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Tag Archives: liberty

When those men went into a Paris workplace and gunned down the staff, they committed a crime against humanity. Yes, in that they reduced human beings to mere messages, they were terrorists but it was also a crime against humanity – an act so vile that no talk of war, blasphemy, recent or ancient wrongs can be allowed into consideration.

Too much of the subsequent discussion focussed on freedom of expression, its defence and its limits in a democracy. Part of the discussion revealed some sympathy if not for the gunmen themselves, then for their perspective. This part was anxious to talk about the level of abuse a well-off elite might be permitted to direct at a minority or to what extent religion might be permitted to put topics beyond public discourse or ridicule. With all this in full spate there was little explicit mention of the chasm between expression and blood soaked flooring but at an intuitive level that seems to have been grasped and made clear in the willingness of people who would never utter an offensive word, to express themselves, “Je suis Charlie!”

In other words, faced with a crime against humanity, decent people were prepared to side with vulgarity, insult and profanity. It may not be discussed very often but the majority of people know that there are transgressions so heinous as to offend humanity, so heinous as to exclude nationality, race, religion, conflict and even war from consideration.

Robert Fisk wrote that he knew from the outset that Algeria would figure in this atrocity.* However, he called it for what it was, a crime against humanity, a crime beyond justification but linked to the Franco Algerian War of the 50s and 60s and the Algerian civil war of the 80s. While he emphasises the struggle with imperialism, he reminds the reader that those years were marked by crimes against humanity including the French bombardment of villages. Many of the perpetrators and their associates are likely still living and not on anyone’s wanted list.

There’s been a considerable amount of “whataboutery” too from those either supportive of the murderers in France or anxious to characterise media and people in the developed west as selective in their condemnation. While this is a familiar tactic of those anxious to spread the blame, make light of the offence by pointing to something worse or undermine the hunt for perpetrators and their accomplices, it does highlight something that needs to be addressed.

Many crimes against humanity are not covered by world media. That does not mean, however, that humanity has no interest in pursuing the guilty. What it does is point to the need for an international institution to which a citizen of any country can bring for investigation a crime against humanity.

Far too often the victims of crimes against humanity are forced back into festering resentment in local identity or religion. This will be their only course unless humanity can intervene to make it clear that the crime was against every living, breathing person and that the perpetrators, their commanders and supporters will be hunted for the rest of their lives. They may be protected within their country or by a peace agreement but humanity – as represented by the wider world – wants them in the dock and when possible will have them arrested.

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* http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/charlie-hebdo-paris-attack-brothers-campaign-of-terror-can-be-traced-back-to-algeria-in-1954-9969184.html?origin=internalSearch

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I was talking to a T.D.* recently, a leftist one. He said that his basic function was to serve his constituents and that if he is re-elected to the Dáil, it will justify his political decisions. I disagreed, saying that his was a perfect statement of populism. The function of a leftist is neither to schmooze nor to patronise but to argue honestly and plausibly.

Now, Ireland is a society in which the overwhelming majority is comprised of liberals, conservatives and believers in the infantile notion that the “political class” is the ruling class. In this society honest and plausible argument would seem the road to electoral failure because it means opposing and possibly offending that overwhelming majority. That is why leftist parties seeking electoral success employ researchers who i) try to keep policy and statements in line with those of a majority or ii) try to be both vague and appealing to those receptive to facile slogans.

It’s a real dilemma: how to get elected while opposing (trying to persuade) the majority? The situation is made worse by a realisation that slogans and implausibility will drive away the thoughtful voter.

The good news in Ireland is that the leftist doesn’t have to appeal to the majority or convince a majority in order to win. In Ireland we have PR-STV ** and election can be achieved by way of a minority vote. This offers the freedom to argue, to oppose consensus, to offend, to break icons but it’s far from an easy option. It’s difficult and lonely to decide to be unpopular. It is however the only way for a leftist to win on a leftist platform in Ireland.

There are of course implications for participation in coalition government but that’s work for another day.
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* Teachta Dála, a member of the Irish parliament.
** Proportional Representation by means of the Single Transferable Vote.

I’m back a few days from a short holiday in Monte Estoril, Portugal. That’s a lovely little town between Estoril and Cascais. At the bottom of the hill there’s the railway station and the sea but between the two there’s something really interesting, something that would be regulated beyond use in Ireland. I’m talking about a wide promenade that stretches some miles from Cascais to Azarujinha Cove.

Yes we have promenades and walks in Ireland and we have parks aplenty but increasingly they are dominated by the rules of joyless NANNY! In Ireland a public walkway or park would typically be signed thus:

No horses

All dogs must be kept on leads

No football

No cycling

No skateboards

No smiling

Ok, I made up the last one but there are often other bans and restrictions on normal enjoyment of open space.

