Tuesday, December 13, 2005

You don’t need a justification for clemency

At 8.35am GMT, former gang leader Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams was executed by lethal injection at San Quentin prison in Northern California, having been convicted 24 years ago of four murders. The Militant Pine Marten will not argue whether or not he was guilty, since it lacks any real knowledge of the evidence presented or the circumstances, but that isn’t strictly relevant here. Suffice to say that Williams always denied his guilt.

Williams’ last chance for a stay of execution was an appeal for clemency to the Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republican Governor of California by the Grace of Loki the Trickster God presumably. It’s quite often suggested in the media that although Schwarzenegger is part of the Republican top brass, he’s actually a closet liberal. Certainly socially, he’s perceived to be rather more liberal than George Bush, but then that’s not terribly difficult. The problem is that I haven’t seen any evidence of his alleged liberal leanings. Stepping in to stop gay weddings in Sacramento doesn’t strike me as very socially liberal, and approving the state-sponsored killing of a man who may have been a murderer, and may or may not have been repentant isn’t very liberal either.

I’m not idly questioning the jury in this case’s integrity or judgement, I’m basing what I say on Schwarzenegger’s own words. Last week, the governor said that he was "agonizing" over the case. Well you don’t agonize over things that you’re certain of, and even within a legal system that allows the State to take away its’ citizens’ lives, surely being unsure of their guilt is reason enough to show clemency? However it does not appear that Schwarzenegger thinks like that, stating, "I could find no justification for granting clemency".

This is an abhorrent statement. You don’t need to justify clemency. But you do need to explain why you let someone die, and you’d better be damned sure that he’s guilty. Something which Schwarzenegger was not. So why did he sanction Williams’ death? The obvious explanation is that he did it to align himself with influential figures and sections of the Republican Party grassroots, which is understandable in the context of political skulduggery. Only political machinations in a democracy don’t usually involve anyone’s death, especially not in a country that is the self-appointed global guardian of freedom, democracy and the legacy of the Enlightenment. For a group of proselytising Christians, Bush and his friends seem to have surprisingly little grasp of the concept of forgiveness. This continuing appetite for judicial revenge all seems a bit ‘Old Testament’.

In two years’ time, Bush will leave the White House, and his gang of neocon zealots with him. They haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory. At which point there’s a good chance that Schwarzenegger will be secure among the Republican nomenklatura whether he demonstrates a little effortless magnanimity or not. He can afford to make a point, to affirm what he stands for, if he really is a liberal Trojan donkey in the midst of the Republicans. But maybe he’s just a Macchiavellian greasy pole climber. Either way, I doubt that it will have been worth going to bed every night knowing he wasn’t quite sure if that man should have died or not.

"Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad." - Conan The Barbarian, 1982

"Yes we bloody well will." – The Militant Pine Marten, 2005

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Watch the Right, watch the Left and watch your back*

Could someone please explain to me what exactly it is that El Caudillo Blair is currently trying to achieve in Europe? If you cast your minds back to June 2005, you may remember Tony Blair’s barnstorming performance at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. It was all talk of breaking the deadlock, giving the EU a new sense of direction and impetus, moving forwards with our new partners from the East, making Europe modern, forward looking, and if you think that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s classic Vintage Tony circa 1997 and you’ve heard it all before. Most of the MEPs hadn’t been as overexposed as the UK electorate to old-style Tony magic, and once again it worked. Tony must have been delighted.

In much of Europe, Tony Blair enjoys something of a reputation as a miracle worker. He seems to be able to do nothing wrong. He even managed to avoid serious electoral retribution over the Iraq debacle for goodness sake! He’s also seen by many as Socialism’s new hope. A Jedi of the Left who will restore balance to progressive politics. And much of the UK electorate believed that once too. So it’s understandable that when six months later, the achievements of the UK’s stint at the presidency of the EU are precisely nothing at all, many of our European partners feel rather aggrieved. In fact Le Monde, which has been having a misguided love-in with Blair for a few years now, has stopped only slightly short of calling him a coward and a traitor:

“Despite his critics, Tony Blair may yet achieve his goal. Lacking the courage to define his European policy and explain it to his electorate, the ardent European enlargement enthusiast that he was risks promoting Euroscepticism in the East, just 19 months after they joined the Union”.

However making a mess of EU policy after building up expectations is one thing. But Blair’s current budget looks like a deliberate attempt to alienate everyone. The EU budget is in its current fix because the two biggest bullies in the playground are having a fight and won’t let anyone else have any fun until it’s over. The Franco-German camp won’t budge on the CAP reforms voted in 2002, that are currently in progress, and the UK won’t budge on its rebate obtained by Margaret Thatcher in 1984, when the UK was a much lesser economic force. But Blair’s proposed budget involves “refunding” some of the rebate to the richest countries in the EU and cutting the amount of money going to the poorer new members. This is a simplification obviously, but it looks a lot like a snub to countries that Blair had been happy to consider the UK’s natural allies in “New Europe”.

But while Blair has been busy winding up all of Europe, trouble has been stirring at home, in the form of David Cameron, the new leader of the Conservative Party, who have been a joke party for the best part of a decade. Thanks to an uncharacteristic moment of collective lucidity, the Tory members didn’t elect the worst candidate for once. David Cameron is all smiles, affability and witty comments and in that way reminiscent of a chubbier version of Tony Blair a few years ago. In terms of giving the Tories a chance of actually winning an election, he’s a very good choice. The question though is that of what he stands for. Having given up on working out what Tony Blair is all about, I’d like to know what his new sparring partner is for?

Today he gave us a very small glimpse of that. In a demonstration of uncharacteristically slick political operating for the Tories, the day after his election, the new leader made his first policy statement, and of all things it was about social justice. Social Justice! Oh! David! Bold move there, straight for the Labour jugular! The Tories can’t do social justice, that’s a Lefty area, surely? The Militant Pine Marten was intrigued and impressed. And then it came. David Cameron is “deeply committed to social action for social justice”. And there we have it: David Cameron has been watching Blair’s technique, and he’s going to do the same. He’s going to use rhetoric that suggests that there is a great hopeful generous plan, an optimistic progressive ideology. And actually, there will be surveys, focus groups, Parliamentary Working Groups, consultations and mainly a load of marketing drivel and management consultancy jargon with some branding. Full marks to David Cameron. If I may, I’d like to suggest that Sir Digby Jones should be invited to join the “Social Justice Group”.

The political landscape in the UK may be shifting, but not necessarily in a very encouraging way. Tony should watch the Right. David should watch the Left. And we should all watch our backs.

*I admit to adapting this from an Anti-Flag lyric, but in exchange I’ll plug the album. It's only fair.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

In which the CAP does good things for good people, and for partridges too

I think it’s probably not too controversial to say that the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy doesn’t have a good reputation, especially in the UK. The average UK voter doesn’t really know all that much about what the EU actually does and doesn’t really want to either. Instead, a lot of facile clichés and myths are served up as facts and are peddled by lazy journalists and editors. Amongst these are the famous stories about how the EU specifies the acceptable curvature of bananas and wants to ban the Traditional British Banger. But one of the more legitimate concerns of voters throughout Europe is amount of money that the EU spends on agriculture through the CAP. By the end of 2005, the EU will have spent 46% of its budget, €49 billion, mainly on guaranteeing minimum prices and export subsidies. Indeed, until 1992, that is all that the CAP’s budget paid for, meaning that all subsidies were directly linked to production. Within Europe, this system meant that overproduction was endemic, as was the environmental damage linked to intensive agricultural production. Although there have been reforms to decouple production from subsidies, by and large the same problems still persist. Approximately 80% of the CAP’s budget goes to only 20% of EU farmers, while 40% of small farmers receive only 8% of the available subsidies.

To summarise, the productivist model of the CAP work like this. The more a farm produces, the more it receives in subsidies. The more farmers produce, the less agricultural commodities are worth. The less they’re worth, the more the EU has to compensate the farmers. As too much has been produced for the EU’s needs, it has to be exported. As it’s too expensive due to guaranteed prices, the EU has to subsidise exports so that European producers can undercut others. As a result, Third World producers especially can’t compete and go bankrupt. But it’s not only sugar cane growers in Jamaica who suffer. If you run a large farming concern in the EU, it’s all gravy. You can benefit from economies of scale to produce as much as possible, and you’re rewarded for it. This encourages you to use pesticides and artificial fertilisers liberally. There’s no incentive at all to stop hammering your environment and producing commodities that are of no use to anyone. But if you’re a small family farm, you can’t produce enough volume to make it worth your while, you can’t increase your yields because agricultural chemicals and especially machinery is unaffordable and won’t pay for itself on your small acreage. So you build up hopeless amounts of debt to stay in the game and end up selling up to the local barley baron to compensate for having a worthless pension. You can’t easily convert to another crop or diversify because you’re working to pay off your debts and can’t afford the initial investment or the risk. In fact, small farmers caught in the CAP productivist system are in a situation that is familiar to their aforementioned Jamaican counterparts.

