on one occasion a shy boy being reduced to tears by a sadist of a history master who made him stand for a long period on a chair in the middle of his class as retribution for a perceived bit of minor rudeness. I myself was less traumatised by the hour I spent locked in a windowless stockroom after being cheeky to a teacher. Does anyone want a return to this brutality?"
No dear, I'm not pining for some Shawshank Redemption style ethos, I'd just like some equality - because that would represent an improvement in my status. If some miscreant says, "You may intimidate the rest with your awesome Seating Plan but I fear no man! So fuck off!", I want either a) the liberty to say, "No, you fuck off" or more preferably b) the school I'm working in to attach some kind of sanction to this. Nothing too draconian you understand - maybe a wee note home inviting the parents up to explain the glorious world of learning opportunities that awaits their offspring if only he or she would conform to the Seating Plan. Or would that be too Dickensian? It's just that I think the present situation, where I get into more trouble if I swear than the pupils, sucks quite a lot.

Meanwhile, back in the real world I heard of another assault against teacher this week. In the spirit of Ms. Abrams' article, we could say this represents progress: the teacher in question was male so this, along with the previous cases I mentioned here and here, shows that with regards to violence against teachers, gender equality is improving.

Anyway, probably brought it on himself. Perhaps his expectations were too low? This is a Bad Thing and as everyone knows was behind the outbreak of WWI. Or maybe his lesson wasn't entertaining enough? Surely he wouldn't have been so reckless as to enter the classroom without being equipped with the power of Seating Plan?

If you read to the end of the article, there's more excellent news:
Violence: In a recent survey of 2,500 teachers commissioned by the NUT, almost a third of respondents said they suffered some form of physical assault at least once a year. The British Crime Survey, however, said the rate of violence against teachers has dropped by more than 40 per cent in the past eight years.

Literacy: Literacy is at its highest for 15 years, according to a study by Cambridge Assessment, which found teenagers have superior writing abilities, a wider vocabulary and more accurate spelling, punctuation and sentence structures than their predecessors.

Grain production: In another victory of socialism over the forces of nature, the wheat harvest is up 75% on the previous record-breaking year.

Ok, I made the last one up.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Some excellent travel advice

From Harry Hutton:
"Going on a trip? Don't forget to take some cigarette butts in your hand luggage. Leave them lying around the plane, it really pisses them off. They can't work out why their nerdish smoke detectors aren't working, and the look on their miserable faces sends my pleasure sensors soaring."
Now why didn't I think of that?

How others see us

From the Scotsman:
"THE Dalai Lama praised the Scottish Parliament and devolution yesterday as he arrived in Scotland for a conference aimed at helping Tibet gain greater control over its future.

He said the devolved powers of Holyrood provided a model which could be used to help give autonomy to Tibet.

The exiled Buddhist leader is to speak at the fourth World Parliamentarians Convention on Tibet during a two-day visit to Edinburgh.

Tibet has been occupied by the Chinese since 1950 and the Dalai Lama has been forced to live in neighbouring India.

This is the 70-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner's second visit to Scotland in 18 months.

Speaking as he arrived in Edinburgh yesterday he said: "I think the Chinese government's main priority is stability, unity and prosperity. We feel that our approach, meaningful autonomy I think provides more satisfaction to Tibetan people. As a result, stability and unity and prosperity then become more meaningful."
Interesting, and not the first time I've heard this idea with regards to devolution. The contrast with how it is seen at home and how it is perceived by those from parts of the world couldn't be more stark. It would probably surprise most Scots to learn the extent to which Scottish devolution is seen as an example of successful conflict resolution in parts of the world where states are divided on the lines of nationality because here it is often derided as a 'pretendy parliament' full of 'numpties' who couldn't even keep the cost of the building under control.

What people up here fail to realise I think is that the two are related to each other. In the short run, devolution has - no matter how much the nationalists like to claim otherwise - killed off the nationalist question. And it has done so partly because it's full of incompetent numpties: seeing it's performance so far, the number of people who are convinced that the answer to all Scotland's problems lies in more autonomy from England has understandably declined. In this sense devolution appears to have done precisely what its unionist supporters claimed it would.

The long-term future is less certain though. We still haven't seen what would happen when Westminster is governed by a different party from Holyrood. While it may be a source of satisfaction to many here that Westminster will certainly return a Tory administration before Holyrood ever does (if indeed they ever do) - personally I think this leaves us up here with a couple of serious questions that need addressing. Is the Scottish parliament actually capable of delivering a change of government? A fairly basic requirement of any democratic legislature one would have thought. And what is it with such a large proportion of the Scottish electorate that they appear willing to vote for a chimpanzee, provided the chimp in question is wearing a red rosette?

I wish I knew because in west of Scotland local councils in particular we need a change in administration badly. Those bloggers in England who get all misty-eyed about the Labour party and who preposterously cried 'shame' because some of us couldn't stomach voting for Blair's constitutional vandalism (apart from anything else) should really come up here. Political scientists like to stress the importance of the 'selectorate' in a democracy because while the voters may determine who is in power, those who are responsible for the range of candidates available are obviously hugely influential.

