Sunday, 18 December 2011

It isn't. It's just the lift.

I first found out that David Cameron had said that the UK was a Christian country because some non-Christian friends of mine were being angry and insulted. Given that he was arguing that a lack of Christian values was leading to the country's "moral collapse" this is fair enough, and my instinctive reaction (as so often on these occasions) was to feel bad that Christians all to often play the part of the oppressive majority. Though I have to disagree with the one who said that Jesus probably would have wanted to punch David Cameron as much as he did (WWJP wrist-bands anyone?!).

But then I thought about it. Mr. Cameron reckons that it is Christian values which make the UK what it is today, specifically values from the Bible. Of course it's difficult to say which values an entire nation does or doesn't hold, but in a democracy surely we ought to be able to get some sort of idea by looking at how the nation's elected leaders conduct themselves?

Obviously the commandment not to kill runs into problems in a nation which continues to prosecute wars around the world, and a judicial system which still by default asks people to swear an oath on a Bible contravenes all sorts of instructions from the Old Testament, though perhaps I'm nitpicking. And it would be a bit ridiculous to expect a modern capitalist nation to cancel all debts owed to it every seven years, right? But then, continuing to demand repayments of loans (made to Mubarak so that he could buy weapons from us) from the current Egyptian government (which came to power because they didn't like being persecuted through the same weapons) seems a bit rich. And can the message of the opening of Genesis, that the Bible considers humans the keepers of the garden God has built on earth, really have been received by a government which continues to underwrite loans used to promote unenvironmental development? Especially when this contravenes the same government's own promise not to, but lying's another matter.

But then, that's the Old Testament. It's not really Christian anyway. And Jesus isn't big on the whole commandment thing. The Sabbath was created to serve humans, not the other way round, and all that. Except, when telling a group of men who brought a woman to be stoned for adultery,
He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
(John 8:7, from the King James Version, the one Cameron was praising in his statement), I can't help thinking that it must count for a man who used to trash restaurants insisting that rioters receive disproportionately harsh sentences. And that one of Jesus' key commandments, to love our neighbours, as jarring horrendously with approaching the Eurozone in financial trouble as an opportunity to get things we want from them.

Ask 4,000 people what makes a Christian a Christian and you'll get 4,000 answers. Trying to do the same for something as abstract as a country is almost ridiculous, but if David Cameron thinks that the answer to the problems he perceives is to take your values and morals from the Bible, then maybe he should start taking these values to heart in the way he conducts policy.

Because from the way it is governed, this doesn't look like any kind of Christian country to me.

EDIT - I just found this. Wonderful.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

You want the truth?

How on earth one of the country's most senior politicians manages to repeat a complete misunderstanding (while adding, "I am not making this up", which is at least accurate inasmuch as it was someone else who made it up) in a speech at her party's annual conference is a bit of a mystery. I mean, we've all said things which weren't true because we were repeating a story that we had heard or misheard, but most of us don't have fact-checkers poring over our words all the time. A full debunking of the story can be found here, but what for me is even more remarkable is that the Daily Mail, which had previously reported the story and been corrected on it by the Press Complaints Commission, is continuing to report the story as if it is true.

Can they seriously not know that this story is false? Can they just not have properly researched it, and are happy to take the Home Secretary at her word? Because surely they wouldn't deliberately publish a story which they knew to be false? Is the veracity of the story less important than the fact that it confirms their worldview, or that it can be used as an evangelistic weapon?

It's a story that panders to many important right-wing principles of the moment; that there are too many immigrants, that, "human rights" are a farcical idea, that European legislation is threatening British sovereignty. Believing it to be true is self-affirming for the Mail and their readership, in the same way that I follow blogs that make me laugh smugly and feel superior about my enlightened outlook on life the universe and everything. Don't we all? Seek out people and communities that reinforce our own opinions and the way we live out lives? And isn't it easier to overlook inconvenient truths than to discard a highly useful piece of evidence which affirms and strengthens the rest of the evidence you've already gathered?

Perhaps this kind of deceit is terrifyingly human. And perhaps it's more common than we realise.

Monday, 8 August 2011

There's fighting in the streets.

