"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Season of bad will

While I've ran out of [good] reasons why this is the case, I still, as a matter of prejudice, oppose the death penalty. It's perhaps the shadow of utilitarianism that makes me feel like this, as when Saddam Hussein can see in his impending execution an opportunity to play the martyr:
"Saddam Hussein has vowed to go the gallows as a "martyr" ready and willing to sacrifice himself, after Iraq's highest court rejected an appeal against his death sentence."
A martyr is someone who is killed because of, solely because of, their confession of faith.

Whatever else you might think about all this, I think you'll agree Saddam Hussein doen't really qualify here.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Christians attacked, government to blame

The Archbishop of Canterbury says 'extremist' attacks on Christians in the Middle East are becoming 'notably more frequent'.

He blames the extremists.

No, of course he doesn't:
"In an extraordinary attack, Dr Williams accuses Tony Blair and the US of endangering the lives and futures of many thousands of Christians in the Middle East, who are regarded by their countrymen as supporters of the "crusading West."
If the Archbish redirected the responsibility for anti-Muslim violence in Britain in a similar way, it would rightly be dismissed as being soft on religious hatred. But what people of Rowan Williams ilk usually do is blame the government for that as well.

Perhaps this tendency to infantilise adult human beings is part of what puts people off going to church?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Respecting believers

Timothy Garton Ash has a good piece in CiF where he argues that it is possible to respect believers without respecting what they believe.

He's right - although it's a bit like when Christians go on about hating the sin whilst loving the sinner in that the maxim tends to be honoured more in the breach rather than the observance.

There's a reason for this, I think. While Christians may profess to believe that everyone is a sinner and they are only saved by grace - deep down I suspect many don't really believe or feel this. This leaves them, despite their protestations to the contrary, with an inability to love the sinner because they really think they are not like them.

Same with many atheists. Their inability to respect believers stems from their self-image as people motivated purely by reason, and who - unlike the believer - have no space in their hearts and minds where they embrace irrationality.

I'm not going to excite any hardcore atheists by describing their position as a belief. It isn't. Interesting, though, the way that in this case belief and non-belief both produce in people the illusion that they are a different order of human being.

Conserve resources this Christmas

You could do worse than follow Johann Hari's example. He's saving energy by recycling the article he did at this time last year.

In fairness there's a couple of add-ons this year. Like a completely new book of the Bible - one called 'Elisha', apparently.

And a new injunction: "Embrace your littleness", he suggests.

Go ye and do likewise, Johann.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Size matters

Actually it's shape. Of the face. Politician's faces, to be exact:
"FORGET policies or moving oratory, when it comes to winning the popular vote it is the shape of a politician's face that matters, according to a new study.

Researchers have discovered that Tony Blair's electoral success can be partly put down to his features, which voters preferred to William Hague's and Michael Howard's.

Similar subconscious voting patterns might also have propelled George Bush to election victory and caused similar results in Australia and New Zealand."
Even if true...

I'm not sure this makes the Holyrood elections in 2007...


...that much easier...

...to predict.

But maybe it's just me. Any swing-voters out there find anything to choose between these rather distressing specimens?

Concern over rising use of 'chemical cosh' on disturbed youngsters

From the Scotsman:
"MORE children than ever in Scotland are being prescribed drugs to treat hyperactivity, figures revealed yesterday.

Statistics show prescriptions for treating attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) increased by almost 16 per cent in 2005-6, with 49,528 handed out by doctors.

This compared with 42,832 the previous year and fewer than 4,000 in 1996.

The cost to the NHS has increased to more than £1.89 million, compared with £1.45 million the previous year and less than £33,000 in 1996.

The Scottish Executive said the rise was due to increased awareness of ADHD and it did not expect to see similar rises in future years."
ADHD - bah! They can remember every score in every Premier league game, concentrate on Playstation for goddam hours. It's the medicalisation of social problems. Other forms of social control have been all but de-legitimised so they dish out the soma instead.

