Monday, October 30, 2006

The sound of one hand clapping

Haven't got a lot to say right now. Normal service will hopefully be resumed very soon.......

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

No Logo

The Respect ‘Coalition’ is looking for a new logo and they are inviting submissions for consideration. Alas, I am not blessed in the artistic/design department so won’t be taking part myself. Although I do have some ideas. There would, of course, need to be a cat theme. Or perhaps a small graphic of Galloway noshing off Saddam Hussein, or being bagpiped by Uday and Qusay. The possibilities are… not quite endless, but there are plenty of options.

Why do they need a new logo anyway? Maybe Greenpeace’s lawyers gave them a call. There is more than a passing similarity.

Anyone else have any good ideas?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Discrediting The Lancet

Medical journal The Lancet last week reported the number of dead in Iraq since the 2003 invasion as 655,000. I treated this figure with suspicion upon its release. I’m no expert on statistics, but a very similar study concluded that there had been 100,000 casualties as of October 2004 (which was itself a matter of great contention). So there's been 555,000 more deaths since then? It just doesn't sound plausible. Couple that with the fact that Richard Horton, the editor of this publication, is a prominent anti-war campaigner who has been known to share a platform with the likes of George Galloway and other leading members of the Defend The Baathists Movement (a far more apposite name for their beliefs than the Stop The War Coalition, I feel), and my suspicion radar was very much switched on.

Now Iraq Body Count, a campaign to accurately record civilian deaths since the invasion, and by no means whatsoever a supporter of the war (hell, even Michael Moore displays their figures on his website) has issued a rebuttal to The Lancet’s findings. It makes some very interesting points:

Summary

A new study has been released by The Lancet medical journal estimating over 650,000 excess deaths in Iraq. The Iraqi mortality estimates published in The Lancet in October 2006 imply, among other things, that:

  1. On average, a thousand Iraqis have been violently killed every single day in the first half of 2006, with less than a tenth of them being noticed by any public surveillance mechanisms.
  2. Some 800,000 or more Iraqis suffered blast wounds and other serious conflict-related injuries in the past two years, but less than a tenth of them received any kind of hospital treatment;
  3. Over 7% of the entire adult male population of Iraq has already been killed in violence, with no less than 10% in the worst affected areas covering most of central Iraq;
  4. Half a million death certificates were received by families which were never officially recorded as having been issued;
  5. The Coalition has killed far more Iraqis in the last year than in earlier years containing the initial massive "Shock and Awe" invasion and the major assaults on Falluja.p>

If these assertions are true, they further imply:

  • incompetence and/or fraud on a truly massive scale by Iraqi officials in hospitals and ministries, on a local, regional and national level, perfectly coordinated from the moment the occupation began;
  • bizarre and self-destructive behaviour on the part of all but a small minority of 800,000 injured, mostly non-combatant, Iraqis;
  • the utter failure of local or external agencies to notice and respond to a decimation of the adult male population in key urban areas;
  • an abject failure of the media, Iraqi as well as international, to observe that Coalition-caused events of the scale they reported during the three-week invasion in 2003 have been occurring every month for over a year.

In the light of such extreme and improbable implications, a rational alternative conclusion to be considered is that the authors have drawn conclusions from unrepresentative data. In addition, totals of the magnitude generated by this study are unnecessary to brand the invasion and occupation of Iraq a human and strategic tragedy.

Iraq Body Count currently put the actual figure somewhere between 43,937 and 48,783, which seems more realistic. Moreover, from what I understand, they employ demonstrable number gathering techniques based on a combination of reputable media coverage and eyewitness reports. This is not to say that there is some kind of ‘acceptable’ death toll in such a situation – any number of civilian deaths is too high, and the way that Iraq has been managed since the successful toppling of Saddam’s regime has meant far more innocent deaths than anyone who favoured the invasion would have been prepared to ‘tolerate’ before we went in. (For more on this subject, I recommend reading this piece by Norm.) But the findings of The Lancet don’t seem to have a shred of credibility and it has been disheartening that this release received such widespread media attention with few, if any, publications questioning the validity of the data. Their target audience is clearly those who choose to believe that our presence in Iraq is nothing but an ongoing slaughter of innocent Iraqis (in other words, most contributors on Comment Is Free) rather than the reality: that we are there now to defend the majority of Iraqis who want quaint things like a working, democratically elected government and judicial system from being slaughtered by those who, to put it mildly, do not.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Our worst fears finally confirmed

So what we all feared (but all knew anyway) has been officially confirmed today: North Korea has the nuclear bomb. Whatever lingering doubts anyone may have had about this lunatic state being part of the nuclear club have been permanently diminished. I wish I had something more insightful and erudite to say in relation to this story other than the following: oh bugger.
So ronery.... but now I have nucrear capabirity

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Caveat lector. This is a rather rambling piece.

