Hannan on minarets

November 30, 2009 at 9:01 pm | Posted in International | 4 Comments

Is it still committing heresy to link favourably to Daniel Hannan? Ah well, I was never going to be invited to the Cool Kids’ table anyway:

The decision by Swiss voters to outlaw the construction of minarets strikes me as regrettable on three grounds.

First, it is at odds with that other guiding Swiss principle, localism: issues of this kind ought surely to be settled town by town, or at least canton by canton, not by a national ban.

Second, it is disproportionate. There may be arguments against the erection of a particular minaret by a particular mosque – but to drag a constitutional amendment into the field of planning law is using a pneumatic drill to crack a nut.

Third, it suggests that Western democracies have a problem, not with jihadi fruitcakes, but with Muslims per se – which is, of course, precisely the argument of the jihadi fruitcakes.

Hannan’s last point is surely the most important. Whilst there may have been a few Swiss voters who voted for the ban solely out of aesthetic antipathy, I suspect they were somewhat outnumbered by people who voted because they are suspicious, wary or even scared of their Muslim countrymen.

If a number of amateur bloggers can speculate that fear of Muslims led to this vote, you can be pretty sure that Swiss Muslims have gotten the message, too. And therein lies the problem; othering often leads to more marginalisation, segregation, exclusion, distrust and bitterness than existed before. Those are pretty ripe conditions for political and religious extremism to fester, and so the proponents of the ban are actually succeeding in compounding a problem they supposedly wish to reduce. So they’re either dishonest or deeply daft.

I’m not going to claim that there’s some silver bullet for achieving greater social & cultural integration, and I’m not going to pass myself off as any kind of expert about extinguishing militant theism. But I do know that neither of those aims are going to be achieved by winning small-minded & petty restrictions on what religious buildings look like.

EDIT: Yeah, I somehow managed to spell ‘minarets’ wrong. I either need a proof reader or another coffee.

“In Mexico it is dangerous to speak the truth. It is even dangerous to know the truth”

November 23, 2009 at 11:13 pm | Posted in Drugs | 1 Comment

In his superb piece on the ‘The Fall of Mexico’, Philip Caputo does an excellent job of demonstrating both the complexity of the situation and the extent to which fear has banished trust, making it increasingly difficult to know the truth, speak the truth, and then to report that truth to others.

He was unable, for example, to determine the exact truth behind competing claims about the army’s motivations – some suspect a slow military coup is taking place, others suggest collusion with drug cartels or a wish to become a cartel themselves. But the absence of truth in one area can lead to truth in another, and what is clear from the accounts compiled by Caputo and human rights groups is that the Mexican military is ruthless, brutal, secretive and completely unaccountable to the people who pay their wages.

He reminds us, too, that it isn’t just the Mexican taxpayer which funds this motley crew; $1.4 billion of American money is funding the militarisation of the war on drugs, and it is going towards an army which has been accused of practicing torture, unlawful detention, enforced disappearance, theft, rape, and murder:

A good example is the case of Javier Rosales, a medical technician who died after he and a friend were captured and tortured by soldiers. Members of his family went to the state justice office and the federal attorney general’s office to file a complaint against the soldiers and demand an investigation. They were turned away because, the officials said, charges of army misconduct fall under military jurisdiction. However, Enrique Torres, a spokesman for the Joint Chihuahuan Operation, told me that the army looks into such allegations only through internal investigations or when formal charges have been filed by state or federal prosecutors. It’s pure catch-22: state or federal authorities will not receive complaints against soldiers, and the army will not investigate unless charges have been filed by state or federal authorities.

Nor was Rosales alone; of over 2,000 complaints made about the military’s conduct, there has been not one prosecution. By abdicating responsibility for conducting the war on drugs, the civilian government lost its ability to regulate the way it’s conducted, so the US is basically funding an institution which is a law unto itself.

Of course, Caputo is also right to ask if the army was suddenly so thoroughly reformed that it became the model of an ethical military, could it overcome the drug cartels? Probably not. “The drug gangs”, Caputo writes, “have acquired a “military capacity” that enables them to confront the army on an almost equal footing.” I don’t know the official definition of a civil war, but this has got to come close.

