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Friday, October 21, 2005


8 days around the world

A quick post before I travel the other side of the planet and back.

Identity cards are going to become law very soon. Chris Lightfoot has a letter in the Guardian today(one of his fellow letter writers appears unable to understand that even if there were no fee for an identity card it would still have to be paid for*) pointing out that the Government are, at best, pushing a confusing mix of misinformation as their argument against objections to ID cards. His blog post deals with the Government’s plans to siphon funding from public services on the dubious basis of expected savings. In other words, identity cards will be used to deny people access to for example, health care. “Fine”, you might say, “I don’t want to some foreigners getting a free ride.” You might, if you suffered from delusions that this country has been overrun by foreigners taking advantage of us. Or if you read the Daily Mail, which is much the same thing. The point of these arguments is that the people who will bear the brunt of demands to produce their ID will be British people who are not white. They will be asked, over and over again, to demonstrate that they have a right to be here. This will be a procedure more about denying health care than saving money, as much of the saved money will have been spent on ensuring the most marginal people in Britain are kept on those dangerous margins. “Are you legal?”, will be the refrain.

Mind you, one of the most ludicrous justifications for identity cards came in the comments section of Tim Worstall’s blog. Soru argued that that it would be a benefit to the disadvantaged and to the minority communities of Britain as they would be less likely to find themselves the victims of human rights abuses as the legal ones would be able to prove their identity. Quite aside from Tim’s reply that the rate of false-positives would lead to greater numbers of these people being arrested (to which I would add that our technophilia would ensure that this technology was trusted beyond the degree that reason would suggest advisable), this is clearly not an attempt to deal with the institutions that dole out the human rights abuses that these people might face. Rather than change these institutions, it is the people who are the possible victims who are being asked to submit to surveillance technologies as a part of a continual demonstration of innocence.

I attempted to address the fact that identity cards would a retrogressive redistribution of wealth here, and that these kinds of technological fixes were attempts to make people fit the machine, a totalitarian solution, rather than a humanitarian re-egnieering of the machine.

While I am away, why not trawl the archives. Oh, and buy my comics.

Sunday, October 16, 2005


Nobel Pinter

Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday, drawing predictable condemnation. I am not, for today at least, linking to the over-influential rantings of Little Green Footballs, Michelle Malkin or Christopher Hitchens. If you ever find your arguments being condemned because they ‘objectively’ position you alongside some pretty nasty people, point out that this tactic, being thoroughly dishonest, is capable of being spun to discredit any position. Here is a selection of responses.

Much of this seems to use his poem American Football as a launch-pad, missing the point that the Literature Prize is not awarded for any particular piece of work, and to choose a political poem as representative of Pinter’s work is a sure sign, being generous, of remarkable ignorance. Regardless, I cannot say that I dislike his aggressive poem. Undoubtedly, but unconsciously, influenced by that poem I wrote this on the eve of the Iraq War:


Collateral Damage to the English Language (2002)

The machine gun fires; the bullets spit
And human beings are turned to shit

Cities to rubble, forests to muck
Our leaders they don’t give a fuck

A billion dollars in armaments
These people are such stupid cunts

Propaganda, lies and dirty tricks
For bragging rights to the biggest pricks


“We train young men to drop fire on people. But their commanders won't allow them to write "fuck" on their aeroplane because it's obscene.” (Kurtz, Apocalypse Now!)

More obscenity: beheading videos are obscene. But their consumption by, and distribution between, Americans in the same manner as are clips of grotesque pornography, crimes, accidents and injuries makes it seem inevitable that the whole process was brought in-house: US soldiers have been taking celebratory pictures of dead Iraqis, sharing them as if they were holiday snaps, and more, trading them for access to porn. Homemade murder pics are equivalent to Readers’ Wives. But then, this crude branch of American culture appears to be centred upon the degradation of other people; in their porn, their war, their prisons and their economics.

Thursday, October 13, 2005



Seamus Milne has a good comment piece in the Guardian today. In it he quotes Charles Clarke as saying that he could not think of any situation in the world where "violence would be justified to bring about change".

Of course, he means, except for state violence. More specifically, he means Western state violence or the violence committed by their proxies. Outsourced, legitimated violence.

That was the first piece of unreflexive idiocy from the Government for today. The second came on Newsnight last night.

Jack Straw said that a desire for democracy burns in the heart of every human being. This is utter twaddle, and more than that, dangerously wrong. Look, Jack and I might agree that democracy is the best form of government, but the nature of our opinions on this matter differ in an important respect. No, not simply that I have a functional mind.

