Asymetrical warriors

Brian Haw

Surely the lone protestor Brian Haw is another example of an asymetrical warrior. Despite harassment, including entire Acts of Parliament against him, he remains firm, and uses every legal weapon at his disposal to keep protesting.

Let us not forget Rosa Parks either. Fighting an “asymetrical” battle can sometimes be a noble thing.

Voter responsibility

Last week we heard that a large proportion of voters in the UK are considering voting for the BNP (as many as eighty percent in Margaret Hodge’s constituency, she warns us). This prompted the following quip from the highly entertaining Pigdogfucker:

25% of English voters “might be” terrible cunts.

Meanwhile, Tim Newman comments on the nature of democracy in Palestine, and suggests that the Palestinians are stuck with their choice of government. If that has negative consequences for their international funding, as a result of electing a terrorist group to power, then that is their problem. (Via Devil’s Kitchen, who agrees.)

Whenever I hear someone make a throwaway remark of the format “God, I hate Americans,” I point out that actually, they probably don’t. In fact (I say), what they mean is that aspects of American culture annoy them. Those aspects are probably caricatures (gas-guzzlers, homogenising fast-food chains, the NRA, preposeterous statistics about how few Americans have passports) that are not representative of most citizens. At worst, I tell them, they actually hate exactly half the people in America (usually but not exclusively those who voted red). And moreover, they have no way of knowing who those people are, so to hate them seems rather counter-productive, not to mention a bit racist.

Surely the same applies to extreme national or local governments that may be voted in elsewhere. If the BNP do win council seats during the UK local elections, few will follow the Pigdogfucker lead and say “well obviously the people of Barking are… barking,” because for a large proportion of the population that will simply not be true. Not only will it definitely not be true for those who voted for someone other than the BNP… but we will be inclined to extend the courtesy to many of those who did. Rather than blame the voters for being generally racist and ignorant of what is actually good for them, we will instead cite the rise in racist politics as somehow a failure of the incumbent parties on a national and local level.

We do not extend this ‘courtesy’ to the Palestinians. Instead we write them off as people not interested in peace, forgetting that there are plenty of their number who did not vote for terrorism (only one third of the total electorate voted for Hamas, for example). Nor do we seem willing to appreciate any subtlety or difference of opinion within American politics: “God, I hate Americans…”

Remember the old saying, about how an Opposition never wins an elections, but Governments lose them? This is important with regards to how much responsibility the electorate must take for their government. The adage above implies that people vote retrospectively, casting their ballot not on what they expect the new government to do, but on what the old government has done. If extremists are elected to power, this analysis would place a much of the responsibility on the shoulders of the outgoing government! Only when we consider the electorate to be voting prospectively and not retrospectively, does the balance seem to tip in favour of blaming the voters themselves for a poor choice.

Clearly, people vote for a mixture of prospective and retrospective reasons. But the notion of blaming an electorate for the government it has chosen remains problematic. Personally (and I suspect, in common with many others) find it difficult to take any personal responsibility for the recent actions of my own government, because I did not vote for them. Likewise, pointing at a random Palestinian and saying “sorry mate, you brought it on yourself” seems spectacularly unfair, as is calling anyone from Barking a racist.

Democracy is a bizarre thing. Because governments take their legitimacy from the voters, we are encouraged (especially immediately after an election) to ascribe the policies and beliefs of certain sections of the population, to everyone within that population. In actual fact, we know next-to-nothing about the particular individual at the other end of our finger, other than where he lives. He is damned by the tyranny of the majority, and suffers our prejudice as a result.

The Euston Manifesto

The Euston Manifesto proposes a fresh political alignment. Their suggestion that their viewpoints are bing under-represented in the mainstream media doesn’t ring true for me: Everyone, of every political persuasion is saying that! Nevertheless, it is an interesting document with sentiments I support.

From Clause 11:

Drawing the lesson of the disastrous history of left apologetics over the crimes of Stalinism and Maoism, as well as more recent exercises in the same vein (some of the reaction to the crimes of 9/11, the excuse-making for suicide-terrorism, the disgraceful alliances lately set up inside the “anti-war” movement with illiberal theocrats)…

After Mark Lynas’ lecture last week, I am convinced that climate change will be just as disatrous for humanity as Stalinism, Maoism, and Nazism. I am also convinced that in a generation, the shame of our inaction on this issue will be comparable to the Left’s shame over communist ‘apologetics’, and European soul-searching over our inaction during the Holocaust.

