Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Stifled by consensus?

Back in October I wrote a speculative piece wondering what the Conservatives could do to win my vote. In essence it boiled down to one vital condition: not being the Conservatives in their present incarnation. I, like so many others, alluded to the Tories having their ‘Clause IV Moment’: some symbolic seismic shift that says to the world “We’ve changed”.

Yesterday, apparently, was that moment, as cherub-faced, chubby-kneed Tory leader David Cameron set out the values for the party in his brave new world. This manifesto will now be put to all Conservative Party members who get to say yay or nay. It’s the first real test Dave has faced since becoming leader and will be crucial in determining to what extent his party are committed to renewal. Given that a significant majority elected him on a reformist platform in the first place, it should pretty much be a formality.

There’s just one problem. It seems to be lifted from Labour’s manifesto circa 1997:

  • Economic stability before tax cuts

  • Policies must help the least well-off, not the rich

  • Women's choices on work and home lives will be supported

  • Public services will not necessarily be run by the state

  • Party will fight for free and fair trade

  • Tories will be hard-nosed defenders of freedom and security

  • Government should support home ownership, saving, families and business

  • Government should be closer to the people
Blah, blah, blah. In fact, it would be easy to picture Gordon Brown spouting off this generic drivel right now wouldn’t it? Which is fair enough, as New Labour pinched many clothes from the Conservative’s washing line to become electable in the 90s. It’s all part of the crazy pantomime of party politics. The Cameron manifesto has virtually nothing in common with the Tories of yesteryear, just as Blair’s New Labour bore little resemblance to the leftist instincts of Labour under Michael Foot.

What it means for us poor voters is very little in the way of choice. We’ve got a suffocating new consensus where government is small, but big. Spending is boosted, but managed. The private sector is cherished, but railed in. The NHS is sacred, but ripe for reform.

Our choice at the next election: two centrist parties committed to pretty much the same policies but wearing different coloured ties. What a big yawn.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Hunger strike cancelled due to extreme hunger

Couldn't let this pass without comment:

Saddam Hussein has ended his hunger strike after 11 days. For “health reasons”. In other words, he was fucking starving. That’s the trouble with deliberately denying yourself food – it does tend to be an unhealthy course of action. Just look at Teri Hatcher, pictured here at the gym.

So yeah, sorry Saddam, but I don’t think you’ve really understood the point of this have you? Here’s how it works: you starve yourself to death and we react with indifference.

Cough, splutter. . .

Blogging has been difficult recently. In addition to my PC at home going into meltdown, I’ve also been struck down with a strong dose of Man Flu. As such, where once grey matter resided in my skull, there is now some sort of lukewarm chilli con carne. Concentration is a real struggle, and blogging an unattractive proposition.

Perhaps PH and H would like to kick off a debate in the comments section to entertain us all? They’ve been doing so well lately and I haven’t got much to say right now.

A good subject might be Gordon Brown’s wish to lower the voting age to 16. A terrifying thought. Just picture yourself at 16: brash, arrogant, convinced you know the answer to everything (not like now of course, oh no). Now imagine that combined with the right to vote. Horrific. Personally, I’d be more in favour of giving the vote to the grey squirrel.

Plus, of course, today’s sixteen year olds are even worse than in our day. . . . fact.

Anyway, I’m off to pretend I’m doing some work. . .

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.

Few people will shed any tears for the “historian” David Irving, jailed in Austria for three years yesterday, having been found guilty of Holocaust denial – a criminal offence under Austrian law. I certainly won’t.

But is it right that someone should be imprisoned for their opinion, regardless of how vile and abhorrent we might find it? Isn’t this the price of freedom of speech: that we have to tolerate the views of extremist, lying, Nazi-sympathising scum like Irving?

If freedom of speech means the right to publish cartoons that upset Muslims, it is also the right of idiots like Irving to publish his “research” arguing that the gas chambers of Auschwitz were a fallacy. (Although he has since revised his opinion of this, apparently. In the light of “new evidence”, he now accepts that they did exist after all. What a formidable researcher.)

Whilst I can understand why a country like Austria would be sensitive about its own part in the Nazi atrocities, it seems counter-productive to me to enforce this law. I hadn’t heard a thing about Irving since he lost a court case in 2000 to Deborah Lipstadt, who first accused him of Holocaust denial. Today he’s on the front page of virtually every newspaper in Britain, possibly Europe. Now he can claim martyrdom and will become a cause célèbre to every dunderhead on the far right.

I think Ms Lipstadt summed it up best: “He should have been met by the sound of one hand clapping. The one thing he deserves, he really deserves, is obscurity.”

Monday, February 20, 2006

How do you solve a problem like sharia?

