Friday, 19 December 2008

Balkan ignorance

The history of the countries of the former Yugoslavia is a fascinating case study into so many areas of inquiry that we should have a far greater understanding and knowledge of the area than all but the most specialised scholars do.

Studying the Balkans tells us about modern warfare; statecraft; ethnic, racial and religious tensions and hatred; the rights of minorities; the rights of majorities; the nature of democracy; the arbitrariness of borders; post-communist conflict; Eastern and Western spheres of influence; the effectiveness of the United Nations, Europe and the international community in stopping genocide; international law; self-determination; liberal Western interventionism and the absurdity of nationalism. All this, and so much more, can be evidenced in the Balkans and just since 1991.

And yet, the averagely intelligent WATM reader will, like the WATM duo ourselves, be painfully ignorant of the causes and course of conflict in that region.

The topic is, of course, too gigantic to say anything intelligent at all in one blog post but more on this issue, like m'colleague's second post on moral relativism, will be coming soon.

One particular oddity of the situation in that region remains the naming of the Republic of Macedonia (sic). In respect of this naming 'dispute' Greece has acted like a petulant child. The Hellenic Republic objects to the term 'Republic of Macedonia' because it apparently implies territorial ambitions. What rot! Therefore, thanks to the Greeks, in international diplomacy the country is invariably referred to as, wait for it, 'The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia'.

This issue has been escalated to the highest levels of international diplomacy, without, so far, any firm result.

The Balkans have enough problems of their own making without these being compounded by a supposedly respectable Western, European Union democracy acting up. Greece should be a stabilising actor in a region with far to few hitherto stable neighbours.

In the coming weeks and months we hope to provide more posts on the Balkans because, we believe, that they are fascinating and important, especially for those of us with an internationalist outlook.

In the meantime, given the festive season, it seems appropriate to thank our handful of readers for sticking with us. To be honest, we could probably ring all of you personally to do so, but it would seem somewhat not in the spirit of blogging to do so. To all and sundry, then, WATM wishes you a very merry Christmas-time. We'll catch you in the New Year!

Friday, 12 December 2008

A case for intervention

Zimbabwe long ago became that most tragic of things - a country where the expectations are so low that each week's latest disaster fails to rouse much interest. The suffering of its inhabitants becomes less shocking. The economic collapse becomes a joke, with the currency as its butt.

It is simplistic to believe Zimbabwe was a shining beacon of excellence once. However the UN Food Programme was not feeding over half the country's population ten years ago. Through fear of being branded neo-colonialists, lack of interest and the worse form of moral relativism (see the second part of our moral relativism piece soon) the rest of the world sat back and did nothing. In 1990 the writing was very much on the wall - Mr Mugabe attempted to move the country to a one party state. In 2000 the land reform programme took to violently purloining land from farmers - obviously repellent behaviour, but the relativists wondered if past injustices made this more acceptable.

This week the disassociation with reality has continued. A cholera outbreak is taking lives near the capital and on the border with South Africa. Cholera sounds an antiquated disease, and it is. There is no reason for anyone in Zimbabwe to die of this disease, but we are barely surprised after the country's past, that another tragedy has befallen the nation.

It is time for the world to act. A force comprised of EU or NATO troops (the UK alone would play into Mr Mugabe's hand) is required to remove Mr Mugabe and support the transition to a government with an MDC presidency. The hand-wringing will, of course, commence. No amount of worry over the sovereignty of the country will change two facts. Firstly, the power-sharing deal is failing, and failing pitifully. Secondly there is a 2005 UN mandate that requires the world to protect people from crimes against humanity. When half a country is starving through the corrupt policies of a violently-preserved president the crime is all too plain to see.

Do not wait for the UN security council to act. The morally-bankrupt actions of China and Russia lead to a veto on any attempt to hold Mr Mugabe to account. The people of Zimbabwe cannot wait any longer for the UN to reform its decision making bodies. The senseless deaths through politically-inspired violence, starvation and disease have to stop. It's time to get a plan in place, to make an ultimatum and, if then required, forge an international force to depose Mr Mugabe permanently. The UN grants clear moral authority to do this. If China and Russia won't step up to the plate, then the rest of the world must.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Grow up Tories, would you please?

I think we need to settle down a little. And the Tories in Parliament need to get a grip.

While it is depressingly expected for assorted wrong-mos (© Sadie of the Tavern) on the blogosphere to self-combust in an explosion of indignation any time the Government does something they don't like and start shouting words like NAZI!!!!!! and POLICE STATE!!!!!!!!!!! it really has come to something when the official opposition start to react the same way.

Let us be clear, the police's searching of Damien Green MP's office may (let me emphasise may) have been badly handled, poorly judged and ill-conceived. It may have contravened important parliamentary privileges. But it is not, under any circumstances, whatsoever, evidence of a "surveillance state", "police state" or an "authoritarian government".

I think those who start bleating along those lines make themselves look foolish and diminish their own arguments, but that is not my concern. It is, however, my concern that that kind of language is extraordinarily offensive.

Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Cuba are authoritarian, surveillance and police states. The Soviet Union, East Germany and Afghanistan under the Taliban were and for those who live and lived under those regimes their life and the minute scrutiny and rigid conformism that they endured really cannot be compared to the inconvenience Mr Green has suffered. There are honest to goodness examples of police states in the world right now and they are each of them despicable and the rulers of them deserve nothing but contempt and the citizens of which deserve nothing but our help and admiration. The UK is not one.

So this approved message to the Tory Party is grow up. This kind of hysteria does nobody any good at all and diminishes the language which we dearly need to describe the kinds of regimes under which my writing this post would not be allowed.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Bad for the constitutions

One could be forgiven for seeing the recent protests in Bangkok heralded the coming of an South East Asian analogue of the Colour Revolutions. After Rose, Orange and Tulip (Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan respectively) which plucky group of democratic protesters would save Thailand from its government.

If only it were so simple. The airport demonstrators were almost entirely aligned to The Democrat Party, a somewhat ironically-named opposition party. They are democratic in the sense that, in the 2006 coup d'état, they supported the army. In this coup Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown, and he, along with his party of Thai Rak Thai (TRT), are key to the story that has developed ever since.

Mr Thaksin is not an easy figure to summarise. He is, in his own words, 'not a perfect man'. This is a man who was condemned, famously, as 'a human rights abuser of the worst kind'. These comments stem from concerns that Human Rights Watch (HRW) have over the campaign Mr Thaksin led against the narcotics trade in Thailand's south. It is not to condone any wrongdoing that may have occurred if it is stated that HRW show something of lack of proportion in this statement.

For a Prime Minister who was dogged with these claims, and those of corruption, it was perhaps surprising how slowly the opposition could provide any evidence to the courts after the coup. In the evidence the charge was lamentable: that his wife had, in a sealed bidding process for a piece of land, put in the highest bid. Mr Thaksin was convicted on an anti-corruption law that prevents spouses of the government doing business with the state - hardly a ringing endorsement of the need for a coup. Earlier this year the erstwhile Prime Minster jumped bail and fled to the UK.

The coup replaced Mr Thaksin with the militarily-appointed Surayud Chulanont. Given the justification for the coup it surprising that Transparency International, and NGO that seeks to expose corruption, stated that Thailand had a "significant worsening in perceived levels of corruption in 2007".

Once the coup was over Thai Rak Thai morphed into the People's Power Party (PPP) and the impressively unpalatable Samak Sundaravej took over as Prime Minster, a man who helped incite violence at the 1976 student protests that led to 46 deaths. Not to be outdone the courts struck Mr Samak's premiership down on the grounds that he appeared as a TV chef, something apparently not compatible with his day job.

It is Mr Samak's successor, Somchai Wongsawat that this week's protesters have (successfully) sought to depose. In reality they have done so not because of the corruption allegations against him. The Democratic Party are loathsome, something well summarised by their comment that the PPP's power base, the rural poor (who Mr Thaksin championed improved health care for), are 'too ill-educated'. On numerous occasions the Democratic Party has accused the PPP or its precursor of being anti-royal. In the UK this may seem trivial, but in Thailand, with its surprisingly backward lèse-majesté laws, it is all to easy to paint an enemy as a denigrater of the King and thus influence the opinion of a public that is hugely fond of its monarch.

The king is not the cause of this trouble - he has indicated the importance of him being open to criticism. Unfortunately the farcical constitutional ban on criticism of the monarch allows the Democratic Party to act as the King's saviour. The protests are not about the forces of good democracy overthrowing a corrupt regime. They are about little more than the elite of Bangkok, who are shocked by the power the rural poor are able to wield by electing the TRT/PPP, seeking to redress the balance in their favour.

Accordingly the fall of Mr Somchai is a tragedy for Thailand's democracy, and could spell the beginning of yet another constitution for Thailand (this would be number 18), one that sought to limit the power of the rural poor and cement the influence of Bangkok elite.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Why I like Tucker and why he's wrong

Most British politics followers will not be familiar with Tucker Carlson. He's an off-the-charts conservative pundit who works for MSNBC and writes for various magazines including Esquire and The Weekly Standard. He also used to have his own show, Tucker, which was my compulsory lunch time viewing.

I like MSNBC a lot. It gets a lot of criticism for being partisan and for being 'in the tank' for Obama during the election. Much of that criticism was unfair. Tucker had his own show, as did, and does, former Republican congressman, Joe Scarborough, and they balanced out the liberal anchors such as Keith Olbermann and the wonderful Rachel Maddow.

But Tucker couldn't find an audience and his show was axed. That's a real shame.

Tucker was wrong about almost everything. On the one small shred of common ground between me and the Republican party -- that America should be an internationalist country -- we even disagreed. But I really enjoy his analysis, his humour, his back and forth with guests and his willingness to be polite and friendly to those which whom he disagreed. It is a really pity MSNBC axed his show and I hope he finds an outlet on TV for his punditry soon.

Turning to specifics I wanted to refer to a recent interview Mr Carlson gave (see below for clip). He was asked for his thoughts on Obama's election and said he was disappointed in the media coverage of the victory because it implied that if McCain had won America would have been a less good country.

Yep, it often did imply that. And it would have been true. It's a shame that none of the other guests on the show pointed out why. Not because America needed to elect a black man to the presidency in order to assuage its guilt for past crimes, but because if McCain had won it would only have been because Obama was black and he, McCain very wasn't.

