the Disillusioned kid: September 2004
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Thursday, September 30, 2004

Hypocrisy And The Right Response

Justin Podur has a very interesting article on Z-Net (who incidentally are making a drive for funds at the moment) looking at the situation in Darfur and putting it into it's global political context. He begins by revealing the hypocrisy of those leaders who have been quick to denounce the Sudanese regime, but whose own hands are thick with blood from Iraq, Palestine, Haiti and other victims of Western intervention, but is clear that revealing the obvious hypocrisy is insufficient:
The Sudan crisis has provided the interventionists with an opportunity to simply change the subject: "if you care so much about the Palestinians," they can ask, "why don't you care about Sudan? If you care so much about Iraqis, then why don't you support intervention to save people in Sudan?" The next step, of course, is to accuse those who talk about Western murders and crimes as 'anti-semites', 'anti-Americans', or racists. To this, anti-occupation people can reply by calling the liberal interventionists hypocrites, citing liberal indifference or contribution to crimes in the above cases as evidence.

Mutual cries of hypocrisy, however, even when true, won?t help those who are actually being "murdered, raped and assaulted," who are actually "hungry... homeless... sick and... have been driven out of their own country." In the specific case of Sudan and Darfur, for example, the hypocrisy of gangsters like Martin, Powell, and Blair does not make atrocities in the region any less real, or the crisis any less urgent.
He then goes on to consider possible responses, drawing attention along the way to Alex de Waal's excellent backgrounder from the London Review of Books, concluding, "Proposals for an African Union intervention as cited by Gberie, however flawed, could have the best chance of success (it was African intervention that brought the Congo civil war to a halt)." An assessment I agree with.

At the article's end he presents a question posed by Khalid Fishawy and Ahmed Zaki:
Could we imagine building a front for the potentials of peoples and democratic movements in Sudan, hurt and disaffected by war, with the solidarity of the global antiwar movement, to impose democratic mechanisms caring for the interests of oppressed Sudanese communities, races, cultures and classes, against the rapacity of the interests of US and Western European Imperialists? Could this aim be possible? Is it promising for the global justice and peace movement to regain its momentum, instead of supporting undemocratic authoritarian and fundamentalist forces, this time in Sudan, under the title of allying with whomever is against the American Empire?
Podur leaves the question hanging, but it is, I believe, an important one for those of us interested in alleviating suffering and working towards a better world. How we go about answering it could have major consequences for the downtrodden and oppressed of the world.

"Extraordinary Rendition"

Worrying news from the States from Obsidian Wings via Empire Notes:
The Republican leadership of Congress is attempting to legalize extraordinary rendition. "Extraordinary rendition" is the euphemism we use for sending terrorism suspects to countries that practice torture for interrogation. As one intelligence official described it in the Washington Post, "We don't kick the shit out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the shit out of them.?
Recall that "terrorist suspects" has proved to be a broad category potentially including anyone, but disproportionately applied to those from ethnic minorities. It doesn't seem unfair to describe this as the legalisation of torture. Not only morally abhorrent, but a flagrant violation of the UN Convention on Torture to which the US is a signatory.

I know for a fact that I have a number of American readers and it is you who this post is primarily directed. Write to your representative, talk of your friends about it or take to the streets. Those of us elsewhere in the world can do our bit by raising awareness, perhaps even blogging about it, as Obsidian Wings suggests. This, as you may have gathered, is my own small contribution to that effort.

What are you waiting for?

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

"Aw Dude!"

I found this link to a video ostensibly showing a "Massacre of Civilians in Fallujah", via Empire Notes and Lenin's Tomb. (The video is down at the moment, due to "exceeding available bandwidth", but alternative sources are provided and it will presumably return at some point in the future.) Questions, of course, arise about its provenance, but there is little evidence available either way. See it for yourselves and draw your own conclusions.

Defenders of the occupation might respond that those targetted in the video are insurgents and as such legitimate targets. Quite apart from the issue of whether the US has the right to bomb a country it is occupying, there is, as Rahul Mahajan notes, no evidence that the targets are any sort of threat:
The pilot does not say fighters, armed people, anything of the sort, just "individuals." And, indeed, there's no way they could be fighters, even of the most inept kind. They move slowly down the center of the road, avoiding all the buildings that could provide cover and, most telling, they clump together so that in the end a single bomb wipes them out. Maintaining distance is one of the first principles of moving around in modern warfare.
In short, if this is for real then what you see is a prima facie war crime. As I said above, draw your own conclusions.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Supersize This!

Apparently this is the year of the left-leaning (for want of a better term) blockbuster. We've had Fahrenheit 9/11 tackle the Bush Administration and the invasion of Iraq, The Motorcycle Diaries depict the life (or at least a part thereof) of Che Guevara and now Supersize Me has weighed (if you'll excuse the pun) into the fray to take on McDonalds. John Wayne must be turning in his grave.

Unless you've been confined to an "undisclosed location" for the past few months, you can hardly be unaware of the film's central conceit, but in case you missed it the film is basically a documentary centered around Morgan Spurlock's month-long McDonalds binge. During this time he can eat nothing which isn't sold beneath the golden arches. He must eat everything on the menu at least once and is required to "supersize" his meals when prompted by staff. Additionally he restricts his exercise to that of the average American. He is monitored throughout his mission by various medical professionals who keep track of his statistics.

Again, that the "diet" has a serious effect on his health is widely known. Nonetheless it is striking to watch those monitoring his progress who initially expect him to merely put on some weight over the month, shift very quickly to encouraging him to stop, warning him that he could face serious consequences if he doesn't. His GP even compares the effects on his body to an alcohol binge, stating that if that were what Spurlock were doing he would be facing a very real danger of death. Perhaps the most striking, and potentially most powerful, revelation is the detrimental effect that the McDiet has on Spurlock's libido, much to his (vegan) girlfriend's distress. Big Mac, small dick?!