So you’ll be glad to read that the Militant Pine Marten brings you agricultural tidings of great joy, having just witnessed the beneficial effects of the CAP reforms that were made in 2003. Briefly, in 2003 the EU decided to decouple subsidies from production gradually and instead to link direct single payments to environmental practices, animal welfare and food safety. In the UK, this mostly comes in the form of Defra’s various Stewardship schemes. The Militant Pine Marten was visiting a small family farm of the sort that was at the receiving end of the previous productivist model. This farm hadn’t really made any money for a decade or so. Suddenly, the kitchen has been redecorated, the tractors are looking in far better repair. Oh, you may not care very much, but you’ll probably be more impressed by the environmental benefits: people like that generally. The environmental benefits come in the form of an explosion on the local population of grey partridges (English partridges if you’re English, Hungarian ones if you’re from North America). Populations of grey partridges throughout the EU collapsed as intensive farming practices were introduced in the 1950s and 1960s especially. The thing is that young partridges live on insects in grass and fields. However the use of vast amounts of pesticides, the destruction of grass banks and hedgerows to rationalise fields weren’t conducive to vast insect populations. The grey partridge is as good an indicator of environmentally friendly agricultural practices as you could want. I am glad to report that the partridges are back, in high densities, to the extent that three of them will grace my table later this week.
The CAP has been a bad thing. It’s still far from ideal. It needs to stop doing things like making Tate & Lyle the single largest recipient of subsidies in the UK (to the tune of £127 million last year, for Christ’s sake). The shameful export subsidies need to be scrapped, although Peter Mandelson doesn’t seem to be doing too well on that front. But other stated aims of the CAP such as “to ensure fair living standards for the agricultural community” and now to improve and protect the environment, landscape, wildlife are being met, and as more reforms in this vein are introduced, the situation will improve. So you see, it’s not all lazy French farmers stealing money from hardworking British management consultants! Give the EU a chance. It stumbles around like a drunk a fair amount, but it will find the way home eventually.

UPDATE: Today the EU announced that in accordance with a WTO ruling, it was abandoning the insane sugar subsidies. This was by a long way the worst example of ill-considered agricultural policy. Well done the Council of Ministers! You see? I told you they were sorting themselves out.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

“Don’t get me wrong, I have lots of black and Arab friends, but…”

In the wake of the recent rioting in France, every French politician is trying to demonstrate that he or she is in touch with the deep problems that have been made so painfully apparent, in a manner not identical, but in terms of generalised psychological impact comparable, to the New Orleans catastrophe. A worrying number of MPs from Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party have crawled out the woodwork to reveal that in a low-key sort of way, they think that the problem could probably be solved by, if not sending people back to where they came from, at least making sure that it’s going to be damned hard for any more to join. This includes plans to limit the reunification of families (wives and children coming to join fathers working in France), the obtention by married partners of French nationality. Then of course there’s a fair amount of support for the repressive approach favoured by the Interior Minister. Jean-Marie Le Pen (who has been having a whale of a time grandstanding on Russian television this week) has been having a marvellous time watching the UMP tentatively reaching for National Front policies. There has also been a somewhat strange surfacing of a theory whereby much of the recent trouble was caused by widespread polygamy amongst black and North African citizens. And that last piece of hysterical nonsense is in fact a admission of unthinking prejudice.

In a remarkable article today, the Moroccan-born philosopher Alain Badiou relates how his 16 year old adopted son Gérard has been arrested six times since March 31st 2004 and today, for no particular reason apart from the fact that they’re teenagers, and some of them are black, others are from North Africa, some Turkish, and that in the manner of teenagers, sometimes they stand around having a chat. They are regularly arrested, asked for their papers, harassed, insulted, and then released sometimes after up to two days. The police then apologise to the parents. Now Alain Badiou doesn’t live in a sink estate, he lives in a rather more affluent area of Paris, so imagine the sort of police harassment that young inhabitants of Clichy-Sous-Bois are subjected to. Badiou speculates that the police there may not apologise quite so readily.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that the French police is institutionally racist. Everyone in France knows this, but they don’t like it, they’re in denial about it, it doesn’t fit with their ”certaine idée de la France” as De Gaulle called it. But more disturbingly, the police reflect and amplify the poisonous low-level ambient racism that permeates much of French society. Casual prejudice against ethnic and religious minorities is acceptable in conversations in France to a degree that is no longer easily thinkable in the UK for instance. The following translated email conversation is I think an entertaining yet pertinent illustration of this. The names of the participants have been changed, but their ethnic origins have been retained through the use of ironically stereotypical names. I must stress that they are what may be termed pinko fruitloops to a man (and a woman), and that the shocking ethnic stereotyping and discriminatory language is in fact SATIRE, all in the poorest possible taste. The point of this is that the participants were able to easily riff off on this in these terms because they are regularly exposed to people who speak like this with no qualms whatsoever. They’re not happy about this. So they deal with it with gallows humour, a reaction more usually associated with the Brits, to their credit.

Nigel Dupont _ This article is well worth reading, but it’s not pleasant. [Refers to the aforementioned article]
Sandra Dupont _ Yes. But the problem is that no one will admit it. No one. And the worst thing is that most people who won’t admit it do so because they don’t really believe it.
Nigel Dupont _ Personally, I’m not a racist, however…
Gérard Bové _ Well exactly. Don’t get me wrong. I have lots of black and Arab friends, but…
Nigel Dupont _ You idiot, you don’t say “black”, you say “renoi”! [”Noir” in Verlan, a slang device whereby the syllables of a word are reversed].
Sandra Dupont _ Rubbish. You say “un black”. It’s more “roots”.
Nigel Dupont _ Does anyone know what’s the current favourite slang term for an Oriental is?
Sandra Dupont _ “Niaque” I think, at least that’s what they said in “Taxi 2”.
Isaac Levi _ No, it’s “Bougnoule”, I should know, I’m… Oh hang on.
Nigel Dupont _ Don’t you start piping up, Yid Boy.
Isaac Levi _ I have a Kabylian friend who came out top of his class at college, so he’s not exactly a crack dealer. He is regularly harassed by the rozzers for no reason. He was even beaten up by the police once. It’s all pretty ugly. But you want to know what the worst thing is? I’ve been beaten up because they thought I was an Arab! And that’s just inadmissible!
Gérard Bové _ Hey, be a bit careful when talking about crack dealers! There are some perfectly decent crack dealers. I have plenty of friends who are crack dealers. It’s sweeping generalisations like that that spread the problem.

Once again, I must stress that this not exactly random selection of the French electorate, and that they are in fact mimicking the sorts of comments that they hear every day. They’re really nice people, just with a twisted sense of humour.

The Militant Pine Marten has a suggestion to start dealing with this, because we’re not going to solve France’s current problems unless we change people’s unthinking attitudes. If the police is the worst example of widespread racism, then Nicolas Sarkozy could start by stamping ruthlessly on the sort of abuse mentioned above. He likes to talk and act tough I believe. Well here’s a perfect place to apply that. Investigate all claims of abuse. Make examples of police officers that participate. Show the citizens of France, both native and immigrants or their descendants, that the French Republic doesn’t tolerate discrimination by the organs of state against any particular group. That’s after all the great underlying fundamental idea isn’t it? Well do it! Go on Sarkozy, if you want to be the man of the hour, if you really believe what you say, start making the ”Egalité” a reality by punishing those who undermine the idea with the apparent tacit agreement of the State. No more blind eyes, no more heads in the sand. You’re always saying that the French should face facts and deal with them. Well show them how!

And if you won’t do that, then at least have the decency to stop pretending that you care about anything but power.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

France is under threat from reactionary far-right opportunists – amongst other problems

On the sidelines of the turmoil that France is currently engulfed in, a despicable attempt at making political capital is going on. Yesterday evening, two MPs from the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), the majority centre-right party of which Nicolas Sarkozy is the leader, tabled the French legal equivalent of a white paper. Doing this is always a great opportunity for political immortality as a law that is passed successfully bears the name of the MP who first suggested it, but that’s just run-of-the-mill political vanity. The ideas put forward by Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and Georges Fenech are a pretty spectacular brand of irresponsible political posturing.

Dupont-Aignan and Fenech want a tightening of existing anti-rioting legislation. Specifically, as reported in Le Monde, he suggests that “from now on, the simple act of not spontaneously leaving a gathering susceptible of causing a breach of the peace from the first instruction to disperse should constitute an offence”. In addition, they propose want to “authorise the police top use their weapons when their physical persons or those of people” and places under their protection “are endangered”, but also “when they have no available alternatives to stop or prevent the flight of individuals who refuse to obey a reiterated order to stop”.

The first part of this is quite simply the denial of freedom of assembly, guaranteed by article 12 of European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights. Well, not the entire denial of course. They wouldn’t dream of that. It’s just subject to the police being happy with the crowd’s presence, and being satisfied that they don’t want to cause any trouble, so in other words it would be a crime not to go home if the police suspect that your intentions are objectionable. It’s denial of the right to protest. The second part is even more fundamentally repellent: in the event that people don’t go home when asked to, or don’t submit to arrest once the police have decided that they should, the police can shoot them if they see fit.