So how much more so when effectively the selectorate is the electorate? Those who select the candidates for election in this part of the world essentially function as a small number of voters operating in a system where there is no de facto secret ballot. Sound familiar? If not, get hold of a British history that covers the 19th century and check in the index for the words "borough" and "rotten".

Friday, November 18, 2005

The world according to Bin Laden

This is funny - from Tim Blair.

(via Norm)

Where are mothers 4 justice?

Asks Polly Toynbee in today's Guardian:
"The prime minister was stumped when pressed in the Commons. He admitted that the Child Support Agency is a disaster and no one knows what to do. He said the CSA has a "fundamental problem". Indeed it has. The backlog of 250,000 cases is still growing. Near-destitute mothers are owed £1.7bn in maintenance. The Liberal Democrat MP David Laws finds that the CSA collects only £1.85 for every £1 it spends. A simpler system that lets men pay less has perversely led to even more non-payers."
It is indeed a mess. Our Pol rightly blames Peter Lilley. The CSA was a good idea. Hitherto, mothers with children had to pursue maintenance through the courts. This was time-consuming and with the results often uncertain, single-mothers usually had to depend on Income Support or what ws then called Family Credit, rather than the absent fathers who should have been paying maintenance. But Peter Lilley, getting all moist at the prospect of reducing welfare, introduced the system too quickly, leaving the mess that it is now.

Ms. Toynbee is right to a limited extent in blaming this present government too:
"But amid this week's flurry of finger-wagging, no one said a word about the real villains...(w)hat about the men who don't pay? They don't have to wait to be billed, do they? Politicians good at demonising boys in hoodies - who probably have won't-pay fathers - say nothing much about derelict dads.
Now where is Tony Blair's punitive side when you really need it?"
It's a very good question. However, methinks Polly spoils a perfectly good argument by overstating her case. She has a very good grasp of how social policy works so she knows perfectly well that the system when it was introduced was so hellishly complicated there was never really much chance of it working until it was simplified. But by the time it was, already the culture of non-payment had become entrenched, and I think her case would work better if she acknowledged that there were - usually as a result maladministrationion, and sometimes because of a failure to take account of transfers of wealth like houses - unfairnesses in the original system.

She asks would the government put up with a mass non-payment campaign of road tax and TV licenses but as she knows perfectly well, neither of these are means-tested so they are infinitely easier to collect and even this doesn't prevent quite extensive tax-avoidance. In this sense it isn't entirely fair to blame this present government because they were not the authors of this fiasco.

And she goes off a bit with this stuff about a 'man tax'.
"(Feminists in Sweden) came up with one good idea - a man tax. Work out the extra cost of men to the state in crime, violence, car crashes and non-payment of maintenance, and tax all men the way insurance companies price high-risk groups regardless of individual qualities.

Alas, it's not realistic politics ..."
It's not only 'unrealistic' - it's unjust. I have to confess to having wrecked a couple of cars in my time but I'm not guilty of the other three and I really don't think it would be reasonable for me to pay for those who are, out of some collective gender guilt or something.

Taking what may be generally true and applying it to every case: in the past we used to call that a sexist stereotype, Pol. It was wrong then, and it's wrong now. It's a shame to take this line because it's that sort of thing that will make people disregard her basic argument, which they shouldn't because it's basically correct.


Hitherto, when I've been asked if I've ever had toothache before, I would always say yes.

I now realise I was only under the impression I'd had toothache before: I didn't know such pain was possible.

Went to the dentist this morning and had root canal treatment.

It wasn't fun.

But now the pain has stopped.

God bless these East Europeans and their willingness to take on NHS patients.

Settlers in - that's what I say.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Sir Ian Blair and the great police debate

No doubt this'll go the way of the 'Great Education Debate' in Scotland. "I wasn't aware of that", I hear you say? My point exactly. Still, let's not be too cynical. The Guardian quote him:
"The silence can no longer continue. The citizens of Britain now have to articulate what kind of police service they want."
Nice of him to offer, and I feel the need to do my civic duty so I'm drafting an email. Any suggestions you have would be welcome - so far I've got this:
Dear Ian,

I would like to have the sort of police force that doesn't blow people's heads off when they're travelling on the tube please. I don't get the underground very often, I'm not a terrorist and I don't really think I look like one. But some of your officers don't seem very bright and this, combined with firearms, makes me very nervous indeed.

Other than that, I'm not fussy.

Yours sincerely etc...

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Monbiot on white phosphorus

From the Guardian:
"We were told that the war with Iraq was necessary for two reasons. Saddam Hussein possessed biological and chemical weapons and might one day use them against another nation. And the Iraqi people needed to be liberated from his oppressive regime, which had, among its other crimes, used chemical weapons to kill them. Tony Blair, Colin Powell, William Shawcross, David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen, Ann Clwyd and many others referred, in making their case, to Saddam's gassing of the Kurds in Halabja in 1988. They accused those who opposed the war of caring nothing for the welfare of the Iraqis.

