Bartlett's Bizarre Bazaar
Comment, Comics and the Contrary.
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
Logical disconnection; the Littlejohn pathology
This morning on BBC News 24 Sylvia Hardy, the jailed and now released Council Tax protestor, was asked about her time in jail. She says that she was treated well, cites the support of the inmates, but then laments that the prison was under-funded. While Council Tax does not directly support the upkeep of prison, it is part of the collective public revenue. If Council Tax were abolished, as Sylvia Hardy is demanding, where would the extra public money come from? Not a single reporter has asked her this question, or the related question; what public spending would you cut.
No doubt some of my regular readers would be happy to see public spending cut, but they should at least be honest enough to admit that if Sylvia Hardy were campaigning to cut spending, not just tax, she would receive a great deal less public support.
This seems to be a mild case of the Littlejohn pathology. Richard Littlejohn hates speed cameras. He argues that they are a means for the police to gather revenue. He also argues that they allow the police to abdicate their responsibility to police the roads in person, where human judgement could be applied. But, and he never grapples with this problem, his call to do away with speed cameras would reduce the resources available to the police, while, if the roads are to be properly policed and his diagnosis is correct, increasing the cost of policing. Would he raise taxes? Would he cut services? He never argues either way. Why? Well, if we were being generous, we would say that his logical disconnect is a result of his simple-mindedness. This would be a just description, as Littlejohn’s views on speed cameras are not casual observations where inconsistency is acceptable and expectable. But if he is not a simple-mind, a more realistic understanding of the pathology would be that Littlejohn is engaging in the malicious exploitation of his readers, hoping that they will not be bright enough, not skilled in the task of critical reading, to cut through his illusion of argument and see the bad faith at the heart. Littlejohn hates Sun readers, else he would do them a better service.
Council Tax may be unfair. But the person who has been adopted as the figurehead of a movement to abolish a tax is forced to realise and reflect on the under-funding of a tax-funded service and does not address this apparent inconsistency. We must, therefore, conclude that she is either a simple-minded fool or that this logical disconnection is more or less knowing front for an attack on the financial basis for public services. She is no hero. At best she is an exploited stooge.
Friday, September 23, 2005
Intelligent Design? More like Inelegant Contraptionism
I am, I declare here, a contraptionist.
Proponents of Intelligent Design (ID) see nature differently to most people; what others understand to be the products of evolution are, in fact, too complex and intricate to be the products of anything other than an intelligent designer. While remaining wedded to my evolutionary world-view, I did concede the persuasiveness of that argument, particularly among the more ‘casual’ observers of the natural world.
This persuasiveness can, however, be undermined. Not through recourse to popular scientistic evolutionism, which those tempted by ID have already rejected or ignored. Rather, we can turn the mechanismal metaphors of ID against anti-evolutionism.
William Paley, in Natural Theology
, used the watchmaker analogy as an argument for the existence of a divine creator and designer of nature. Simply put, the argument runs; “If we find a watch when walking on the moors, and investigate its workings, we will find that it is too complex to be an assemblage of parts ordered by a natural process, we must therefore assume that there is (or was) a watchmaker who was responsible for its creation.” Seductive, is it not, at least to the untutored.
So let us examine the complex machines that are our own bodies. Do they run like machines designed by an intelligent engineer? The answer to this can only be: no. We are a mass of inefficiencies, or redundancies and antagonistic systems. What sort of designer would design into his machines the ability to be incapacitated by pain at the very times when action is of the essence? What sort of designer would build a taste for the sweet and fatty into machinery clogged into terminal seizure by these fuels? It is no defense to argue that the designer could not anticipate the environment his machines would operate in, for this designer is the Designer, the maker of nature in toto
. What sort of designer would build an immune system that overreacts to otherwise the harmless plant and animal matter that are also the products of His Design?
Considering these features of the human body as the features of a machine, we must think, for a moment, of the source of our popular fascination with machines. What sort of machines fascinate and excite our imaginations? Compare, for example, a smooth, efficient, superbly designed Volvo, with a home made jalopy, a Scrap Heap Challenge
vehicle, a jerry-rigged machine built from parts intended for use elsewhere. We are, at least in the majority, fascinated by the contraption, the machine built inexpertly and inefficiently from found components. These machines are inelegant, their parts in contest almost as often as they are in co-operation.