Forty per cent of British Muslims support the idea of sharia law being introduced to parts of the UK, according to an ICM opinion poll carried out for the Sunday Telegraph,

If anyone was wondering what the limits of multiculturalism are, I think we may have stumbled across them.

We should obviously approach these statistics with caution. A sample of 500 people could never produce concrete conclusions, no matter how sophisticated the profiling or the nature of the questions asked.

It’s worth remembering too that a majority of people asked did not support this idea. But it’s still worrying that any British citizen could possibly favour a system of law that involves punishments such as stoning, lashes, severing of hands and beheading for so-called Hadd offences (which include sex outside of marriage, drinking alcohol and petty theft).

There’s a good opinion piece in today’s Guardian by Marcel Berlins that I agree with, arguing that sharia law is completely incompatible with the values and laws of this country to the point of them being mutually exclusive. It is unthinkable that this could ever be permitted.

Response from the government so far has been fairly muted, but I would favour an outright dismissal of the very concept from the outset. There needs to be a very clear and unequivocal message delivered to the group of people who think it could ever be taken seriously, namely: No. It is never going to happen. This is not even up for discussion.

Now the question remains: how do we ever integrate the people that believe this?

Friday, February 17, 2006

Stuck between Iraq and a hard place

There seems to be a never-ending stream of stories about bad news in Iraq: every day there’s another suicide bomb and the impression that the whole country is descending further and further into violent anarchy with every passing hour. Maybe this is the case, but it seems that there are also a lot of positive things happening that, mysteriously, go unreported.

Here’s a letter to the Daily Telegraph, picked up by Norm:

During the past few weeks, I have done some careful research into what is happening in Iraq.

I have discovered that 47 countries have re-established their embassies there. The current Iraq government employs 1.2 million Iraqis. More than 3,100 schools have been renovated and 364 are being rehabilitated, with 263 under construction. Twenty universities and 46 institutes are operating. Some 4.3 million Iraqi children were enrolled in primary schools by the end of 2005.

The Iraqi police force has more than 55,000 fully trained and equipped officers and there are five police academies producing 3,500 new officers every eight weeks.

There are at least 1,190,000 mobile-phone subscribers. There is a fully independent media network of 75 radio stations, 180 newspapers and 10 television stations. Much normal life is going on, although we rarely hear about it.
I’d be interested to know how much of this is true and I’d be even more interested to know why it’s hardly ever covered in the media, when there’s no shortage of coverage on a daily basis.

Any ideas?

Thursday, February 16, 2006

More fuel on the fire

As if tensions with the Middle East were not strained enough, the new pictures of abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib should add several gallons of paraffin to an already raging fire. This comes only days after the shocking footage of British soldiers beating the hell out of a group of Iraqi teenagers. Good work everyone. You degenerate thugs.

The Bush Administration has condemned the broadcast of the new images for fear that they might incite violence. No, you should actually be condemning the actions of the people responsible. Except that - Ooops! - that would ultimately be yourselves, seeing as knowledge of these events went right up to the very top of the US executive. In fact, you weren’t only cognisant of the fact, you sanctioned it. Taking responsibility isn’t something that King George and his merry men are very good at, of course– it took five days for VP Dick Cheney to publicly confirm that he had, indeed, shot one of his friends in the face in a messy hunting accident. So the chances of Donald Rumsfeld taking responsibility for this are slender to say the least.

Speaking as someone who supported the invasion of Iraq, I find it particularly dispiriting. The whole post-war ‘plan’ has been disastrous and the news of torture and beatings committed by US and British troops (a minority, of course, but that doesn’t change anything) simply piles on the disgust and horror.

The only positive thing that can possibly be taken away from all this is that action will be taken against those who carried out these appalling acts, whereas Saddam’s henchmen got away with torturing and murdering at the same infamous prison.*

That's progress - of a kind.

*Nor am I suggesting that the acts depicted in these photos are in the same league as those committed under Saddam's regime, before anyone picks me up on that. But torture is torture regardless of the grades of extremity.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Yeah butt, no butt

There’s no shortage of irony in the fact that smokers are set to become an endangered species by 2007. MPs voted yesterday to ban smoking in all ‘enclosed areas’, excluding private homes, residential care homes, hospitals, prisons and hotel bedrooms.

Thank you, oh mighty government, for not banning smoking in the confines of my own property! How magnanimous of you!

I’m in two minds about this subject. On the one hand, I understand the argument that people should be protected from smoking in their workplace and that, generally speaking, smoking should be discouraged wherever possible. Smokers (and I am one, on and off) are deluding themselves if they think that they have a ‘right’ to smoke – a nonsensical proposition, entirely negated by the ‘right’ of non-smokers not to have to share the secondary effects of their indulgence. You don’t have the ‘right’ to smoke any more than you have the ‘right’ to drink vinegar, cut off your own ears or nail your feet to the ground. These are all choices, not rights. Smoking, however, is a choice that has a deleterious effect on others, which creates an immediate conflict of interest. Speaking as someone who smokes but really wishes he didn’t, it’s probably a good thing that there’s one less place for me to do so now.