It’s worth noting that Caputo’s piece is one of a flurry of articles on the situation to have emerged in recent months, and I think there are a number of reasons for this. Obviously, the significant increase in death is highly newsworthy, and the country’s proximity to the United States has made it a growing concern for American media outlets. But I also think there’s a growing understanding that Mexico is reaching a sort of endgame in the war on drugs.

Everything the country has tried up until this point has failed: the responsible police and regional state officials have already been either undermined, corrupted or killed, the media is censoring itself for fear of assassination, and the political class has become discredited, distrusted and enfeebled. With this in mind, the only option Mexico had left if it wanted to sustain the war on drugs was to put everything in the hands of the military and cross their fingers.

It may yet be possible that this approach will work, that the drug cartels will lose a degree of their influence over society and that civic institutions can regain some measure of independence from the forces of coercion & corruption.

But if that approach doesn’t work – and it certainly hasn’t worked yet – that will leave the country with only two options: legalise drugs and let these cartels battle it out in the boardroom rather than in bloody street battles, or adopt a posture of denial, swallow another billion in American aid and watch in dismay as the state loses, with each passing year, more and more of its legitimacy.

Whichever path is chosen will really depend on how much more heartbreak and bloodshed the country’s public can stomach to sustain a war without end.

Nothing tastes as good as stupid feels

November 21, 2009 at 1:15 pm | Posted in Idiot Hall of Fame | 1 Comment

When you compare this:

You begin to forget what it means to live. You forget things. You forget that you used to feel all right. You forget what it means to feel all right because you feel like shit all of the time, and you can’t remember what it was like before. People take the feeling of full for granted. They take for granted the feeling of steadiness, of hands that do not shake, heads that do not ache, throats not raw with bile and small rips from fingernails forced in haste to the gag spot. Stomachs that do not begin to dissolve with a battery-acid mixture of caffeine and pills. They do not wake up in the night, calves and thighs knotting with muscles that are beginning to eat away at themselves. They may or may not be awakened in the night by their own inexplicable sobs.

– ‘Wasted‘ by Marya Hornbacher

with this:

“Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”

Kate Moss

You realise that there’s a very good reason why Kate Moss doesn’t give many interviews.

Selected Reading (19/11/09)

November 19, 2009 at 9:47 pm | Posted in Misc. | 4 Comments
  • Normally a debate between Michael Gove & Ed Balls would find me rooting for them both to lose, but I must admit that there’s something delcious about this moment. (via John B)


  • Cory Doctorow reckons the govt’s draconian idea of ‘cracking down’ on filesharing could spell the end of the internet in Britain. Ghastly stuff.
  • Sigrid Rausing claims that Uganda is sanctioning gay genocide.
  • 52% of Republicans believe that ACORN stole the last Presidential election. Y’know, the one won by the black dude. In a landslide.
  • LeftOutside discovers that electro smog will kill us all.
  • Daniel Larison disputes the view that Sarah Palin is on the ‘lunatic fringe’. She may be a lunatic, but she isn’t on the fringe.
  • Freedom on the march: suppose it’s not a surprise, but Afghanistan has been called the worst place in the world to be a child.
  • And whilst I’m too much of a terrible blogger to catch this on time, I obviously agree with this entirely.

A working class hero is something to be*

November 17, 2009 at 9:32 pm | Posted in Blogging about blogging | 15 Comments

Eyup cocker,

Tha won’t believe the bloody palaver I’ve been havin’. It all started a few days ago when some dozy bint were sayin’ summat daft about me & me mates’ workin’ men’s club. I thought “ang on, I’m noravin that!” and I said that folks like her are too young & posh to lecture me on owt, let alone tellin’ me how to run me own bloody bar!

Anyhow, me mates stood up for me & that. Said she were spoilt, vain, weak, vulnerable and basically a bit of a ‘silly cow’. As it ‘appens, I actually had a quiet word wi one or two of ‘em about the language. After all, this is a respectable establishment, and I know how to treat the ladies!

But then she started actin’ like a mardy bum just because some fellas were a bit rough with her. That got me dander right up! I’m like “listen flower, that’s just how us average, salt of the Earth types talk. We dunt go in for any of this ‘politically correct’ fannyin’ about., so take yer fancy words and naggin’ and bugger off to yer knittin circle!”