McCain was supposed not to win. The Bush factor, the war in Iraq, the desire for change, the need for health care reform, economic crisis. If McCain had won even with all of those handicaps there would only have been one reason.

That is not to say, as Tucker implies we are trying to say, that everyone who voted for McCain did so because they didn't want a black man in the White House. But taken as a whole, if America had voted for McCain this year it would have proved something about America that we desperately wanted them not to prove.

So, wrong again, Tucker. But keep it up! My lunch times really aren't the same without you anymore.


Monday, 10 November 2008

Marriage of convenience

It was an historic occasion

Millions of people, from myriad backgrounds, came together to cast a decisive vote. A chance, as they saw it, to make amends for the mistakes of the past. The time to demonstrate that America was a country where no one should be afraid to stand up for their inalienable right.

The right to discriminate against people who are different.

Thus it was that Californians shamed themselves and their state by voting through proposition 8, removing the right of their fellow citizens to marry the ones they love. The Arizonans and the Floridians passed similar bans, but there are two reasons to be particularly disappointed with the Golden state.

Firstly, and it may sound puerile to say so, California should know better. With a thriving, diverse population and a tradition of being left of America’s political centre the state is an obvious place for tolerance to thrive. In condemning the state one should be careful – many great people and organisations campaigned tirelessly to prevent the ballot initiative from being passed, including the state’s (Republican) governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the usually politically quiet Google. Nonetheless a coalition of the intolerant came together, spread lies about the effects of allowing gay marriage to continue in the state and succeeded in their aims. It is particularly demoralising to see that, just as they united to vote for an inspiring candidate to overcome racial prejudice, black voters voted overwhelmingly to reinforce prejudice on another minority group.

Secondly the ballot initiative in California was different from that elsewhere. Gay marriage was legal in California until the day of the election. Only in California did voters have the option of removing an existing right. It was hoped that by expressing the initiative as one that took away rights from the state's citizens it would be less likely to succeed. It was not to be.

There are hopes that California's supreme court will strike down the initiative, or at the very least existing married couples will be spared the indignity of having their marriage stripped away by the state. Nonetheless, it is critical to remember that as America set an inspiring example to the world, it also showed just how far is left until the tenants of American democracy; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, are truly realised.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Voting and actually voting


I am currently in the great state of Michigan. News from here is that a whopping 98% of eligible people have registered to vote. This is amazing news from a democratic and Democratic stand-point. 98%. Wow.

In the whole nation you'd be hard pushed to find a more liberal neighbourhood than Ann Arbor, MI, which is why the "Bush Legacy Tour Bus" seemed not to be struggling for visitors when I passed it earlier today on the campus of the University of Michigan.

(Incidentally, the town seems to be in something of a fury because the U of M and Michigan State are playing each other at the football thing tomorrow. As I believe they say in these parts, "Go Blue".)

So kudos to Michigan and big fat raspberries to Florida whose Republican-controlled legislature have actually restricted the time early voting centres can operate. So people wanting to avoid big lines on Nov 4 are having to put up with big lines now instead. The Miami Herald is reporting lines of up to 5 hours.

This simply should not be allowed to happen in a democracy. This palaver should remind us in the UK how lucky we are to have overwhelmingly well-organised and operated elections compared to the shambles we often see in the US.

And encouraging people to vote shouldn't be a partisan issue, and, to be fair, in the UK I don't think it is. I don't actually care whether increased turnout is a positive for Labour, the Tories, Republicans or Democrats, making people wait 5 hours to vote, and making them do it during the working day rather than early morning or at night, is unacceptable.

And on that point I will be homeward bound tomorrow. It has been a delight seeing the election and my American friends over here this past week. It's not my intention to stereotype the American diet but I have eaten more fat, sugar and calories than I would normally eat in three months, and trust me I'm starting from a high base. And I am actually missing home a lot.

So thanks to my tour guides, Chris, Chris and Dani and to this great nation. And finally, to the one, maybe two American readers of this organ, don't forget to VOTE!

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Where's Obama from again?


I have seen precisely two signs of the election even happening here in the Windy City, let alone Chicago's devotion to its favourite son. I walked the streets today for a good number of hours, and I saw only one person wearing an Obama sticker, and I saw one advert on TV for Sen. Durbin's re-election campaign last night. That's it.

Now, I am currently in a big city, and I had previously been travelling around more rural and suburban areas so there is a difference there, but I was expecting banners, shouting throngs, people handing out Obama swag on street corners etc. And I was hoping to stock up, but no such luck.

Maybe all the Obamanicas have all headed east to Indiana and Ohio where their services are certainly more in need. Moving bodies and bucks around is an important part of election strategising.

Speaking of which, I am astonished, frankly, that McCain has pulled out of some states he needs to win (Colorado, New Mexico and Iowa) , and has focused on Pennsylvania, which I just cannot see him winning. Meanwhile, Obama is putting money into solidly red states, because he has got cash on the hip. Lots and lots of it.

James Carville famously said that Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between. So we might see a little bit of pandering to that demographic in the coming days, and I think we all know how that might manifest itself.

