Alcoholic Elephant in the Smoking Room

When the news came that Cannabis was to be reclassified as a class B drug, I had expected there to be something of a reaction from the British Blogosphere, which has a healthy Libertarian bias. Back in the office after a week without proper internet, I found precious little online writing on the subject. I reasoned that this might have had something to do with the Lancet Report (and podcast) into the effects of cannabis use, and the associated risk of psychosis.

However, I had reckoned without Tim Worstal and his excellent statistics.

So, does 0.2% of users being harmed pass our test? 0.05%? 0.01%? Even at that higher number it’s still vastly lower as a percentage than the numbers harmed by either tobacco or alcohol: and yet they are both legal. I’d wager very long odds that it’s lower than the STD infection rate on one night stands: which are also legal. I’d even take an evens bet on whether it’s less dangerous than playing golf in a thunderstorm which while stupid is also legal.

Just another example of bansturbation I’m afraid, this time it’s the social authoritarians in the Tory Party getting their rocks off over the matter. Heaven forfend that the citizenry should actually be free to go to hell in their own preferred manner.

I think the comparison with alchohol is important here, because it highlights an essential contradiction at the heart of the debate. Both alcohol and smoking are legal, despite being harmful. Why not cannabis too?

Throughout, it has been noted that the skunk on the streets is far more powerful and harmful than the milder forms that our cabinet smoked as students. Aside from looking like a convenient get-out clause for those who have admitted to a toke or two twenty years ago, it also ignores the fact that there are many different types of cannabis in circulation.

In any case, is the undoubted potency of modern skunk an argument for legalisation and regulation, or further crimminalisation and marginalisation? The recent orthodoxy claims the latter, and says that because cannabis is so harmful, it should be banned. But that is analagous to saying that alcohol should be banned because Moonshine is so toxic! Just as there is a world of difference between the causual, weekend wine-drinker, and the serious alcoholic with his Vodka or (worse) bottle of Meths… so there is a difference between a weekend spliff in the garden, and a heavy skunk-user putting himself at risk of psychosis. It would be nice if someone stated that either drug, in moderation, does make the parties and the conversations a little more interesting (to the partakers, at least)… but that consumption to excess can lead to a lack of productivity, and then serious damage to one’s health. The absolutist, binary debate on this issue is unhelpful and unlikely to wash with the young people who need to be so well informed.

I think a more compelling argument against casual drug use, is that it provides financial support to gangsters. The usual mitigation for cannabis use is that it is a victimless crime. At present, however, there is no way of knowing if this is actually true. Illegal drugs do not come with a ‘Fair Trade’ certificate to reassure you that no human-traffickers, Russian Mafioso or Jamaican Yardies have profited (or indeed, been murdered) during its production and bagging. When politicians admit to trying cannabis at university, they are always asked whether they ‘inhaled’, but never if they knew where the drugs came from. This latter question would, I believe, be more pertinent. That few politicians would be able to answer it is probably the main reason why this particular argument is sidelined in the debate.

Surely a more sensible approach to the issue would be to legalise cannabis, and then regulate it and tax it in the same manner as alchohol and tobacco. This is the only sure way to reduce the potency of the drugs being consumed. Better information about the strength and origin of their cannabis will help people to make a more informed choice about how much to consume, and lead to a reduction in associated health problems.

We can’t turn them away

This time, I am behind the blog cycle, rather than the mainstream news cycle! Many others have already linked to Dan Hardie’s campaign to ensure that all Iraqis who have worked for British forces are given asylum if they ask for it.

There is now considerable evidence that their lives, and the lives of their families, are at risk: some former workers for the British have been murdered, and many others have fled to neighbouring countries or gone into hiding in Basra. The British Government, for whom they were ultimately working, has not offered them the right of asylum in the UK. This is morally unacceptable.

The most detailed recent report, by Jonathan Miller of Channel Four news, notes the murder of 17 translators in one single incident in Basra.

Dan suggests we write to our MPs, and even provides some handy text that you can paste into a letter or e-mail.

I recall that the plight of Iraqis was one of the first arguments against Tony Blair’s account of the war. When the WMDs failed to appear, the reasons for war quickly shifted to the brutality of the Saddam regime. While this might have been a convincing argument for many, it was certainly not a convincing reason for the government, who had denied many asylum applications from Iraqi before the war. It was therefore misleading and duplicitous for Blair to cite this as a reason post hoc.

However, the current British policy towards foreign nationals who help the armed services is unsurprising. The Ghurka regiment has for many years been mistreated by the government, with former soldiers denied citizenship, or even a pension on equal terms with other British servicemen.