Global warming is a ‘meta’ issue. It is likely to be a catalyst for many future conflicts, as different countries, groups and ideologies fight for control over scarce resources. Climate Change will emphasise the political divides we see delineated by the Euston Manifesto group. The group makes statements on particular issues (such as Iraq, and Israel/Palestine) so one on global warming, or rather, “a shared responsibility for the earth’s resources”, needs to be in there too. It is the elephant in the room, one that must be ejected before I will sign the manifesto.

Updates: Mike Marqusee has posted an interesting critique of the Euston Manifesto at Comment Is Free; Devil’s Kitchen calls me a hippy… plus further interrogation of the climate change/global warming premise at PooterGeek.

Silver lining

I was interested to hear Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok on BBC Radio 4’s Start The Week yesterday, claiming that there exists a Paradox of anti-Semitism, in which the very fact of persecution has meant that Jewish people have grouped together to preserve their culture, something they may not have otherwise done.

He makes an interesting point, but I was not convinced that he is not simply stating a truism, or a solopsim, or both. To what extent is contemporary Jewish identity shaped by the Holocaust? if those events have now become a part of the Jewish culture or narrative then that does not mean that Judaism required a Holocaust in order to become whole.

1. Jewish culture is valuable;
2. Jewish culture includes a Holocaust; therefore
3. The Holocaust is valuable.

I’m pretty sure the logic is flawed there. Simply because Jewish identity was strengthened among those who avoided persecution, that does not mean that an alternative would not also have been strong. Indeed, one tragedy of the genocide is the lament for the ‘lost culture,’ the one that would have manifested itself had the Nazis not have perpetrated their evil.

On a related point, a friend of mine commented recently that the attacks of 11th September 2001 have made the world a more politicised place, with more people engaging in politics and in political dialogue. As a catalyst for this, 9/11 would therefore be a positive thing!

Again, I’m not sure one event can take credit for this politicisation, and in any case, the nature of politics is surely related to the idea of change… a response to events, a human desire to make things different. How big does the silver lining have to be, in order for us to tolerate the rain-cloud? In the case of the Holocaust, surely the cloud is so big and offensive, no amount silver-lining could cause any kind of ethical dilemma that Dan Cohn-Sherbok dubs a ‘paradox’.

I have yet to read the book however, so perhaps I am being a reactionary, psyco-analysing the book’s four word title.

The same friend cited the rise in people motivated to write a blog, as a manifestation of this increased politicisation. I wonder how other bloggers feel about this? To what extent have world events motivated them to write? How would political blogging be different if 9/11 had not happened? Would we have asked the same questions?

'Voluntary' means you can change your mind

CuriousHamster has been musing about ID cards again, as peers continue to argue with the government over whether the cards will truly be ‘voluntary’, if citizens are required to register for one when they renew their passport. He gives the dictionary definition of ‘voluntary’, but neglects to make an important point about the definition. If you do something voluntarily, then you are under no obligation to continue to do it, if you should change your mind. I am on the Organ Donor Register, but I could ring them up and remove my details if I wanted to.

But ministers say [ID Cards] will already be “voluntary”, because it is not compulsory to have a passport.

True, it is not compulsory to have a passport (at least, unless you work for the Foreign Office), and I can hand mine back to the issuing agency, the UKPA, at any time I choose. Since ID cards will be also be ‘voluntary’, I therefore presume I will be able to return mine to the Home Office, when it arrives along with my renewed, biometric passport…

Analogue vs Digital

He is an analogue politician in a digital age.

So said David Cameron, of Gordon Brown, during their exchanges in the House of Commons today. This is a difficult metaphor, and I fear David may be using it in a very lazy manner, to mean simply “old and new”. In fact it has meanings that I doubt the Tory leader would wish to imply.

Analogue technology may be old, but music fans agree it means better quality. Analogue records capture the subtleties that digital recordings lack. Did David Cameron mean to describe the Chancellor in those terms?

Technically speaking, analogue captures all the different inputs one continuous, flowing record. In audio terms is hears all the sounds. In photographic terms, it sees shades of grey. Digital recording, by contrast, converts everything it senses to binary data. Ones and Zeros, On and Off, Black and White. Which is better for political discourse?