You see, I have noticed that my belief in democracy is a product of my historical and social position. Had I been born in the 17th century I doubt that I would have a desire for democracy. Democracy is a human invention, and its development and acceptance as the pre-eminent form of government is a product of history. It is not some essential part of ‘human nature’. We are not born with a desire for democracy. Very many people around the world do desire democracy because they live in the 21st century and are the recipients of several centuries of Western thought. But this is not destined to remain the same forever, it is not some kind of ‘end of history’. Since its invention, people have, to greater or lesser degrees, rejected democracy; from the 1930s in Germany, through the support for strongmen in Asia and Latin America, to the reaction against the most democratic British decade, the 1970s.

He say that he is not an ahistoricist. He might argue that he acknowledges that the belief in democracy as the best form of government, a belief that we both share, is the result of historical, social and political ‘development’, and our contingent position within this. He might, though, argue that democracy is not simply the best form we have now, but the absolute best, the best that we will ever achieve, the pinnacle of human political development. I would say that to argue this is as similarly ahistorical, being nothing more than the fool’s defence of the ‘now’ that has been made since there first was a ‘then’ to look back upon.

Norman Mailer has written, “democracy… is the noblest form of government that we have yet evolved” and warns that is demands constant protection and promotion. I agree with him, and I think democracy should be worked for, argued for and promoted, as I do socialism. But I do not think that it is some essential part of human nature. Seeing it so is not just the mark of a man too dim to be in government, but is a recipe for the imposition of democratic ‘forms’ of government (not democracy, which by its very nature results from active participation) at the barrel of a gun. If you believe that democracy burns in the heart of every human being, it is an impossibility that some people might choose to reject democracy. Those who do so will cause confusion that can only be met with force. You cannot persuade them of the merits of democracy, you cannot build the institutions of civil society that support democracy. You cannot do either of these as to do these makes no sense; democracy burns in the heart of every human being – it needs nothing but the removal of tyrants. Nonsense, and from government, deadly nonsense.

[This was post #100 at BBB]

Wednesday, October 12, 2005


Com’n Leeds

Born in Bradford, you would expect me to be hoping for a Bulls victory in the Super League Grand Final on Saturday. But a little nugget has got me rooting for Bradford’s wealthier, trendier and more ‘cosmopolitan’ sibling, Leeds.

The Guardian carried a profile article on Kevin Sinfield, the Leeds captain. On being dropped from the Great Britain squad, he says:

“I only needed to watch the news on TV to see that my disappointment was nothing compared to real tragedies in the outside world. It's always important, as a sportsman, to take that reality check. What does being dropped matter compared to famine, disease and war?"

He then describes how his mother and father are committed socialists, their theory springing from the Cuban Revolution and the writings of Che Guevara in particular. Sinfield says:

“I've got the same belief that socialism is better than anything. It's not something I usually talk about because it must sound hypocritical - me sitting here as a well-paid professional sportsmen. But playing rugby league doesn't stop me holding on to my ideals.”

At least I can still cheer for a Yorkshire club.

Com’n Leeds.

Friday, October 07, 2005


Criminal elections

After yesterday’s laudable judgement of the European Court of Human Rights I thought that it would be appropriate for me to revive a column that I wrote for the website Moodspins in May this year.


No, this column will not be about the victory of Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF in the recent elections in Zimbabwe. Nor will it be about the “massive, systematic and organised fraud” that returned six Labour councillors during last year’s local elections in Birmingham. Nor will it be about Dame Shirley Porter and her gerrymandering and continued evasion of justice. Hell, it won’t even be about George W Bush, Jeb Bush, hanging chads or Diebold™ electronic voting machines. This column is about convicted criminals voting in elections, not running, competing in, and winning elections.

In America there has been, of course, some controversy over the right of convicted criminals to vote. In some states criminals permanently lose their rights to vote, while in others regaining the right to vote is costly and difficult to regain. Human Rights Watch had this to say in 2001:

“An estimated 3.9 million U.S. citizens were disenfranchised, including over one million who had fully completed their sentences. Black Americans were particularly hard hit by disenfranchisement laws: 13 percent of black men-1.4 million-were disenfranchised; in two states, almost one in three black men was unable to vote because of a felony conviction.”