One review I saw, suggested that the film was closer to Jackass then Bowling For Colombine and indeed there are parallels. The idea of pushing your body beyond sensible limits and the slightly perverted sense of humour are recurring themes. We even see Spurlock throwing up after making his way through his first "supersized" meal. Nonetheless the central theme of the film is not Spurlock's excesses nor even the evils of McDonald, instead it is fundamentally a sound documentary about the obesity epidemic. The statistics the film gives about this are shocking. Obesity is apparently on its way to overtaking smoking as the biggest cause of preventable death in the States and is also a major contributor to other public health issues such as diabetes. While most of the information is given applies primarily to the US, it is obvious that the UK is not so far behind its Atlantic counterpart and making extensive efforts to catch-up. It is a problem, Spurlock makes clear, which we ignore at our peril.

The film raises some important issues and in my opinion is an absolute must-see. Nonetheless questions do arise about exactly what the experiment demonstrates. That no-body eats all there meals in McDonalds is, at least hopefully, a truism, but his argument that many Americans do eat there several times a week and do only limited exercise, thus making his ordeal merely an accelerated model of their lives has some merit. However, it is worth noting that prior to the beginning of the month Spurlock's health is above average, suggesting he does at least some exercise, and given that his wife is a vegan chef he presumably eats a healthy diet. To switch from this to the McDiet and very limited exercise routine (which involves catching taxis to and from McDonalds in some cases) may have generated results which would not have appeared in "average" Americans more used to a high-fat diet and little or no exercise. None of which takes away from the fundamental message: this shit is bad for you.

Go see it for yourselves and come to your own conclusions.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Postman Patch

Posting has been pretty patchy over the past few weeks, for which I apologise. Hopefully in the coming days I will rectify that state of affairs, although I wouldn't count on it. I'm travelling over the weekend, so I make no promises. But for now, some brief comments...

You may, or may not, be interested to hear that I will henceforth be posting on an aditional blog. The Peace Pipe (provisionally available here, although the address may change) is the 'official' blog of Nottingham Student Peace Movement. I will occasionally post there in my usual, inimitable style, as will others. Expect comments to be a little less wide-ranging, focused more on issues affecting the Peace Movement and probably a little less controversial. You won't, for instance, get any, "The Countryside Alliance are fascists!" type posts. I'll reserve all that stuff for here.

In other news I'd like to draw your attention to a new discussion group established for students interested in the plight of the Chagossians, forced from their homes by the British Government to make way for a US military base on the island of Diego Garcia. If you're a student, please think about joining up and if you know someone who is and might be interested, tell them about it. Thanks.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

The Peasants Are Revolting!

The recent controversy over the banning of fox-hunting has attracted considerable media attention and seen unprecedented levels of activism in a country usually famed for its political apathy. Nonetheless I for one am glad to see hunting banned and its supporters getting a good kicking. (I'm not trying to win a popularity contest here.) We are merely seeing the latest salvo in the class war and for once it is they, not us, who are on the defensive.

George Monbiot had an article in the Guardian last week in which he demonstrated the importance of class to the fox-hunting debate. In this he concluded,
As an animal welfare issue, fox hunting comes in at about number 155. It probably ranks below the last of the great working class bloodsports, coarse fishing. It?s insignificant beside intensive pig farming, chicken keeping or even the rearing of pheasants for driven shoots. But as a class issue, it ranks behind private schooling at number two. This isn?t about animal welfare. It?s about human welfare. By taking on the hunt, our MPs are taking on those who ran the country for 800 years, and still run the countryside today. This class war began with the Norman conquest. It still needs to be fought.
This was written prior to the "invasion" of the Commons (a much less serious issue, as one letter-writer in the Guardian commented, than the invasion of Iraq which that institution endorsed), but that incident only demonstrated the accuracy of his assessment.

The Belfast Telegraph provides an incisive examination of those involved in the invasion and their backgrounds:
Luke Tomlinson, 27, one of the eight, is a childhood friend of princes William and Harry, attended the same school, Eton, and is favoured by Prince Charles. The other protesters are believed to be: Robert Thame, a polo player; Nick Wood, a former royal chef; John Holliday, a bloodstock agent from Ledbury, Herefordshire; David Redvers, a stud owner from Hartpury, Gloucestershire; Andrew Elliot, a horse auctioneer from the Ledbury area; Richard Wakeham, a point-to-point jockey from Yorkshire; and Otis Ferry [son of rock star Bryan Ferry].

Mr Thame, 33, is a professional polo player and the fourth main member of the Highgrove polo team alongside the three princes.
Hardly a representative sample of the wider society pro-hunting groups claim to represent. Polly Toynbee's description of them as "young toff yobs" seems a fair description.

There is also another concern, although one which I think is more diffuse. Red Action have warned for sometime of a "resevoir of reaction" which could be tapped by Fascists and form the basis of a large and important constituency. The Countryside Alliance are a particularly organised element of this resevoir and the BNP were present at the 2002 Liberty and Livelihood demonstration distributing copies of 'The Countrysider'. Fascism took different forms in every country it achieves power, Germany and Italy were very different political systems, and it has long been my opinion that if it were to amount to anything in this country its leaders would wear tweed hats, waxed jackets, wellingtons and drive Land Rovers.

Perhaps Fascism is the wrong term (the objective political conditions are very different to those in 1930s Italy or Germany). Perhaps I'm getting carried away. Nonetheless the emergence of a powerful, potentially effective socially reactionary movement should concern all of us who consider ourselves progressive. Make no mistake: They are the enemy.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Toys For The Boys

For those of you who are up to date with all this new-fangled technology, you can now get RSS feeds to this blog either from here or from the funky orange logo in the sidebar. Those of you new to this sort of thing will have to confine yourselves to blogging the old fashioned way or get an RSS aggregator (I use Sage, which is designed for Mozilla Firefox).