Then again, what we’ve got here is yet another example of our government treating its citizens (although technically we’re ‘subjects’, but that’s another rant for another time) like children. It’s the return of the ‘wagging finger’ government, which always knows best, making our decisions for us, which I find particularly nauseating as a liberal. Yes, this will benefit the health of people who work in bars and clubs. But again, these people are quite capable of making an informed choice whether to work in smoke-filled environments or not. Just as claustrophobics would probably not elect to work in a submarine, or people with a fear of heights would decide not to take that wire-walking job at the circus - if you don’t want to work in a smoky bar or restaurant, you don’t have to. And, if you’re a customer, you don’t have to frequent the establishment either. Surely individual choice is preferable to universal legislation?

So there you have it: two equally conflicting arguments and no actual decisive opinion. Maybe I should enter politics myself - I clearly have a thorough understanding of doublethink. And seeing as our government so often resembles Big Brother (see also the result on ID cards this week – I’ll be talking about this at some point soon too) this seems somehow appropriate.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

I reserve the right to offend anyone I choose

And so it continues. Thousands of moderate Muslims took to the streets of London today to protest against those infamous cartoons. (Not that they've even been published in this country of course, at least not in their entirety. Our papers have claimed they did not to want to cause offence. But let's face it: they were simply terrified of repercussions, which is tantamount to appeasement.)

Thankfully the march appears to have been peaceful, with approximately 4,000 people turning up to represent the views of moderate Muslims in this country. Not quite the 30,000 that the organisers hoped for, but at least the extremists seem to have stayed away. It's been a bit chilly in London lately, so maybe they've decided to stay at home and burn some more Danish flags to keep themselves warm. At least we won't be treated to the sight of banners calling for jihad in London. Not today, anyway.

Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn was there, talking about the need for mutual respect, etc. So, too, was Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather who opined that the cartoons were "a juvenile posturing exercise". You are entitled to express that opinion, of course, Sarah. After all, that is your right. But even juvenile posturing exercises are not forbidden under British law. She then went on to say that: "Nothing was done to further the cause of liberal values or the freedom of speech - the publication of the cartoons was just plain racist."

Two points. Firstly, Muslims are not a 'race' - it is a religion. Secondly, nobody is claiming (at least, to my knowledge) that this was ever intended to "further the cause of liberal values or freedom of speech" in any case. The point is, the publication of these pictures was an expression of freedom of speech which is protected by liberal values. The question is: why are you so keen to defend only this one faith from being offended? Especially when so many aspects of this faith (which isn't alone in this respect, either) clash directly with the values that you, as a member of the Liberal Democrat party, are meant to embody. Why aren't you leaping to the defence of all religious groups when they are affronted by something, as you obviously feel so strongly about it?

The BBC caused a commotion amongst some Christian groups last year when it broadcast Jerry Springer The Opera on national television. The show depicts Jesus in a nappy, has him describing himself as "a bit gay" and generally wound up a lot of Christians in much the same way that the Danish cartoons have upset Muslims. Fair enough, they have the right to be outraged. They also have the right to demonstrate outside BBC offices (which some of them did). But unless my memory fails me, there was a marked lack of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs protesting with them. Maybe Corbyn and Teather were there, upholding the right of Christians not to have their faith mocked. I doubt it though.

The general response from a number of commentators and politicians to this issue has been disappointing. Our own government's response was feeble, as was the Bush administration's. The same was true when the fatwa was placed on Salman Rushdie's head in 1989 by Ayatollah Khomeini - condemning someone to death for the 'crime' of writing a novel. There was a general air of apathy along the lines of "well, he shouldn't have written something if he knew it was going to offend people". Pathetic.

If we're going to start addressing any personal behaviour that might offend religious beliefs then where do we start? Taking the Lord's name in vain? Depicting Jesus in a nappy? Depicting Muhammad in any form? Working on the Sabbath (this would have to cover Sunday and Saturday to keep Christians and Jews happy)? Worshipping false idols? These are all forbidden according to religious texts. I drink alcohol, eat pork and have sex outside of marriage (often at the same time). Should I stop, lest I 'offend' somebody? It wouldn't be a case of knowing where to start: where would we stop is the question.

We shouldn't be appeasing or protecting any religious beliefs or convictions as a matter of public policy. In fact, we should be scrapping our own (Jesus protecting) 'blasphemy' law and certainly not opening a debate on the concept of widening it. God forbid!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Unintentionally hilarious quote of the day

I saw this on Raging Right Wing Republican and had to pinch it. As a piece of unintentional humour, this is just priceless.

