Saturday, November 04, 2006 

An eye for an eye.

In the trailer for Sacha Baron Cohen's film based around his Borat character, Cohen's alter-ego begs that people go see his movie, otherwise he will be "execute." While Borat advertises his Kazakhstani hertiage at every turn, he could just as easily be from Iraq, the basis of his act being the exposing of the ignorance and bigotry of his victims.

Meanwhile, in Iraq itself, another notorious and sadly not fictional character awaits his very own real execution. It's expected that Saddam Hussein will tomorrow be sentenced to death for his ordering of the killing of 148 Shia men in Dujail, after an assassination attempt against him failed in 1982.

Even for those of us who are vehemently against the death penalty in all circumstances, it's incredibly difficult to come up with any good, let alone compelling reasons for why such a tyrant should be spared the hangman's noose. Previously, the best argument for why Saddam's life should be saved was that imprisonment for the rest of his life would mean him having to suffer the humiliation of seeing a free, democratic and prosperous Iraq emerge from out of the blood-soaked ruins of his reign. That argument now seems laughable, as almost 50 bodies seem to turn up daily in Baghdad showing signs of torture.

The main opposition to a quick end to Saddam's life is now his defence lawyers, and some who are concerned that his death will lead to a further upsurge in violence from the Sunni community, whose home in the Anbar province is already the most restless in the country. Such claims are rather hollow, as while there is no chance that Saddam's impending doom will help unite the country as once hoped, it seems equally unlikely that the level of violence could honestly get much worse, unless there was a total uprising from those who still hold some allegiance either to Saddam himself or the Ba'athist regime.

The only remaining point to make then is the morally relativist one. Will Saddam's death honestly help the Iraqi people move on? Will it stop the violence? Will it solve anything? Or will it rather simply further enrage an already disenfranchised, seething community which has seen its privileges evaporate? Will it mark the new Iraqi regime as just as potentially bloodthirsty and believing in vengeance as Saddam himself was while in power? Will one execution mitigate for the deaths of hundreds of thousands? It won't, but as Iraq's new prime minister states that he hopes that Saddam gets what he deserves, it appears that the life of one of the 20th century's worst dictators is coming to a close.

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Friday, November 03, 2006 

Straw's speech, and some associated musings.

Jack Straw has slightly clarified his original article which triggered the at times hysterical debate earlier this month on Muslim women who wore the full veil. Speaking at the Three Faiths Forum, as reported by the BBC:
Commons leader Jack Straw says he wants to avoid a situation where "the Muslim community, or any of our communities, feel isolated and defensive".

A "stronger sense of shared British identity" was needed among all ethnic groups and religions, the Blackburn MP told an inter-faith conference.

Some groups have criticised him for saying he asked Muslim women if they would remove their veils in meetings.

But Mr Straw said a "frank debate" on the state of society was needed.

In a speech at University College London, he argued that during the last 50 years, people's "sense of class" had dissolved.

This had led to an "erosion of collective sense of community", he said.

Mr Straw claimed people had come to view themselves "more in terms of their cultural, ethnic, national, gender or religious affiliations".

"Britishness" could provide "common values", such as liberty, tolerance and the rule of law, he added.

This was "not about a nation - there are Scottish, English and Welsh nations".

But people should speak a "common language", as this was essential to communication between religions and ethnic groups, Mr Straw said.

He told the Three Faiths Forum: "Simply breathing the same air as other members of society isn't integration.

"Britishness is thus an identity available to Anglicans, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and those of other religions and none, and a central element of that identity is the principle that everyone has the freedom to practise their faith not as a matter of tolerance but of right."

He added: "There is no inevitability that our communities will splinter and divide.

"Nor is there any inevitability that our attempts to heal divides will succeed. Progress depends on our willingness to engage."

Much of Straw's original article was so uncontroversial, simply an account of his personal decision that he preferred that women who came to see him in his constituency office to remove the full veil if they wore one, that the debate it set off - which ended with the Daily Express using its front page to demand a ban on niqabs, and the Sun continuing its efforts to paint the entire Muslim community as potential collaborators and responsible for the actions of the few extremists in its midst, not to mention the numerous reports of physical and verbal abuse suffered by Muslims in its wake, some tenuously linked, some not, to Straw's article - must have seemed utterly grotesque to him. Straw was right to start the debate, and it's also right that he calls attempts to make him responsible for the attacks on Muslims "absurd" and "ridiculous"; those who deserve the blame are those who carried out such actions, with the reaction of some of the tabloids also deserving of at the very least scrutiny for their potential role.