And it isn't strong enough to deserve the name 'cosh'.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

National tragedy

Cafe India has burned down. This I did not know.

New Look

Purely the result of technical incompetence. Got firefox. Which made the original layout look shit. So changed it for this standard blogger fare, because that was the only thing I could work out how to do. Which is ok except I lost haloscan - so if you spent a lot of time pouring scorn on my previous posts, well I'm afraid it's gone for good.

Meanwhile in the real world, the bullshit is piling up. I've done two duvet-days in a row. One reason is that I'm genuinely a bit under the weather. The other is apparently in this place the headteacher goes around the school on the last week with a clipboard and takes a note of people who aren't giving themselves a heart-attack attempting to cram knowledge into today's disaffected youth in these last dying days of the term. This from the man who comes over the tannoy inviting us to pray for dead people - at the time of year when people of that religious disposition do that sort of thing. It's simply too much for me.

Other bullshit news: My girlfriend is going for an interview tomorrow. One of the questions is, "Describe a firefighting situation, which you dealt with. What did you do and how did you do it?" And this isn't for a post in the fire-service. There's the problem with society right there. Who was it that said bloggers shouldn't swear? Well, I think life demands it - so go fuck yourself. Merry fucking Christmas.

David Cameron - in need of an education

Amongst the topics he could do with a refresher in are the British constitution:
"So it would be right actually to hold a general election as soon as is reasonably possible, because the British people thought they were electing Tony Blair. He's off. Someone new is coming. They need a mandate."
Well, if they thought that, they're wrong - unless they live in Sedgefield. Prime Ministers don't get 'mandates' from the British people, they get them from Parliament. And it's not to lead, it's to govern. Do we really have to have another Prime Minister that doesn't get any of this?

He could brush up on some [recent] history too. I seem to remember someone called John Major who was 'without a mandate', according to David Cameron's criterion. The good thing about John Major is that no-one could ever accuse him of leading anything.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Are veggies more intelligent?

They are according to a Southampton University team, who found that children with a higher IQ at ten were more likely to become vegetarians in later life.

Vegetarians who confirm this hypothesis, in my view, would include:

a) The great Thomas Hobbes

b) My girlfriend.

Vegetarians who refute this hypothesis would include:

a) Hitler. Not least amongst his shortcomings was his thinking, "Invading Russia - now there's an idea".

b) George Bernard Shaw. "I've seen the future and it works". Have you? Have you really?

c) All the people who call themselves vegetarians who 'sometimes eat fish'. Look - try to get it into your heads: A FISH IS NOT A VEGETABLE!

Plus my diet is increasingly vegetarian. Does this mean I'm becoming more intelligent? I don't think you'd find many people who would agree with this.

The jury's still out on this one, I reckon.

[Via: PP]

Friday, December 15, 2006

Our friends the Sauds

Astonishing, even by the standards we've become accustomed to from this government, to see it as baldly put as this:
"Lord Goldsmith consulted the prime minister, the defence secretary, foreign secretary, and the intelligence services, and they decided that "the wider public interest" "outweighed the need to maintain the rule of law". Mr Blair said it would be bad for Britain's security if the SFO was allowed to go ahead, according to the statement made in the Lords by Lord Goldsmith. The statement did not elaborate on the nature of the threat."
The public interest outweighs the need to maintain the rule of law. Let's read that again: the public interest outweighs the need to maintain the rule of law. Then let's delete 'rule of law' and try it with 'democracy' or 'liberty'.

The Blairites will say, "Don't be ridiculous - this would never happen". I'd have to ask, why not? By what principle could it be excluded? Certainly not the one that informs the Prime Minister's concept of the 'public interest'.