As the violence in London spreads across the city (and out from the cover of darkness) it is easy to forget how it all started. A peaceful protest of about 200 people at the police shooting of Mark Duggan - and the subsequent lack of communication from the Met and the IPCC with his family - swelled as the police refused to speak to anyone from the protest. Watching it unfold on the BBC, I heard community leaders saying that they were not surprised that something like this had happened, that the lack of police engagement with the community had led to a huge amount of underlying frustration, and that police were still perceived as the enemy in many quarters. The police station on Tottenham High Road was described as being, "like a castle" in the community. As The Guardian reports;

Stafford Scott, a community organiser, said police were "absolutely" culpable for not responding to their requests for dialogue.
While the police claim that they are engaging sufficiently with communities, and that the perpetrators of violence were not representative of these communities, on Saturday night the people rioting were the community. Since then, media claims that the riots have become a more widespread excuse for looting and violence may or may not have more credence - it's impossible to say.
The police don't have a good track record of non-confrontational engagement. Responding to criticisms of insufficient policing of an earlier march, the student protest on 24th November 2010 was kettled and charged by officers on horseback after the looting of an empty police van left conspicuously unprotected along the march route. A protester I met later that evening was very clear that, "We were set up". Beyond protests, the police team in Cambridge established to "engage" the street life community only succeeded in harassing and arresting more of them for sleeping rough, if members of that community and the volunteers who worked most closely with them are to be believed.
Is this confrontational approach an inevitable element of policing? If the police exist to maintain law and order, it is certainly simpler to do this with the threat of force and punishment than with reasoned argument and inspiring altruism. Even more so against the back-drop of 20% cuts, as Paul Deller of the Metropolitan Police Federation explains,

it is the so-called "soft" services like youth clubs and initiatives that help keep young people out of trouble...which nationally the Education Select Committee says have been cut more than any other.

Maybe the police aren't doing a terrible job. At the time of writing there have been no deaths as a result of the riots, and tragedies during protests such as the death of Ian Tomlinson are fortunately incomparable to the pre-constabulary era Peterloo or St. George's Fields Massacres. And yet there are better ways of engaging, rather than simply dealing with, people from the other side of a conflict. Perhaps David Cameron could learn something from the community charities which survive his cuts about peace building without preparing for war. Because asking people who are justifiably angry not to become violent when confronted with aggressive policing is ridiculous. And then to call them "mindless" is hugely insulting.

Monday, 2 May 2011

We're not Judge Judy and executioner.

Well, looks like we finally got him. Osama bin Laden has been killed by American special forces in Pakistan, identified and buried at sea all in the blink of an eye, after 10 years as America's bogeyman-in-chief. And the world wants to celebrate! Americans feel as proud to be American as we did to be British just last Friday, while our very British newspapers fall over themselves to publish photographic evidence of bin Laden's death, so that we can all have a good look and tell ourselves how evil he was and how much he deserved what he got. Maybe the Sun will get to reuse it's most infamous headline tomorrow morning. The other two men killed in the raid are a mere footnote, as is the woman who was reportedly, "being used as a shield". Presumably someone decided a few more deaths was a price worth paying.

Because it has to be a price worth paying, right? We know that he killed all those people on September the 11th, we've been told so for 10 years. Never mind that he denied responsibility for it for 3 years (only claiming credit for the attack in an October 2004 attempt to discredit George W. Bush's re-election campaign), or that the British government's "September 11 attacks - Culpability document" concluded only that bin Laden headed the organisation responsible, or that al-Qaeda is not an organisation with a top-down command structure. Given that the perpetrators died in the attack, we needed someone else to be angry at, and the media repeatedly directed us to him. Who needs a trial? As Bush put it, "There's no need to discuss innocence or guilt. We know he's guilty".

This is all pretty troubling, but what on earth does this action say about our foreign policy? Obama at least is being consistent, having promised in his election campaign to pursue bin Laden into Pakistan with or without the permission of their government (and having spent so much time criticising operations in Iraq as having "taken our eye off the ball" that he's probably going to do extremely well out of this), and as yet it is unclear whether Pakistan even knew that the raid was coming - at the time of writing, the "Death of Osama bin Laden" Wikipedia page states, "the government of Pakistan was not notified of the planned raid", though this has yet to be cited (or even tagged, "citation needed"). To have assassinated a man without trial in the territory of an ally but without their permission?

What if America had tried this in North Korea? Or if it had happened in Pakistan, but executed by Indian troops? There are two first strike scenarios for Joshua to run right there. Should we now expect a series of surgical operations against other people America has reason to hate? Can minor states expect to get away with policing the world in this way? And what merits this kind of special attention, is it the number of people killed or just the number of Americans?

At what point did the world's most powerful nation decide that it was acceptable to mete out punishments of which it deemed people were deserving, without recourse to anything resembling a judicial process, the approval of the international community, or the knowledge of those on whose soil this was being carried out? It's not as if killing him does anything for his victims, proven or alleged. And what about the three people who died with him?