Straw's most controversial comment was his belief that the wearing of the full veil is a visible sign of separation, a view since supported by both Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and the Sun, since it makes positive relations between communities more difficult. While he doesn't repeat this view in his speech, he does say that he'd write the same article again. Straw, saying that he wants to avoid a situation where communities feel isolated and defensive, shows that he has always had the best interests of the country at heart. What rankles though is that he should have realised that his article, written at a time when Muslims were feeling under siege,
following comments by John Reid that extremists in their midst are trying to brainwash their kids (complete nonsense soon showed as such by the concerns of the security services that those who are becoming radicalised are getting the majority of their bile from jihadists on the internet, not extremist imams or individual firebrands) and the Sun's overplaying of a Muslim police officer being excused from guarding the Israeli embassy, would have been used by both the far-right and the likes of Anjem Choudary to further their own intolerance.

Most of the rest of Straw's speech is close to the ideas of Gordon Brown, whose Scottishness has resulted in him trying to be all things to all men, with him deciding on promoting "Britishness" as to try to defend himself from the newspapers picking up on the "West Lothian question." Brown's idea of Britishness, which seems to share the same sort of ideals and principles as David Cameron's views on what teenagers should be aspiring towards, is the mixing of responsibilities and rights that indulges the view of the right that the country is going to hell in a handcart. As this blog has mentioned before, this idea the rights have to be earned rather than automatically acquired is a curious one, considering this is the time of year we remember and honour the men and women who gave their lives so that we could live in freedom. While Straw doesn't mention responsibilities, he's completely right that a common language is essential; it isn't too much to ask at all that English should be easily available to be learned and should be learned, although whether being able to speak the language fluently should be required before citizenship is given is another matter entirely.

He's also correct in stating that integration is not simply breathing the same air - far from it. Where his general thesis starts to crack though is his belief that people's sense of class has dissolved. While class and class
consciousness have certainly broken down since the 1970s, Britain is still undoubtedly a class-ridden society. The difference between now and then is that the working class, or the remnants of it, have next to no voice. The middle and upper classes retain all their networks, their benefits and their voice. You only have to look at the Tory A-list to see the same old snobs that have driven that party for generations. The Daily Mail and Express remain the "voice" of middle class outrage, more interested in class warfare than Labour has ever been. What's changed was the breaking of working class solidarity during the 80s, as Thatcher's individualism started to take root. New Labour did nothing to alter this; instead, despite its first two huge majorities it's continued to concentrate on the whims of a tiny amount of swing middle class voters, only now starting to realise that it's left its core support apathetic and angry, with the middle classes returning to Cameron's caring 'n' kinder Tories. As Straw nearly notes, the almost abolition of the working class influence on politics has left different cultural, ethnic and faith groups to form their own advocacy organisations, which aim to voice their communities' hopes and fears.

This has really what has turned out to be disastrous for Labour in the end. Despite some quiet, almost stealth attempts to be redistributive, in a number of communities the BNP has moved into the vacuum. As has been noted, a degree of their local rhetoric is actually closer to that of the SWP than to a white nationalist party. Their agenda is to bash Labour and further their own racist ideas, while affecting to listen to the worries that Labour has seemingly ignored. Whilst some areas have resisted, such as in the north, the BNP made their first major breakthrough in Dagenham, running a campaign claiming that asylum seekers, "ethnics" and immigrants had been given housing ahead of local people. Instead of Labour reassuring the public and making clear that such propaganda is a bunch of lies, they spent more time in the last local elections fighting Respect in Tower Hamlets. Having apparently seen the error of their ways, the last month's Muslim bashing has been the first wave of an attempt to win back those it seems to have neglected, giving into the BNP agenda that it could have stopped from flourishing. While I don't think Jack Straw's comments were a part of this, John Reid, Phil Woolas and Ruth Kelly's interventions almost certainly were.