Given that they care so much, why has none of these hawks spoken out against the use of unconventional weapons by coalition forces?"
Ok, George - the use of white phosphorus is a Bad Thing. In fact it's an utter disgrace. Bit like torture in that respect: the fact that the use of either cannot conceivably be compared either quantitatively or qualitatively to how both were used under Saddam Hussein in no way excuses or minimizes what no person can sanction and still call them civilised.

Did you assume because we didn't rush to the microphone or our keyboards immediately that we approved in some way?

Check in next week for Monbiot's latest challenge to the prowar left: when did you last beat your wives?


Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Christians: the religious minority it's cool to revile

I'm warming up from a theme touched upon in the post below. Since shit hitting fan circa September 11th 2001, a number of people have asked the question: when did the left abandon it's traditional position on organised religion? Being rather elderly - but in the apparent minority of people possessing a memory, I can tell you it was in 1988. What happened in that year was the publication of a book called the Satanic Verses by a British subject who goes by the name of Salman Rushdie. On the publication of this book, a foreign government called upon British subjects who were of the same confessional division as this autocratic revolutionary regime to murder this writer, should they have the opportunity. In Britain, public gatherings were held where people burned a copy of this book they had never read and reiterated the call for the author to have his life terminated.

I remember being absolutely amazed by what I then saw and heard from some of the valiant defenders of free-speech in Britain's liberal media: Mr. Rushdie had brought much of this on himself, they said - he should have been more sensitive to the feeling for the sacred amongst those who now wish to murder him. That he, and not they, had been brought up with the religious traditions that they affected so much solicitude for didn't appear to have occurred to them.

That this represented an abrupt break from the previous attitude, I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever. The reason for my confidence is this: earlier in the year, a film had been released - Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ. Christians did not call for Mr. Scorsese's murder but some did want the film to be banned because of it's controversial idea that Jesus was tormented by fantasies of a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene - played by the gloriously sensual Barbara Hershey.

In various bastions of cultural sensitivity like the Guardian and the BBC, articles were written and debates held. Oh, how those right-on liberals sneered - and how pleased with themselves they felt, these heroes of the Enlightenment. Imagine wanting to ban a film that they'd never seen, they said - how this obscurantism so pained and amused them simultaneously. This was before they had learned to be oh so terribly sensitive and understanding to the religious disposition so it never occurred to them that the juxtaposition of Hollywood eroticism with what millions of people consider to be sacred might be reasonably considered offensive.

And that's pretty much the way it's remained since then, as far as I can see. People like Christopher Hitchens and Polly Toynbee are treated today as if they are barking simply for maintaining what was - and I can assure you this was the case from long (and sometimes bitter) experience - the standard attitude of the liberal-left toward religion. Those considered mad have been consistent; everyone else is all over the place. In a tedious post on another blog, on which I posted some quite boring and obvious comments, Mr. Hitchens might as well have deep-fried a few babies to have as a garnish to his sirloin steak because he appeared - and indeed allowed himself to be photographed - with evangelical Christians! Oh, the depths - what depravity is this writer capable of? Mr. Livingstone, on the other hand, is right, justified and wise to appear on stage with a reactionary cleric who believes that there is no such thing as a civilian - if that civilian should happen to negate their humanity by being a Jew.

So things have changed quite a lot in my lifetime. Pre-Satanic Verses, the biggest form of religious oppression your average liberal could imagine was a religious person actually having the audacity to say what they believed to be true. This became the case at some mid-point in the 1980s - I don't quite remember when - but I distinctly remember 'imposing your values on someone else' becoming on a par with child-abuse in its heinousness. Yet if expressing one's views on abortion, for example, constituted the imposition of values on unwilling parties, the right-on brigade were doing fair bit of this themselves. Take the issue of women priests, for example. Lots of pontificating, and I use the word advisedly, was heard on this subject. Whether the Anglican or the Roman Catholic church, liberals agreed: of course they should allow women priests. After all, shouldn't the clergy be more representative of the 'people' in all it's diversity? In fact, the Sex Discrimination Act should be slapped on the churches in order to drag them into the modern age.

In these very misinformed and boring debates, no one was on hand to say that in both Roman Catholic and Anglican theology, the priest when dispensing the sacrament is not supposed to represent 'the people' but Christ. And no one gave the answer I would have given to the question of whether a church should have women priests, which is: "I'm not a Catholic nor an Anglican - so I don't care and it really isn't any of my business".

But what is my business, or rather I choose to make it so, is the fact that this new heart-warming solicitude with the religious feelings of minorities isn't exactly evenly distributed. If there's somewhere in the world where there are Americans killing Muslims, Jews killing Muslims, Muslims killing Americans and Jews, even Muslims killing Muslims - you'll get various forms of outrage, column inches and maybe a few marches demanding more time and an end to the outrage that is Starbucks or something like that.