That's all for now. Thoughts, from Michigan from tomorrow.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Two Americas


You will likely remember Mr Obama's comment from his 2004 Democratic Convention address: "...there's not a liberal America and a conservative America - there's the United States of America".

He was half right. According to Gov. Palin there is a real America and, by implication, a phony, less real, only partial America. So which parts are not real, Governor? Presumably those bits which are coloured blue on the electoral college map right now. Well my figures show those bits kicking the red states' asses right now, so I'd be careful who you call fake Americans; Rhode Islanders can get scrappy.

And Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota (incidentally the state in which I am currently sat alone in a Days Inn) said that Obama had anti-American sentiments. Oh please, is all I can manage in response, but Keith Olbermann can take it from there.

Olbermann's 'Special Comments' are self-indulgent, self-righteous, pompous and take a particular political view, and therefore it follows that we like the concept, if not always the content. But on this occasion he is right on the money.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Sign up, and show you disapprove


One of the reasons not to vote for Mr McCain should be his choice of running mate. Firstly, his choice shows a stunning lack of judgement on his part, and his advanced age and dodgy medical past could result in a Palin presidency. I am sure that you will be able to surmise the many reasons we think such a possibility genuinely terrifying.

Driving along a beautiful stretch of coastal road near Duluth, northern Minnesota, lined by large, clap-board, American homes, I noted how many of them were proudly displaying lawn signs for their respective favoured candidates; not just presidential, but congressional, state representatives and even more local positions.

There were around an equal number of Obama and McCain signs, but I was stuck by the several who had planted signs with McCain's name but not that of his running mate.

I wonder if this is the way they had chosen to display their lack of faith in the Republican Veep candidate. Surely there must be many Americans who are disappointed by McCain's choice to the extent that they would consider turning away from him. There must be some who considered his experience and knowledge as many years a Senator as key to his appeal, which must necessarily be undermined by Gov. Palin's obvious lack of those qualities.

To be fair, those Minnesota residents had probably just got hold of an old yard sign from before the Republican had announced his Vice Presidential candidate, but I would be heartened to think that his supporters were showing their displeasure in their own small way.

And on the way home I saw a dead moose on a truck. No joke. I really did.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Arrived: from your US correspondent


One half of the WATM duo has travelled all the way to the United States in order to investigate the most interesting presidential race for a generation first hand. Well, I was coming anyway, so I'm going to blog while I'm here like it's going out of fashion.

I am pleased to have been in the country 2 hours and I have already seen a bumper sticker for Obama, a sign thanking the troops and a congressional TV ad for a Republican candidate.

I am currently in the erstwhile battleground state of Minnesota and I am also heading to the significantly less marginal Illinois and Michigan.

I hope to come up with some interesting observations on this race, which is extraordinarily exciting. And following what is likely to be blather and froth from me on this we should have the second of two posts on absolute morality from m'colleague. You can't get better than that.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Absolutely wrong

Part 1 of 2: The perils of moral relativism, and how religion hinders in two conflicting ways

In your writer's opinion one of the most troubling developments of my time on the planet has been that of moral relativism. This should be explained before continuing. Moral relativism is the concept that morality is not absolutely definable, but is something borne out of cultures, traditions, history and the person themselves.

This topic is immense, and as such this section forms the first of a two-part post. As with most issues shades of grey exist. There clearly is some truth to moral-relativism in the way it is expressed above - on more subtle and less inherently moral issues, such as how much reverence to show one's parents or the correct behaviour when bored with a speaker (or a blog post), the responses will inevitably be coloured by the backgrounds and cultures of those concerned. This is no bad thing, and it would be very hard to objectively say what the right responses were.

However this is about as much accommodation to moral-relativism as we should be prepared to give. For those worrying that unwavering rules are about to be defined (don't kill and so on) then this need not be a concern. It is possible and entirely sensible to denounce moral relativism while understanding that stealing could be right in one context (when under occupation, say), while wrong in another (visiting your local library). Moral absolutism will take more to defeat it than crass arguments about the worthiness of pilfering bread to serve the famished.

In this post the curiously bi-polar influence of religion will be considered. In the next post the problems that moral-relativism has brought and the solutions to this will be examined.

Religion has brought two unhelpful contributions to the moral table. Firstly it has set out to provide its own version of the moral absolute truths. For the Abrahamic religions this has been a pretty sorry affair. Secondly it has managed to rail against moral-relativism while at the same time supporting it and using it to justify why religions should be allowed to do things that, separated from religion, would appear abhorrent.

One would expect religions to be rather good at providing absolute moral standards. They all contain written texts, all describe people who, at the very least, were communicators and set out to convey messages they believed were important. One particular form of these standards has become something of a clichéd image of the battle between church and state in the United States, the Ten Commandments. Like a couplet so catchy that a lyricist knows it is destined for the chorus, these commandments are such gold that they got in the bible, or torah, twice.

Much has been written about the paucity of wisdom that they provide for a moral gold-standard. Suffice to say that four of the ten are unrelated to morality, and the remainder, while helpfully explaining that murder is off the cards, fail to provide any guidance on how one should behave to one another (save not stealing and lying). No mention is made of how (or if) to protect those more vulnerable than oneself. No mention is made of sexual morality (which must come as a surprise given that even the church admits it talks of nothing else). No framework is provided to deal with new moral dilemmas that arise. No explanation is made of when it is acceptable to use force. Some have argued that it provides no explanation as to whether slavery is acceptable. This is a grievous slur against the good book of Exodus; the text is fully in support of slavery, and verse 17 urges the reader not to steal the slave that your neighbour has paid good money for.

