Friday, March 31, 2006

Lost in translation

Johann Hari alerts us to the fact that his latest article on Iraq has been translated into French and published in Le Monde, dahlings.

Well, thanks for letting me know but I read it in English when it was first published and it was complete shit then; do you imagine the French translation has improved it or something?

Security services 'not to blame' for London bombings

From the Guardian:
"MPs have concluded that the intelligence and security services could not be blamed for failing to prevent the July 7 attacks, it was reported today."
Good - because I'd always been inclined to blame the bastards that actually carried out the atrocities, myself.

Top QC calls for review of fingerprint cases

This would be Michael Mansfield QC. When you see him popping up on provincial TV, stroking his mane, you know that some serious shit is going down. This has to do with the Shirley McKie fingerprint case. The Scotsman has this:
"A LEADING QC is to write to the Attorney-General in the wake of the Shirley McKie controversy, requesting him to order a review of court cases in England and Wales which relied on fingerprint evidence.

Michael Mansfield - who specialises in high-profile miscarriage of justice cases, including Angela Cannings, the Guildford Four, and Danny McNamee, the so-called Hyde Park bomber - said the McKie case had profound implications for the reliability of fingerprint evidence north and south of the Border.

He added that all Scottish cases involving the four experts at the Scottish Criminal Record Office's fingerprint bureau involved in the McKie case should also be reviewed.

Mr Mansfield said last night his request to Lord Goldsmith, the government's senior law officer, would be the "logical outcome" of the "discreditation" of fingerprint evidence which emerged during the McKie case."
The shadow of ambiguity this case has cast reaches further than this country. We've got FBI agents leaning on SCRO officials. These FBI agents are now being investigated but here, still, not a damn thing. Reports have come from various countries of trials where this case has been cited by wise-ass lawyers in a sort of creationism versus evolution kind of way.

Can we get this sorted please? I'm worried about the fingerprint expert who keeps popping up on Newsnight Scotland; he looks like he's going to have an aneurysm. I don't feel quite as strongly as he does - I doubt many people do - but it is fucking embarrassing, to be perfectly frank. Surely Brave New smoke-free Scotland is capable of putting its own criminal justice system in order? Or do we need the British Attorney General to do it for us? Not that he'll necessarily do anything, mind you - but why wait to see if he does? The brighter nationalists have taken this point and are pressing the case accordingly. Would be nice to see the Executive show some initiative over something more important than the weighty issue of making people smoke outside...

Michael Mansfield QC: "You want to shag me, don't you? I don't blame you - I'd shag me too."

Thursday, March 30, 2006

McCabe folds on pensions

From the Scotsman:
"MINISTERS are preparing to back down on public sector pension reform in the face of the threat of a new wave of strike action by local authority staff.

The Scottish Executive had previously insisted there could be no movement on plans to raise the age at which hundreds of thousands of public sector workers could retire without any financial penalty, from 60 to 65.

But just a day after 200,000 local government workers took nationwide industrial action over the issue, Tom McCabe, the finance minister, has signalled a change of heart.

Mr McCabe revealed that he was considering seeking an exemption from the European law which ministers claim has forced them to end the so-called "Rule of 85" retirement provision."
There is the possibility that this story is a wee bit premature but it seems highly likely that the Executive will be forced to back down for two reasons:

1) The strength of the strike and the prospect of a further programme of more focused industrial action.

2) The fact that the Executive doesn't have the proverbial leg to stand on. Whatever you think of the issues surrounding public sector employment, retiral ages and pensions - the council workers have been treated blatantly unfairly. Despite the fact that I work for the council, the rule doesn't apply to me (not that I'm planning to hang around that long, you understand) but the Executive wants to impose it on the dinner-school ladies, claiming their hands are tied by Europe. Pah!

And it was noticeable that our friends in the CBI didn't complain about Brussels' interference on this occasion.

Sir Digby 'I haven't missed too many meals lately' Jones: "Does my mullet look big in this?"

Late for work again?

Just blame it on 'social' jet-lag, say researchers:
"HALF the population are in a permanent state of jet-lag because their body clocks are so out of synch with the demands of modern life, sleep researchers claim.

A study of 500 people found huge variations in people's natural sleeping patterns, with some early risers getting up at the same time night owls were going to bed.

Professor Till Roenneberg, of Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, said this meant that at least one person in two was "in effect, socially jet-lagged all the time" because their body clock did not conform with their working hours."
Knew it! I'm definitely one of these sufferers. When I'm vertical at ungodly hours like seven or eight in the morning, my internal body-clock is screaming, "What are you doing, you lunatic? It's the middle of the night!" The solution?
"He suggested that the start times of schools and workplaces should be more flexible, to ensure pupils and staff were operating at their best."
I so like this idea. I'm really not at my best before midday and strictly speaking, I tend to function most effectively after the pupils - and most of the staff, for that matter - have gone home. Could I start at about four o'clock in the afternoon? Ok, so that's not quite what he meant - but Prof Roenneberg suggested that...
"altering school and work start times to fit better with this pattern would make a "huge difference" to exam results and productivity. He suggested more companies should start work at 10am rather than 9am because the biggest problem is with people who have not fully woken up in the morning."
Yup - that's me. And you don't have to take my word for it; anyone who has had the misfortune to either a living space or a workplace with me too early in the morning will testify to this. Words like "bear" and "sore head" and "you're like" are the most frequently heard in this context. Like whoever it was that claimed drinking lots of red wine is good for your heart, Prof Roenneberg is my kind of scientist.

Israeli elections and proportional representation

Michael White thinks he's discovered the "The real villain of Israeli politics" - which he believes to be PR, or more precisely the particularly pure form of the list system that Israel uses. This he compares unfavourably with the British system, and he cited the 2005 General Election result as an example:

"In the unusual circumstances of 2005 the Blair government got elected on just 36% of a 61% turnout. Pretty unattractive, I agree. But I suspect there has been little public outcry beyond the usual PR suspects because the electorate, those who voted and those who chose to stay away, got roughly what they wanted: a Labour government with its wings clipped, extra seats for the Lib Dems, and a rude two fingers to the unreconstructed Tories. Quite a sophisticated result actually. In Israel the tail wags the dog."
Pretty unattractive? Well, certainly less so than Neil Kinnock, who received a larger share of the popular vote than Blair. Any other interpretation would require knowledge of what those who didn't turn out to vote wanted, which by definition we can't have, as Jarndyce points out.

White does this because he's using the opportunity to have what strikes me as being a rather narrow and frankly adolescent swipe at proportional representation. I don't understand voting systems fundamentalists. The system you should have, as Professor Bill Miller at Glasgow University used to say, depends on what you want it to do. If you have a relatively stable country like England, which fundamentally lacks cross-cutting allegiances based on religion, ethnicity or language, a winner takes all system with two parties split on a left-right basis may be appropriate.

However, winner takes all systems aren't necessarily suitable in countries where fundamental issues cut across the traditional ideological split between social democrats and conservatives. In Scotland it is the issue of nationalism that does this, as it does in many countries throughout the world - and in the case of Israel, you have the added divisions concerning issues as basic as security and where the borders of the state should lie. Here, the function of the voting system must necessarily lean toward accommodating and providing representation for a wider diversity of political interests and minority groups.

I have no particular interest in selling PR as such, nor the Israeli system in particular, and arguments that make voting systems an article of faith I find rather silly. But although he pretends otherwise, this is precisely what Michael White has done with this rather specious argument. To believe that either the British or American model of first past the post would necessarily function better than the present system in Israel is complacent beyond belief; to assume this to be the root cause of politcal factionalism, absurd.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Last stand of the Black Watch

From the Scotsman:
"IN BASRA, the sun beat down on the soldiers gathered in the dust of Shaibah camp. In Edinburgh, a light drizzle fell on the men and women lined up on parade at the top of the castle. In Glasgow, Baghdad, Omagh, Belfast, Cyprus and Canterbury, similar ceremonies were taking place. As midday struck in Scotland, the country's old regiments slipped into history.

Gone were the Royal Scots - almost 400 years old - the Black Watch, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the Royal Highland Fusiliers, the King's Own Scottish Borderers and the Highlanders. In their place, to a flurry of pipes and drums, was the new Royal Regiment of Scotland."
There has been much controversy and anger at the way the amalgamation has been handled in Scotland amongst soldiers, the public and politicians of all parties. Warrant Officer Bob Scott, who served under the regiment for nearly 25 years, told the Herald:
"This occasion is beyond sad... There are our families and then there is the Black Watch."

