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.