What in the Republic’s name are these two thinking of? It is patently obvious that the current situation on the streets has nothing at all to do with inadequate legislation, and it certainly hasn’t come about because of an insufficient level of state-sanctioned violence! These are not only revolting suggestions, they are deeply irresponsible. If it wasn’t already bad enough to have Sarkozy fanning the flames with his inflammatory language, his colleagues think that what France really needs now is for a truck full of kerosene to crash into the conflagration.

Who exactly are Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and Georges Fenech anyway? A little research reveals them to be unremarkable reactionary right-wingers, with far-right leanings and delusions of grandeur. Undistinguished versions of Sarkozy if you will, but without the brains. Dupont-Aignan is the founder of “Debout la République” (“Republic, stand up”), a sovereignist association within the ruling UMP. Most of its members were also part of the electoral list lead by Charles Pasqua and Philippe de Villiers for the 1999 European elections. De Villiers is essentially the upper class, traditionalist Catholic version of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who needs no introduction. Suffice to say that he’s pretty damned right wing in a really nasty way, which fits in quite neatly with Dupont-Aignan’s ideas. Dupont-Aignan has twice stood for the UMP party leadership, in 2002 and 2004, soundly beaten by Sarkozy in the latest election. He is also a candidate for the 2007 presidential elections. To use my tried and tested Iznogoud metaphor, he wants to be Caliph instead of the Caliph, except that he’s only the Grand Vizier’s recalcitrant lackey. As for Georges Fenech, he is amongst other claims to fame the author of a report entitled “Placement under mobile electronic surveillance”. Amusingly, this was sent to Dominique de Villepin. The cover letter contains the sentence ”I have decided to entrust you with a mission of reflection on the subject of mobile electronic surveillance”. I’m sure that Dominique felt honoured that the eminent author of ”Tolérance Zéro” should have felt that he had the intellectual calibre to engage with the topic. I think that these facts give a good idea of these men’s political leanings. They’re Far-right Lite. Crypto-Fascists for ordinary decent folk. And of course frustrated, narcissistic fabulists.

State-sanctioned violence against crowds, ignoring what they have to say, denying them any real voice through legitimate channels is what has lead to the appalling events of the past twelve days. Sarkozy’s brutal rhetoric and police brutality against a section of society that feels – and is – victimised by the police turned another suburban riot into an insurrection. Because let’s be clear about this: twelve days of rioting across the entire country is an insurrection. That’s what we’re talking about here. In one sense at least, the young second generation immigrants have perfectly absorbed French Republican values. Every single significant social and political shake-up in France since 1789 has been the result of the disaffected, the poor, the powerless taking to the streets and waking up successive sclerosed governments through violence. In 1789, it was the starving Third Estate. In 1830, Louis XVIIIth’s attempted return to the Ancien Régime brought about another popular uprising. Napoléon III’s self-indulgent warmongering and subsequent abandonment of Paris to Prussian troops lead about the Paris Commune, ending in a massacre of the insurgents and ultimately the beginning of the 3rd Republic. Repeated rioting and fighting in the streets between far-right leagues, trade unions and left-wing organisations brought to power the Front Populaire and the beginnings of the welfare state. The stifling social conservatism of the political establishment brought the young to the street in 1968, demanding emancipation. Like all of these events, the current insurrection is the result of a social and economic cauldron boiling over after simmering for many years as the political establishment and a large section of French society ignored it.

It is a sad truth that meaningful change in France always appears to be catalysed by violence. Let’s hope that De Villepin and Chirac resist the temptation to fight fire with fire and to cave in to the more unsavoury current of their party.

”_ Mais, c’est une révolte?
_ Non Sire, c’est une révolution!”

The Duke of Liancourt to Louis XVIth following the storming of the Bastille on July 14th, 1789

Thursday, November 03, 2005

It’s a trying week for authoritarian, arrogant home secretaries

This week is turning out to be rather an interesting one politically on both sides of the Channel. Yesterday evening, the Blair government came within one vote of being defeated in the House of Commons over its proposal to criminalise the “glorification of terrorism”. Until now, Tony Blair has been able to assume that his majority would make sure that any motion that he tabled in the Commons would be successful, however this latest vote suggests that many Labour MPs voted against the government. I’ll just point out that of all the people who didn’t vote at all, I wouldn’t have expected George Galloway not to bother to be there. I hope he has a good reason like Vince Cable (Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham), who ironically was prevented from voting on a security matter because of security procedures. On a separate matter, the question of whether or not the period during which terrorism suspects can be held without charge for up to 90 days instead of the current 14, the Home Secretary Charles Clarke was forced to postpone a vote to avoid possible defeat. These are both important matters, particularly for those with an interest in preserving civil liberties, but of course what has really taken up column centimetres this week has been the second resignation of David Blunkett in twelve months.

Strictly speaking, David Blunkett is an authoritarian, arrogant former home secretary, rather than a serving one, but Charles Clarke has only ever been a pseudo-Blunkett, who can be relied on to carry on with the previous agenda without doing too much, or indeed any, thinking about it. Anyway, it looks like David Blunkett’s chronic arrogance problem is what brought him down. Once again, he just didn’t really believe that the rules applied to him, because he’s somehow special. Which is of course just good old-fashioned Xerxes-style hubris. To use a contrived classical metaphor, David Blunkett flogged the Hellespont once too often and the sea decided to scatter his ships.

Meanwhile, over in Paris, Nicolas Sarkozy, the third arrogant, authoritarian home secretary, has been having a bad week also. To a great extent it’s his own fault: his troubles were predictably brought about by being arrogant and authoritarian. An inquiry is underway into exactly what happened in Clichy-Sous-Bois last Thursday night, but what is certain is that three teenagers of North African extraction thought that they were being pursued by the police, took refuge in an electrical substation, where two of them were fatally electrocuted. Word quickly went round that they were victims of police brutality, and soon enough a riot was underway. Law and order, specifically taking a tough uncompromising line on law and order, are Sarkozy’s favourite areas, so I suspect that he was delighted at the opportunity to take centre stage. Unfortunately earlier in the week, he had referred very publicly to disaffected youths in sink estates as "scum". Also, in the summer, following similar incidents, he had vowed to clean up another estate "with a high-pressure hose" suggesting that the inhabitants were muck. So he was going to come up with some pretty conciliatory words to calm down the situation. But instead on Sunday he said that he would take a "zero tolerance" approach, that he didn’t want do any ordinary policing but wanted to make arrests. Then he sent an additional seventeen companies of CRS (riot police) and seven squadrons of gendarmes to Clichy-Sous-Bois to make sure that some proper repression took place. And so the problem escalated, and the violence continues and spreads a week later.

Politically, Sarkozy has jumped on the highest law and order horse he could find, and succeeded only in worsening the problem. His tough rhetoric and muscular reaction plays well to many members of his rightwing UMP party, but on the ground, it’s a disaster. He’s been severely criticised within the government, although the Prime Minister and the President have been trying to keep that quiet for the sake of appearances. But Sarkozy may well have severly damaged his credibility, having failed in the one area that many assume is naturally his greatest strength.

Clarke, Blair, Blunkett and Sarkozy all have in common a stunning degree of arrogance, the conviction that they don’t need to listen to anyone else because they’re always right, the accompanying inability to admit to mistakes, the belief that the rules don’t apply to them because they are above everyone else. They are wrong. And they will eventually all learn this the unpleasant way. This pine marten can’t wait.

I wish you all a merry Jerusalem Artichoke Day!

You may not be aware of this, but according to the French Republican calendar, today, Tridi 13th Brumaire of the Year 214 of the Social, Universal and Indivisible Republic, is Jerusalem Artichoke Day. Accordingly, the Militant Pine Marten would like to congratulate all Jerusalem artichokes, and wish everyone else a very happy Jerusalem Artichoke Day.

The French Republican calendar is an interesting one, having been officially introduced on 6th October 1793, or in Republican parlance Vendémiaire 15th, Year II of the Social, Universal and Indivisible Republic. The idea behind the Republican calendar was to do away with the religious connotations of the Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII to replace the less accurate Julian calendar. The Julian calendar had been introduced by none other than Caius Julius Caesar in 45 BC, however as the Julian year was about 11 minutes longer than the actual time between two consecutive Spring equinoxes. Therefore by 1582, the measurement of time was somewhat out of kilter, so on the 4th October of that year, the Pope announced that actually it was October 15th, and eleven days of everyone’s lives were wiped off the slate. General levels of numeracy and literacy weren’t great back then, and a lot of people resented the fact that their lives had been shortened in this way. But there was nothing for it: Gregory had taken the eleven days, he wasn’t going to give them back, and we still use his calendar today.

