Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Does Northern Ireland's Voluntary Sector Do Anything On Child Poverty? 

Slugger O'Toole reports on a piece in today's Society Guardian on on how terrible it is that poverty in Northern Ireland didn't suddenly end with the troubles.

Personally, I can't stand the sort of angry middle-class poverty pests who make a career out of moaning at conferences organised by the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action. And the Society Guardian piece is full of angry moans about how particular pet projects of particular organisations might be about to be cut, without a single practical suggestion for creating more or better paid jobs. After all, that has nothing to do with combating poverty. It's much better to pay a consultant £700 a day to write reports like "Domestic Violence Among Travellers In West Belfast: A Call For Action", of course. I replied on Slugger in fairly salty terms, and an interesting debate is now in progress - please join in.

Proud to be British? 

Labour are running a campaign asking people why they're Proud of Britain (complete with lots of Union Jacks). Unfortunately they forgot to register www.proudofbritain.net and some nasty cybersquatter (chuckle) has gotten hold of it.

When right wing governments fall back on the old patriotism and crime chestnuts you know they're in trouble. But when (supposedly) left wing governments do the same thing, you know they're off their rocker.

I might write into a the official site saying:

I'm proud to live in a country where the doctrine of the white man's burden is alive and kicking.
I'm proud to live in a country where our foreign policy has been subcontracted to the most reactionary American President in history.
I'm proud to live in a country that only locks people up without trial indefinitely if they're foreign.
I'm proud to live in a country where only people of the highest moral fibre are appointed to key postions.



Hat tip to Anthony Wells.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Velvet Revolution or Civil War? 

Is Ukraine in line for a velvet revolution, similar to Georgia's, as protestors take to the streets over a manifestly stolen election? Or could civil war be on the cards.

I've always taken the view that Mikheil Saakashvili might be an arrogant, obnoxious, CIA controlled little git but he was a damn sight better for Georgia that any of the alternatives, and he pulled off a stunning bloodless coup, and has done a few good things - like take on the stunningly corrupt police - since.

I get the impression that Viktor Yushchenko is generally a better guy than Saakashvili, and Ukraine has the potential to be a much happier place for its people than it is today. But things could still go very, very, badly wrong over the next few days.

What does Ukraine mean to me? As a radio ham, a land of fast, accurate radio operators especially in morse code. At a distance of about 2,000 km from here, ideally placed for strong shortwave radio signals. Often lacking much English, rarely chatty, but I've made two good friends there who I run into from time to time on the bands, one in Kiev, one in a village outside Lviv on the Polish border.

I salute the bravery of the protestors in Kiev and across Ukraine tonight. If you're the praying type, please remember the people of Ukraine in your prayers.

Drumroll for the Blogroll 

Welcome to Buff and Blue, a regular poster here for some time, and an Englishman living in Cork.

Welcome also to the newly discovered and brilliant Nanny Knows Best, to Daily Kos, not that with its multi million hits and Guardian column that it needs it. Liberal Street Fight is another left wing American blog from the same stable.

Jesus' General is not new. But it is the funniest thing on the web and deserves the plug again.

PS - not a blog, but those annoyed at the American election result might want tosay something very rude indeed to the South.

Why I've Flip-Flopped On Foxes 

A few years ago, I was a keen supporter of the fox hunting ban. It had nothing to do with animal rights - I've always subscribed to Bertrand Russel's view that the logical extension of animal rights is votes for oysters. But I hated the old establishment, and I wanted to see them get a good kicking. Over the past few years, I've come to realise that the old establishment are broken and powerless, and that the new establishment are every bit as unpleasant. The craven cowardice of New Labour in the face of an illegal war of aggression which most of it hated is testament to that. And, most of all I don't like majoritarianism.

Often, majoritarianism means picking on an unpopular minority to curry favour with the majority. Robert Mugabe's farm occupations are a good example, George Bush's use of the gay marriage issue to drive up turnout among Evangelical Protestants is another.