I told her, I said “its folks like you what turn people off politics”. I said “If tha can’t tell’t difference between an everyday insult which ordinary folk like me use all the time, and a vicious attack on ye tender soul, then yer just not cut out for the big conversations, like what I am!”

I don’t know, women eh?! More trouble than they’re bloody worth!

The above may not be how Marcus acts in real life, but given the hilarious attempt to justify a sexist insult as a statement of working class authenticity, I really wouldn’t be surprised.

It should be admitted, of course, that this is a gross caricature; most working class folk I know wouldn’t condone sexism.

*with apologies to John Lennon. And Bill Owen.

Selected Reading (16/11/09)

November 16, 2009 at 7:08 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

Just a short one tonight:

  • If you only click on one of these links, make it Johann Hari’s piece on his journeys with ex-jihadis. It’s not a quick read, but it’s an absolutely bloody glorious piece of journalism. (via Asquith)
  • Omar bin Laden pens an intimate portrait of his father. Yes, that one.
  • Evan Osnos wonders whether the Chinese will support tougher sanctions on Iran.
  • Charlie Brooker takes on tacky Christmas adverts.
  • Peter Beinart assesses President Obama’s trip to China and looks at how the US-China relationship has changes.
  • I may one day get around to reading & writing about Transform’s blueprint for regulating drugs, but until I do, here’s Pete Guither’s take.
  • In Mexico, murders of journalists have reached an all-time high.

The Sun does cyber-stalking

November 15, 2009 at 7:14 pm | Posted in Idiot Hall of Fame | Leave a comment

So how was your day?

It’s a question which must get asked millions of times a day. All over the country, people return home after a hard day’s work and report to friends, housemates or partners about how it all went.

Some surgeons may celebrate a successful operation; some police officers may toast the closing of a case; some bartenders may have enjoyed an evening’s banter with their regular punters.

However, if you’re John Coles, Ace Reporter for The Sun, your response to that question goes a little something like this:

“Oh, my day was GREAT! I went on Facebook and stalked a 24 year old that nobody’s ever heard of. THEN, out of revenge for his Dad’s ‘zany’ statements about drugs, I publicly humilated him in a national newspaper!”

Yes, the minds of tabloid journalists operate a little differently to the rest of us.

So how did Coles’ intrepid cyber bullying increase his readers’ understanding of the world? Well, we’ve discovered that Steve Nutt either smokes weed or roll-ups (or maybe even both!); we’ve found out that he sometimes makes risque & inappropriate jokes to friends; we’ve learned that he has a sister who once drank booze at 16, and a brother who was once NAKED! In Sweden!

So basically, what we can deduce from all of this is that Professor Nutt has raised what appears to be a completely ordinary, unremarkable family, who just happen to have had the misfortune of being related to a scientist The Sun didn’t like.

Not that you’d get that understanding from the ‘article’, of course, because Coles tries his level best to portray Steve Nutt as a potentially disturbed, spliff-smoking terrorist sympathiser, and his siblings as raging, out-of-control hedonists who like alcohol and.. erm.. Scandinavia.

Let’s just set aside the observation that ethics at this newspaper seem to have been completely abandoned, and instead just take a moment to sigh at how poisonous the issue of drugs has become. Not only can a well-credentialled scientist get the sack for trying to explain that science, but his family can be harassed and humiliated for no other reason than politically-motivated revenge.

I really wish Murdoch would hurry up with his plan to charge people for reading his papers; the day when I don’t have access to this vindictive garbage can’t come soon enough.

So this is how grown-ups argue

November 15, 2009 at 2:56 pm | Posted in Blogging about blogging | 8 Comments

I think they call this a self-fulfilling prophesy. In The Samosa, Laurie Penny accuses Harry’s Place of practicing bullying and sectarianism. In response, HP regular Marcus tries his best to prove her right:

People like Ms Penny – home counties raised and not long out of university – simply haven’t had that much time to reflect on matters beyond their own limited life experience and can’t therefore recognise political reaction if it comes with more melanin than she herself inherited, even if it spells out its ultimate aims in the blood of women shopping at market places.