There's something else as well:
"One witness who gave evidence to the SFO, Peter Gardiner, a director of a travel agent used to make alleged slush fund payments, said last night: "It's an interesting signal that this gives to industry and the world I am thinking of the hundreds of hours I have wasted and all the personal problems this has caused me.""
I'm not one of these who thinks they know the inner-workings of intelligence services throughout the world but I can't think of a single Middle East commentator that doesn't agree that much of the money used to fund the Terror we're supposed to be at War with comes via Saudi Arabia, with figures in the intelligence services and the army high in the hierarchy of suspicion. You could say, then, that this government's cavalier disregard for the protocols of criminal investigation sends an 'interesting signal' to them too.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The end of the 'neoliberal nirvana'?

I'm no Hayekian liberal, me. I agree with whoever it was who said that the free-market was the 'last great untried utopia'. But reading this codswallop is enough to make you one:
"From the ubiquitous green issues, through ever-increasing queasiness about consumerism, to the basic matter of where we live, the most important debates to come will not be about how to extend the market, but how to rein it in."
Green issues indeed! Heard of Chernobyl, John? Where we live? Only someone who's never lived in a council estate could write this. As for your 'ever-increasing queasiness about consumerism' - stop doing it, then! Honesty!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Another year, same old blood libel

This year it comes courtesy of the Socialist Worker:



Via Harry's Place. Read the comments thread and weep. Here's a brief preview:
"Why is everyone wasting so much time discussing whether the Jews were or were not responsible for Jesus's crucifiction (sic)? Christ's very existence is a work of fiction, utterly without any historical basis."
And my favourite, from the same author:
"So, what's the problem?"
Where to begin?

The difference the weather makes

Here's Sunny:
"Hello! As you may imagine, I’m writing this from sunny Los Angeles. I love this place - the people are really friendly, the weather is great and the side-streets are immaculately manicured."
Contrast and compare:
"Hello! As you may imagine, I'm writing this from sunny Glasgow. I hate this place - the people are really hostile, the weather is fucking unnatural and evil. It hasn't stopped raining for over a goddam month and I'm going crazy. Oh, and the streets are a fucking disgrace."
Then you come home and read this sort of shit, recommended by the normally sane S & M, who thinks this sort of twaddle represents 'fine ideas' for constitutional reform:
"We don't have universal suffrage, and no-one is advocating it. Therefore there's a choice that has to be made, and a legitimate question is Who should vote?

I believe that people who derive their main form of income from the state (yes, including teachers) should not be given the vote. Either we accept the libertarian position of state as monster, or we treat it as a consensual collective that generates welfare-enhancing policy. In which case the relationship between customer and employee needs to be refined:

- Ford employees shouldn't determine Ford's production levels: they should participate in developing efficient responses to consumer-defined production."
Yeah because as a teacher, and therefore an employee of 'the monster', obviously I have no legitimate interest in the overall level of taxation, wether we should join the Euro, whether detention without trial should be extended, whether to have ID cards or not, how much money the government spends on the goddam roads, what sort of school my children will go to, whether to go to war or not... I could go on but I think the point is clear. There's a fine line between 'libertarian' and anarcho-capitalists that have lost their goddam minds.

"What are your holiday plans?", asks Sunny. To get through them without killing someone. But if I fail and get the jail - can I expect 'libertarian' bloggers to defend my right to vote?

Reasons to celebrate Christmas #1

There's an amusing article about the Daily Mail stories of the spectre of secualrism that is threatening Christmas over at CiF. But it was the first comment under the article that caught my attention. Somebody called 'Koolio' writes:
"Christmas has been banned. What was once a pagan winter festival became the Mass of Christ to celebrate the birth of Jesus. All this has been swept aside, now it just an orgy of consumption, we are expected to buy each other gifts as a proxy for love and care, gorging ourselves with turkey and pies whilst millions abroad starve."
So in case you're understandably disposed to the bah-humbug feeling at this time of year, that's reason #1 to celebrate Christmas right there. 'Tis the time of year where we can gather with friends and family - and stick two fingers up to the puritans.