In short the list is dismal and lacks any clear moral theme. If only this was a unique lapse in the bible's sense of all things proper. Judges 19 makes it clear that volunteering one's male house-guest for gang raping is, reassuringly, rather frowned upon. The bible rather let's itself down, however, by in the next verse proposing that giving your daughter up to the same gang is the sensible solution. This is your author's favourite example of biblical 'morality', I will leave the reader to find their own.

A more profound problem comes from this list and the numerous other shocking examples of 'morality' in the bible. That being: why we would think that any religious text, or god, was automatically moral. Julian Baggini rather excellently, using Plato, demonstrates the fallacy here. The following is paraphrasing, but the book comes strongly recommended.

Is God good because whatever God does automatically defines goodness? Or does his goodness come from him doing good things that are inherently good? The former should be pretty troubling for any religious person. It says that we can't say that god provides a moral compass - it's just the case that whatever he says is automatically good. If God decreed rape to be acceptable thus it would be.

So we come to the second option - the things God does are good because they have the property of goodness. If so then we're fine, because God won't pick the morally unpleasant options, but this requires there to be an independent source of what is and isn't good.

Apologies are required if you have had your fill of the word 'good'. In summary, one can realise that either you believe Abraham murdering Isaac would have been a good choice, because infanticide is good when god demands it, or you believe the reason the story shocks us is because of our objective understanding that senselessly killing an innocent strikes us to the core as being wrong. I have left out the third alternative that you think this is nothing other than one of the most ghastly, amoral fairy-stories ever told.

Having failed to provide an objective moral standard religion now tries to convince us that moral relativism might have a place after all. Sharia law meaning different divorce rules for some women? No problem, says Mr Williams, head clergyman of the Anglican church. Think that women should have parts of the anatomy butchered - seems a bit beyond the pale doesn't it? No problem - let the priests perform this tragic mutilation and the anthropologists can line up to defend it as a cultural norm.

From misogyny to homophobia to the oral suction of an infant's penis by a grown man to livestock practises causing unnecessary suffering religion has an incredible way of managing to say "I know this looks bad chaps, but you have to understand it's our culture to do this!". Out of desperation to protect antiquated and inexcusable moral anachronisms religion has become the greatest champion of moral relativism.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Don't try and out-values me

You lucky WATMers (as we have decided you shall be named!), you get an extra post this week. I know, two posts in one week! Steady on, I hear you cry.

As Toby Ziegler points out in the singular The West Wing, 'there's nothing the Republicans do better than naming things.' Thus 'Values Voters'.

In the United States this annoyingly ubiquitous term is almost always used to describe right-wing, Christian, anti-gay, pro-gun, anti-abortion, anti-separation of church and state, anti-federal government etc etc etc folks.

I am not going to suggest that voters who take those positions are not sincere in their beliefs -- clearly they usually are. But how dare they suggest that those who take alternative positions do not do so based on their own personal values?

The suggestion is that those on the right are more interested in moral or 'values' issues than the left who, I suppose it must follow, vote to maximise their economic interest. This is most obviously countered by the Right's own constant obsession with rich liberals, especially in Hollywood, and their support for the Democrats. It was not the Dems who gave such wealthy people a hefty tax cut.

In fact, who votes only to line his or her own back pocket? How insulting to those of us who think that the separation of church and state is an important value, as is equal rights for gays and lesbians.

The conservatives seems to be getting away with this ruse, and the media are allowing it to happen. In the same way that pro-abortion advocates are characterised as 'pro-choice' and anti-abortion advocates are deemed 'pro-life' the term 'values voter' has well and truly entered the media's lexicon, it would seem for good.

The despicable Jerry Falwell and his apparently satirically-named Liberty University and the conservative "think"-tank, the Family Research Council, are part and parcel of this self-described 'values' voter industry. Why the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence or the excellent charity, Reprieve, should not be included in discussion on values voters, I don't know.

(Allow me a minute to revel in Christopher Hitchens' marvellous comment that "it's a shame that there is no hell for Falwell to go to, and it's extraordinary that not even such a scandalous career is enough to shake our dumb addiction to the 'faith-based.'")

The chutzpah with which groups on the 'moral' right claim to have the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution behind them, is astonishing. They are at least as selective in the exaltation of these documents as the Left but almost certainly more so, especially considering the support these groups all gave to the current inhabitant of the White House and his utter disregard for the Constitution.

The reason the Right has got away with this naming wheeze is that we/they let it happen. And it's too late now.

In politics it is received wisdom to define your opponent, but the Right are so much better and quicker at it than the left. Of course I believe the Left's values (usually, and where the left have got their act together) are better than the Right's, but that's not to say I deny the Right has its own set of values. Values, as a concept, should not be the domain of one party, of one group, or of one wing of political discourse and the Left -- the Democrats in the US in particular -- should be ashamed of conceding the term to the Right as freely as they apparently have.