An important point regarding the American situation, aside from the boast to be the world’s beacon of democracy – the Shining City on the Hill that disenfranchises a greater proportion of its population than any other industrialised democratic nation – is the classification of drug convictions in many American states. It seems to me to be somewhat suspicious that a conviction for marijuana will, in many states, be a felony conviction. Now, the severity of the sentence itself might be relatively humane, but the categorisation of the offence as a felony not only has the double whammy of making the offender almost unemployable and ineligible for welfare, but also removes the right of the offender to vote. This disproportionately effects the poor, and to argue this we need not make any link between poverty and crime in general, we need simply point out that the drugs that poor people have access to are illegal, while the wealthier people are able to effectively self-prescribe themselves painkillers, anti-depressants etc. in America’s for-profit marketised health-care system. But before we trail off the point and begin discussing the lunacy of drug laws in a nation of self-medicators we can say this; people convicted of crimes are denied the right to participate in a democratic political system, and the democratic political system determines what acts are criminal, and which demand disenfranchisement. Before anyone argues that as the decision was taken democratically then the result of that decision is democracy, may I point out that this is the babble of an electorophile. Even if an overwhelming majority vote to do away with democracy, what we then have is patently not democracy. And disenfranchisement is the reduction of democracy, and the case for such a policy must be well-reasoned, not simply the maintenance of a retributive tradition – or indeed, insidious racism.

But let us bring the argument closer to home, and discuss the situation with regards to UK elections, given that the general election is this Thursday. The Liberal Democrats have suggested that prisoners should be allowed to vote. The Liberal Democrats are supporting a campaign coordinated by the Prison Reform Trust titled ‘Barred from Voting’ (see the pun – you always need a pun), a campaign backed by politicians drawn from all three of the major political parties. Nevertheless, both Labour and the Conservatives have used Charles Kennedy’s support of the campaign as evidence that he, and the Liberal Democrats (conveniently ignoring the cross-party support this campaign has received) is soft on crime. This is, I am convinced, utter nonsense. This conviction (see) springs from three lines of argument – though I have no doubt that there are others that will occur to me moments after I post this piece.

First is the argument of rationality and responsibility for behaviour: for a democracy to disenfranchise members of its voting population an overwhelmingly persuasive argument in needed. The franchise should be extended to all those capable of making a reasoned decision. Given that criminals are found guilty on the basis that they are rational actors – not children or the insane; we no longer submit inanimate objects to trial either – then the argument that they are inherently unable to democratically express their will must exist with the corollary argument that these same criminals should not be in jail receiving punishment, but should rather be receiving the treatment suitable to non-rational, non-responsible persons. Of course, those seeking to deny prisoners the right to vote do not acknowledge the necessary conclusion of their denial of prisoners voting rights. Because their arguments are utter nonsense.

The second is the two part democratic demand: the first part of which simply demands that all members of a community take part in shaping the future political governance of that community. The second demand is somewhat more complex and specific to the case of the convicted criminal. What is categorised as criminal is a decision for the democratic process. It is decidedly anti-democratic to categorise people as criminals and then deny them the formal means with which express their democratic opinion on the law that categorised them so. We may think that we have reached a plateau of criminal law; that everything currently criminal ought forever stay so, and that everything currently legal will always be permitted. But I am sure that as much a people thinks this today, people also thought this when homosexuality was illegal, when heroin was legal, when abortion was illegal and when it was legal to hit your wife and legally impossible to rape her. We might not be able to see the flaws in our categorisation of acts, as indeed majorities could not during our recent history. That does not mean that we are right, and our very idea of democracy demands that we allow people we categorise as criminals and lock up in jail are given the right to argue for their freedom. Not only on the basis that they are innocent of the crime that they have been convicted of, a claim that can be dealt with by the criminal justice system. But on the basis that the act which they committed should not be categorised as criminal, or even that the criminal justice system we employ is not the system that ought to be employed. This argument does not ask us to believe that these people are right, but simply that, in a democracy, they should be allowed the freedom to make their arguments – and in a democracy the simplest, most fundamental form of expression is the vote.

Third is the argument of numbers: despite having a relatively high number of people in jail compared to our European neighbours, the proportion of our population in jail at any one time is pifflingly small. Even if prisoners were to vote in the constituency in which they serve their prison time they could not, in themselves, affect the overall result of any but the most marginal of marginal seats. But most prisoners would not want to vote for the MP of a constituency of which their only experience is the inside of a jail. They will want to vote in their home communities – the communities in which they have a future. Given that the presence of prisoners on the electoral roll would not make up a significant demographic shift in our democracy, the question must be asked – why not give these people a right considered to be among the most precious of those granted by our civilisation? Of course, the counter argument asks us to imagine a future in which crime is so rampant the great numbers of people disenfranchised would in fact make a difference to the outcome of our democracy (see the case of the USA and the black Floridians). In which case we say that such a shift in numbers should tell us that there is something seriously wrong with our society; perhaps the acts classified as being disenfranchising crimes are too inclusive, and thus the democracy is too exclusive to hold onto that title. Perhaps society has broken down to such an extent that crime is an unfocused replacement for revolution, and thus democracy has failed great numbers of the people. Or perhaps this is merely a fantasy that exists only in the head of right-wing science-fiction writers.