(Via)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Conservatives and marriage

When there used to be a married man's allowance, I was married. When the government scrapped them, I got divorced. Coincidence? Of course is is. No-one makes these sorts of decisions on the basis of a personal tax assessment and as Tom Hamilton has pointed out, it would be slightly odd if they did.

And the Conservatives' decision to make the family a political issue is really odd for two reasons.

One is, as practically everyone has pointed out, whatever one thinks of the diagnosis, the cure simply won't work. The financial cost of divorce is so great, any fiscal regime that made it even more undesirable would have be both extravagant and draconian to a degree that would not be merely undesirable - it would be impossible. Unless, that is, they are prepared to countenance no tax at all for the married, combined with a system where a team from the Inland Revenue come round to your bed-sit and steal what little furniture you have left. Even then, I doubt it would work.

Because poverty does not cause divorce. I'm not just extrapolating from my own experience here. The divorce rate is higher in wealthier countries. Part of this is economic, but not in the way the Tories think. We get divorced because we can. It is, I can testify, financially painful - but not unbearable, still less unfeasible. Polly Toynbee inadvertently provides evidence for this because while she complains that the Tories have confused cause and effect, she then refers to the experience of Denmark, which she rightly says has the lowest level of child poverty in the EU. But doesn't the fact that it also has the same level of single-parent families as us rather undermine her 'cause and effect' point?

Any fair EU comparison would also show that it is the predominately Catholic members, which are generally also the poorest, that have lower divorce rates than the predominately Protestant ones. We get divorced, not only because we can afford to financially, but also because historically it has been easier both legally and socially to do so.

Which brings me to the other odd thing about this latest foray by the Tories into the realm of 'family values'. Given the embarrassment of John "Edwina Currie shagging" Major's ill-starred 'back to basics' campaign, why have the Tories come out with this now? Chris wonders whether they aren't pandering to their own supporters by dressing up handouts to their own as concern for the most needy in society. Possibly, but I doubt it. The truth is the Conservatives have identified a genuine social problem that has consequences that are fairly easily demonstrated. Polly Toynbee's solution is to go for the Denmark option, which - as I'm sure she is well-aware - would involve a massive expansion in the provision of nursery education. This would overcome the single most important obstacle to single-parents returning to work, the means by which they can overcome poverty.

But old age and my own experience - both professional and personal - is making me more conservative (as well as more hypocritical, given my circumstances), so I doubt whether this is the answer. People in my position tend to get very defensive about this sort of thing. When it is women, justifiably so - given the disgraceful attacks we have seen from the Tories in the past on single-mothers.

But I'm persuaded nonetheless that family breakdown is an externality that needs a more careful response than the usual recourse to the old categories. People of my generation grew up with the feminist critique of the institution of marriage. It wasn't that none of this was justified, it's just that I don't think it occurred to many people at the time that this could be balanced by similar critique of divorce. But now that the results are in, so to speak, I think it should be.

The Tories edge towards this with a focus on the responsibility of fathers. A welcome change, in as far as it goes. But fundamentally they don't have the solution either. I'd suggest the reason they've come out with this gumph about tax-breaks is because they clearly lack the courage, ability, confidence, sheer pig-headedness, or whatever it takes, to make a proper conservative argument like this one and have fallen instead for the notion that families, like everything else in society, can be controlled and moulded into a pleasing shape by the state. As if this was a condition that has hitherto failed to materialise only for want of finding the correct combination of fiscal levers to pull.

Protesters condemn Holocaust conference

From the Scotsman:
"A conference of the world's most prominent Holocaust deniers opened in Iran yesterday amid international condemnation and protests by dozens of Iranian students, who burned pictures of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and chanted "death to the dictator".

Never has the hardline leader, who was giving a speech at a university in Tehran yesterday, faced such open hostility at home.

One student said the crowd was protesting against the "shameful" Holocaust conference - which was organised after Mr Ahmadinejad described the murder of six million Jews by Nazis a "myth" invented to justify the occupation of Palestinian land - and the "fact that many activists with student movements have not been allowed to attend university".