Those values voters on the left should stand up, shape up and stop it from happening again in the future, say I, and it is certainly good news that the term has yet to arrive in domestic political discussion in the UK.

Friday, 10 October 2008

An unpleasant way to make a point

It is reasonable to infer a country's character by whom it elects

Fans of progressive socialism have recently had little to cheer about. The National Council elections in Austria, held on the 28th September, yielded a result that the far-right have celebrated with glee. While the largest percentage (29.4%) of the vote went to the Social Democratic Party, the Freedom Party and the Alliance for the Future of Austria secured 28.5% of the vote between them.

Neither party is particularly charming. Readers may remember Jörg Haider and his Freedom Party from 2000, when success at the polls led the party to be part of the ruling coalition. Although at the time the issue garnered much coverage, perhaps enhanced by 14 EU countries giving Austria the cold shoulder, the world's press seemed to assume that Mr Haider's resignation from the ruling coalition in February 2000 marked the end of this blot on Austria's copybook.

It was not to be. Mr Haider was a strong figure in the Freedom Party, and as is sometimes the case with such personality politics, he became frustrated with the Freedom Party, left and founded the Alliance for the Future of Austria. While this split the far-right vote, it also created two parties of some strength to take on the somewhat cumbersome coalition between the Social Democrats and the Austrian People's Party.

Both parties stand on anti-EU-expansion (or more accurately anti-Turkey), anti-immigration and anti-asylum platforms. For a country that is surrounded by eight other nations it is more than disappointing to see Austria for Austrians on billboards advertising Mr Haider's party. Let us be clear - Mr Haider is not just a right-leaning pragmatist. He is a distasteful man who sees nothing to be ashamed of in the SS.

Many in the press have blamed the faults of the Social Democrats and the People's Party for pushing the populace to vote for the far right. There is probably a grain of truth in this; at least that disappointment at the larger parties has encouraged people to vote elsewhere. There is even some truth that parties must be able to talk about immigration.

The Economist gets it partly right by noting that these issues cannot become the sole preserve of the far-right, but although they insist this should not mean pandering to xenophobia, the bar should surely be set a little higher. Immigration, tolerance of others and denunciation of the Nazis did not just happen - they are policy choices, and the benefits should be extolled. Parties do not need to adopt a wholesale shift of position, merely provide countering arguments to the far-right.

However we must acknowledge and tackle racism and xenophobia where we see it. It is remarkable to see several publications claim this vote is a punishment of the existing regime (and thus not an endorsement of racism), but decide exactly the opposite about the rejection of the Lisbon treaty. It is tough to believe that the result of an Irish plebiscite on a treaty that alters the relationship and majority-requirements of legislative bodies is representative of voters' true feelings while the same can not be said of a general election in Austria.

It is a step too far to say that Austria should now be treated as a pariah state, but it has shamed itself, and its citizens must mostly be held responsible. Of the fourteen parties that were on offer, almost 30% of the electorate chose to vote for parties that have frightening sympathies with Europe's twentieth century disgrace and plainly xenophobic views. Some publications have seen that one cannot simply blame the politicians. Let us hope that the people of Austria realise this as well.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Oi, Canada!

There is, of course, another election happening on the continent of North America. Canada is in the grips of election fever, and in the UK we can't open a newspaper or turn on the TV without seeing associated reportage. Erm...

Given the 100% absence of anything approaching information about the election, for your delectation, ladies and gentlemen, I have researched the following carefully (thanks internets).

So, friends, what's at stake from our ill-informed point of view?

The Conservative PM Stephen Harper, who it must be said has one of the smuggest faces in professional politics wants to get his hands on a parliamentary majority so he sought and got an early dissolution of parliament from the Governor General. He is up against the leader of the opposition Liberal Party, Stéphane Dion, Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois and the Detective Chief Inspector-esque Jack Layton of the small New Democratic Party.

One astonishing issue that the election has highlighted is Harper's role in an attempted bribe of an MP to vote against a previous Liberal government's budget. The PM has admitted authorising the action. Attempting to bribe an MP is a crime according the Canadian law and yet the man is still the PM and leading in the polls.

But it is to the important issue of Canada's overseas role that we must inevitably turn. Canada has been a stalwart in the fight against the sadistic Taliban in Afghanistan. Just short of 100 brave members of the Canadian Forces have been killed trying to establish and defend a free and democratic Afghanistan and Canada deserves our thanks and praise for its sacrifice. But the people of Canada have had enough.

According to a recent poll 61% of Canadians do not support their country's involvement in Afghanistan, so this is an important election issue, as well as a crucial moral and political one. There is some leadership in Ottawa on this issue, though, but not from where it should be coming.

The Tories and the Liberals support the mission until 2011, but the Liberals in particular are clear that the forces will have to come home then.

My party's sister party in Canada, the NDP, supposedly the social democratic party of Canada and the one with very sensible policies on the environment, poverty and equality, have fallen into the trap of so many left-of-centre parties in opposing the most important battle for those of us on the left -- the battle to support democrats in Afghanistan against the fascist oppression of the Taliban and their allies.

