Saturday, February 26, 2011

Staines pronounces that black is white once again

I've been enjoying RTÉ's coverage of the Irish general election off and on today, and the following points have been made repeatedly -

1)  The centre-left Labour party is heading for its best election result ever, surpassing even the "Spring Tide" of 1992.

2)  The well-to-the-left Sinn Féin is heading for its best election result ever.

3)  Many left-wing candidates standing as independents or for smaller parties are also likely to be elected.  For instance, Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party looks set for a return to the Dáil, having been defeated in 2007.

4)  It seems overwhelmingly likely that Labour are heading into government, having successfully checked the Fine Gael bandwagon in recent days by reminding the electorate of the importance of a broad-based administration.

Put all these facts through the 'Guido filter', and what do you get?

"The Irish election that left-wing parties failed to make the breakthrough"

"Adding the Fianna Fail vote the parties of the centre-right got 51%"

The latter point might make some kind of sense if it hadn't been for the fact that a) Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have had a majority between them in every single election in history in which both have stood, b) 51% is an unprecedentedly low combined share, and c) Fianna Fáil are political untouchables at present, so any theoretical parliamentary majority that includes them is fairly academic.

But Staines' analysis gets yet more exotic -

"This will stiffen the resolve of George Osborne to persevere with spending cuts"

Unfortunately for us all, I'd suggest he already had plenty enough "resolve" for that endeavour.  I'm not sure where this stunning showing for the Irish left really comes into it.

Friday, February 25, 2011

A few thoughts on liberty and stealing

I got into an unexpected exchange at Political Betting a few hours ago with someone who feels that a wealthy person who suffers as a result of a progressive income tax system is no longer working for himself, but is instead a servant of the state - although, curiously, this only seems to apply when he is handing over "the majority" of his income.  I pointed out that such a person is simply being expected to make a fair contribution in exchange for the services that we all receive from the state, based on his greater ability to pay.  If he feels that he's not receiving as much 'bang for his buck' as the poorer people who pay less in absolute terms, he's clearly losing sight of just how much he actually gets back from the state - most notably the enforced adherence of the rest of the society to a system that legitimises his wealth and private property rights, and by extension the advantages he enjoys over most others.  Looked at that way, he's plainly getting the better side of the bargain in this social contract.

Fairly predictably, I was then told that the contract I was describing was nothing short of blackmail or a kind of protection racket - pay up, or your property will be stolen by the mob.  But this begs the obvious question - what actually is "private property" or "theft" if you don't have the state, and consent from the rest of society, to define and enforce it for you?  It all began to remind me of the arguments I used to regularly hear from the American "libertarians".  The punitive enforcement of the rights that happen to be most important to them - ie. the right to life, free speech and property as defined simply by being left alone to defend themselves with a gun, and to retain what they already own untouched - is regarded as an absolute moral imperative, because these are all 'natural rights'.  And yet the rights that are important to so many others - the right to life, free speech and property as defined by the right to health care and shelter that will actually keep them alive and healthy, and the right to education and a financial safety net that will give them the slightest chance of actually having a voice and owning a modest amount of property - are not only deemed illegitimate, but their realisation is actually regarded as an outrageous application of "force".  It never seems to occur to these "libertarians" that the advantages that afford them the luxury of meaningfully exercising the right to life and liberty without ever having to look beyond their 'natural rights', while others have no choice but to rely on the "force" of the state, is actually directly derived from something the state has conferred on them in the first place.

Who says massive inherited wealth is 'natural', for example?  Or the advantage of a superior education that others are denied?  You only have to look around Britain today - or just around the Cabinet table, for that matter - to see that the idea that wealth inequalities can simply be explained by how hard people work or how innately talented they are is utterly laughable.  The immense advantages that some enjoy on very dubious merit are not legitimised by nature, but by the state - and by force.  If others try to nip in and grab a small share of that wealth, or of those opportunities, they'll be stopped.  That's OK because that force has democratic legitimacy (ie. the consent of society) behind it, but it's force against the individual nonetheless, in precisely the same way that the compulsory payment of taxes required to realise other democratically legitimised rights like free health care and education is force against the individual.  The American libertarians seem to fondly imagine that the force needed to protect their property rights is trivial or non-existent in comparison to the type of force they complain of, ie. that it costs others nothing to simply respect their natural rights.  Well, that's fine until the 'natural rights' of a few consume such a fantastic portion of a society's wealth that others are squeezed out to the point of destitution, with no legal access to the minimal share of the wealth they require for a merely decent standard of living.  That strikes me as being quite a significant cost.