Considered as mechanisms, human beings, bodies, plants, animals, ecosystems and indeed the whole of nature are, at best, inelegant contraptions. We marvel at them, and the instinct of the untutored in our technological, mechanistic age is to presume that there is a designer. But, what we must conclude about this Designer is either; that He works with parts that are not of His own design, that he finds in a nature not of His making, or, that He made the parts but can neither take a role in the combination of these parts or anticipate the use to which they will be put. Both of these effectively reduce Him to an irrelevant rump, either casting Him into the pre-Universal, as creator but not actor, or transforming Him from creator in impotent tinker.
Of course, I would rather that the proponents of ID simply tossed aside their belief in Him, the Designer. But I will settle, here, for pointing out that nature is not a smooth running machine but an inelegant contraption, and that if they must cling to Him, this necessarily transforms the (often unstated but implied Christian) nature of the Him they invoke as their Deus ex Machina
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
What is this Mesopotamian farce?
Really, on seeing two dodgy ‘Arabs’ (who must surely even further along the current physiognomic scale of evil than a Brazilian with ‘Mongolian eyes’), I would have thought that the appropriate police reaction should have been to ‘destroy the brain, instantly, utterly’. Even more so when these dodgy ‘Arabs’ are prowling round the streets in a car with a boot full of killing equipment. Even more so when this occurs in a city plagued, not by a single, atypical terrorist attack, but by daily bombings. Even more so when these dodgy ‘Arabs’ have shot a policeman and a civilian. There would be no need to spin lies about non-existent bomb-belts, bulky jackets or ‘terrorist-like’ behaviour. If there was ever a case of legitimate recourse to the sort of language used in zombie movies in order to justify a extra-judicial execution, this was that case.
This farce reminds me of the scene in Team America where Gary, the actor, is (badly) disguised as an Arab. Or, indeed, of old British colonial efforts at intelligence gathering, mostly involving a liberal use of boot polish. “Durka durka, Mohammed jihad!” Indeed, low comedy.
So, our SAS ‘boys’ must thank their good fortune that they were merely held prisoner. And, perhaps, our own government ought to be a little more humble when condemning an Iraqi civilian authority who refused to release men accused of murderous actions taking place in a situation not unlike that of a terrorist ‘event’.
Of course, we have heard that they were ‘undercover soldiers’? I have to say that I had thought that the modern term for this was ‘illegal combatants’. I had understood that our disgust at these tactics was based on the fact that if the ‘baddies’ do not do the decent thing and wear uniforms then the trigger-happy USMC cannot be blamed when they make Swiss cheese out of perfectly innocent civilians.
I had thought that the Iraqis were celebrating democracy. I thought that those purple fingers symbolised a return of political power to Iraqi people. But evidently not. It is evident that this is an occupation. All the news agencies are concentrating on the infiltration of the police by ‘militant organisations’, composed of Iraqis, you will understand. Everyone is asking why these SAS men were not release when the order came from Baghdad. Why is there no person asking what these SAS men were doing? Why is no one asking why these SAS men appear to be above the law of ‘free’ Iraq?
The very people who have argued that we have murdered Iraqis for the sake of giving Iraqis their freedom, are now argue that we must murder more in an effort to prevent Iraqis from governing Iraq. I would pretend to be confused. But I am not. This is a colonial game, pure and simple. It is dressed up as bringing freedom, civilisation, removing a tyrant, or self-defence. Such games always are; they always have been. Take a look at the political and intellectual heritage of the men involved in planning and running this war and this occupation. They are not Christopher Hitchens, for all his faults. They are not men of progressive politics. They are not men who have demonstrated a respect for democracy and human rights. The men with power, and here we must separate them from their cheerleaders on the left, hearts full of wishful thinking, are men who have support death squads, torture camps and dictators.
This is a colonial game, and it will continue until Iraq has been destructed and reconstructed according to the wishes of these men; not the wishes of Iraqis. This process of civil disorder, of infiltration, allows – no, demands – that occupying troops remain in Iraq indefinitely. When the Iraqis next have ‘power’, the structures of economic and political control will be in place.