But if you're indigenous Christians being persecuted and murdered in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan? I'm afraid it seems no one gives a damn: not our present Archbishop of Canterbury, who seems more concerned with how the overthrow of a blood-soaked tyrant will play with an ecumenical audience; not much of the prowar left, who ignore you for the most part and find your co-religionists at home handy whenever they feel stung by accusations of 'Islamophobia'; and certainly not the newly religiously-sensitive hard left. With the last, their subtle and nuanced understanding of religion doesn't apply to you. Y'see, it's all about power. You may be personally impoverished and persecuted but it's not about that for the heroic class-warriors; it's what you symbolise.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Revolting French again: Jason and Mel

In yesterday's Observer, Jason Burke deals with the Melanie Phillips article I mentioned here. Mel, in turn, responds here. I'm more inclined to agree with Jason Burke: I don't buy this 'French intifada' stuff and Mel hasn't dealt with Burke's point that apart from throwing stones, what's going on in France doesn't bear much relation to what's going on in Palestine. Nevertheless, neither journalist comes off particularly well from this exchange; they're behaving like a couple of bloggers for goodness sake - which is to say in this case, rather more heat than light is being generated.

In Burke's case, I'd have to say, if he's going to accuse others of making simplistic and stereotypical characterisations of religious and/or ethnic groups, surely it behooves him not to do likewise? And doing likewise is exactly what he does:
"In the USA, religious fundamentalists who strive for a return to the 1950s and a society where everyone - women, blacks, whites, children - knew their place now wield unprecedented influence."
I've a high regard for Mr. Burke so I'm rather disappointed with this remark. Is he suggesting that American evangelicals all long for a return to segregation? Looks like it - and this is, I'm afraid, rather typical of what passes for the 'debate' these days: it seems the understanding that a religious group should not be understood as a homogeneous block with uniformly reactionary views is not to be extended to Christians.

Analyst - analyse yourself: not all 'religious fundamentalists' in the US are white and surely it should be understood at the very least that they aren't longing for a return to segregation?

Sunday, November 13, 2005

God save the Queen

It's enough to make you a royalist. The Sunday Times reports that it has a video in which Ayman al- Zawahiri, Bin Liner's second in command, describes Her Majesty as 'one of the severest enemies of Islam':
"In the video, Ayman al- Zawahiri, second-in-command to Osama Bin Laden, targets the Queen as ultimately responsible for Britain's 'crusader laws' and denounces her as an enemy of Muslims."
If our Queen is held to represent a serious threat to Islam, the whole re-establishing the caliphate gig should be pretty easy to pull-off. Now listen carefully, Ayam - the Queen belongs to the dignified part of the constitution and today her role is largely ceremonial...oh, what's the use? It also appears that they've mistaken the Anglican church for an institution that actually believes things.
"In the video al-Zawahiri not only labels the Queen as one of Islam's 'severest enemies' but also sends a warning shot to British Islamic leaders who 'work for the pleasure of Elizabeth, the head of the Church of England'.

He said those who followed her were saying: 'We are British citizens, subject to Britain's crusader laws, and we are proud of our submission . . . to Elizabeth, head of the Church of England.'

In a possible reference to the role of the Muslim Council of Britain, which had issued instructions to mosques to inform on potential terrorists, he criticised 'those who issue fatwas, according to the school of thought of the head of the Church of England'.
Bet you didn't know the C of E had a 'school of thought'. If these ignorant ramblings are at all representative of the Al-Qaeda rank and file, we'll not be long beating these Islamo-nutjobs; they're obviously a bunch of thickos.

Read on for the interesting news that 8 out of 10 imams are happy with their Toyotas.

Update:I noticed Marcus at HP posted a piece by the same title. I was about to claim I thought of it first but I see his was up at an impressive (or insane, you decide) 7.45am. I didnae copy, honest...

Bloody foxes

They're keeping me awake.

Where's the guys with the red coats when you need them, that's what I want to know...

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Blair's terror defeat

The provision that would allow police the power to detain terrorist suspects for 90 days without charge has been defeated by 322 votes to 291, with 49 Labour MPs rebelling. This is the first Commons defeat for the Blair regime and, as a historical footnote, the first time a Labour government defeat has ever been televised. It was the right decision in my view and one where the scale of this defeat has to be attributed to how badly-handled this was by the government.

First there was this extraordinary idea that it is the function of Parliament simply to rubber-stamp provisions in proposed legislation simply because the police declare it to be necessary. One could even argue that the extent to which various police chief constables, most notably Sir Ian Blair, have been mobilised in support of this bill is unconstitutional. MPs to their credit failed to be cowed by this and the nonsensical populism of being told the 'public' was behind it so they better fall into line. Those Labour, Conservative, Liberal and Nationalist MPs who voted this down rightly understood that it is Parliament, and not the police, who is the guardian of our liberties - that the police are competent to give advice on operational matters but are not competent to judge where the balance between security and liberty should lie.

Then there was the approach taken by Blair, staking so much of his personal authority on this and apparently over-ruling his Home Secretary who was until Monday still seeking a compromise with the opposition parties on this issue. It's too early to say what this means for Blair's future because conflict with his own party is something he clearly thrives on and is unlikely to stop doing it now. Yet if anything is likely to be his undoing, surely it is this uncompromising tendency? I'm not sure Blair understands the difference between leadership and management and it is the latter he's really not very good at. He has got away with it up to now because of the sheer size of his majorities in the last two Parliaments. But now he doesn't have this and would be wise to consider that while he may have not lost his appetite for white-knuckle confrontations with his own party, there is now clear evidence that they have.