People losing their damn minds #11

Our Maddy of the Sorrows - without a shadow of a doubt. She seems to be, as far as one can follow this latest piece of madness, quoting approvingly the philosopher Jonathan Ree* in an exchange with Eric Bronner on the subject of the Enlightenment:

"(T)he Enlightenment had never happened - or at least certainly not in the shape we think it did. It was a retrospective creation in the nineteenth century designed to make the eighteenth century look silly - the gist was that excessive pride in human rationality was a story which had ended in tears in the brutal terror of the French Revolution. Ree pointed out that all the great thinkers attributed to the Enlightenment such as Hume, Locke, Kant were actually religious believers and none of them believed in progress."
No, it isn't just you - I've read and re-read the above; it actually makes less sense than it did when I first read it. And it didn't make any sense then at all - a low base to start from, I think you'll agree.

Where to begin? Chronology all skew-whiff, Hume now part of the God-squad, no, I know Nietzsche didn't believe in progress either, he makes an appearance further down and Maddy's understanding (sic) of rationality has been shaped by him and two of his baldest fans - Freud and Foucault - in that this rationality vibe is a 'social construct', like man, Nietzsche's other fan, Weber, doesn't get a look-in because he had too much hair, or could be our Maddy's never heard of him, you decide, French-fucking-Revolution, no its legacy of the Rights of Man doesn't get a mention, since you ask, neither does the Industrial Revolution, with the whole increase in human welfare by any objective measure you might consider using, because these objective measures - like life expectancy, sheer level of human life, including bleedin' Guardian journalists, the goddam planet can sustain might be a 'social construct' and as such an 'illusion', which would come as news to anyone who's heard of Malthus, as it would to anyone benefiting from vaccination against diseases that used to decimate populations, which people assumed to be the wrath of God, but this doesn't stop our Madds from asking the question:
"why do we want to resurrect bits of our intellectual history?"
Well in your case anyway, the hope that it might go at least some way toward ameliorating your bionic insanity immediately suggests itself as a possibility.

Ms Bunting - done gone and lost her damn mind. She actually said, "I'm no philosopher" - surely in the context the three most superfluous words in the history of journalism?

*I should stress that this is Ms Bunting's version of what he said and not a direct quote. Yes, I'd imagine he'll want to sue too.

Update: Calmer people than me have dealt with this. Norm needed a drink or two, but nevertheless seems much calmer:

"From the same post I learn that the Enlightenment was a conspiracy against Islam and that it never happened. I learn that rationality is a social construction, and so can never be objective - which leaves me perfectly free to think both that rationality is a social construction and that it also isn't one, and that rationality is always indispensable while being, too, quite unnecessary. I'm challenged (in the same post) to answer the question why anyone might think a 200-year-old idea could still be useful, as if ideas were like sausages; and to explain why people - especially self-styled 'hard liberals' - have just discovered the Enlightenment."
And Andrew Anthony deals with it too. We don't know if he needed a drink - probably did - but he too seems relatively chilled:
"Finally, Bunting asks, "What is it about the Enlightenment that people are now taking it off the shelf to polish up and put forward as their political and intellectual credentials?" Well, only intellectual liberty, scientific rigour and freedom from tyranny. Maybe that all seems quaintly 18th century to Bunting but, call me a hard liberal, I don't see anything better on the horizon. Or put it this way, I prefer the ring of "Comment is free" to "Comment is regulated by the religious authorities".

Does that help?"
I think Maddy's beyond help, but I feel much better. And here's Marcus. No reference to needing a drink - possibly because it was too early in the morning:
"Similarly it beggars belief that we are being asked to swallow the idea that the Enlightenment was a Nineteenth Century construct - unless she wants us to believe that the constitution of the United States and the laws of the first French republic were backdated forgeries actually drafted 100 years after the dates on the face of them."
Yep - Enlightenment as a sort of Roswell cover-up conspiracy; it's a very strong field in which to compete but this surely has to be the most insane thing Maddy has ever written? There's a few valiant souls in the comments under Maddy's original post who are struggling to cope with the sheer volume of lunacy.

She actually titled the post, "Enlighten me".

Ok, you're barking mad but you get paid to write articles for the Guardian. This makes you a very lucky woman - most people in your condition just get sectioned, ok? Feel 'enlightened' yet? You really should, sister, you really should.

Update #2: Oh my sainted aunt - the madness is spreading. Warped Plank have pitched in with a post entitled, "Not as silly as she sounds". Ah, but she is.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Standstill Scotland

Ah, it's quiet out there, boys and girls. 'Twas the biggest industrial action since the General Strike - and was the biggest ever strike by women workers in the UK, according to the Evening Times.

Cool - think I'll go for a wee drive across the Erskine Bridge because tolls are not being collected. And does anyone know if the council's smoking Gestapo are UNISON members?

Sir Digby Jones of the CBI described the strikers as 'selfish'.

Words like 'chutzpah' immediately spring to mind.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Martin Jacques and 'styles' of democracy

Martin "I'm no longer a Marxist but economic determinism still gives me the horn" Jacques is at it again in the Guardian's "comment is free" thingy. The good news is he managed to get through an entire article without drooling over China's economic growth; the bad news is he's still talking in an ahistorical and wildly generalised fashion.

Martin Jacques has been irritating me for many years now. Does anyone remember the stuff he produced for the now defunct "Marxism Today"? Or those weird articles in the Guardian where he talked about how British society was now "egg-shaped", rather than a pyramid? (I'd give you a link but the Guardian's archives don't go that far back.) And I still haven't forgiven him for his role in setting up Demos - something I think any sane person should have the grace to be embarrassed about.

In this piece he repeats a phrase used by a number of critics of regime-change in Afghanistan and Iraq - "western-style democracy":
"The belief that western institutions, values and norms were of universal applicability, in the here and now, blinded the proponents of western-style democracy to the importance of history and culture; it marked a return to the western arrogance of the colonial era, when such attitudes were the common sense of the time."
Infuriatingly vague, isn't he? When exactly in the 'colonial era'? Which western countries is he referring to? And what colonies is he talking about? They all disappear into Martin Jacques' sweeping, ahistorical abstractions. And he doesn't, of course, explain what he means by "western-style democracy". Here's Norman Geras on the subject:
"It's not clear what exactly Jacques means by 'western-style' democracy, but we have enough experience of the variations - in democratic structures and processes - across different genuine democracies to know that there isn't a single binding model. We also know that countries can call themselves democracies when, on any reasonable definition of the term, they aren't. The German Democratic Republic and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea come to mind."
I've often had what is perhaps an uncharitable thought regarding the use of this term by people like Mr Jacques and Our Maddy of the Sorrows - namely that they don't have the courage to say they don't believe that some societies (i.e. ones where brown people are the majority) aren't suitable for democracy so instead they try to suggest that 'democracy' - generally understood to be at the bare minimum a polity that facilitates the appointment of rulers by a majority of the people in periodic, competitive elections - is a culturally-specific product like MacDonald's or Coca-Cola that the evil Americans are trying to foist on the rest of the world.

But uncharitable it may be because democracy - being what political philosophers sometimes call a "hurrah" word - often suffers from "concept inflation" as people attach other desirable features of a polity - such as economic equality, or most frequently, liberty - to a concept that is like motherhood and apple pie - which is to say no-one dare be seen to be denigrating it in any way. In other words, Jacques et al may simply be thinking that "western-style democracy" is a cipher for a "western way of life".

But the question remains outstanding: what do they understand non-western notions of democracy to be about? If it does not mean the right to participate in periodic elections to choose your leaders, what does it mean? And what does Jacques mean when he talks about the "culture and history" of these countries not being taken into account? The history of colonialism? Haven't they heard of a place called India? The history of civil conflict and violence? Haven't they heard of, um, Europe? Yes they have - but these tend to take a dim view of this continent these days; it comes second only to the United States in the badness league. Or do they mean tribalism? Haven't they heard of a country called Scotland?

On history, the Jacques and the Buntings haven't got a leg to stand on - so I suspect what they really mean is religion. Now, religion - if it expresses itself theocratically - is always and everywhere inimical to democracy, this is true. So what is their view of this? Do they think Afghanis and Iraqis like being told what to do by clerics more than anyone else on the face of the planet? And if so, what evidence do they have for this? There was none the day the Taleban fell, that's for sure - quite the opposite.

All monotheistic salvation religions have an impulse to express themselves theocratically; it is one of the three ways that they can adapt to their understanding of the world as essentially evil. But historically if they disengage themselves from this option - which historical necessity eventually demands that they do - salvation religions often contain an ethos that is highly-conducive to the development of democracy.

Islam has always struck me as being like Calvinism in a number of important respects: they both have the sovereignty of God as their central idea; as a consequence, they tend to be unrelentingly predestinarian; they are both strongly scriptural and within this runs a strand of individualism that leans firmly towards the elimination of magic and by extension the elimination or down-grading of a priesthood that performs rituals and maintains icons; and they often value individual interpretation above cleavage to an ecclesia - leading to a corresponding tendency to factionalism that stands in contrast to broad church movements like Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism and Orthodoxy.