What a load of baloney.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Not such a weird weekend.

I didn't enjoy watching Louis Theroux's return visit to the Westboro Baptist Church, though to be honest I didn't expect to. I knew already that they are bigoted, that they use language which they know to be offensive, and that they court publicity because they believe they are called to. I was still shocked and upset by some of the publicity that they produce (which I don't really fancy describing here, I'm sure Google will tell you if you ask nicely), but I sort of expected to be. I didn't expect to get upset at the presenter.

That outward expression of human emotion is a good thing is almost axiomatic to modern day society, and certainly seemed to be to Theroux. However, many of the people he spoke to considered these feelings to be opposed to their faith and to be a temptation, and were consequently trying to suppress them. Self-denial of some sort or another has been an element of the Christian faith since it began (even Jesus refused to succumb to his desire to eat in the Wilderness), and while argument can be made about how emotionally healthy this form of denial is, many of those to whom Theroux spoke believed axiomatically that not carrying out their mission was against the will of God, even if that meant attempting to rejoice in the departure of a child rather than mourning it.

Many of them admitted that they struggled with this. The parents of the girl who had left the group were clearly upset by it. A group of young women said that they had wept as they explained to a friend that they believed he was on course to hell, yet it wasn't enough for Theroux to hear them admit to these feelings; he repeatedly attempted to provoke an emotional reaction from his interviewees. One member of the church, himself a former documentary-maker, even told Theroux that he was coming from a humanist perspective and that he was refusing to hear the people he was talking to, but that didn't seem to help.

In his conclusion, Theroux said that the church seemed "to live life in denial of the most basic human emotions" and that "they felt entitled, even compelled, to trample on those of other people", and he was right. But at no point did he give any sense of even attempting to grapple with the fact that these people honestly believe that they are acting as third parties for an omnipotent and punitive God. He came to the conclusion that they are angry and self-deluding, rather than trying to understand the motivation behind their actions.

I don't condone or agree with the Westboro Baptist Church, but I do think that they need to be understood more completely than that. Politicians talk about "tackling extremism", but without the realisation that there are people whose most basic beliefs are completely at odds with our own - not through ignorance or stupidity, but as a conscious choice - we'll never get anywhere. There is so much demonisation and dehumanisation of people who think differently from us, because it's easier and quicker to write them off than to try to explain them. Louis Theroux's programme could have helped with that, and it didn't.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

How to direct action?

I couldn't make it to the protest in London last Saturday (stupid charity meetings), though I understand it went quite peacefully. For my part this comes as good news as it means that none of my friends got beaten up (as far as I know, haven't actually heard from everyone who I know was there since Saturday...) though not everyone agrees. This post describes itself as "an intervention in defence of direct action", thought it is specifically defending the tactics of the "black bloc" protest movement.

I'll come to the tactics employed by different groups in a second, but I feel that the poster starts badly, by describing their fellow marchers as, "supposed comrades" [emphasis mine]. Surely it makes sense to embrace, not alienate these people, for as long as we have a common cause? Especially when 138 of the 147 protesters being charged by the police were involved in the peaceful direct action at Fortnam & Mason. While the poster argues that, "The dichotomy between “protester” and “anarchist” or “troublemaker” is entirely false" these words are not synonyms (neither UK Uncut nor the TUC is anti-capitalist), and if politicians and capitalist commentators can still disagree on the very nature of the situation but still protest under the same banner, are the anarchists really unable to? It seems like a shame, especially when UK Uncut specifically ask them to. And did the poster really expect everyone who came to the march to get involved in violent direct action? Even those who brought their kids, or came in their wheelchairs, or to protest at cuts to their pensions?

Putting any such considerations aside though, what would be the ideal level of protest? If the protest really has had no effect on government policy, even those of us who want to work with the current system must surely acknowledge its limitations? Perhaps it serves well to raise awareness, but if as Vince Cable says the government is consulting with trade unions does this make us the suffragettes to their more-effective-but-less-glamourous suffragists? UK Uncut claim to be hitting organisations where it hurts (their wallets) by closing business for a period of time, and acts of peaceful disobedience to the law have a long-established and respected pedigree - Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jnr. And clearly they're rattling cages, or the police wouldn't have made so many arrests.