Most importantly, consider how the analogue and digital mediums are treated. Vinyl records are treasured by their owners, sought after by collectors. Original photographic prints fetch a fair price at auction. They carry auora of permanence. Compare this to the digital medium, where tacky CDs lie scrtached on the floor, and digital files are carelessly deleted almost as soon as they are created. Transient things of momentary interest.

Analogue: High quality, subtle, perceptive, permenant.
Digital: Flat, extreme, polarising, disposable.

How kind of David Cameron to flatter the Chancellor! One wonders if Gordon is receiving such compliments from his own party…

My Rights, Your Responsibility

“A person without imagination is like a teabag without hot water.”
Mark Twain

Now the last thing I want to do is write a meta-blog post about a meta-blog post, not least because Tim Worstall coined the frankly hilarious ‘meta-meta-blogging’ conudrum at the weekend, and I do not wish to be shouted at, again. Suffice to say it was pleasing to see Sunny include a post of mine, among others, in his first contribution to Comment Is Free, the Guardian’s new superblog.

What interested me about the post was how the opinions of several people had contributed to the meat and substance of the piece. I was reminded of a great article by Nosemonkey at The Sharpener:

In some areas it’s already almost turning into a Britblog hive mind…

Whether this truly captures the nature of blogging I am not sure, since ‘hive’ seems to imply one homogenised idea, rather than the diversity we see online. I am reminded once again of ‘democracy‘ in the proper sense of the word: Not the vote-every-four-years kind, but true democracy, where a diversity of opinions and ideas are thrashed out in public, and everyone can have a say, play a more active part at every level, from war policy to whether the so called ‘Green Parking Zone’ outside my flat is a good idea (and in case you were wondering: no it most certainly is not).

Blogging – change the world it won’t.

I am not so sure, Sunny. Ministers, and MPs are increasingly realising that the medium simply cannot be ignored.

What can be ignored apparently, is politics. All of it. This is the analysis of an astonishing 17% of the electorate, who said that they ‘did not want a say’ when questioned. The Third Audit of Political Engagement by the Hansard Society and the Electoral Commission, also found that 14% of people were ‘not interested in politics’.

The report of course links lack of political engagement with wider social exclusion, and points out the need for better political education and communication to widen this gap. Nevertheless, even with these measures, there will be a proportion of people who, regardless of their upbringing or social class, will still describe themselves and ‘not being interested in politics’.

I have infinite tolerance in the general case. But in the individual case, those people I actually meet and interact with, the one thing I cannot and will not abide is “Oh, I don’t do politics.” I will not patronise them by suggesting it is merely down to social exclusion, because most of the people I meet would not describe themselves as such. No, these are people who proudly announce they are ‘not interested’ and revel in knowing more about Big Brother 6 the TV programme, than whether the government’s ID Cards bill is a surveillance too far. I invariably challenge them, and an argument ensues.

Being ‘interested’ in politics is not like being ‘interested’ in sport, the arts, gardening or cooking. Politics is not simply about the Reds or the Blues at Westminster, but about the interaction between the State, groups and the individual. Unless one retires to a hermitage and lives in total solitude, you will interact with society, and you are therefore a political animal. If you drive a car, you are political. If you turn on a tap, you are political. If you buy food, have a bank account, go to school, use a telephone, you are political. To suggest that you are not is actually antisocial in every sense, and those who do not engage, though they have the capacity to do so, are every bit as liable for an ASBO as the hooligans who kick over wheelie bins.

Apathay devalues every decision taken by every government: Voter-apathy means that decision makers are elected by a tiny minority; and issue-apathy means that decisions are not subject to proper scrutiny, not made with enough public debate.

So to the fourteen percent, I say this: Your lack of engagement affects me in a very real way. I would go so far as to say that I have a human right to hear your opinion. Denying me that right is an abuse of your own human capacity for rational though, but more importantly, it inconveniences me a great deal.

To say “I’m not interested” is to be the tea-bag without water. It is a ridiculous and impossible position, and I will not stand for it. Moreover, if people start asserting their right to disengage, to be apathetic, then other people will soon start trying to deny them the vote, which we cannot condone.