In short, Islam - like Calvinism - can in no sense be described as liberal. But as much as I dislike predestinarian monotheism, I understand these to carry the germ seed of democracy that professes equality at its centre. Calvinism preaches equality from the dismal basis that all are equal in the eyes of God - that is to say, equally depraved. It is the reason why in the Church of Scotland has no bishops and has no leader, save a 'moderator' who has an elected tenure of only one year; it is the reason that we have had women ministers some time before the Anglican Church even considered allowing a priest with mammaries to dispense the sacraments; and it is the reason behind the fact that the congregations of the Church of Scotland have been electing their parish ministers some time before we were electing our politicians.

So what is left of the Jacques analysis of "culture and history" being an obstacle to the expansion of democracy? There is, as far as I can see, none whatsoever - save the disposition towards theocracy. And since Mr Jacques is so fond of historical determinism, why will he not accept the wisdom of ages and of nations - that theocracy fails, it always fails, it can do no other than fail because it does no justice to the human condition? Because has this condition not testified down the ages that there is no salvation, no perfect society, no organisation that has escaped the human stain and the corruption of motives thereof, no movement that is free from fault or blemish? Maybe in the next life - but not in this one; so says History, so says Lady Liberty - and it is with this life we are concerned.

Abdul Rahman to be freed

The case against Abdul Rahman, the Afghani charged with apostacy, has been dismissed - due to lack of evidence.

Right outcome; wrong reason. Sandmonkey has more.

Update: Marcus has a more positive take, with a good point:
"What matters in future is not the fact that similar abuses of justice will be attempted by the reactionary and the powerful but what happens after such attempts are made. In the above two cases the original wrong act was reversed after international pressure was brought to bear on the wrongdoers."
I felt rather queasy at what I understood the justification for the release to be - mental illness, lack of evidence - but Marcus is right: it shows relative openess in Afghanistan, in contrast to what was the case under the Taleban. Progress, in other words...

Pointless research alert

The culture of further education varies greatly depending on the individual character of the institution, the city, the country in which it operates. One university may have a theology department, whereas one of the newer universities may run courses in golf course management or something.

However, what is surely a universal phenomenon across the globe is the existence of a Department of the Bleeding Obvious - which can be found, if not in every city, at least in every country.

Here's the latest example - from a team led by psychology professor Maria Lucia Souza-Formigoni* of the University of Sao Paulo:
"People who mix alcohol with energy drinks like Red Bull can often feel less drunk than they really are..."
These academics don't get out much, I suppose.

*Controversial pioneer of the duh-huh method in social science research.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

People losing their damn minds #10

Since on planet blog, one is open to charges of hypocrisy - allow me to qualify above concept that is part of an occasional series in this space. I'm working with the following assumptions:
1) Human race - even at the best of times - generally fairly insane.

2) Bloggers often a tad more insane than the general public.

3) This blogger slightly more insane than the average blogger.
Knowing myself reasonably well, I've calculated that I am in fact something between 25 and 33% insane. And in the interests of editorial balance, there are a few people - essentially my ex-partner (actually all of my ex-partners, when I think about it) - who would say that this is a rather generous self-assessment and argue that one is pushing into the dangerous 40% plus area. On one hand, since they do have a reasonable amount of evidence to work with, well, fair enough. On the other, people in glass houses really shouldn't throw stones.

So when we are discussing the topic - damn minds, losing thereof - one should be clear that I mean those with the majority shares in this area; the 50% plus crew.

Now, can I make a suggestion? If you have 'watch' at the end of your blog's title, I really think you should consider the possibility that you've lost your goddam mind. Not all, obviously. Political parties have power and huge publicity machines so 'party watches' almost certainly keep the insanity quota below the crucial 50+ tipping point.

But I'm afraid we can't make these allowances for others. Take Harry's Place Watch, for example. In the comments for one of the, um, three posts the author has managed so far, someone wrote about the dark forces at work behind HP:
"And no, you're not paranoid. Just another intrepid sleuth like myself about to blow the big banana on these fascistoleftist frauds and their anti-Gallowaynian hegemony...

Now, like you said, let's get to ridiculing them!

PS We have The Independent and The Guardian on our side - we cannot lose!"
Ah, but where to begin? Suffice to say anyone capable of penning the phrase "anti-Gallowaynian hegemony" has quite clearly and irrevocably done gone and lost their damn minds. You disagree? That's because you're insane.

Now one could mock that "Harry's Place Watch" lasted about as long as a wine gum but personally I think it's an encouraging sign; perhaps the author paused to think, "Fuck me - I'm out of my flippin' gourd", pulled back from the brink and has settled for a life below the 50% madness threshold. Or perhaps Harry's Place have had him killed - you never know.

Anyway, new, hitherto unimaginable levels of lunacy have been achieved with the arrival of Worstall Watch. Now, Tim Worstall has a pretty fundamentalist free-market ideology, which I don't share - and I never did get a copy of that bleedin' "Blogged 2005" book, which was a bit of a cheek - but he strikes me as a fairly decent sort who wouldn't kick puppies, burst the balloons of passing children with a fag, have people killed, or any other anti-social activities of that nature. In other words, nothing that would seem to justify having your own cyber-stalker. Take this, for example:
"This post on Paul Krugman is weird. It's admittedly rather hypocritical for a Watcher like myself to label someone else obsessive but Worstall does seem to have some issues with Professor Krugman. Today's post is particularly strange."
"It's admittedly hypocritical" indeed! For the love of all humanity, please take it to the next stage - not so much hypocritical as completely mental. It's not too late: the path to recovery begins with admitting you've got a problem. Otherwise next thing you know, you're covering all your electrical appliances with tin-foil, saying to yourself, "Hah - that'll stop the mind-control rays. CIA bastards - who do they think they're messing with?".

As for HitchensWatch - don't get me started...

This is the main picture of Hitch from 'HitchensWatch'. He looks completely fucked, doesn't he? On planet blog, pictures of Hitchens looking like that are used to denote evil, y'see? You can't see the connection between looking fucked and being evil? That's because the dark forces of the 'anti-Gallowayian hegemony' have obviously got to you. Time to break out the tin-foil.

(Hat tip: HP)

The night before...

They ban smoking in Scotland - and where are we? At a goddam wedding reception in an East Dunbartonshire municipal hall where they banned smoking a goddam week ago, that's where.

After the bride and groom departed to begin their wedded bliss*, we waited a decent interval - ooh, maybe as long as thirty seconds - before getting offski to 'ra pub fur the last night of freedom. (You might take our lives - but you'll never take our freeeee... oh shit, they just did.)

The peepul. (Dunno who the guy with the red T-shirt is but he's definitely one of the peepul.)

Enemy of the peepul.
*Oxymoron alert.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Scottish Lib Dems re-position themselves

They're going for no nuclear power, man. The Scotsman reports that Ming has 'thrown down the gauntlet' to Labour who support the development of new power stations in Scotland.

It's part of a re-packaging they're doing; getting all nationalist. Ming was talking about the need for a new constitutional convention - the last one that drew up the proposals for a devolved Parliament. He says there are "anomalies" in the present settlement. You know, the one they helped to draw up.

Plus with Ming, they'll be pushing in an 'Orangist' neoliberal direction:
"In a move which appeared to align him with the more right-of-centre thinkers in the party, Sir Menzies told the conference: "The pace of social, economic and environmental change is without precedent. Consolidation and caution will not be an adequate response, either for our country or our party."

Using language reminiscent of New Labour, Sir Menzies added: "Liberal Democracy cannot be a struggle between those who wish to modernise and those who do not. To be a Liberal Democrat is to be a moderniser"."
Translation: Listen, you sandal-wearing freaks, if we ever want to form a government, we've got to drop all this hippy crap, and go for hard-nosed neoliberalism. Grrrr!

Of course all this fluttering their eyelashes at the Nationalists and the Greens (who are also nationalists in Scotland) would have nothing to do with the fact that they defeated Labour in the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election with a completely unscrupulous campaign that sought to blame the Labour candidate for policies that were the responsibility of the Scottish Executive, would it?

It took a special kind of chutzpah for the Liberal candidate to blame his Labour opponent for policies that had been the responsibility of the Minister for Transport - who is a bleedin' Liberal Democrat! The Scottish Labour Party, understandably, have had just about enough of their slippery behaviour - this being merely a particularly egregious example of a general pattern where Scottish Lib Dems take credit for any successes of the Executive, but refuse to take any responsibility when things go wrong.