Monday, September 13, 2004

Holidays in the Sun, Part 2.

After posting yesterday on plans for a cruise to the Chagos Archipelago it occurred to me that it might be interesting to check out the website of the company organising the trip to see what they have to say.

As you'll see if you follow the link, the site appears quite exclusive, requiring registration to access much of the content, although there is a free section offering "more information". This led me to the obligatory "about" section, which explains,
WEXAS was founded in 1970 as a travel club for student and expeditionary travel (the name stands for World Expeditionary Association). Since then WEXAS has grown into a multinational travel association with over 35,000 leisure and business travel members in nearly 100 countries.

Today the emphasis is still very much on providing members with information and personal service backed by innovation and technological investment.

Members tell us that they join WEXAS as much for our travel publications and expert advice as for the significant discounts and benefits on scheduled airfares and other travel services - in effect a unique combination of service, information and benefits.
Which all sounds very nice.

They also pontificate about their "support and financial assistance to Friends of Conservation and also Earthwatch, two environmental charities, in recognition of the concerns of both our Honorary Presidents and our members." Then we come to the clincher: "We firmly believe that a love of travel must be combined with a positive interest in and responsibility towards the world in which we travel." Worthy words indeed, but not, I would suggest, entirely in line with reality, at least as far as the Chagos Archipelago trip is concerned.

The details of this trip were easy enough to find using the site's search function and are an exercise in the time honoured practice of burying your head in the sand. You will search in vain for any mention of the indigenous population forcibly evicted from their homes and prevented from returning by the British Government in order to make way for a US military base. Instead the reader is informed
Next spring WEXAS is running the first commercial cruise to this remote archipelago. It is a rare opportunity to explore these unspoilt islands and snorkel in some of the world's most untouched coral atolls. The cruise will be conducted by WEXAS chairman Dr Ian Wilson and Indian Ocean reef expert, Dr Mark Spalding who will provide a fascinating insight into the archipelago. Travel will be from the Seychelles on board the MS Indian Ocean Explorer, a 120ft boat similar to Jacques Cousteau's Calypso, with air conditioned cabins and a comfortable saloon. [Emphasis added.]
Quite apart from the ridiculous idea that one coral atoll can be more untouched than another (surely it's either untouched or it's not), the implicit suggestion that these islands have never seen human habitation is either a sign of serious ignorance on the part of the writer or an attempt to deliberately mislead.

WEXAS describe the trip as a "rare opportunity", as it indeed is. The Orders in Council passed earlier this year prevent anyone from setting foot on the islands without permission. It seems then that those on the trip will be have greater rights of access to the islands than those who used to live there. At £4,250 a head it's pretty obvious what WEXAS and their clientele have and the Chagossians don't: money, lots of it. Should anybody think this is a tad unfair (as if!) then you might perhaps be interested in getting "further details" from Simon McMahon as they helpfully suggest, you can even phone him on 0207 838 5830 if you feel so inclined.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Holidays in the Sun

This is over a month old and I've got no idea how I missed this the first time around, but it turns out that while the government won't let the Chagossians return to the islands from which they were evicted against their will, they are "set to approve plans for a commercial cruise around the remote archipelago south of the Maldives." Am I the only person that thinks this is a little unfair?

The story was reported in the Times in early August. The article reports,
Twelve tourists, paying up to £4,500 each, will travel with Wexas Travel aboard a 120ft (36m) yacht to snorkel on coral reefs, clear blue seas and tropical marine waters, says the company, adding: "It is far from the world of mass tourism."
Even the usually restrained Times found that final phrase, and the company's claim that all but one of the 65 Chagos Islands "remain uninhabited", hard to swallow. The reason there are no inhabitants on the island, as regular readers will be aware, is because the indigenous population were forced out by the British Government to make way for a US military base. They have subsequently been prevented from returning by various machinations on the part of the British Government, including, most recently, two "Orders in Council" which mean they cannot even set foot on the island. The treatment of the Chagossians was described by Lord Justice Sedley in the Appeal Court as "shameful", not without good reason.

The article gives a brief outline of this treatment and its consequences for the displaced population, before offering some further details on the cruise:
The Wexas trip will be led by chairman Dr Ian Wilson, a member of the "Friends of Chagos", which is largely made up of ex-naval officers and diplomats. He was approached to run the tour by the island's commissioner and awaits final FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] approval.

A keen diver and Indian Ocean expert, he acknowledges the only financial beneficiary of the trip would be his company. "It is a tricky situation: while it is true that only a select few may visit, we can only snorkel and are not sure if we can go ashore anywhere.

"We have invited an Indian Ocean reef expert and marine ecologist, Dr Mark Spalding. It is an eco-trip and we want to encourage the idea of preserving the area."
So that's alright then?

Conclusion: The poor and powerless (the Chagossians) get fucked, the rich and powerful get to go snorkeling. Remind me again why I think we need to change the world?

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Who's Counting?

Zeynep Toufe has posted some interesting thoughts following reports that the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq has entered "the four digit realm", surpassing a thousand. She notes that figures of civilian deaths have not been collated so carefully, although there have been various attempts to come up with a reliable figure. The one figure which nobody seems interested in collating is "how many soldiers or insurgents were killed on their side".