Except, that is, for France and its dominions between 6th October 1793 and September 9th 1805, or Fructidor 22nd Year XIII if you prefer. The Republican Calendar is not in fact physically very different from the Gregorian calendar, since it is also a solar calendar, however it differs in the ideas behind it. Essentially these are that it should be divided into nice, orderly units in base 10, and that all religious connotations should be replaced with proper reasonable Republican ones. In practice, it works like this. The year is 365 or 366 days long if it’s a leap year. This is divided into 12 months (a slight slip-up with respect to the base 10 agenda) of thirty days each exactly. No more of this messy, illogical 30, 31, 28 and 29 days every leap year malarkey! In the same way, the silly seven day weeks are replaced with three ten-day decades in every month. Days have ten hours, each hour being further subdivided into one hundred minutes, comprising one hundred seconds. That last bit never caught on and was quickly abandoned. You’ll notice that this adds up to only 360 days, so to make up for it there are five or six complementary days at the end of each year known as sansculottides in honour of the revolutionaries amongst the common people who didn’t wear culottes or pantaloons, and wore trousers instead. Apart from the Republican clock aspect, which is frankly taking a decent idea just a little too far down the path of decimal militancy, it’s a perfectly serviceable calendar.

More importantly, it is a fun calendar. The names of all the months were devised by the (bad) poet Fabre d’Eglantine, whose only lasting legacy is the lacklustre French folk song ”Il pleut, il pleut, bergère”. However on this occasion he surpassed himself, and the months are named after changes on the natural world associated with the time of year. The year starts on the Autumn equinox (mostly the 22nd September but variable, something of a shortcoming), on Vendémiaire 1st, which is the month of the grape harvest, the vendanges. This is followed by Brumaire, Frimaire, Nivôse, Pluviôse, Ventôse, Germinal (yes, like the film with Gérard Depardieu and the novel by Emile Zola), Floréal, Prairial, Messidor, Thermidor and Fructidor. The days of the ten-day week however have pretty uninspired, arid names: Primidi, Duodi, Tridi and so on up to Decadi. You can spot the influence of the base 10 zealots there. Instead of all those backward Monarchist saints, the days are devoted to animals, plants and agricultural implements, hence today being Jerusalem artichoke day. Finally, the year ends with the five or six complementary days, which are the Festivals of Virtue*, Genius, Labour, Opinion (good inclusion, that one), Rewards and finally of the Revolution.

Assuming you’re still reading, you may be wondering what the point of all this is. The answer is simply that I think it was a fun calendar, and that in a way it’s a shame that Napoleon abolished it because he found it inconvenient and annoying. I’d like it if some enterprising printer decided to produce some up to date Republican calendars (it was New Year’s just over a month ago). And of course I wanted to celebrate the Jerusalem artichoke, a vegetable that doesn’t enjoy the spotlight very often, and that deserves more recognition.

If you’d like to experiment with the Republican calendar, or just have a bit of fun in your lost moments, you can download a free Gregorian/Republican converter by clicking here.

*The Festival of Virtue just happens to be the Militant Pine Marten’s birthday.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Tony Blair has abandoned education as a means of social promotion

A few years ago, a primary school headmistress that I know summoned the mother of a boy who was falling behind seriously on literacy, to a great extent because his parents never checked whether or not he did his homework. She decided to drive home the nature of the problem quite starkly, and asked the lady bluntly whether she wanted her son to be able to read or not. “Of course I do! Of course I want him to be able to read! I don’t want him to read books like a poof though.” The poor child is not unique in being cursed with stupid, irresponsible parents, and that’s not something that the school or the State can do anything about (not unless someone is prepared to introduce some kind of procreation licence, and I’m sure that there are those who think that would be a jolly good idea). I don’t know what happened to that boy, but I do know the teacher, and I’m pretty sure that she did her damnedest to make sure that he did learn to read, and that consequently he stood a better chance of breaking out of the vicious spiral of ignorance with all its attached evils that he was destined for by his parents and background. But then he was lucky enough through a shake of life’s dice to have fallen in the catchment area of that particular school and to have landed on that particular teacher. And of course that’s one of the things that free, universal schooling is supposed to provide: the opportunity for social promotion.

Tony Blair’s great radical reform of schools may not explicitly set out to do so, but one of its main effects is going to be to make sure that the chances of children like the one mentioned above to rise above the status into which they were born thanks to education will be reduced to a minimum. They’re already not great as things stand. I have yet to read the White Paper, but Tony Blair’s speech given on Monday at Downing Street to a group of parents (which parents? Randomly selected ones pulled off the street? Probably not) is sufficiently detailed and long-winded to provide a pretty good idea of what is involved.

The overall goal is “a system of independent, self-governing state schools with fair funding and fair admissions”. This sounds good, you have to admit, until you try and fathom what exactly Tony means by this. It’s a classic piece of Blair rhetoric in that way. I’m particularly curious to find out what he means by “fair”. This pine marten sets a great deal of store by “fair”, and over the years I’ve come to believe that he doesn’t. In Tony’s own words, ”within two years, virtually every school will be a specialist school”. In practice, this means that there will no longer be a real National Curriculum. Schools will be able to decide what they do and don’t teach, and will be actively encouraged to develop specialisations in certain subject, and then to ”market them to parents”, who “should be able to exercise choice” under the new system, but more on that later. The curriculum will be determined by parents’ groups, charities, businesses, faith organisations, anyone who cares to have a say in it really, and importantly anyone who cares to offer some funding. Indeed, they will be actively encouraged to set up their own schools under the new proposals if they don’t like what’s on the market. I can hear Sir Digby Jones of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI, sometimes referred to as the Bosses’ Union) now: "Students learning Ancient Greek instead of Accounting costs British Business eight-hundred billion quid a decade!" The only people who will not have a say in this are local education authorities (LEAs). LEAs will monitor standards and commission services, but not run schools. Councils will liaise and mediate, but won’t be education providers.

Really it boils down to this: the State is giving up on providing universal, good quality education. Instead, as for everything else that the British state has washed its hands of in recent years, education will be opened to the universal panacea that is The Market. That’s not leftwing paranoia, Tony said so, not me: “There will in one sense be a market. The patient and the parent will have much greater choice. But it will only be a market in the sense of consumer choice, not a market based on private purchasing power”. The last part of that sentence is disingenuous nonsense, as the Blairs must surely know following their efforts to make sure that their children went to the best schools. If it is true that education will remain free, the much-vaunted parental choice will only apply to those who are best placed to take advantage of the new system through their background, educational level, postcode, inclination and ability to do so. The boy with the useless parents at the beginning of this story would not benefit from this alleged choice that his parents have. So those that will benefit will be those that already have the greatest ability to make the system work for them, and therefore the children who have the least need of the State’s help. Children born into poorly educated or simply poor backgrounds or areas are being abandoned. The State is giving up trying to offer social promotion through education, it’s taking away the opportunity to rise purely on one’s own merits, through one’s own work, assisted by the State. In fact, it’s giving up on trying to help those who can’t help themselves.

And if the State stops doing for its citizens the things that they cannot do on their own, then what exactly is the State for apart from its own perpetuation?

“Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26. (1)

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Civil liberties defenders should hang out with the foxhunters more

Inspiration can come from the most unlikely places. Those amongst you who have misgivings about the Blair government’s cavalier attitude to civil liberties as they seek to combat Evil in all its devious forms by playing "Variations sur le Thème de l’Acte du Terrorisme, en cas de Force Majeure" repeatedly, until we stop being able to distinguish the notes and doze off, should probably take a good look at what the persecuted minority that are foxhunting supporters are up to. If you haven’t been paying much attention to this ongoing conflict over the years, it may come as a surprise to you that, following what appeared to be a final triumph for opponents of foxhunting earlier this year, when the 1949 Parliament Act was used to finally force the ban into law, the foxhunters haven’t actually stopped hunting at all. If their PR war left something to be desired, especially compared to that of their opponents, they have no lessons to take when it comes to their current civil disobedience campaign. You may think that foxhunters have no right to use civil disobedience tactics, they’re for people like you who oppose the introduction of ID cards or nuclear waste reprocessing. However they’re just as viable for the defence of foxhunting, and the Militant Pine Marten is impressed.

Before I explain why this is case, I should define what I mean by civil disobedience*. At its simplest, civil disobedience is simply the refusal by people who consider a law to be iniquitous to submit themselves to it. However as this leaves the door open to arguments such as "Well suppose I disagree with the law that forbids murder then?", I shall add a few details. First of all, an act of civil disobedience must be conscious and intentional. Breaking a law by mistake doesn’t count. Making a conscious decision to sit in the "whites only" seat on the bus when you’re black does. Such an act is also public, which is a major difference with a criminal act, which must be clandestine to reap benefits. It is an individual action that purports to have a collective goal: the participant breaks the law to benefit others. Civil disobedience is non-violent. Its effect should come from its resonance with a with a larger body of people. Finally, and this is of course where the whole concept turns into a legal and philosophical powder keg, civil disobedience calls upon "higher principles" than those invoked by the lawmakers. Whereas these could be religious or ideological, they can also be constitutional. In this way, paradoxically, it is possible for civil disobedience to strengthen established institutions. Now that we know what we’re talking about, let’s move on to the case in point.