But what for those of us who want to change the system, not its current manifestation? Violent resistance has an equally long list of heroes - Judas Maccabeus, Robin Hood, Malcolm X - and the tactics of the black bloc are very clearly deliberate, down neither to "mindless hooliganism", nor to being "out of control", nor even to a wish to "vent frustration", all of which I've seen suggested in the past few days. The police are the obvious body to be the target of this violence, and our poster considers the police operation have been a success because they "[meted] out so many more injuries to protesters than were sustained". But the Police were protesting too, and here again is the risk of alienating potential allies in the current battle of a longer campaign. So is this form of violent protest wrong? And if it's wrong in the UK, why are we supporting it in Libya?

There are peaceful ways of changing regimes, but they are longer and slower. If anarchists believe that the current system is causing suffering then they may see themselves as having a duty to act as quickly as possible, but that doesn't mean that other methods don't work, or that they should be dismissed and ridiculed. People exercising the power they have to effect change within the constraints of the law should be encouraged not reviled, or else they'll stop. As Alice Walker said, "The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any."

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Still no size 15 heels though.

I'm not averse to standing out for a good cause. A few years ago I dressed as a clown for Comic Relief (and so that I didn't have to do any work for the day). A couple of years ago I spent a day wearing an orange jumpsuit for Amnesty International (and to embarrass my sister and assorted Archbishops). Pictures of both are available on Facebook, if anyone cares to look.

This year for Comic Relief the staff and pupils at my school were invited to wear something red for Comic Relief. I had been planning to revisit my clown outfit, but found that it is with my parents at the moment, which didn't actually leave me with anything red in my wardrobe. Which was disappointing. Fortunately, some of the other male staff had already agreed to have themselves made up by the girls during morning break, so I joined in to raise more money. The girls had provided red lipstick, red nail varnish and glittery eye make-up (as well as red hairspray, which I declined on the grounds that my hair is already red, and that it would clash. Which would have looked ridiculous).

This was, of course, a lot of fun. The first thing we all did was to traipse off late to staff briefing, leaving the Headmistress standing open-mouthed mid sentence, which was entertaining. She later stopped again to tell me, "Nik, I've just noticed your eyes...", which someone later swears was accompanied by a coy flutter of the eyelashes. Not convinced myself, but hey. The rest of the day went in much the same manner - girls who I was teaching gawped for a while, a singer who I was accompanying at a recital that evening stopped herself mid-sentence to ask what was going on, and even my French housemate asked me somewhat tentatively when I was still wearing it the following day (funnily enough I don't own any nail polish remover myself).

But what really got me was my own reaction to the nail varnish. It turns out that hands are a body part which we see quite a lot, and almost every time I did I did a mental double-take, trying to work out whose hands they were. Putting on a seat belt, drinking a pint, but especially playing the piano or organ. At the organ, as well as getting a thumbs up from one of the RS staff for playing The Kinks' "Lola" as a recessional, I kept having short internal dialogues which went something like this;

"Playing a hymn, playing a hymn..."
[glance down]
"Oh. I wonder who's playing the organ. Must be my Mum or my boss."
"Oh no, wait, it's me. I remember."

It wasn't long enough to disrupt the playing (I don't think), just a very strong inability to mentally identify them as my hands, because they so clearly belonged to a woman. They're big and not especially elegant, but the red nails clearly marked them out as female. This sense of disassociation was obviously very unnerving, far more so than fielding questions from the girls about being gay or being a "tranny" (and yes, I did correct their use of language in that instance). I was slightly nervous about going to the pub after the recital, and about going to Tesco, but not enough to make me reconsider going. But briefly glimpsing the hands tying my shoelaces? Stopped me in my tracks.

There aren't any answers or questions here, just musings. And I'm not saying that it would stop me doing it again of course...but I really didn't like the lipstick. Felt all manky. And I had to take it off to play the bassoon anyway. Maybe I should just stop at the eye make-up.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Excuses excuses.

Eight years after the start of the Iraq war, International forces (surely calling them, "Western forces" is nonsensical while Qatar is considering getting involved?) have become involved in Libya. Precipitated by the breaking of a declared ceasefire, both Barack Obama and David Cameron have emphasised the unilateralism of the action, the latter stating, "British forces...are part of an international coalition to enforce the will of the United Nations." He also underlinedthe legality of the action, presumably to head off any comparisons with the Iraq war. He mentioned the support of the Arab league, as well as the UN.

