De omnibus dubitandum
10 Aug 2011
I want to write about the riots currently raging throughout many major UK cities, but my point of view on the matter is expressed much more clearly in the following opinion pieces:
The UK riots: the psychology of looting (The Guardian):
“Between these poles is a more pragmatic reading: this is what happens when people don’t have anything, when they have their noses constantly rubbed in stuff they can’t afford, and they have no reason ever to believe that they will be able to afford it. Hiller takes up this idea: “Consumer society relies on your ability to participate in it. So what we recognise as a consumer now was born out of shorter hours, higher wages and the availability of credit. If you’re dealing with a lot of people who don’t have the last two, that contract doesn’t work. They seem to be targeting the stores selling goods they would normally consume. So perhaps they’re rebelling against the system that denies its bounty to them because they can’t afford it.”"
Caring costs – but so do riots (The Independent):
“How, we ask, could they attack their own community with such disregard? But the young people would reply “easily”, because they feel they don’t actually belong to the community. Community, they would say, has nothing to offer them. Instead, for years they have experienced themselves cut adrift from civil society’s legitimate structures. Society relies on collaborative behaviour; individuals are held accountable because belonging brings personal benefit. Fear or shame of being alienated keeps most of us pro-social.”
London riots: the underclass lashes out (The Telegraph):
“This is not a gospel of determinism, for poverty does not ordain lawlessness. Nor, however, is it sufficient to heap contempt on the rioters as if they are a pariah caste. One of the most tragic aspects of London’s meltdowns is that we need this ruined generation if Britain is ever to feel prosperous and safe again. If there are no jobs for today’s malcontents and no means to exploit their skills, then the UK is in graver trouble than it thinks.”
13 Apr 2011
Since a few weeks I’ve been helping the Belfast City Airport Watch organisation with their online stuff – updating their website, posting on Facebook, doing some tweets, and sending out the odd email now and again.
I signed up for this because I live very close to the Belfast City airport, and the noise pollution really is quite impressive.
It’s funny how when you don’t live near an airport, you are quick to judge people who complain about aircraft noise. “They shouldn’t have moved close to an airport then!” is an often heard rebuttal, as is the claim that these regional airports have enormous economic benefit and the comfort of a few residents in the area is a small price to pay.
I used to be one of those naysayers who dismissed people who complained about aircraft noise. But my perspective changed radically now that I’m personally submitted to noise pollution on a daily basis.
It’s hard for people who don’t live near airports to understand how incredibly overwhelming aircraft noise can be. For a few seconds when the plane passes over you have to stop your conversation, put down your drink, stop watching TV, and in the case of big jets even stop thinking for a wee while. The noise is more than just sound reaching your ears – you feel it in your bones and it scratches at your brain.
Unsurprisingly, noise pollution is actively harmful as a recent WHO study has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.
In the case of the Belfast City airport, their rebuttals can easily be, well, rebutted. As if the dangers of noise pollution wasn’t sufficient reason to lobby against expansion of the airport (what price do you put on the health and well-being of tens of thousands of local residents?), the economic value of the airport is limited. It employs only a handful of local residents, and with a perfectly fine larger International airport just a few miles outside Belfast (in a rural area where noise pollution is not an issue) flights and jobs can easily be moved without having a negative impact on the local economy.
And the people affected by the noise didn’t choose to live near a busy airport. The City airport has seen enormous expansion in recent years. When people first moved in to their homes in east Belfast and Holywood it was perfectly quiet. Not so now.
The first thing that struck me when I started helping out the Airport Watch residents association – which is a purely not-for-profit organisation run by volunteers – is that this is a dirty fight. The City airport has powerful backers and deploys sneaky tactics.
For example, from the moment the BCAW twitter account was launched, it was being harassed by ‘egg’ accounts – Twitter accounts without a proper avatar and thus showing only the default egg icon – who were protesting about what the BCAW tweeted, casting (baseless) doubt on facts tweeted by the BCAW, even going as far as tweeting blatant lies about the BCAW.
Also in the comments of articles on news sites like the Belfast Telegraph, certain commenters always applaud the City airport and criticise the BCAW every chance they get – using the same lies and distortions. It’s nothing short of a social media smear campaign, intended to make the BCAW look bad and cast the City airport as a saviour of the Northern Irish economy.
It is also all done in quite an amateurish fashion. Egg accounts on Twitter have no credibility, as they have no history and are easily recognised as the spammers they are. The comments on news sites are always posted under the same usernames, and they only comment on airport-related stories and always with the same anti-BCAW pro-City Airport message. They’re transparently obvious PR spinners with zero credibility. I even managed to retrace one account back to an actual City airport employee.