The other major objection I have with Straw's analysis is that I don't honestly believe that there is that huge a gaping chasm between the different communities. There's a certain amount of naivety in Straw's claims that the veil is a barrier of separation when over the last month we've seen numerous confident, assertive young Muslim women coming forward to voice their opinion on the matter, showing no signs of wanting to hide themselves away or not have the discussion. As the BBC article goes on:
One veiled woman in the audience said to him afterwards: "I recognise that you feel uncomfortable.

"I sympathise in a way but I don't accept that these women who visited your surgery are less integrated.

"I don't fell any less British or feel any less common value with British society."

Mr Straw replied: "We will both go away from this. If we bumped into each other in the street, I would be able to say hello to you.

"You would not be able to do the same. The obvious reason is that I cannot see your face.

"Chance conversations make society stronger."
Straw doesn't seem to see the flaw in his argument: the simple fact that the woman would be perfectly capable of starting a conversation up. Doesn't it seem rather obvious that these women, despite wearing the veil, which we're told is meant to be a symbol of oppression, are capable of doing anything they want? We're making assumptions about them purely on the way they've decided to dress. Another telling moment was when the teaching assistant suspended for refusing to remove her veil in class said that she felt more integration also had to be carried out on "our" side, to the indignation of the Sun. Once we've got over questioning these women for their apparent level of religious devotion, maybe then we'll realise that we've got just as many potential prejudices which fall apart under investigation as we believe those who refuse to integrate have.

This seems to be the nub of the point. At the moment, the mainstream media seem to believe that Muslim communities need to do more to integrate themselves into society, become "British" as it were. Some appear to be demanding assimilation rather than more understanding and co-operation. At the same time, the Muslim community appears to be doing exactly what Straw doesn't want to it to, becoming isolated and defensive. As ever, there is going to have to be a compromise. When the Express demands that the veil be banned, and David Davis suggests that there's a type of voluntary apartheid occuring, it's little wonder that the community feels under attack. At the same time, there does need to be less general hostility shown towards light criticism, which is what Jack Straw's original article was, until it was taken by the right wing as confirming all their prejudices. The far-left has just as much a role in this as the far-right, with some members of Respect being more offended by Straw's article than many Muslim groups were. Only through greater reasoning and rational debate, which it appears that Straw's speech and the reaction to it was, will the gap that does exist be mended. Straw could help further this new beginning by telling his colleagues to lay off the rhetoric and to listen more. I'm not holding my breath.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006 

Scum-watch: "Faces of evil."

Another day, another rant in the Sun about the likes of Anjem Choudary and Abu Izzadeen, aka Omar Brooks, who were protesting outside the Old Bailey where a man was being tried for inciting racial hatred over the Danish Mohammad cartoons protest back in Feburary.

POLICE want demonstrators to be banned from burning the Union Jack – or any other national flag.

They should go further — and outlaw protesters who cover their faces.

Yesterday’s scenes outside the Old Bailey, where a defendant is accused of soliciting murder, were an outrage.

Belligerent extremists like these, masquerading as the voice of Islam, must surely offend any moderate Muslim.

The ugly mug of troublemaker Abu Izzadeen was clearly visible as he held a bullhorn for ranting Anjem Choudary.

But they were surrounded by thuggish figures in headscarves who scuffled with police.

Their headgear is a sinister reminder of the throat-slitting execution gangs who feature on al-Jazeera TV.

The violent image and their rabble-rousing words are an unacceptable challenge to British justice.

If the veil is a social barrier, as Jack Straw rightly argues, this terrorist-style headgear is downright intimidating.
The protest was actually the complete opposite of an outrage. It was amusing for all the wrong reasons. It showed the stinking hypocrisy of everything Choudary and his acolytes stand for. Their demands for sharia law, especially the kind of sharia law favoured by fundamentalists, would mean that the freedom of speech which allows Choudary to protest would be effectively destroyed. Choudary's denial of the Pope's freedom of expression, saying that under sharia law he could be executed for insulting the prophet, highlights the irony at the heart of their demands. They want to be free to incite murder against those who "insult Islam", yet favour destroying that very freedom for everyone but themselves.