So is this wide-ranging agreement the tipping point? Cameron postured but didn't interfere when Gaddafi's troops marched steadily eastwards, with the Colonel talking about taking Benghazi (the heart of the uprising), "house by house". But nobody has interfered in Bahrain, in spite of Saudi and UAE troops being brought in to suplement the Bahraini military quelling protests against the regime. The UN human rights chief has condemned the reported "arbitrary arrests, killings, beatings of protesters and of medical personnel, and of the takeover of hospitals and medical centres by various security forces", but there has been no emergency summit to draft resolutions. Neither has anyone interfered in Ivory Coast, where President Laurent Gbagbo who lost a democratic election has refused to step down. His supporters recently shelled a market killing dozens of civilians, an action with the UN has now called a "war crime".

So if the condemnation of the UN isn't the green light, what is? Cameron has further justified action in Libya by saying, "We have all seen the appalling brutality meted out by Col Gaddafi against his own people", adding that it is a "just cause" and in "Britain's best interests". I'm not convinced that the "appalling brutality" has much to do with it. Where is the action against North Korea, which has a ridiculously long list of human rights violations, including (according to Human Rights Watch) "routine public executions [and] the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of people, including young children"? What about a country whose treatment of asylum seekers is so bad that it has to use tear gas to subdue their protests, as Australia did this week? What about countries which stand accused of colluding in the torture of its own citizens, like the UK? Do we really believe that we are fighting in Libya because it is a just cause, and we are not fighting elsewhere because there are no others?

Which leaves us with this conflict being in Britain's best interests. Both Obama and Cameron were elected on a promise to withdraw troops from existing theatres of war, so this long-range support for an already existing military force is an easy way of being the good guys. The UN resolution does not talk about regime change, but about enforcing the will of the Libyan people, and while Hilary Clinton has talked about a "unified" Libya, and Cameron about getting rid of Gaddafi, the military means to carry this out has not yet been discussed (publicly at least).

Perhaps we shouldn't be interfering at all. We've supported militia groups from a distance before, whether the defeated Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War or the victorious Taliban in 1980s Afghanistan, and to say that it turned out well would be something of a lie. But if we are going to get involved we have to know why we are doing it, and what we are doing. Hypocrisy has been a terrible sin for thousands of years, and life being unfair is almost the first complaint we learn as children.

In the meantime, my thoughts and prayers will be in Libya; not so much with the foreign military in their modern technology and at their great distance, as with the people on the ground, who will care about the long-term political implications of what is happening as much as we will care who buries them.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Hoping for more of the different.

I don't like the current government of the UK. I don't like the policies they are implementing, and am terrified by the speed with which they are implementing them. I have marched in protest, and expect to march again. People are talking about the imminent collapse of the Liberal Democrats, about left-wing voters fleeing in their droves to the Labour Party to take refuge under a banner that is indisputably red. Yet in spite of the twinges of betrayal and the slight feeling of naivety, I continue to support the Lib Dems. I'll even risk wearing the cuckold's horns a second time, because there is something larger at stake.

In its most prominent outward expressions, the Westminster system of Parliamentary democracy is, as systems of Parliamentary democracy go, crap. It is oppositional rather than constructive, with little room for considering what your opponent is bellowing at you from across the table. It is macho and swaggering rather than collaborative and consensus-building, with witticism and rhetoric more important than well-reasoned argument. I often feel as if PMQs feels more like two dogs competing at covering the despatch boxes with wee than a debate. And it's not as if there aren't alternatives; I'm a long-standing fan of the German electoral system, but both the Scottish and European Parliaments are committed to more constructive debate and policy building, at least in principle. Westminster is no longer, "the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried".

One of the reasons that I have always voted Liberal Democrat at national level is because they represented the only real chance for a shift in the way Westminster politics was conducted; not only because changing the electoral system has been a manifesto promise since the party was founded, but because a strong third party was the only effective answer to the combative style of government which the UK Parliament so proudly epitomises. AV is not the ultimate solution to this problem (though I'll vote for it), but a demonstration to the people of the UK that there can be other ways of governing would be a powerful step. As Jimmy Carr put it, "I'd vote for AV, but it wouldn't be my first choice".

As I said, I don't like the current coalition, or the compromises (to put it politely) that the Lib Dems have made for it. But I do believe that having a wider range of parties represented at the highest level is a good thing. There will always be governments I like more or less than others, but I'd feel happier either way the more representative of the wishes of the electorate they are.

I hope the Lib Dems survive. I hope they are able to take advantage of the Tories' waning popularity and a Labour leader perceived as weak to remain an electoral force, because this future is bright. We all love a good Portillo moment, but while the Lib Dems being in government is the louder headline and Lembit Opik is more popular with the media, I am proud to say that I was still up for Lucas.