In an attempt to establish a ballpark figure, Toufe turns to a recent claim by Donald Rumsfeld:
... in the last month the Iraqi forces and the coalition forces have probably killed 1,500, 2,000, 2,500 former regime elements, criminals, terrorists. Now is that a lot? Yes. Does that hurt them? Yes. Is it a lot out of 25 million people in a country? No.
This, she suggests, is a quite astonishing statement:
Can you imagine how we'd react to someone who said, well, the United States, they are almost 300 million there so what's 30,000 to them? (Scalewise, that's how Rumsfeld's definition of "not a lot" translates into the U.S. population numbers.) Also, use that number as a guide for the scale of the insurgency: the number of people who died fighting us just last month would scale into 30,000 American lives if the situations were reversed. That's more than half the number of American soldiers who died in Vietnam.
This is a shocking comparison. If we do the same calculations using the UK rather than the US as a comparison (assuming a British population of 60 million) we get a figure of 6,000, almost 100 times the number of British soldiers killed since the war began (65 according to today's Times).

There seems to me, to be three possible conclusions we can draw from this: (1) Rumsfeld's lying, which given his record is entirely plausible; (2) The anti-occupation insurgency is far bigger than we had realised and likely to be a continuing problem for the US and the Allawi government; (3) The insurgency is a major problem, but is being crushed by the US and will eventually run out of recruits. Personally I'd to lean toward (2), but that isn't based on much more than gut-instinct and hardly a reliable guide. Whichever turns out to be the truth, it is inevitable that many more people will die before we find out.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Your Next Dose of Anti-BIOT-ics

Alex Doherty is a student at York University and activist and has an interesting article on Z-Net looking at the plight of the Chagossians, an issue which has been of interest to me for sometime. Doherty begins,
This is the second time I have written about Diego Garcia. This time as with the first when I informed my friends, (many of them left-wing activists), of my subject they responded by asking ‘Who’s that?’ or, less frequently, ‘Where’s that?’ Two years ago had I been asked if I knew of Diego Garcia I would have asked similar questions, perhaps thinking that “Diego” was an Argentine footballer or a Brazilian novelist.
Two years ago my own response would probably have been similar (although it's unlikely I'd have thought of Maradona and I couldn't name a single Brazilian novelist even now). In the hope of affecting this ignorance I have blogged and written about the issue on several occasions. I have argued previously that the three prerequisites for social change are information, vision and action. In this case it is clear that much of the population is seriously lacking in information of the situation and its history. Activists in the UK would do well to focus any activities around the issue on raising people's awareness of what has been done to the Chagossians.

Doherty proceeds to outline the history of the islanders' "relocation" (a euphemism he takes to task brilliantly). The article is aimed at those new to the issue and as such there is little in it that anybody with any familiarity with it will be unaware of. Perhaps the major exception is the fact which Doherty reveals, that Diego Garcia had not been the US's original choice for the base. Instead they had initially favoured Aldabra, further to the west. That island, however, "is populated by a rare species of tortoise and the US feared that any attempt to disturb them might lead to an embarrassing confrontation with publicity savvy green activists." There fears were likely well founded, but it is damning that they did not need to fear similar levels of resistance to the removal of Diego Garcia's human population.

Doherty goes on to conclude:
That the Chagossians and Diego Garcia are not household names in Britain is, to me, testimony to the servility to power of mainstream British political culture. One would expect [the High Court case in 2000 "which ruled that the removal of the islanders was an 'abject legal failure' and that the islanders should be allowed to return to the outlying islands, (though not to Diego Garcia itself)"] to be regarded as significant. Indeed, one might expect the tragedy of the islanders’ treatment by successive government’s to be rather well known; their plight has been desperate for nearly four decades. But not so: the small flurry of press articles around the court case has been followed by the same silence that largely prevailed for the previous decades.

What is the situation four years on from the high court ruling? Essentially the same: another flurry of articles followed by the familiar reversion to silence. Given the absence of media attention coupled with the total intransigence of the British and American governments over the issue it is questionable whether writing about Diego Garcia is likely to have any beneficial effect for the islanders themselves. The silence and lack of action on this issue has prevailed for so long now that it seems that raising the issue is more useful in disabusing the general population of notions of our "ethical foreign policy" rather than in advancing the cause of the Ilois.
It is certainly true that the plight of the Chagossians is an exercise in servility to power, but I'm not convinced that his implicit dismissal of any hope of return for the Chagossian is entirely fair. While silence and lack of action have been the prevailing responses in the UK for years, this is far from universally true. There have been increasing noises around the issue in recent months emanating from official and grassroots sources. While it is important not to get carried away about the significance of these developments, it is not inconceivable that they could have an effect.

The two Orders in Council have attracted considerable controversy. There are already steps underway among the Chagossian community to bring a judicial review, questioning their legality. A Parliamentary Debate in July, examining the Orders themselves and the treatment of the Chagossians by the British Government, saw both strongly criticised by members of all three main parties as well as the SNP. Early Day Motion 1355 which covers much the same territory, has, at the time of writing, received 74 signatories.

Further afield, the Mauritian Government has suggested that it may take the UK to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over the issue, arguing that the division of its territory prior to independence contravened international law. Commonwealth rules prevent members filing contentious claims against each other and so the government has threatened to quit the Commonwealth in order to sue. In July, Mauritian PM Paul Berenger travelled to the UK to discuss the issue with Blair and Jack Straw, but was refused a meeting, a decision which drew criticism from Don McKinnon, the Commonwealth secretary general.

Elsewhere The Chagos Refugee Group has written to the Queen, Tony Blair and Bill Rammell with various demands relating to the plight of the Chagossians, chiefly a call for the recission of the Orders in Council passed in June which ban them from their islands. They state that if there has been no progress by the end of August (a date which has obviously now passed) they "will have no choice but to go and live and sleep in front of the British High Commission in Port Louis to ask for our rights and start a hunger strike if we are not being given appropriate consideration by the UK Government." Meanwhile plans for a "peace flotilla" to the islands, calling for the closure of the military base and the return of the Chagossians, continue apace.