The conference "has brought to our country Nazis and racists from around the world", the activist added."
Both embarrassing and slightly more difficult to handle than usual for the regime that likes to hang children because Ahmadinejad has used the fact that Holocaust denial is illegal in some European countries to present Iran as a champion of free speech. He seems to be discovering that the pesky thing about free speech is that people don't always say what you would like them to say.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The 'torture debate' - a reply to Norman Geras

Norm objects to my recent post about the 'torture debate' on the grounds of my rejection of the very need for a torture debate and my 'too brief' dismissal of Stephen de Wijze's article about torture.

The first position requires some explanation because I was perhaps unclear. I regret the very existence of a 'torture debate' in the way that Zoe Williams regrets that there is an abortion debate. What she feels is that this represents the reality that what she regards as an inviolable right for women is presently threatened by the possibility of compromise. I think she's right about this - and it's the same with torture. I wasn't really suggesting that a rational defence of the torture taboo shouldn't be made but rather regretting the dismal situation where these have to be made at all. But this, as Norm might say himself, is where we are - so I suppose they have to be.

This is why I used the expression 'the wisdom of ages and of nations' in this context. Arguably it's a bit of a cheap shot to take an expression that is obviously a piece of rhetorical flourish so literally. Of this Norm writes:
"[T]he 'wisdom of nations' hasn't always come out against torture."
I'll overlook the insult* implicit in the assumption that I was unaware of this. I was talking about Britain - I think I mentioned it specifically - and we are talking about the United States too, a country whose constitution specifically proscribes torture in her Bill of Rights. 'Ages and of nations' does not imply that there has been universal recognition of this principle from time immemorial but rather that this was a lesson human beings might have reasonably been expected to have learned from history. That it had been is implicit in the constitutions of Britain, France and the United States. That it is these three countries that have breached the taboo against torture in the second half of the twentieth century was in my mind when I made the appeal to tradition. I make no apology for doing so because the American constitution, for all its flaws, is smarter than Donald Rumsfeld.

This brings me to the article I dismissed with, according to Norm, undue haste:
"Anyone reading Shuggy's post but who hasn't read Steve's review article may form the impression that Steve either defends 'torture warrants' or has too soft an attitude to torture (though it surely wasn't Shuggy's intention to give this impression). Neither point is true."
It certainly wasn't my impression to suggest that Stephen de Wijze advocated 'temporary torture warrants'. I was using this an a example of the sort of idea that would be familiar to people following the torture debate. The second point, though, I plead guilt to. Stephen de Wijze does, in my opinion, have a too soft attitude towards torture and I'm afraid Norm misrepresents his article if he thinks you'll find in it an unequivocal condemnation of torture as always and everywhere wrong. An easy mistake to make though because clarity, in this article anyway, is conspicuous by its absence. Take this, for example:
"Consequently, the answer to the question of whether it is morally justified to use torture in the face of a TBS is both yes and no.

It is always morally wrong to use torture but in some cases of the TBS it is also a moral duty to practice it - one must do wrong in order to do right! In these rare and extreme circumstances, there is no escaping getting dirty hands."
So, it's always wrong to use torture - except in circumstances where it is the lesser evil, in which case it is not only permissible, it might be considered the duty of a government's security forces to perform it. But because it's always wrong, it can never be legally institutionalized. But since it might have to happen sometimes to find a ticking bomb, those found guilty of carrying out what is always wrong might in retrospect legally be found to have done right after all? And Norm thinks it's me that has got myself into a tangle? Hmph!

*Ok, I've chilled now. There wasn't one - my mistake. Still don't like the de Wijze article, though.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Against the torture debate

Some welcome cricket-free posts from Norm at last - although here's one I didn't care for. Or to be more precise, it contains a link to an article I didn't care for. Norm describes this piece by Stephen de Wijze as a "an absolutely must-read" survey of the "torture debate".