I've said before that in many ways I consider myself to be a libertarian, which naturally the American right-wingers are either bemused by or regard as an affectation, because liberty "can't be conditional".  But of course the truth (as they occasionally acknowledge when forced into a corner) is that liberty must by definition be conditional, otherwise it can never work - if you don't curb your own liberty by respecting the liberty of others, why should they do the same for you?  So the real principle of libertarianism is that the conditions applied ought to be the minimum necessary to preserve and further liberty.  A system that offers a theoretical right to life, free speech and private property, while all the time robbing some people - by force - of the slightest chance of ever utilising those freedoms falls well below that minimum threshold.


Also at PB this evening, a fascinating (and ultimately encouraging) article by Penddu on the forthcoming referendum in Wales on enhanced devolution.  He characterises the breadth of the No campaign in the following stark terms -

"backed by UKIP, BNP and a campaign group of disaffected Labour activists called True Wales which seems to consist of two spokesmen from Gwent and an inflatable pig" 

Not to worry, though, because Fraser Nelson manfully entered the fray on their behalf during this evening's Question Time, branding the referendum the most "boring" ever, and noting that he tended to take the view that "if you give politicians more power, you only encourage them".  Now, is it just me, or do people who call a proposed change boring, unimportant, or best of all "a distraction" usually mean that they can't actually think of a persuasive argument against it on its own terms?  (The debate on the fox-hunting ban springs to mind.)  And when they talk about not wanting "politicians" to have more power, don't they usually mean that they'd much rather if power wasn't transferred away from politicians in Westminster?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

It seems my "apologism" goes on...

With utter predictability, Political Betting's resident US Republican cheerleader 'Stars and Stripes' popped up a couple of hours ago to triumphantly pounce on the story from a Swedish tabloid that the former Libyan justice minister (who has defected to the opposition) claims to have proof that Colonel Gaddafi ordered the Lockerbie bombing, and that Megrahi was guilty.  For the uninitiated, Stars and Stripes is one of the most consistently vicious and offensive commenters on PB, for all that he maintains a veneer of civilised discourse much of the time.  Here's his pearl of wisdom for this evening -

Now that we have the admission of the Libyan justice minister that Libya was indeed behind the Lockerbie bombing, and Megrahi indeed did it, will we still hear from PB’s Scottish government apologists who insisted Megrahi was just a poor stooge unjustly convicted by the West because we couldn’t get our hands on the real culprit?  Thought not.

So, naturally, I felt a response of some kind might just be in order...

Even for a man who’s been so spectacularly wrong so many times before, S&S, you’ve just surpassed yourself.  Wrong yet again.  As the weight of evidence stands at the moment, Megrahi’s conviction is unsafe, and indeed even simply on the balance of probability he’s likely to be innocent.  “Apologism” for the Scottish government doesn’t come into this, as they - wrongly, in my view - professed their faith in Megrahi’s guilt when they released him. 

Now, if this new claimed evidence is actually produced and stacks up, what will I say then?  Well, to coin a phrase - “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”   In your case, S&S, we already know the answer to that question from your reaction to the severe doubts raised over Megrahi’s conviction by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission.  You stick your fingers firmly in your ears.

Incidentally, here’s the wry response to this ‘revelation’ from Professor Robert Black, one of the architects of the Lockerbie trial in the Netherlands -

“[On this blog yesterday, the following was posted:]

“What’s the betting that, sometime in the next few weeks, the following happens:
1. In the burned out ruins of a Libyan government building, someone finds definitive documentary ‘proof’ that Libya and Megrahi were responsible for Lockerbie, and/or

2. A Libyan official reveals, ‘we did it’.

The official case is now so thin that only such concoctions can save it (although it’s also crossed my mind that a prisoner will come forward who says ‘Megrahi confessed to me’ – another hallmark of paper-thin cases).”"

Sure enough, my own first reaction was how eerily similar this was to the forged “Galloway documents” that conveniently turned up in Baghdad within days of the fall of Saddam’s regime.  But unlike you, S&S, I’ll be waiting to see if this proof actually stacks up before reaching a definitive judgement.  Facts may be dull things, but in the long run they’re so much more reliable than gut certainties.