There's also a Scottish angle which casts more light on the way Blair didn't bother to try and reach a consensus. Scotland's legal system has retained its independence since the Act of Union in 1707. Scotland's chief law officer, the Lord Advocate, agreed on the need to have the same period of detention north and south of the border for obvious reasons. But he did not agree that the uniform period should be 90 days, a point Charles Clarke desperately tried to avoid conceding at the dispatch-box today.

Best line of the evening so far: Paxman effectively asked David Davis, who are you to disagree with the police?

David Davis: "Well, with respect - I'm a Member of Parliament."

It's a sad day in some respects when you find yourself applauding a rightwing Tory because he has attacked a Labour government from the left and won. But it's a happy day for all of us who had begun to wonder whether the notion of Parliament as the guardian of our liberty wasn't just some quaint notion you'd find on the pages of an out of date textbook on the British constitution.

Hearts appoint paedophile

From the beeb:
"The new coach of Hearts Football Club has urged fans and the public to give him a chance after concerns were raised about his conviction for a sex offence.

Children's charities and some fans have been unhappy about the appointment of Graham Rix, who was jailed in 1999 for illegal sex with a 15-year-old girl."
They have every right to be concerned, especially if they saw his pathetic interview on the Scottish news tonight. For instance, he said:
"Seven years ago I made a mistake and once I realised I'd made a mistake I held my hands up..."
Yes, I'm sure the whole holding up of the hands thing was a great comfort to the girl he abused. Once he realised he'd made a mistake!? And when was that, Mr. Rix? You're supposed to register that kind of information before - what part of 'under-sixteen' didn't you understand? Some Hearts fans were understandably unimpressed:
"One fan said Mr Rix's criminal offence would give the club a bad name among all of the clubs in the Scottish Premier League.

Another said: 'The man did his time, but at the end of the day he's still on the sex offenders' register and with Hearts being a family club I just don't think it goes down well at all.'"
Credit is due to all those who protested against this, especially George Foulkes who resigned as chairman over the decision.

Shame on the rest. Shame on Romanov.

Cancer patient to take battle for treatment to high court

You'll have seen this no doubt:
"A breast cancer patient who has been refused the drug Herceptin by her local health authority is to take her case to the high court, her solicitor said today.

Elaine Barber's doctor recommended that she was treated with Herceptin, but the single mother of four received a letter today saying the North Stoke primary care trust refused to treat her on grounds of resources."
Oh, give her the drugs for heavens sake! Resources? I used to work for the NHS as a 'food management specialist' - or a kitchen porter. Despite my lowly role, I - along with everyone else - was sent on an induction course where we learned who our 'internal customers' where and how we could help them. Then we broke into groups and, well, you know the rest.

I've an idea: let's stop paying people to talk complete excrement at the tax-payers expense and spend it on treating patients - even if we're not sure it'll work. That's the kind of public sector efficiency drive I could get into.

Those of you that are still students, I don't mock but rather envy you - but can I warn you of the tidal wave of bullshit that will engulf you when you enter the world of work? Yes, I know most of you have to work just now anyway but believe me, it's going to get much worse.

This is one area of life that really pisses me off and I'm quite happy, and indeed justified, in blaming modern capitalism in general and Americans in particular. Vacuous and all-pervasive management-speak and smoking bans - it's all their fault.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The French are revolting

You couldn't have failed to notice this. Personally, I find it a wee bit depressing how some people use the opportunity that events like this present to have a pop at everything they don't like about present European society in general and France in particular. You know, the problem is the French 'social model', the welfare state in general (I even saw one blaming the CAP, would you believe?), immigration, Muslim radicals etc etc.

It's been written about quite fully elsewhere - see Lenin's posting here and here , and Meaders here and here. I'm not sure I've got much to add: I don't know a great deal about contemporary France because unlike most people I know, it really doesn't interest me that much. I don't hate the French Daily Mail little-Englander style but I don't fawn before their culture Guardian-liberal style. Most of the time they bore me - their politics bore me, I don't like French cuisine particularly, their films are boring, and their wine is over-rated. Which is why the riots didn't register with me for a couple of days, a response I think significant and which I'll come back to in a mo'. Meanwhile, can I say that while I don't know a huge amount about contemporary France, I do know a fair bit of their history and I know enough social science method to recognise when someone's talking crap - which brings us, rather neatly I thought, to Melanie Phillips. She knows why 'France is burning', or so she thinks:
"Nicolas Sarkozy, the tough-minded Interior Minister, has been blamed for inflaming the situation by his uncompromising language. French policy in general has been blamed for herding poor Arabs into suburban ghettos where they have been left to fester in high unemployment and poverty.

The disturbances are thus being portrayed as race riots caused by official discrimination and insensitivity. But this is a gross misreading of the situation. It is far more profound and intractable. What we are seeing is, in effect, a French intifada: an uprising by French Muslims against the state."
So, nothing less than a French intifada eh? Sarkozy's language is certainly 'uncompromising' - I understand that the proper translation of the expression he used to describe the rioters is 'scum'. Call me a woolly-minded liberal if you want but I reckon he's not helping. I am in no way excusing the wicked and reprehensible actions of the rioters but the epithet 'scum' carries connotations of sub-humanity and I'm afraid these rioters are very human, all too human - and I doubt whether he's helping matters with this sort of macho crap.