So I read it. Then I wished I hadn't bothered.

It's not that the article isn't a reasonable summary of the "torture debate"; it's just that I don't think we should be having such a debate at all. Stephen de Wijze is amongst a number of people who have described the prevailing liberal consensus that is opposed to all torture under any circumstances as a 'taboo'.

The notion of taboo carries connotations of irrationality, of beliefs held on the basis of prejudice. I think the 'taboo' against torture can be rationally defended quite easily. Philosophically, torture fails the Kantian 'Kingdom of Ends' test; historically it has demonstrably failed the utilitarian test. But my purpose here - and this is where I worry I'm becoming a conservative - is to defend the taboo against torture as a taboo - this being an inclination, based on moral sentiments not necessarily formulated into abstract thought - something drawn from the wisdom of ages and of nations, rather than men.

Every society has them - and that the prohibition against torture has formed part of the history of Britain is something that makes me more favourably disposed towards it, and forms a big part of the reason I was so appalled at Nick Cohen's sleekit apologia for it.

I strongly dislike this talk of us being in an "unprecendented situation", as if there wasn't enough information available to us from history about the human condition already. Did we really have to witness the shame and disgrace that was Abu Ghraib to learn it all over again? And isn't the fact that a 'debate' is taking place at all evidence that not even this most recent lesson has been learned?

Let me put it in the most unequivocal way I know how: the very idea that 'liberals' should consider, even for a moment, the notion of 'temporary torture warrants', that the state should be allowed under any circumstances to have this power over other human beings, is something that comes from the Father of Lies himself.

[Cross-posted in DSPTFW]

Communication breakdown

This made me laugh:
"A HI-TECH bid to stop trouble in a Scots town's pubs had to be scrapped because English call centre workers couldn't understand the bar staff.

Publicans in Elgin, Moray, tried to beat the brawlers by reporting fights to a pager company in Middlesex, who then sent electronic alerts back to the local police.

But by the time the bar staff had managed to make themselves understood, many of the yobs were long gone.

The landlady of Elgin's Ionic Bar, Karen McPhee, said yesterday: "The call centre people often couldn't make out what staff were saying, and the police couldn't make out the messages sent on to them."
And you thought trying to talk to your ISP provider in India was hard work. There's a lesson about technology, globalisation and the limits thereof, somewhere.

[Thanks Will]

Encouraging religious devotion

The appropriately-named Sheik Rage has a novel way of going about it:
"Anyone who does not pray five times a day will be beheaded, an official in a southern Somalian town declared yesterday, adding that the new edict will be implemented in three days' time.
[...]
Those who do not follow the prayer edict after three days have elapsed "will definitely be beheaded according to Islamic law", Sheik Rage said."
Sorry, that should say, "ancient way of going about it."

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Bloggers' code of conduct

Missed this completely. I learn belatedly via Paulie that Press Complaints Commission director Tim Toulmin has suggested that a voluntary code of conduct for bloggers is desirable:
"[G]enerally on the internet "there are no professional standards, there is no means of redress", Mr Toulmin said.

He added: "If you want to see how the newspaper industry would look like if it was unchecked, then look at the internet."
I have done. It looks so much better. But a code of conduct? If you must. Here's my suggestion:

1) Say what you think is true.

2) Don't get paid for it.

I agree doing 2 is making a virtue out of necessity but since this is the state of affairs for most of us, we can rejoice that it allows us to do 1 more effectively.

Oh and to Tim Toulims and Alistair Campbell. Redress? Go fuck yourselves.

Labour plans 'male MOT'

From the Scotsman:
"MOT-style health checks for men over 40 will form part of the Scottish Labour Party's manifesto commitments.

Under the plans, men would be invited to take the check-up when they reach 40, looking for problems that might get worse if not addressed early."
These tests would include:
"Checks on blood pressure and cholesterol would identify those at a high risk of heart disease and stroke.

Such men could be given diet and exercise advice.