There is a long way to go before the Chagossians are able to return to the island from which they were forced and it is possible that they never will. Nonetheless, they haven't given up. Neither should we.

Is Syria Next?

First this.

Then this.

And now this.

Anyone else notice a pattern?

Monday, September 06, 2004

Acting Up

Timx of Time the Dreaded Enemy fame has set-up a new blog focusing on global warming. A worthy effort given the likely very serious consequences of the phenomenon over the coming years and decades. In his latest post, he comments,
I cannot believe it is beyond the wit of economists, geologists, biologists, chemists, climatologists and all the rest of the highly skilled people out there to come up with some solutions which would, in the end, be much cheaper, both in money and in human lives.
While I very much hope that he is right, I fear that even if he is, this will not solve the problem alone. The problems of global warming are a consequence of social constructed processes, dealing with the problem implies changes in these processes which in turn implies activism, something I have some experience with.

It seems to me, that there are, broadly speaking, three pillars to activism: Information, vision and action. These are rather like the three factors of the fire triangle which must be present in order for there to be a fire. Social change requires that you have all three pillars. Take one pillar away and the whole enterprise comes crashing down. Of course the mere presence of the three factors of the fire triangle does not guarantee a fire, they are merely prerequisites. The same is true of the three pillars. Just because they are all there doesn't guarantee change. (Apologies for the confused metaphors, hopefully the ideas don't get lost in the mess.)

The information pillar deals with both individual and collective knowledge. It is vital that activist (whatever they're campaigning on) understand the issues/problems/science/background etc. In the context of global warming this means understanding, on at least some level, the science behind the problem, what's causing it and the likely consequences. Possessing this information, however, is only the first step. We should also seek to raise awareness of the problem in wider society. This can be achieved through a variety of methods (leaflets, talks, discussions with friends/colleagues, blogging etc.) and diversity is key to reaching as many people as possible.

Having developed an understanding of the problems we turn next to the question of a vision of how to surmount them. There may be cases where vision precedes information (for instance, if you conceive of a utopian society you could argued its flaws flowed from its differences to your imagined society), but this is likely to be rare. It is the question of vision to which timx's quote above applies and developing a solution to global warming will indeed require input from experts in a range of fields. That said we already have a good idea about many of the steps needed to deal with global warming: increasing energy efficiency, reducing car usage, expanding sustainable energy production etc.

Having developed a vision of what needs to be done, we then turn to implementing those proposals. Doing this raises questions about what tactics we employ. This is probably likely to be the source of the greatest controversy amongst those campaigning on an issue. I speak from experience on how heated such debates can become. In the context of global warming there are a wealth of targets for action including legislators, corporate executives and the general public. We should seek both to achieve major victories (changes in the laws regarding fuel efficiency, getting companies to invest in renewables etc.) and personal lifestyle changes (encouraging individuals to use public transport more etc.). The latter is probably less important, but if we can encourage enough people to make changes it will begin to have a major effect.

In campaigning on global warming, we must be aware of the powerful vested interests lined up against us. Oil companies and car manufacturers concerned about their profit margins, for instance. These groups have powerful contacts, extensive political influence influence, massive amounts of money and will fight tooth and nail to prevent changes which will have a detrimental effect on them. One only need to look at the Kyoto Protocol for evidence of the power of these groups. Not only did they ensure that the agreement entailed only a fraction of the cuts in greenhouse emission necessary (we need cuts of 60-80% if we are serious about having an impact on the problem, Kyoto sought only cuts in the order of 5-10%), but also that both the US and Russia withdrew from the agreement entirely, thus making it almost pointless. This is not an argument that we should do nothing, rather that we should be aware of what we are up against. The fight will be long and hard, but the consequences if we fail are grim.

Indecent Proposals

A report in yesterday's Sunday Times claimed that the Conservatives would today unveil new proposals "to allow only a foreign elite of highly educated workers with an income of at least £25,000 to settle in this country." More accurately the proposals are drawn from the conclusions of "an independent inquiry chaired by Timothy Kirkhope, the former Tory immigration minister who is now an MEP" and commissioned by shadow Home Secretary David Davis. The Sunday Times noted,
The commission focuses on the need for Britain to attract more high-skilled professional migrants to jobs which pay above the average British salary of £25,000. It criticises David Blunkett, the home secretary, for abolishing the higher skills threshold for migrants when he took office.

The report also recommends that holders of work permits should be denied benefits such as income support, housing and council tax benefit and access to council housing.
And so on and so forth.

To their credit the Tories have distanced themselves from the proposals. Today's Scotsman reports, that a spokeswoman for Tory Central Office described the minimum income recommendation as "just one of a number of suggestions made by the inquiry. But it is not Conservative Party policy and it is not something we will be moving forward with." Nonetheless I think the inclusion of the idea in the report is instructive because it expresses with unusual honesty a little discussed aspect of the immigration "debate": classism. Racism is, obviously, an important factor in shaping people's opinions on the matter, but the controversy goes far beyond that.

The press don't makes a great fuss about the presence of people like Mohamed Al Fayed, Rupert Murdoch and the Hindujah brothers in the country. Why? Because they're rich. Rich people control the press and are unlikely to be very keen on attacks against people who look more like themselves than most of their readers. In the case of Murdoch (born in Australia, now an American citizen), they even own a large chunk of the press themselves. However when the poor come to the UK - often fleeing the consequences of policies with extensive UK involvement - that's a big deal. Scandalous even.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Class Action

On Wednesday, charges against former Railtrack executives over the Hatfield Rail disaster - when a Kings Cross to Leeds GNER express was derailed by a broken track on 17 October 2000, killing 4 and injuring many others - were dropped. The BBC report that this has "reignited the debate about whether the UK needs a new corporate killing law." Such a law was promised in New Labour's 1997 manifesto, but the government have yet to deliver.