Nothing that Choudary said at the demonstration, or the placards of those taking part, broke any laws. Choudary's claim that:

"We should not be surprised at people doing something like 7/7. How else do you expect Muslims to express themselves?"
while potentially offensive, is actually a slur on Muslims as a whole. It's not gloryifying terrorism, it's just a stupid remark from a man with a one track mind. The political climate of the last month, with hostility towards Muslims rising by the day after Jack Straw's comments on the veil, has been calmed down, partially because the media have moved on, but also because of the inclusiveness of those from the Muslim community who have moved to reassure the public, such as Salma Yaqoob, a woman who was targeted by the extremists herself. Choudary's remarks though are not the only problem; would it not be better to let Choudary and Izzadeen get on with what they're doing, rather than constantly giving them the publicity they so obviously desire for their cause? The answer should be obvious, but despite the Sun's constant refrain that Choudary offends "moderate" Muslims (note how you're either a moderate or an extremist, not just a Muslim), this is the same newspaper that constantly demands the Muslim community as a whole to unequivocally condemn terrorism, as if they every single one of them is in some way responsible. Their constant coverage of Choudary gives the impression that they view all the Muslims of Britain as a potential threat, rather than accepting that there are extremists within all communities, all faiths and all ideologies.

Choudary and Izzadeen with "evil" face covering fellow demonstrators; members of Jama'at al-Tawhid wal Jihad, Iraq based terrorist group, with hostages Eugene Armstrong, Kim Sun-il, Jack Hensley and Shosei Koda (RIP) -- only the group with Sun-il are wearing anything close to the head coverings of the protestors; an Iraqi Kurdish militiaman wearing a Keffiyeh.

More offensive than anything that Choudary said though is the casual way that the Sun not only calls those demonstrating evil, but links the protesters covering of their faces to the likes of groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq, the alleged perpetrators of the beheadings of hostages such as Ken Bigley. As can be seen from the photograph on the Sun's report page, it looks as if maybe one of them is wearing something similar to the scarves used by the terrorists in Iraq. These scarves are similar to the Arab Keffiyeh, worn by some men throughout the Middle East, and made famous by Yasser Arafat's fondness for them. In other shots from such videos, the masked men are wearing balaclavas, not scarves. The Sun's allegation that Choudary and Izzadeen were surrounded by those wearing them is thus rather hollow, as is the claim that all of them "scuffled" with the police. The Telegraph reports that 4 men were arrested, after one of them allegedly assaulted a photographer (probably one of the Sun's), with 3 of them attempting to help the one who had been grabbed by the police. On a demonstration that was attended by all of around 100 people, 4 having a minor scuffle with the police is not exactly a major news story, except when it's hyped up to be one.

The Sun's simplistic and inflammatory linking of the demonstrators to murderers when what they're clearly doing is hiding their faces is just another part of their unending support for whatever powers the police want, whether it's to be able to hold terrorists suspects without charge for 90 days or to ban flag burning. They seem to accept such chilling restrictions on the right to freedom of expression without thinking for a second about the consequences on other demonstrations, where those who wear fancy dress to make a point, such as Blair and Bush masks, or dressing up as the Grim Reaper for instance, would as a result of such legislation be effectively banned. Would the Sun also ban the wearing of hooded tops, if they were used by such protesters? We should be told. The Sun's rhetoric that such demonstrations are an unacceptable challenge to British justice is laughable. On the contrary, it makes clear that in this country we regard the right to protest as far higher up the list of things to protect, despite the dilution of it under Labour, than the right not to be offended by one issue campaigning hypocrites.

Oh, and if you want a comparison with the faces of evil, then there's this "news" article dedicated to Prince William being trained to "kill", complete with mocked-up photograph of Wills charging with a bayonet while grinning. Demonstrating with your face covered is unacceptable, but being trained by the army to end the life of another human being, rather than being a sad reality of today's world, is instead something worth actively celebrating.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006 

Data rape.

Of all this government's attacks on civil liberties, the most dangerous appears to be yet to come. The horrendously expensive, ridiculously unnecessary central NHS database being supplied by iSoft (who have had to be bailed out by the government already, after their accounts were exposed as being imaginative to say the least) is finally getting ready to start up. As the Grauniad reports, it seems likely that cradle-to-grave medical records are going to be uploaded to it, which up to 250,000 NHS staff will have access to. The police and security services are already itching to get at this information.