It is of course true that there have been instances over the years where, despite considerable doubts over the safety of a conviction, new evidence emerged that conclusively demonstrated the individual in question had been guilty all along.  A good example is James Hanratty, and I always thought it was a matter of regret that the legendary campaigner Paul Foot couldn't bring himself to concede he'd been wrong in that case - albeit wrong for the very best of reasons.  It certainly wouldn't have detracted from the many, many cases he'd been proved right about, most notably that of the men jailed for the murder of Carl Bridgewater.  But the idea that a vague assertion from a man who has every motivation to urgently burnish his anti-Gaddafi credentials means that all the doubts about Megrahi's conviction have been instantly and comprehensively magicked away is utterly risible.  Here is a telling quote from a Swedish Middle East expert, highlighted by a commenter at Robert Black's blog -

"At the same, considering Al Jeleil just left the regime, there may be a credibility issue. It could be that these sorts of leaks from former members of the regimes are more about distancing themselves from Gadaffi as than revealing the truth."

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Having failed in their subtle attempts to suggest that electoral reformers want BABIES TO DIE...

...the 'No to AV' campaign have evidently decided that it's high time to drive the point home rather more directly, with a two-page newspaper ad in which the photo of a desperately ill baby is accompanied by the words -

"She needs a new cardiac facility NOT an alternative voting system."

I've found the sheer brazenness of the previous posters quite amusing in a way, but this is just an utter disgrace.  As there is now clearly no low to which they won't sink, here are a few helpful suggestions for future No posters...

1)  A picture of a child drowning, followed by the words "She needed action against rising sea levels NOT an alternative voting system".

2)  A picture of a murder victim (a child obviously), lying in a pool of blood on the floor, followed by the words "The police might have got there in time if you hadn't voted for AV".

3)  A close-up of a Jewish holocaust victim (a child), followed by the words "Don't let this happen again.  Say NO to AV and genocide".

As I've said before, I wish I could be 100% confident that such despicable campaigning tactics (which unambiguously prove that the No side know they are losing the real argument) will backfire, but I can't.  Either way, you have to ask - shouldn't there come a point where basic decency is more important than winning?

Monday, February 21, 2011

The unavailability of loaves is no argument against taking half a slice

Max Atkinson is scathing about David Cameron's speech opposing AV -

"you may, like me, come to the conclusion that Cameron's case against AV actually amounts to a rather powerful argument for a more proportional voting system than AV (e.g. STV) - in which case one wonders why he's bothering to oppose what could be a first serious step in that direction."

If Steve Norris' line of argument on 10 O'Clock Live last week was at all typical (although admittedly Norris is rarely typical of anything), the Tories seem to be rather brazenly asking "if you want proper electoral reform, why on earth choose AV of all things?".  Which would be fair enough, if the possibility of choosing any other type of electoral reform hadn't been blocked by...the Conservative Party.  A referendum on AV alone was "a final offer, to go the extra mile" - weren't those Mr Hague's words?  Of course, the Liberal Democrats are equally culpable for settling for the prospect of such a modest reform (it is, of course, mere coincidence that they are just about the only smaller party that would stand to benefit under AV), but really the charge against the Tories on this issue is the same as the one against all three unionist parties on the Scottish constitutional question - if you're so sure you're on the right side of the argument, why are you so afraid of giving the public a proper choice?  Until you do, it's utterly absurd to suggest that reformers shouldn't be grabbing the few scraps that are actually on the table.

A fixation that never lets go

I went to see the film Never Let Me Go a few days ago.  It's an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's Booker-shortlisted novel of the same name, and tells the story of an alternate history of Britain, in which really only one solitary fact is different - namely that human cloning was developed in the 1950s, enabling scientists to bring children into the world for the sole purpose of harvesting their vital organs when they become adults.  Initially, no-one sees anything wrong with this, as the clones are not perceived as human.   By the time that crucial assumption no longer seems quite so well-founded, it's emotionally impossible for society to give up on the medical advances of the previous decades.  So nobody (including, crucially, the clones themselves) thinks too deeply about the ethical dilemmas, and the horror simply continues in a chillingly orderly fashion.

One thought that kept occurring to me as I was watching the film was that this blog's dearest chums - right-wing American "libertarians" - would probably imagine that they'd found something valuable in it to seize on for propaganda purposes.  With all the references to a "National Donor Programme", and the depiction of passive, indoctrinated victims calmly cooperating with their own slow-motion murders, it was bound to be just too tempting for some of our more excitable cousins to see the dark hand of European social democracy and our unspeakable "socialized health care system" at play in Ishiguro's vision.  And, sure enough, here's an excerpt from an article entitled 'Never Let Me Go: The Brave New World of National Socialized Medicine' -

 "In the new film Never Let Me Go, set at an eerie school in an alternate-reality England, a schoolmistress declares to her classroom of wide-eyed young charges: “The tide is not with forward thinking. It never is. No, the tide is with the entrenched mindset!” The children dutifully applaud.