Lawyer for the Hatfield victims Louise Christian, explains what is required to punish a company for corporate killing,
At the moment the law means an individual human being has to be found guilty of manslaughter and has to be a controlling mind of the company, such as a senior manager or director, whose actions might be seen to embody those of the company.
Christian and others have called for a change in the law to allow companies to be charged with manslaughter even where a single director cannot be blamed and to make it easier to punish directors for failings they should have foreseen.

Christian explains why the promised new law has not been brought in, "There has been prolonged lobbying from the CBI and from individual companies. There hasn't been the political will to bring it forwards." Indeed, the CBI (Confederation of British Industry, essentially a bosses' trade union) are (according to a spokesman) "unconvinced that there is a need for new legislation because we think it is adequately covered by the current health and safety legislation." The Institute of Directors is less dismissive, but is also opposed to the singling out of directors:
There needs to be some sort of sanction on a company itself... but we don't think an individual, perhaps through no fault of their own, should be singled out for punishment when perhaps the incident was beyond their control.
They don't say whether they believe they should be singled out when it is through a fault of their own.

The reporting of the "debate" follows all the usual conventions. All sides are given a chance to put their view, including "campaigners" seeking a change in the law and representatives of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) who support the law. The one thing it fails to point out, as you would expect, is the class aspect. This requires some explanation, but first some statistics. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), in 2002/3 "[t]here were 235 fatal injuries to workers in 2003/04, a rate of 0.81 per hundred thousand workers." (Note that this figure would not include incidents like Hatfield as those deaths were not to workers.) As Mark Thomas pointed out in a programme on the issue in 2002, if there were a similar number of deaths amongst corporate executives (as they spontaneously combust wanking over their bonuses?!) there would be a law passed on the matter almost immediately. As long as its only workers dying, the problem can be ignored as irrelevant.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

On Yer Bike!

The Motorcycle Diaries is one of those unusual films which is made in a foreign language but still manages to get released quite widely and attract considerable attention here in the UK. The reason for the attention is a combination of its being very good and the significance of the central character: Ernesto - later 'Che' -Guevara. Having heard almost universally good things about it, not to mention being as guilty of using the Guevara icon as anybody, I thought I'd wonder along and check it out. In case you're wondering it was, as I'd hoped pretty good. The friend who accompanied me (if you read this, feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section) , even went so far as to describe it as "the film of the year", not without good reason. If nothing else, it's infinitely better than the execrable Troy.

The film tells the story of Guevara and friend Alberto Granado as they journey across 1950s Latin America. It reveals some of the experiences which led the young Ernesto, then studying to be a doctor, to become the famed revolutionary leader we think of today. Guevara is played by Gael Garcia Bernal, described by the Big Issue as a "Mexican heartthrob", though this isn't something I feel qualified to comment on. I'm not familiar with much of Bernal's other work apart from the very good El Crimen Del Padre Amaro (The Crime of Father Amaro), but he is a strong actor and carries the role well. Bernal apparently also carried out extensive research into Guevara, even meeting the late revolutionary's family. I'm not sure how far this influenced how he played the role, but given his confident acting it seems fair to suggest that it paid off.

Alberto Granado is played by Rodrigo de la Serna, although Granado himself makes a brief appearance during a touching epilogue. Arguably his role is easier, who has even heard of Granado before, anyway? Nonetheless the character he presents is sympathetic, being fun-loving and committed in equal measures, and entirely believable. His friendly bickering with Guevara is also amusing, without ever becoming overtly comedic.

The film is essentially a road movie (the New York Times apparently described the book, from which the film is drawn, as "Das Kapital meets Easy Rider") detailing the events which take place during the pair's eight month journey. We see the pair encounter the poor and downtrodden of the region and the first inklings of the ideas which would motivate Guevara to join the Cuban revolution. Two Chilean communists, for instance, recount the repression they have suffered and how the husband is now forced to seek work in a dangerous copper mine. The pair's political development perhaps reached its climax, at least as far as the film is concerned, with a speech Guevara gives during birthday celebrations at a leper colony in the Peruvian Amazon.

The film is shot in an almost documentary-esque style. When following the two on their bike, the camera bounces around, clearly on some kind of vehicle and when Guevara and Granado converse with locals, it hovers around like an interested observer. Occasionally this made the film feel more realistic, but for the most part, its effect was almost Brechtian reminding you that this is not a recording of reality, but a fictionalised account. (If anyone's actually read any Brecht and thinks I've got him all wrong, please feel free to jump in: drama was never one of my strong points.) This effect is compounded by black and white shots of those the pair met on their journey, standing in silence, staring at the camera. As my friend pointed out, this served to remind you that these characters were people, the very people who would later become Guevara's constituency, and not simply cannon fodder as in so many Hollywood blockbusters.

This is the bit where the political commentary on Che should go. On this count I have little to say. Che was probably less important as a revolutionary than people think. There is some debate about his contribution to the Cuban revolution and his intervention in struggles in Congo and Bolivia did little to further those causes, the latter resulting in his death, apparently with US complicity. One can also debate at length the merits of the Cuban revolution (if anyone cares for my opinion, I tend to think that Castro is probably one of the world's most benevolent dictators, but this doesn't change the fact that he is a dictator, a position no human should hold). The reason Che is important is because of what he (and his image) represent: resistance, freedom, justice etc. These are timeless ideas and as such the icon of Che will probably be timeless as well. That being the case, its a good thing the film about his life looks like it'll be able to stand the test of time.

Why Do They Hate Us, Mummy? Why?

Looking over recent posts I'm struck by how lazy my blogging has been, ripping off large chunks of other people's stuff. Apologies for anyone hoping for more of my usual incisive analysis(!). Normal service (such as it is) may be restored shortly. If I can be bothered.