Millions of personal medical records are to be uploaded regardless of patients' wishes to a central national database from where information can be made available to police and security services, the Guardian has learned.

Details of mental illnesses, abortions, pregnancy, HIV status, drug-taking, or alcoholism may also be included, and there are no laws to prevent DNA profiles being added. The uploading is planned under Whitehall's bedevilled £12bn scheme to computerise the health service.

The health department's IT agency has made it clear that the public will not be able to object to information being loaded on to the database: "Patients will have data uploaded ... Patients do not have the right to say the information cannot be held."

Once the data is uploaded, the onus is on patients to speak out if they do not want their records seen by other people. If they do object, an on-screen "flag" will be added to their records. But any objection can be overridden "in the public interest".

Harry Cayton, a key ministerial adviser, warned last month of "considerable pressure to obtain access to [the] data from ... police and immigration services", but he is confident that these demands can be resisted by his department.

Although data protection laws supposedly ban unnecessary build-ups of computer information, patients will get no right to choose whether their history is put on the Spine. Once uploading has taken place, a government PR blitz will follow. This will be said to bring about "implied consent" to allow others view the data. Those objecting will be told that their medical care could suffer.

The government claims that computerised "sealed envelopes" will allow patients selectively to protect sensitive parts of their uploaded history from being widely accessed. But no such software is yet in existence. It is being promised for an unspecified date. Some doctors say "sealed envelopes" may be too complex to be workable. The design also allows NHS staff to "break the seal" under some circumstances. Police will be able to seek data, including on grounds of national security. Government agencies can get at records, according to the health department, if "the interests of the general public are thought to be of greater importance than your confidentiality". Examples given of such cases include "serious crime and national security".


An American PR firm, Porter Novelli, has been awarded £1m contract and has already drafted publicity to persuade patients not to object to the new plans. But the health department refuses to disclose the text of these leaflets.

It has, however, drawn up a public care records guarantee. This states: "The new system will hold records about your care in a national computer system." It warns: "Preventing us from sharing information may make diagnosis difficult and treatment dangerous and could prevent research." The guarantee does not detail exactly what information could end up on the Spine.

This is of course the same government that is getting ready to greatly curtail the Freedom of Information Act, only introduced at the beginning of last year. While they're trying to reduce the annual costs of that bill, which amounts to around £34 million, they're going to give a cool £1 million to a PR firm to persuade you not to give your private medical information to a wide-open database.

Most frightening of all though is what we've already seen happening in the tabloid press of late. The leaks from the police, especially in terrorist cases, have smeared the suspects before they've even been charged with anything. The News of the Screws' royal editor was arrested earlier in the year after he allegedly had been hacking into the voice mail of Prince William, with stories appearing in the paper that could only have been obtained through surveillance. A previous report by Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, titled What Price Privacy? exposed how private investigators, used as middlemen for tabloid journalists, had been bugging targets and selling information from the police database as intermediaries for the police themselves. The "Spine" database is going to give hundreds of thousands more people access to highly sensitive information that tabloid journalists will love to have; we can certainly not just rely on the integrity and honesty of staff, especially those on relatively poor wages. This could result not just in a brisk trade in information on celebrities, but on anyone who suddenly enters the public eye. Simple personal snooping is also inevitable.

Doubtless the government line will once again be that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear, parroted by the same tabloids who will hugely benefit from such a gaping database. Anyone that has lived an even slightly interesting life has something they are deeply embarrassed about, which they endlessly regret and would like to change if they could do so. This is the exact sort of information that would be stored on the "Spine". The irony is that as mentioned above, the government deeply fears what might be exposed via the FoI act, the real reason behind the expected draconian limitations to be placed on it. With ID cards meant to be introduced within years, government committees recommending the placing of thousands more cameras to catch "reckless" drivers, and the crackdowns on the right to protest, Britain increasingly seems to be a society where you're guilty until proved innocent and a suspect, not a citizen.

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Tuesday, October 31, 2006 

War all the time.