I saw Ming on the telly spouting some pious crap about there being a need for a principled opposition in Scotland. Yeeees, I dare say - but your lot so far have failed both of these criteria: they aren't the opposition, and they have no principles.

Ming: "You show me your proposals for fiscal autonomy and I'll show you mine".

Friday, March 24, 2006

McConnell calls for anthem debate

From the beeb:
"The first minister has stepped into the debate on Scotland's national anthem.

Jack McConnell said the question of which song to adopt for sporting and other events may have to be resolved to strengthen Scotland's global brand.

He said his own favourite Scottish tune was Highland Cathedral, but said that politicians should not lead the debate."
So we the peepul must step in.

I'd go for 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life' by Monty Python, myself.

Failing that, perhaps some Burns set to the theme of Hawaii Five-O - or the Pearl and Dean tune they used to play in the cinema?

Goan yersel', big man - one singer, one song.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Why anti-Semitism matters

This is prompted from three pieces posted on the Guardian's "Comment is Free" by Jon Pike, David Hirsh, and David Clark. My intention is not to repeat what has already been said by others, nor to repeat myself (I've posted under Clark's article under my real name) but to argue, briefly, why anti-Semitism matters.

This is to assume that anti-Semitism actually exists as a significant prejudice that animates social actions and political movements in the world today - a proposition that is by no means universally-accepted. Rather the case being made in relation to Livingstone by his defenders is that the charge of anti-Semitism is being used disingenuously as a cover for the actions of the Israeli state with regards the occupation.

I've suggested previously that this effectively to argue that contemporary anti-Semitism either doesn't exist independently of the state of Israel or if it does, it is insignificant in relation to other forms of prejudice such as Islamaphobia - and further that this view is historically implausible and from the data we have regarding the increase of anti-Semitic incidents across Europe, an unjustified position given the contemporary evidence.

In arguing the case of why it matters, I make the following assumptions:

1) There can be no question that some use the charge of anti-Semitism to deflect criticism of Israel.

2) There is no doubt that some use criticism of "Zionism" as a proxy for hostility to Jews as such.

3) Anti-Semitism exists independently of people who use it in the fashion described in point 1; independently from people who criticise the actions of Israel as a state rather than a nation; and independently from the existence of the state of Israel as such.

Insisting on point 3, I'd argue it matters a great deal for the following reasons:

  • Because the numerical frequency of incidents that manifest one species of racial hatred may be outstripped by another - this is no reasons for it to be treated as if it were relatively unimportant. Indeed one could argue, even if it were the case that anti-Semitic attacks could be understood as a function of the Israeli state - why does that make the experience of victims who have no connection with Israel somehow less grievous? It would be astonishing and indeed disgraceful if the increase in anti-Muslim attacks in British cities post 9/11 and particularly post-7/7 were rationalised in this fashion.

  • Because if one classes oneself as 'progressive', implicit in this idea is the notion that the human race can improve its collective conduct - obviously through the application of technology to the business of human production and organisation but also informed by the lessons of history. Or to put it another way, and more negatively, isn't it a legitimate source of dismay that what could reasonably be considered one of the oldest and enduring, most sophisticated, elaborate and organised human prejudices ever known still persists, despite the experience of the 20th century? And again to put it negatively and more personally, why does one encounter such hostility when it is suggested that the existence of anti-Semitism should be highlighted and combated, needing no weightier justification that the feeling that if we can learn this lesson from history at least, what hope is there of us learning any others?

  • Because beyond the existential experience of the victims of anti-Semitic abuse and assault, it functions as a political ideology that misdirects the focus and imputes the source of the region's, or in the most extreme cases the world's, problems to the existence of a state that cannot possibly have the influence it is believed by some to have. Hence any involvement - or even the suggestion of involvement - by western governments in relation to other states who oppress their religious and ethnic minorities and who may have also outstanding UN Resolutions against them such as Syria, Turkey, Ba'athist Iraq and the Sudan, are immediately declared to be illegitimate compared to the outstanding matter of a settlement in Israel/Palestine. This despite there being neither qualitative or quantitative reason for doing so. This is not to say that there are not more rational reasons to oppose said involvement by western powers in the affairs of other nations - but this is to beg the question of why more weight is not given to these, rather than the attention given to the state of Israel - as if this was the quintessential international case that trumps all other concerns.

Beyond this, given that anti-Semitism exists, and given its gruesome historical precedents, why does one even have to justify calling attention to it? Why are those who do so (falsely) accused of taking a position with regards to the occupation with such frequency and without evidence? And more personally, why whenever the subject of anti-Semitism has appeared in this space does it attract a hostility that is both quantitatively and qualitatively much greater than that attracted by one's support for the invasion of Iraq, despite the latter being associated with more casualties than have been experienced in the Occupied Territories in a similar time-frame - and this despite never having written a single syllable in support for said occupation?

Smoking ban problems 'expected'

From the beeb:
"The first minister expects the early days of Scotland's smoking ban to be fraught with problems.

Jack McConnell has urged officers enforcing the ban to go softly at first - advising and warning - rather than slapping down fines."
Very sensible - otherwise it won't be fines that are getting slapped down.

Actually, I predict general success for the ban; even some of my friends who smoke think it's a good idea- the saddos.

Jack McConnell - our illustrious First Minister. He looks completely mental in that picture, don'tcha think? One fears he may have lost his damn mind.

97% of Americans...

Wouldn't trust Norman Geras with their daughters.

The man's a beast, I tell you.

Actually, no - there's a rational, um, well, perhaps not that rational, explanation for this.

CAIR calls for release of Abdul Rahman

From the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR):
Islamic civil rights group says conversion a personal, not state matter

(WASHINGTON, D.C., 3/22/2006) - A prominent national Islamic civil rights and advocacy group today called on the government of Afghanistan to release Abdul Rahman, a man facing the death penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity.

The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) says the man's conversion is a personal matter not subject to the intervention of the state" (Emphasis added).
And thus they gave a short lesson on liberty to those who describe themselves as liberals.

(Via: Michelle Malkin)

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Confucius he say: next stop Edinburgh

From the Scotsman:
"THERE is a reason why Confucius is celebrated as one of the world's greatest philosophers. Perception of his kind may now seem like the stuff of insincere greeting cards, but as a nation of underdogs Scots could do with more wisdom from whence this pearl came: "Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall."

The good news direct from Beijing is that Scotland will soon get a touch of the great sage. Yesterday it was announced that a new Confucius Institute is to be opened at Edinburgh University later this year. Offering classes in Mandarin and Chinese culture, it will operate with similar ideals to the British Council, or Germany's Goethe Institutes, by promoting their home nation's culture overseas.

It will be the first institute of its kind in the UK - although centres have already opened in Stockholm, Brussels and Vancouver - and will be one of the 100 centres the Chinese Education Ministry intends to establish around the world by 2010."
Edinburgh University has produced such luminaries as big Gordy, my sister and, um, my mum's next door neighbour, amongst others - and my father used to teach there. So having a sort of connection with the place, I reckon this is good news - with the proviso that the culture they're promoting wouldn't be their 20th and 21st century political culture.

School wins Muslim dress appeal

From the beeb:
"A school which was told it unlawfully excluded a Muslim pupil for wearing a traditional gown has won its appeal at the House of Lords.
The Court of Appeal had said Denbigh High School had denied Shabina Begum the right to manifest her religion in refusing to allow her to wear a jilbab.

But in a unanimous ruling, judges at the House of Lords overturned that.

They said the Luton school had "taken immense pains to devise a uniform policy which respected Muslim beliefs".

It had done so "in an inclusive, unthreatening and uncompetitive way"."
And quite right too. The original ruling by the Court of Appeal found that Shabina Begum had been denied her right to an education because the school had not allowed her to wear the jilbab. Which was rubbish - she had been denied her right to an education whilst wearing whatever she damn well pleased. There is nothing in the Koran, nor in traditional Islamic custom, that insists that Muslim girls have to wear this particular get-up.

Uniforms: I'm not fussed about them. Getting the we'ans into school with optional extras like some kind of receptacle to carry books, pens and other educational accessories - and without being monged out of their tiny minds, I would settle for. But if a school management, parents, and pupils even, decide that a school uniform is a good idea - which I would say more often than not they do - what right does the state have to rule in favour of an individual that refuses this?

The question obviously occurred to the House of Lords and their ruling reflected this accordingly:
"It is important to stress at the outset that this case concerns a particular pupil and a particular school in a particular place at a particular time. It must be resolved on facts which are now, for purposes of the appeal, agreed. The House is not, and could not be, invited to rule whether Islamic dress, or any feature of Islamic dress, should or should not be permitted in the schools of this country. That would be a most inappropriate question for the House in its judicial capacity, and it is not one which I shall seek to address."
Excellent - because since schools are to be held solely responsible for the collapse in civic values and social mores, it might be nice if those of us who work in said institutions might be left maybe a few fragments of authority.