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
The blogger at Blood and Treasure, a self proclaimed ‘top public intellectual’
, has given us a rundown of what we can only be described as ‘articulated jihad’. That’s right, under our current anti-terrorist legislation the fuel protestors can, without any misrepresentation, be categorised as terrorists.
Now, I am not a fan of the fuel protestors, so I look forward to those glorifiers of terrorism, Richard Littlejohn and Jeremy Clarkson being ‘detained’ in Belmarsh. Seriously, this exposes the utter stupidity of the laws being proposed to criminalise the ‘glorification’ of terrorism. Now, I have a feeling that these are a political ploy, a tactic of extreme proposals that has characterised the Home Office in recent years. This tactic involves setting out a hard-right authoritarian policy, and then pulling back to a merely right-wing authoritarian policy under pressure from opposition groups. By doing so, the government can pass nasty, illiberal (and often plain bad) legislation while appearing to be engaging in discourse and dialogue. Of course, by controlling the debate so well, they get everything they wanted, even when they have pulled the worst of the bad lot off the table.Crooked Timber
has a good piece on the absurdity of criminalisation of the glorification of terrorism.
In this case, I expect the criminalisation of the glorification of terrorism to be withdrawn from the new legislation, leaving us with the equally absurd prospect of people being jailed for ‘indirect incitement to acts of terrorism’. What, exactly, is indirect incitement? No, don’t tell me a story of someone who could be prosecuted under the law that prohibits incitement. Yes, you can tell me that it will make convictions easier to secure, but that only tells us of the poverty of your charge that the cited speech actually incites terrorism. Indirect incitement sounds, in practice, like nothing more than ‘glorification’, except it adopts the rhetorical strategy of making a tenuous causal connection between the speech and acts of terrorism.
With a definition of terrorism so broad that it could include any disruptive form of protest, in other words, any effective form of protest, offences of glorification and indirect incitement have a serious possibility to shut down speech. And this is before we consider the ability of this definition to restrict legitimate participatory political action. One defence the government can make is that the law will be applied arbitrarily
. And when that is a defence of legislation, the government ought to be replaced.
But, paradoxically, while the definition of terrorism that Britain uses is so broad we have to be thankful that Blair did not manage to force to UN to adopt it, it is not broad enough to prevent people demanding war, sanctions or airstrikes. It is not enough to detain people who propose stripping away our civil liberties, or deport those who see little moral problem in torture. No, and here we see the terrorism laws for what they are. Rather than prohibiting all means of human destruction and all methods of increasing suffering, or at the very least demanding that such actions have to pass through the most rigorous process of democratic accountability, we support arms fairs, deal with dictators, launch wars and strip away human rights. We allow the apologists for such actions to occupy positions of power and influence. The use of force remains the domain of the state and their mercenary proxies (what better expression of the third-way is there than outsourcing warfare to multi-national corporations killing for profit?), barely qualified by concerns over human rights, dignity or welfare. There is, it seems, no moral problem is being an agent of human destruction when pursuing the political designs of an extant state. By contrast, the use of force by non-state actors, excepting those who murder for money, is thoroughly criminalised, without regard for the justice of the cause. Indeed, the cause is irrelevant. Death and destruction are evils in themselves, there can be “no excuse, no justification for terrorism of any kind”. When we have a situation in which those who attempt to articulate the legitimacy or justifications of such actions are detained, deported and shut out of debate we have a recipe for repressive authoritarian sclerosis, with violence certainly not removed from the human condition, merely moved into being a monopoly of state and capital the globe over.
Monday, September 19, 2005
Iraq the honeypot
There are two options. The majority of the insurgents in Iraq are Iraqis. In which case their insurgency is granted a degree of legitimacy by virtue of it being a liberation movement. This does not mean that it is something to be supported, something to be praised. But would certainly call both the narrative promulgated by the occupying forces and the occupation itself into question.
The other option we have is that the majority of the insurgents are ‘foreign fighters’. In which case the invasion of Iraq is a tremendous moral mistake. Right-wing US commentators were cheerleading for the war, arguing that Iraq could be used as a ‘honeypot’. ‘Terrorists’ would be drawn to the carefully chosen battlefield where they could be killed with a minimum loss of US (non-military) life. Of course, this is at a terrible cost to the Iraqi people, who were not (even if we consider Saddam Hussein to have been representative of the Iraqi people) guilty of attacking the USA.