The NDP would bring Canada's armed forces home immediately, which would put southern Afghanistan, especially Kandahar province where Canada is heavily deployed, into a new quagmire and would leave Canada's allies -- in particular the United States and the United Kingdom -- picking up the pieces.

It is an utter disgrace that the Canadian member party of the Socialist International should be advocating the abandonment of democrats, trade unionists, women and secularists in Afghanistan in one of the defining battles of our times. As m'colleague pointed out to me, Nick Cohen really did have a point, didn't he?

So surely any good socialist or social democrat should do what is necessary in Canada and send Harper packing, punish the NDP for its isolationist policies and help make M. Dion the next Prime Minister of Canada. It is an added bonus that that is far more likely than Mr Layton's ascension to the office in any case. However, it is certainly disconcerting to be advocating the election of a member party of the Liberal International, especially when their UK brethren have so little to commend them, but needs must.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Turkey

Why the EU needs to be clear in offering membership to Turkey

As any trainee barrister knows it is possible to defend someone without agreeing with them. So it must be for the west and Turkey, but here the roles are more interactive; the west can influence the behaviour of Turkey and should recognise when support is necessary.

The European Union has the greatest opportunity to influence Turkey and arguably the most to gain. There are some encouraging signs. This summer the self-imposed constitutional guardians, the generals of Turkey’s army and the true constitutional guardians, the courts, attempted to outlaw the democratically elected AKP the EU was clear that this was unacceptable, and indeed the party was not outlawed (although a fine was imposed).

In Turkey there have been many such attempts to remove or suppress a party for supposed anti-secular crimes. Banning or chastising a democratically-elected party is not unthinkable, but clearly there need to be clear evidence that the party in question seeks to overturn fundamental rights. The evidence to suggest this is true of the AKP has been tenuous at best.

In fact, the current regime in Turkey has made many positive steps for the country. A pro-European country that is a NATO member state which has recently banned the death penalty and in 2002 dramatically improved rights for women. It has even begun to make efforts with Armenia, a reconciliation that should be made as quickly as possible. When Nicholas Sarkozy, president of France, makes it clear that Turkey’s entry to the EU is not acceptable then it appears more likely this is about the religion of many of Turkey’s citizens rather than any geographical qualm with Turkey’s location.

This is not only foolish of the west and in particular the EU, but hypocritical and unethical. It is arguable that many of the EU’s greatest influences on countries have been prior to ascension - for evidence of this look at the efforts by Boris Tadić, President of Serbia to co-operate with the EU as his country seeks membership. By offering a genuine path to EU membership for Turkey the EU has the ability to provide support for the legal and social institutions that we hope protect citizens. Turkey, however, is already in many ways in a good position: it is a country that is secular by constitution, has a clear commitment to law and order and, despite the actions of the military, democratic. These are many of the things we would hope to see in other countries that surround Turkey.

The AKP is an Islamic party. This need not be a problem. The AKP has not proposed removing the secular requirement of the constitution, nor enforcing any state religion. We cannot believe in freedom of religion and then be upset when those who are elected profess belief. It is what they do with this belief that matters. We should believe that all people should live under democracy, but this will not work if when a party is elected we tell them they picked the wrong people; not unless the party is wilfully abusive of its citizens’ inalienable rights.

Like all parties, the AKP has made mistakes. Some are more forgiveable than others, but there are times when it plays into the hands of those who would seek to ban it. Comparatively minor offences such as censoring websites or art certainly lend credence to those who fear the AKP is not wholly committed to Turkey's secular principles and are a disappointing, reactionary course of action from a regime which should know better.

More serious incidents include playing host to Sudan's wretched leader, heavy-handed quelling of protests and increasing concerns about corruption. The situation in Kurdistan is more complex, and the PKK are far from saints, but the Kurds deserve more than a glib paragraph-closing comment, so we'll return to them in a later post.

Here we come back to the need to defend without necessary agreement. We can and should support the people of Turkey’s choice. We do not have to agree with every decision their government makes, and where appropriate we should not be afraid to say so. It is not hypocritical to support a government’s right to govern, but strongly disagree with a policy choice. So it must be for some of the poor decisions made by the country demonstrated above.

Rather than close the door on Turkey, the EU must detail the steps that will lead to its future membership. Not only will this afford the greatest influence, it will also underline that our commitment is to fair, democratic and just countries, and that this is not conditional on the ethnicity of those involved, nor the party they choose to elect.

Friday, 19 September 2008

The (un)fairness of the other US election



You might not have come across much mention of it in the British media, but there are actually congressional elections in the United States in November too. Many of our American friends will be going to the polls in congressional districts where there is no chance that anyone but the incumbent, or at least the incumbent party, will be elected.

This, of course, happens across the democratic world. Tom Clarke MP (Labour) of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill is a rather lucky man with his 19,500 majority, although who knows if even he will keep his seat at the next election given recent polls.

In the UK parliamentary seats are drawn up by the thoroughly independent Boundary Committee and Commissions for the constituent nations. In the US congressional districts are the domain of each state and many state legislatures reserve the right to draw the boundaries themselves.

This has caused huge contentions such as that in Texas in 2003, which actually caused Democratic legislators to flee the state to avoid having to vote on the issue. The Republican-controlled legislature passed the redistricting plan and, despite being disputed at the Supreme Court, it remained largely intact. So we now have districts which look like this.