But despite this ineffectiveness, it does demonstrate that the City airport and its backers – lobbyists and politicians with fingers in relevant pies, no doubt – will and do play dirty. Truth is the first victim of any conflict, and this is no exception. The City airport is deliberately polluting the debate (pun intended) and using dirty propaganda tactics to oppose valid criticism.
And that’s pretty sad. The quality of life for tens of thousands of people is at stake, and the greedy money-grabbing capitalists behind the scenes of the City airport care only for their own continued enrichment. The welfare of people doesn’t matter, and every dirty trick is allowed to ensure that the rich get richer and the poor stay poor and uninformed.
This is not a surprise, of course. This is what capitalism does, this is how it operates. It’s a zero-sum game, with winners and losers.
But sometimes I wish that I wasn’t being confronted with such blatant evidence of moral bankruptcy and unbridled greed quite so often. Sometimes I wish people would just be nice to one another and stop polluting and abusing the world for their own temporary and ultimately fleeting gains.
I’m afraid that’ll always be just wishful thinking.
21 Feb 2011
Apparently a CIA spy has been caught in Pakistan when he shot and killed two men who were allegedly trying to rob him.
That is in itself not a particularly extraordinary news story. Of course the USA has spies in countries like Pakistan (even though supposedly the Pakistan and USA are allies). And of course now and then one of them gets found out.
No, the real surprise lies in the coverage this news story received in the USA. That’s to say, it’s been censored:
“A number of US media outlets learned about Davis’s CIA role but have kept it under wraps at the request of the Obama administration. A Colorado television station, 9NEWS, made a connection after speaking to Davis’s wife. She referred its inquiries to a number in Washington which turned out to be the CIA. The station removed the CIA reference from its website at the request of the US government.”
I can’t sufficiently stress the importance of this small detail. American media organisations are censoring themselves at the request of the US government.
The media is supposed to serve as the government’s public conscience. Checks and balances, freedom of the press, and all that. If the media colludes wholesale with the government and assists the government in covering stories up, then there is no sound basis for democracy any more.
A government thus assisted can lie to its citizens at will, and the media will repeat those lies uncritically, with any dissenting voice silenced under the censoring blanket of ‘national security’. The population will no longer be properly informed and can no longer make informed decisions come election time.
This is disgusting, farcical, and very very dangerous.
17 Feb 2011
I’ve come to realise that I currently live in a rather backwards country.
You might think that’s a rather crazy thing to say. I live in the United Kingdom, after all, which is not particularly known for being backwards. In fact, it’s often considered to be an example of a progressive, civilised society.
But the devil is in the details.
There’s the issue of the rather spectacular lack of democracy here in the UK. The political system is set up in such a way that it guarantees the perpetual power of a small political elite. The wishes of the electorate have nothing to do with it – it’s all about keeping those in power, in power.
And of course we shouldn’t forget that the UK is, in fact, still a theocratic monarchy. There’s no constitution as such, the Queen is the undisputed head of state, and the Church of England is the country’s official state religion. Unelected clergymen sit in the House of Lords, and there’s no strict separation of church and state.
And then we have the existing law that denies prisoners the right to vote. The EU Human Rights Commission deemed this to be against international law, but the UK still intends to adhere to this practice: anyone that’s in prison, regardless of what crime they’ve been convicted of, does not get the right to vote in elections. (The concession that prisoners with sentences less than 4 years getting the right to vote is still illegal and, considering the rather steep sentencing common in the UK courts, fairly meaningless.)
You might think that denying prisoners the right to vote is an acceptable practice, but you need to look at it in its proper context. The right to vote is a most basic human right that every adult should have in a democracy.
Countries who deny basic human rights to parts of their population are generally considered to be undemocratic, unfair, dictatorial, and sometimes even evil.
Denying prisoners the right to vote is denying them a vital basic human right. In essence, the UK is saying that it considers prisoners to be lesser citizens, unworthy to be accorded the same rights as those not convicted of a crime. Convicted criminals are considered to have forfeited their human rights for at least the duration of their sentence.
This is a slippery slope indeed. The right to vote is but one basic human right. When you start considering prisoners lesser human beings, you could end up denying them even more human rights and separating them from society altogether. All in the name of ‘public safety’ of course.
You already see the effects of the vilification of prisoners in the UK media. Tabloid papers are eager to demonise all convicted criminals, using all kinds of horrendous language to portray them as despicable and evil creatures instead of human beings like you and me.
But criminals are just humans. They’re not aliens. They don’t think differently than you or I. They aren’t any different. Heck, some things I’ve done in my teens are illegal and could have landed me in prison. I’m very uncomfortable with the idea that these common adolescent errors would have marked me for life as an outsider, a lesser human being, a deviant.