To all of you who wanted to, in the most idiotic and crass manner imaginable, make this case about "white people" telling "brown people" what to do, who don't have the first inkling about what it takes to run a school, because you don't really give a shit about education anyway - I fart in your general direction.

The Budget in a nutshell

Stuff about cars ok - could have taxed the people who drive the 'gas guzzlers' a bit more, but never mind, instead more increases in regressive taxation in order to line the pockets of car salesmen who want to run schools that teach creationism.

The difference between Labour and Conservative is with the former, there's a chance that some of it will rub off on the actual institutions that promote teaching and learning; with the latter, they'd probably have cut out the middle man and given it straight to the car salesman.

And that was the Budget 2006.

Big Gordy, looking pretty mean, "hails his Budget for schools".

They're always said to be "hailing" things these days - what's that all about? I'm quite sure I can remember a time when there wasn't as much hailing going on.

Eta declares permanent ceasefire

From the beeb:
"The Basque separatist group Eta has declared a permanent ceasefire.
Eta is blamed for killing more than 800 people in its four-decade fight for independence for the Basque region of northern Spain and south-west France.

In a statement released to Basque media, the group said its objective now was "to start a new democratic process in the Basque country".

Spanish PM Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said the government was cautious but hopeful about the announcement."
Because they realise that nothing they are fighting for is worth killing for? That would be a nice but unrealistic thought. Because post-9/11, Bali, Madrid, Kerbala, and Casablanca, terrorism is so much more difficult to romanticise and they realise they're onto a losing ticket, more likely.

The zeitgeist has dispensed with your services; kindly leave the world stage.

The McKie case: FBI launch investigation

The FBI are to launch an investigation into allegations that some of its agents intimidated forensic experts into suppressing their doubts about the Shirley McKie case:
"Juval Aviv, Pan Am's Lockerbie investigator, (alleged) that members of the Scottish Criminal Records Office, who had misgivings over the McKie evidence, were visited by FBI agents in 1999 or 2000 and pressured to "fall in line with the evidence" against Ms McKie.

In another allegation, a fingerprint expert for the Illinois state police, Dave Grieve, said an FBI official pulled him aside at a forensics conference in 1999 and told him not to speak out about the McKie case. At the time, Mr Grieve was the editor of an international forensics journal and was planning an editorial criticising the SCRO, which had incorrectly identified the fingerprint of Ms McKie at a murder scene.

Another US forensic expert who spoke out about faults in the SCRO's investigation, Pat Wertheim, has said he was pulled aside by an FBI agent at the same conference in 1999 and warned to keep quiet about the case, although Lockerbie was not mentioned."
What is at stake here is not the infallibility of fingerprint evidence (or more accurately, the fingerprint expert) but rather the more modest claim that forensic science can, based on the proposition that no two human fingerprints are identical, demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt when two fingerprints could not have came from the same person. This is what vindicated Shirley McKie and an account for the original mistake - if indeed it was a mistake - remains outstanding.

It's a source of international embarrassment that Scotland's Executive can't seem to put their own house in order in this matter.

Who will save Abdul Rahman?

For he faces the possibility of the death penalty for converting to Christianity:
"A man could be sentenced to death after being charged with converting from Islam to Christianity, a crime under Afghanistan's shariah laws, a judge said yesterday. The trial is thought to be the first of its kind in Afghanistan and highlights a struggle between religious conservatives and reformists over what shape Islam will take four years after the fall of the Taliban.

Abdul Rahman, 41, was arrested last month after his family accused him of becoming a Christian, Judge Ansarullah Mawlavezada told Associated Press. The accused was charged with rejecting Islam."
And yet in the pages of the liberal press and the blogosphere where matters pertaining to religion and state power, liberty and responsibility, democracy and theocracy have been discussed endlessly - it's strangely quiet. Why is that, do you think? Not an entirely rhetorical question - I've a few ideas but I'm not entirely sure at this stage. Suggestions on a postcard - or failing that, in the comments boxes.

But I do know what we are seeing here. Whatever the outcome of the trial, which is being conducted under sharia law, Abdul Rahman could have avoided his fate had he renounced Christianity and re-converted to Islam. He refused. Therefore he faces the death penalty and if carried out, this would make him a martyr.

Will people understand then and desist from the profanity of giving this label to murderers? For this is what makes you a martyr - to be killed solely for your confession of faith, not because you imagine it is your celestial duty to kill yourself and take as many civilians with you as possible.

The issue of religious liberty and tolerance doesn't get anymore fundamental than this. Surely no reasonable person would argue that the issues of headscarves and schooling compare? Therefore people claiming to believe in the principle of religious freedom should speak for Abdul Rahman, should they not?

Update: See also fellow Glaswegian blogger Indefatigathingummy on this.

Update #2: Liberal US blog A Newer World has picked up the story; conservative blogger Michelle Malkin has more and is none too impressed with the Administration's response thus far.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Strange outbreak of agreeing with Rowan Williams

For he has pitched in to the creationism debate to argue that it shouldn't be taught in schools:
"The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has stepped into the controversy between religious fundamentalists and scientists by saying that he does not believe that creationism - the Bible-based account of the origins of the world - should be taught in schools.

Giving his first, wide-ranging, interview at Lambeth Palace, the archbishop was emphatic in his criticism of creationism being taught in the classroom, as is happening in two city academies founded by the evangelical Christian businessman Sir Peter Vardy and several other schools."
You know - the city academies that cost five times as much than proper schools and are being run by evangelical moonbats at the tax-payer's expense. This brain-wave has something to do with "reform" and "modernisation", apparently.

But I'm happy to say one can only agree with Bish up to a point because his reasons for opposing them are a bit crap:
"My worry is creationism can end up reducing the doctrine of creation rather than enhancing it," he said."
Reducing the doctrine of creation indeed! I'd much rather his central worry was that a theory that has absolutely no scientific basis is being foisted on the young by doctrinaire evangelicals, all paid for by the public purse - but never mind.

Fukuyama on being careful what you wish for

From the Guardian's 'comment is free' Fukuyama suggests that Europeans who not-so-secretly welcome failure in Iraq should beware of what they are wishing for:
"A domestic nationalist backlash against the policies that led to the war is brewing, with implications for how the US will deal with Europe and the rest of the world down the road. Like it or not, American power and involvement are necessary to the proper functioning of world order, and the kind of role that a post-Iraq United States may play is very much up for grabs."
He points to two recent examples of the increasing isolationist trend:
"While one might question the prudence of publishing the cartoons, the violent reaction was a clear case of intimidation, in many cases officially sanctioned, and few Americans criticised the protests or stood up for the right of free speech. Many seemed to feel a certain satisfaction that this time Europeans rather than Americans were feeling Muslim wrath.

The second, and more egregious, case was the successful blocking by the US Congress of the purchase by Dubai Ports World of a British company that operates six US ports."
There's usually much to disagree with in Fukuyama's writing although here essentially his mistake is to merely understate the degree of indifference to American isolation. No, not indifference - rather positive enthusiasm.

Like so many of these issues, I suppose it depends on who you talk to and who you read. If there's such a thing as a recognisably European response, it is based on an ignorance of what American economic and diplomatic isolationism has meant in the twentieth century. That protectionism in the interwar period, combined with diplomatic isolationism - symbolised in the failure of Congress to support American membership of the League of Nations - played no small role in exacerbating* the Great Depression and the subsequent weakness of the international community in relation to the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany: this is of no account to the "Europeans" of this blogger's acquaintance.

Nor are the post-1941 benefits of American engagement in Europe. Military assistance to help defeat fascism, nation-building in post-war Japan and Germany, Marshall Aid and reconstruction and the general role of the US in what Hobsbawm calls the Golden Age of capitalism, the long postwar boom: this barely register with a generation who get more exercised by Starbucks than Saddam Hussein. Fukuyama should really understand that for these, America is Evil, period - therefore their disengagement from the world can only be a Good Thing. For these people, it is as simple as that. Sorry, that should say - these people are as simple as that.

* "Exacerbating" is probably something of an understatement - most economic historians see the Great Depression as originating in the United States and see the subsequent move to protection as having been hugely damaging to world trade, given the sheer weight of the American economy in relation to the rest of the world.

Scotland extends smoking ban to the great outdoors

From the Sunday Times:
"Scotland is to have some of the world's most draconian anti-smoking laws after ministers agreed measures to extend the proposed ban outdoors, to public parks, play areas and outside school gates
Several local authorities, including Dundee, East Renfrewshire and North Lanarkshire, are already preparing to extend the ban outdoors.