On the 20th November 2004, the rightwing philosopher (and foxhunter) Roger Scruton published the Hunting Declaration, inviting foxhunters and supporters to openly pledge to disobey any eventual ban on foxhunting. The text fulfils all of the above criteria. None of the signatories hid their identities, denied that they would be breaking the law, and importantly the website states "The success of the Declaration will be judged by the press, public and Government, by the number of people who sign it, and especially those that do not hunt.". So far, outright defiance has not been necessary. Interestingly, what the foxhunting supporters are doing now is to push the law as far as it will go, testing both the word of the law, and the authorities’ will to enforce it. This may be enough if not to have the ban law repealed, to maintain a situation in which it is not effectively enforced, until such time that another government will repeal it. Although I’m quoting Che Guevara out of context here, I don’t think I’m taking too many liberties with the logic if I say that this stage is analogous to the pre-revolutionary stage described here:

"Where a government has come into power through some form of popular vote, fraudulent or not, and maintains at least an appearance of constitutional legality, the guerrilla outbreak cannot be promoted, since the possibilities of peaceful struggle have not yet been exhausted."

So far, the ban’s opponents haven’t quite finished exploring legal routes, and of course they can’t become violent because there is at least a semblance of constitutional legality. And anyway what Che liked wasn’t civil disobedience, it was revolution, which is a different matter. However there is scope for making the authorities’ lives really difficult through civil disobedience should they decide to start trying to prosecute hunts, which would be a pretty expensive and time-consuming process.

Now the fact is that this is very, very interesting stuff for anyone who has toyed with the idea of refusing to carry an ID card if they are introduced and made mandatory. It is very similar to what the NO2ID (banner on the left) campaign is trying to achieve: first you sign a pledge that you won’t register for an ID card, then you give money to support legal resistance should it come to that. The key things are being non-violent, being public, and not giving up. And of course accepting that the PTBs are likely to make your life harder. But that’s not going to be so easy for them if a million people do the same.

And when you’re out there demonstrating against ID Cards and sitting in the way of the riot police van, don’t be surprised if the guy next to you is in tweeds. He’s already a civil disobedience veteran after all.

* Acknowledgements to Mahatma Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau and the Wikipedia.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Let us build a Europe of the Mushroom Hunting Peoples

This week’s European Union summit on beginning formal accession talks with Turkey ended in success despite the single-minded opposition of Turkey’s old sparring partner Austria. It was Austria, not Greece as you could have expected, that single-mindedly opposed Turkey’s entry into the EU. Given that relations between Greece and Turkey have been somewhat strained for the past few decades, in particular because of the ongoing disgraceful situation concerning Cyprus, this may have come as a bit of a surprise to some. After all, Greece and Turkey have been rivals for at least 3,300 years, ever since a young man from around the North-West Anatolian town of Hisarlik eloped with his Greek chum form Sparta’s wife. So one could expect that given the lack of any such recent outrages, the Austrians would have come to terms with their traditional rivalry with the former Ottomans and buried that particular hatchet. However the price for Austria’s change of mind if not of heart – the opening of accession talks with neighbouring Croatia – suggests that the Austro-Turkish struggle for influence over the Balkans isn’t quite over. Although there’s precious little evidence that Ankara has any interest in becoming once again closely involved in that particular nest of vipers. There’ll be trouble in the Balkans, yet.

While as always, the EU ship sailed closer and closer to the diplomatic wind, Chancellor Schuessel of Austria explained on television that "it was necessary to understand people's concerns about the EU's ability to truly welcome", which at face value is a reasonable statement. The Austrians may be rather less keen than anyone else in the EU on Turkish membership, but there’s hardly overwhelming popular support for the idea. According to Eurobaremeter, only 10% of Austrians favour Turkish accession, but across the EU, the figure is only around 37%, which is hardly a ringing endorsement. So if the EU’s political elite don’t want a repeat of the last summer’s disastrous referenda on the proposed EU Constitution in France and the Netherlands over Turkey (and bear in mind that at the moment, France at least is planning on holding a referendum on Turkish accession when the time comes), it’s going to have to address some popular concerns.

The big question that we all have to answer is this: what is the EU going to be? This raises others. What is it for? Where does it stop? In fact, what is Europe? Is it a cultural sphere? Is it simply a geographical area limited by seas and the Urals? If so, where exactly in the Urals? If it’s defined by culture, which particular aspects of culture? There are those who maintain that it’s religion. Jacques Delors once said that the EU was a “Christian club”, and I’m sure that this is a statement that resonates with many Austrians, and other Europeans. But this argument doesn’t really hold water. Certainly most Europeans are nominally Christians, whether Catholic, Orthodox or any of the branches of Protestantism that you care to choose. But how many Europeans really define themselves in this way? What proportion of those who oppose the entry of a predominantly Muslim population into the EU make any decision based on their religion more than let’s say once a month? How often do they attend a service? For most them, not very often I’d wager. This is a difficult argument because it runs into the wall of religious and arguably racial prejudice. This is a low-level, insidious emotion that lurks in the background, but it’s real nonetheless.

In an uncharacteristically optimistic article this week, Timothy Garton Ash, who has been pretty miserable and downcast of late, attempts to answer some of these questions, and does so well. He claims that the EU is not becoming some sort of super-state as many rabid anti-Europeans (Eurosceptic is such an anaemic term) claim. Neither is it simply a giant free trade zone as many continental Euro-enthusiasts fear that the British want to make in into. It’s a new form of Commonwealth of Nations for want of a better term, united by a common political vision, a commitment to democracy, human rights, and improving the lot of its peoples through economic strength. These may sound like vague concepts, and in a way they are, but they have a life of their own, and it will take more than populist political pandering to the electorate’s fears to stop them.

In the meantime, if Europeans need a simpler idea of what unites Europe to cling onto until such time as the aforementioned ones gain some credence amongst them, I suggest that rather than any political goal, geographic notion or religious criterion, they should use the pan-European love of mushroom hunting. In every member state of the EU (except for the UK, which explains why by and large, the UK has never really embraced the European ideal as much as its partners) and in its expansion frontier to the East, people love picking mushrooms. It is an activity that unites generations, provides a sense of continuity, stimulates contemplation, and leads to a social gathering around a very special meal, while fostering a friendly sense of competition. I am reliably informed that our Turkish friends are very keen mushroom hunters too.

So go out to the woods, pick some mushrooms, reflect on the fact that fellow Europeans and aspiring Europeans throughout the continent are doing the same. After the weekend, email or telephone your friends across Europe and tell them about it, thereby creating a pan-European sense of purpose. Calm down, enjoy it, relax, let the anxiety slip away, and together we shall build a Europe of the Mushroom Hunting Peoples!

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Draft French anti-terror laws highlight the UK's drift towards being a police state

Charles Clarke’s French counterpart Nicolas ‘Iznogoud’ Sarkozy has just unveiled his very own proposals for a raft of anti-terror legislation. Surfing the growing wave of fear amongst the French electorate (a phenomenon known as l’insécurité) has been an important part of Sarkozy’s rise to political prominence, and his current role as Interior Minister offers an ideal platform on which to continue to build his reputation as a fearsome opponent of muggers, terrorists, young men in hoodies, and now weirdly the Militant Pine Marten’s very own cousin, but more on that later.

On Monday evening, Sarkozy appeared on television to discuss his proposals, and the man has absolutely nothing to learn from our own Charles Clarke when it comes to tough talking and quite frankly straightforward posturing. In fact, he makes Clarke sound like a big pussycat, although his direct pilfering of the Home Secretary’s exact rhetoric is sloppy work. Consider the following withering response to the suggestion that his proposals represent a threat to civil liberties: "The first liberty is to be able to take the Metro and the bus without fearing for one’s life". You may recall the following statement from Charles Clarke, issued after an equivalent comment about civil liberties: "It is a fundamental civil liberty of people in Europe to be able to go to work on their transport system in the morning without being blown up." Nicolas, fais donc un effort, merde! That’s just really sloppy work. It’s a ridiculously glib thing to say in the first place, let alone to plagiarise it.

Apart from stealing Clarke’s weak arguments, Sarkozy had some typically robust ones of his own to air, further reinforcing his image as the dogged defender of France’s security. First of all, he started by making quite sure that everyone was in the proper paranoid state of mind to be prepared to listen to him, opining that the terrorist menace "exists in France, at a very high level" and that on a scale of one to five, it was "closer to four than to three". To fight this, Sarkozy explained that "We want to know who is going where, for how long, and when they’re coming back". Now you may think that it’s really none of the State’s business where people choose to go on holiday, in which case you may be swayed by the further explanation that "It is not normal that an individual living in one of our inner cities should suddenly leave for four months to Afghanistan, three months to Syria". You may be swayed by that, but I’d like to think that you’re not. Keeping track of people’s movements, keeping them under surveillance in case they decide to do something "not normal" is proper police state behaviour, not the behaviour of a country that makes a good claim to having invented liberty in the modern political sense. It shows a frightening contempt for individual liberty, for the fundamental values of the French Republic, more importantly in an increasingly varied society, for difference. Nicolas Sarkozy seems to be attempting to scare the electorate into supporting his presidential ambitions, a tactic with an extremely distasteful history.