As anyone who has ever tried to do so will attest, writing a blog can be hard work sometimes. You have to juggle the desire to write with other commitments and there are times when there is loads going on, you’re itching to say something about it, but you just don’t have the time. Other times, you feel like writing, but there are no stories around that really inspire you. Another scenario is when there are loads of things going on that would usually set you off, but you cannot summon up the energy for some reason. I’d say I’m experiencing the third situation now. This is a consequence of writing a mainly political blog: you’re really at the mercy of the current news agenda. I could write about other things I suppose, but I tend not to because I don’t think that’s why people come here and, secondly, I’m not terribly interested in writing about things going on in my personal life. I don’t treat this blog like a diary. Some people do, and that’s great, but it isn’t for me.

So why am I writing this at all? Because sometimes, as I’m sure other bloggers will agree, there is a clock ticking in your head, counting the days and hours since the last time you published anything, and after a while it can start to bug you. So here I am on a regular Sunday afternoon, reeling off thoughts purely to satisfy the little voice in my head constantly reminding me that I need to write something, anything, today.

But there are plenty of stories out there, mostly of a religious nature it seems. And perhaps that is putting me off writing about them: it just gets me worked up and, in any case, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. But what choice do I have?

So come with me while I load my shotgun and head for the nearest cylindrical container housing cold-blooded aquatic vertebrates.

News about veils continue to dominate, in particular the story of a teaching assistant suspended for refusing to remove it in class. Yet more evidence that this country is hell bent on persecuting Muslims at every opportunity. Because clearly, there are no practical considerations to be taken into account here. In a job where being able to communicate with young children is something of a prerequisite, it makes sense that the person be covered from head to toe. I’ve decided to wear a motorcycle helmet to work from tomorrow. Or maybe a Ku Klux Klan outfit. And who is my employer to dictate otherwise?

Elsewhere, the cabinet is split over new laws for gay rights, after protests from religious organisations terrified about sodomy in the streets, endless Judy Garland conventions in their churches or Graham Norton having the right to defecate in Westminster Cathedral. Or something. I stopped reading halfway through, so if anyone wants to tell me what it’s about, please do so.

Meanwhile, according to the Muslim Council of Britain, Ruth Kelly, the Communities Secretary, is pandering to an ‘Islamophobic agenda’ following the government’s decision to cut funding and official ties with their organisation. Why was our government helping to fund this group in the first place? Or any other religious promotion group for that matter. Not in my name.

British Airways, meanwhile, have stoked controversy by sending home a worker for refusing to conceal a Christian cross while on duty; a contravention of their uniform code. A code that extends to all religious clothing and paraphernalia, with the exception of Sikh turbans and Muslim hijabs. Ann Widdecombe has stated that Christians are “being persecuted” in the current environment. Which is patently as nonsensical as the claims from the Muslim Council of Britain or this opinion piece in The Sunday Times arguing that ‘Muslims are the new Jews’. Although I suspect that the stance by British Airways is driven by a misguided PC belief that one of their employees displaying Christian iconography might be deemed ‘insulting’ to non-Christian customers and co-workers. The only thing this policy insults is everyone’s intelligence. I expect that the vast majority of people could not care less and there is a world of difference between wearing a piece of jewellery and wearing a niqab in the name of your faith: namely that the former does not prohibit the wearer from doing their job effectively and the latter, if said job involves meeting and greeting with people, does. A fairly simple, common sense position to take on the whole issue.

And it is all about practicality rather than discrimination. If I were to wear a small cross around my neck to work tomorrow, my employers wouldn’t be concerned. They might, however, object if I were to commandeer the boardroom and slaughter an ox as an offering to the lord almighty. Both could be defended as representations of my personal religious affiliation, but the latter is clearly impractical in the workplace, not to mention incredibly messy. And I know this from bitter experience.

Meanwhile, that execrable little turd George Galloway stuck his snout into the trough at the Respect party’s annual conference yesterday, proclaiming that anti-Muslim comments are the last “respectable” form of racism in our society. This from a man whose party used Oona King’s mixed race, Jewish heritage as a race-baiting electoral tactic while competing for the seat of Bethnal Green and Bow in the 2005 general election. Money quote from his speech: “It's a disgusting, ugly sight and sound to see or listen to.” You certainly are George, you certainly are. Besides, Islam isn't a race.