Glasgow, Scotland's biggest council, intends to wait for the indoor ban to bed in before deciding whether to apply it outside as well."
Yes, I think that would be wise. Might want to wait until the ban on smoking on public transport "beds in" while they're at it because if they ever actually traveled on public transport, they'd realise we're not quite there yet. I have to say, I admire the Executive's optimism - although that's all I admire.

Nothing to admire about this, though:
"Supermarket workers have been left fuming after being told they will not be allowed cigarette breaks throughout ten-hour nightshifts once Scotland's smoking ban comes into force on Sunday."
That's just plain mean.

Meanwhile, Edinburgh's smoking Czar signals a 'softly-softly' approach:
"(W)e're not really interested in following smokers home."
That's because the Executive plans to have every smoker in Scotland fitted with a device so that their movements can be tracked by satellite.

They don't really - not yet, anyway.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Unrepentant and on my way to liberal hell

I have learned this after reading Johann Hari's latest mea culpa over his support for the invasion of Iraq:

"And I think - yes, I was wrong. Terribly wrong."
On reading the piece I think it is clear this was metanoia in every declension of the word - and if anyone should have further doubts, popping over to Crooked Timber's reaction should dispel them. And while having no wish to be rude for it's own sake, I rather agreed with Eric's assessment of this - for their pomposity has reduced them to absurdity.

But while Hari's article was disappointing, I'll refrain from adding to the misery that is the dark night of his liberal soul. I think I'm on record as being reasonably and consistently rude about some of Hari's writing but one has to make allowances - he does work for the Independent, after all. Better instead to explain why I think - in some ways to my own surprise - he's wrong.

I say this because I was never as sure as Johann appeared to be in the early days - lacking the confidence and certainty of his youth, perhaps. I can't say I shared, for example, his enthusiasm for invading North Korea immediately after Saddam was toppled. Yet despite - rather because, I'd argue - of my initially more sceptical position regarding regime-change in Iraq, I find myself completely unrepentant.

With the fashion for recanting going on, you realise that your reasons were not the same as those of others, although at the time you thought they were. For in Johann Hari's case, for example, he seemed to be operating with some kind of time-limited utilitarian justification for the invasion. For after a quarter of a century under Saddam's republic of fear, it takes only three years to declare the removal of this regime "not worth it". Leaving aside what Johann thinks makes it so, and his readiness to accept statistics of some controversy and then add to the totals apparently arbitrarily, I'm left with the question: did all these people who claimed to support the war on a matter of principle really do so because they believed the outcome to be certain? And if this is so, how could the foreign policy that would be commensurate with this be anything other than conservative in the purest possible sense?

If Johann Hari's position is that the unknown possibilities stemming of the removal of a regime of knowable evil are now seen to have been not worth the risk, what possible basis does he have for his criticism of Bush and Blair (and George Galloway, for that matter) for supporting the regime of General Musharraf in Pakistan? What possible answer would he now have if the Americans responded to his criticism for maintaining the status quo in Egypt or Saudi Arabia by saying, "Better the devil you know", when he has just accepted this argument with relation to Ba'athism in Iraq?

The strange thing is, Johann seems to have dropped his previous reliance on opinion poll evidence - which has consistently shown a majority of Iraqis, despite everything, welcoming the ouster of Saddam. That those of us who supported the war might occasionally refer to these is thought dreadfully puerile by the great minds over at Crooked Timber. Roger in the comments of the post linked above (#11), for example, finds it terribly amusing:

"The funniest thing about the Harry's comments is the fetishism of the polls."
Hmmm, they usually find things "eccentric" but funny I can work with. For example, that they are quite happy to wave a poll around that showed a majority disapproving because it has been the only one that supports their position and go to the effort of taking issue with Norman Geras's analysis of said poll - now that really is funny, darlings.

And then there's the whole oil thing Johann can't cope with:

"The Bush administration was primarily motivated by a desire to secure strategic access to one of the world's major sources of oil. The 9/11 massacres by Saudi hijackers had reminded them that their favourite client-state - the one run by the torturing House of Saud - was vulnerable to an internal Islamist revolution that would snatch the oil-wells from Haliburton hands. "They needed an alternative source of Middle East oil, fast."
I'm sorry - my decorum's collapsed. "They needed an alternative source of oil - fast!" What is this shit? The Hardy Boys Discover Capitalism, or something?

There's a more general point here: has anyone noticed the distinct lack of analysis from all those who cried, "It's all about oil"? For opponents of the war who claim to be Marxists can do no other than accept the "anatomy of civil society is in political economy" but beyond some simple-minded rants against imperialists grabbing oil (which they would never dream of touching, of course) there is no discussion of the internal conditions in these societies where the sale of a solitary primary product can earn great wealth for a country whilst leaving intact many quasi-feudal characteristics, which then co-exist with the trappings of the modern state - cities, political parties, modern communications, transport infrastructure, and police forces and armies - all of which have had a much faster evolution than similar institutions did in Europe. But why bother with economic history when you can simply accuse anyone who disagrees with you of being racist?

So we have to make do with the Robert Fisk school of economic history instead. He once wrote, for example, that it was inconceivable that the Americans would be so interested in Iraq if its main export were beetroot.

Is that the sort of breath-taking insight that gets you a job on the Independent?

I should probably speak for myself but I do know that there are quite a few of us who did not support the war because of any misconception over the nature of the Bush Administration; neither did we do so because we thought the outcome certain. And we maintain our position because we are not ready to surrender our belief in the desirability of the overthrow of a tyranny at the behest of those who form a verdict with every passing headline - in artificial deadlines drawn in months and years, rather than in years and decades, as it should be.

And I really will only speak for myself when I say I will never recant because it was and is a position in which I found myself unable to do otherwise. Wherefore, those currently on the trawl for repentance and contrition for supporting the overthrow of one of the most bestial regimes of the 20th century: they are cordially invited to kiss my ass.

Bish says, "religions deserved to be mocked"

Actually the former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway. Quite like him; thought he was just another "39 Articles meets the Guardian" waffling Anglican cleric when I first became aware of him but he's more intelligent than that. The Sunday Herald reported that he intended to defend people's right to poke fun at religion:
"Describing religions as “power groups”, Holloway will give a sermon on holiness and humour in the context of recent world events, showcasing Jesus as the original comedy rebel."
Now Jesus as the "original comedy rebel" is so eighties and a bit embarrassing - but the reality that religion does indeed function within "power groups" is worth reminding people of. No, they don't have as many guns as the Americans - but they're power groups nonetheless.

Drug tests for parents discussed

From the beeb:
"Proposals to test parents for drugs and use the results when taking children into care have been discussed by social workers and the education minister."
Uh huh? And why not drugs tests for MSPs and social workers while they're at it? Some of them could do with it, believe you me. Not Peter Peacock, I hasten to add; he's just naturally spaced-out.

Ooh, the stories I could tell you if I wasn't a government employee...

Friday, March 17, 2006

Do irrational beliefs harm economic growth?

Dr Simon Singh certainly believes so:
"BRITAIN is entering an "age of irrationality" caused by the rise of fundamental religion, creationism and the fad for unproven alternative medicine, one of the world's leading science writers has told The Scotsman.

Dr Simon Singh, author of the best-seller Big Bang, said he believed the economy would start to decline because of the lack of interest in science in this country compared to emerging economies such as India.

Dr Singh, said: "We are entering an age of irrationality. I can go into a chemist and buy a homeopathic remedy that's never been proven to work. We seem to be going back to a dark age of voodoo and witchcraft."

He added: "A recent example of Britain's growing anti-science culture is the rise of intelligent design in a few of our schools."

The trend away from science and towards irrationality had to be addressed for the sake of the economy, Dr Singh said. "I think the UK could rapidly go down the drain because economies thrive by having innovative pioneers, creative people," he said."
That's the article in it's entirety so the short answer is no, he doesn't provide any evidence. Nevertheless, it's an interesting question.

In terms of the examples he uses, I very much doubt that there'll be much evidence for the "homeopathic medicine as a drag on economic growth" hypothesis and I've often been struck by how sometimes dynamic economies, which have at various times in economic history reinforced their competitive advantage through the application of the best technology available to the business of production - like Japan and the United States - achieve this whilst simultaneously supporting a myriad of strange and exotic individual religious allegiances, attachment to parvenu denominations, belief in monotheisms, polytheisms, and pantheisms, as well as those superstitions requiring neither ethical or social commitment such as astrology, spiritualism, homoeopathy and alternative remedies of various kinds.