So please, Mr and Mrs Fourteen Percent, I’ll make you a deal: Start engaging in some way, any way… and will I promise to stop droning on about my blog.

Over at Minority Report, DE discusses dumbing down: Playing Grand Theft Auto is probably more socially responsible than the more adult pursuit of corruption or aerial bombing. But when it displaces keeping up with the news or communicating with offspring then it seems less benign.

Moral Equivalence

Nick Cohen’s article in this week’s Observer has prompted me to think about ‘moral equivalence’, and the degree to which we condemn the actions of other countries, and our own.

To me, the failure of the archbishop to speak plainly was not a sign of his diplomacy, but flowed from his row with the Jews. Before he escaped to Africa, he couldn’t say why he wanted sanctions against Israel but not against countries that committed far worse crimes – China, Syria, Iran, North Korea and, indeed, Sudan – or give any indication that he was morally obliged to provide an answer.

Cohen’s point is persuasive, and requires an answer, and he is right to take the Archbishop to task over these double standards. However, the argument he uses raises some questions, because the moral door swings both ways.

The idea of ‘moral equivalence’ requires some unravelling. It is always used in the negative, to condemn someone who is equating one reprehensible act with another. Above, Cohen notes that those of a certain political viewpoint are equating the transgressions of the Israelis towards the Palestinians, with a wider and much more horrible genocides, in the other countries he mentions. His complaint is that the two are simply not comparable: Israel is simply not as bad as Sudan.

Another example might be to equate the attacks on the World Trade Centre, with the human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay. Imprisoning a few dozen militants without trial is simply not in the same moral ballpark as murdering 3,000 civilians on a cold September Tuesday. The actions of the Bush Administration are not morally equivalent to the actions of Al Q’aeda (so goes the argument) and it is offensive to suggest as much. Similar arguments can be made regarding transgressions in Iraq. One can always retort with “well, would you rather have Saddam back?” safe in the knowledge that the coalition forces never did anything as bad as the Ba’athists at Abu Ghraib. Discussions of this kind have been thrown around for decades, especially during the Cold War.

But they are all relative arguments. Relative to Sudanese actions in Darfur, Israeli transgressions against Arabs in the region could be described as minor. But thinking absolutely, they are nevertheless still transgressions. To reiterate, I do not disagree with Cohen when he asserts that Sudan is worse than Israel… but as soon as that point is made, someone is bound to ask the question: “Does that excuse Israel’s behaviour?”

The moral equivalence complaint is constantly used in political discourse, a smoke-screen to justify and excuse morally dubious action. An appeal to inhibit the ghettoisation of the West Bank is met with “what about the man on the Tel Aviv omnibus?” A fair point indeed, but in making it, the respondent has cunningly failed to answer the original point, and thus escapes from the discourse without condemning something that would not have looked out of place in occupied Poland, circa 1940. Likewise, legitimate questions about why, and when it was decided to go to war, are met by Tony Blair with the tired old cliché: “Would you rather have Saddam back?” Meeting questions with questions in this manner is to present a non-sequitur. By highlighting something morally worse, Tony manages to avoid answering the original question at all.

Complaining about the lack of moral equivalence between two acts should not be used as an excuse to avoid accounting for the actions of the governments we are responsible for. Although this final example, from ‘Tender’ at ProfessorBainbridge.com, I confess made me laugh:

As for morality – when the anal rape rate at Gitmo gets to say, half, of the rate at the Cook County jail let me know. I won’t worry till then.

The perceptive among you will have noticed that this particular gripe about the nature of moral arguments really only applies (by its very nature, I think) to governments such as that of Israel, the USA and the UK, rather than China, North Korea, and Sudan (to use some of Cohen’s examples). This is important, because I really want to write about why the former set of countries should be held to a higher standard – because we are responsible for them. I have’t finished with this yet. More in the next post.

Misogyny in the Monarchy: Volume I

From Japan comes news that Princess Kiko, wife of second-in-line Prince Akishino, is pregnant. If a boy results, he will be the first born to the Japanese royal family in forty years. He will become third in line to the throne, leap-frogging two older sisters and his cousin Princess Aiko.