I can’t think of anything else to say. Which brings me back to where I began. I’m going to bed.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Hitch

I went to see a conversation between Christopher Hitchens and Bernard-Henri Lévy yesterday, where the topic was the Iraq invasion. At least, that’s how it was billed: the actual motives, arguments and justifications for the war were barely mentioned. I was expecting combative, well argued exchanges between these two intellectual heavyweights, but it was more like a comfy fireside chat with port and cigars. I guess they agree with each other on more points than they don’t. Still, it was very entertaining stuff and it was great to see The Hitch in action. I even managed to meet him. Well, if brushing past him as I was exiting the men’s toilets and he was coming in counts as ‘meeting’ him. Which of course, it doesn’t. And again at the end when I was leaving the lecture hall, he was trying to get through the crowds, fag in mouth, desperate for a smoke. That doesn't count either, does it?

Anyway, he didn’t disappoint. Although I expected him to be taller.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Thinly veiled hysteria

The hoo-hah caused by Jack Straw’s remarks about Muslim women wearing veils is perhaps the biggest storm ever to rage inside a tea cup.

The Leader of the House of Commons is an MP for Blackburn, where the Muslim population is estimated to be somewhere between 25 and 30 per cent. Writing in a local newspaper, he said that he now asks veiled women to show their faces when meeting them in person. Unsurprisingly, he finds it easier to communicate with a fellow human being if he can see their face. On the occasions when he has asked for this, the constituents have obliged. That’s it. That’s the story.

Judging by the reaction in some quarters, and the shameful hysteria being whipped up by the media, you’d think that he goes around Blackburn ripping the veils from women’s heads then setting fire to the cloth. Take this blustering headline from The Independent, for example: Straw fans flames by insisting he wants women to stop wearing veils altogether. From where have they got the word ‘insisting’? I’ve read what Jack Straw actually wrote in the Lancashire Telegraph and he doesn’t ‘insist’ on anything at all. He respectfully asks if they would mind removing their veil during what is meant to be a face to face conversation. So far, all have done so. But it’s their choice whether to do it or not, just as much as it is their choice (at least, it should be) to wear it in the first place. He is not refusing to speak to women who wear veils, nor is he telling anyone how they should dress, which some people have accused him of.

Asked on Radio 4’s Today programme whether he would prefer to see veils discarded completely, Jack Straw said: “Yes. It needs to be made clear I am not talking about being prescriptive but with all the caveats, yes, I would rather.”

That’s one of the great things about this country: Muslim women can choose what clothing they wear, and everyone else is free to have their opinion on it. That is Jack Straw’s opinion. I happen to share his view. I would go further and argue that a cultural requirement that all women cover themselves from head to toe amounts to subjugation (although whether or not the Koran explicitly requires that women wear these garments is a matter of conjecture). I would rather people did not dress this way but, as long as they choose to do so by their own free will (and I would be interested to know how many Muslim women dress this way out of community pressure rather than personal religious conviction) I don’t particularly care one way or the other. For the record, I would also prefer it if people didn’t wear gold jewellery, tracksuit bottoms with Reebok trainers, Chelsea shirts, hooded tops or baseball caps.

But that’s just my opinion.

Sometimes I really fear for the future of this country

Every so often you come across a news story that is so wrong (not factually, but in the sense that what it is conveying is just wrong - in so many ways) you simply do not know where to begin. This is one of those stories.

It appears that some pregnant teenagers continue to smoke in the misguided belief that it will stunt their baby’s growth, resulting in a less painful birth. I am lost for words.

One can only hope that some of the other side effects of smoking (low sperm count, impotence) might stop some teenagers getting pregnant in the first place.

Abolition of limbo now in limbo

I was highly amused to read this week that the Pope has decided, after lengthy investigation and consultation by the International Theological Commission, to consign the concept of ‘limbo’ to the dustbin of history. Limbo, commonly understood to be some sort of halfway house between ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’, has long been something of a headache for the Catholic Church. It is supposed to be the eternal resting place of unbaptised babies (because they would not have been cleansed of ‘original sin’ - of course.) and anyone unfortunate enough to have lived before Jesus. Which all seems a bit unfair doesn’t it? But that was the problem: the Church wants us to believe in the concept of a loving and forgiving god; yet this same god is apparently quite happy to condemn the souls of millions of innocents to an eternity in purgatory. How can we possibly reconcile these two different sides to the almighty? Hmmmm. It’s a real chin-stroker alright.