Rather than damaging economic growth, isn't it more likely that these are a product of its relative success? Industrialisation broke the traditional semi-theocratic power of ecclesias such as the Church of Scotland in the nineteenth century because population migration, the growth of cities, the rise of other entertainments, and the onslaught of scientific criticism rendered the Kirk minister - with his power based on the virtually closed community of the parish - almost completely impotent relative to his prior, near absolutist status.

Further prosperity would surely increase the tendency for people to choose from a supermarket of beliefs and religions? Generally speaking in a prosperous society, to be an apostate no longer means financial ruin. This was not always so.

The experience of the United States would tend to indicate that the application of new technology in industry isn't necessarily inconsistent with the belief that the world is created in six days. Whether the rise in irrational beliefs has in Britain led to a decline in the take-up of science at university, and that this is a source of economic disadvantage, is an interesting one - but the piece provides no evidence or argument for this, so it can't be discussed any further at this point.

However, that religious belief can harm economic growth is, I'd argue, easily demonstrable from economic history. I think it doubtful that religious belief per se damages economic growth. Indeed Max Weber argued that on the contrary, the development of capitalism was aided in the Occident by an ethos that was irrational from the perspective of individual utility and this he found, famously, in the Protestant Ethic.

His theory has some problems but refutations of his thesis on the grounds that the economic history of Calvinist Scotland doesn't fit the data should be rejected. Or rather it should be adapted because Weber didn't factor in the experiences of Scotland and Geneva as they functioned under Calvinistic theocracies. Here I think there can be no question that this form of political religiosity was highly detrimental to economic development. The reasons for this are many but they fundamentally flow from the lack of civic freedom implicit in theocracy - and more specifically in this case, the prohibition on usury.

Once the Church of Scotland's theocratic power had been broken, the economic history of this country would tend to confirm, not refute, Weber's ideas - for these had to do with religion as an individual ethos rather than a political ideology.

Individual irrationality doesn't at first glance appear to have at any particular point in economic history been an obstacle to economic development but theocratic government of all kinds, I'd argue, always have and always will be. It may sound too economically-deterministic for some but while I obviously share the concern over the rise in politicised religious movements, I have no doubt that in the long-term they must fail because they have the problem of the Soviet Union with bells on - this being a fundamental failure to gear their societies to the application of the best technology to the productive process.

The term "theocracy" joins the long list of terms that have been degraded by cheap political debate and overuse - like fascism, totalitarianism, racism, and genocide. But properly understood as ecclesiastical rule, rulership by priests, it has always been an economic failure. Because whether it's Calvinist Scotland, Taliban Afghanistan, or the quasi-theocracy of the Iranian Republic, societies where nothing is ever an end in itself, where the ends people choose for themselves must conform to the collective pursuit of the millennium - these tend to stifle and thwart a proper understanding of economic production as nothing more or less than a human contrivance to satisfy human wants. Or more simply, with theocratic government you tend to get repression, men in frocks and a moribund economy.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Glasgow entrepreneurship

From the beeb:
"A bogus police officer ordered a woman who was smoking on a Glasgow train platform to pay a £20 on-the-spot fine.

The lone passenger had been smoking a cigarette at Partick station at 1110 GMT on Tuesday when the man approached.

He said he was a plain clothed police officer and gave her a fine. The victim handed over the money."
Via David Farrer.

The economics of invasion

Chris Dillow links to a study about the costs of the invasion of Iraq versus the politics of containment (pdf):
"The high cost of the Iraq intervention is sometimes seen as a compelling argument against the decision to forcibly overthrow the ruling order and install a new regime. This argument is deficient because it ignores the costs of alternative responses to the national security and humanitarian concerns presented by the pre-war Iraqi regime. A well-founded verdict on the Iraq intervention requires, at a minimum, an evaluation of what these alternatives would cost."
Amongst the conclusions drawn by the report:
"What can be ruled out in light of the evidence is that the leading alternative to the war involved little loss of Iraqi lives."
Chris, from his reading of the paper, observes that...
" striking thing here is the contrast between the uncertainty this paper highlights about the vast costs and benefits involved, and the dogmatism of so many in both the pro- and anti-war camps."
This is a fair point but I'm partial obviously, although hopefully not too dogmatic, and have included the references above to suit my position accordingly.

Because in this debate, one's opponents sometimes give the impression that they see Iraq as a country that had no history at all - never mind a history under one of the 20th century's most depraved dictatorships and its containment in the interests of realpolitik.

The paper's well-worth reading - as is the Stumbling and Mumbling one in general. He also has a couple of posts about comprehensives and choice in education up just now that are worth a swatch.

Double-trouble for Blair

Blair wins the vote on the Education Bill - but had to rely on Tory votes:
"Number 10 claimed that Mr Blair's position was secure since the rebellion had been largely confined to leftwing Campaign Group members and former ministers with a personal grievance, rather than serious educationalists, an interpretation deeply resented by those Labour MPs who believe the reforms threaten the party's hallowed principle of comprehensive education."
If I were a Labour MP, I'd object to that too for these reforms are a Tory re-heat, pure and simple. It'll be interesting to see how Cameron's strategy plays with his party. In supporting the Bill I think he did the right thing strategically as this looks like something that will fester away within the PLP, eroding the PM's authority. He also did the right thing, from his perspective, ideologically because of the Bill's essentially "modernising", which is to say market-based, nature.

Yet some in the party will be unhappy because he passed-up an opportunity to inflict an outright defeat on the government over a key, "legacy" public service reform piece of legislation. Also, while Cameron's strategy may appear "long-sighted" in that it eschewed the benefits of a short-term defeat for a longer destabilisation tactic, maybe it wasn't long-sighted enough: I'm wondering if anyone in the Conservatives considered the possibility that the education bill will produce a dog's dinner in education that they one day will become associated with? We shall see.

In addition, with spectacular bad-timing, a "cash for peerages" scandal is brewing:
"Tony Blair has denied he nominated people for the House of Lords in return for large loans they gave to Labour.

He spoke after the revelation that three people nominated for peerages had earlier loaned his party "millions"."
It highlights a strange paradox at the heart of the Blair regime. In some respects, it has been relatively open, compared to previous governments - yet this has tended to focus attention on aspects of the decision-making process that expose the extent of the Prime Minister's patronage and the short-comings within the system. Corruption surrounding the distribution of honours is nothing new - but we know more about it now. Blair is not so much Ramsay MacDonald, as some Labour backbenchers are saying for obvious reasons; maybe more like Gorbachev and the way in which his "glasnost" tended to expose the fact that his "perestroika" wasn't working?

It's a heart-warming sight

The spirit of "Brokeback Mountain" comes to Glasgow.

(Stolen from: Will)

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Partisanship and parochialism

Neil from Cloud in Trousers links to this story about a high school in Pittsburgh where the local school district board voted to drop the International Baccalaureate.

Amongst the complaints about the IB from board members was that it is "un-American, un-Christian, Marxist" and generally the work of (foreign) evil-doers.

This caused a bit of a stooshie: at the district board meeting, about a thousand pupils and parents heckled members and the police had to be called. One board member has also received death threats.

Now, if you're reading this - have you taken sides? If so, I'd argue you're part of the problem - or you would be if you lived in the United States. Because this story is all about the culture wars and how they have disfigured American political culture and public discourse.

A plague on both these partisan houses, I say. The case of Jay Bennish reinforced the impression that it is getting increasingly difficult to have sensible conversations about education in the US. The debate had nothing to do with his fitness to teach - he was evidently just a silly wee boy who doesn't understand what his job is. He was supported simply because he was seen as an enemy of the conservatives in general and Bush in particular.

In the same way, the Baccalaureate appears to have been dropped in this case for some fairly lunatic reasons - and then this action is opposed with some pretty outrageous methods.

But what if the Baccalaureate was, like Jay Bennish, simply unsuited for its purpose? Could conservatives make that case without arguing it necessarily leads to "one-world government"? Could a liberal make it and still find themselves identified with the "right side"? They'd find it difficult, I'd imagine. Which is a shame because maybe they should. Is there a compelling "anti-parochial" case for having it? If so, its supporters better get the finger out because at present, an insignificant 1,746 schools in the world carry it.

I don't know enough (anything, really) about the IB to comment on it but while I'm sure it's a perfectly respectable qualification, partisanship can blind you to the possibility that your advocacy for a cause or a policy can lose any connection with its intrinsic merit.

It was like the hoohah surrounding the two films that became for a short while the incarnation of the culture wars in America before the Presidential election. Liberals and Democrats of all sorts went all moist over Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 while conservatives and Republicans got themselves worked into a veritable frenzy over The Passion. Cinema audiences were said to be giving both of these films standing ovations in cinema and - always a bad sign - going on about how "all Americans" should haul themselves down to their local movie theatres in order to be Enlightened as to the Truth.