As President Bush says; “we were attacked, and we are responding to this attack”. Does being attacked legitimate retributions against people unconnected in that attack? Does it allow you to turn the home of 25 million people into a convenient battle ground to allow you to fight wars quite unconnected with them a safe distance from your own people? To say ‘yes’, is to legitmate whatever horrors have ever been or are to come. To argue against this general, amoral principle requires a belief in American exceptionalism. And that belief makes you an enemy of every single person who is not American.
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
What manner of games are these?
Game number one
: the Israeli Parliament votes to leave standing synagogues in the former settlements in Gaza. These are settlements in which every house has been effectively demolished and all civic buildings reduced to mere shells. So why leave the synagogue buildings intact?
Well, one can understand why a Jewish state would hesitate when faced with the task of demolishing sites of worship. However, what future did they imagine for these buildings? These are not simply religious buildings, to be respected by people of all faiths. They are the symbols of an illegal military occupation, a land grab legitimated before the fact by theology and after the fact by the presence of militarised settlements on the ground. The synagogue buildings were always going to be destroyed as the Israeli Army withdrew, so why did the Israeli Parliament vote to leave them standing?
Well, it allows them to avoid the necessary, but unpopular task, and to then to paint the Palestinians as barbarians
. Okay, we get the message. These people are barbarians, worthy of collective punishment
. Oh, yes, and the wider ethic and religious groupings to which they belong are the enemy within
and blah, blah, blah. I wish these sentiments were confined to the further reaches of the US blogosphere, but unfortunately, what once was extreme is slipping closer to mainstream thought. And, as it becomes mainstream, we do not think it extreme.Game number two
: In a week when Tony Blair is at the UN pressing for non-proliferation, John Reid
defends the upgrading of Britain’s (non-independent) nuclear arsenal, an act which is, let us not beat around the bush, proliferation. We are increasing our capability to cause nuclear destruction. But, despite this, what shocks me (okay, it does not shock me; it ought to, but we live in a political climate of ‘utterly destroyed brains’
) is the justification for this breach of the spirit of the NPT
. He argues that we will continue to need a nuclear arsenal and develop new weapons as other nations have, or will develop nuclear weapons. Well, if I have heard a better argument for
the proliferation of nuclear weapons it is hidden in a bank vault someway. MAD
here we come, again. With the logic of John Reid*
, who can dispute the very necessity of nuclear weapons for every single nation on earth? MAD will keep the peace, surely?
Of course, all this doublethink on the proliferation of the machinery of human destruction takes place in a week when Britain hosts one of the world’s largest arms fairs selling to all manner of nations, few of which could be described as bastions of freedom, democracy and/or human rights. An arms fair policed at public cost suppressing protest through use of ‘emergency anti-terrorist measures’, for an arms industry has its research (into the question; ‘how can we kill more people, more quickly for less money?’) funded by the public purse, that corrupts the governments of the developing world using subsidy granted from the public purse.
What games are these? I tell you what. These are not cricket, though they will all end in piles of ash.
*An early version of this post levelled the charge of MADness at Charles Clarke. I was confused, it seems, between authoritarian, right-wing New Labour bruisers.
Monday, September 12, 2005
Legislating against the sun
I wish I were writing about proposals to limit the effect of The Sun
on British public life.
Sadly not. This is about the now rejected proposals to include solar radiation in EU health and safety at work legislation
. I have very little to say about this, except to point out the tenor of the arguments used to defeat this legislation for worker protection.
First, most reports (as with the Yahoo! News item linked to) presented it as applying to a group of workers unwilling or undeserving of legislative protection, rather than being applied to bosses who expose their workers to a damaging environment. The harm is presented as trivial, being a ‘tan ban’ with pictures of bare barmaids bosoms and builders bums, rather than pictures of malignant melanomas.
Yes, I would rather see a picture of a busty barmaid, or even a builder’s backside, but that you haven’t seen a single picture like this in the news* demands this picture appear.