However for all his unpleasant rhetoric, Sarkozy’s actual proposals fall far short of the levels of State surveillance of the individual proposed and indeed to a great extent implemented by Charles Clarke. Apart from the plan to scrutinise people’s movements, the rest of the legislative proposals in France will seem very mild to the British electorate. Broadly, they cover installing more CCTV cameras (British readers may forget that these little gadgets are nowhere near as popular in the rest of the world), the keeping of logs of people’s phone calls and internet use (but not of the content of the communications), increased sentences to terrorism-related offences, and increased access for the police services to files on citizens’ number plates, driving licences, passports, identity cards, visa applications, etc. However this remains far from the level and depth of information that Clarke wishes to include in British ID cards, or to the proposed availability of this information. The fact is that the British have allowed themselves to gradually be subjected to a degree of surveillance that would be anathema in the rest of Europe, certainly in France. Indeed, even Sarkozy hasn’t dared propose any legislation that far-reaching, knowing that it wouldn’t wash, that it would probably be unconstitutional (incidentally, I’ll take the opportunity to point out that the UK should really draw up a written constitution to protect citizens’ liberties).

Finally, why is my cousin a menace to the security of French citizens? Well my cousin is young, lives in an inner city, and has suddenly left to spend a few months in Syria. In addition, my cousin has all her life associated with blacks and people of North African descent, has a strong anti-establishment streak and is a bit lefty. All factors which, according to Sarkozy, perfectly fit the profile of typical French Jihadist.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Direct democracy causes organ failure and the wrong choices

Continuing the theme of drawing your attention to events in far-flung corners of the world that are not widely reported in ours, it appears that there is a new phenomenon that is worrying the leadership of the People’s Republic of China. Money on table now: which of the following do you think that Hu Jintao and the Party Lads are most apprehensive about. The ecological catastrophe that accompanies China’s insane economic growth? The economic disparity between rural and urban China? The fact that a 100 million Chinese are now Internet users and that it’s really hard to keep tabs on exactly what they’re using it for? Wrong, wrong and wrong, sorry, you lose. China’s leaders are worried about the nefarious influence of the People’s Republic’s own version of Popstars or The X-Factor.

The Chinese version of the programme is called The Mongolian Cow Sour Yoghurt Super Girl Contest (after its sponsor, a dairy product company), known as Super Girls for short, and that’s how I’ll refer to it from now on. It was broadcast by a regional satellite television channel in Hunan, and the contest’s finale was watched by 400 million Chinese viewers last weekend. Viewers were gripped by Super Girls fever, voting by SMS, finding ingenious ways of flaunting the rules limiting each person to a single vote. The winner of the three finalists was a 21-year-old student from Sichuan called Li Yuchun.

So who cares, you may ask? It’s just the same crappy reality television that we have in the West. Maybe the following comment from a Shanghai editor named Gu Yun, quoted by Shanghai News, will give you a clue: "This kind of contest can be considered a democracy apprenticeship for the 1980s generation". You can almost hear the reaction of the Party Nomenklatura from here, can’t you? "Great Chairman Mao Almighty! I thought we’d taught these snotty kids a lesson back in Tiananmen Square? I told you we shouldn’t allow that degenerate poppy-rocky music!"

Democracy apprenticeships are not something that the Chinese leadership want to hear about. Voting by text message to evict someone from the Big Brother house may be something that to us is at the least banal, to many crass and symbolic of a whole lot of stuff that we don’t like much (although it’s not uncommon for lazy thinkers to make the same claim as Gu Yun). But in China, this is the first example of direct democracy that they have ever witnessed. On Super Girls there was no Sharon Osbourne, no Simon Wossname, just the cumulated votes of the viewers. And what’s more, no-one overruled them, and Li Yuchun won fair and square. The viewers loved this, and they want more.

But there’s another problem: it’s not just the fact that 400 million people have now had a taste of direct democracy that worried the apparatchiks. They don’t like the result either. You may think that to the State, it’s pretty irrelevant who wins some tacky reality television talent show sponsored by a yoghurt manufacturer. But not so. Quite apart from the fact that generally, authoritarian governments tend to consider that nothing is irrelevant to the State, Li Yuchun is just not the sort of girl that they like very much.

In China Daily, the State-run English language newspaper, the chaps are trying really hard to pretend that they don’t mind. That they don’t mind that "rabid fans" elected "transgender looking Li Yuchun from Chengdu". They note with some dismay that "nearly all the beautiful and lovely Super Girls" were "kicked out in earlier rounds" (well you should have got your friends to vote for them then, shouldn’t you?). The style of writing is interesting, in that it always relates what "other commentators" in state-run media have said, inferring that China Daily is different, whereas it is no such thing. Heaven forbid that anyone at China Daily should be "concerned that the programme signalled the further erosion of traditional Chinese culture". And they certainly wouldn’t want anyone to think that they agreed with the unspecified commentators who "speculated that her fan base consisted of young girls who considered her to be their boyfriend because of her appearance". Or in other words, she may be lesbian, something that the People’s Republic prefers to draw a discrete red flag over.

Whereas China Daily doesn’t disapprove of these things, it would be failing in its duty to inform the public if it didn’t report the flipside of the Super Girls coin:
"But unfortunately not all the opportunities lead to happy endings, though the girls have sung to their hearts' content, some ended up with sadness, or even, tragedy. It is reported that a 15-year-old girl from central China's Hunan Province who dreamed of becoming Super Girl but dissatisfied with her figure died of organ failure caused by hunger."

It is reported by whom exactly? Of course, this may be true, there’s no way of telling. Anyway, it’s only sensible to warn young people with ideas of the sorts of nasty things that happen to people who fall in with the wrong crowd.

Maybe I’m being excessively cynical, so just to be fair, I’ll let China Daily have the last word, because even I acknowledge that the following is a valid question, based on my experience of reality talent shows: "How come an imitation of a democratic system ends up selecting the singer who has the least ability to carry a tune?". The paper also suggests that The Mongolian Cow Sour Yoghurt Super Girl Contest 2006 may be cancelled.

But that’s only fair enough given that it causes girls’ organs to fail and results in the wrong decisions being made.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Trouble à t’moulin à rumeurs

It may have escaped the attention of many people outside France that Jacques Chirac has been taken ill. Indeed, the idea was that the French weren’t supposed to notice either. Not just the Great Unwashed either, but absolutely everyone up to the highest levels of the State was kept in the dark from the evening of Friday 2nd September, when Chirac was taken to hospital, to 10am the next day. During that time, no one at the Elysée thought it necessary to tell the prime minister Dominique de Villepin, the Cabinet or the President of the Senate Christian Poncelet, who would take over from Chirac if he was incapable of governing through illness or death.

First of all, what exactly happened? According to Le Monde (Monday’s edition you’ll notice), after entertaining an Andorran delegation, at about 6.30pm, Our Jacques retired to his office for a little late-night cramming. Once there, he experienced a strong migraine and troubles with vision in one eye, whereupon he called his doctor, who decided that this required some check-ups at the Val-de-Grâce military hospital. So the President’s motorcade (without the usual motorcycle outriders to avoid attracting attention) left the Elysée Palace at about 8pm. There, doctors decide to keep him in for further tests and observations overnight, but Chirac decides to tell no one apart from his wife, his daughter and his private secretary. He’ll call the prime minister on Saturday after he receives the test results.

Dominique de Villepin was told of Chirac’s hospitalisation at about 9.30 the next day, which is when the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, claimed on Sunday evening on TF1 to have been told. But this is where the first evidence of jostling for position in the wake of the President’s possible quitting of the scene appears. You see, in France as in the UK, it’s the party conference season, and as head of the UMP party, Sarko was at the conference in La Baule. It looked for all the world on the televised coverage of the conference that Sarko was told about Chirac’s condition at 1pm by de Villepin himself, which suggests that the President didn’t bother to tell him, a deliberate display of spurning.

The shenanigans and political manoeuvring in the immediate aftermath of the President’s illness remind me of a similar sequence of events in Cuba in 2001, when Castro collapsed during a speech and his entourage’s body language seemed to be a rehearsal for the immediate post-Castro distribution of power. Castro’s planned successor is his brother Raoul. The question in France is whether de Villepin is Chirac’s dauphin.

Under the Ancien Régime, the king’s death would be greeted with a cry of “Le Roi est mort! Vive le Roi!” to indicate that there was no vacancy in power, that there was continuity in the organs of State. The problem with what’s just happened with Chirac is that no one made any such assurance. Indeed, communication on exactly what the President’s state of health is remains vague. Currently, all that the Elysée has said is that he had a “minor vascular accident”, although it’s pretty clear that what we’re talking about is a small blood clot in the brain. Traditionally, for some unfathomable reason, the French President’s health has been a state secret. Mitterrand kept his prostate cancer a secret from 1981 onwards, publishing monthly completely fabricated health bulletins. Potentially, this can lead to the State having no effective head without anyone knowing, to a power vacuum, and this is an anomaly that must be rectified in future.