Drugs could also be prescribed to limit the risks among those who caused the most concern.

The MOT would also look for signs of diabetes.

Men would face questions about their lifestyles.

Those who smoked could be directed to smoking cessation services to help them quit.

Flabby bastards would be urged to do more press-ups..."
And if you think I made the last one up, it's only the form of words I changed.

This is in order to reduce the gap between the life-expectancy of men and women. Is it just me? It is just me if the comments under the article are anything to go by but I think, why? Women's life-expectancy used to be lower than men's essentially because of child-birth. This is much safer now, and women do this less anyway, leaving the men popping their clogs at a younger age. This is because a) we smoke more b) drink more c) take more drugs d) work longer [I doubt the Executive will be planning to eliminate this vice from our lives] and e) avoid the goddam doctor.

Women do less of the above apart from e) - so they live longer, but statistically are more likely to enjoy poorer health. Probably because they're going to the doctor more often and being diagnosed with stuff. With the exception of d), it seems to me we get the better deal. Shorter life but more enjoyable. So what's the problem? We don't live long enough but if we do, they complain we're a burden to the state? There's no pleasing some people. As I've said before, it's not really joined-up social policy, is it?

Monday, December 04, 2006

Entertaining doubts

We are - or I am, anyway - accustomed to feeling more favourably-disposed to religious believers when they admit to having doubts about their faith from time to time. Rightly so, in my view.

Perhaps those of us of an agnostic or atheist disposition should reciprocate from occasionally - share our own crises of doubt, as it were. I know I have them.

For example, here I am in a Catholic school. Now as so often is the case these days, you find yourself having to define every word that has any conceptual weight and when this veers towards religion this means you have to explain what atheist, agnostic, monotheism and polytheism mean.

See the ones who react by declaring themselves to be atheists? Complete numpties, for the most part. Let's put it this way - I don't think they'd be justified declaring themselves 'brights', as Richard Dawkins would have them do.

Comment, to coin a phrase, is free - but please take this in the spirit of levity it was intended, for goodness sake.

Chavez and the politics of polarisation

Chavez has been re-elected for a third six-year term. No-one's talking about it. Not in my workplace, not in the pubs I go to. But the blogosphere is a different story. The reason behind this is a familiar one. Political partisans, leftists in particular, have a long history of being obsessed with the events taking place in two arenas in the world - the Middle East and Latin America.

It is because it is felt that it is here that the fundamental clashes between right and left, capitalism and socialism, are played out in primary colours. For the ultra-leftist, the attractions are obvious. All but the most blinkered gave up pretending the Soviet model was internally more benign than liberal capitalism with a welfare state decades ago. But both the Middle East and Latin America were always different stories - areas of the world where evidence of capricious Western statecraft was and is both copious and obvious.

I would point out that the very same leftists had a tendency to ignore the role of the other superpower in both these regions; one has only to compare the starkly different responses to the Soviet and American invasions of Afghanistan for an example of this. But this would be to make the reckless assumption that the people involved in the 'debate' possess memories. And more importantly it would be to fall for the partisan trap that merely apes the polarised politics that have been so destructive to these parts of the world.

For they have been characterised not just by sharply-defined ideological political movements but something altogether more corrosive to civil society - fundamental disagreements not just over policy but over the very mechanisms that determine which policies are executed in the first place. That priests are politicised, the police corrupt, unions riot, politicians and businessmen bribe, and the military coup are symptoms of this very fact. To take sides at various times in a variety of ways is tempting, at at times irresistible, but as often as not this serves only to be part of the problem in these parts of the world.

Enter Chavez. For those aching for the collapse of the American empire, his attractions are obvious. Better than Castro on account of the fact that he isn't at death's door; he was democratically elected; and is fundamentally less repressive than Castro ever was or is now. And you don't have to long for America's demise to acknowledge that he spends his country's oil-wealth in a more benign fashion than the American-sponsored House of Saud.