Anyway, Mel goes on:
"The warning for us from the disturbing events in France could not be clearer. We must end the ruinous doctrine of multiculturalism and reassert British identity and British values and insist that although Muslims are a valued minority, they must abide by majority rules."
Now let me try and work this out: Britain has to change it's policy vis-a-vis multi-culturalism because France is experiencing riots - even though by her own admission the French haven't followed this model? In fact, what she seems to be arguing is that immigrant Muslims will cause you problems regardless of what policy you adopt. A rather dodgy argument which, if she followed it to its logical conclusion would lead to a rather unrealistic, isolationist - to say no more than that - view of the world.

One of the reasons I like history is that it's full of antidotes to this sort of guff. The examples Ms. Phillips cites are of course highly selective. If one looks at the history of urban riots from a rather wider perspective than she does, it quickly becomes clear that she hasn't provided a single shred of evidence that Islam is the significant variable here. Did we not have riots here in the 1980s? Nothing to do with Islam. Or the periodic riots experienced in American cities since the 1960s, the most recent being those in LA that followed the acquittal of the police officers caught on camera beating Rodney King? No Islam involved there either. And what of the historical comparison being made within France - the worst civil unrest since 1968? Maybe I'm a bit thick or something but does that not imply that these riots have not yet surpassed the violence of that year? And that had nothing to do with Islam either.

Wherever there has been urban rioting rioting in history, race, unemployment and heavy policing have almost always been present. You may accuse me of rationalising these. I am not. Some of the crimes that have been committed in France over the last few days are heinous and disgusting and I hope the perpetrators are caught and severely punished; I'm simply trying to make the point that human beings are nasty, single young men particularly nasty and it is in every society's self-interest to get these something to do wherever possible - and this applies to young Muslim men, no more or less than anyone else.

But in the case of France there's another ever-present variable at work. Rioting is part of French political culture, dating back to the 1789 revolution at least. Farmers and trade unionists routinely indulge in a sort of collective bargaining by riot. In a fairly absolutist political culture, setting fire to things has been - and we should be honest about this - seen at best normal, at worst an acceptable way of expressing one's grievance against the French state. It seems rather late in the day to decide that this is not a Good Thing after all just because the Arabs have joined the game. Which brings me back to the point mentioned above: these didn't register with me for a couple of days because I thought, "Ho hum - there they go again".

Ah, I hear you say, but this is different...

No it isn't.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Your astrological week ahead

For me, according to the Observer magazine:
"Aquarius: Even when you're pushed into a corner, lashing out blindly is rarely the best course of action. You need strategy. Choose your preferred way of dealing with authority figures and stick to it."
But that is my 'preferred way of dealing with authority figures'.

Drunk people

Are a real pain when you're sober, don't you find? Freed from the old parental duties for the evening, I was going out on Saturday for a wee refreshment. Despite only being about seven-thirty, the bus was invaded by a seriously bladdered and painfully loud group of frankly ugly men. The bus took an interminable length of time to leave the bus stop: half of this was taken up with 'the lads' learning that they had to give money in exchange for the journey, the other half with them struggling to locate their pockets. On the journey, they burst into song, "Wo ho - we're half-way there, WOA HO! LIVING ON A PRAYER!". They did not appear to be ashamed. I can't tell you how much I wanted to harm them but unlike about 90% of Glasgow's Saturday-night revellers, I was unarmed and since there were about eight of them, I didn't fancy my chances much. We were indeed only half-way there and unable to stand anymore of this sonic torture, I got off and got a taxi instead.

Maybe we shouldn't but photocopying your genitals, eating kebabs, falling over, and embarrassing yourself at an office party are the sorts of by-products of drinking too much that we have become used to and tolerant of. But we have to draw the line somewhere and surely this is it? I will support any political movement that promises to make singing Bon Jovi in an enclosed public space punishable by a lengthy period of incarceration.

Meanwhile, these idiots owe me a fiver for the taxi.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Blair's Major factor

Is Blair going the way of Major? The comparison is being made because of reports of the Blair cabinet's recent squabbles over smoking, schools, terrorism and the rest. Personally, I think it's a rather lazy comparison, with people simply drawing on the last time a premiership came to an end. It's true that there are similarities. Both prime ministers have at times led ungrateful parties that have failed to realise that they are less popular with the electorate than the people they chose to lead them. This was certainly true of John Major. The Conservative Party by the late 1980s had two things they had to get rid of if they were to be electable: the poll tax and Margaret Thatcher. This was in the days in which the Conservative Party had an instinct for survival and so they duly jettisoned these unelectable elements and went on to win the 1992 election.

The problem was they could never quite forgive themselves for doing so and promptly began to destroy themselves over the issue of Europe, which served as a proxy for guilt over the regicide that they had committed. The fallout was a wonder to behold and I think if people are comparing the present situation to that, their memory serves them ill.