It’s a marrow-chilling moment because the matter that has brought the educator (played by a devastatingly heartless Charlotte Rampling) to a venomous fury is any hint of “subversion,” as she calls it, that might undermine the school’s reason for existence. All of the children who study at the Hailsham school are clones, and they have no value except to become “donors” of vital organs — until, as young adults in their early twenties, they have no vital organs left. At this stage, they are told, their lives “will be complete.” The end...

In the scarily clinical language of Never Let Me Go, the place where you are required to go and give your life is a “completion center.” The policy of raising humans as though they were meat is, tidily, the “National Donor Program.” “Carers” are trusted but doomed individuals, themselves clones, who calmly lead others through the “donation” process, much like the Jewish “sonderkommandos” who were forced to aid Nazis in their death-camp atrocities.

If you had forgotten how much evil could be hidden behind such bland ideas, executed by such seemingly good-hearted people (a nurse at the “completion center” seems as personable as anyone you’re likely to meet in today’s health care maze), Never Let Me Go is a haunting, sometimes heartbreaking, reminder. In its quiet, literary way, it is bold enough to issue a challenge that we always call things by their proper names, and not accept the unacceptable simply because we are told that “science” or “progress” or “experts” deem that we must. As George Orwell put it, in “Politics and the English Language,” “political language … is designed to make laws sound truthful and murder respectable.” Of course politicians would rather say “consultations for end-of-life care” than “death panels.”"

I'm not sure the writer of this piece was entirely paying attention, because in fact Charlotte Rampling's character is actually one of the few people in the story - and this becomes even more clear in the novel - who does see something terribly wrong with what is happening, and to some extent tries to change it.  The authoritarian regime she presides over at the Hailsham school may be misguided (and in the book she ultimately concedes the possibility of that herself), but it comes about as a result of her attempts to square the impossible circle of, on the one hand, the authorities' insistence that the clones existed for one purpose only, and on the other, her own desire and that of her colleagues to at least provide the children with some kind of decent life within those terrifying confines.  A key part of her strategy is to 'shelter' the children from the full truth about their fate, and harmful though that may ultimately be in one sense, there certainly isn't the slightest hint in either the film or the novel that the many other clones brought up in much harsher conditions and confronted with the entire truth at an earlier stage are any more likely to rebel.  All of them are equally fixated with the idea of acting - as the last sentence of the novel drives home - just as they're "supposed to".  Never (or only once, very fleetingly) does it occur to them to question why they're supposed to be sacrificing their lives for others, or indeed why it should be for others to determine what they're supposed to be doing in the first place.

In truth, the real fascination of the story's premise is actually how deeply implausible it is.  Not because human beings aren't capable of collectively acting with such unimaginable selfishness and cruelty - there are plenty enough historical examples to leave us in no doubt on that score.  No, the logical problem with Never Let Me Go is that we're told at the end that virtually no-one is asking any questions about the morality of the 'donation programme' - and yet we know by then that the victims of that programme are at times allowed to move around in the outside world with a certain degree of freedom.  Driving cars, eating in motorway service stations, shopping at Woolworths.  In a nutshell, interacting with 'normal' people, and almost certainly 'connecting' with them occasionally.  The idea that it's possible in such a scenario that almost no-one at all would be grappling with their conscience doesn't ring true, and it doesn't tally with what history tells us either.  A crucial feature of the Holocaust, for instance, is that the civilian population of Germany were in the dark about exactly what was going on.  Many were content not to think about it too deeply, of course, but ultimately they didn't know, and that wasn't through chance.

I almost wonder if this implausibility serves a conscious purpose on the author's part - if we suspect that what we're dealing with must be an exaggerated form, or a kind of caricature, of something that might or already has happened, rather than something that could ever literally happen in precisely the way presented, it forces us to probe the moral questions more deeply and comprehensively.  Or at least it ought to, but that doesn't seem to be the case with this particular right-wing American reviewer.  There are a whole series of possible real-world concerns that Ishiguro could be interpreted as almost, but elusively not quite, getting at.  The treatment of the clones is eerily similar to our 'doublethink' in relation to animals, for instance - we adore them and value their lives in one context, but regard it as entirely appropriate to ruthlessly butcher and exploit them in another context.  Is that what we're meant to be thinking about?  A morality tale that specifically relates an example of man's inhumanity to man surely wouldn't have such a wide metaphorical locus.  Or could it be about what some people see as the industrial-scale 'murder' of unborn children and embryos?  A bit more convincing, but even if we were to accept for the sake of argument that such a 'crime' is happening, it's on a strictly 'out of sight, out of mind' basis, precisely the opposite of Ishiguro's premise.  Maybe we're being implored to think more carefully - as Margaret Atwood suggested in a review of the novel a few years ago - about the moral dilemmas raised by the new phenomenon of genetically-selected children being brought into the world to act as 'donors' for a sick sibling or another relative.  But these cases very rarely result in death or serious harm to the donor child, and certainly not intentionally.  And then there's what superficially seems like the most obvious explanation of all - that Ishiguro is warning about the potential consequences of medical advances yet to come.  But that doesn't entirely fit either - if anything, current advances in stem cell technology and regenerative medicine are moving us closer to the day when the concept of 'donation' (whether voluntary or compulsory) will either be rarer or completely redundant.