Yet I'm not celebrating for reasons that I think others are finding difficult to articulate. There is his foreign-policy to consider, of course - his support for dictators of questionable sanity and unquestionable inhumanity in Iran and Zimbabwie. But there's something more fundamental than this. The threat President Chavez has already posed for liberty is clear to anyone who cares to look. And that he intends to seek an amendment to the constitutional restriction on Presidential re-election is perhaps indicative of what is to come.

But Chavez groupies ignore this for the same reason they ignored and continue to ignore Castro's repression - they prefer equality to liberty. It's an old division on the left that dates back to the Russian revolution. I understand this, I was brought up with this. I even used to share it in my youth, but not anymore. Others may have different reasons for their scepticism over the Chavez phenomenon; mine is that while liberty and equality are desirable, they are not necessarily co-existent and where they should conflict, I choose liberty every time. It's as simple as that.

Cross-posted at DSTPFW

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The exhaustion epidemic

Louise Carpenter has a piece in today's Observer about tiredness and modern life.

It looked interesting but I'm too knackered to read all of it.

Actually, I think it's the weather and the lack of sunlight. It can't be a coincidence that an article like this comes out now and not in the spring.

That and work. It's not so much that we work longer hours - well, I don't anyway. It's the feeling of being monitored all the time. This combines with the feeling that one of the things that is monitored more than ever before is your attitude. I hate this and am genetically incapable of being 'positive' on command so spend an undue amount of working time explaining to 'line-managers', many of whom in a previous life must have worked for goddam Butlins or something, what the word 'cynical' means and by extension why they are wrong to apply this to me.



I mean, seeing signs like this one above immediately make me feel tired. [This one's outside the RE department. I think the irony was unintentional.]

Friday, December 01, 2006

Semantic flexibility

Always a problem with political terminology because some words, like 'liberty', 'choice', or 'democracy', are like motherhood and apple pie; no-one can be seen to object to them without inviting obloquy. So instead concepts are either stretched to allow for connotations that the terms were not originally designed to carry, or they are narrowed in order to exclude something the writer or speaker finds undesirable.

It was this tendency that led Isaiah Berlin to complain that liberty had become a concept so porous that there seemed no definition that it would not bear - hence his distinction between 'positive' and 'negative' liberty.

Democracy is also such a word, conditioned by people's response when it produces results they don't like. Neil Clark accuses Daniel Finklestein of doing just that - arguing he is using a 'Fordian' definition with regards to the election of Ahmadinejad in Iran. It would be no exaggeration to say that Mr Clark is using a somewhat elastic definition of the term when he states unequivocally that "Iran is a democracy", as Marcus points out.

Moreover, it is impossible not to notice that the 'Iran is a democracy' line is today being heard from those of a hard-left tradition that has historically tended to radically narrow the term when it is applied to the results of elections in the West in order to explain away the fact that the people have an annoying tendency to vote contrary to their interests, as perceived by those commentators who profess to speak for them.

However, the temptation to expand or contract the meaning of democracy to suit the situation is ever-present and often taken by people of all kinds of political persuasions so any sensible conversation requires some agreement over the meaning of terms.

With regards to democracy, the preference would be for the concept to have some relationship to how the term has historically been understood, which is to say it refers to a representative democracy where political leaders are chosen in periodic competitive elections. It would also require an acceptance that even this limited form is not absolute and that states can be more or less democratic, depending on a) the extent to which elections are genuinely competitive b) the extent to which the political leaders produced by these elections actually govern. While there may be disagreement on the margins, surely Iran fails to meet even the most circumscribed definition of the term 'democracy', as it has been understood historically? To argue otherwise is to render the term meaningless - and to suggest it fulfills some more idealised version of the concept, absurd.

On Scottish independence (again)

Sorry. I'll be brief.

Jimmy Reid, Alisdair Gray and Christopher Harvie talk nonsense.

John Lloyd talks sense.

That's all.
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