Contrast this with the promenade in Portugal. There were dogs, cyclists, skateboarders, runners, walkers, kids having kickarounds, people in bars and restaurants, lying out in the sun, swimmers, frisbee players etc. etc. Were we mired in dog shit and in fear of being mangled by crazed cyclists? Well, there was some dog dirt until it was cleaned up and I did see a segway clip a wall – its rider took a tumble but was helped by those nearby.  However, it needs to be emphasised that people, animals and activities shared the relatively confined space without difficulty. People were tolerant and courteous; they were unafraid of each other or pets. Sure, there were rules but they were designed to increase the uses to which the promenade could be put.

Incidentally, cyclists brought their bikes on to the train and cycled off down the platform when they alighted.

It seems to me that Ireland is increasingly an intolerant and unfree place to live. Ordinary pleasures are restricted by petty rules driven by a daft, authoritarian desire to eliminate all risks. Anything that could possibly lead to a problem or an accident is likely to be banned.

It is not liberals but socialists who should do most to stop and then reduce our over-government. I say this because socialists rely on state power to tackle inequality and a range of social ills and it is socialist reform which will be most damaged by a loss of public confidence or even a rise in public antagonism to regulation. Silly, petty rules discredit the constructive use of state power. It is time to review all of our rules. Any rule, for which a truly compelling reason cannot be advanced, should be deleted. A start could be made by removing from our public areas those oppressive signs which outlaw simple pleasures.

Incidentally, an acquaintance of mine had an Official walk about a mile of deserted Sligo beach in order to tell him that his dog wasn’t allowed swim but must be kept on a lead. And another, in a park close to where I live I watched as an official drove his pick-up truck across a field in order to prevent a seven year old girl from riding her bike. This is madness. Stop it. We need to be closer to Portugal than Portrane.

There’s a lot of talk these days about media diversity. (On Monday last I was at a useful conference on the subject hosted by Nessa Childers, MEP.)  A problem is that “media diversity”, like so many terms, is increasingly becoming drained of meaning. Indeed, on media training courses it can mean as little as knowing the full range of available media.

There are, however, two dominant meanings:  i) Diversity of ownership and ii) diversity of voices.  Their dominance means that a central issue for political communication is generally ignored. You see, there could be – generally there are – masses of material coming from all sorts of different people and they could all be saying the same thing or broadly similar things. Net optimists and activists can get very cross at the mention of a long dead philosopher but we really are back to J.S. Mill and the oppressive danger of the herd and its consensus. Even the apparent dissent is now a matter of consensus!

The problem for the citizen who wishes to take part in public discourse remains unchanged since the 19th century: how to have easy access to the complete debate. There is a democratic gulf between “access” and “easy access”.  To argue that the rich pickings of today’s diverse media offer all that any citizen could possibly need misunderstands both democracy and the real busy lives of engaged citizens. No, hours of on-line searching or trawling obscure channels and journals is not mass participation. Citizens need a thorough agenda and thorough debates brought to their attention, and when they are get a poor service, they need a mechanism to complain and put things right.

I watched last night’s Dispatches doc. on Channel 4 about the dreadful outcomes of close-relative marriages. http://www.channel4.com/programmes/dispatches/episode-guide/series-68/episode-1

It surprised me that such marriages are commonplace in some cultures which have become part of British society. By coincidence this morning I read Samira Shackle’s article “The mosques aren’t working in Bradistan” in New Statesman (20th August 2010) which mentions the problem of first-cousin marriage among Mirpuris and others whose culture values clan loyalty.  http://www.newstatesman.com/society/2010/08/bradford-british-pakistan

She writes,

Other Pakistanis frequently accuse Mirpuris of confusing culture with religion. Stemming from a lack of education, this manifests itself in cultural norms – such as the primacy of honour, or the mistreatment of women – being accorded religious significance. I speak to Khadijah, 18, in an empty playground as she looks after her younger sister. She hopes to enter Bradford University this year. “I can make the distinction between Islam and patriarchal culture,” she says. “But your average lad on the street won’t worry about which bit comes from scripture. It’s loaded in his favour.”

The implication is that norms based in religion should have a higher status than those based in culture. Odd!

Most people will express the need for tolerance towards the religion and customs of others. However, it is very easy to insert the wedge that is genital mutilation. Other barbaric practices can then be used as hammer blows to drive home the wedge. At some point there will be mild resistance. It might be on circumcision or ritual slaughter, perhaps because these are not thought too bad or because they are coming closer to home.

Having lots of nationalities, cultures and religions is great; they bring new tastes, colour, expression and other positives. Religion is interesting when it’s a matter of colourful ritual. Then they go and ruin the fun by wanting to be cruel and nasty. But, we have home grown nastiness too.

