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.