Admittedly, Chirac’s not dead, and isn’t planning on departing this Earth anytime soon. But this event does almost certainly mean that he won’t stand for reelection in 2007, denying Sarko his coveted duel with the Old Man. So the big question is whether Sarko or de Villepin will be the Centre-Right’s favoured candidate in 2007, or even whether there could be a Sarko vs. Villepin scrap, since there is nothing to stop either of them throwing their hat in the ring regardless. Sarko may do this in his single-minded drive to become Caliph instead of the Caliph. I don’t think de Villepin would, in order to avoid fragmenting the Centre-Right vote. Either way, this is going to be an election to watch, where for once, there will be no geriatric candidates except for that perennial furuncle on France’s face that is Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Left-leaning writers shouldn’t be scared or embarrassed to write about religion

IMPORTANT NOTE: I am absolutely not making any comment on the existence or non-existence of God, on the validity of any specific religious beliefs, on the authenticity of religious texts, or indeed on the relative merits of any specific religion. Except when specified, the term “religion” is used to denote the concept of a set of beliefs of beliefs and values centred around God, not a religious organisation. The term “God” is used to mean the various concepts of a divine being, pantheon thereof or essence that exist in various forms in different religions, monotheistic as well as polytheistic. This piece is about the effect of religion on individuals and their behaviour, not about the validity of belief systems.

There is a very important topic that Left-leaning writers (and I use the word in its broadest possible sense) in particular are very reluctant engage with: religion. We don’t really like to discuss it for a variety of reasons. For many, it seems to be a somewhat embarrassing relic of earlier times. It doesn’t fit with the secular, humanist view of the world. Others simply dismiss it as a load of superstitious claptrap, indeed hostility towards religion – especially organised religion – is widespread. It’s not only viewed as irrelevant, it’s also considered nefarious, it impedes Humanity’s progress, it’s an obscurantist force. Finally, and I suspect that this is a more important reason for avoidance of the topic than is generally acknowledged, it’s difficult to write about. Theology is not something that all that many people are very familiar with, it’s not a way of thinking, of viewing the world, that they’re used to. And so discussion of religion among Leftie writers tends to be limited to the following three topics:

perfectly justified vitriolic attacks against religious zealots trying to mix religion and politics;
habitual and visceral attacks on organised religion (more or less justified);
militant atheism, which is often indistinguishable from religious zealotry.

Otherwise, writing about religion in the mainstream press or online remains the preserve of those further on the right of the political spectrum, with some
particularly hilarious material coming from the super-conservative Protestants in the US, reactionary Roman Catholics in Europe, and of course everyone’s current favourite extreme Islamist clerics.

This does not strike me as a good thing. It’s painfully obvious that religion is a very powerful force in the world, far more so than was the case a decade ago, certainly far more than during the Cold War. Therefore ignoring it, dismissing it as irrelevant, backward, the favoured material of reactionaries, is simplistic, counterproductive and misguided. So I’m going to stick my mustelid neck out and throw into the Leftwing Ideas Ring the supposition that religion can be a good thing, a force for good, a friend of progressive politics.

Karl Marx’s famous claim that “religion is the opium of the Masses” sums up the general attitude to religion on the Left quite well. And there is of course truth in this statement. Unthinking, blind faith not in God (and I don’t limit this to the Christian God, but to the idea of God, found in one form or other in all religions) but in the interpretation of God made by people with a more or less openly stated and earthly agenda of their own, does nothing at all for the advancement of Humanity. Indeed, it holds Humanity back by discouraging individual thought, theological inquiry, by seeking to impose a subjective view of the divine and repress dissent, often through violent methods. The ravages of this form of religion are all too plain to see in the world at the moment. The inclusion of so-called “Intelligent Design” in American school curricula, the pernicious stranglehold of Protestant fundamentalists on the current US administration, the resurgent influence of the Council of Guardians in Iran, and to a lesser extent the accession of Joseph Ratzinger to the Papacy are all examples of this.

But all of these admittedly extreme cases have in common the fact that all of them are perversions of religions to achieve earthly goals. The Council of Guardians wants to make sure that it has complete control of everyone and everything in Iran, the Christian Zionists want the US to re-establish the Biblical Israel (and thereby bring about the Second Coming – I’m not certain of where this strange little doctrine came from), Al-Qaeda wants to cause as much havoc as possible and make everyone live in the Middle-Ages.

Manipulation of large numbers of people is made possible quite simply by illiteracy, ignorance, lack of personal exploration of theology. Traditionally, Roman Catholics did not study the Bible much. Until Vatican II, Mass was conducted in Latin, which being the language of an ecclesiastical establishment didn’t really allow for anyone to form their own opinions much. Islam suffers from the same problem: the Quran is usually printed in Arabic, and most Muslims don’t speak Arabic, let alone read it. So Roman Catholics have relied on catechism classes, which follow the Roman Catholic Church’s agenda, whilst many Muslims rely on the self-justifying Hadith for their interpretation of the Quran.

Religion doesn’t have to be like that, and beyond fulfilling basic emotional needs such as providing people with a sense of the purpose of life, and reassuring them that death is not simply oblivion, it has a valuable purpose. Many scientists for example seek in science and reason a coherent worldview, and reason is certainly a better tool for that than superstition and mysticism. But science is not very good at all at telling people what is right and what is wrong. Nature has no concept of compassion or of mercy. Evolution doesn’t really allow that life has a purpose other than replicating itself. That’s what differentiates humans from the rest of the Earth’s biomass: we’re self-aware, we want a purpose in life, and yet through concepts such as mercy and compassion, we think twice about gaining an advantage over others or indeed other species if it’s going to cause them harm. It can instil in people a respect for others and for the rest of Creation (I use that term because it’s quite elegant, not to indicate a religious belief, and absolutely not because I’m a creationist).

But that sort of beneficial effect doesn’t come from blind faith alone or from top-down, dogmatic organised religion. It comes from individual familiarity with the various religions’ fundamental texts, from honest discussion, probing, healthy scepticism and above all, forcing one’s self to approach all of these matters with an open mind. Too often, the Bible and Quran for example are used to find justifications for preconceived ideas. I am always amazed by the sorts of things that Christian zealots manage to justify using the Bible. You have to wonder how much clearer the statement “Thou shalt not kill” could possibly be. And the entire Gospels are about love, compassion, non-violence, mercy and importantly, not mixing up religion and politics. After all, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's" just means "Sorry, I don't do politics".

It is often said that if people don’t believe in God, they’ll believe in anything. This is quite clearly true. Banish God, and you can find yourself believing in Stalin or National Socialism instead. If you ignore God, sideline him, make him irrelevant, you risk losing your sense of direction, purpose, balance. This leaves the door wide open for dishonest, manipulative religious zealots, or indeed any other belief system that fills the human need for a sense of purpose. Some fill the gap with frenetic consumerism, others muck around with statements such as “well I don’t believe in God, but I believe that there’s some sort of undefined vague greater power that doesn’t really require me to do anything or not do things and is about as intellectually useful as a liquorice spade”. But one way or another, people will believe in something, and intelligent, informed religion is as good as any positive philosophy. Because people who believe in positive things are more likely to make the world better, to vote for good politicians, to spread open-minded, tolerant, generous ideas, to not kill people or oppress them, to stand up to those who would do such things or tell them what to think and feel. And barring the extremists, those are the sorts of things that Lefties – and indeed decent rightwing people – believe in. So Leftie writers, don’t abandon the topic of religion to rightwing bigots and self-serving, cynical zealots. It’s nothing to be scared or ashamed of.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

You should always carry with you a piece of string

After a thoroughly enjoyable fortnight of climbing trees and chasing squirrels, I have returned from the woods. Obviously I have been a little cut off from the usual cares of the world during this time, and so until I catch up on everything, I won't have anything terribly serious to write about. However in between raids on bird nests, I had time for some reflection, and I realised something important: I never have a piece of string available when I need one. I reasoned that there must be many others in a similar situation, and thought that this represented not only a business opportunity, but also a chance to really help people. And so I decided to do my best to provide Mankind with string.

Maybe you need a piece of string right now? In that case, I'll wager that you don't have one to hand. You're certain that you must have some string around the house somewhere, and in fact you're sure that you saw it lying around just last week, but you can't remember where. If at this moment, you don't need a piece of string, I'm sure that you can remember an occasion when you were faced with this very problem.

It used to be said (and this was probably one of Lord Baden-Powell's ideas) that a boy need not fear being caught unprepared to face an unexpected situation if he always carried with him a pocket knife, a sixpence and a piece of string very much like the one pictured here. I would adapt that advice for the Twenty-first Century by increasing the amount of cash to £10, but the principle remains sound. If you've read JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit, you may recall that just after finding the One Ring in the caves under the mountains of Barak-Skrudge (I forget the exact name), Gollum found himself looking for the answer to the question "What does it have in its' pocketses Preciousssss?" Well had Bilbo carried with him a piece of string, Gollum could have found himself strangled to death or tied up and abandoned in an underground cavern in short order, rather than just robbed of his birthday present.

If you were about to leave your home without a piece of string in your pocket, I strongly recommend that you give serious consideration to bidding for this item.

You'll notice that I have not so far approached the topic of the physical dimensions of this piece of string, and it may seem a reasonable question at first sight. However it is part of the very nature of string that it exists in a constant state of dimensional uncertainty. In fact, this state of flux also accounts for the elusiveness of pieces of string. At any given time, it is impossible to determine where a piece of string is and what its' dimensions are. This is hardly surprising if one is a believer in superstring theory of course, which basically holds that strings are the one-dimensional building blocks of the Universe. Specifically, the elemental particles that make up the atom are themselves simply composed of strings in varying degrees of excitation. I am not certain of the precise degree of excitation of the piece of string on offer here as I do not have a suitable particle accelerator to determine its state. Suffice to say that it is a splendid specimen of a piece of string.