Interestingly, the recent successful campaign to allow one former ghurka (a holder of the Victoria Cross, no less) to be given UK citizenship was also propagated online. The VC Hero site was set up by Tul Bahadur Pun’s solicitors, and a online campaign added political pressure. So Dan Hardie’s initiative stands a good chance of success.

Thuggery in Sedgefield

Well well. I’m watching the by-election results on TV. The BNP saw fit to heckle and slow-hand clap the Labour Candidate Phil Wilson as he gave his by-election victory speech in Sedgefield.

One of the usually decent things about the democratic process is the (short) period of politeness and respect that follows an election result. In the immediate aftermath of an election, it is unseemly to criticise and abuse a candidate, especially one who has just been elected as an MP with a large majority. To do so is to insult and abuse that majority of citizens who have made their choice. By making a racket as Wilson spoke, the BNP expose themselves as arrogant thugs.

They even boo’ed when the Tory candidate gave his best wishes to Wilson’s family. Ugly.

The Digital Revolution

One striking aspect of Taking Liberties was the art direction. There’s a lot of computer generated imagery, which has been beautifully designed by Nexus Productions. Much of it is inspired by 1930s propaganda imagery and the letterpress aesthetic of printing and pampleteering (a visual style I’ve been toying with on this blog too, to much derision).

The Nexus animations are very effective at conveying the sense of oppression and fascism that the film-makers want to hint at. As an added bonus, it is also a very effective means of covering vast chunks of screen-time. Finding the right film footage to get your point across is often very difficult and always costly. Even stock footage from the BBC and similar organisations is incredibly expensive. For a film-maker working to a tight budget, animation can be a very useful method of getting your point across.

A good example of this is the short film What Barry Says by Knife Party, which is similar in style to the Taking Liberties animations… both in visual style, and in the manner in which they ‘illustrate’ what is essentially a political essay, ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’.

Uber-blogger Andrew Sullivan was struck by the aesthetics of What Barry Says too:

It contains Chomsky-esque platitudes about a new American fascism blah blah blah. 9/11 is a response to American imperialism; North Korea is a victim, etc. But its use of graphics and editing is extremely skilled propaganda: Nazi-like in its concern with aesthetics. Somehow I feel the irony was lost on it creators.

I totally disagree. Andrew acknowledges that the film-makers are seeking to establish a conceptual link between the facist regimes of the past, and the US Government under President George W Bush. It is entirely appropriate that they choose an aesthetic that is reminiscent of fascist designs. The self-awareness is definitely true in the case of Taking Liberties: When the messages turns from what negative things have happened, to what positive things could be done in response, the design becomes flourescent and modern instead.

The Independence Debate

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the launch of a Fabian pamphlet by Gordon Brown. Stronger Together puts the case for continuing the union between Scotland and the rest of Britain. Embarrassingly, Gordon and I were wearing the same tie, but that did not seem to put him off his speech.

There was a muffled scoff during the Q&A session, when Douglas Alexander suggested that, even though the SNP were ahead in the polls, the strength of the Labour argument (or rather, the weakness of the SNP argument) would shine through. Interestingly, however, it looks like this might be happening. According to The Times:

It is only in the past fortnight — largely because of previous opinion poll findings — that Scotland has had to ask itself whether the pleasure of giving Tony Blair a last kicking is worth the price of putting the SNP in office. It is not.

I wonder how much of this is down to Brown and Alexander’s (and McConnell’s) powers of persuasion, and how much is down to a change in voter tactics, influenced by opinion polls. There is no doubt that in every election a kind of electoral Heisenberg effect occurs, whereby advanced polling that seeks to predict the result, actually alters it. I’ve often worried that this is anti-democratic, although I suppose making a choice is as much about who you do not want to lead you, as opposed to who you do. Recall once again the old adage about governments that lose elections, rather than oppositions that win them…

Much of the Fabian pamphlet focuses on the econmoic benefits that Scotland gains from being in The Union, and how much would be lost if the people chose Independence instead. This may be persuasive, but I cannot help feeling that the economic argument should not matter. Dyed-in-the-wool Nationalists and Unionists alike cite a greater, moral imperative for their point of view, whatever it happens to be. Never mind the administration costs of leaving the Union: I have more time for the argument which says that Scotland and England should remain together because we share common values (whatever they may be). Just like marriage, these links should be worth saving, even if greater economic prosperity were to be found through a divorce.

Likewise, I think the most honest Nationalist argument is that which says that the Scots and English are culturally different. It is their belief in this premise which motivates their political activity, not some economic calculation. As it happens, I disagree with them, as I tried to point out in a post at The Sharpener. I think the notions of Scottishness and Englishness have converged somewhat in these past 300 years. This is by no means proven, however, and the independence debate should be fought over this ideological battleground, rather than over some calculus of the North Sea oil revenues.