Would a majority of people be prepared to say the following?

“I don’t care where you are from or what God says, you are not teaching children that homosexual behaviour is a grave sin or that men and women have different roles, you are not going to cut a child or deny medical treatment and you are not marrying your cousin!”

In Ireland no one minds very much whether one believes in God or the form one’s God takes. Everyone has spent time trying to find a transcendent anchor for being and meaning. While it is certainly true that many – perhaps most – people find it difficult to argue that universal human values can exist without God, they are more than uncomfortable with the notion that different gods and different groups of religious adherents seem far too frequently to permit or encourage unkindness, cruelty or brutality. Some people avoid confrontation by taking refuge in “culture”; anything is permitted as long as it is sufficiently foreign. Leaving aside the question of abandoning suffering millions to their culture, Ireland’s relatively recent move to a multicultural society has brought the issue close to home. However, the problem lurks too in the folds of the controversy over faith schools.

The problem with religion is not God. It’s revelation. Finding God or feeling it necessary to crucify one’s reason does not lead to cruelty. That path starts at the feet of those who claim to be messengers; that God has told them what people must do, that God has inspired them or that they are particularly capable of interpreting the mind of God. Here is authoritarianism, the erection and maintenance of rules which are not subject to continuous argument – in short, savage certainty.

There are two debates:  i) the existence and nature of God; and ii) the creation of political values and rules to support those values. The two debates can of course be linked but not when the purpose is to avoid argument or to claim that noxious doctrines should be taught to school children.

In Ireland, as the Catholic Church declines, there are many who argue that it is essential to maintain schools with a “Catholic ethos”. Behind the Catholic stance are smaller but growing religions – like Islam – which are happy with their power to run a school according to a particular “ethos”. However, what is meant by “ethos” is not exactly public.

As long as great care is taken to avoid frightening them, there is little to be said against teaching children about, say, God, saints and sacraments. Moreover, religious schooling often features preparation for popular family events like first communion. Debate, therefore, about school ownership and management structures tends to emphasise the harmless and the happy. The contentious power to teach values is seldom mentioned and a thorough exploration of what might be taught is avoided. Most opponents of religious schooling either fall for this or are just as myopic; they charge off into today’s variant of the age-old debate over the existence of God.

The problem with faith schools is not management structures or ownership. The problem is not even God. The problem is the teaching of values. A post from “Anne Marie” in an Irish Times on-line discussion is typical of the confusion. (The discussion followed on from the article by Breda O’Brien, “Time for parents to ask the primary question” in The Irish Times of Saturday, August 7, 2010.) “Anne Marie” – making no distinction between religion and ethics – wrote approvingly of a school in Brussels: the choices available are “Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Islamic religion or non-religious ethics”. So far, so tolerant but when someone wants to teach a child, say, that God sees different roles for men and women or that homosexual behaviour is wrong, it must be PREVENTED in schools. This is not denial of freedom. Everyone is encouraged to argue among adult citizens but children must be protected. It is crazy to allow any doctrine – no matter how nasty – to be taught to children as long as it can be claimed to be religion.

Now, most values taught in religious schools are either positive and progressive or at worst do no harm but some are daft and/or cruel, and – no matter what their parents want – little Irish citizens should be protected while at school from malicious nonsense about, say, equality, family, homosexuality etc. Anyone using the term “ethos’ should be required to say what it means in practice and if it includes cruel doctrines which decent people hope have been consigned to history, then it must be made clear that freedom means arguing with adults.

As the likelihood of Labour participation in government approaches certainty, old and divisive views resurface. We are back yet again to opposing coalition with liberals and conservatives. This time it is wrapped in a desire to make common cause with fringe leftists but this too has been seen before: remember the rise of the Workers Party. Let’s separate the two ( i. The question of coalition with FF or FG; and ii. the question of coalition with small leftist parties) and then finish with a proposal.

The question of coalition with FF or FG.

Yes, it is true that coalition has disappointed Irish socialists. Yes, it is true that coalition has underachieved. Yes, it is true that coalition did not significantly alter the structures of power and inequality in Ireland. BUT yes, it is also true that coalition is a tactic not a political perspective or even a programme. Two points need to be made. Firstly coalitions involving Labour have not been failures. Secondly, the extent to which they disappointed socialists may have been due to a lack of thought and imagination among socialists themselves.

The weakness of and danger to Labour in coalition has been the lack of a clear political ambition in preparing for coalition. The problem today on the left is the same as it was in the 70s/80s when Labour was tearing itself asunder over coalition: there is no coherent leftist objective. The best argument on offer is that leftist policies are more likely to restore the kind of prosperity which Ireland enjoyed before “the crisis”.