One of the curious things that war does to politicians and the media is the way that it imbues them with the absolute certainty that they, and only they, know what the troops need and or/want, what demoralises them and what builds them up. Hence we have the worst possible politician (Margaret Beckett) to lead the debate on the need for an inquiry into the Iraq war since Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich with "peace for our time", claiming that to vote for an inquiry now "would lead to very real consequences" for British troops. The Tories aren't any better. Liam Fox, never missing a chance to show what a opportunist right wing fundamentalist he is, spent the latter part of last week bashing the BBC wherever and whenever he could for screening an interview with a Taliban commander. That the reporter had risked his life to do so meant nothing to Fox, who seemed to regard it as close to treasonous when our troops are being murdered by Taliban supporters, an emotional piece of doublethink which must mean that when NATO air strikes kill numerous civilians, it isn't a mistake but an act of mass murder.

Those conceits however don't even come close to the man of the week's fantastical claims about the Iraqi insurgency. Dick Cheney, fresh from advocating the use of torture against terrorist suspects, says that the "insurgents" are stepping up attacks in order to influence the mid-term elections in America. Either that, or the simple fact that the redeploying of thousands more troops into Baghdad has made them more of a target, or simply that the horrible truth is that the violence is getting even worse. It no longer seems as if the politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are lying through their teeth to the media in order to hold their position; they genuinely seem to believe the bullshit which emerges from their mouths like a flood of verbal dysentery.

All the parties seem to ignore what the troops actually do seem to believe. The response to Richard Dannatt's interview with the Daily Mail showed how many of them believe that they are sitting ducks in Iraq, making the situation worse, not better, and only still there because of Tony Blair's undying allegiance to the Bush administration, for to withdraw them now would only just emphasise what a complete disaster the war has been, with the US army left surrounded by the sectarian violence that they have stirred up and created. It's obvious how the generals regard the war in Afghanistan as still winnable and worth doing, only for our politicians to have made that task next to impossible by moving on to Baghdad. Only a close to immediate exit from Iraq can turn the situation around, and no mainstream party has yet come to that conclusion, although the Lib Dems finally seem to be seeing the light.

The failure of the motion for an inquiry, by 25 votes, shows that the Labour whips can still do their job, however distasteful it is for anti-war Labour MPs to support a government that led us into war on lies and misconceptions, which has still not been held properly to account. That it was the first debate on Iraq since 2004 is even more of a disgrace. Once again Blair has got away with a let-off, whether the inquiry would have been another whitewash or not.

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Dave's raves pt. 94

Say what you like about David Cameron, and the fact that he's an old Etonian who's encouraging a lot more ex-public schoolboys and girls to join his already toffee-nosed party means that there's plenty to go on, but he does on occasion manage to at least promote vaguely different and interesting policies.

Take his rave yesterday. Stealing a huge amount of Lib Dem thinking which has been going on for years, he suggested that the current plethora of age limits should made more uniformly. Using the curious fact that you can buy a gun at 17 but not fireworks until you're 18, he certainly has a point. The ludicrous legal distinction that means you can consent to sex at 16 but not watch others doing so until you're 18 is one of things that rankled the Lib Dems most, although whether it was one of Mark Oaten's main concerns or not is unclear. When this was one of the discussions points a couple of years back at the conference, the Tories and Labour universally mocked this woolly liberal thinking. Like the emerging consensus on climate change, what was once sneered at is gradually coming into vogue.

Even such a seemingly minor thing as this though is a potential minefield. There would be little public or political support for lowering the legal age to drink alcohol to 16; giving the franchise to 16-year-olds seems likely to only further lower the turnout at elections. At the same time, raising the smoking age to 18 seems just as daft. Learning to drive at 17 seems just the right age, and there seems no reason why you should have to be 21 to be allowed to stand for parliament.

Naturally though, being a member of the Conservative party, Cameron's plans don't mean that the young are just going to be given a free lunch of new rights. They have to be "responsible" at the same time. In order to prove that the they're fine upstanding potential Tory voters, to gain some of these new rights they have to first volunteer to take part in "community work and personal development projects" which is in other words a euphemism for the bringing back of a distant relative of national service. Britain's youth might be either hoodies or emos, trendies or grebos, but they'd unite over not having to prove themselves yet again to be anything other than feckless. Today's youth are expected to keep their mouths shut, not go outside for fear of paedophiles, while at the same time being told that they musn't become couch-potatoes either. They shouldn't hang around on corners in case they scare the old, even though there's often little else for them to do. They face exam after exam and test after test, and even then around 50% of them won't reach the government's target of 5 "good" A to C GCSE results. Being a teenager is pretty bad as it is; you're confused, angry, sad, hyperactive and moody and sitting through dismal citizenship lessons isn't going to infuse them with the impetus to go and volunteer to clean graffiti off bus shelters.