Prior to the 13th century, it was taught that all unbaptised people went straight to hell when they died, but that was considered a bit harsh on babies who could not possibly have committed any sins yet. And so ‘limbo’ came to be. A place where people would suffer no pain, but neither would they experience the ‘Beatific Vision of God’. In 2004, Pope John Paul II commissioned an investigation with the task of coming up with “a more coherent and enlightened” way of dealing with the fate of innocent infants. The results of that investigation are now known and limbo, it seems, is going to be consigned to, well, philosophical limbo. It’s out. Passé. It was never official Catholic Church teaching anyway and, in the words of Pope Benedict himself: “It has always been only a theological hypothesis.” (Unlike the rest of the Church’s beliefs and teachings of course, which are all based on solid facts and hard evidence.) But isn’t it nice to know that there are people out there spending their time mulling these things over? That people are taking over two years of their precious lives to come to the conclusion that a concept patently made up to plug a theological gap (which has now become inconvenient), a place that clearly does not and could not exist, doesn’t exist?

What unmitigated, abominable nonsense of the highest order! Nonsense on stilts, to borrow Jeremy Bentham’s legendary phrase. Nonsense sent to Nonsense College and awarded a PhD in Advanced Nonsense with honours, presented by Professor Nonsense of the International Committee for the Advancement of Nonsense. Never mind the fact that there is just as much evidence for the existence of limbo as there is for the existence of heaven or hell: none whatsoever. A colossal waste of time.

But the matter is still not satisfactorily resolved. For it appears that official abolition of the concept of limbo will be held up for another year. A suspended sentence, if you will. So we now have a situation where the proposed consignment of limbo to philosophical limbo appears to be in, um, limbo.

I’m going for a lie down.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

He doesn't exactly inspire conference

I suppose I should make some sort of comment about last week’s Labour conference in Manchester. There was really only one story for me: the Machiavellian undermining (intentional or not) of Gordon Brown’s keynote speech.

Poor old Gordon Brown. So desperate to become prime minister, to stake his place in history, to step into the position that he sees as rightfully his. This was meant to be his week. He would make a rousing speech appealing to his own base, while reaching out to others, and at the same time demonstrate to the British public that he is not remote, aloof and socially awkward; that he can connect with them, see off that young upstart Cameron and march forward with the great Labour project, minus the spin-machine of the Blair administration.

So he pulled out all the stops in his speech, declaring outright that he would relish the chance to take on Cameron and his rejuvenated Conservatives. With regards to his fractious relationship with Tony, he paid tribute and admitted that they have not always agreed on everything (no shit). Conscious that people know little about him, he spoke of his Scottish upbringing and how his young experiences forged his political values – values that he holds to this day. Describing his vision of the Labour Party, he maintained that it should have more than just a programme, it should have a “soul”. He seeks political office not for fame or celebrity, but to make a difference, to make this country a better place. And so on.

His speech was generally warmly received, he got the obligatory standing ovation (even from Blair) and was probably feeling pretty pleased with himself. No doubt he retired from the stage to handshakes, warm smiles and back slapping from his most trusted colleagues and supporters. A job well done, they all no doubt felt.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg News broke a story that was clearly going to alter the expected headlines in tomorrow’s papers. One of their reporters claimed to have heard Cherie Blair say “well, that’s a lie” while watching Brown (on a TV monitor) talking about what a privilege it had been to serve under her husband. Downing Street immediately issued a denial, of course. But immediately this stole the top story from the beleaguered chancellor. Suddenly nobody was interested in the content of the would-be next prime minister’s speech, what mattered now was what the prime minister’s wife did or did not say.

Predictably enough, Cherie’s comment was on the front page of pretty much every newspaper on Tuesday morning. Was it intentional? We’ll never know. After all, it’s not the first time she’s said something controversial. But either way, it was a brilliant outcome for the Blairites and the “anyone-but-Brown” camps.

Then, as if Gordon’s week couldn’t get any worse, that bumbling cretin John Prescott gives the kiss of death by declaring that he will support Gordon Brown’s future leadership bid.

Coming up this week is the Conservative conference in Bournemouth. David Cameron consistently tops opinion polls when it is a straight choice between him or Gordon Brown, despite the fact that nobody really knows what Cameron’s policies are on anything. The less he says or does, the more popular he gets. If I were Cameron, I would just get up on stage on Wednesday and play my favourite songs on a kazoo. The way things are going, it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference to his political ambitions. It should be an interesting week.