The issue of the Japanese succession has been labelled a constitutional ‘crisis’, with the public divided over whether a female should succeed to the Imperial Throne (The Chrysanthemum Throne). It has caused a personal crisis for the Crown Princess Masako, who is said to have become withdrawn due to the pressue inside the Imperial Court, to produce a male heir.

It should be stated that is is entirely incorrect and irrational to pressurise a woman (princess or otherwise) to produce a male heir. The sex of a baby is determined by whether the sperm that fertilizes it carries an X (female) or Y (male) chromosone. It is entirely random which of these genetic codes gets through… but if it were not, then only the testicles of the man who produced the sperm could be held responsible for a lack of Y’s in the bag.

That a group of people can be allowed to pressurise a woman in this manner is bad enough. Worse is the underlying desire for a male heir which causes such pressure. Clearly this attitude is one which runs deep through the entire society – opinion polls see the country divided on the issue of whether a female heir should be allowed, and fierce debates have surrounded the proposal by Junichiro Koizumi, that a woman be allowed to ascend to the throne. It was even suggested that the Crown Prince be allowed to adopt a boy to ensure that his daughter would not succeed!

The message to Princess Aiko is simple: We wish you were not a girl. And the message to the country: boys are better than girls.

We could list examples where the sexes are not equal. Mothers have a different bond with their children than fathers. Men are (usually) physically stronger. These inequalities are always rooted in biology, or psychologies on the most inate level. Many will also argue that the traditional nuclear family is the optimal social arrangment to promote human flourishing (whatever that may be). A family or tribal unit is something that may evolve, with the structure adapting over time and due to environmental considerations. We may not be conscious of it, and we may not be able to break out of the structure we find ourselves within. Misogyny may continue, and parents will still secretly wish that they have a son, and not a daughter.

Conversely, a State is an entirely political entity. It exists only in the conscious human mind – no more, no less. The idea behind a democratic state is that people consciously endorse (and usually codify) the way their political system – their mutal concerns – are arranged. It is about taking responsibility for how you live. Let no-one say that the political rules, handed down from previous generations, are not open to consideration. Let no-one say they cannot be changed.

In fact, breaking away from the tyranny of previous generations is part of the point of democracy. The nature of the system almost demands that laws be changed, for they must always reflect the views of the populous.

When a law becomes outdated, when it no longer reflects the values of the people it governs, it must be scrapped. As the news of this royal pregnancy reminds us, sexism is institutionalised in Japan at the highest and most symbolic level. The people of Japan must now decide whether they wish their Head of State to be determined by these values, or whether a new millenium should herald a change.

Volume II will be posted later today, in which we will (of course) return to Blighty.

Google China

Now, it would be very hypocritical of me to complain about US government intrusion into internet search results, if I do not also utterly condemn Google’s decision to censor its Chinese site. However, even if I did not draw that parallel, I could never be more hypocritical than Google itself. The company who did indeed stand up to the aforementioned US government interference, has sold its morals down the Yangtze River. This is appalling blow to everyone who values freedom of expression, especially as the act comes from a company who emphasises its ethical policies. Via Blairwatch, we find that censorship directly contradicts Google’s admirable company policy:

Google does not censor results for any search term. The order and content of our results are completely automated; we do not manipulate our search results by hand. We believe strongly in allowing the democracy of the web to determine the inclusion and ranking of sites in our search results.

Not any more.

Perhaps Google should be subjected to some kind of boycott. Simply refusing to use the search engine would be almost impossible for most people, as it is such a ubiquitous tool (it’s even integrated into my Safari browser). Likewise, too many people use Blogger for this to be a viable proposition. It would also be counter-productive if our aim is the free flow of communication around the globe. CuriousHamster hints that he will remove the Adwords bar from his site, thus sacrificing some income from his blog. Will others follow suit?

Update

Down In the comments, John suggests a very good article on the issue. Google does inform users that their search on Google.cn will be blocked. This definitely doesn’t excuse the hypocrisy of going against a stated company policy though, nor does the fact that they are making money in a country through a censored search engine. I’m not sure that providing some search results is better than providing no search results. That seems to be a tacit endorsement of the system to me, especially as money is being made. As Danny Sullivan says, it would be better if they weren’t there at all.

Another Update

I just saw an AOL advert that used a clip of the man with shopping bags in front of the Tiannamen Square tanks, with a voice-over “The only place where freedom of speech is a reality”… Hmmph.