Then there's the sheer unworkable nature of it. Cameron proposes that those who do decide to give up some of their time for instance be given the right to drink or go to pubs and clubs at an earlier age, but doesn't explain how on earth that's going to work. Bouncers and bar workers aren't going to give a fig about some certificate that some little urchin has; they want proper ID. Besides all this, most schools already have their own local schemes for working with communities, and there's also programmes like the Duke of Edinburgh awards, which are worth working towards thanks to the fact it impresses employers and looks good on any application, even if you do have to go and meet the bald, racist, lecherous fucker.

As often with Cameron, he seems to have his heart in the right place. There's nothing wrong at all with wanting to give 16-year-olds "a sense of purpose, optimism and belonging", something which a lot of adults certainly don't have. It's just that there's the same old Tory hiding in the background - the whole programme smacks of wanting to turn out conforming, easily to control young people, making them do something purely because the blue rinse, authoritarian brigade doesn't approve of them being given the rights they've enjoyed all their lives just because they've reached a certain age. Perhaps the last word should be left to a young person who does know what he's talking about - the one that heckled Cameron:
"You do not know your arse from your elbow, you bastard."

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Monday, October 30, 2006 

So burn the flag if you must...

A flag-burning everyone should be able to applaud.

The rule used to be that there was a few years between laws being made in the United States and similar legislation being passed over here in America's satellite. Perhaps similarly to how Alastair Campbell was subconsciously influenced, in Lord Hutton's words, to sex up the Iraq WMD dossier, Tarique Ghaffur might while have got the idea to ban flag burning from a manufactured hoo-hah earlier in the year in America, where suddenly the rights and wrongs of burning the flag became a distraction from the coffins coming back wrapped in it.

The police openly demanding more powers always has the whiff of the dictatorship about it. Last year we had local chiefs of police phoning up their MPs, urging them to vote for the 90 day detention without charge legislation for suspected terrorists. If anything, such direct lobbying backfired, with MPs rebelling against such openly political grandstanding from the police, led by Sir Ian Blair, fresh from his denials about the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, saying that he'd prefer even longer than 90 days. 12 months on, and while there have been no further terrorist attacks, there have been a couple of scares, one of which had the police lifting for their telephones to sell their smears to the Murdoch press, the other of which we still know little about the true threat posed.

The main uproars of the year though have been the protest in February by the remnants of Al-Muhajiroun, then known as al-Ghuraba, and now likely known by yet another name, and the more recent protest in the aftermath of the Pope's quoted comments of a Byzantine emperor on Mohammad. Both protests involved in some way the extremist idiot and former womaniser Anjem Choudrary, who while he isn't demanding the execution of God's messenger on earth, is supposedly a lawyer. The demonstration in February, when protesters carried placards with such delightful statements as "BEHEAD THOSE WHO INSULT ISLAM" was seen to some as the last straw, with the police doing very little other than photographing those who were taking part and keeping others away from them. Incitement to murder was very clearly taking place. While some charges have since brought, these have typically been well down the news agenda. The second protest was much more calm by comparison, with no such inflammatory placards, just the rantings of Choudrary, who only suggested that the Pope could be subject to capital punishment, rather than saying he should be executed.

At the heart of the recommendations is something eminently sensible, which is making a level playing field for all such protests. It's quite true that the BNP has recently been banned from carrying out potentially confrontational protests; one such march planned for Luton was stopped. If the BNP can't protest outside mosques, than neither should extremist Islamists be allowed to protest outside churches. As it happens, I'd rather that neither were stopped from doing so, but things being as they are, that's an unrealistic pipe dream. There are going to have to be some concessions on both sides.