These arguments are compelling and deserve support. It is clear that familiar socialist approaches offer a better chance of recovery and have the added attraction that they give a degree of protection to the poor. The liberal arguments which stand against them are essentially daft and will not achieve the liberal goal of a prosperous society. In short, Labour retains its status as the political wing of St. Vincent DePaul and becomes the fount of Keynesian sense and decency. This is an honourable position but it is not enough.

Ok, following an extended period in which market fundamentalism became the religion of the chattering classes, it is relatively progressive to offer mildly distributive policies which will stimulate growth but – again and particularly in a time of unprecedented openness to ideas – it is not enough.

TASC’s open letter is an excellent example. It seeks to maintain and expand a functioning economy by way of avoiding cuts in public spending, and stimulating investment including public infrastructural projects. It calls for a measure of equality by way of taxing wealth and high income, and by way of fighting poverty/low income. Frankly, only a maniac would argue against this. It must be done but it is not enough for a party needing to be inspiring and unique. 

It is time to offer something imaginative, something progressive, a different social objective. This is a variation on Rosa’s view that the purpose of a socialist party is to advance the policy that no other party can: Let’s make increased equality and particularly greater equality of income the objective of all policies. In other words, unless a policy will SIGNIFICANTLY NARROW THE GAP between high and low incomes, let’s leave it to liberal or conservative parties.

Think about it. The reason for voting Labour and the price of coalition with Labour is real change: the measurable and significant flattening of income levels.

The question of coalition with small leftist parties.

There is a strange belief among some Labour members that small means socialist or at least in some sense progressive and that an alliance would somehow lead to a left of centre majority. This fantasy sits easily with a strong opposition to dealing with liberal and conservative parties and is encouraged by journalists who are essentially egalitarian but antipathetic to Labour. They are, however, aware that by far the largest bloc of progressive politics in Ireland is the Labour Party.

A basic problem is that even if there were a real meeting of minds within this group, the numbers don’t amount to anything like a majority.

There isn’t, however, a meeting of minds. Coalition with such groups is at least as daunting as with either FF or FG. The explicitly socialist groups dislike Labour and tend to cleave to doctrines and analysis which addresses earlier manifestations of capitalism than that which we now face. The media appearance of their arguments serves to deride socialism, making socialism appear silly and irrelevant. Other parties are simply not socialist or even predominantly leftist. They certainly have socialist members who have subordinated their leftist sentiments to another project, be it environmentalism or aggressive nationalism. Incidentally, the same could be said of members of the two major parties.

Radical or redundant

Forget fantasies about building a coalition of leftist splinters. Forget liberal and conservative policies and leave them to the parties to whom they belong. The sensible approach for Labour is to seek coalition NOT on the basis of anything like easily agreed policy but on the basis of policy that a liberal or conservative party could not possibly initiate.

A drive for greater equality and particularly equality of income would be popular and inspiring. In Britain even David Cameron is aware of public sentiment. He has called for a ceiling in public service pay of 20 times the lowest pay. Figures are up for debate but how about 10 times in the public sector, in companies in which the state has ownership and in companies awarded state contracts?

Some of those in favour of a ban on stag hunting argue that one reason for the ban is that the stag is being hunted to provide mere entertainment as opposed to being killed for meat. Last night the artificiality of this distinction struck me. I was in a restaurant and two plump, prosperous people at the next table ordered venison. Clearly they weren’t merely feeding. They were being entertained.

In a republic the citizens are engaged in public controversies. They rely on their mass media for the information and arguments necessary to deliberation and discussion. If the media fall short, the republic is ill served.  

 
Glib references to “the politicians” is, as Michael D. Higgins argues in the Irish Times of 22nd August 2009, evasive but it is also poor journalism which does nothing to provoke or nourish public debate in the republic.  
 
It is long past time that some prominent journalist, editor or media manager in the state-owned or private sector media initiated an editorial guideline which would serve to limit the use of the term “the politicians” to the odd occasion on which it might have relevance. On all other occasions the citizen would be better served by language which seeks to categorise and divide politics and politicians.

Richard Reeves, “A Question of Character” in the August edition of  Prospect (http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/article_details.php?id=10283) might prompt socialists to revisit roots and work upwards towards a more credible and appealing view of culture.

There are at least two failings among socialists. Firstly, the term, “working class”, has been allowed to become meaningless or a synonym for very poor. To be working class was to claim status and pride, e.g. until relatively recently “a working class illiterate” would have been considered an oxymoron.

Secondly, socialists – in defence of the poor and oppressed – have been drawn to an uncharacteristically liberal view on equality. The high ground of positive liberty has tended to be abandoned in favour of a negative liberty – or even extreme relativism – that tries to cherish everything. It needs to be emphasised that there is not the slightest contradiction between wanting to liberate people from poverty – economic and, yes, cultural – and taking care not to blame them for being poor.