So in a sense Never Let Me Go is about all of these things and more, and yet simultaneously not really about any of them.  It's that enigma at the heart of the story-telling that actually makes it so disturbing and challenging, and trying to interpret it as a simplistic attack on "socialism" seems fairly risible.  What is unmistakable, though, is Ishiguro's exploration of the boundaries of what it means to be human, and the consequences for anyone who is considered less human, and less deserving than others.  Can American conservatives really consider themselves guilt-free on that score?  I'm not just talking about the historical legacy of slavery, but also its de facto modern reintroduction as a result of the mind-boggling rates of imprisonment, with over 1% of the adult population of the US being subject to total 'civic death' at any given time.  And that's before we even discuss the treatment of illegal immigrants - it seems for some, the meaning of being human is simply to have "the right papers".

Another fairly clear message of Ishiguro's novel is that the clones are so passive because they are desperately seeking what they've never had - approval and value in the eyes of others.  One of the main characters talks with pride about being "a good donor", for instance.  Well, it certainly struck me during my off/on debate with the American libertarians on gun rights that their individualist philisophy doesn't leave a lot of scope for meaningfully valuing the lives of others.  If you set foot on their property without permission, your life may well be instantly deemed forfeit.  You are at that moment - dare I say it - a bit less human than they are.

There's one other thing that popped into my head when I was watching the film.  One of the reasons you find yourself as a viewer being sucked into that fairly implausible world and believing in it is that, quite simply, you recognise it.  Strip away the little matter of the enforced organ donations, and what you're left with is the Britain we all grew up in, with the same fashions, technology, car number plates, etc, etc - there's no end of period detail.  It reminded me very much of the surreal experience of watching the infamous Protect and Survive series of public information films that were intended to be shown in the event of an imminent nuclear attack.  Although those films are part of our real and recent history, the 'narrative' of the voice-over relates to something unimaginably awful that never actually occurred. The utterly familiar and the terrifyingly alien holding hands, just as they do in Never Let Me Go. The similarity doesn't end there, though.  The language used in Protect and Survive seems primarily concerned with keeping people calm, obedient and above all else preoccupied while the impending horror unfolds - there's plenty of reference to 'normal-sounding' acts like "picking up a leaflet from your Post Office" and "helping your neighbours to put out a fire if you have time before the fallout warning".  A brazen attempt to normalise Armageddon, no less.  Now, just remind me - were right-wing militarists protesting against that deceit, or were they in fact its principal cheerleaders, in the name of 'defending freedom and democracy' at any price?  I'd suggest our American reviewer could urgently do with being reminded that the left have absolutely no monopoly on the Orwellian use of language.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Vote Yes To Fairer Votes Or This Dog Goes Hungry

Let me introduce you to Buster.

Doesn't look very happy, does he? No, he doesnt. In fact, he's so miserable, he's put a plastic bag on his head.

Do you know why he's so unhappy? I can tell you. But it'll shock you.

Incredible though it may seem, there are EVIL-DOERS in this country who actually think silly, self-indulgent poster campaigns against electoral reform are more important than HAPPY DOGS.

It's true. According to reliable estimates from my mate Dave down the pub, the 'No to AV' campaign are spending a staggering FIVE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-FOUR TRILLION POUNDS on glossy ads that aim to convince us that the introduction of a preferential voting system will somehow destroy the lives of newborn babies, or lead to the deaths of brave soldiers in Afghanistan.

Five hundred and eighty-four trillion pounds. Just think about that number. Five hundred and eighty-four trillion pounds could buy Buster an awful lot of Pedigree Chum.

This country needs HAPPY DOGS not SILLY POSTERS.

For Buster's sake, say Yes to AV on May 5th.

Thankyou for listening, and God bless you all.