On the flag burning front however, and with the wearing of masks, there must and should not be any such compromise. Tarique Ghaffur may have his heart in the right place, as Sunny believes, but the banning of the burning of flags would be a reactionary, completely unnecessary limitation on freedom of expression. Does anyone really care about the burning of a piece of cloth with the emblem of a nation on it, other than the cripplingly idiotic patriot fringe? Is it really that potentially offensive? More than anything, the burning of flags just often shows a protest going too far, labouring on the point of whatever the demonstration is about. Those doing the immolation often provide an image for the opposing side with their actions, as the burning of the Israeli flag by some Hizbullah supporters did on the Ceasefire Now demonstration at the beginning for August for the right wing Sunday broadsheets. On the other hand, would there be a more fitting image for the reduction of civil liberties under Blair than for someone to set fire to a Union Jack at the Cenotaph when he leaves Downing Street for the last time?

There is something even deeper here though. As anyone who has been on a reasonably well attended demonstration in the last few years will tell you, especially in London, the police increasingly are taking video and photographs of every single person. Everyone of you, by virtue of deciding to exercise your democratic right to lobby parliament or complain about whatever it is you're upset about it, appears to be a potential criminal. Even on good natured, entirely peaceful marches, where there is absolutely no chance of violence breaking out where video or photographic evidence might be necessary for a court case, this still happens and goes on. It's the same kind of logic which underpins the DNA database, which our Dear Leader last week advocated should contain every single person's genetic makeup. Everyone now arrested has their fingerprints and a mouth swab taken. Even if you're not charged, you're still a potential criminal, there on the computer for the rest of your life, just in case. You can't be too careful, after all.

This is the true reason behind wanting to ban the wearing of masks. The police and the government want to have complete, total, undeniable control over anyone who disagrees with them. They want to know who they are, where they are, and what they think. The information commissioner, Richard Thomas, warned yesterday in the Sunday Times that we, the poor, benighted so-called free citizens of Britain, are now spied upon more than any other population in the free world. That's a really special one to add the best/worst in Europe list, along with having the most teenage pregnancies and the most obese.

It's not as if the police don't have enough powers already. You can't demonstrate with a mile of parliament without first getting permission. You're liable to be stopped and searched for so much as farting out of turn, thanks to section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. You can be detained for up to 28 days without charge for terrorism offences, as long as the police can feed a line to a judge after every seven days. You can be arrested, or at least questioned, for saying virtually anything potentially offensive in public, as such varied figures as Stephen Green, the former head of the Muslim Council of Britain, Anne Robinson and many others have found. The police can now arrest you for any piffling break of the law, when previously they would have dealt you an on the spot caution, told you to move on or given you a verbal warning. Now they want to be able to arrest and charge you with spraying a piece of cloth in deodorant and then sparking a flame near it.

Naturally, the proposed legislation would not catch women wearing the veil. In practice, the police might be a little less discretionary. The emergency protest in Manchester in the aftermath of Jack Straw's comments about the niqab might well have left police in a quandary if they had such powers. A few women on the march in August, who coincidentally appeared to be Hizbullah supporters, wore the full veil. Would the police have objected if this proposed law was in force? Who knows?

That there is the root problem with all the new powers given to our superb crime fighters. Every single new law or power they have, and remember, according to the Liberal Democrats, the Dear Leader has created 3,000 new criminal offences, the police abuse. They've used the 1997 act targeting stalkers to crackdown on those pesky repeat protestors. They've used section 44 of the Terrorism Act to stop just about anyone they feel like. They boarded a pair of buses going to a protest at an RAF base 2 days after the Iraq began and forced them to turn around, on the specious argument that they believed they were going to cause a "breach of the peace". Henry Porter, in another eloquently argued, quietly fuming article, brings up other such instances.

All of which makes you yearn for the protections of the US constitution. One of the main reasons why a flag burning ban would never reach the statute book in the US is because it would almost certainly be struck down by a court as breaching the right to free expression. Over here, we have to make do with the "hated" Human Rights Act, which some politicians want to dilute and which the Sun wants abolished. The ever continuing urges of the powerful in society to dilute the rights of the common man are going on unabated, and will continue to. It's only by standing up, if necessary, for the small things, and that means the right to burn the flag and to wear a mask while doing it, that we'll stop it from happening.

P.S. If you needed any more evidence that it's a bad idea, the Sun thinks, to quote Dick Cheney, that it's a no-brainer.

Related post:
Ministry of Truth - Burning the flag doesn’t make freedom go away, it’s kinda like Free-dom ok?

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