No where are there comments from union leaders, or doctors specialising in skin cancers. The comments from outraged bosses and conservative politicians far outweigh the voices of those arguing for the inclusion of exposure to solar radiation at work being included in the aspects of the work environment that bosses have a duty to their workers to offer them protection. Indeed, unless we are thinking hard, we would not even see that this is what the proposed legislation meant. It did not mean ‘legislating against the sun’, as one Liberal Democrat MEP on BBC News 24 idiotically asserted, any more than the provision of safety harnesses in work at height as mandated by health and safety legislation involves legislation against gravity. Indeed, this Lib Dem then argued that the legislation would leave bosses faces compensation claims when workers developed skin cancers, asking ‘how could we tell if the cancer was the result of work or sunbathing on holiday?’ I recall the same sort of argument used against all manner of work-related illnesses. She is part of an ignoble tradition, and I am so glad that I was a member of the Lib Dems
for only a very brief spell. A decent society would firstly install legislation to protect workers at work and then ensure that the healthcare and welfare services ensured that all who suffer illness and disability are provided for whether blame can be apportioned in court or not. But no, we will hurtle towards an American model where, with a private, pay-for healthcare system and welfare provision that is the disgrace of the civilised world, lawsuit compensation is a societal necessity.
We have laws that demand that bosses protect their workers from harmful environments. The sun is a source of cancer, the risk it poses will increase, and, given that we spend most of our daylight hours in the workplace, it is in the workplace where we face the greatest cumulative risk. Setting out the boss’ obligation to his or her workforce is conditions where the workforce will be exposed to direct sunlight is not ‘barmy’. It is entirely within the tradition of health and safety regulation which recognises the disparity in social and economic power between the boss and the employee, and works to protect the latter where he or she may be unable to do so themselves.
Of course, you may be of the mind that there should be no such thing as health and safety regulations. As Irish conservative Avril Doyle is quoted as saying, invoking common sense; “If ultimately I get skin cancer through irresponsible choices despite all the health warnings, should my employers be left to carry the can?” Nicely missing the point of the proposed legislation, displaying remarkably adeptness is the political skill of misrepresentation, she switches this into an issue of ‘personal responsibility’. Would she use the same argument against all health and safety legislation? My guess is that she would, at least in her private conversations. But it this legislation is not about that, not at all. It asks the question, “as an employer, am I responsible for assessing the dangers posed by the working conditions that I demand my employees labour in? Am I responsible for putting in place reasonable measures to protect my employees where there is some level of danger?”
Within our European tradition, the answer is emphatically ‘yes’. You might want to change this, and adopting the tactic of deceptively painting the risk posed by sunlight as unlike other workplace risks might be a way of sliding the thin edge of the wedge under our hard-won and labour-politics built institution of employee safety enshrined in law. But you will be deceptive, and you will be my enemy. Though, I will concede, the Lib Dem MEP who I quoted above may simply be dim.
*You may have seen this picture in the context of consumer news, suggesting that we cover up with regards to our consumption of holiday (products), or, perhaps more sinisterly when we consider the grossly misleading ‘personal responsibilities’ gang are in the political ascendancy, with regard to our consumption of healthcare (products). You will not have seen this picture in the context of industrial news – the vastly more important setting that governs the majority of our waking day (never mind our hours of daylight). And they say that the media is left-wing? Bollocks, it is old-style liberal, and those who make accusations of ‘socialism’ either make fools of themselves or hide a very nasty right-wing agenda.
Wednesday, September 07, 2005
Computer sez no
From next week an application for a British passport will automatically fail if the photographs submitted depict the applicant smiling. Why? Because the technology used finds it very difficult to recognise smiling faces. In other words, the technology is significantly inferior to a human being in performing the task of passport controller. But we accept the new rules nevertheless.
Why? In part, no doubt, because as with so many other IT-fixes to complex public sector problems, handing millions to a labour-light company offering a technological fix allows politically connected cronies to concentrate vast amounts of public wealth that was held in common in a small-number of private pockets.
But more than that, where technology is concerned we have a collective blindness. We struggle to see the way in which technology*, rather than existing to serve our purposes, reshapes us in order to better fit its demands. And, of course, these demands do not spring from the machinery itself, but from the concerns and agendas of the designers and owners of these technologies, whether these concerns and agendas are consciously held or not.
Technology, particularly the new, shiny and computerised kind, offers us an apparently clinically clean division between our interactions with it, and our interactions with the designers and owners of this technology.