Sadly, it gets worse:

since when did Socialism mean the rest of us had to be rearranged to suit the whims of a self-obsessed privately-educated, Oxbridge-cocooned twenty-three year old? Wasn’t socialism, at least in theory, about something else once upon a time?

You can say what you like about the English upper middle-classes, but you’ve got to admire their sense of entitlement, haven’t you?

In other words: “sit down you silly little girl, this is grown folks business”. Whilst I wouldn’t care to speculate about the age of this particular author, the argument Marcus makes here is often used by people who’ve gotten too old to remember how seethingly furious they were when someone directed it at them. Well, they say we all turn into our parents one day.

As for the crass jibes about her background, these are the kinds of resentments & class jealousies which only nullify any argument you’re trying to make: when you can’t tell whether the writer’s statements are born out of logic & rationality or some disdain for people from a different background, there’s really no incentive to accept them as valid or relevant. Really, it’s little more than an exercise in self-defeat.

As it happens, I think it’s quite possible (providing you don’t venture into the comment threads) to read Harry’s Place and not find much which is quarrelsome or controversial. It’s not often that a day passes without HP posting something I generally agree with, and they are strong on some important areas, like the illiberal wreck of our libel laws or the BNP being an ‘orrible bunch of thugs.

But it’s posts like this which give HP the reputation for bullying and sectarianism which Laurie was decrying. The habit of singling individuals out and ‘exposing’ them as morally or intellectually deficient doesn’t speak well of the site, particularly when the writers claim to be interested in some of the big international debates of our time.

This leads on to my main frustration with the site: for all the intention to stand up for democracy and human rights around the world, and all the time spent standing against ideologues, racists & militants wherever they may be found, the actual foreign policy content on Harry’s Place is incredibly superficial.

Where is the analysis of the options open to President Obama in Afghanistan? Should our troops still be there? And if so, for how long? Is counter-insurgency the right strategy, or should we focus more on counter-terrorism? Which military/national security bloggers can bring us valuable insights? How well is reconstruction going and are we upholding our commitments to human rights?

The site likes to defend Israel from its critics, so why not have an appraisal of how well (or badly) Netanyahu is doing as Prime Minister, or whether the U.S. has the right policy regarding settlements? Can Obama achieve anything in the Middle East when his approval ratings in Israel are in single digits? What are the causes of this antipathy, and what can be done about it? When your most substantive FP content is coming from occasional guest posters, chances are you’ve got your priorities a little mixed-up.

If you’re really concerned with waging a valiant fight for the left, how about trying something a bit different? For example, instead of wasting a Sunday dismissing a journalist on the basis that she’s young and went to university, why not demonstrate your vastly superior maturity by trying to engage with some of the big issues the site has always claimed to address?

Or, y’know, you could just keep on singling people out and calling them ‘logically-challenged’. Maybe that’s what grown-ups do.

Selected Reading (14/11/09)

November 14, 2009 at 8:55 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment
  • You know there’s too much bureaucracy in the world when even Afghanistan’s Taliban has a code of practice. If they keep going at this rate, they’ll be filling out ‘elf & safety forms before too long. Political correctness gone mad, I tell you..
  • Onto feminism, and did you know that the ‘bra burning’ thing was actually a myth? No, me neither. Ariel Levy brings us that and other interesting stuff in a review of Gail Collins’ new book.
  • Matt Yglesias reminds us that the internet is, in fact, good for people who like music.
  • Over at Hagley Road, Claude marks The Sun’s ’40 years of crap’
  • Catherine Phipps tackles the thorny issue of consuming alcohol during pregnancy.
  • Glenn Greenwald points out that the American right is now surrendering to terrorists.
  • Daniel Larison analyses the morass in the Middle East, and focuses on the corner the Obama administration’s boxed itself into.
  • Meanwhile, journalist James Gordon Meek recounts a chance meeting with the President at Arlington National Cemetery.
  • For everyone else who’s devastated that Pluto is no longer a planet, Wired has loads of interesting stuff celebrating the planet which never was.
  • In the latest Class Monitor, Michael Hodges looks at supermarket checkout assistants.
  • And lastly, I know Halloween has been & gone, but Ed Brayton must win a prize for the scariest/sickest headline of the month.