In the meantime, I'd like to draw your attention to George Monbiot's latest. He examines British involvement in Africa in light of the arrest of Mark Thatcher for alleged involvement in a coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea. The main point of this examination, however, is to assess the impact of this involvement (some might say meddling) on responses to the situation in Darfur and how they are perceived by those living within the continent:
Africans have every reason to be suspicious of British involvement in their affairs. There is no question that the British are, and always have been, "concerned" about Africa, but their concern remains a proprietorial one. When the Sudanese government claims that Britain is after its oil and gold, it is half right: even if the British government isn't, some of its prominent citizens are. Last week [Mark Thatcher's friend, Simon] Mann's alleged accomplice, Nick du Toit, testified in court in Equatorial Guinea that Thatcher was among them. He said that Thatcher wanted to buy helicopters from him for "a mining operation going in Sudan". Thatcher denies such allegations.

The Sudanese government appears to be attempting to commit genocide by natural causes in Darfur. The Fur, Massaleet and Zagawa peoples are being driven from their homes just as the rains are making survival in the bush almost impossible. Its claim that 1200 people have been killed is risible. The UN says 50,000 have died; a more comprehensive analysis by the Sudan specialist Eric Reeves suggests 200,000. It's a catastrophe, and it's likely, partly as a result of the UN's disastrous procrastination, to become far worse.

For once, the US and the UK governments appear to be on the right side, pressing Sudan more forcefully than the other members of the Security Council to disarm the janjaweed militias and accept a large African Union peacekeeping force. We should support them. But they are hobbled by three massive credibility deficits. The first is that, after the farce in Iraq and the sell-out in Israel, no Arab government will ever again trust them to intervene dispassionately. The second is that the institutions they control - in particular the cannibalistic International Monetary Fund - are responsible for more deaths every year in Africa than the janjaweed. The third is that the United Kingdom's colonial history is not yet over.

The British are still hated in Africa, and with good reason. Blair might huff and puff about the continent being a scar on the conscience of the world, but while our own citizens still regard it as their personal fiefdom, it's hard to see why anyone who lives there should take him seriously.
Another one for the "things I agree with, but could never have put so well" file

The School Siege: 'Lenin', Horror and Why It's Relevant

The school siege in North Ossetia which ended yesterday, leaving over 150 dead, has horrified the world, not without good reason. Stories of children being taken hostage, starved, forced to drink their own urine and then being shot illicit entirely understandable responses in all right-thinking people (and presumably a lot of wrong-thinkers as well). However the way that the story has been covered in the dominant media presents a slightly misleading picture of Chechen barbarians versus an entirely innocent Russia. (I'm talking here about the wider geo-political situation. The children in the school are entirely innocent and those who would treat them so cruelly could, not inappropriately, be described as barbarians, a point to which I turn below.)

'Lenin' makes an interesting point in this regard:
...when that bus was detonated in Israel recently, the media coverage of it seemed to imply that everything was going along just swimmingly until this happened. On Russia, they have not been quite so obtuse but the fact is that it has taken a series of grotesque episodes to produce even a particle of discussion on what is being done to Chechnya.

So, what has been done to Chechnya? Here are a few clues:

1) 150,000 civilians killed in the second war alone.

2) Rape.

3) Killings, disappearances & torture.

4) Arbitrary detention, shootings and looting.

5) The conscious targeting of civilians.

To be sure, this should never be confused with what was done to those school-children - I do impose a very precise distinction. For one thing, this makes the siege of a single school look small-time. For another, no Chechen group could even dream of matching the deathly results of Russian policy.

The most important difference, however? No pictures.
The point he makes is, I think, right in many respects, but misses one crucial element. The consequences of killing somebody from miles away and at six feet are little different, nonetheless there is something particularly horrific about the latter. To be able to look into the eyes of a child and still be able to kill them is nothing short of barbaric. If one factors in the fact that the victims were children, presumably a deliberate choice, who were entirely incapable of defending themselves, I don't think that expressions of horror are misplaced, which takes nothing away from the brutality and immorality, not to mention illegality of Russian policy in Chechnya.

In case anybody thinks that this is all very tragic, but irrelevant to us, I draw your attention to Zeynep Toufe's remarks:
Probably a lot of people are thinking that it's just so far away. What could possibly be the repercussions of events in Beslan, Russia where this unfortunate school was located, or the war in Chechnya where tens of thousands have died and hundreds thousands displaced as Russia tries to keep control over a people who clearly desire independence? Yes, it is all far away. So was Afghanistan at one time.

This is now a world where methods, weapons and cruelty quickly travel and boomerang around the globe. We pay no attention at own peril.
Subsequent Update: 'Lenin' has posted a comprehensive response to my criticisms on his blog.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

"Bait and Switch"

Juan Cole's blog is an invaluable resource on the situation in Iraq and also a good place for information on goings on elsewhere in the Muslim world, with particular emphasis on the areas where this involves interaction with the US. Today he has a "Guest Editorial" by Charles Smith on what he describes as the "bait and switch" strategy lying behind the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza:
Much attention has focused recently on Ariel Sharon?s travails in Israel where a majority of his Likud Party oppose his intent to withdraw all Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip as part of his Disengagement Plan. At the same time, though less noticed, President Bush has declared that Israeli realities on the ground in the West Bank, in the form of large settlement complexes, should remain in any future peace arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians.