Blast off

Hooray! We’re off to the moon. UK scientists are working on the deisgn of a moon lander that would also be used on Mars missions.

It seems to me that if we are to spend billions of pounds on firing rockets into the air, how much better it would be if they flew off to the moon or Mars, in a spirit of discovery and exploration. Instead we develop rockets designed to vapourise hundreds of thousands of people. We are a very silly species.

Of course, supporters of Trident cite the unreliable regimes of North Korea and Iran as proof that we need to maintain a deterrent. But I reckon a trip to the moon would be better than a deterrent – it would be a demoraliser. Can you imagine a bigger “fuck you” to send to Ahmadinejad, than an YouTube message from the moon?

As an incentive, countries that disarm would be offered a seat on the spaceship. The sight of your country’s flag, billowing in the vacuum by means of a support wire. What could bring greater glory to your land and people?

Your Country Flag Here

Voting for minorities

Thinking about women rulers, it is interesting to see how progressive South-Asia has been in this regard. Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have all had female leaders. In fact, the latter two have had more than one, as has India if you were to count Sonia Ghandi.

Critics of Asian culture in general, and Islam in particular, do like to remind us of the essential backwardness of the regions and religion, with a general misogyny being the primary exhibit. To those Muslims who voted for Benazir Bhutto, say, this might seem a spectacularly unfair accusation… especially when the USA (moralizer-in-chief) is turning itself inside-out over the question of whether the country is ‘ready’ for a woman (or a black man) to lead.

Perhaps an alternative measure of democratic maturity is not the length of time a country has sustained democracy, but the point at which the populous begins to elect leaders whose sex, race, and religious combination differs from that of the traditional ruling elite.
Continue reading “Voting for minorities”

Wandering around corridors

Over at the Demos blog, Duncan O’Leary notices that several politicians have been invoking the metaphor of a house in order to convey whatever political point they wish to make that day. David Cameron’s renewal of the Tories is being built “brick by brick“, while Gordon Brown wants to raise educational standards by “raising the floor and removing the ceiling.”

I am reminded of how often it is that buildings are used as a by-word for institutions. We do not talk of the office of the Prime Minister: We say Number Ten. When we hear of interference from those next door, we hear of The Treasury. Either might incur the displeasure of The House of Commons. If a member of the Royal Family does something noteworthy, Buckingham Palace or Clarence House issues a statement. It is The Bank of England that rises interest rates. The United States’ Foreign Policy is conceived and implemented by, variously, The White House, Congress and The Pentagon.

These are all familiar, innocent, journalistic short-cuts, but they can be unhelpful. By embodying the institution in the building, they give the impression that these institutions are inpenetratable. It is as if to influence them, we would literally have to penetrate the six-foot thick walls. When we hear (as we so often do), of a feud between “Number Ten” and “The Treasury”, this conjures the idea of two megaliths colliding in a kinetic, titanic battle – Mere flesh and blood mortals do not stand a chance against them. In reality, the ‘clash’ is between less than half a dozen civil servants, men and women shorter and older than you or I, sending curt e-mails via Outlook Express. The Great Failures of the New Labour (read: Alastair Campell’s) spin machine, were precisely those instances where the facade of the institution crumbled, and the profoundly human cogs that drive the system were exposed. Jo Moore’s memo to “bury bad news” and the David Kelly affair are the most memorable examples of this.

A few years ago I spent a short time working for a think-tank in Westminster. One valuable lesson I learnt is that politics and governance are not a high-brow interactions between great institutions of State. It just a load of people wandering around corridors and pavements in the SW1A vicinity of Central London. Most people who spend time working in the ‘Westminster Village’ are already aware of this, but for a provincial suburbanite such as myself, it was a welcome revelation.

Often, ‘taking on the government’ need not mean a well-financed campaign planned with military precision. It just means getting the e-mail address of the civil servant who is best placed to help you: no battering ram required.


That hypothetical B&B

The argument over the proposed gay rights legislation, already in force in Northern Ireland, has been brought to the boil once again. Much of the debate centres around a hypothetical Bed & Breakfast, where the ‘deeply religious’ proprietor would be having to go against their own beliefs in order to legally provide serivces.

Critics say the regulations would mean hotels could not refuse to provide rooms for gay couples

This is a popular argument for those arguing against the laws, because it conjours sympathy for a single person (probably white and middle-aged) being persecuted for their religion. However, it is a highly problematic hypothetical, for several reasons, and should be questioned.

First, it is not just homosexuality that all the major religions label immoral. They also say that any sexual intercourse outside of marriage is immoral too. So, the aldulterers who sneak away to a seaside hotel for the weekend are also offending religious beliefs of the owner, and could be denied service on this basis. For the sake of consistency, we would expect that the same hotel would also ban a couple with children who were not married.