Prison sentences are part of the justice system and should serve a dual purpose: deterrents against committing crimes, and rehabilitation for convicts. Research has proven that prisons fail spectacularly at both of these goals. What remains is a third purpose, one that the tabloid media seem to think is prisons’ only purpose: punishment.
But punishment has no place in a modern, civilised society. ‘An eye for an eye’ is a medieval frame of mind, one that I hoped we’d abandoned by now. Alas, it appears we haven’t.
7 Dec 2010
There is a lot I want to write about WikiLeaks and the current scandals surrounding it, but professor John Naughton has done a superb job of capturing nearly all of what I want to say anyway – and much more eloquently than I ever could – in this excellent opinion piece in the Guardian:
“On 21 January, secretary of state Hillary Clinton made a landmark speech about internet freedom, in Washington DC, which many people welcomed and most interpreted as a rebuke to China for its alleged cyberattack on Google. ‘Information has never been so free,’ declared Clinton. ‘Even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.’
She went on to relate how, during his visit to China in November 2009, Barack Obama had ‘defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens to hold their governments accountable, generates new ideas, and encourages creativity.’ Given what we now know, that Clinton speech reads like a satirical masterpiece.”
Please go and read the whole piece. There’s one more thing I want to add to it: The governments under threat here – the USA, Sweden, the UK, and others – are trying to twist and distort the public debate in to one about Julian Assange.
Whatever character flaws Assange might have, it is not his person that should be the focus. Whatever he has or has not done is a side-show, mostly irrelevant to the real issue: we are being lied to on a massive scale. Almost everything we are being told by our elected politicians is a lie.
That is the real issue, and that is exactly what is now being hidden under this mountain of trumped-up scandal reporting on Julian Assange. Don’t let the corporate media shift the debate away from what really matters: not Assange’s sex life, but the lies and distortions we are being spoon-fed by our politicians.
Our freedom and the very foundation of our democratic society are at stake.
11 Nov 2010
PowNed is a new Dutch broadcaster that aims itself at a right-wing audience and intends to break the “left-wing monopoly on news”.
I’ve watched a couple of episodes of their news programme (courtesy of Uitzending Gemist) and it’s a typical brand of Fox News-esque political gossip, smear-campaigns, and misrepresentation – i.e. it’s not news, it’s right-wing propaganda.
What PowNed does manage to reveal is a deeper and more disturbing trend: a growing disconnect between the ideologies of the right-wing political spectrum and the world that we live in.
PowNed and Fox News share the claim that they wants to serve as a counter-balance to a mainstream media in their respective countries that they see as increasingly left-wing. There is a nugget of truth at the core of this – the news coming out of MSNBC and any news programme produced by the VARA should be understood within their contexts as organisations with left-wing political affiliations.
But the criticism levied by Fox and PowNed goes beyond these obviously left-wing broadcasters. They seem to claim that all news that is not reported through their own lens of right-wing distortion is inherently left-wing. Every news organisation, from CNN to AP, from the NOS to Reuters, is apparently tainted with a left-wing political agenda.
In other words, Fox News and PowNed seem to believe that reality itself has a left-wing bias.
This is, of course, utter nonsense. But it is very revealing, in that this demonstrates the level of disconnect between the right-wing ideologies so vocally espoused by Fox and PowNed and what is actually happening in the real world.
It appears that the people behind Fox and PowNed live in a separate reality from ours. A dumbed-down, simplistic reality where the free market is a cure-all for society’s ills, where lower taxes will fix all economic woes, where the poor deserve to be poor, where man-made climate change isn’t real, and where immigrants are inherently evil.
Fox and PowNed aren’t singular entities. They thrive on the support of the right-wing demographic – Republicans and Tea Partiers in the USA, and VVD and PVV voters in the Netherlands. The ideas broadcast by Fox and PowNed are shared by these people, which form a growing segment of both countries’ population.
And that is a very dangerous and disturbing trend.
When one person discards reality in favour of their own delusional view of the world, it’s called insanity. When a million people do it, it’s called right-wing politics.
13 Aug 2010
Christopher Hitchens, one of my heroes, is dying. Everybody is dying, but for Hitchens “the process has suddenly accelerated”.
He’s been diagnosed with a particularly ferocious form of throat cancer and is currently undergoing chemotherapy. Yet he still continues to write, and even found time to do a video interview with The Atlantic:
Hitchens is not shy about his cancer, choosing not to retire in to obscurity to wage his war against the disease but to fight it openly and in plain sight, for all to see.
For this I admire the man even more than I already did. He has always been a public figure, and the fact that he’s not letting a little thing like cancer get in the way of that says volumes about his strength and determination.