Eugene Debs was wrong on one thing – he was a better man than I am:

“Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on the Earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; While there is a criminal element, I am of it; While there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” (1918)

Prisoner voting rights: world views [BBC]

Thursday, October 06, 2005


Howard's End

Who would have thought that I would use such a poor pun? Well, I have.

I have just watched Michael Howard’s speech on BBC News 24, and I have a couple of points to make.

First; Howard railed against the rise of individual rights, bemoaning the Human Rights Act. I will not concentrate on the sinister undertones of a speech that places all of society’s ills at the door of ‘human rights’, except to say that such an argument seems to be a root to popular authoritarianism. What I will say is that such a complaint is pretty rich, certainly so when we consider that he did not acknowledge the reason that individual rights are ‘turbo-charged’. There was once a party whose leader insisted that there was ‘no such thing as society’. There was a party that deliberately and persistently fostered the ideology that all that there is, and all that there ought to be, are individuals in competition, selfishly pursuing their own ends. There was a party that denied society and solidarity parts in its political ontology.

Have the Conservatives changed? If they have, they should be honest and acknowledge the wrong turn that the party pursued as deliberate, celebrated policy. But they have not changed. This talk of the negative consequences of individual rights is really about the rights of certain people, and certain groups of people. As always, the Conservative ideology, whatever the mask it currently wears, is about the rights of capital and the capitalised classes and the responsibilities and duties of those whose labour is bought by, and who pay rent to, these classes.

But, if I am wrong, let us hear a real statement of their philosophy. How do they see society working? What objects exist in society, and what are the obligations of government?

Second; Howard banged on about ‘human nature’. Human nature means nothing, and if it is possible for a statement to mean less than nothing it is the assertion that human nature is the equivalent to Conservative values. The use of ‘human nature’ is a sure sign of either intellectual poverty or an orator determined to mislead. It ignores the role of society is determining our character, our desires, our goals and our capabilities. And this was marvellously illustrates when Michael Howard tried to make a joke. After insisting that we are each born the capabilities to do more or less than other people, he said; “Sandra [his wife] was always more likely to succeed as a model than me.” Whoah, knock down example. Who could argue with that, eh?

Except that this statement, pretending to be an argument for the biological determination of our capabilities to achieve in society, concentrates on the first part – the biological – and ignores the second part – the social. Sure, in the West during the 20th Century Sandra Howard was more likely to be a model than Michael Howard. But if this were the West during the Renaissance then we could say that this situation would be reversed. As uncomfortable as it is to imagine, Michael Howard would have been more likely to be a model – posing for painters rather than photographers – possibly standing in as a substitute for nude women.

What we can say is this; Michael Howard was always more likely to be leader of a political party than Sandra Howard. If you want to argue that this likelihood is a result of biology [alone] then I am afraid that you are a fool; for one thing, political parties are social constructs and the rules that govern them are likewise. Government must concentrate on the social – attempts to change the biological are inevitably repressive and anti-democratic.

By concentrating on the biological rather than the social Howard expresses his disdain for society as an object of concern. A concentration on the biological is the ideological ally for rampant individualism. So why does he do it? Because he is a fool? Or because he is a misleading orator? He can decide, if he wishes.

As he could have done in this instance, a previous rejection of society. Pity that he did not respond to that, but then he does have a history of illogical argument hiding a nasty ideology.


Uncle Tom Tory

David Davies is a Westminster MP and Welsh Assembly Member for Monmouth. Unlike others, I do not think that he is a racist. I think that he is exceptionally thick; a man whose mind is so shallow any idea larger than a Sun editorial is unable to find accommodation.

David Davies main gripe appears to be the idea of protecting the rights and interests of minorities. On his blog, for example he applauds the Australian university that has “appointed a “heterosexual rights officer” whose job will be to “promote the welfare of heterosexuals.”” Davies comments; “Ridiculous? Of course it is. But Mr Dave Allen, the holder of the post, knows that it is no more ludicrous than appointing "rights officers" for every other kind of racial and sexual group.”

His first comment is perfectly valid. It is ridiculous. But he is wrong when he asserts that “it is no more ludicrous than appointing “rights officers”” for other minority groups. Does David Davies deny that in both Britain and Australia positions of power are dominated by white, heterosexual men? Does he deny that in the past this domination has lead to the subjugation of and discrimination against other racial and sexual groups?