Selected Reading (09/11/09)

November 9, 2009 at 9:12 pm | Posted in Misc. | 3 Comments
  • So let me get this straight… it’s a grave insult for a visually-impaired Prime Minister to make a spelling mistake in a letter of condolence, but a newspaper exploiting a mother’s grief in order to attack a man it wants to see out of office is ‘supporting our boys’? Great, glad we cleared that up.
  • Here’s a good question: why did Facebook allow a ‘pro-rape, anti-consent’ group to stay on the site for months?
  • Meet the man who says the United States will start to collapse sometime in the next year. Naturally, the teabaggers are lovin’ it.
  • Over at FP, Graeme Smith argues that more troops will not help in Afghanistan.
  • By the way, if you haven’t been reading David Axe’s reports from his time with American troops, you should start doing so now.
  • David Marquand is an eminent and well-respected academic, but he also moonlights for OurKingdom. This post on the ‘Blair for EU’ fuss is a delightfully blunt dose of reality.
  • Annie Lowery reviews the implications of the Lisbon Treaty on foreign policy.
  • And if four ex-scousers with guitars is your thing, PopMatters is dedicating a week of essays and articles about the music & legacy of The Beatles.

Selected Reading (08/11/09)

November 8, 2009 at 12:08 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
  • It’s now just slightly less terrifying to be sick in America. Can’t imagine that the one Republican who voted for it is going to get many Christmas cards.
  • The President seems to have thoroughly rejected my advice on Afghanistan.
  • Paul Canning brings news about three gay teenagers on death row in Iran.
  • Daniel Levy assesses the week from hell in the Middle East peace process.
  • Gideon Levy accuses Netanyahu of being afraid & sowing fear.
  • Moshe Halbertal, who helped write the Israeli army’s code of ethics, gives the Goldstone report a thorough going over. Like Andrew Sullivan, I thought this paragraph was significant:

Radical groups such as Hamas start their struggle with little support from their population, which tends to be more moderate. They increase their base of support cynically, by murdering Israeli civilians and thereby goading Israel into an overreaction (this is not to deny, of course, that Israel can choose not to overreact) in a way that ends up causing suffering to the Palestinian civilians among whom the militants take shelter. The death and the suffering of the civilian Palestinian population, in the short run, is a part of the Hamas strategy, since it increases the sympathy of the population with the movement’s aims. An Israeli overreaction also leads to the shattering of Israel’s moral legitimacy in its own struggle. In a democratic society with a citizen’s army, any erosion of the ethical foundation of its soldiers and its citizens is of immense political and strategic consequence.

  • And, as a bit of light relief, it turns out that the MTV music awards were actually just an elaborate occult ritual. Well, it at least explains the existence of Lady GaGa…

Beating around the Bush

November 6, 2009 at 10:36 am | Posted in International | 3 Comments

Despite all the quadrennial talk of ‘change’ and the blitzkrieg ferocity of political debate, there’s always far more that stays the same in American politics than really changes. Lobbyists are still writing cheques, politicians still act out of calculation as much as conviction, and there’s always someone, somewhere, who wants to seccede from the Union.

Similarly, Presidents inherit most of the sins or virtues of their predecessors without seeking or succeeding to change them. Sometimes they are constrained by the Constitution, Congress or political expediency, sometimes they are too timid to attempt change and sometimes the policies they inherited just happen to work.

The continuity which underlies the frenzied war games of Washington D.C. is – or should be – a fairly basic observation for anyone acquainted with American politics. However, such is the level of discourse at the New Statesman, this fact that some Presidents can inherit the misdeeds of their predecessors has been treated as some profound front page revelation.

Just last month they published a piece by Mehdi Hasan comparing President Obama to George W. Bush and noting the areas in which the Democrat had failed to roll back some of the most egregious misuses of executive power: Guantanamo is still open, rendition still occurs, state secrecy is still forcefully invoked and those suspected of authorising the use of torture have not been prosecuted.

Hasan is at it again on his blog, fisking a ‘silly’ and ‘pointless’ rebuttal by Ken Gude of the Centre for American Progress and speculating about why some people didn’t like his original piece.