...Reports from Israel indicate that the Bush administration will permit settlement construction and expansion to continue, as is now happening in Maale Adumim but deplores any publicity given to the venture; with that in mind, Israel can act as it wishes with Washington issuing a ?standard protest? from time to time which can be easily ignored. This cynicism is matched by Washington?s acceptance of Sharon?s assurances that the security barrier/fence now being built is only ?temporary.? Items that cost over $1 billion are rarely temporary and Sharon clearly intends to keep the vast majority of settlements on the eastern side of the barrier, not just those adjacent to the 1967 border.
None of this is particularly surprising, I wrote about this when the "disengagement plan" was first announced, but this brief article sums up the reality of what is going on particularly well. Do yourself a favour and go an read it.

Killing Me Calmly?

According to the Associated Press report, the suicide bombers who struck Israel on Tuesday, killing at least 16 and wounding 80, "ended a period of relative calm", a sentiment echoed in much of the mainstream (dominant?) media. This lull has apparently been attributed by Israeli officials "to its crackdown on Palestinian militants and continued construction of a separation barrier in the West Bank. Palestinian militants have acknowledged they have faced increasing difficulties carrying out attacks." Certainly recent months have not seen any major terrorist incidents within Israel but to talk of "relative calm" is somewhat disingenuous.

It is worth bearing in mind that, as Aluf Ben writing in Haaretz points out, "[A]ttempts at suicide bombings did not cease for a moment, that the Palestinian motivation remained the same, and that during the false calm hundreds of similar incidents were prevented." More striking is the reality of this period of "calm" for those living in the Occupied Territories. Arjan El Fassed, in a report for Electronic Intifada (which I found thanks to 'Lenin'), writes,
While mainstream media tend to portray suicide bombings as a return to violence after a relatively peaceful period, there have been numerous killings in the weeks leading up to suicide bombings that underscore the lack of evenhanded attention given to loss of life in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

According to statistics from the Red Crescent at least 436 Palestinians have been killed since March 14 to August 31. This month alone, Israeli forces killed 43 Palestinians and injured 285. In May Israeli forces killed 128 Palestinians and wounded 545. In March Israeli forces killed 92 Palestinians, of which 44 Palestinians were killed in the first part of that month.
That this can be described as calm says much about the inherent biases of the media. The effect of putting greater weight to the deaths of Israelis rather than Palestinians is to present a distorted picture to a public with, at best, a limited understanding of the conflict. Arjan El Fassed concludes,
In order to convey the Mideast crisis in all its complexity, journalists need to take seriously the violence suffered by all communities. References to "relative calm" while Palestinians are being routinely killed only serve to trivialize human life and obscure the cycle of violence that afflicts the region.
A conclusion I wholeheartedly support.

With images of death and destruction in the Middle East returning to our TVs it is easy to dismiss the situation in the region as hopeless. There are, however, some glimmers of hope. Among them, reports that Mahatma Gandhi's grandson "Arun Gandhi, is to kick off a Palestinian campaign for an unarmed, popular struggle against the Israeli occupation." Gandhi has met with Yasser Arafat and Palestinian PM Ahmed Qureia, participated in demos against the "Apartheid Wall"/"Security Fence" and addressed large rallies. For what it's worth, I find myself in agreement with large parts of, Canadian Palestine solidarity campaigner, Charles Demer's assessment of the developments, although I'm less keen on some of his rhetorical turns:
The re-emergence of non-violent tendencies within the Palestinian national movement is cause for celebration, but not moralizing nor condescension. There is still a place for the armed struggle to which Palestinians, as an occupied people, have an absolute right. Morality plays and fairy tales widely entertained in the West about the non-violence of Gandhi?s struggle to free India are often marked by enormous and important omissions ? namely the role played by Punjabi Sikhs like Shaheed Bhagat Singh and others who never adhered to the dominant pacifist line and who subsequently bore the burden of martyrdom in numbers wholly disproportionate to the demographics of South Asia.

But there is no question that, by nature, non-violent tactics such as civil disobedience, general strikes, and hunger strikes are more accessible devices open to participation by broader layers of society. What?s more, Palestinians have a history of remarkable creativity in terms of developing new and innovative ways of resisting Zionism, such as the movement towards growing vegetable gardens to facilitate boycotts of Israeli goods. In the face of a renewed social movement, Palestinian political violence will hopefully move away from acts of individual desperation (which ultimately serve to underscore the Israeli attempt to devalue Palestinian life) and towards a more concentrated and constructive tendency.
The Second Intifada has been raging for four years now and the Palestinians are little closer to achieving freedom than they were when it began, despite huge sacrifices. It is to be hoped that the emergence of major non-violent resistance can move their struggle for freedom forward and contribute to ending the cycle of violence that has claimed so many lives. If not, the situation is indeed grim.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Did You Know...

...Today (September 1st) is Uzbekistan's Independence Day? I didn't think so.

I had intended to write something at this juncture, celebrating the fall of Soviet tyranny, bemoaning the country's failure to achieve democracy, criticising the support of the West for Karimov's dictatorial regime and expressing hope that it will not have to wait much longer before its peoples hopes for freedom are realised. Unfortunately it's late, I'm tired and it is difficult to think of much I haven't already said on various occasions before. That being the case it might perhaps be better if I encouraged interested readers to look back at some of the things I've written previously:
  • Back in the spotlight (2/4/04)
  • Powder Keg that is about to explode (7/4/04)
  • The SCO Get Together (19/6/04)
  • What's Happening in Uzbekistan? (28/7/04)
  • Explosions in Tashkent (30/7/04)
  • Explosions in Tashkent, Part 2 (30/7/04)
  • The picture I paint is not a bright one, but is, I believe, essentially accurate.

    I should stress that I don't think the situation is hopeless. Tyrants throughout history, many of them even worse than Islam Karimov have been removed from power. The collapse of the Soviet Union shows just how fragile even seemingly omnipotent, all-powerful governments can be. It is easy to be disillusioned (believe me, I know!), but dreams do not die and we dreamers may yet inherit the earth.

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