In the last gasps of the Major regime, cabinet collective responsibility had more or less completely broken down. Michael Portillo was amongst those who dishonoured themselves by publicly breaking with government policy yet clinging on to their cabinet posts, much in the way that Clare Short did over Iraq. Constituency MPs were also in open revolt, publishing their own anti-European manifestos whilst the stated policy of the government was to 'take Britain into the heart of Europe'.

The Tories, then as now, confused popularity with their own activists with that of the electorate. Thankfully they were and are wrong about that. Labour has since I can remember also been prone to this mistake. How else can you explain Michael Foot as a leader? Or Neil Kinnock for that matter? But they broke the opposition habit with Blair and this is the crucial difference: much of the Labour Party has never liked Blair because he is so obviously not one of them but they are mesmerised because he has given them what they were so desperate for - electability. In the elastic British constitution, it should never be underestimated how much authority a Prime Minister accrues if they win elections. Here Blair is more like Thatcher: it is forgotten how after 1979 the struggles she had in cabinet with the grandees and how the Falklands and the subsequent '83 election cemented her grip on power. And how, after a prime minister has been in power for two terms they simply make too many enemies to survive.

Blair is surely more like Thatcher in this respect? Any comparison with Major understates the sheer electoral achievements under the Blair leadership. Major won the '92 election for the Conservatives but they never gave him credit for it and in their disloyalty became turkeys voting for Christmas. Blair's achievements at the ballot box not only bear comparison to Thatcher's but far outstrip them.

This is the danger for the Labour party. Are they aware of how much the public disapproves of disloyalty? Do they not know that the public don't like Gordon Brown as nearly as much as they do? Here the comparison with Major is more appropriate: the Powellite-monetarist-Thatcherites backed Major because they thought he was one of them and turned on him viciously when they found that he wasn't. The same could be true of a Brown succession, which like Major's could take place without the electorate ever casting a vote. And when they get him, how long will it take them to realise that Brown is Blairism without the smiles, that he is at least as pro-market and pro-American as his predecessor? When they get it, they won't like it; they'll make a fuss and the electorate won't like that. Then who knows what could happen?

The absentees who saved the government

On the terrorism bill were, according to the Guardian:
"Vincent Cable, the Lib Dem Treasury spokesman, (who) was caught up in a mass lobby of Parliament by the Make Poverty History campaign and arrived too late to vote, Brian Binley, Tory MP for Southampton South forgot to leave his mobile on. George Galloway, the Respect MP who has made no secret of his opposition to the terrorism bill, was speaking at a commercial event."
What? Did you expect your MP to be concerned with such mundane matters such as defending your ancient rights and privileges as a British subject in Parliament or something? Oh how bourgeois!

Bum deal for ex who glued man's genitals

From, yes, the Guardian:
"A US man is suing a former girlfriend for damages after having his genitals stuck to his stomach in a superglue and nail varnish attack more than five years ago.
Kenneth Slaby of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was at the home of Gail O'Toole on the evening of May 7 2000 when the incident, which he said left him "scared and puzzled", occurred.

The two had dated during the previous year but only started seeing each other again at the start of that May. Mr Slaby says Ms O'Toole invited him to take a nap.

According to the lawsuit, he woke "to a strong burning sensation" in his genital area and found red and blue nail polish in his hair. Mr Slaby is seeking $30,000 (£17,000) damages.

Superglue had been used to fix his penis to his abdomen and to stick his buttocks together. An obscene comment had been painted in nail polish on his back.

Ms O'Toole, the suit claims, told Mr Slaby her actions were in return for the break up of their 10-month relationship shortly before Christmas. Mr Slaby had to walk one mile for help, where he met a police officer who took him to hospital. His lawyer, Grey Pratt, told Westmoreland county court it "was not some petty domestic squabble."

In June 2000, Ms O'Toole pleaded guilty to assault and served six months' probation.

Mr Slaby filed a civil suit for damages in September 2001, alleging battery, assault, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

"I woke up in severe pain," Mr Slaby told the court, according to local press reports.

"I felt like my groin was on fire and I had a severe headache. I looked at my head and it was blue, purple, and red. I was more worried about my groin because I was all stuck together."

Ms O'Toole's attorney, Chuck Evans, said it was a consensual act and said Mr Slaby had suffered no permanent damage. "This is a case that should have been left in the bedroom," he told the court.

He said Mr Slaby "just laughed quite a bit", but then the couple argued and Ms O'Toole told him to find his own way back to Pittsburgh."
This has to be a spoof, surely? Gail O'Toole - honestly!

Shock news: Parliament defends liberty

Well, not quite - the government's terrorism legislation squeaked in with just one vote. However, a further vote had to be suspended on Wednesday for fear it would be lost. If it has come this close in the Commons, it seems safe to assume that the Lords will give this bill a mauling - and quite rightly so.