Whether you were about to leave the house stringless, are interested in the fundamental fabric of the Universe, or simply want to make a temporary handle for an awkwardly-shaped package, this piece of string is for you!

Sunday, July 31, 2005

The Militant Pine Marten has returned to the forest for a fortnight

I shall return with some new mustelid musings on August 15th or thereabouts. Have a good first half of August everyone (assuming optimistically that there is anyone).

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Al-Qaeda is just a Nihilist religious Trotskyite movement

The Algerian press reports a state of confusion, disbelief and incomprehension following yesterday's claim by the local Iraqi Al-Qaeda franchise that they had executed Ali Balarousi and Azzedin Belkadi, two Algerian diplomats who had been abducted in Baghdad last week. Many Algerians do not understand why diplomats from their country, which although it cooperates with the US to fight terrorism, has been no great supporter of America's actions in Iraq, have been targeted by an Islamist group in Iraq. It is a reasonable question.

Following the abductions, the group's communique claimed that the fact that Algeria had kept its embassy in Iraq open implied support for the American-led invasion and for the current Iraqi regime. When it announced the murder of the two diplomats, it justified the action by saying that Algeria doesn't apply Sharia Law, provides "support for Christians and Jews in Iraq" , and is responsible for the "shedding of Muslim blood" in Algeria, a reference to the bloody struggle between armed Islamist groups and government troops in the 90s.

None of this is even a half-decent attempt at explaining exactly why these people claiming to be Al-Qaeda considered it necessary to murder the two diplomats. The language of the two last sentences of their communique provides a better insight into their motivations however:
"Praise Allah, those who carried out the abductions snatched the Algerians from the hands of the police in the very centre of Baghdad. They succeeded without a single one of them being caught."
These people are boasting. It's that simple. Why do they abduct innocent people, taunt them, humiliate them, parade them around like caged animals? They do it for the jazz. They're glory hunters. Maybe they really do believe that this furthers God's cause, or that this will liberate Iraq, or some other similar nonsense that they have been told by the people who do the thinking for them.

But the tone and style of this little text and other announcements by like-minded Islamist groups are remarkable in that they are identical to that used by hard-left revolutionary movements. Take, for example, this little paragraph:

"This struggle, under conditions of an overwhelming predominance of Imperialist relationships on the world arena, must inevitably lead to explosions, that is, internally to civil wars and externally to revolutionary wars. Therein lies the permanent character of the Islamic revolution as such... The Islamic revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds on the international arena, and is completed on the world arena."

Who do you think said that? Abu Musab al-Zarqawi perhaps? Or maybe Ali Benhadj, the former number two of the Front du Salut Islamique who was arrested in Algiers yesterday after appearing on Al-Jazeera to "salute the mujahideen of the Resistance in Iraq". No, actually it's an extract from Leon Trotsky's The Permanent Revolution, in which I replaced the word "capitalist" with "Imperialist" and "Socialist" with "Islamic". This form of high-profile violence has no value at all in terms of an ordinary resistance movement, it will simply degenerate the situation further. But it makes sense in the context of a Trotskyite model of exporting and propagating an Islamist revolution.

From the personal point of view of the author of the communique who calls himself Abu Maissar El Iraqi and claims to speak on behalf of the "Department of Information of the Al-Qaeda Organisation in Mesopotamia" (note the self-agrandising use of the nom de guerre "El Iraqi" and the excessively inflated job title), what is there to gain from this? Probably violent death at some point down the line. One could hope that he really does believe that he'll find himself with 72 virgins in the afterlife, because apart from that, there isn't much to look forward to. But this is the wrong way of thinking about the problem, because the people who carry out these actions in the name of God are, paradoxically, nihilists.

Strictly speaking, Nihilism is an extreme rationalist ideology that rejects religion, but these words could come from an Al-Qaeda textbook:

"Be severe to yourself and severe to others. Suppress the sentiments of relationship, friendship, love, and gratitude. Have only one pleasure, one joy, one reward -- the triumph of the revolution. Night and day, have only one thought, the destruction of everything without pity. Be ready to die and ready to kill any one who opposes the triumph of your revolt."

They are in fact taken from Michael Bakunin's Revolutionary Catechism. So these men do not expect to achieve anything in this world, or even to stay alive. All that counts is that they should destroy as many of the institutions and people that oppose their pseudo-religious ideology as possible.

So much for what drives the footsoldiers of this Islamist revolution, but what of the masterminds, the people who orchestrate the violence, or at least encourage it, who recruit those who dirty their hands? They'd probably tell you that they're fighting God's War, come up with some suitable rant about Djihad, but this is nonsense. What they want is temporal and spiritual power over as many people and as many countries as possible. To this end, they have poisoned the minds of the kind of people who are prepared to carry out atrocities in Madrid, on the London Underground, in Baghdad by infiltrating schools, mosques, governments etc, all this despite having no formal organisation. And their strategy is to take advantage of the chaos and horror in Iraq and Afghanistan for example to position themselves as the de facto only credible source of authority and power. They deliberately aggravate the situation and escalate the violence, and through mediatic coups like these latest murders, they present themselves as leaders of the resistance, they claim to speak for all those without a voice. And if they convince enough people that this is the case, it will become the case.

Abu Maissar El Iraqi and his colleagues will have been dead for a long time, as will countless others that they claim to be fighting for, and if all goes according to their plan, these Nihilist religious Trotskyites will enjoy the sort of power that the Council of Guardians in Iran dream of. That's if it all works out according to their plan. The good news is that it won't, because these people are so wound up in theory and dogma that they can't see the reality of the situation which is that the vast majority of Iraqis and Afghans have no interest in this way of doing things and are in fact rather interested in having a decent earthly life. This will go on for years, countless thousands will die, and then it will dwindle and extinguish itself in a puff of hubris. What an unbelievable waste.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

"Gruetzi Meister Petz! ": Swiss forced to rethink hardline naturalisation policies as bear applies for citizenship

It's not often that you read anything about Switzerland in the news, and when it does happen, it tends to be unpleasant. Unsavoury financial dealings, the rural German-speaking cantons rejecting membership of the EU, electing really nasty right-wing candidates to the Federal Council or being really unwelcoming to immigrants. So it makes a pleasant change to read that an inhabitant banished from the country since 1904 has returned unexpectedly: the bear has wandered back into Switzerland.

In addition to the ubiquitous and frankly tedious cow, the brown bear is an important symbol for the Swiss, and in particular for the inhabitants of the capital, Bern, which was named after the bear. Admittedly, this could have happened under more auspicious circumstances, since the town was founded in 1191 by Duke Berthold V of Zaehringen after he killed a bear there in the course of a hunt (apparently). As it happens, the nature of the relationship between the Swiss and the bear never really changed all that much, and the last reported bear in Switzerland was shot in 1904.

The bear in question was sighted by three people in the Ofen Pass National Park in the Graubuenden, a region which is about as mountainous, rural and remote as it can be in Europe. It also shares the characteristics of many other locations with a similar topography: it's insular, riven with incomprehensible rivalries and people have a tendency to dislike those from the next valley, let alone foreigners. In fact, the good people of the Graubuenden were instrumental in making sure that it remained very, very difficult for anyone to gain Swiss citizenship.

So the question that the locals must ask themselves is whether they are prepared to welcome Meister Petz home. After all, according to Swiss law, the final say on whether or not someone is accorded citizenship belongs to local communities, and they don't come much more local than those in the Graubuenden. If I were them, I wouldn't worry about the bears. There are never very many and by and large, they keep themselves to themselves (until they take a dislike to you and rip your face off). However, they may have a legitimate gripe if the wolves that have reestablished themselves in France, having travelled from Italy, turn up. One tried it last year, but the fresh mountain air must have disagreed with it because it promptly found itself dead. The fact remains that French experience reveals that wolves have learned some new tricks since they were last in the vicinity.

In 2002, the newly arrived French pack came up with a brilliant idea: why bother running down roe deer which aren't very big and are pretty fast and agile, when you can kill 400 sheep in one go with next to no effort? The result was this:

How do they do it? Well they just scare a herd of sheep towards a cliff edge and watch them plummet to a messy death. You can see how this would annoy the locals quite badly. As a result the French PTBs authorised the killing of some of the culprits. However despite the fact that there is a branch of French administration specifically charged with dealing with wolves (the Lieutenants de Louveterie were instituted by Charlemagne), it's turned out that so far, no-one has been able to remember how you hunt wolves and I'm not aware of any success. Bears by comparison regularly get themselves shot by mistake, as happened to a female named Canelle a year ago.

As a pine marten, I welcome the return of the bear to Switzerland. Switzerland without bears is like Australia without kangaroos. So let's just hope that this bear stays there for the requisite minimum of twelve years and can convince the locals that it is willing to make the effort to be a good Swiss citizen. It's going to have to learn to speak Romanche first though.