Some things are, at least in my view, wrong even when supported by majority opinion. Slavery was always wrong even when supported by a majority of the population; the death penalty was wrong even when it was supported by a majority of the population; locking gay people up and 'curing' them by giving them massive injections of hormones and electric shocks was wrong even when supported by the majority of the population; forcibly settling gypsies and making them live in barracks if they refused (a la Norway) was wrong even when supported by the majority of the population. Ratko Mladic's undoubted democratic majority in Republika Srpska didn't imbue the Srebrenica massacre with any legitimacy.

But even majoritarians are on on shakier ground with the fox hunting ban because Labour have never got much more than 40% of the vote in the past couple of general elections, and public opinion on the issue isn't clear although judging from most polling it seems to have swung against a ban since 1997. But there's a more fundamental question here - does the majority have the right to impose restrictions on the actions of a minority when those actions pose no threat to their wellbeing? But be very careful if you answer yes to that question, because if you do you open the door to all sorts of barbarity.

For example, if this bill passes successfully it's likely the animal rights lobby will move on to their next target, the banning of ritual slaughter for religious minorities, already their top target in Sweden and Germany, countries where animal rights activists work closely with their counterparts in the UK. Is it right to force vegetarianism down the throat of Orthodox Jews and Muslims? After all, they're considerably smaller minorities than the fox hunters are. If the majority find halal/halacic slaughter offensive, are they right to stop a minority doing it?

Personally, I don't like fox hunting. I find it a bit off. I live in an urban area which is riddled with foxes (I saw one walking home from the bus tonight) and rather like the creatures. I'd rather people didn't do it.

But at the end of the day, any society worth living in has to give people space to do things that other people find repugnant. Thirty years ago having shoulder length hair or a partner of the same sex as yourself could be the end of your career. Now hunting foxes with dogs could land you in jail. To me, those are just two aspects of the same question, and to me anyway, both attitudes stink.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Psychologically Disturbed Misanthropes 

The abandonment of the Enlightenment by elements of the Right, particularly in the United States is fairly well documented, but it seems increasingly clear that elements of the Left are ditching their intellectual heritage just as quickly.

For example, when Labour MP Tony Banks lays down an Early Day Motion in Parliament stating that " that humans represent the most obscene, perverted, cruel, uncivilised and lethal species ever to inhabit the planet and looks forward to the day when the inevitable asteroid slams into the earth and wipes them out thus giving nature the opportunity to start again", one does wonder about the ideological (and mental) state of he and those who sympathise with him. Isn't the Left supposed to believe in progress, the potential of humanity to rise above its baser instincts and create a better world, and the power of science and technology to liberate? When, exactly, did it become right on to call for the annihilation of the entire human race? In the bourgeois brasseries and campus common rooms, it's now hip to believe that science is evil and humanity is a cancer in the body of Gaea.

Before you accuse me of exaggerating, just think how many otherwise intelligent, well adjusted friends of yours believe in astology.

All the same, Banks at least he does have some principles. Unlike his colleagues who somehow managed to vote to ban the killing of foxes (because its cruel) and also to authorise the killing of human beings in Iraq (because its cruel to be kind). People who think its terrible to kill a fox but OK to bomb high density residential areas really do have disordered priorities.

Variations on a theme by Niemöller 

They came for the bogus asylum seekers, and I did nothing because I was not an asylum seeker (except for nod sagely at a few Polly Toynbee and Jackie Ashley columns in The Guardian).
Then they came for the teenage chavs, and I did nothing because I was not a teenager, and chavs were a walking rebuttal to my bourgeois social democracy anyway.
They came for the junk-food lovers, and I did nothing because like all good middle-class people, I only lived on fresh African pulses and olive and walnut ciabatta.
Then they came for the smokers, and I did nothing because I couldn't stand to see poor people be tools of the Evil Tobacco Industry. After all, they needed my help.
Then they came for the fox hunters, and I did nothing because fox hunting was sadistic and I didn't know how it could be tolerated in any civilised society
So by the time me and the rest of my Guardianista friends had created a populist right-wing backlash, and were locked up by Blunkett's military junta, there was no one left to speak up for me.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Heaven Knows, I'm Miserable Now 

Bow Quarter, the trendy new ‘artists' district’ in London’s East End, has banned its residents from putting up window boxes for fear of insurance claims.