To this, the ‘deeply religious’ proprietor might say “well, I didn’t know that the first couple were adulterers, or that the second couple were not married.” This would be an unwittingly ironic, since it evokes the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. If it is good enough for the US Military, it should be good enough for the good old British B&B! If they do not know for sure that those two men will be having sex, then it cannot be said that the proprietor endorses such behaviour, unless it is also said that they endorse the extra-marital heterosexual activity mentioned earlier. There is a definite hypocrisy here, and ‘religious belief’ is merely a politically correct shield behind which plain bigotry can hide.

If the claim to religious belief is genuine, then these service-providing adherents might find themselves in even more trouble. There are passages in the bible and Qu’ran which forbid inter-religious marriage and can even be interpreted to mean a ban on inter-racial marriage (for example Deut. 7). Are such couples – immoral in the eyes of the religious – to be denied services too? If not, why not?

The debate, as framed, grants the religious a special privilege which is not extended to those with other kinds of beliefs. If an exemption were made for those of a particular religious creed, an aetheist proprietor who also happened to disapprove of same-sex relationships would still be subject to the law, and would rightly claim to unfair treatment under that law. Whether or not one subscribes to the effectiveness of anti-discrimination laws, one must concede that they be applied equally. If the religious complain that their beliefs are under attack, then we who support this legislation must begin by saying “well, yes, necessarily”.

Next, supporters must assert that the debate is not between two minority groups (gay libertines and religious prudes, say)… but between the majority view (which says homosexuals should be treated equally) and the minority view (which says homosexuals should be treated differently). The onus is on those who support the legislation to explain why the values of the population as a whole trump the values of those with religious belief. Unity at Ministry of Truth has already taken a tweezer to this issue.

In balancing the respective rights in such a case; those of the hypothetical plaintiff, who has a ‘public right’ not to be subjected to discrimination, against those of the hypothetical defendent, who has a ‘private right’ to manifest their personal beliefs, one must first consider whether the matter at the heart of the complaint belongs to the public or private domain. If the matter is ‘public’ then the public rights of the complainant take precendence, if it is private, then the private rights of the defendent should win out.

I am inclined to the idea that if you charge money for people to stay in your house, you are opening it up to the public realm. I think it is difficult to argue the opposite, since you will be bound, and indeed protected, by the public laws of commerce. Furthermore, the regional development agencies will have spent tax-payers money to encourage punters in your direction – an especially pertinent point in the case of the rural or seaside B&B. If you choose to provide services, then you have to give equal access to all tax-payers, even the gay ones.

Update: bookdrunk at the Rhetorically Speaking blog is always lucid on gay and women’s rights. ‘Revisiting Asymetrical Prejudice’ was written last year, reposted as the cherry atop a couple of other blogs on this issue.

An Idle Sunday With The Papers


Ah, Edinburgh! This Athens of the North, this home of the Enlightenment. What perfect Sundays you provide for its denizens. Snuggled beneath a warm blanket of idleness, a shroud of irresponsibility, I am free to sit in the re-vamped Cameo Cinema Bar and take advantage of their gratis wireless, and complimentary newspapers.

And for a blogger, a 21st Century gentleman-pamphleteer, what could be a more perfect afternoon than this? I scythe through The Observer, and the myriad possibilities for unsolicited opinion leap out at me. I am spoilt for choice. I could muse on Scottish Independence, perhaps? Or comment on the USA’s relentless march towards totalitarianism? It is, in a way, surprising that Blogistan becomes so quiet at weekends. Isn’t everyone else making electronic notations on the Sunday papers?

Jasper Gerard caught my eye, with a short piece on the Countryside Alliance:

And while I opposed banning hunting as I oppose banning anything without overwhelming reason, I also suspected those who enjoyed killing for its own sake were tossers. Like deposed dictators, perhaps foxes need to be killed, but huntsmen seem to snuff out life with all the tearful regret of the Iraqi prison service.

This precisely captures my feeling. I don’t care particularly for the fox, which is a pest. But killing things for fun seems an affront to nature, and if one is going to do it then you should have the decency to eat what you have killed. This is possible when you shoot game birds, deer, or when you go fishing. But since the hounds rip up the prey beyond what is edible, I do think “hunting with dogs” is a sensible distinction to make.

Should we have banned it though? Reconciling this “illiberal liberalism” (as Gerard has it) will no doubt occupy my thoughts for the rest of the afternoon (I suspect my answer would have something to do with our laws on animal cruelty and bear-baiting). With my back to the window and the outside world, I sink deeper into this leather armchair, and philosophize.