The Obamaniacs didn’t like my take. They don’t want to hear about assassinations in Pakistan, renditions in the Middle East, torture in Gitmo — that all stopped when Bush left for Dallas, right? Wrong. In several areas but, in particular, in national security policy, Obama has picked up Bush’s baton and run with it.

Possibly. Alternatively, maybe being the kind of writer who’ll describe supporters of this President as ‘Obamaniacs’ means you’ll just irritate a whole bunch of people without knowing it. By throwing around this crude little put-down, Hasan is implying that support for the President can only come from ignorance or irrationality; we are either blind to the black marks against his Presidency or, drunk on hope juice, we blithely slur that we’ll love him whatever he does. This is really just thinly-disguised political misanthrope; it’s crass when Melanie Phillips uses it , and it doesn’t come across as any more sophisticated when it’s used by someone on the left.

Of course President Obama has made some mistakes and bad decisions. He’s been too timorous in restoring transparency & human rights to the field of national security, has heavily-diluted some of the more progressive planks of his election platform, has been lamentably slow in pushing for gay rights and America’s foreign policy is guided more by naked self-interest than at any time since Bush 41. But he’s also being blamed for a bunch of things that aren’t entirely his fault, and critics should remember that the President cannot get much through Congress (including healthcare & a climate change bill) without 60 votes in the Senate. If you don’t recognise how difficult that is, then your expectations at the start really were too high.

Furthermore, it’s completely possible to accept the existence of all those mistakes and still feel that the President has made a reasonably good start to his first term.

In less than a year, he’s ordered an end to the use of torture, passed a $787 billion stimulus package, voided most of the petty ‘signing statements’ of his predecessor, expanded health care to around 4 million children, begun moves towards reducing America’s nuclear arsenal, instructed the EPA to start regulating carbon emissions, worked to repair relations around the world, announced plans for high-speed rail networks, reversed the previous administration’s prosecutorial stance on medical marijuana, ended the travel ban on people with HIV, overturned the global gag rule, pledged $900 million in aid to Gaza and $300 million to flood-ravaged Haiti, signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act, supported a UN statement calling for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, encouraged tougher financial regulation, proposed a decent budget and appointed a progressive to the Supreme Court.

Ultimately, America is in a better place than this time a year ago, and there is still scope for major achievements in the future. If none of this is enough to rid him of the comparisons to ‘Dubya’, my guess is you’re giving Bush far more credit than he deserves.

No Distance Left To Run

November 3, 2009 at 9:19 pm | Posted in International | 5 Comments

Although President Obama has yet to announce whether he’ll commit more troops to Afghanistan, I think we can be certain of one thing: that what is being agonised-over in Washington’s defence & foreign policy establishments isn’t a choice between war and peace, but rather what type of war they’d rather wage.

For a long time, the clear favourite seemed to be a counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy. COIN advocates have argued that military operations must be accompanied by civilian outreach, aid & some measure of state-building. For a counter-insurgency to work, the institutions upon which the civilian population relies have to be restored and defended, thereby thwarting an insurgent’s ability to erode the state’s legitimacy & authority. If you believe that this strategy can work in Afghanistan, then it is self-evident that General McChrystal should have all the troops he needs.

However, you should only defend the legitimacy of a state when you’re working with a legitimate government. With Afghanistan’s calamitous, bloody and fraudulent election, the withdrawal of Hamid Karzai’s competitor and the subsequent declaration that this ineffective crook was the ‘victor’, it is wishful thinking to regard this government as being in any way legitimate.

This matters because one of the favoured options for going forward in Afghanistan relies on protecting and strengthening the major population centres; trying to restore the link between the state and the people and providing greater safety & prosperity. However, as one military intelligence official recently told the NYT, “if we are going to conduct a population-centric strategy in Afghanistan, and we are perceived as backing thugs, then we are just undermining ourselves.”

So Karzai’s stolen re-election cuts at the very heart of what the Obama administration is trying to achieve in Afghanistan. Any action it takes from this point on will be seen to reinforce a rotten, corrupt, powerless and fraudulent government which has not brought anywhere near enough safety, security or prosperity to a war-ravaged people. Under these conditions, I can’t see how our presence there will be anything but counter-productive. Maybe the conversation they should be having in the White House is about devising an exit strategy.

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