Covering the demonstrations over those cartoons in Afghanistan, a BBC reporter spoke to one of the protesters:
“They want to test our feelings,” protester Mawli Abdul Qahar Abu Israra told the BBC.

“They want to know whether Muslims are extremists or not. Death to them and their newspapers,” he said.
Perhaps something was lost in translation. Although I suspect not.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Resisting fundamentalism

The ongoing uproar over the publishing of those cartoons is so much more than just another news story. Let's face it: somebody, somewhere, is offended by something they have seen in the media every second of every day. What this story illustrates is the extent of the division between western, secular democracy which cherishes and upholds freedom of speech and expression, against that of unreconstructed Islam which is, in some extreme cases, prepared to kill to ensure words are not said and images not displayed that they find ‘offensive’. Unreconstructed Islam which cannot differentiate between state law and personal freedom and does not grasp the concept that the actions of a newspaper are not the responsibility or business of the government. So we get futile lobbying of the Danish embassy, an organised boycott of Danish goods and - oh my - the burning of the Danish flag. These, of course, were mild responses compared to the burning and looting of the Danish embassy in Beirut, and the attacks on similar buildings in Iran and Syria.

This is, in every sense, a battle between debate and dogma, freedom and doctrine, liberty and fascism. The papers that have reprinted those pictures are totally within their right to do so and defenders of the sanctity of freedom of the press should absolutely refuse to capitulate to the dogmatic thugs insisting otherwise. These freedoms are much more precious than some archaic belief system that forbids any representation of its main prophet. And that goes for religious fundamentalists of every persuasion, by the way: Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Hindu, whatever. The government is under no obligation to protect your faith from being affronted, nor should it ever feel any - once you start, where do you stop?

The irony is that the cartoons which whipped up the most anger weren’t even published in the first place. According to a piece in the Guardian on Saturday, a group of imams from Copenhagen, not satisfied with the response the story was getting in their own country (remember, they were originally published back in September), took the offending items on a ‘tour’ of the middle east to whip up fury. According to the article:
At this point a group of ultra-conservative Danish imams decided to take matters into their own hands, setting off on an ambitious tour of Saudi Arabia and Egypt with a dossier containing the inflammatory cartoons.

According to Jyllands-Posten, the imams from the organisation Islamisk Trossamfund took three other mysteriously unsourced drawings as well, showing Muhammad with the face of a pig; a dog sodomising a praying Muslim; and Muhammad as a paedophile. "This was pure disinformation. We never published them," Lund complained. But the campaign worked. Outwardly the row appeared to be calming down. But in Muslim cyber-chatrooms, on blogs, and across the internet, outrage was building fast.
I wonder how many of the people who took to the streets globally this weekend have actually seen these cartoons in their entirety. The depressing thing is that, as a body of satirical work, the cartoons were actually pretty poor. The most offensive thing about them to my mind is that they weren’t particularly funny in the first place. But then Danes are not famed for their sense of humour. In fact, as I said elsewhere, Danes aren’t famed for anything in particular apart from Carlsberg and Danepak. Oh, and Lego. That is, until now.

The sad fact is, most of the people that protested chose to be offended by something they probably hadn’t even seen with their own eyes. So they took to the streets of London, dressed as suicide bombers, adorning babies with I Love al-Qaida hats and carrying placards with such lovely sentiments as: “Massacre those who insult Islam”, “Butcher those who mock Islam”, “Europe you’ll come crawling when Mujahideen come roaring”, “Britain you will pay: 7/7 on its way”.

Meanwhile, papers in the Middle East routinely run ‘satirical’ cartoons that are blatantly anti-Semitic and anti-western. If you want an example, take a look here. An Iranian newspaper has now launched a competition to find the ‘best’ 12 cartoons about the Holocaust, as if there weren’t enough similarities already between Islamic extremists and Nazis.

Because that is what a lot of those protesters in London at the weekend reminded me of, and it’s absurd that the extremist elements were not challenged and arrested. If the BNP held a rally in London, with hundreds of people on the streets promising death to non-whites, while others dressed as Hitler holding placards saying “Kill all Jews” or "Holocaust now", they wouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. And if we don’t tolerate this behaviour from white supremacists, we shouldn’t tolerate it from Islamofascists either.

Fortunately, those that took to the streets to preach hatred and incite murder of innocent people are still very much a minority within the Muslim faith and it was encouraging to see the chairman of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee openly condemn their actions. Even the idiot who dressed as the suicide bomber on Friday has now apologised. Apparently he "had not intended to cause offence."

Ah yes, offence. Of course. Wasn't that the abstract concept that kicked this whole issue off in the first place?