I really don't like this idea that the PM or the Home Secretary's job is simply to turn up in Parliament and announce what the intelligence services or the police want but in any event it seems that it was the police only and not MI5, as had been suggested, that called for the 90-day detention without trial. From the Scotsman:
'Mr Clarke has now admitted the 90-day plan came solely from the police. " It is the police who, through their professionalism, came to the view that 90 days is right," he said. "The security service aren't committed to a 90-day figure, as such."

The minister accepted that, contrary to the suggestions from his colleagues, it would not be appropriate for MI5 to be making direct recommendations on government policy.

MI5 is known to see advantages in extending the detention period, but is rarely directly involved in investigations aimed at bringing criminal charges.

Mr Clarke said: "The security services think their case is right, but it's not within their professional competence because they are not the people going through the police process."'
Given that Blair, as he's so fond of doing, has staked so much of his own personal authority on this ill-conceived piece of legislation, people have predictably begun to ask whether this Blair government has begun to resemble the Major regime in its dying days. This was what Michael Howard was trying to evoke by using Norman Lamont's barbed remark about Major during his resignation speech, 'in office but not in power'. Is this so? I don't think the parallels are particularly strong for reasons I'll explain in my next malinformed and under-researched posting.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Iraq launches recruitment drive

From the beeb:
"Iraqi officers who served under the regime of Saddam Hussein are being invited to rejoin the army.

The force was disbanded after the US-led invasion in 2003 - a move seen by many as an error as it created large numbers of unemployed, disaffected men."
The rationale behind disbanding the army was to avoid the toppling of Saddam Hussein being followed by a military coup, which would have had the net result of producing what Nick Cohen dubbed 'the nicer Sunni tyrant option'. Given the postwar history of the country, this was by no means absurd but most people now agree that this was probably one of the most significant mistakes of the Bremner Administration.
"Laith Kubba, the Iraqi government spokesman, said the step was "a bold move to turn the page" as the country moves ahead having approved the new constitution last month.

He told the BBC there had been an "illusion" after the fall of Saddam Hussein that a new Iraqi army could be built in a short period of time.

"This has not happened," he said, adding that there were "many indications" that the sacked officers of Saddam Hussein's regime had become part of the insurgency problem."
At the time, I understood the reasoning of the move even less than I did now and was absolutely astonished by it. After all, the historical precedents were not encouraging to say the least. Had the experience of Weimar Germany not shown that having large numbers of unemployed young men with military experience in a country awash with small arms was not exactly conducive to political stability? And why was it forgotten that not even the Bolsheviks attempted to do to the Tsarist army what was done here? It was such a big mistake that I've wondered why it hasn't been discussed more by both sides of the debate.

Why those of us who supported the invasion haven't is easier to explain. We are, after all, arguing with people who for the most part apparently incapable of grasping that one can support regime-change in Iraq without approving of everything George Bush says or does.

It hasn't escaped our attention that opponents of the war practically never apply this all-or-nothing sides-taking logic to their own position and it's this attitude I think that explains their relative silence over this, which after all was a fairly disastrous blunder by the occupation. It would be in some ways much more uncomfortable for the antiwar left to acknowledge this because it interrupts one of their favourite 'analytical' techniques of collapsing concepts and merging phenomena that should be kept distinct. You'll have noticed this, for example, in the way that 'imperialism' and 'capitalism' have been so merged as to be practically indistinguishable so that the former is an inevitable expression of the latter, indeed solely a function of the latter and never mind the historical reality that shows them to be distinct both in theory and practice.

Either ignoring, or not putting the justified weight on what was after all a tactical mistake allows the hard left to conflate invasion, occupation and resistance into one seamless garment of catastrophe, the responsibility for which can be conveniently deposited at the door of capitalism in general and the Americans in particular. It allows them to ignore the fact that the 'war' was in fact a blinding military success, with the regime caving in quicker than Afghanistan and with a fraction of the casualties of the first Gulf war. So instead the 'war' as a concept is stretched to cover the further conflict against the insurgency, which I would readily accept has been anything but a success. To anyone who might object that this an entirely reasonable way to understand the situation, I'd ask if that is so then surely it should then be accepted that those who claim to be 'antiwar' are in fact strongly in favour of prolonging it?

And understanding the significance of the dissolution of the army would give some uncomfortable insights into the character of the resistance. Since when were members of an officer class in a militaristic and fascistic regime like Ba'athist Iraq likely candidates for a progressive anti-colonial resistance in left wing eyes? That the insurgency has a large element that is not Bin Ladenist nor jihadi there can be no doubt but why is it assumed by the hard left that this nationalist strain is benign? Nationalism is always a repository for other ideas and one of them in the minds of many insurgents will be a nostalgia for an Iraq that has been dominated by one minority group and where other ethnic and confessional divisions were kept firmly in their place. This is surely more than a tad reactionary?

Had the officer class been de-Ba'athised rather than completely dissolved, there still would have been former officers who would have been dangerous to the development of a new Iraq but the army would have been better equipped to deal with them. I can't say that I'm wildly optimistic but one would hope that this initiative will restore the situation closer to what it would have been if the army had not been disbanded. It would make it more likely that the occupation could end without leaving complete chaos behind. You'd think that's what everyone regardless of the position they took on the war would want but we know by now that this is not the case.

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