Norwich Union, the insurer of the exclusive ‘gated community’, identified the window boxes as an “avoidable event”. And, of course, they’re right. Window boxes are entirely avoidable - we don’t need them. We can just look at grey concrete and red brick instead of flowers. In fact while we’re at it, there’s a vast amount of prime residential development space in Central London, currently being utterly wasted . Let’s build some useful gated communities over this under-utilised green concrete

Of course, the Bow Quarter community was originally intended as an latter-day artists colony, attracting the new haute bourgeoisie to this previously dowdy part of East London. And indeed there are quite a few artists there mixed among the management consultants, currency traders and commercial lawyers. And of course, artists are always known for their vanguard rôle in any struggle where the rights of the individual to free expression are at stake. Demonstrating this bulldog, tenacious, spirit, local resident Joanne Moore said, that:
“Living in a flat, you don't have a garden. The flowers that we had in the pots really brightened the place up.
“Obviously we would be absolutely horrified if the pots hurt someone, but I'm worried about whether fixing them to the window ledge could fall foul of listed-building regulations.”
Naturally no sensible person wants to hurt anyone else. But it’s interesting that her response isn’t that Norwich Union should mind her own business, and that her landlord should keep it’s nose out of residents’ private business. Instead she says she’d be happy to secure it - but she’s worried about listed building regulations!
What if the insurers are right, I hear some of you ask? Well the Daily Telegraph says that:
“According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), there may be as many as 60 injuries linked in some way to window boxes.”
Of course, having a window box dropped on your head isn’t going to do you any good - just think we could be saving 60 people a year from death or serious injury!
However, while we could be doing that, it’s rather unlikely that we would doing that. The sixty a year figure is another classic example of the abuse of statistics:
However a [RoSPA] spokesman, Roger Vincent, emphasised that the window box peril is an extrapolation from just three incidents in 2002, where window boxes were referred to in a survey of 18 hospitals. As a consequence, the figure may be unreliable.
…and better yet…
Rather than dropping on heads with their cargo of busy lizzies or geraniums, the main threat they pose to life and limb seemed to be people standing on them for support, or banging their heads on the boxes from beneath, he said.
There were no records of any flower pots falling off window sills on people's heads in the same survey, he added.
Indeed, the hazards of falling pots and boxes pale into insignificance when compared with those posed by flowerpots on the ground, where they were linked to around 5,300 accidents by the survey.

I think there are two points worth learning from this. Firstly, how negative and defeatist may people are on issues like this. If you bring up issues of health and safety, no matter how marginal or even silly, you can trump any counter-argument, no matter how strong, 9 times out of 10. I’m afraid that in some cases issues like personal freedom, the appearance of our environment, the need of people to learn to assess risks or even the stimulus people get from doing outré and slightly risky things is more important.
Secondly, people not only accept that insurance companies can stop fun and beautiful things happening, but also that this is a result of the ‘compensation culture’. This isn’t necessarily the case. Difficult as most people would find this to believe, insurance premiums don’t usually cover the cost of claims in any given period. Instead the insurance companies make their money from returns on investments made from premium payments before claims are made. Insurers were as prone as anyone else to throw their money at dodgy dotcom shares in the late ‘90s, and the rest of us are reaping the reward of several years of flattish stock market performance now.
My most recent encounter with the no risk culture was that I can’t turn the way my desk faces at work - couldn’t let me trip over all those scary wires, could they? So, now I have to spend all winter looking at a whitewashed interior wall, with nobody in my line of sight, and no natural light. Maybe I could sue for psychological damage?

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