If David Davies denies either of these then his claim to find it ludicrous that minorities need their rights protecting can be taken as an statement made in good faith. But if he does deny either of these we must classify him as an ignorant fool. Given that this is the most generous explanation of his apparently diarrheic utterances, this is how I will judge him.

David Davies has played two recent ‘pranks’. First, after finding that Monmouth Council planned to make a video to explain the traditions of the travelling community to schoolchildren, he applied for funding to make a video explaining the traditions of the settled community to traveller children. Now, the first reason why this is ridiculous is the simple fact that our media is dominated by images of the settled community. Living in Britain one cannot help but receive an impression of the settled community. Here, again, we see that David Davies misses the key fact included in the description “minority”. That is, those in the groups that are in the minority do not predominate, they do not (in Britain at least) hold positions of power and influence. But secondly, his film proposal described the traditions of the settled community as “their rigid adherence to an ancient code which they refer to as ‘planning regulations’ and the time-honoured custom of clearing up one’s rubbish”. In other words, he was using this as a device with which to demonise travellers, while pretending that literally speaking he did no such thing.

Of course, he does not (we must hope) believe his own defence, but he does hope that the apparent logic of it will convince those already predisposed to seeing travellers as a threat. But, of course, the apparent logic of defending utterances on the basis of narrow literality is an error of Duff-like proportions. Utterances (and words) are given meaning through their context; who utters, where do they utter, what are the histories of the words and phrases they utter. He clearly, despite the defence offered by that odious goon Rod Liddle, is using ‘humour’ to demonise travellers.

David Davies second prank is to declare himself a traveller. Under CRE guidelines ethnicity is self-declared. David Davies appears to feel that this is wrong. He says; “the rules on self-definition are very stupid and this will also draw attention to that”. Well, the rule of self-definition may throw up occasional stupidities (and David Davies is such a stupidity vomited forth), but a rule like this is a damn sight less stupid than a system in which officials decide on the ethnicity of others. Would he rather have this system? Can he not see the dangers of this system? Perhaps we use the tradition of measuring noses?

He could, I concede, be in possession of a syphilitically damaged brain, ala the promiscuous Rod Liddle. Liddle writes, in his defence of Davies; “The vast majority of those who live a peripatetic lifestyle in Britain are not, racially, any different from the rest of us — the Roma aside. It is the act of travelling that defines them as different, not their genes.” Does Liddle think that genes make race? Does he not understand that our ethnic divisions are cultural constructions, an understanding that does not deny their very real social effects? In some cases these cultural constructions may rely on genetically determined characteristics such as skin colour, but even in those cases the divisions are built by our actions as social actors, not by biology. Consider our definition of ‘black’. Someone is black if they have the slightest discernable black ancestry. The child of black-white parentage is normally described as black and is never described white. This, plainly, is a social construction of category, and this is also the (apparently) most clear-cut of cases for the biological racists. We have not even considered the existence of ethnic categories within what we might call a single skin colour.

Davies thinks that his reclassification of himself as a traveller will mean that it is now impossible for him to make a racist statement. This is plainly untrue. Members of minority groups are patently capable of making statements and holding opinions that are discriminatory, that engage in the cultural construction of their own inferiority. Do you want an example? Consider the sort of statements that some women have made, statements that denigrate their own abilities and the abilities of women as a group, offering sex as an explanation (rather than the more nuanced explanation of their gender position in the existing structures of society). People are perfectly able of serving as ‘Uncle Toms’ against their own groups. This is the role that David Davies has now adopted. If he does not see this he is a fool; if he is aware of this then he is a wicked dissembler.

David Davies has been referred to the Standards Board for racism. Perhaps he is a racist. Really, he ought to be referred to the Standards Board for being mentally incompetent.

In releated news, The Sun continues its campaign to Stamp on the Camps. This time they have a council worker describing how “special treatment [was] given to travellers “that ordinary taxpayers could only dream of””. What on earth is it that ordinary taxpayers dream of? Having a tabloid run a campaign against them, denying them the right to any sites, legal or otherwise? Do they dream of being barred, as a group, from pubs and shops? Do they dream of being used as colloquial shorthand for criminal, as synonymous with ‘scum’? Do they dream of being regarded with such hostility that campaigns against them are seen as a vote-winner by the major political parties? Do they dream of having their children spat on and beaten at school?

Some dreams. We can only hope that now David Davies has voluntarily changed his ethnicity he will experience the full range of discrimination and hostility that his fellow gypsies ‘enjoy’ and ordinary taxpayers can only ‘dream of’.


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