Would we, for example, accept the level of surveillance involved in most CCTV schemes if, rather than cameras, we had the presence of the CCTV operators, viewers and reviewers present as we went about our business? If the police followed us down a street with a camcorder, would we not feel that our privacy was vastly more infringed?
Of course, the separation of people and their interests from the technologies deployed in their interests is not the only driver towards a future (and futuristic) society built on the order demanded by apparently (and only apparently) impersonal technologies. We also have the spectacle of terrorism thrust in front of the faces of any objectors. And, in some cases this is done is a ludicrously illogical, and damnably unchallenged, manner.
Yesterday Charles Clarke asked the EU to hold mobile phone records. Imagine that a record detailing every telephone call that you made were entered into a ledger by hand, listing who you telephoned, how long the call lasted and where you both were at the time of the call. Would you feel so comfortable? I would guess not. But I imagine that the disconnect between the technology of record collection and the very real existence of human record keepers and viewers prevents you seeing, at least without the application of imaginative effort, this scenario as analogous with that proposed by Clarke. More fool you. And me, as I am the victim of the same disconnect, which is why the slip towards technological authoritarianism will be so hard to avoid.
But back to Clarke’s bad argument. He spoke of hard-won freedoms, and among these listed the right to free-speech. He said that this was now under very real threat. He is, strictly speaking, correct. But he was implying that this threat was posed by terrorists, which is plainly nonsensical. Terrorists (to use the phrase so enjoyed by our ruling classes, fond as they are of drawing all manner of threats to their order, motivated by any and all kinds of ideologies, into a single, undeniably evil, category) might want to take away my freedom of speech. But what chance do they have? Could any of those people who seem to be arguing that we face an existential threat from terrorism – that the rules of the game have changed – please tell me in what sort of scenario ‘terrorists’ would be able to reduce my freedoms? Give me your stories, and we can all laugh out loud at their Melanie Phillips levels of anti-Muslim paranoia. Though you will hear a nervous warble in our chortles as we watch the same rhetorical devices being used that were deployed against the Jews.
No, the only people who can take away our freedoms are those with power. We all have the power to kill and terrorise our fellow human beings. It is not against these threats to our freedoms that human rights were devised. It is against the threats posed by the power of state (or quasi-state) actors that human rights are orientated. All those who glibly trot out the line; ‘the most fundamental human right is the right to life’, while justifying further roll-back of our freedoms should be put in a protective coma and placed in mechanised intensive-care behind the walls of a vault. That would satisfy their idiotically reductionist view of human freedom(s), and act as a further safeguard for the rest of ours too.
So, when you are told not to smile when you renew (or apply for your first) British passport, remember why that is. It is part of a process that encourages you to acquiesce to authoritarian (petty, in this case, perhaps) measures in the ‘neutral’ name of technology and with the persuasive force of a threat from the alien other. When you do for those passport mugshots, imagine that the demands for a particular expression are being made by policeman. And remember, just as in the policeman scenario, those demands are backed up by the force of the state.
*This goes for social technologies such as ‘the corporation’, for example, too.
Tuesday, September 06, 2005
Why I have been off-line
A brief diaristic interlude – the kind of blogging that I have little time for – normal service will be restored soon.
Reason one: Last week I moved house. The granny bungalow (it is not quite sheltered accomadation) in which I now live is piled high with boxes and in one of them is my Wanadoo broadband modem.
Reason two: Last week I organised a 3-day postgraduate conference. Not having a staff to delegate duties registering attendees or sorting out a potentially crtically disruptive shortage of coffee meant that these were my tasks, as were all others between locking up seminar rooms and introducing the plenary speakers, and, of course, socialising with the attendees. Actually, I did have one colleague in this adventure, who, despite being ill, did a fair load of work. The conference ran fairly smoothly and was enjoyed by those attending.
Reason three: Last week I gave an academic paper at the conference that I organised. Given that I have spent much of the summer organising a house move and a postgraduate conference, much of the meat of this paper was written over the few free days of the past fortnight. I think that the paper that I presented was fairly well-received, though it was not as successful as the conference itself.
Postscript: Mentally shattered*, I played in the preliminary round of the Welsh Cup on Saturday. I was completely off the pace and was substituted at half-time. We lost.
*Or perhaps I am just crap at rugby.