The problem was both these films were utterly appalling; I forced myself to watch both of them and they were unbearably bad. For anyone sensible enough not to have seen either, basically Gibson's offering was pious pornography; Moore's paranoid propaganda. Pure, blinkered, unyielding partisanship made both of these films much more successful than they deserved, because it brought them more attention than they deserved - becoming to celluloid what Rangers and Celtic are to football.

And this is the problem: the extreme partisanship that stops you standing just a little way back to ask the question, "Is this a good film?" or "Is this good football?" also manifests itself in the failure to ask, "Is this a good educational policy?" - because the perennial assumption is that all matters of public life are subject to the culture wars, and as such can be reduced to a single question, "Who's side are you on?" This inability to abstract social issues from partisan political allegiance disfigures public discourse but is also damaging to the culture of learning. It's going to be difficult to stop because America's culture wars have always struck me as having more than a little of the vendetta principle behind them, animating them and giving them energy.

Never mind the bollocks - here's Michael Gove

There's a very, very scary article from Michael Gove in the Times about punk. He got worked into a lather of nostalgia after reading something by his colleague Mary Ann Seighart, which from Gove's account (I haven't read it and can't be bothered looking for it) expounded the not unreasonable proposition that punk was a pile of shite. Michael responds, reminiscing about the days when he was an "anarkyste":

"I, despite what the byline photo may suggest, was too young to be swept up in the first phase of the movement. They didn't let us pierce any part of our body at Sunnybank Primary School. But the truth about punk is that its appeal, or lack of it, isn't about age. It's about attitude."
He didn't know what he wanted, but he knew how to get it; he wanted to destroy passers-by. Then he went on to Robert Gordon College, then to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford where he joined the Conservative Party. But he obviously kept the embers of punk rebellion burning in his soul:
"But the division between the natural hippy and the instinctive punk isn't just a matter of musical taste or even class-consciousness. It colours your attitude to politics. Was your first response to the political challenges of the early Eighties the hope that we could once again Teach the World to Sing in Perfect Harmony? In other words, were you inclined, like Mary Ann, to believe in the noble dream that was the SDP? Or were you, like me, inclined to think that after 40 years of social democratic drift it was time to Rip it Up and Start Again?"
Um, well I did vote SDP but only because that tit Galloway became the Labour candidate - but fundamentally, none of the above. I'd just left school and my initial reaction was, "Shit - there's no jobs". Now the thing is, unemployment has this way of putting you in touch with your inner-hippy, as it were. It's all the leisure time, y'see. Then you realise angry young men, full of testosterone and taking their frustration out in their music has all been done before - only rather better, and that this was only possible because they stood on the shoulders of two African-Americans called Muddy Waters and Johnny Allen Hendrix, who between them invented electricity.

It's maybe because of this I've lost the "raw aesthetic" Gove refers to:
"Our tea is unperfumed, as are our candles."
Phew! Unperfumed candles? I think you'll agree aesthetic sensibilities don't come much rawer or more uncompromising than that - very Mike Leigh. The man's an animal, I tell you.

Michael "don't fuck with me" Gove

Hat Tip: Marcus at HP

Isaac Hayes quits South Park

For mocking Scientology, apparently:
"Criticising the hit US television series South Park for being offensive is a bit like criticising Antiques Roadshow for focusing too much on old things. But this has not prevented the soul singer Isaac Hayes from quitting the show in outrage at its treatment of Scientology - ending a nine-year association with a cartoon that has left few other religious or political groups unmocked."
Yeah, mocking world religions that are thousands of years old and have millions of adherents is ok but when you pick on some mumbo-jumbo made up by some science fiction writer to fleece gullible celebrities of their dosh - that's just taking it too far.
"There is a place in this world for satire, but there is a time when satire ends, and intolerance and bigotry towards religious beliefs of others begins," Mr Hayes said in a statement. "As a civil rights activist of the past 40 years I cannot support a show that disrespects those beliefs and practices."
Yes - taking the piss out of Scientology; I was immediately reminded of the civil rights movement too.

Isaac - Shaft was cool but this is definitely, unequivocally, without a shadow of a doubt deeply uncool.

Is there a theologian/expert on whacky cults that can explain exactly why Scientology makes people uncool? Tom Cruise is a Scientologist, isn't he? And he's really uncool. And I can't accept John Travolta as an exception. He only retains a wee bit of coolness because a) he can dance b) he was in Pulp Fiction. But left to his own devices, the apparent inherent uncoolness of Scientologists is unleashed and we get Battlefield Earth, or whatever that turkey he made is called.

More evidence that dentists are evil

As if it were needed. From the Scotsman:
"DENTISTS in Scotland are threatening to withdraw free NHS treatment to children in a row over the way allowances are handed out by ministers."
Actually, it's probably more complicated than that; bear in mind the people "handing out the allowances" are the same ones who brought you collapsing Parliaments and hospital closures - but dentists are evil anyway. Unless you have excrutiating toothache, in which case they are lovely.

Anyway, it's a cause for concern because - surprise, surprise - Scots have shit teeth:
"Despite this, Scotland has one of the worst child dental records in western Europe. Figures in 2003 estimated that the level of tooth decay among five-year-olds in Scotland was 2.76 teeth per child - compared to 1.47 per child in England."
Scotland regularly tops international comparisons - only it's never for anything good. Just off the top of my head, we have the highest blocks of flats in western Europe (and they're not nice); more strokes and heart-attacks; more drug abuse; more murders; Glasgow City Council, before it got rid of its housing stock, was the biggest slum landlord in western Europe; we have the lowest life-expectancy, and not just in western Europe (also Iraq and Gaza); surely the most goddamn expensive regional parliament on the face of the planet; I think if I remember rightly, one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the world - and even this can't halt population decline; and now we're making a bid to have the crappiest teeth in Europe.

Do pop into the comments box and tell me that it's all the fault of the English and this wouldn't be happening if only the Jacobites had won and we'd all be speaking Gaelic, except people in the Lowlands never spoke it, but never mind because we'd all be filled with a sense of national pride, which would make us more productive at work, and stuff about emerald Tigers and independence, the dates and the economic data don't fit and Ireland was bound to take off once they'd realised there was more to life than Catholicism and Kerrygold butter, but why bother with that when you can have a good rant, and about how if we were independent, we could have a dynamic republic with Sean Connery as President, except he won't last long, let's face it, maybe we could have Dougie Donnelly or Chick Young or the drunk guy who writes for the Herald, or possibly Jackie Bird, and its all my fault because I'm suffering from the "Scottish cringe", and if it wasn't for people like me, we'd be experiencing a cultural and economic renaissance and our women would have barren wombs no longer if only we had those giants of the political stage Nicola Sturgeon and Alec - "penny for Scotland and hey, leave Milosevic alone" - Salmond at the helm, why don't you?

Cameron's star stops rising

From the Guardian:
"The success of David Cameron's first 100 days takes a jolt today with a Guardian ICM poll showing voters switching back to Labour.

Despite falling to a nine-month low in February, Labour has overtaken the Conservatives, who have lost the bounce enjoyed since Mr Cameron took charge in December. Not only have the Tories dropped three points, to 34%, but Labour has gained three, taking it to 37%."
However, it seems the Tories would gain a little if and when Brown takes over. In one of these frightening focus group thingies, Brown was perceived thus:
"Mr Brown was a "tank" who would force people to do what he wanted instead of manipulating them like Mr Blair. He would drink scotch at a party - but only if someone else bought it for him."
Honestly! Meanwhile, Cameron has denied he's "playing politics" with the forthcoming education vote:
"Tory leader David Cameron denied playing politics and attempting to embarrass the prime minister over plans to join Labour rebels in a vote to drag out the passage of the education and inspection bill over the course of the next few months."
Yeah, I'm sure the thought never entered his mind. Young Mr Cameron has got a long way to go to convince people he represents a 'new kind of politics' if he expects people to believe that crap.

Nokia beats Scotland

Finland and Scotland are roughly the same size, yet Nokia alone invests more in research and development than the entire Scottish economy, apparently.

This has to do with the generally low levels of investment in the Scottish economy, which stands at about half that of our main competitors - not such good news because this would tend to lower productivity.

I don't claim to know the solution but from past form, having the Executive throw money at the problem is a) unlikely to work b) nevertheless the most likely outcome.

Cue the nationalists with the One Answer and much talk of 'Celtic Tigers' and stuff. Maybe if they could be a bit clearer as to what they would do specifically with fiscal autonomy that would make the Scottish economy more tigerish and emeraldy, they might get on a bit better. In fairness, the SSP have been the clearest here about their post-independence economic plan - but since this plan seems to consist of going for the Soviet model - Cuba without the sun and cigars - this isn't much help.

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