It seems to me that Texas' redistricting was based purely on a desire to maximise the Republicans' congressional delegation from that state. But in other cases, bizarrely shaped districts have been drawn up to ensure a minority candidate would stand a chance of being elected. This is surely a noble desire, but should we approve of it?


Illinois' 4th congressional district, which is known as the 'ear muff' district due to its shape, Florida's 3rd congressional district, and Virginia's 3rd, for instance were all drawn up to be majority-minority districts; in fact the US Justice Department insists that states do this where there are substantial minority populations.

This does mean that representatives from ethnic minorities are elected, and perhaps such gerrymandering is needed to ensure that they do. But that is a pretty sad state of affairs.

If identity politics is so strong, if people will only vote for a candidate with the same colour skin as them, despite their politics, we should worry. I would have thought America had progressed past such division, but maybe I'm wrong. But if African-Americans will only vote for African-Americans and white-Americans will only vote for someone equally white, and the democratic system must account for those prejudices, that is a huge admission of failure of race relations.

Even if this is so, should a democratic system all but endorse such racial prejudice by taking account of it so heavily? Or is the system doing its best to combat prejudice by making sure minorities can be elected, despite the best efforts of the white majority?

While we don't intend to make it a habit to reserve judgement on this blog, in this particular case, you won't find answers from me, but we would be delighted to hear what our reader(s) think(s) about this contentious issue. In any case, surely we can all get together in believing that an independent commission should draw up the districts, as happens in certain states already e.g. Washington, Arizona and Hawaii, even if a racial element is included in their brief.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Why do we approve this message?

A message from both of us.

What's the point?

To write about things that interest and excite us, especially politics from around the world.

We have a feeling we might return to some important themes; ones which all progressive rationalists should embrace:

Human rights, secularism, rationalism, internationalism, democracy, social justice, free speech, free inquiry, truth and thought. And the odd knob gag, natch.

Not everything written on this blog will be germane or news-driven. We started writing for this organ in September 2008 and so we missed out on quite a lot of interesting stuff which has gone before. We've got some ground to cover. The earth is 4.5 billion years old. Why confine ourselves soley to the now? If we want to talk about Mr Berlusconi's corrupt government in Italy we will, whether he's in the news or not. If we want to defend Danish cartoonists against a bizarre and too common alliance of religious fascists and western liberals we will (and we will), despite that it's out of the news. And the beginnings of the universe might excite at least one of us.

Plus, there's an interesting election going on somewhere or other, we've heard.

We might find that no one is interested in our ramblings but we intend to plough on regardless, if for no other reason that to encourage ourselves to read, learn, understand and think. Plus there is something quite existential about writing a blog that no one reads.

The opinions here may be ill-informed, ill-thought-out and idiotic. If so they are our own and do not reflect on which ever organisaion or individual in whose employ we happen to be. They probably do not approve our message.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Prescience

It's fair to say that predicting any event that will occur a year hence is pretty hard, but as an avid (and I should say delighted) reader of The Economist it's hard not to think that their US Election coverage has lacked something in the foresight department.

Three particular examples come to mind. Firstly, there was Mr Obama. The Economist was pretty sure last year that the victim of the right-wing conspiracy herself would be president. 'Can Hillary be stopped?', they asked last September. 'It's looking less likely by the day' was their summary, and they concluded with

Inevitable is too strong a word. But Mrs Clinton looks much more like a president-in-the-making than any of her opponents, Republican or Democratic.


The next month we were informed "All told, she looks likely to translate this into both the Democratic nomination and a victory in November 2008." It took until December for them to start to have doubts, and until February for them to firmly switch.

The more obvious bit of crystal-ball gazing that has been left wanting is who would be standing against the junior senator for Illinois. The newspaper looks spot on with its Clinton predictions when compared to their July 2007 line 'John McCain's campaign nears its end'. He had been upgraded to don't buy by August when he was declared 'Desperate, but not quite over', although this story does end on a positive: 'Mr McCain could yet make a comeback.'

Surely the paper can't be too harshly criticised for getting it wrong on McCain - events did certainly seem to be transpiring against him in 2007, and his financial problems were widely reported. What is more worthy of criticism is their continual comments that the Senator was harming his campaign by supporting the surge in Iraq. For a war (and, in the surge, a plan) that the paper supported, it was short-sighted to imply that only be distancing himself from the surge he would win. This has been proved very wrong, and although she is of course lying, Sarah Palin showed that believing the war is winnable is an asset when she criticised Mr Obama for never using the word 'victory' in his speeches, except when referring to his own campaign.

This brings us on to Mrs Palin. Again the paper is found wanting when predicting the vice-president - suggesting the flexibly-opinioned Mitt Romney, a 'youthful-looking 60-year-old with plenty of executive experience'. Palin is not mentioned in an article in June which suggests several names. Mrs Palin is only mentioned in a few articles, and never in relation to the vice-presidency until the choice has been announced.

So what to take from this? We mustn't be too unkind to the newspaper; its competitors have fared little better. However, a paper that defines itself through its clarity of thought, depth of knowledge and pervasive editorial slant should perhaps be held to higher expectations.